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Sailors and TradersA Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples$

Alastair Couper

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780824832391

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824832391.001.0001

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Island Protests and Enterprises

Island Protests and Enterprises

Chapter Nine Island Protests and Enterprises
Sailors and Traders

Alastair Couper

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the protests and attempts by Pacific island societies to compete in maritime commercial enterprises. In the post-World War I period, dissatisfactions arose in many of the outer islands with uncertain shipping services, the low prices received for products, and the high costs of consumer goods. Armed resistance to land alienation and loss of rights erupted in New Zealand, New Caledonia, and elsewhere. The most frequent protests were against apparent commercial exploitation. This chapter discusses the various forms of protest launched by the natives in the Pacific Islands against exploitative traders, including boycotts and strikes, the formation of indigenous trading companies, attempts to establish maritime trade unions, and attempts to revive island-owned shipping. It also considers the difficulties faced by island indigenous communities in trying to develop viable commercial trading and shipping enterprises.

Keywords:   protests, maritime commercial enterprises, Pacific Islands, boycotts, strikes, indigenous trading company, maritime trade unions, island-owned shipping, commercial trading

THE FIRST WORLD WAR saw the removal of German colonial power. The Japanese, under a League of Nations mandate, eventually occupied all the islands of Micronesia except Guam (US) and the Gilberts (Britain). Britain acquired responsibility for Nauru, Australia took over German territory in New Guinea, and New Zealand acquired Western Samoa. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 gave added impetus to French commerce in Polynesia through more direct links with metropolitan France. There was rising resentment over the almost total control of commercial trade and transport by foreigners, and the wealth apparently derived from this.

By the time the postwar depressions affected the Pacific region, power-driven ships owned by foreign companies had taken over from sail in most commercial routes. It was then that the higher costs of steam and diesel propulsion further affected the well-being of the remoter and poorer islands, who had been used to the more economical sailing ships. Many islands in the Tokelaus, Ellice, and Cooks were bypassed at times of low financial returns on copra, and they suffered from loss of basic imports. Crews on these vessels also suffered as the companies in turn experienced cash flow problems with power-driven ships under low freight rates, due to high fixed capital costs of repayments and the operational costs of fuel and crew. This situation may be appreciated from the 1931–1935 log abstracts of the Gilbert Island–based SS Macquarie, which belonged to On Chong:1

  • 9th March to 9th June 1931
  • Coal supply finished, also crews rations, two hands sent to cut wood fuel for galley and three hands fishing five days each week.
  • 21st July 1933 (At Sea)
  • Acute shortage of coal. Raised boat sails and awnings as sails. Burnt 3 bags of copra, 2 hatches etc.
  • (p.151) 27th July 1934
  • No coal and short of stores.
  • 15th January 1935
  • At Butaritari, no coal and short of stores.

Even at the best of times there were dissatisfactions in many of the outer islands with uncertain shipping services, the low prices received for products, and the high costs of consumer goods. People were not passive when they believed they were being cheated. Already there had been armed resistance to land alienation and loss of rights in New Zealand, New Caledonia, and elsewhere.2 The most frequent protests were against apparent commercial exploitation. These took the forms of boycotts and strikes, the formation of island-owned trading companies, and attempts at the revival of island-owned shipping. There were numerous difficulties to overcome with these enterprises, not least the opposition from established companies and often from the colonial authorities allied to them, as well as some cultural factors.

Boycotts and Strikes (Taboos)

The boycotts of exploitative traders started early and were widespread. During 1864 it was officially reported that “coconut oil machinery in Fiji was frequently brought to a standstill when Fijians refused to supply coconuts.”3 The Godeffroy company was boycotted in Tonga in 1872, and in Samoa in 1882, when it reduced the prices paid for copra and the people sold their copra to the mission instead, and although it reached the Godeffroy company through that channel, it was a protest.4 During 1883 a Scots trader on the island of Arorae in the Gilberts complained when the Kaupule (assembly of elders) raised the price of copra and forbid any sales to traders at a lower price.5 Similar actions were taken by the hua (local chiefs) in the Cook Islands,6 and during 1901 there was destruction of property on Onatoa in a dispute over prices.7

The resident traders in the islands maintained they had no control over buying and selling prices, which they said were dictated by the companies. The trader Ernest Osborne observed in his semifictional book set in the 1900s: “The natives are awakening to a desire for a higher price for their produce, which they know is scandalously undervalued. Traders may be willing enough to increase the copra price, but without a corresponding increase in the price paid them by the trading companies, they can’t (p.152) afford to. And the companies secure in their financial power and trading monopolies refuse to an increase.”8

