Monday, February 1, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“NIUE 1774-1974: Two Hundred Years of Contact and Change” by Margaret Pointer (Otago University Press, $NZ50)

I confess to my tardiness in reviewing Margaret Pointer’s excellent and well-illustrated Niue 1774-1974. The book was published in March of last year (2015) and has for too long been in my “to do” pile before at last, in my recent summer holidays, I got around to reading it.
            Like me, you probably have to look up Niue on a map. It is north of the Kermadecs, south of Samoa, between Tonga and the Cooks, and somehow connected to New Zealand. Its people are Polynesian. It is small, and with a resident population that is diminishing as more Niueans become permanent residents of Auckland and environs. There was once a politician called Robert Rex who was associated with it.
            That, in one short paragraph, is about as much as I, in my ignorance, knew about Niue before opening Niue 1774-1974.
Margaret Pointer’s husband was New Zealand High Commissioner on Niue in the late 1990s and she lived on the island with her family for five years. She has made a number of return visits in the course of researching her book. She describes her first sighting of the island in the 1990s as she saw it from a plane: “No looming volcanic peaks, no sparkling azure lagoon, no tiny atolls, just one large piece of flat rock less than half the size of Lake Taupo.” (Introduction, p.13). We are at once made aware of the island’s isolation and smallness, both of which have been factors in the Niueans’ development. In a popular and accessible style, but with a wealth of solid research behind it, Niue 1774-1974 sets out to tell the island’s story from first European contact to the achievement of internal self-government and independence.
Margaret Pointer neatly divides her text [liberally sprinkled with “break-ins” of stories with particular significance] into four sections. First, the island before any European settlement. Then the island coming gradually under British control and into the orbit of the British Empire in the late nineteenth century. Then the years from 1903 to the 1960s, when Niue was under New Zealand administration. And finally the shift towards independence.
The account of early contacts makes it clear the Niue was one of the last places in the Pacific in which Europeans took an interest. This was partly because, almost completely surrounded by a forbidding rocky reef, the island offers no safe anchorage; but partly, too, because the island had gained a reputation as one of the more savage and inhospitable places in the Pacific. It seems that, despite the smallness of Niue, there were mutually antagonistic clans on the island, frequently at war with one other. “The missionaries soon learned that every district of the island was separate from, and often hostile to, every other district and – as whalers had noticed – as soon at the ship drifted along the coast, canoes that had approached them from one area returned home rapidly before canoes came out from the next.” (Chapter 3 p.55) The islanders’ very first encounters with Europeans came when James Cook called there, on Resolution, in 1774. But both Cook’s attempts at greeting the natives ended badly with exchanges of stone-throwing and musket shots. Probably nobody was hurt, but Cook withdrew rapidly and Pointer remarks “There is an element of frustration and bad temper in his diary comments about the landing on Niue, especially regarding his decision to name the place Savage Island.” (Chap. 1 p.32)
The name Savage Island was itself a deterrent to further European interest, and it seems that it was not for fully another fifty-plus years before outsiders touched on the island - a Yankee whaler looking for fresh water in 1828. Only in 1849 (by which time most other Pacific islands had been mapped, explored or claimed by the British or the French) did a British naval vessel call on Niue. There was one widespread story of a shipwrecked crew having been murdered and eaten by islanders, but the detail of cannibalism is almost certainly fictitious. Niueans did not eat red meat. Fish and taro, yam and coconuts were their diet. Once Yankee and British ships began to visit, Niueans were eager to gain metal fishhooks as trade items, as they were so much more reliable than the bone and wooden hooks upon which they had had to rely for centuries. Europeans introduced pigs in the 1850s, but Niueans refused to eat them, and kept them only for barter when passing ships wanted provisions. Also, unlike most Polynesian peoples, Niueans did not practise tattooing. They were surprised by the tattoos that were sometimes sported by European sailors.
