The following is a Chapter from the work of Meleisea Leasiolagi Professor Malama Meleisea in 1976 when he carried out research of the dissertation on labour recruiting for Samoa’s German plantations while he was a student at the Australian National University (A.N.U.) in Canberra. In light of the ongoing debate about Sogi, we are reprinting the stories of four men interviewed by Meleisea with permission from the author. We start today* with the story of one Tapusini Peni Maluana:
Tapusini calls himself a “Buka boy”. He was born on Nissan Island about thirty miles northwest of Buka and Bougainville Islands.
Tapusini made two trips to Samoa. After completing a contract of three years he was repatriated and after one of two years on his home island he decided to sing on again for Samoa.
When he made out his contract the second time, he recalls seeing the British flag raised in Bougainville early in the voyage and also that the ship taking him to Samoa was escorted by a British naval vessel.
On his arrival in Samoa he observed that British officials had taken over and some German officials were making preparations to leave. This indicates that he was recruited for the second time in 1914 while Australia and New Zealand were in the process of taking over German New Guinea and Samoa. His initial contract therefore must have begun sometime in 1909.
Tapusini thinks that he was about thirteen or fourteen years old when he first left home. His parents and relatives disapproved of him leaving but Tapusini had heard many attractive stories about life in Samoa from men in his village who had been there on contract.
They told him that life was good on the plantations, that delicious food including fresh meat was given in abundance to plantation workers and that fine clothing such as Europeans wore was made available to them. Tapusini’s parents could not change their son’s mind about leaving so they came down to the beach to watch him sail away along with about twenty other recruits from his island.
He remembers his contract being made out. The captain explained to each man that he would be away for three years after which he would be brought home with a box of highly prized trade goods as his pay.
The captain wrote the name of each recruit after hearing his verbal agreement to the terms of the contract. The trip to Samoa was uneventful and pleasant. Tapusini said, except for the sad day on his first voyage when one of the recruits was buried at sea after he died from illness.
On arriving in Samoa the recruits were lined up for inspection and for division into working parties. As was usual for young boys. Tapusini was sent as a domestic servant to the house of the German manager of Vailele plantation. His duties were gardening, looking after the horses and cart, and driving the manager and his wife to town.
Tapusini liked his job because he got to see more of town and village life and of how Europeans in Samoa lived than most other plantation workers. Sometimes he made the trip to town twice a day. He recalls, “If the master wanted to go to town in the morning to do some business in the main office. I took him. Sometimes I had to want around doing nothing while he drank beer. When he got drunk I took him home, then his wife would tell me to get ready to take her to town that afternoon.
Tapusini had a small house near his employer’s residence but he usually took his meals with the other plantation labourers. Sometimes the “missus” gave him food. For three years, Tapusini had an easy and generally pleasant employment he said, but sometimes he got lonely and asked to work on the plantation with the other boys from his island. His boss told him to keep his job as a servant.
When his contract expired, he was reluctant to leave Samoa and after a year or so at home, during which time for took a wife, he decided to sign up again, leaving her behind.
On his return he was given the same job on the same plantation. When the New Zealand administration took over five years later his German boss was replaced by a New Zealander.
Tapusini remarked that the new boss was better than the German one because he was much kinder to all the boys and seldom punished them. Tapusini remembers that the Germans punished the plantation workers by flogging them with horse whips if they were considered to be lazy or disobedient. Another punishment Tapusini remembers was that of locking up workers in solitary confinement.
In 1918 a world wide epidemic of pneumonic influenza reached Samoa due to the inefficiency of New Zealand’s military administration who failed to quarantine ships from infected ports. Tapusini recalls that it had terrible effects on the plantations. He said:
“People who suffered did not seem really sick but complained of headaches and dizziness. They thought that they could cure themselves by putting their heads under a tap or in a stream.
Some of them just died when they were going to the water and others died on the way back to their houses. I was not sick because my boss made me stay in the house away from the other workers”.
Tapusini left his job as a servant sometime in the 1920s and joined the other labourers collecting coconuts on the plantation. Although this work was heavier and more routine, he was glad to be in the company of other Melanesians and to meet Samoan who were by that time being employed and to meet Samoans who were by that time being employed alongside Melanesians.