The companies for their part complained to consuls and visiting warships about unjustified and illegal boycotts. Captain W. H. Maxwell of HMS Emerald, on a cruise through the Ellice group, noted judiciously, “The Taboo is their only defence against any dishonest trader, and their only means of enforcing good behaviour upon people towards whom they are not permitted to use force. Still there is no doubt that it may be, and sometimes is, arbitrarily and vexaciously applied.”9

Protests also took the form of stopping the production of copra. The price-fixing agreements on copra purchases made between Burns Philp, On Chong, and the Jaluit Gesellschaft in 1906–1907 were so deeply resented by people in the Marshalls, Gilberts, and Ellice that a strike on production quickly spread among islands. This meant that the people reverted to subsistence agriculture and fishing, which could be disastrous for trading companies, but in the longer term it would be equally difficult for communities now well accustomed to imported goods, including metal tools and fishhooks. These strikes were periodic but short-lived.

In the Gilbert Islands a strike during 1909 was partly defeated by the intervention of Arthur Mahaffy, the acting resident commissioner. Burns Philp recorded, “This gentleman toured the group in our steamer Muniara, the first trip in the new year, and ordered the natives to cease the strike, going so far as to threaten the natives of Tamana that if they did not immediately cut out their copra he would bring natives from other islands to do so.”10 BP also carried the Roman Catholic archbishop to several other islands and asked him to use his influence to break the strike, pointing out that “it was a sinful waste of providence’s gifts to the natives to allow the coconuts to rot on the ground because of the stubbornness of the people.”11

At other islands, people tried to defend traditional rights and marine conservation methods against predatory colonial practices. In the Tuamotus, chiefs protested to the authorities in 1859 against foreign ships bringing divers and diving machines, which were exhausting the oyster stocks of the lagoons by massive extractions of shells and pearls. In the absence of French action over several years, the deposed King Pomare V sent a party from Tahiti to Hikueru Island in 1880 to support the people of this last productive lagoon, who had, they said, “seized the diving machines, those engines which endangered the lagoons.” The colonial authorities dispatched a naval vessel and arrested the Pomare party.12 French government control over lagoon resources was thereby asserted (p.153) above the customary rights of local communities, chiefs, and the Pomare royal family.

Formation of Indigenous Trading Companies

For many islands it was customary, especially among women, to come together as groups to produce mats, tapa, baskets, and suchlike for presentation, exchange, trade, or sale to meet some social objective. Mainly these were periodic enterprises, such as the kuataha of tapa makers in Tonga, the Sogosogo Vakamarama (women’s associations) in Fiji, and the mronron (round wheels) as forms of proto-cooperatives with trade goods in the Gilbert Islands. It was often more difficult for an individual or small group to set up a permanent trade store. These frequently failed financially as a result of social pressures for sharing stock at the request of relatives, reluctance to ask for receipts when giving goods on credit, and payback in fish and fowls instead of cash.

Such problems were overcome to some extent when a formal trading company was established on an island or on a village-wide basis. It also appeared helpful for success in the cash economy if foreigners not subject to kinship pressures were initially involved, particularly if they had commercial experience. But success did not always follow, and the majority of ventures had to contend with government and company opposition.

Most of the island commercial enterprises that emerged had the primary aims of bypassing foreign traders and running their own ships. A disgruntled European and former employee of a merchant company sometimes took part, or some mixed-raced progeny of sailors, traders, or planters acted as managers. One of the earliest ventures on a significant scale was the Vaitupu Company in the Ellice Islands. The business was initiated in 1870 by Thomas William Williams, who worked for Ruge and Hedemann and Company. He had a somewhat different agenda from that of the one hundred Vaitupuan shareholders. Williams provided the initial stock of trade goods on credit from his former employers. He later obtained further loans to buy the schooner Vaitupulemele (named after a historic double canoe). Williams assumed that most of the trade of other Ellice Islands would be diverted to the Vaitupu Company. This did not happen, and when the ship was lost in a hurricane, Williams withdrew, and the shareholders were left to make good on the debts, including the cost of the ship.

