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New flags flying . . . the emerging island nations

Even though it was a short exchange with former journalist Ian Johnstone, co-author of NEW FLAGS FLYING: Pacific Leaders Remember; what he said I thought was something that needed noting.

I had already requested and got co-author Michael Powles, a former diplomat,  to autograph the book I had just purchased at a discount price during the launching at the fale at Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat last week, it took a while longer to get Johnstone’s.

While finally getting Johnstone’s to sign the inside cover, I asked him who he thought was the most mischievious leader that he interviewed: “Mamaloni” he said without hesitation.

After chatting for a while about Mamaloni (Solomon Islands former premier) and other leaders he interviewed and what he thought of them I asked what was more closer to home: “What do you think of Ratu Mara”.

“Without question he would have been the best regional leader if he had not held on too long,” Johnstone said.

Johnstone said it had been a well known fact especially with pacific chiefs that they did not want to give up their leadership roles once they became a leader.

After pondering his answer for a while, I began to realize that even though Ratu Mara had done so much for the country, he would have left an indelible mark had he chosen to step down earlier when he had everything going for him.

But still he had done enough for the nation to be the most remembered leader who braved the unchartered waters of nationhood and was man enough to take on the challenges to the nation’s Independence.

The following are extracts of an overview of the book; NEW FLAGS FLYING: Pacific Leaders Remember from information located on the New Flags Flying website.

Preparation for leadership

After the Second World War, in the late 1940s and ’50s, most of the leaders who tell their stories in New Flags Flying were away from their homelands studying at schools, training colleges or universities, three or four in Britain and Australia, most of them in New Zealand.

For two sons of influential families, Tonga’s future King Taufa’ahau and Fijian aristocrat Kamisese Mara, an overseas education was a matter of course, but most of the others, from humbler backgrounds, had gone away only because they had earned good marks at primary school and won government scholarships. Winning those scholarships, then studying for years in unfamiliar schools and colleges and gaining a degree or diploma earmarked them for leadership. When they came home they would join the tiny group of academically qualified Pacific Islanders and step quickly into positions of authority to work as economists, doctors, teachers, priests, accountants, public servants, for the government, businesses or church missions.

Changes at home

But even as they returned to Rarotonga, Honiara, Suva, Tarawa and other Pacific capitals to take up those jobs, they must have noticed how the islands they had left as schoolboys were changing.

The established order in the Pacific had been fractured by war. Supposedly great powers had been humbled by the Japanese. Servicemen from the Pacific had travelled and fought for freedom and individual rights.

Experiences recalled by Peter Kenilorea, Tom Davis and Solomon Mamaloni show that old notions of racial superiority were under challenge. In Asia and Africa, the British and French empires to which most Pacific Islanders had ‘belonged’ were beginning to break down. At first, news of such change was discounted because, as Kamisese Mara comments, “we thought they were distant hurricane warnings that would never affect us”.

Fishing . . . Women in the Pacific fish for their daily supply of meat

New opportunities

But some Pacific Islanders keen to run their own affairs were ready to take advantage of the new opportunities history had brought them. Tofilau Eti Alesana describes how quick Samoa was, in 1946, “to submit their application to become a self-governing state” and recounts with pride “we were the first independent nation within the South Pacific”.

Other leaders followed as they began to discern that instead of guiding and helping their people, as they had expected, in a hospital ward, government office or classroom, they now had to change direction and learn to be politicians. Through the 1960s, each leader came to realise that his people – or their colonial governors – had decided his country was to become self-governing or independent and, like it or not, his task was to lead his people there.

New roles

Some, Hammer deRoburt, Solomon Mamaloni and Albert Henry were more than ready to take on that task and pushed their Australian, British and New Zealand governors to follow the example set in Samoa; withdraw and let them take over leadership of their country. Others were less keen. Peter Kenilorea would have preferred to remain a public servant and Kamisese Mara wanted to become a doctor, until each was instructed that his duty lay elsewhere. Kessai Note and Walter Lini seem to have accepted they would have to lead if their countries were to be freed from powerful and intransigent rule, while Bikenbeu Paeniu faced the challenge of building a nation from half a colony with few resources. Leaders like Michael Somare, Ieremia Tabai, Young Vivian and Tom Davis seemed simply to acknowledge that independence is always preferable to servitude, and they were ready to do whatever had to be done to bring it about.

Popular respect

The leaders had two very valuable assets. The first was that each of them could count on the respect and support of his people. In some cases, that was because of their chiefly or privileged background; King Taufa’ahau IV of course, and Tupua Tamasese Lealofi IV, a key leader in Samoa at independence, Hammer DeRoburt of Nauru and Fiji’s Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara of Fiji, whose noble rank and personal mana gave him authority among Fijians and Indo-Fijians alike.