It was not explorers and passing whalers or naval men who changing Niuean society, however, but Protestant missionaries. Coming from the evangelical London Missionary Society, one missionary visited, but did not land on, the island in the 1830s. LMS-taught Samoan “native mission teachers” were landed on Niue in early 1850. They had an immediate impact and prepared the way for the first European missionary to set foot on the island in 1857. In some parts of the Pacific, prolonged early contacts with Europeans led to population decline as new diseases were introduced. Paradoxically, the population of Niue increased under the impact of missionaries as the newcomers preached against clan warfare and infanticide. Margaret Pointer suggests that, as in all Pacific missionary history, there have been debates concerning how much the initial acceptance of Christianity was a matter of being attracted to the material advantages Europeans had to offer. [See my earlier postings on The French Place in the Bay of Islands, Entanglements of Empire, Outcasts of the Gods? etc.]
When she settles into the second part of her history, Margaret Pointer has to concentrate on what amounts to the prolonged “rule” of the missionaries, and the tension that developed with other outside influences. As late as 1860, there was no single European resident on Niue. The first was the formidable LMS missionary William George Lawes in 1861. Pointer notes:
 “At the outset… Niue was something of an LMS ‘laboratory’. Where else did an English missionary settle to spread the word and not have to contend with other Europeans behaving badly? No idle, blaspheming sailors waiting for the next vessel, no traders tempting the locals into debt, no merchants offering the demon drink, no beachcombers or other arrivals seeking the pleasures of the flesh. No other missionary society attempted to establish itself on Niue in the nineteenth century.” (Chapter 5 p.90)
Up until the 1890s, Lawes and his extended missionary family were the only resident Europeans on Niue. Pointer stresses that the Lawes clan were respectful of local culture, hardworking and benevolent; but they did impose a moral code involving regularised Christian marriage, seemly dress and a prohibition of alcohol; and they suggested punishments (administered by the separate villages) for those who infringed the code. The influence of this code remained very strong until the mid-twentieth century, and was to come into conflict with later forms of governance. In the Lawes’ time, the village of Alofi and its church became the centre of island activity. But the island’s society began to change with the arrival of traders and the copra trade. By the 1890s, many young Niuean men were going off to indentured labour elsewhere. There were shocking experiences, such as groups of Niueans being kidnapped by Peruvian ships to work as forced labour collected guano. Single men were often indentured for guano digging on distant (and barren) Malden Island. Couples were sometimes indentured as labour in copra plantations in Fiji and elsewhere. By the early 1900s, about a tenth of Niue’s population was always away working elsewhere in the Pacific.
Under the impact of missionaries, there had developed a “Fono” or island council at which many village chiefs met together for general discussions and decision-making. There was a “king” for some years, but he was chosen from among the chiefs and the office did not last long. Sometimes the locals, encouraged by missionaries, sent petitions requesting that Niue become a British protectorate. But in the 1880s and 1890s, as the British and Germans jockeyed for influence in that part of Pacific, it was agreed the Niue would be “neutral” territory.
Finally the island did become a British protectorate in mid-1900. In the same year the imperialist Richard John Seddon visited Niue. Australian federation was looming and Seddon wanted to enhance New Zealand’s status by expanding its boundaries in the Pacific. In October 1900, Lord Ranfurly formally annexed Niue – with approval of Niuean chiefs – to the British Empire, not to New Zealand. But by a piece of diplomatic trickery, it was then agreed that New Zealand’s boundaries now included all the Cook Islands and Niue. Hence Niue was now de facto annexed to New Zealand. This caused much consternation among Niueans, as the annexation seemed to make them subordinate to Rarotonga. Only in 1903, when a group of New Zealand parliamentarians visited, was it agreed, to the Niueans’ satisfaction, that the island would be administered directly from Wellington, and not through the Cook Islands. Thenceforth, there was on Niue a residence for a New Zealand official.