The Vaitupuans, out of pride and ethical obligations as well as possible litigation, took nearly five years of hard work to repay Ruge. Doug and (p.154) Teloma Munro, who researched the documentation and oral history of this failed enterprise, wrote that even young mothers, who normally did not engage in manual labor, “took their babies into the bush and hung them from trees in baskets while they worked” and that “people cut copra through the night; being relieved at daybreak when the roosters started to crow.”13 Despite the oral records and songs and stories about the event and the dubious motives of the promoter, the Vaitupu people nevertheless supported the first island cooperative in 1926, successfully introduced by D. G. Kennedy, a schoolmaster on the island.14

In Samoa during 1905 there was an attempt to compete in trade with the DHPG and its German government promoters. The project was led by Pullack, who was part Samoan and part German and had been educated in America. He obtained the backing of several Samoan chiefs who made up the Mälö (Council) at Mulinu‘u for the formation of a trading company. The chiefs were to raise the capital from the villages, and the company would purchase copra and sell consumer goods at fair prices. The German governor of Samoa, Dr. William Solf, did not approve of the undermining of the DHPG and did not relish any possible political collaboration between Samoans, part Samoans, and discontented Europeans among the tensely divided rivalries in the colony. He banned the company, several of the Samoan leaders were arrested, and they and Pullack were deported. The ambitions of Samoans to compete with foreign companies was resurrected in 1914 as the Toeaina Club. Members of the club started stores and bought a schooner for freight and passenger services coastwise. The company was short-lived, however; it lacked capital, could not earn enough, and was forced into liquidation by a new government.15

A similar attempt by islanders to compete in trade started in Tonga during 1909. This enterprise was initiated in Nukualofa by a Scotsman, Alister D. Cameron, who was a former Burns Philp manager. The group’s name was Tonga Ma‘a Tonga Kautaha (Association of Tonga for the Tongans). A number of statements regarding its justification and objectives were proclaimed at various meetings, such as this one: “The Papalangi has waxed and grown fat on the profits he has made out of your people. … [C]opra was to be sent to the white man’s land and people were to receive the correct value of their produce. … [N]o one shall deal with Messrs Burns Philp and Co. Ltd. up to their deaths.”16 Several thousand Tongans joined and invested in the TMTK during the first year, and it spread through Tongatapu, Ha‘apai, and Va‘vau. Stores were opened that bought copra and sold goods, agents were appointed in Auckland and Sydney, and the schooner Viakamaile was purchased, along (p.155) with a launch. The association appeared successful, and Burns Philp and the DHPG expressed alarm.

In August 1910 the British consul general in Tonga, William Telfer Campbell, wrote to the colonial secretary in Fiji, A. Mahaffy, accusing Cameron of fraud. Mahaffy replied that in his opinion the Kautaha was “a particularly noxious form of swindle,” adding that “H. E. Dr. Solf, with whom I have been fortunate enough to discuss the matter, has had much experience of this evil in Samoa.” Mahaffy argued that the suppression of the TMTK was justified and that Cameron should be taken to the court of the Western Pacific High Commission. Among many actions taken was the issuance of an ordinance (no. 4, 1911) that “forbade any further association of natives and non natives in Kautaha.”17

There was considerable discontent at all levels of Tongan society. King Tupou rejected the advice of the British consul to support a court case against Cameron. The king acknowledged that he had to listen to the British consul’s advice as imposed in 1905, but he said he was not bound by it and would not be coerced. The British Colonial Office in London judiciously agreed with the king’s interpretation. King Tupou went further. He subsequently wrote, “I cannot see that the Tongans have lost anything by having a Kautaha, but it is beyond all question that as a result of closing they have lost many thousands of pounds.” He went on to request the removal of the dictatorial Campbell from Tonga.

Alister Cameron was ultimately acquitted by the court, and William Telfer Campbell was withdrawn from the Pacific. The ordinance forbidding people from forming trading companies was rescinded, and the British Colonial Office was diplomatically reconciled with the king. Cameron became manager of a new business, the Tonga Ma‘a Tonga Company Ltd., but because of the losses of people’s savings in the earlier association, much of the patriotic enthusiasm that had heralded the TMTK was diminished, and there was little subsequent success in this respect.18

Sometime in 1912 the government of Fiji began to receive reports about a group of Fijians who were “forming a company on cooperative lines for the export of products and the import of goods.”19 It was apparent by 1913 that this movement—called the Viti Company and led by a thirty-six-year-old commoner, Apolosi Nawai—was growing. In 1914 Apolosi, as director of the Viti Company, wrote to all the buli (government chiefs) of Fiji, urging them to support the movement. Many did so, and enthusiastic meetings were held at every level of society in all the provinces of Fiji. The aims included “keeping our lands in our own hands and all the produce therefrom both things found in the water and things that grow (p.156) on the land. … [T]he Company should have a store in every locality. … [T]here should be no more dealings with Europeans therefrom. … [T]here should be a native shipbuilding yard in each province.”

