By Brandon Ulfsby and Hele Ikimotu
A book on the life of Mau leader and successful entrepreneur, Ta’isi O.F. Nelson, is retelling Sāmoan history through the lens of one of its most influential pioneers.
Called ‘Tautai: Sāmoa, World History, and the Life of Ta’isi O. F. Nelson’ the book was launched in Māngere on August 24th, attended by dignitaries Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi, former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark and Sir La’auli Michael Jones.
Associate Professor Damon Salesa, one of the reviewers of the book said the published work is a cause for celebration.
“We are what we remember. History is a remembered tightrope that stretches across the abyss of all that we have forgotten,” he said.
“We see the need to step away from histories of Sāmoa that put at the very centre, Palagis and Palagi histories. We need to step away and this is a step in that direction – this opens up the possibility of an even more honest conversation about the Mau.”
Ta’isi was born in Safune, on the island of Savai’i on 24 February 1883, the eldest son of the five children of August Nilspiter Gustav Nelson, a Swedish-born trader, and his wife Sina Masoe, who has links to the Sa Tupua lineage.
He became one of the wealthiest men in Sāmoa and travelled extensively throughout the world whilst championing the right for Sāmoans in government – resulting in a backlash from the New Zealand administration who sentenced him to exile.
Tautai is written by, Dr Patricia O’Brien, Australian Research Council Future Fellow from the Australian National University, who said she had a keen interest in Ta’isi’s story.
Dr O’Brien spent four years on the book, working in the New Zealand archives before travelling to Sāmoa at the invitation of Tui Atua, the oldest grandson of Ta’isi, to take a closer look at his personal letters.
“I was the first historian to have thorough reading and access of those papers and those papers were a real gold mine,” she said.
“That’s when it all started. It’s an extraordinary story that’s just been waiting to be told. And so that’s when the investment really started. I’ve been working on it since then till January this year when I finally finished with it.”
The Tautai author said she hopes the book will inspire other Sāmoans to take a critical look at history and inspire further works of research.
“I want people to think about Sāmoa and Sāmoan history as a very rich, diverse story…a lot of Sāmoans didn’t know this story so I think it’s really important for them to have access to that story and to think about that story.”
For Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi, the book held a more personal meaning.
“There were people who wanted to visit the Mau period and there were people who did not. And there were people like myself who wanted to put to rest the allegations of dishonesty of exploitation of political promotion [by] my grandfather,” he said.
The book launch was attended by Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, who while in office, issued a formal apology to Sāmoa over their administration and behaviour during the Mau.
Dr O’Brien said Clark’s selection as a reviewer of the book was significant as her apology in 2002 marked the end of the Mau story.
Tui Atua said the writings of Tautai are a significant milestone as it records the tales of a Sāmoan within Sāmoan history.
“Most importantly in the Mau story is you have to draw on our own anecdotes in order to preserve the essence of our being. We cannot draw on somebody else’s history and anecdotes.”
Nelson died in Āpia on 28 February 1944. The political goal he worked towards was fulfilled in 1962 when Sāmoa became an independent state.