Voices of the Pacific

This hook presents a photo of Māori and Pacific Island soldiers at Narrow Neck Training Camp in Auckland. It also presents an older Niuean woman’s perspective (written by writer and artist John Pule) on Niue’s involvement in the war.

Māori and Niuean troops at Narrow Neck beach, Auckland, 1916.

Māori and Niuean troops at Narrow Neck beach, Auckland, 1916. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. 7-A14559.

Old people like herself had heard of New Zealand so much especially the two great world wars. She lost a brother in the first and she never really understood why a close-blood could go away from his home and fanau, where his pito is buried, where his people call his name, how he could leave and fight and be ready to throw away his mana to die for someone else’s cause without really knowing the stranger’s name.

Niuean writer and artist John Pule on the First World War through the words of his matriarch, Atalagi

Source: Tagi tote e loto haaku - My heart is crying a little: Niue Island involvement in the great war, 1914-1918, by Margaret Pointer; translation by Kalaisi Folau. (University of the South Pacific, 2000, page 73).

Context

From early 1916, the Māori reinforcements were supplemented by Pacific Islanders, including people from Rarotonga, Tonga, Niue and Samoa. The main indigenous Pacific contribution to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) came from the Cook Islands and Niue. All the men were volunteers and either provided reinforcements for the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion in Egypt and France or served with the British in Sinai and Palestine. The Gilbert Islands and Ellice Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) and Fiji were British Crown Colonies and so sent men to serve directly as part of the British Army. Both had contingents training in Auckland when the war ended. (bit.ly/PacificSoldiers(external link)).

Around 150 men, or almost 4 percent of Niue’s population, enlisted. According to Margaret Pointer’s book of the Nuiean involvement (see above), very few could speak English and none had worn shoes before. Being used to walking barefoot and eating fish, many suffered health problems from hours of marching in boots and an unusual diet. The greatest danger, however, was European diseases, especially in the cold climate of northern France. The Niuean troops were withdrawn a year after their deployment after suffering heavy losses through disease and illness.

Possible discussion questions

  • What aspects of Niuean men’s involvement does John Pule’s matriarch, Atalagi, find difficult to understand?
  • Before they left, how might the men who chose to enlist feel about Atalagi’s statement? How might their feelings have changed if they returned?
  • Why do you think Pacific Island men were placed in the Native Contingent rather than joining other units?
  • From the experiences of Pacific Island men at training camp during the First World War, what can we learn about the challenges of some recent migrants to New Zealand?
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