Others with clear chiefly connections were Sir Tom Davis of the Cook Islands and Sir Robert Rex of Niue. Some were admired for their charisma, political adroitness and ability:Sir Michael Somare of Papua New Guinea, Albert Henry of the Cook Islands, and Solomon Mamaloni of Solomon Islands. Sir Ieremia Tabai of Kiribati and Bikenibeu Paeniu of Tuvalu were clever, well-informed, and respected for their courageous example. Churchmen Father Walter Lini of Vanuatu and Sir Peter Kenilorea of Solomon Islands inspired trust through their firm religious belief.


The other important asset enjoyed by these distinctively Pacific men (and it is, perhaps, a distinctively Pacific advantage) is that they knew and trusted each other. The patricians of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji were linked by blood and marriage; others had common church connections; a number had forged friendships at New Zealand schools and colleges. All had common purpose – a successful move to self-government or independence for their country – and it was important, especially for the smaller countries, that they should be able to talk frankly to each other about the best way of bringing that about.

Opportunities for such talk occurred at gatherings such as South Pacific Conferences (the business meetings of the South Pacific Commission) held annually in Noumea or other Pacific capitals. Funded by Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand and USA, the commission provided Pacific territories and colonies with technical help, from agricultural production to language teaching, but when regional leaders gathered to discuss the work programme, political matters were not allowed on the agenda. This prohibition was vigilantly policed by the representatives of France, anxious to ensure that talk of self-government did not infect delegates from the territories they controlled and wished to keep controlling: New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia. Not surprisingly, leaders found ways round this ban, discussing topics that were really important to them – constitutions, timetables, negotiations and the like – informally, vigorously, and sometimes late into the night until the session was brought to a close with Albert Henry’s famous ukulele rendition of Pearly Shells.

Getting ready for a traditional dance . . . Palau women in dance costume

The colonial powers

Meeting each other at those conferences gave leaders the chance to compare notes about their controlling powers; Australia, ready to grant independence; Britain, keen to do the same for all its colonies; France, anxious to keep control of its territories and delay self-government in the New Hebrides; New Zealand, itself part of Polynesia, ready to combine self-government and continuing support; and USA, determined to force the major colonial powers to agree to decolonisation but equally determined to keep its own colonial possessions in the Pacific.

The most potent, over-arching international impetus came from the United Nations, founded in 1945. The Labour Government then in power in New Zealand was strongly committed to decolonisation and its prime minister Peter Fraser played a major role in the drafting of the large section of the new United Nations Charter that both recognised a right to self-determination and established a trusteeship system under which many colonial dependencies and trust territories would achieve independence. Through the 1960s and ’70s, the United Nations was a very important source of encouragement and support for Pacific territories, most of whom were among the last – and, some might claim, the most poorly prepared – in the world to achieve self-government or independence.

Readiness to change

Some leaders would have been happy to continue under colonial rule. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, sometimes a titled English gentleman, sometimes a high chief wholly committed to traditional ways, acknowledges he had no sense that the colonial period was ending because “we were part of the Queen’s regnum; we were happy – why should we change things?” He hoped the “winds of change … would never come to Fiji … I belonged to the school that believed we should never be parted from the United Kingdom … We ceded our islands … how can we bring it back? This is not chiefly”.

Other leaders were more philosophical. President Ieremia Tabai of Kiribati and Bikenibeu Paeniu of Tuvalu give the clear impression of accepting as a fact of life for their countries that Britain was departing. Bikenibeu Paeniu remembers:

“Of course they wanted [to get] rid of us as soon as possible. Because of course we know in those days Britain was letting go of her colonies, the empire was breaking down.”

But in Samoa, Nauru and the Cook Islands leaders were enthusiastic and determined to bring freedom to their countries as soon as possible. One of the most outstanding leaders in these early days was Tuua Tamasese Lealofi IV, in many ways the guiding force leading Samoa to independence. A large and formidable-looking man, enormously able and respected, he was kind and gentle and always courteous. His son, the present Head of State, explains the success of the small group of men, Samoans led by his father, and New Zealanders, who brought Samoa to independence:

“There wasn’t argument. There wasn’t the emotion, the drama. And these personalities [were successful] not only because of the issues but because of the people that they were…”

New Zealand territories first

Not surprisingly, Samoa (1962) and the Cook Islands (1965) were among the first. Both were proud of being trail blazers, not just because their freedom came so early, but also because of the unique aspects of the constitutional arrangements that were agreed.

In Samoa’s case the original constitution recognised tradition and custom in according suffrage only to matai. (Kamisese Mara in Fiji would not consider any tinkering with the Westminster system, “It was the only system that I know”, and later, before political instability struck Fiji, he used to say that Samoa and New Zealand had made a serious mistake that one day would cost Samoa dearly.)

In the Cook Islands (and later Niue) the adoption of a relationship of self-government in association with New Zealand broke new ground constitutionally. As Cook Island official JH Webb explains here:

“I was all for independence in association with New Zealand. I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. I thought we were very very lucky. I thought ‘Good Heavens, this is going to be a mark in history. Other countries will probably follow this…’ I think they have, too.”

