New Zealand Samoans

New Zealand Samoans

This hook explores the changing relationship New Zealand has with Samoa

Falema‘i Lesa having just won her case for citizenship with the Privy Council(external link)

Falema‘i Lesa having just won her case for citizenship with the Privy Council,1982. Photograph by Peter Avery, The Evening Post. Alexander Turnbull Library. EP/1982/2359-F.


The capture of German Samoa, on behalf of Britain, on 29 August 1914 was New Zealand’s first international act of the First World War. The occupation itself is remembered as relatively peaceful, but later events resulted in deaths and injustice for many people. New Zealand maintained its control over Samoa for 40 years after the First World War had ended, a role mandated by the League of Nations in 1920. 

During this period, the New Zealand administration mishandled several important events, most significantly the outbreak of influenza in Samoa. The global influenza pandemic reached Samoa through the arrival of the SS Talune in November 1918. If the boat had been quarantined, the influenza epidemic could have been contained. Through poor decision-making, including rejecting an offer of medical assistance from neighbouring American Samoa, one-fifth of the population of Samoa died. 

Another act of incompetence was the forceful way the New Zealand administration responded, in 1929, to a group of protesters peacefully asserting Samoa’s right to self-determination. New Zealand military police fired at the crowd, and at least nine people from Samoa were killed. 

Samoa achieved full independence in 1962, becoming the first Pacific state to shrug off colonial rule. As part of the process, a Treaty of Friendship between Samoa and New Zealand was signed. This treaty guarantees that New Zealand will support Samoa with foreign affairs and defence if needed. In 2002, the New Zealand Prime Minister formally apologised to Samoa for actions taking by the New Zealand Administration between 1918 and 1929. 

The photograph above shows Falema‘i Lesa, a woman who fought and won a legal battle to be granted New Zealand citizenship on the basis that Western Samoa was under New Zealand administration between 1920 and 1962. As a result of her struggle, on 28 July 1982 the Privy Council ruled that people born in Western Samoa between 1924 and 1962, and their children, were entitled to New Zealand citizenship. 

In response, in 1982 the New Zealand government fast-tracked the Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act, which allowed only those born in Samoa who were in New Zealand on 14 September 1982, or those granted permanent resident status after that date, to be eligible for New Zealand citizenship. As part of the new law, people born in Samoa before 1949 and their children were no longer eligible. The law change affected around 100,000 people and remains a source of contention for many people from Samoa who would like to be able to move freely between Samoa and New Zealand.

Possible discussion questions 

What was the basis for Falema‘i Lesa’s claim for citizenship? 

What challenges might Falema‘i Lesa have had to overcome to win her legal battle? 

How have her successful legal battle, and the political changes that followed, impacted on communities from Samoa? 

How might the New Zealand occupation of Samoa be perceived by people from Samoa today? 

What are the implications of the 1918 influenza outbreak, and of the 1929 death of the protestors, on New Zealand–Samoa relations? 

In what ways have the obligations of the Treaty of Friendship between Samoa and New Zealand been met since 1962?

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