From Olaf Nelson to Kim Dotcom
A tall, heavy man, who spoke English with a thick, northern European accent, he had built a fortune and a fine home by the time he reached thirty. When he became a New Zealand subject, he believed that the government in Wellington would be happy for him to continue wheeling and dealing under its auspices.
Partly because of its obligations to a distant superpower, the New Zealand state began to persecute the successful young entrepeneur. His businesses were shut down, spies followed his movements, police made unfriendly visits to his home, and plans were made to deport him.
Infuriated by his treatment, the young businessman began to condemn the New Zealand state as an enemy of liberty. Looking about for allies, he discovered that many of the indigenous people of the islands where he lived were also estranged from the government in Wellington. Using his money, his connections, and his flair for publicity, he helped them build a political movement that changed New Zealand history.
Those sentences might seem to describe Kim Dotcom, the supersized German businessman threatened with deportation to the United States who has hitched his Internet Party to Hone Harawira and Annette Sykes' Mana Movement, but they also tell the story of Olaf Nelson, who was born on Savai'i, Samoa's largest island, in 1883 to a Scandinavian trader and his local wife. In the first years of the twentieth century Savai'i and most of the rest of Samoa was controlled by Germany, and the young Olaf Nelson was able to get rich by exporting copra to the imperial homeland.
In 1914, though, New Zealand troops invaded German Samoa, tore down the Kaiser's flag, and raised a Union Jack. British diplomats hailed this victory over the Pacific Hun, and Kiwi newspapers demanded that traders with links to Germany be treated as enemies. Nelson found it much harder to do business.
New Zealand administrators quickly began to alienate indigenous Samoans, as well as 'afakasi like Nelson. Their incompetence and indifference allowed the global influenza epidemic of 1918 to take the lives of a fifth of Samoans, and their attempts to privatise communally-held land and racist snubs to important chiefs aggravated discontent. In the 1920s Nelson helped a number of powerful chiefs lead the Mau movement, whose slogan was Samoa Mo Samoa, or Samoa for the Samoans. Protesters paraded, taxes went unpaid, roads were blockaded, and an anti-colonial parliament was set up. New Zealand police and marines reacted by shooting nationalists in the street and burning Mau villages.
Like Kim Dotcom, Olaf Nelson was a clever and incessant propagandist, who used the media to rile his enemies in Wellington. Today Dotcom uses twitter and youtube to lambast John Key's government as corrupt and autocratic; Nelson funded and ran a newspaper, The Samoa Guardian, that poked pins in the sides of conservative governments of the 1920s and early '30s.
John Key and his colleagues are keen to have Kim Dotcom deported to a United States prison, and the governments of the '20s and early '30s were equally desperate to remove Olaf Nelson from Samoa. After being expelled from the colony for five years in 1928, Nelson toured the world promoting the Mau cause, and persuaded the League of Nations to investigate New Zealand's behaviour in Samoa. Shortly after he returned to Samoa in 1933, Nelson was deported again. This time his destination was a New Zealand prison cell.
New Zealand politicians and editorialists endlessly accused Olaf Nelson of 'stirring up' indigenous Samoans, by filling the natives' previously happy minds with exotic and absurd ideas like democracy and self-determination. Patronising colonial officials accused the chiefs who led the Mau of abandoning Samoan culture by embracing protest marches and the print media.
Similarly patronising charges are being made today against Kim Dotcom and his Maori nationalist allies. Key and his colleagues have faulted Dotcom for 'interfering' with New Zealand politics, instead of quietly submitting to his deportation to an American prison. The New Zealand Herald, that long-time authority on radical politics, has accused Hone Harawira of betraying 'Maori radicalism' by using Dotcom's cash and connections.
By the time he died in 1944 Olaf Nelson had become a hero throughout Samoa. Today the country's national library and a clocktower at the centre of its capital city bear his name.
Olaf Nelson and Kim Dotcom were both avaricious, essentially apolitical businessmen who were radicalised after being persecuted by a New Zealand state acting on behalf of a distant superpower. A cashed-up, radicalised capitalist is a dangerous enemy, especially when he has a talent for building alliances and making propaganda. Kim Dotcom may prove as difficult for the New Zealand state to defeat as his predecessor.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]