The old masters and their legacy

But self-determination and independence were just first steps in empowering Pacific peoples. The challenges early leaders faced were enormous – and varied from country to country. The colonisation of no two Pacific countries had been alike. Some had experienced Spanish rule dating back to the seventeenth century. Indeed, all the major imperial powers – France, Britain, Germany, the United States, the Netherlands – took control of territories in the Pacific and ruled them for periods in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Sometimes Pacific islands “changed hands” and suffered more than one colonial ruler – although only one, Vanuatu, had the particular pain of two colonial powers, Britain and France, trying, not very successfully, to rule it jointly. Father Walter Lini, prime minister of Vanuatu, recalls:

“The French and the British in fact did not do anything to develop us. They waited and waited until we saw, ourselves, how we should begin to move to get self-reliance, no, self-government and independence. … I became mad because the French were deliberately trying to tell us lies and deliberately trying to show that they were in control, not us.”

And one country, Tuvalu, was in effect sliced from the previous Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony and started life with no central administration or infrastructure. Bikenibeu Paeniu, a former prime minister, remembers the concern that Tuvalu had to “form a nation of our own and be given no assets and a mere budgetary provision. All the colonial assets were left with Kiribati. We had only one ship.”

Different challenges were thrown up by the different motivations of colonial powers. Colonialism in the Pacific was certainly driven by self-interest. Greed was a factor, and access to the cheap phosphate deposits of Nauru and Ocean Island was a good example; security concerns were also important, as with American determination to retain the deep harbour at Pago Pago and conduct nuclear tests in Micronesia.

Access to resources and the pursuit of trade were often important, most clearly perhaps in the activities of Germany and France around the end of the nineteenth century. And more generally, the “partition” of the Pacific islands was strongly influenced by the ever-changing dynamics between and among the leading colonial powers of the day. Britain, for example, could not countenance its European competitors stealing a march on it, even in the remote Pacific. Britain was also persuaded by public opinion in Australia and New Zealand to play a more active part in the colonisation of the region than many policy-makers in London would have preferred.

A Solomon Island village in the interior of Fiji

Profit and loss

Many subjective comparisons are made between the respective virtues and vices of the different colonial powers. It is said, for example, that Germany was known for the efficiency of its colonial administration in the early days; that Britain placed beneficial emphasis on the education sector; and that France actively discouraged the study of indigenous languages. In terms of colonial exploitation, Australia, Britain and New Zealand reaped enormous benefits from Nauru and Ocean Island phosphate, and France similarly profited from New Caledonian nickel. The United States gained benefit, presumably, from conducting nuclear tests in Micronesia (to the enormous disadvantage of the indigenous people) and the same applied in respect of French nuclear testing in French Polynesia. And today Guam is being developed into a major base to enable the United States to maintain a forward Pacific military presence in the wider Pacific.

On the other hand, the United Kingdom (in respect of Fiji, Solomons, and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands), Australia (in respect of Papua New Guinea) and New Zealand (in respect of Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau) gained little economically or strategically. Australian commercial interests in island countries have clearly been profitable. (There may have been a little truth in the saying, well known in Fiji and elsewhere in the years following independence: Britain governed us, New Zealand educated us, and Australia owns us.) New Zealand, for its part, has gained enormously from the infusion of hundreds of thousands of Pacific islanders into its society and economy.

Inevitably, colonial rule had an impact, directly or indirectly, on the peoples of the Pacific, but it was unevenly felt. For those affected by nuclear testing in Micronesia and French Polynesia, it was catastrophic. For others it was beneficial – Bekenibeu Paeniu of Tuvalu remembers high educational standards and comments that, compared to its neighbours, “Tuvalu is far better off in terms of education, that is one good thing Britain did”.

For many, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea or on remote Pacific atolls, the impact of colonial rule was slight. Overall, it probably influenced the lives of Pacific Islanders less than many westerners would assume. Educational opportunities and prospects for advancement have improved in many countries. But subsistence lifestyle, family and the ocean remain at the heart of most Pacific cultures.

Conscious of this, the late Tongan historian Epeli Hau’ofa, wrote:

“Nineteenth century imperialism erected boundaries that led to the contraction of Oceania, transforming a once boundless world into the Pacific island states and territories that we know today. … It was continental men, Europeans and Americans, who drew imaginary lines across the sea, making the colonial boundaries that today define the island states and territories of the Pacific.”

Hau’ofa laments colonialism’s “contraction of Oceania” but seems confident that decolonisation can undo those unwelcome changes. Foreign descriptions of Oceania as a Spanish Lake, a British Lake, an American Lake are short-lived…

“ … we all know that only those who make the ocean their home and love it, can really claim it as theirs…”

A new batch for the future . . . coconuts budding on a Pacific island coastline