The Viti Company received the support of several Europeans, who were somewhat ineffectual. The opposition from the merchant companies and government establishment was formidable. The first overseas shipment of Viti Company bananas was condemned by the Fiji Department of Agriculture inspectors during the loading of the Union Steamship Company ships Matua and Tafua in November 1914. In retaliation, Fiji banana growers refused to sell supplies of bananas to European merchants.

The colonial secretary considered the Viti Company to be seditious. Apolosi was deported to Rotuma in 1915 for seven years. He returned and was deported again on two occasions. The company declined in chaos and disillusionment. The chief police magistrate at the time, A. Alexander, later wrote with some candor: “The new company was in difficulties from the beginning. It incurred the hostilities of the white planters and merchants, who strongly resented the appearance of a united body of native rivals in business. The Wesleyan Methodist Mission suffered a huge financial loss, when large numbers of natives transferred the contributions they would have ordinarily given to the Mission to the new company. To the government Apolosi was anathema.”20

In the Gilbert Islands several of the mronron were already temporarily consolidating their copra and buying goods wholesale from the trade rooms of some vessels. These they resold to themselves at trade store prices in order to jointly finance local projects. During 1926 this took on a new dimension with the formation of the Tangitang Mronron, meaning the “cry” or “complaint” round wheels. The movement started on the island of Abaiang and involved sending a small vessel to Tarawa, where better prices for copra and cheaper goods were available. The movement diversified and spread among islands as a protest against the traders. It is mentioned in the log abstracts of the SS Macquarie on 27 January 1933 at Marakei.

The management of the consolidated Tangitang Mronron in Abaiang, Tarawa, Marakei, and Maiana in 1938 passed to Willy Schutz, a former supercargo with Burns Philp. The association went on to purchase or charter a 30- to 40-ton vessel. The government response was simply “to keep the Tangitang under observation.” It was difficult to find anything wrong with the organization; the only adverse statement recorded by an official of the time was “there were large numbers of M/T beer bottles in the vicinity of Schutz’s home,” from which the resident commissioner (p.157) concluded that “Schutz was playing [a game of] ducks and drakes with the Tangitang Mronron.”21 The movement and its vessels precariously survived in the four islands of the Gilberts into the 1960s.

Revival of Island-Owned Shipping

As well as the attempts to compete with the big companies in trade, there were many efforts by chiefs and communities to revive and maintain small-scale island-owned shipping, despite prohibitions by colonial authorities. In the 1880s the king of Tonga owned schooners, and M. E. Jule noted that two traditional double-hulled vessels still plied between the Tongan islands at that time.22 King Tem Binoka of Abemama also had ships, some of which traded overseas, although he told R. L. Stevenson that they invariably returned from voyages in debt, owing to “the world-enveloping dishonesty of the white man.”23 There were also canoes trading with commercial goods in the Carolines, and schooners owned by chiefs in the Marshalls.24

From the 1880s onward there was a marked revival in commercial trade, with schooners and cutters owned by communities in many outer islands where chiefs once again became enthusiastic for their own ships. This was made more necessary by the rationalizing of the steamship services of merchant companies as they sought economies of full loads with their expensive vessels. The company steam- and motor-driven ships began to concentrate on the shortest-distance, highest-producing areas and were operated on schedules from a few main entrepôts linked with overseas shipping. This left smaller, less productive, and remoter islands marginalized in the commercial system. The bypassing of places became even more pronounced during depression periods of low prices for copra and fruit, when many islands also lost impoverished European planters with their cutters, and the local trade stores closed. The necessity for acquiring their own vessels to carry goods and passengers was allied to a natural desire and pride of the people for ships and their abilities to sail them.

In the Cook Islands during the 1880s “native owned and operated schooners traded throughout the group as well as up to Tahiti and down to New Zealand,” and these ships “were all owned by tribal groups and operated by the respective chiefs who also organised much of the production and most of the marketing.”25 Many of these vessels were built in New Zealand. Hawkins notes that they included the Lilian (80 tons), built in 1878 and traded between Rarotonga and Auckland in 1881, and the Dolly (42 tons), built in 1879 and bought by Penrhyn Islanders in (p.158) 1892 (renamed Teura). In the same year, the people of Aitutaki purchased the Tahitian schooner Papeete (15 tons). When the New Zealand–owned Julia Pryce ran on a reef at Aitutaki, she was sold to the Aitutakans. After repairs, she sailed to Rarotonga with 120 deck passengers and later traded fruit to Auckland.26 Several of the ships purchased by Cook Island communities were in poor condition. The people of Penrhyn bought a schooner from a Captain Pily and tried to enter trading. The vessel was unseaworthy, and this venture ended in litigation for payments, as did the purchase of the schooner Norval by the Hau of Omoka in Penrhyn,27 along with other claims that cost the people dearly.

