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Entangled Islands: a pathway to a new understanding of WWI

Entangled Islands: a pathway to a new understanding of WWI

by Damon Salesa - Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The exhibition 'Entangled Islands: Sāmoa, New Zealand and the First World War' is the first of the centennial exhibitions commemorating the First World War at Auckland Museum, and the first to concentrate on this shared Sāmoan and New Zealand history. Consultant historian Damon Salesa helped shape the exhibition, and here in his opening night speech he sets the scene on this little-known part of our shared history.


Damon Salesa addresses the 'Entangled Islands: Sāmoa, New Zealand and the First World War' exhibition opening night audience.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Lau afioga le Pulenu’u, Taua’aletoa Len Brown; lau afioga le Pule a le Falemāta’aga Aukilani, Roy Clare; lau afioga le Konesula Faaolotoi Rupena Pogi; lo outou tinā, Mele Ioelu: faapea le mamalu ua aofia. Afio mai, tala mai a’ao i le Falemāta’aga Aukilani. Faatalofa atu i le mafutaga o le exhibition, “O Atumotu Ua Sātia: O Sāmoa, Niu Sila ma le Taua Tele Muamua o le Lalolagi.”

E ngā iwi i huihui nei, nau mai, haere mai ki tēnei hui. Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou

Welcome everyone to the opening of this exhibition “Entangled Islands: Sāmoa, New Zealand and the First World War”.

It was my honour to consult as historian to this exhibition, and it is my pleasure to speak to you for a few minutes about it.

This is the first of what will be a sequence of exhibitions about the First World War in this museum; it is perhaps the first in New Zealand to mark the centenary of that War’s beginning. It is appropriate that this first exhibition is on Sāmoa. Because (as we have reminded at the exhibition’s entry) for New Zealand, the First World War began in Sāmoa.

The horrific war we now remember was fought from 1914-1918 and which led to over 16 million deaths. This legacy of death, and the warnings and weight that we carry because of those deaths, dominate both our memory, and our commemorations, of the First World War. This legacy has often meant that we have forgotten that this great Ocean of ours was also part of that terrible conflict: it was not, after all, known as the Great European War, but the First World War, and battles were fought not only in Europe, but in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

Still, it is battles like Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendaele, and Mesopotamia that resonate in New Zealanders’ memories for the lives they took.

But alongside this legacy of death, stand the stories of Sāmoa and New Zealand in the First World War. This is a living legacy. Is there any legacy quite as strong, today, one hundred years after the war? Imagine a New Zealand without nearly 150,000 Sāmoans. Imagine how different this history would be. Imagine if, in 1939, a German Pacific Fleet was still sailing between China and Apia. Or imagine the Auckland Blues, or Auckland culture or the All Black backline or the Silver Ferns, or New Zealand music, or this museum if it was not enriched by generations of Sāmoa, a shared history that has tied together Sāmoa and New Zealand for a hundred years.

On August 29th 1914 New Zealand forces landed in Sāmoa, and New Zealand would not leave for nearly fifty years. The end of the war brought the horror of mass death to Sāmoa, with the outbreak of the 1918 Influenza epidemic (which killed perhaps more than one in five Sāmoans). New Zealand stayed on through the epidemic, through a massive Sāmoan rebellion, through another World War, through a part of the Cold War. By the time New Zealand left Sāmoa, thousands of Sāmoans had made New Zealand—and especially Auckland—their home. New Zealand may have left Sāmoa; but Sāmoa did not leave New Zealand.

This exhibition is not just an exhibition about an event; the invasion was a relatively short and largely non-violent one. The exhibition is about the meaning of the war, what it has meant to different peoples’ lives, and what it means for us. It is about this shared history, and it shares languages, and spaces.

This is Auckland’s museum. This is a museum that is a memorial to the suffering of war. The stones above windows of this building bear the name of many of these battles—including of Sāmoa. The names of lives lost by Auckland in this war are inscribed into the walls above us. These stories are built in; names and memories literally hold up the roof, and protect the treasures inside the building. They also make space for stories to be told.

Each one of those dead, and each of those that loved them, was a library of stories. We cannot tell them all. But in this exhibition we have tried to make use of the space that war has made, to let some precious stories be told. Stories of Sāmoans, stories of New Zealanders, stories of Germans, and Chinese—but most importantly stories that tie each to the other. Shared histories, entangled islands.

Gail Romano, Janneen Love, Kelly Bewley, Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai, Victoria Travers, Esther Tobin and I, as well as so many others, have tried to find stories which honour the experiences and diversity of the past, and that allow Sāmoan men and women, to speak for themselves, and to speak to us. Melegalenu’u Ah Sam and Muliagatele Vavao Fetui, outstanding scholars and teachers of the Sāmoan language, have helped us to share these stories in the Sāmoan language.

I thank everyone for all their work, their commitment and their care. Fa’afetai tele lava mo la outou feasoasoani ma le galuluega. We know there are stories that we have not told, and we invite you, through the postcards, to bring your stories to share in this house.

We ask for your wisdom, and your stories, as we ask for forbearance with our shortcomings. We hope you enjoy, and connect, and feel belonging to these Entangled Islands.

This article is a companion to our exhibition, Entangled Islands: Sāmoa, New Zealand and the First World War.

  • Post by: Damon Salesa

    Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa is a prizewinning historian and academic, who specializes in the study of colonialism, empire, government and race. With a particular interest in the Pacific Islands, he also works on education, economics and development in the Pacific region, as well as in New Zealand and Australia. He is currently Associate Professor of Pacific Studies at the Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Auckland, where he is also Academic Head.

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