Story: Nelson, Olaf Frederick

Page 1 - Nelson, Olaf Frederick

Nelson, Olaf Frederick

1883–1944

Samoan nationalist, businessman

This biography was written by Hugh Laracy and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

In the 1920s O. F. Nelson, already one of the richest and most influential men in Western Samoa, emerged as the outstanding critic of the New Zealand colonial administration. A big man (weighing at least 20 stone), well-travelled, methodical, egotistical, obstinate (he referred to himself as a 'bitter-ender') and fluent in English, Samoan and German, he was a singularly formidable opponent and an effective leader of the nationalist Mau movement. Although he was nicknamed 'Frederick the Great', under a race-conscious regime he was still slighted as a 'half-caste'.

Olaf Frederick Nelson was born at Safune, on the island of Savaii in Samoa on 24 February 1883, the eldest son of the five children of August Nilspiter Gustav Nelson, a Swedish-born trader, and his Samoan wife, Sina Masoe. Her family had links to the Sa Tupua lineage, from which originated the matai (family head) title Taisi, an ancestral name which her son would later hold.

Although the family was Methodist, Nelson attended the Catholic school run by the Marist brothers in Apia. He then worked for the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen-Gesellschaft der Südsee-Inseln, the largest commercial operation in Samoa, for four years before joining his father's firm in 1900 at the age of 17. During his apprenticeship he formed and led the first brass band in Samoa. Returning to Safune, he had a daughter by a woman named Leata, but on 21 July 1909 married Rosabel Edith Moors, the daughter of a well-known trader, H. J. Moors. They had five daughters, and a son who died of influenza in 1919. About 1923 Leata’s daughter came to live with the family at Tuaefu, the grand house that Nelson had built near Apia, but her presence heightened tension between Nelson and his wife and they soon separated.

Meanwhile, Nelson had demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for commerce. In 1903 he took over his father's business. He profited from the high copra prices during the First World War and in 1920, when New Zealand expelled German nationals from Samoa, he took over many of the stores and inter-island vessels and much of the copra trade that they were forced to abandon. In 1922 he absorbed his father-in-law's firm to create O. F. Nelson and Company Limited, which in 1928 had 40 trading stores and a paid-up capital of £150,000. His home, his lavish lifestyle and a world trip in 1920, during which he stayed at expensive hotels and bought furniture for Tuaefu, testified to his success. So, too, did the political role he filled.

In 1910, when he signed the European residents' petition for a voice in government, he had demonstrated his distaste for colonial rule, under which subjects were excluded from the processes of public administration. In 1920 he chaired a citizens' committee which appealed for political representation. Both attempts were unsuccessful. Even when Nelson was elected to the Legislative Council in 1924 he was still disappointed because the three elected members were consistently overruled or ignored by the more numerous official appointees. Nevertheless, European and Samoan residents alike looked to him as their leader in dealings with officialdom. Among traders there was, among other complaints, disquiet over government efforts to control the copra market, while Samoans were particularly aggrieved at being banished from their villages as punishment for law-breaking.

In August 1926 Olaf Nelson visited Wellington to discuss Samoan issues. The minister of external affairs, William Nosworthy, promised to visit Samoa to investigate, but subsequently postponed the arrangement. Undeterred, Nelson called two large public meetings in Apia to petition for the redress of grievances. From these the Mau, a Samoan nationalist organisation, was born; it had its office in Nelson's building. In May 1927 Nelson founded a newspaper, the Samoa Guardian, to support its claims, and in June, in a display of strength, he organised a sports meeting and a ball for Mau supporters parallel to similar events being held by the administration.

Such defiance, confirmed by a visit to New Zealand in July to petition Parliament, intensified official disapproval and in January 1928 he was deported from Samoa for five years. He was exiled to New Zealand. From there he went to Geneva to petition the Mandates Commission of the League of Nations for Samoan self-government, and then to London where he unsuccessfully asked the Privy Council to cancel his deportation. Returning to New Zealand, where he had published two pamphlets, The truth about Samoa and Samoa at Geneva, he was resolute as ever. In February 1929 he organised a mass meeting in Auckland and set up the New Zealand Samoa Defence League and in May started a newspaper, the New Zealand Samoa Guardian, to publicise the Mau cause.

The government was equally firm. Although Nelson was absent during the mêlée of December 1929 during which several men died, in 1931 his company was fined £5,600 (reduced on appeal) for aiding the Mau, which had been declared a seditious organisation. Then, in November 1933, six months after returning to Samoa, Nelson was arrested for being associated with the Mau and in March 1934 was convicted and sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment in New Zealand and a further 10 years’ exile. He was rescued from this by the Labour victory in the general election of 1935. In June 1936 the balance of Nelson's exile was revoked. He returned home and gave his approval to a co-operation agreement drawn up between Samoan leaders and New Zealand negotiators. In 1938 he led a delegation to New Zealand to hasten the enactment of legislation regarding Samoa, and in November he was re-elected to the Legislative Council.

While asserting his identity as a European, Nelson was also proud of his standing as a Samoan. Drawing on both sides of his heritage and on his own love of power, but at considerable personal cost, he brought an unprecedentedly concentrated sense of purpose to Samoan politics, thereby making Samoa a matter of serious concern to New Zealand. Nelson died in Apia on 28 February 1944, survived by his wife and four daughters. The political goal he worked for was eventually attained in 1962, when Western Samoa became the first Pacific island nation to achieve independence. His grandson Tupuola Taisi Efi was the third prime minister of Western Samoa (1976–82).