In Tonga more schooners owned by chiefs were purchased from money collected around the villages.28 In Tahiti there was considerable building of small craft of 8 to 15 tons that were sold within the group. Building took place in the Tuamotus, where the vessels were then sailed mainly by the people of the islands on which they were built.29 In Fiji the waqi ni tikina (vessel of the villages and province) was controlled by the buli (government official), and numerous small craft increasingly owned and sailed by the mataqali (extended family). By European standards this boom in local shipping represented a gross oversupply of vessels beyond the needs of most islands. It appeared as a waste of time, resources, and capital and was considered by officialdom as a process leading to impoverishment, not development:

Oppression is frequently felt and privations endured by communities providing the price of too large a vessel or too many vessels. The raising of such monies necessitates the people’s abstentions from the use of coconuts as food, and deprives them of oil and clothes which under ordinary circumstances would be procured by the sale of copra. Growing food is often sold in order to raise money for this purpose. Much of this unnecessary expenditure is caused by the rivalry of tribes and chiefs as to the size of cutters.30

The authorities did occasionally encourage communal ownership and even helped with loans where there were no alternative services. For example, in Fiji the government responded to the people of the village of Bouwaqa: “These people isolated in the island of Vatulele have no vessel and therefore sell to a Chinaman at £7 ton—he is the only trader there. He sends it to Suva at £10 profit per ton besides store profit.”31 On the other hand, there was reluctance to subsidize community shipping at the island of Kadavu, near Suva. In 1902 the Kadavu Provincial Council reported, “There is a large fleet of native owned vessels in Kadavu. … [P]eople (p.159) propose expending some £700 more on new craft. I do not suppose any of the vessels pay the owners, but that does not seem to trouble them so long as they have vessels to do as they like with—it is the one thing they are willing to work and sacrifice for.” In 1901 the people of Rotuma bought a 50-ton schooner for 2,000 pounds to carry copra and passengers to Suva and Sydney. It was lost on a reef at Rotuma within eighteen months.32

Officialdom considered that this was a period of “mania for ships.” C. Percy Smith describes this in 1919 Samoa, where, “like church buildings[,] it has become the fashion of late to possess these boats.”33 In the New Hebrides and New Caledonia there was not the same mania, mainly because in most places the large numbers of planters already had schooners and ketches that carried goods for trade stores and passengers between islands and main ports. However, Anne Dunbar refers to a native company on Tanna during the 1930s that acquired a two-masted schooner.34 In Hawai‘i, with its more diversified economy, mainland company shipping had become well established.

Paradoxically, in most territories the small islands distant from main ports received little help in shipping from the colonial authorities, but they often received a good deal of criticism when they entered the business. By contrast Euro-Australian-owned vessels trading within island groups were consistently subsidized by territory administrations. The coastal areas with largest populations and most productive estates tended to obtain more regular subsidies. The vessels that qualified for these were usually the bigger, faster ships owned by the merchant companies. In effect, under the government shipping subsidy schemes, the most productive and wealthy of the island estates and businesses received improved services and the more affluent shipowners and merchants obtained financial support to provide these.35

The merchant shipping companies had trade stores adjacent to the estate areas. Subsidized vessels were, as a result, carrying goods to be sold by their companies’ stores, supplying planters who had accounts with their branches, and in some cases serving their own estates. It was left to a few small freight-earning cutters, often owned partly by Europeans (see below), and to the village boat (waqa ni koro) to provide for the outer islands, while many small planters in out-of-the-way places had to rely on their own and neighbors’ boats. The marketing arrangements that evolved in this situation effectively prevented the expansion of indigenous small freight-earning shipping companies into the most lucrative trades.

The Fiji Shipping Commission of 1915 did have some misgivings about the pattern of subsidized shipping and trade in Fiji. The commissioners cited the large vessel Adi Keva, belonging to the foreign-owned Fiji Shipping (p.160) Company, as giving undue preference “to certain leading firms in Suva,” and they felt that the subsidies stood in the way of “legitimate competition.” The commission recommended that subsidies “should not as a rule be granted to firms or companies trading as merchants in the colony.”36 Nevertheless subsidies remained, and the merchant companies continued to be the main beneficiaries. During a Fiji Legislative Council debate on the question in 1917 it was argued “the planters served by the Arma are amongst the largest and most prosperous in the colonies. … [I]n other words we are taxing all the copra producers of the colony to provide an excellent steamer service for the wealthiest of the copra planters.”37

In the Gilbert Islands the ban on the use of canoe traffic for long-distance trips was relaxed in 1930. By then it was too late for a significant revival in that mode of transport for commerce. However, a few large wooden sailing craft were built, using money earned by laborers working in the phosphate mining at Ocean Island to purchase long planks, so scarce in the small coral islands. These vessels were used enthusiastically for people to travel between islands.

