According to a famous Samoan proverb, the pathway to leadership is through service (ʻO le ala i le pule o le tautua). Samoan matai are expected to serve their family, village, and country by providing resources; honoring the family name; fundraising for building projects; and giving skillful speeches. These four types of service (tautua) are crucial factors in determining which family members receive matai titles and, thus, a pathway to leadership and authority. But with the onset of coconut colonialism in the late nineteenth century, Samoan understandings of service began to change. As colonial administrators created new demand for service labor—ranging from soldiers to translators and nurses—Samoans incorporated these new avenues to service leadership into their existing social system (faʻa matai). In doing so, Samoan service workers became crucial intermediaries who molded the demands of colonial globality into their own version of Oceanian globality.
Work in the colonial service left an ambivalent legacy for Samoans for decades to come. On the one hand, service jobs in the security, administrative, and health sectors offered new opportunities to learn skills and earn cash. Many Samoans appreciated these avenues for professional advancement, which in many cases served both individual interests and those of their families. Samoan nurses, like Grace Pepe, acquired crucial nursing skills, which they then used to improve the general health of their families and Samoan society as a whole. Similarly, members of the Fitafita Guard and police officers in both German and American Samoa leveraged their military training to gain social status and launch successful careers. As the Samoan proverb suggests, the pathway to leadership did go through service. On the other hand, colonial service still remained service to the colonial administrations. While new possibilities arose with the Euro-American colonial presence, the new service jobs remained limited in terms of the lack of choice and decision-making power on the job. For example, Samoan police officers supervised Chinese plantation workers, and government interpreters like Charles T. Taylor translated Governor Solf’s speeches into Samoan. Nonetheless, for some families, service work in successive administrations became a tradition. Le Mamea, his half brother Teʻo Tuvale, and then Tuvale’s son, Atoa, all worked as government interpreters, from the colonial period into Samoan independence. In the end, service also provided a pathway from colonial control to self-government.
It was precisely their precarious position between colonizer and colonized, foreign and local, outside and inside, that made workers in the colonial service so indispensable for both sides. If colonialists depended on Indigenous intermediaries to a greater extent, the fewer resources they received from the metropole, then colonial Samoa is a good case in point. Despite their powerful positions, the actual experiences of service workers in Samoa were far more complex. Governor Solf’s British Samoan interpreter Charles T. Taylor, for instance, had a delicate job that cannot be understood as either collaboration or resistance. Service workers like Taylor were torn not only between the demands of their jobs and the interests of their people but also between their own Oceanian aspirations and the limits colonial globality imposed on them.
This is an excerpt from Coconut Colonialism by Holger Droessler, published by the Harvard University Press. All content and images are reproduced with permission from Harvard University Press, which owns the copyright for this work.