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Story of exiled Samoan chiefs to be documented

Wednesday 7 October 2015 | Published in Regional


SAIPAN – A Northern Marianas historian is working to compile a complete history of a group of Samoan chiefs who formed a community on Saipan 100 years ago.

The 10 chiefs were part of an independence movement in what was then German Samoa, and in 1909, the German governor exiled them to Saipan, which was also under German control.

Scott Russell, from the Northern Marianas Humanities Council, told Radio New Zealand's Dateline Pacific that little is known about the Samoan community on Saipan, and he's working to change that.

“It involved 10 chiefs from what is now independent Samoa and they had been involved in a movement that had been banned by the German administration,” Russell said.

“As a result, the German government decided they needed to be put in chiefly exile –and because Saipan was also a German colony at the time, that was the island that was selected.”

DATELINE PACIFIC: So they were exiled there for how long?

“I'm not sure exactly how long it would have lasted but World War I intervened and of course German Samoa became New Zealand territory and the Northern Marianas was taken over by the Japanese.

“And so when the Japanese navy came in, they were petitioned by senior chief Lauaki to be repatriated home, and finally in August of 1915, arrangements were made to repatriate the surviving chiefs.

“They were here from 1909 until 1915, so about six years, slightly over six years.

DATELINE PACIFIC: What did they do while on Saipan?

“They lived a pretty typical Samoan life, they were given land just north of the main settlement along the beach, and they built 10 Samoan style houses and they also had another one built for their pastor, so they had their own church.

“There were 72 people altogether in the community, it was the 10 chiefs plus their immediate family and a few servants.

DATELINE PACIFIC: And so you have embarked on a project to conserve the memory of this Saipan exile– what did this involve?

“It's a bit of history that people know just barely, if you look through our history books, there are a few references to the fact that there were a group of exile Samoan chiefs here – but pretty much that was all the information that anybody had.

“About 17 or 18 years ago I was doing some research in papers of an American naval officer and I came across a typed script which was a translated account of the youngest chief who was exiled here.

“And he, rather than being sent back to Samoa, decided he wanted to go to Guam and so he made his own arrangements and took off in a Samoan style paddling canoe one day and he paddled his way to Guam.

“He had spent his time on Saipan learning to speak German with the idea that he could get a job with the German colonial government when he eventually went back to Samoa.

“But then, when the war intervened, he realised that his time learning German had been a waste, and he decided he was going to learn English – and he was given a job in the navy printing office and he was there from 1915 to 1919.

“The off-spin of this project is to put together a booklet that combines historical accounts with the remembered oral historical information, so we are working on that now with some colleagues in independent Samoa.

“We are hoping to have something maybe within a year because we have pretty much gotten the German colonial records of the exiles, we are now looking into the British and Japanese side of things.

“Unfortunately they were just north of an area that became a naval sea plane base for the Japanese and then by the US military, so any physical traces of their village were long since eradicated.”