The gulf between the foreign-owned commercial company, with its selection of profitable routes and receipt of subsidies, and the community-oriented, somewhat informal indigenous sector was partly economically bridged by ships of other nationals of the islands who were without wider social obligations to the communities served. Table 3 provides an example of trends in interisland ship owning in Fiji between 1906 and 1927.

Table 3. Ownership of the Fiji interisland fleet by race, 1906–1927








No. of vessels




















































































Sources: Colonial Office Reports, Fiji, 1906, 1909, 1911, 1912, 1915, 1918, Cmd. 508–530 (1919); Pacific Islands Yearbook, 1932 (Sydney: Pacific Publications, 1932), 55.

(p.161) The Fijian-owned waqa ni koro still amounted to a substantial tonnage in this period, but other owners of small cutters were emerging, especially those of mixed European and Fijian parentage.38 Many of the part-European participants in the trade of the islands were descendants of beachcombers, sailors, government officials, and European planters whose estates were subdivided among large families. This mixed-race sector of population owned and operated trade stores and boatyards and were employed by merchant companies as managers, supercargoes, and ship’s officers. The most important entrepreneurial role of the part-European sector was increasingly becoming the ownership of small shipping companies (discussed in chapter 10).

Attempts at Maritime Trade Unions

On all the local commercial vessels the crews were primarily island men working on a casual basis. But attitudinal changes were coming about among port workers and the island sailors. These were influenced by changes in crew composition and attitudes on foreign-owned ships running to the islands. The crews of the latter were by the early twentieth century increasingly homogenous in nationality—either American, French, British, or Australasian. They were also unionized. Crews from these ships and those of local interisland vessels met in the sailor enclaves of island port towns. There they shared the traditional unity of sailors and related port workers. Island seafarers learned of current pay levels, unions, and the efficacy of strike action in improving wages and conditions.

The port workers at Lautoka in Fiji came out on strike in 1916 and attempted to form the Fijian Wharf Labourers Union. The organizers were an Australian and the turaga ni koro (village headman) of Nanoli, whose village supplied casual workers.39 They were put down by government action. A more widespread strike was started by sailors in the interisland shipping sector of New Guinea during 1929. Bill Gammage relates how in 1926 the sailor Bohun from Buka Island was mocked by Afro-American seamen at the port of Kavieng for accepting such low rates of pay. Later, on the ship Ralum in Rabaul in 1928, Bohun discussed conditions with Sumsuma, captain of the interisland auxiliary schooner Edith, who was already agitating about racial inequalities and had heard of strike action achieving better pay. They both organized their people carefully and secretly. A strike was called on 2 January 1929 and soon became general; “overnight almost the entire workforce of Rabaul had vanished,” including large numbers of the police force. After three days (p.162) they were defeated. The leaders were flogged and jailed, Sumsuma for three years. Later he engaged in other protests, started a cooperative with its own trading schooner, and led several protest and progressive ventures. Gammage writes of the sailor Sumsuma as continuously working for the cause of people and the “restless grandeur of his visions.”40

News of these and other protest actions and trade unions spread easily between ports. Pacific sailors on the bigger ships, who were divorced from village life and social conventions and lived in port towns when ashore, became increasingly militant. Little actual headway was made in the formation of unions, although successions of spontaneous port industrial actions extended into the French colonies. In 1938 a major strike of port laborers and interisland seafarers took place in Hawai‘i to achieve recognition of their union in negotiations. There had already been strikes in 1936 and 1937, and when the interisland ship Waialeale arrived at Hilo on 26 May 1938, crewed by eighty-four armed nonunion strike-breakers, it was met by longshoremen and sailors. The police, armed with tommy guns, bayonets, and tear gas, fired on the demonstrators. Some fifty people were wounded in what became known in labor history as the Hilo massacre.41

Problems of Transition in a Dual Economy

There were probably more failures than successes in all the attempts to achieve a better share in the growing commerce and shipping of the islands. The failure of several island indigenous communities to develop viable commercial trading and shipping enterprises can be attributed partly to a combination of opposition by the expatriate companies, the traditions of a way of life, and the ambivalence of colonial administrators. The latter in the late nineteenth century often ruled with a mixture of paternalism and suspicion toward the commercial aspirations of indigenous society. They could perceive only the apparent wasteful practices in the persistent development of what they considered to be excessive numbers of small vessels, but they gave little support to indigenous commercial efforts.

