01 February 2004

The German Pacific "Gutpela Taim Bipo"

Germany acquired its colonial empire in the Pacific beginning in the 1880s and lost it abruptly in 1914. Conventional wisdom usually assumes that one colonial administration was as bad as another and that colonial transitions usually made little difference to the indigenous population. However, the new military administrators who took over from the Germans in Micronesia, Samoa, and New Guinea ran so roughshod over their new territories that the inhabitants of all three regions soon began to look back on German times as the good old days--at least according to a meticulously researched revisionist history of that transition entitled The Neglected War: The German South Pacific and the Influence of World War I, by Hermann Joseph Hiery (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1995).

While Germany's African colonies were governed by aristocrats, often with the aid of sizable contingents of Schutztruppe (colonial troops), the farflung Pacific colonies were governed by administrators drawn from the middle class, with the aid of tiny police forces.

In New Guinea they replaced the "Perpetuum Bellum Melanesicum" with a Pax Germanica, which attracted more and more unpacified Melanesians. But they also generally let Melanesian villagers settle their own disputes in traditional ways, often by compensation for damages rather than by the trial and conviction of offenders before German courts. This was in marked contrast to the later Australian administration, under whom flogging, the pillory ("Field Punishment No. 1"), and public executions became not only far more common, but far more arbitrarily applied. The Australians also began to dispossess indigenous plantation owners and to impose new restrictions on native dress and education. (For instance, New Guineans were prohibited from speaking proper English and from wearing nonnative garments on the upper half of their bodies.)

In Micronesia, the laissez-faire attitude of the German administration gave way to the much more hands-on approach of the Japanese, who modernized the island economies with unprecedented force and speed. By 1921, the value of exports from Micronesia had already exceeded the value of imports. (And by 1940, the population of Micronesia was over 50% of foreign origin.) The islanders were forced to assimilate to Japanese norms in every respect.

Perhaps the most incompetent new administrator, however, was Col. Robert Logan, New Zealand's military governor of German Samoa. Whereas Wilhelmine Germany and oligarchical Samoa had shared basic values about social hierarchies and ritual forms of behavior, "the Samoans perceived the 'democratically' undifferentiated behavior of New Zealanders as an insult and expression of open disregard for Samoan mores" (p. 250). During the war years, New Zealand bled dry the Samoan treasury, and the fiercely anti-Chinese and anti-American Logan also issued discriminatory edicts against their representatives in Samoa. Worst of all, Logan allowed an influenza-infected ship from New Zealand, the Talune, to dock in 1918, then stubbornly refused either to implement strict quarantines, as the American administrator had done in eastern Samoa, or to accept American medical aid. "Rarely would anti-American prejudice have more disastrous consequences than in Samoa under New Zealand occupation" (p. 174). As a result, about 20% of the population of western Samoa died, while eastern (American) Samoa escaped virtually unscathed. (New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark issued an apology to Samoa in 2002.)

Among the many other gems Hiery's archival research unearths is a dispirited quote from Woodrow Wilson recorded in the minutes of a meeting at Versailles on 28 January 1919: "the question of deciding the disposal of the German colonies was not vital to the world in any respect." He seems to have anticipated by exactly half a century Henry Kissinger's alleged comment about Micronesia in 1969: "There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?"

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