Unrest at Nukututaha
The year was 1953. World War Two had ended some eight years earlier but here on Niue, the island was waging its own battles. On Sunday morning 17th August 1953, a horrified and a frightened community awoke to hear that the Resident Commissioner Hector Larsen, the most senior New Zealand government official in charge of the island, had been brutally murdered by three escaped prisoners, Folitolu, Latoatama and Tamaeli. A stunned community was asking how this could have happened and why.
For the people of Niue, it was an unsettling time, a dark time. It forced the leading church, the London Missionary Society, to question the effectiveness of the Christian teaching but perhaps even more importantly it forced Wellington to look closely at the style of administration practiced in one her territories. Hector Larsen, who had served continuously since 1943, was accused of being dictatorial and cruel but that was not enough to save the prisoners from being sentenced to death. Their sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
Clearly something was amiss; all was not well on Nukututaha. There was much soul searching but there was also general apprehension in the community that as a result of the murder, New Zealand would unleash its fury on the island.
Stroke of Genius
In what has been described as a stroke of genius, Wellington appointed a senior public servant, probably the most capable since annexation in 1901, to the post of Resident Commissioner. His name was Jock McEwen LLB, a man who, largely through his own effort, had learnt vagahau Mauli as a youngster growing up in Aorangi or Fielding.
His time on Niue is documented in a biography, Te Oka… Pakeha Kaumatua, written by his daughter in law Mary McEwen. The book covers a lot more, but our focus is on his time here on the island.
There are probably no one living on Niue now who worked directly with Jock McEwen and so this book provides a perception of Jock as a person and of the many challenges confronting the Niue Administration at that time. The island was in turmoil after the murder and McEwen realised that he needed the trust of the people he was sent to administer. Mary McEwen was able to piece together from Jock’s letters to his mother in Fielding, from the recollections of his children and former colleagues and from reports to the then Department of Island Territories, how he was able to do this.
With his knowledge of the Maori language and culture, Jock McEwen set about to learn the language of Niue. At his first meeting with the Island Council he was able to greet them and say a few sentences in Vagahau Niue. ‘The result was electric’, he told his mother. Shortly thereafter he called a meeting of all the Pastors of the LMS church.
He did even more. On the first Sunday of the month which was January 1954 he and his wife Ruth attended church at Alofi and took part in the Communion. This single act alone, set Jock McEwen apart from all former Resident Commissioners and more or less also set the stage for his administration for the next three years.
During his term Jock McEwen achieved a number of milestones. He made sure that the Island Council became more than just a rubber stamp for the Resident Commissioner. For the first time young Niueans were able to attend a class beyond the primary stages. The Post Primary Class eventually became the Niue High School.
A special class called the Accelerate Class, taught in English by an expatriate teacher, was established to cater for pupils showing promise. Some were sent off to be educated in New Zealand. Two new primary schools were built, Lialagi and Halavai. The electricity supply for the main village was extended. The control for the prison the prison farm became the responsibility of the Police.
A news sheet which gave details of the Administration’s programmes and news was published once a week and distributed widely. This publication was the forerunner to Tohi Tala Niue. In health, measures were put in place to reduce flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches. In order to reduce the incidence of filarial fever or filariasis the whole island was put on a course of pills for a month. A public health sister was appointed to provide help to mothers and children. The production of copra and banana continued to increase with over 600 cases of bananas shipped in one month. The Department of Agriculture was established headed by a young but very enthusiastic Dutchman.
Jock McEwen was not permitted to complete his full three year term on Niue; he was shoulder tapped for a senior post at the newly established Department of Island Territories in Wellington. He became the head of the department in 1958. In his new post, Jock McEwen continued his association with Niue and was largely responsible for formalising a land tenure system for the island based on the magafaoa and a Leveki Magafaoa.
The system is still being used today. His proposal for the rights of absentee landowner be diminished over three generation was fiercely contested by Niueans living in New Zealand.When McEwen and his family arrived in December 1953, the community was still reeling over the murder of his predecessor. As if in atonement, each village put on a welcome fiafia to beat all others; Tuapa erected floral arches on the roadway; Avatele invited all expatriates – both public servants and traders – to their welcome. At Tamakautoga Jock was able to present Rev Neri Lupo with a Coronation Medal. At Hakupu the McEwen family were welcomed with the biggest feast ever. Jock performed a haka which the Rev Ikiua claimed for Hakupu and urged him not to perform it anywhere else. Fatiau put on a special welcome as it was their last fiafia before leaving for the new village of Vaiea. Each village had a welcome for the new Resident Commissioner.
Time to leave
When Jock and his wife Ruth finally left the island in August 1956, there was genuine sadness in the community. As a young boy, I recalled the day well. Anyone who was anyone on the island, village councillors, members of the clergy, senior Niuean public servants, traders, village elders, were all gathered on the rise leading down to the steps through the boat shed and onto the wharf itself. They were not required to be present; they came because they wanted to. Just before he boarded the launch to take him and his family to the MV Tofua, Jock found time to shake hands with the workers on the wharf. Misi Makuini was truly a man of the people.
Jock McEwen’s time on Niue marked a turning point in the administration of the island. The fear that the island would forever be victimised was unfounded. The era where men with good intentions but who had little idea on how to run a small island was at an end. Ironically one of the better able administrators Hector Larsen was left for far too long on his own. To this day, thanks to people like Jock McEwen, Niue continues to enjoy the benefit from a shared common citizenship with New Zealand.
Get the book and enjoy reading a slice of Niue’s history. Te Oka – Pakeha Kaumatua. . .The Life of Jock McEwen, a biography by Mary McEwen, dedicated to Ruth McEwen and published by Reviresco Trust.
[All photos used are from the book and subject to copyright.]