The reality that some administrators could not appreciate was that island ships owned by communities had important functions that were beyond the criteria of efficiency as measured by Western economics. They fulfilled a dual role, serving social as well as economic needs. Because the ships were owned by the community, most people felt they had a call on the use of the ships, and the ships sailed only when there was a need, not (p.163) to any schedules or fixed routes. Vessels on the way to a main trading port would make diversions to a series of other places at the apparent whim of the captain, crew, or passengers. There would be protracted stays for a variety of purposes before moving on. This “irresponsible behaviour” infuriated officials, especially amid requests for subsidies and loans.

The subsequent deficits in the financial accounts of island shipping were partly due to the ship remaining as much a social institution as in the precolonial days. The financial problem was that vessels were no longer built in villages from local materials. Instead, they were purchased from elsewhere and were wholly or partly mechanically powered, and this equipment needed to be maintained, spare parts stored, and fuel bought. Insurance was also required by law, a licensed captain at least had to have a regular salary, and while in ports there were berth charges. In strict commercial accounting terms, financial allowances should also have been made for replacement of the ships. All these items of expenditure had to come from the freight and fare earnings of the vessel. Even with a dedicated concentration on commercial operations, sufficient earnings would have been difficult enough, considering the long distances, seasonality, and low load factors usually involved.

The cash flow imbalances and related indebtedness eventually became chronic problems for most island community-owned shipping enterprises. These were usually overcome for a time by raising more money in the community, and this was a price many island people were apparently willing to pay for the values a ship had for them. Damages and losses from weather and reefs would also lead to the abandonment of a ship and the acquisition of another. The resulting pessimism is reflected in the Fijian proverbs. “Rekirekilaki waqa vou” (literally, “rejoicing over new boats”) is used generally when showing enthusiasm over something that is later neglected; and, “e dua na nomu waqa levu, e dua na nomu vusi levu” literally means “you have a large boat, you have a large cat” (on your back as a burden).

When sailors who were engaged in the commercial sector of island shipping tried to improve their conditions and safety, they also encountered problems. Only in New Zealand and Hawai‘i did indigenous seafarers achieve a corporate voice, when they were assimilated into the Federated Seamen’s Union of New Zealand and the Coast Seamen’s Union of Hawai‘i. They then served mainly as ratings on both foreign-going and coastal vessels. In the rest of the Pacific Islands, local sailors were engaged only in interinsular shipping. They worked on foreign-going vessels as (p.164) part-time boat handlers during periodic calls in outer areas. The bigger interinsular steamships and motor ships operating around main islands and plantations were all owned by foreign companies. On these the sailors were under company regulations regarding wages and hiring and firing, and trade unions were discouraged. The situations outlined remained very similar in most places until well into the twentieth century, when there were major changes, discussed in chapters 10 and 11. (p.165)


(1.) Derived from the personal records of Captain G. Heyen in the 1960s and the logbooks of the SS Macquarie. These were subsequently deposited at the Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.

(2.) Other, less commercial protests included the many actions against land alienation and bids for independence, such as the 1826 Mamaia movement in Tahiti; the Maori wars of the 1860s; the Tuka movement in Fiji during the 1870s; the 1878 rebellions in New Caledonia; the recurring fighting against European forces in Samoa, 1887–1899; the attempts to reinstate the power of the king in Hawai‘i during 1889; the 1904–1912 rebellions in New Guinea; the rise of Mau a Pule in Samoa, 1908; and the “Vailala Madness” in Papua New Guinea, 1919. See entries in Lal and Fortune, Pacific Island.

(4.) Greenwood to Rabone (21 August 1872), in Methodist Overseas Mission Letters, Mitchell Library, Sydney, item 170.

(p.232) (5.) G. Ruthven Le Hunte, Six Letters from the Western Pacific, by a Judicial Commissioner, NZPP, letter 2 (1883), 13.

(6.) Pendergast Report to the New Zealand Government (1898), NZPP, A3.

(7.) H. E. Maude, “The Sword of Gabriel: Account of the Disturbances on Onotoa Island,” seminar paper (Canberra: Australian National University, 1964).

(8.) E. Osborne, The Copra Trader (Sydney: NSW Bookstall, 1924), 60, 105.

(9.) Doug Munro, “The Lives and Times of Resident Traders in Tuvalu: An Exercise in History from Below,” Pacific Studies 10, no. 2 (1987): 82.

