Olaf Nelson and the place of afakasi in Samoa

Olaf Nelson and the place of afakasi in Samoa

O.F. Nelson with his daughters in front of the Parliament building (Fale Fono), on their return to Samoa following his first exile, 1933.

Olaf Nelson

Olaf Frederick Nelson (1883-1944) was the son of a Swedish father and a Samoan mother, from whom he had inherited the high-ranking title of Taisi. He was one of Samoa’s most successful businessmen and a prominent figure in both the Samoan and European communities. Nelson initially enjoyed a cordial relationship with New Zealand Administrators in Samoa. To George Richardson, Nelson was proof that 'half-castes' could overcome the burden of native blood and become good European citizens.

Nelson's relationship with New Zealand officials soured as he began to voice his opposition to the administration of Samoa. He became an effective and vocal opponent with the wealth and influence to rally support both at home and in New Zealand.

Nelson was twice banished to New Zealand for supporting the Mau: first in January 1928 for five years, then again in 1934 for 10 years. His second exile was revoked by the new Labour government in 1936.


One of the Samoan terms for the islands' part-European population is 'afakasi. This term does not necessarily have the same negative connotations as its English translation, 'half-caste'.

After 1914, New Zealand continued to follow German policy regarding race. The 1921 Samoa Act defined people as 'European' or 'Samoan'. All residents claiming European status were required to register as such.

'Afakasi with a European parent or grandparent were allowed to apply for registration as European. They were required to be literate in English and to maintain standards of behaviour acceptable to the High Court. ‘Afakasi could be relegated to 'native' status if they were found unfit to be Europeans.

As Europeans, ‘afakasi received better legal, educational, income and medical provisions than those provided to Samoans, including the right to hold a passport. But these privileges came at a price: once registered as Europeans, ‘afakasi became aliens in Samoa and were unable to exercise their rights as Samoans.

‘Afakasi were initially discouraged from holding matai and other Samoan titles, and were legally prohibited from doing so in 1934. Those who did hold titles were not supposed to exercise customary authority over relatives or any lands associated with the titles.

New Zealand officials regarded the existence of ‘afakasi as detrimental to both Europeans and Samoans. They were thought to threaten the purity of the Samoan race and also weaken the European race.

Colonial officials were actively discouraged from conducting relationships with Samoan women. One observer in 1927 noted that 'an attitude of regarding the half-caste as an inferior person was maintained in Government circles from [the Administrator] down.'

‘Afakasi had the advantage of two cultural perspectives. Importantly, they had an understanding of Samoan custom and traditions which New Zealand officials lacked. Of those who supported the Mau, Olaf Nelson was probably the most prominent.

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