Tapusini was due for repatriation in 1918. He is not clear about why he stayed but it seems that he was happy to remain in Samoa. Tapusini remained working as a plantation labourer at Vailele until his retirement in the early 1960s.
When Tapusini left Nissan in 1914 he had not heard of any missionaries on his island. He knew that the Samoans were Christians but the Melanesians were not allowed to go to church because services were conducted in the village and the Germans forbade. Melaesians to associate with Samoans. After 1918 New Zealand relaxed the rules and Tapusini with some of his fellow workers began to attend the Catholic Church in Vailele village.
Later, he joined the London Missionary Society church, because one of its pastors in the neighboring village of Fagalii was conducting evening literacy classes. At present he is a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church because his oldest son became an active Seventh Day Adventist and converted the whole family.
Tapusini first met his wife at the literacy classes.
He had got himself a guitar and soon became so interested in music that he dropped the evening classes and formed a string band. The band included Samoan and Melanesian plantation workers with Tapusini as the leader. Soon the band became very popular and the Samoans would come in the evening to watch it practice. Tapusini recalls that the village girls who were sent by their parents to the evening literacy classes would sneak off to listen to his band instead.
Tapusini’s wife was one of the them and Tapusini said that after they had admired each other from a distance for some time, the girl wrote to his expressing interest and asking him to visit her family.
This Tapusini did, and was given permission to court the girl. During his visits to her, the village girls would ask him to play the guitar. Apparently the Samoan girls found it a great novelty to dance to guitar music instead of the traditional accompaniment of singing and beating on a mat. She came to live with him some time in 1922 and in 1923 she bore him a son.
At this time Tapusini’s band was at the height of its popularity. They played at the social gatherings of the plantation labourers and were asked to entertain at a church opening at Fagalii, a great occasion by Samoan standards.
The band had ten members. There were two ukuleles, five guitars, two mandolins and a base. Tapusini remembers playing at a big birthday celebration on the plantation to which the general manager of all the plantations was invited, along with the many other Europeans.
After Tapusini’s wife had given birth to several more children he left the band. They had ten children of which eight are living. All are married with the exception of his eldest son and youngest daughter. His second son has three children and four grandchildren, the third son has three legitimate and two illegitimate children and these three sons and their families live in the same household as Tapusini.
His youngest son has two children but has separated from his wife and is living in New Zealand.
Three of his daughters also live in New Zealand. One is married to an Australian and has two children, another is married to a Maori and has eight children, the youngest is married. Another of Tapusini’s daughters is married to a Samoan and lives in the United States with their two children.
His children are dutiful to their father and send him money, those living overseas visit him every few years and paid their parents fare to visit New Zealand and the United States to see the grandchildren. In 1968 Tapusini and his wife were persuaded by their oldest son to get respectably married in the Seventh Day Adventist church. Tapusini’s wife died in 1974 after my first interview with her.
Tapusini lives with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren on a large piece of land with about five traditionally styled Samoan houses arranged around a Samoan house of permanent materials.
Tapusini sleeps in the central house. The houses stand on neatly cut lawns among trees and tidy flower gardens. The family’s standard of living is clearly high by Samoan standards. Tapusini said his family has a plantation on village land belonging to the family of one of his son’s wives. The men of his family work on it during the weekends.
The land on which his household has built homes does not belong to them but seems to be part of Vailele plantation. It is not clear what, if any, rights Tapusini and his family have over it.
Tapusini speaks Samoan well but with a Melanesian accent his wife revealed that his nick-name on the plantation had been “Pugapuga”, joking reference to Tapusini’s difficulty in pronouncing the sound “f”. The story is that Tapusini told his friends that he had eaten “pugapuga” while visiting his wife’s family. This made them laugh because the right word is “fugafuga” a kind of sea food.
It can be seen that fate has been kind of Tapusini. He says that while he knows that Samoans look down on “black boys”, he himself enjoyed good relations with most Samoans. In his younger days this was probably because of his reputation as a musician.
Tapusini says that he regrets having no Samoan friends in his old age except his children and grandchildren. He feels also that after fifty years of working on the plantations which support the Samoan economy, that the pension paid in 1975 to retired Melanesians of $10 (WS) a month, is poor reward.
*Next week, we will bring you the story of Ti’a Likou