Reflections on Tony Brunt’s – “To walk under Palm trees: Germans in Samoa – Snapshots from Albums”
(Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Tupuola Tufuga Efi, Head of State of Samoa, Book Launch, Some Opening Remarks, Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, Vailima, Samoa, 21 April 2017)
Let me start by thanking the organisers for the honour of saying a few opening words on this celebratory occasion.
I am partial to invitations presented by those dear to me and especially when they present them in person. So, when Joe Keil came to Tuaefu with what looked like a thick book and an invitation to speak, I smiled. I knew that unless I was double-booked I would be here today. After reading the book I am glad that I am.
The common saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words” seems particularly apt for this book. The book is just over 250 pages and most of those pages are filled with pictures from family photo albums, many of which have been lovingly restored by Tony and his helpers using modern digital technologies.
E-books, like this, make sense in today’s publishing world. But particularly for Samoans given the way in which we have taken to the internet. E-books capitalise on our modern penchant for instantaneous communication, and is by far the more cost and time effective option in terms of book-making, and reaching a larger and wider audience more quickly. Having dabbled a bit in the world of book-making I fully appreciate the work involved in getting something like this together. It is no small task.
Over the next few minutes I would like to offer some thoughts about the potential impact of this e-book on Samoan ideas of history (especially, history-making), family and legacy.
My great-aunt Gustava Nelson married Clem Wetzell. Her sons Albert and Robert Wetzell are memorialised, along with many other German Samoans, in this first book. I lived with my grandfather Ta’isi Olaf Frederick Nelson in Tuaefu as a child and I remember visiting my aunt Gustava, his sister, often. She and her family lived in Lotopa at the time, so she wasn’t far away. She had a horse and cart, which I loved. She also loved people and entertaining.
She moved with ease and aplomb, it seemed to me, between her two very different worlds: that of her Samoan Safune side, and that of her European Swedish German families. As a shy child I would cringe whenever my great-aunt visited Tuaefu because I knew that no matter how many people were in the room she would always make a big thing of hugging and kissing me. But I always forgave her because once she’d finished she’d give me a shilling.
I also remember the dinner parties my great-aunt used to have and how I used to marvel at the large brick ovens they used to cook with. Everything was done with scientific precision: from the way they cooked their German sausages, prepared their geese for special occasions, to the way they brewed their beer. Many of the pictures in this book capture the high society culture of my great-aunt and her German family. These photographs allow her descendants more than a mere peek at how or where they lived or what they probably looked like back then – their fashions and tastes. Her children and great-children etc., also get a lesson on the physical and cultural landscapes of Samoa, especially urban Apia, at that time. These pictures are family heirlooms; they tell of family culture and family history. But they are also national heirlooms because they also tell of a time in Samoan history. When reading these pictures as national historical records today we must be careful to remember to read them within their historical context.
In reading this book I thought of my great-aunt Gustava. It’s the kind of book she would’ve loved. I thought of her children and her children’s children, and of how they would treasure this as a family heirloom because it speaks of a history and culture that belongs to them, and to many others like them throughout Samoa. It is a history and culture that lives in their blood, flesh and bones, and one they can be proud of.
Without a doubt the German colonial period imposed significant changes on Samoan society and culture. 19th and early 20th century Samoa was besieged with foreign interests. A lot of which are captured by the photographs in this book.
Western historians have lauded the German period in Samoa as “the most settled period” during European imperial colonial history.1 Much of this has been attributed to the skill and paternalism of Governor Solf. The Germans that came to Samoa were highly talented and well educated. The book
1 See Felix Kessing. 1934. Modern Samoa – its Government and Changing Life. London. p.35.
makes this point loud and clear. German written and photographic records offer historical evidence of what happened during their time, what they built, and of what they were interested in, in Samoa. The legacies of what they did, especially of what Governor Solf and his successor Dr Erich Schultz-Ewerth (who was also Chief Justice during his time), and of what Dr Augustin Kramer did, lives on today. The significance of their contribution to understanding modern Samoa cannot be understated. Dr Augustin Kramer’s work on Samoan genealogies and custom is, for example, highly sought after by Land and Titles Court litigants today.
History-making is both deliberate and accidental. But making history books, such as the one we are launching today, has to be more deliberate than accidental. Once the decision is made to make a book such as this, a book that speaks directly to a country’s or to a people’s past, deliberate thought has to go into making decisions about what to put in, how to frame it, what audience to target, and so on and so forth.
This e-book is, as Tony said in his preface, a “romantic remembrance” of the history of Germans in Samoa, and as you go through its pages you will realise that it is deliberately so. In saying this I do not mean to say that it has no real or authentic contribution to our remembering of Samoa’s history. It is very much a part of Samoa’s history. Germany’s Samoa is as much a part of Samoa’s modern history as is Britain’s or New Zealand’s Samoa, America’s Samoa and pre-imperial colonial and post-independence Samoa. In fact, as noted in this book the history of Germany’s Samoa is not only part of the history of Samoa and Germany, it is also a part of the history of New Zealand, Britain, and America and is part of the age of global imperialism. Therefore, apart from some digital sprucing up of images that were fading, the pictures of German Samoa recorded in this book are very real – many of which have not been publicly displayed before. This picture album therefore offers a record of German Samoa that is ripe for further historical and sociological analysis.
By saying that this is a book of romantic remembrance I mean to say that it is a book that is unapologetic about its romantic origins and impetus. And so it should be. It is a book that came together through the love and nostalgia of German Samoan families for their families – many of which were born and raised in Samoa – as well as their love and nostalgia for Samoa. For some, such as the Stünzner family now living outside of Samoa, it was a nostalgia most poignantly tied to what they remembered of their life ‘walking under the palms’ of their homes and plantations in Samoa. It is
this love and nostalgia for family and Samoa that enabled this book to become a reality, and has brought us here to bear witness to the launching of its voyage into the lives of the reading public, both here and beyond.
By allowing these pictures to take centre-stage in the telling of the story of this book, the impact will be, as the saying goes, ‘worth a thousand words’. It is a great legacy and will contribute to the task of remembering Samoa in all her fullness and colour. I commend Tony and his team on completing this first book and I look forward, ‘God-willing’, as Tony said, to the launch of the second.
God bless. Soifua.