Samoan independence and the chiefly system

  • Breaking
  • 31/05/2012

Opinion by Falaniko Tominiko

It is often acknowledged that the backbone of Fa’a Samoa is its matai or chiefly system.

Chiefs have played an integral part not only in Samoa’s history but also the history of Polynesia. Take for instance the ancient title of Tui Manu’a from Manu’a in the Eastern islands of the Samoan archipelago. The first Tui Manu’a was believed to have been the son of the god Tagaloaalagi and an earthly woman from Manu’a. The Tui Manu’a’s power in ancient Polynesia was evident in the fact that chiefs from Tonga, Uvea, Fiji, Rarotonga, Tahiti paid him taxes through regular offerings of produce, fish, canoes etc.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans and missionaries, history illustrates a period dominated by paramount chiefs and a time where power shifted regularly between the families of Tupua Tamasese, Malietoa, Matā’afa and Tuimaleali’ifano. The domination of these paramount chiefs in traditional Samoan politics coupled with their aristocratic bloodlines confirmed their places in Samoan society as the ‘Princes’ or ‘Tama’āiga’ of Samoa. Even when missionaries and foreigners became a permanent fixture on the Samoan landscape, these chiefs were still very much in the fold, challenging and at times siding with the foreigners.

The beginning of the 20th century began a time of political instability and turmoil in the Samoa group. In 1900 Samoa was divided. Germany annexed Western Samoa, and America took over Eastern Samoa. Shortly after the take over of Eastern Samoa, the bestowal of the ancient Tui Manu’a chiefly title was banned as it did not fit in with the United States constitution to have a king when a nation was under the authority of the U.S. and its president. To this day the Tui Manu’a has never been held again. When Germany took over Western Samoa, Matāa’afa Iosefo had just been recognised as the highest chief of Western Samoa and in a sense, their king. The German governor of the time Wilhelm Solf quickly implemented measures to ensure that Matā’afa not be acknowledged as a king, but rather gave him a ceremonial title of ‘Ali’i Sili’ or Head Chief with only advisory privileges. This was done because according to Solf, there was only one king in Samoa, and that was the German Kaiser. In my opinion, this was the beginning of the undermining of the Samoan chiefly system.

Another German invention was the creation of the Samoan Lands and Titles court. Although it was established to sort out issues around land and title claims, it was another way of further undermining the power and authority of the chiefs as decisions over matters concerning lands and titles was originally within their domain however, these decisions were now being left up to a foreign body with foreign judges etc. These and other discrepancies lead to a protest movement called the Mau o Pule in 1908 lead by Namulau’ulu Lauaki Mamoe. Sadly Lauaki and his leaders were exiled to the Marianas and the protest movement soon folded without leadership.


In 1914, Britain declared war on Germany and New Zealand was instructed to takeover Samoa. The take over took place without any contest by the Germans. From that point on, Samoa was under the control of a New Zealand military administration. Relations between the New Zealanders and Samoans were initially friendly but soon became sour after the tragic death of 22% of Samoa’s population in 1918 as a result of the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918. Samoan blamed the New Zealand administration for lack of effort in not only preventing it, but also lack of aid afterwards. This growing resentment lead to the formation of a second protest movement or Mau originally lead by Taisi Olaf Nelson, and later by Tama’āiga, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III. Throughout most of the 1920s New Zealand police arrested members of the Mau movement ruling it as an illegal group and creating laws that undermined the power of the chiefs and Samoan culture. It was as if Samoa was reliving the German occupation all over again. In a peaceful march in 1929, police wanting to arrest some Mau supporters got into a scuffle with them and shots were fired. Amongst those killed was the leader Tupua Tamasese. This angered Samoans even more however the Mau continued now this time under the leadership of Tama’āiga Matā’afa Fiameē Mulinu’u I. This brings to life the well known saying, “A pa’ū se toa, e toe tu se toa”. “When one warrior falls, another will take his place”. When the Labour government came into power they supported the Mau and allowed them to exist as a legal political party.

It was the efforts of the Mau in the 1920s that lead to Samoa’s push for self government status and eventually independence. In the 1940’s it was again the Tamā’aiga working closely with and advising the New Zealand administration in Samoa’s preparations toward independence. The holders of the Tama’āiga titles at this point were Tupua Tamasese Mea’ole (younger brother of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III who was killed in 1929), Malietoa Tanumafili II, Matā’afa Fiamē Mulinu’u II (son of mau leader Matā’afa Fiamē Mulinu’u I) and Tuimaleali’ifano Suatipatipa II. It was only fitting that upon gaining independence in 1962, that these four paramount chiefs be given high offices in the newly formed independent government. Both Tupua Tamasese and Malietoa were bestowed as joint Head of State for life, Matā’afa was appointed Prime Minister, and Tuimaleali’ifano became the first member of the Council of Deputies, i.e. Deputy Head of State.

Fifty years on, the place of Tama’āiga in Samoa has somewhat drifted away from politics, with only Tupua Tamasese Efi (son of Tupua Tamasese Mea’ole), the current Head of State and Tuimalealiifano Va’aletoa (nephew of Tuimalealiifano Suatipatipa II), council of deputy, holding offices. There is currently no Malietoa and the Matā’afa title has only been recently bestowed after being vacant for a long time. I for one believe that they still very much play a vital role in Samoan politics yet there is a common belief that in order to uphold their mana and dignity, they should not lower themselves to the dirty world of politics. Why now? I mean these men are descendants of chiefs who fought in wars and who died for their people. Im sure the warrior blood lives in them still. Times have changed and I see Samoan chiefs slowly loosing their power over Samoa. It is all good that one can only be a chief to run for politics, but they are still politicians first and chiefs second. It will be interesting to hear what people think. Feel free to contribute.

source: newshub archive