In her long section on the sixty-odd years of New Zealand administration, it is clear that some enduring laws were very much of their age. Alcohol remained absolutely forbidden to the indigenous people, but acceptable for Europeans. European ministers could marry both indigenous and European couples, but indigenous ministers could marry only indigenous couples. Margaret Pointer does not dwell on this, but there is a slight whiff of apartheid to these and other laws and customs, although there was no ban on interracial marriage, which happened often enough considering the tiny size of the island’s Palagi population.
Regrettably for New Zealand’s reputation, it is clear that the administration of Niue tended to attract neither the most ambitious nor the most qualified New Zealand officials. Scandal (hushed up at the time) engulfed the first resident commissioner, Christopher Maxwell, who lasted only a few years. Maxwell broke the Suppression of Immorality Ordinance Act, which he had signed into law, by having an affair with a married native woman. The second resident commissioner Henry Cornwall lasted ten years (1907-17), but he too got into trouble and was eventually confronted over the fact that he had impregnated at least one native woman and seduced others and yet had passed, in court, judgment on men who had done similar heinous things.
We might now also pass different judgements from the patriotic ones that were passed at the time on the 125 young Niuean men served for New Zealand in the First World War. Like other non-white troops, but unlike at least some New Zealand Maori, they were not used as combat troops. Instead they  “carried supplies, loaded and unloaded vessels, stood guard, manned ammunition dumps, dug trenches and built duckboards, served food and cleaned latrines.” (p.194) In France the Niueans, out of their tropical climate, were put into the front line to dig trenches. Most of them quickly contracted pneumonia, were invalided out, and came back – permanently sick – to Niue within a year. Because shipping stopped there so rarely, Niue was spared the lethal “influenza” plague that visited Samoa (and New Zealand) in 1918-19, but the story of the Niuean soldiers is still a tragic instance of an indigenous people’s involvement in a war that was not theirs.  
After New Zealand had taken over the former German colony of Samoa, Niue became an even less desirable posting for New Zealand officials seeking work in the Pacific. Most preferred Samoa or the Cook Islands, which had more direct communications with the outside world (although Niue did get its first radio link with New Zealand in 1924). In 1921, there was the notorious case of a murder trial being ineptly conducted by the resident schoolteacher when the resident commissioner was absent and there was no qualified official to second him.
In the interwar years, the influence of the resident LMS missionaries was still very strong, but was beginning to weaken as government primary schools began to supersede missionary schools. A handful of Seventh Day Adventists took up residence on the island in the 1920s, and in the 1950s Mormons and other denominations arrived, causing the old evangelicals to lose their monopoly on religious belief. Missionaries had managed to chase away the first attempt to introduce movies in 1915. But by the 1930s there was electric lighting on the wharf at Alofi and dances were held there to recorded music provided by visiting ships. Niueans, says Margaret Pointer, swung to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington “much to the consternation of the LMS, who complained of ‘the dangers arising from these imported customs… the Niueans not yet [being] ready for experiments in promiscuous dancing.’ ” (Chapter 11 “The Interwar Years”, p.224)
Niue did not directly contribute to forces in Second World War, although there were some young men who were willing to enlist. Indeed some came to New Zealand specifically to do so. One long-serving resident commissioner (again blotting the copybook of New Zealand administration) left with a huge and embarrassing pile of unpaid debts and clear signs of embezzlement. Then there was a big conflict between the old-style LMS missionary who was so deeply opposed to work on the Sabbath that for a number of years he virtually wrecked the island’s banana trade, because there were only limited times that ships could arrive to pick up the island’s produce. If they arrived on a Sunday, the crop of bananas could not be collected and was left to rot on the wharf, as there was no harbour allowing ships to anchor overnight. This problem was solved only when the old zealot was replaced by a more accommodating minister.