(10.) F. Wallen, Report No. 1, 30 Jan 1910, to Managing Director, Messrs Burns Philp Ltd., in Buckley and Klugman, South Pacific Focus, 18.

(11.) Ibid., Report No. 2, 31. Price fixing on copra buying is recognized in Buckley and Klugman, History of Burns Philp, 265–267.

(12.) Moshe Rappaport, “Oysterlust: Islanders, Entrepreneurs and Colonial Policy over Tuamotu Lagoons,” Journal of Pacific History 30, no. 1 (1995): 43.

(13.) Doug Munro and Teloma Munro, “The Rise and Fall of the Vaitupu Company,” Journal of Pacific History 20, no. 4 (1985): 184. The Munros record that, as part of the process of repaying the debts, a returned seaman named Ahatagi handed over his entire savings to the island fund. See also Doug Munro and Teloma Munro, “Vaitupu’s Debt: An Exercise in Combined Use of Documentary Records and Oral History,” Oral History Association of Australia Journal 5 (1982–1983): 58–64.

(14.) H. E. Maude, “The Co-operative Movement in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands,” South Pacific (May 1950).

(15.) J. W. Davidson, Samoa mo Samoa: The Emergence of the Independent State of Western Samoa (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1967), 80–87.

(16.) Tonga Government Gazette 25 (1910).

(17.) In T. C. T. Potts to Secretary of State for the Colonies, appendix A of “Communication on the Kautaha.”

(18.) For details of Tonga Ma‘a Tonga Kautaha, see A. D. Couper, “Protest Movements and Protocooperatives in the Pacific Islands,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 77, no. 3 (1968): 268–271; and Hempenstall and Rutherford, Protest and Dissent, 44–49.

(19.) Viti Company Papers, Western Pacific High Commission, Suva.

(20.) A. Alexander, From the Middle Temple to the South Seas (London, 1927). For details and references to the Viti Company, see A. D. Couper, “The Viti Company and the Apolosi Movement,” in Couper, “Protest Movements,” 268–271. See also Fiji Law Reports 1875–1946, 88–97, and (p.233) “Situation in Fiji,” report, 10 February 1916, CO83-130, both at Public Records Office, London.

(21.) Couper, “Protest Movements,” 271–272. Memos relating to the resident commissioner and Schutz for 1938 onward were consulted in the Kiribati government archives in Tarawa (2001).

(22.) M. E. Jull, “My Trip to New Zealand and a Group of Islands in the South Seas 1883–1884,” 2 vols., unpublished MS (1575), National Library of Australia, Canberra.

(25.) Quoted by Philip C. Coombe, Transport and Development: Shipping in the Cook Islands (MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1982), 33.

(27.) Complaint of Messrs. Donald and Edenborough of Seizure of the Schooner Norval, Western Pacific High Commission, Fiji, Relating to the Cook Islands, Minutes on Civil Proceedings (1893). See also Deputy Commission Office, Apia, re Litigations of Abandoned Vessels, 103/99, Central Archives of Fiji, 4 December 1899.

(30.) Fiji, Report of the Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Decrease of the Native Population (Suva: Government Printer, 1896), 49.

(31.) Fiji Provincial Council Reports, Western District, Vatulele (Central Archives of Fiji, 1910).

(32.) Kadavu Provincial Council Report (Central Archives of Fiji, 1902), 144. See also Howard, “Rotuman Seafaring,” 138.

(33.) C. Percy Smith, “Six Months in the Pacific,” unpublished MS (1919), Auckland Museum Library.

(34.) Anne C. Dunbar, “Transport and Development: Inter-island Shipping in Vanuatu” (PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1981), 83.

(35.) Fiji, Legislative Council Debates, Steamship Subsidies (Central Archives of Fiji, 21 November 1917), 249–283.

(38.) Colonial Office Reports, Fiji, 1906–1918, Cmd. 508–530 (1919); Pacific Islands Yearbook, 1932 (Sydney: Pacific Publications, 1932), 55.

(39.) See Clive Moore, Jacqueline Leckie, and Doug Munro, eds., Labour in the South Pacific (Queensland: James Cook University Press, 1990); and B.V. Lal, Broken Waves: A History of the Fiji Islands in the Twentieth Century (Hono lulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1992).

(40.) Bill Gammage, “The Rabaul Strike, 1929,” Journal of Pacific History 10 (1975): 3–29.

(p.234) (41.) Edward Johannessen, The Hawaiian Labor Movement: A Brief History (Boston: Bruce Humphries, 1956).