Copra World: Plantation Life, Resistance, and Cross-Racial Solidarity in Colonial Samoa

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM
Room A703 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Holger Droessler, Harvard University
Born in the Bismarck Archipelago, Tui Sakila arrived in German Samoa around 1912 to work on one of the expanding copra plantations. In an interview from the 1970s, he remembered that some of his fellow workers from New-Guinea “would get up early on Sunday morning, wash and get dressed up and sneak off to church in a village adjoining the plantation. They would come straight back after services, put on their old clothes and sit around as though nothing had happened.”

In my presentation, I trace the rise of an export-oriented plantation economy in colonial Samoa from its beginnings in the 1860s into the 1920s. Large-scale, foreign-owned copra plantations changed not only Samoan ways of engaging with their natural environment, but also transformed the social landscape by bringing thousands of Melanesian and Chinese workers to the islands. With a vibrant social life based on substantial economic self-determination, Samoans succeeded in protecting their ways of life from the overbearing demands of the colonizers while selectively adapting to the changing dynamics of the colonial world. As plantations remade the lives of Samoans, Melanesians, and Chinese, this diverse group of workers carved out precarious livelihoods in the new world of copra in which they found themselves.

Workers resisted plantation discipline through a whole arsenal of restive behaviors, ranging from keeping crops for themselves to clandestine church visits—such as the ones documented by Tui—to violent attacks on overseers. Resistance against colonial subjection, I suggest, turned workers in Samoa into subjects of their own lives and allowed them to forge affective bonds beyond the spatial, social, and racial boundaries maintained by the colonial regimes. Cross-racial solidarity among workers would then prove critical for the more substantial challenge to colonial rule that shook Samoan society in the late 1920s.

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