The biggest jolt that New Zealand administration of Niue ever received came in 1953. Hector Larsen, a forthright, outspoken, but capable resident commissioner, was murdered in his home at night by an intruder, with his wife and children barely escaping the same fate. In the ensuing trial (and condemnation to death) of the three prison escapees who committed the murder, a political storm blew up in New Zealand about inadequacies of the administration of justice in Niue, and the fact that New Zealand personnel sent to Niue were often poorly trained and ill-prepared for the administrative work they were meant to do. New Zealand was implicitly criticised for its failure to prepare Niue for the greater autonomy it should have been enjoying under new United Nations initiatives. Of Larsen’s murder, Margaret Pointer argues: “It has to be blamed on a systemic failure going back 50 years. It has to be seen within the context of successive New Zealand governments’ administration of Niue – their neglect, lack of understanding, oversight. It has to be seen within the context of colonial administration generally, and the administration of a small and isolated island in particular. The system of administration that had been allowed to evolve in Niue meant that Hector Larsen was let down by the New Zealand government. There were warning balls, some sounding back decades.” (Chapter 13 “An End to Complacency”, p.272)
            Logically, the fourth and last section of Niue 1774-1974 deals with the island’s road to (a sort of) independence. Robert Rex, beginning as a capable translator, emerged as the logical leader for an independent governing body. The cyclone disaster that struck Niue in 1959 oddly contributed to the move towards independence by showing some weaknesses in local organization, even though much necessary help was sent to Niue from New Zealand. By the 1960s there was a strong move towards internal self-government while sustaining links with New Zealand. By the time independence was achieved in 1974, the island was much more open to the world, with an airfield having been constructed and full communication links in place.
And it is at this point, forty years ago, that Margaret Pointer ends her story. Perhaps she thought it was not for a Palagi to chronicle the island’s political history over the last four decades. Even so, it does leave thing hanging in the air somewhat, and I wish her “Afterword” could have been longer and more comprehensive.
As you have probably gathered from my above simple summary of the book’s contents, I found Niue 1774-1974 interesting and very informative reading. While being aware that the island and its community are tiny, the book shows a very strong awareness that, for the island’s inhabitants, each event that it records was momentous. The island, in effect, was once (but is no longer) a world unto itself.
I must record a few minuses. Only in her brief afterword does Margaret Pointer note that Niue’s population is now merely somewhere between 1200 and 1500 people. Although it is mentioned elsewhere in the text, there is far too little on the impact of emigration, and the resident population’s decline from a maximum of about 4,500. We hear virtually nothing about the larger Niuean population that now lives in New Zealand. Because of this major demographic fact, I do not buy Pointer’s final vision of the unchanging and eternal island. Yes, the eternal waves may crash on the reef and the coral may endure (if climate change lets it) but this “eternity” of Niue is true only if you ignore the huge change that has happened to its people in the last two centuries.


  1. Hi Nick, welcome back. Enjoyed your review of the book on Niue. The only puzzling aspect is the correlation between the photo and the text. Are they the same island? You quote Margaret Pointer as saying “No looming volcanic peaks, no sparkling azure lagoon, no tiny atolls, just one large piece of flat rock less than half the size of Lake Taupo.” However, the pic does show several relatively steep ridges, so hardly a flat rock. I do agree with you - any book written today on a Pacific island should, or must, include a reflection on the impact of climate change. Or would that be less than diplomatic?

  2. Yes, I thought that myself when I saw the image, but it was the only one I could find labelled "Niue" in Google images.

  3. Interesting review Mr Reid. As someone who seems to have paid a lot of detail to the book's subject matter, I must take you to task over your lapse of concentration in regards to the photo referred to by the commenter above. That is a picture of none other than Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands. Neither Cook Islanders nor Niueans should they happen upon this review as I have, would appreciate this little blunder of yours. But continue. Like I said, the review was interesting.

  4. My sincerest apologies for any unintended disrespect. As I said, this was the only image given as Niue on Google imahes. Sorry.