Pacific aftermath

Page 5 – Economic, social and political impact

The First World War opened the Pacific Islands to the world more than they ever had been before. The Cook Islands and Niue farewelled their men on a journey to war that was beyond comprehension. The men who returned were changed. During their time in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) they had experienced a whole new life. They had been disciplined, trained and worked hard. They had also been treated as the equals of other men.

Expectations and employment

Servicemens’ expectations of what life would be like once they returned home were not always realised. Small island societies were still closely regulated by the church and the colonial administration. With employment difficult to find, many men had time on their hands. This problem was most serious in the Cook Islands, where nearly 500 men had enlisted. Some of them had been in France and the Middle East for nearly three years.

Some Cook Islanders wanted to return to New Zealand to army service. The Resident Commissioner in Rarotonga wrote to the Minister of Defence to explain that ‘there is no work here for them. Most wish to get into permanent artillery. They can all do labouring work. Some can do farm work.’

The minister’s reply was brief: ‘It is regretted that there is no prospect of any of these men being enlisted in the New Zealand Permanent Force.’ Only a small group of professional soldiers was retained by the government following the end of the war.

Paid employment in the Cooks was mainly in the fruit export industry. This was closely controlled by a few European traders who kept the prices they paid to local growers as low as possible. The administration tried to help raise these prices. New Zealand's Minister responsible for the Cook and Other Islands, Dr Maui Pomare, grandly announced a plan to make the returned soldiers ‘active producers of the Island’s staple products’ by providing assistance and training ‘in the proper kinds of trees and how to grow them’.

But there was also a need for more shipping. During the war years two-thirds of the crop had been left to rot because ships had been requisitioned for war service. When the men returned home this problem was only gradually being corrected.

Frustration boils over

In March 1919, frustrations erupted when returned soldiers tried unsuccessfully to use their five-guinea clothing vouchers in stores in Avarua. Supplies were inadequate and when traders tried to force men to use their entire voucher in one store, rioting broke out. Around 70 men smashed shop windows and looted equipment and supplies. For two nights Avarua was at the mercy of the rioters. The official report of events noted that ‘some of the better-behaved soldiers placed themselves under their [European] officers and practically every white man was sworn in as a special constable.’ Order was restored and 20 men were put on trial for rioting. Twelve were convicted and five sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, which meant transfer to a New Zealand jail. The cost of the damage was deducted from their final army pay. In the event, the men were released after serving eight months of their sentence.

Health was an ongoing concern for returned soldiers. Of the men in the Niue Contingent, 82% had been hospitalised at some point during their service. Illness, especially pneumonia and tuberculosis, continued to plague them. At least 15 men died within five years of returning home. When the Resident Commissioner, Judge H.F. Ayson, began requesting headstones in the late 1920s for men who had died in the Cook Islands since discharge he already had 47 names, most of them young men.

War service had raised expectations and equipped men with new skills, including competence in English and leadership experience. In both the Cooks and Niue, returned soldiers were subsequently called on to help maintain public order: in Rarotonga during the 1919 rioting and in Niue after a murder in the village of Tuapa in 1921. Several served terms on their island council. Others joined the police force or the island administration. Some, however, no longer felt at home in such small communities and moved away, often to New Zealand or Western Samoa.

How to cite this page

'Economic, social and political impact', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016