Niue and the Great War by Margaret Pointer
Dunedin: OUP (2018)
RRP: $39.95. Pb, fully illustrated, b/w, 216pp
Reviewed by Lyn Carter
The plea from the Niue Island Council to King George to allow Niue (the small child that stands up to help) to assist England is a powerful statement that sets the stage for Margaret Pointer’s book on Niue’s involvement in WWI. Having visited Niue on several occasions I have often stood at the WWI Memorial monument and wondered about the story behind it. Pointer’s account of the politics behind the decision to send the Niue contingent into battle and the consequences of these have answered the many queries I had.
Niue and the Great War is a revised edition of Pointer’s previous 2001 book, Tagi Tote e Loto Haaku – My heart is crying a little, which she herself felt was an unfinished story about the involvement of 150 Niue men, and the role which the nation of Niue played, in WWI. Pointer is quick to add that her stories include Niuean men working in New Zealand who enlisted directly into the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
This is a book very much about survival and the commitment of the 150 Niuean men ‘doing their bit’ to protect their homeland and the wider Pacific. It is also a story about colonial politics. In reading Pointer’s book, there comes the realisation that no family or village was left unscathed by this episode of remote colonial politics. In the first instance, Niue was not considered for active service, being instead a home guard contingent based entirely on Niue. As Pointer discusses, it was the political decisions made back in New Zealand surrounding the Pioneer Battalion – made up mostly of Māori volunteers – that eventually saw the Niuean contingent being sent first to the training camp at Narrow Neck, Devonport, New Zealand. Following this, they were assigned to active service in Egypt and then Europe. Many were hospitalised and/or discharged from service during training in New Zealand. The climate was difficult for men who for the first time were out of their tropical homeland. The first Niuean died of pneumonia on Christmas day, 1915. In total 13 men were hospitalised in Auckland and were not sent on to the Middle East. Others were hospitalised at the training camp in Egypt and many did not make it to the front in France. Of those who did arrive in France, 60 in total, the rate of pneumonia was so high that the Niuean were withdrawn and taken to the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital in Essex, England. After treatment and recuperation they were sent home.
The author delves into the tragedy and impact of war on local communities – ‘the pity of war’ (p. 12) – and delivers a story of ‘ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances’ (p. 12) who battled with homesickness, illness and incomprehension of the situation they found themselves in. The hospitalisation rates of 80% of the Niuean contingent before they reached France says it all. It is also a story of Niuean pride for their men who contributed to Niuean independence as a Pacific Island country and the ongoing connection that the 150 men involved still have to the people, the island and future generations.
The strength of this book lies in the personal stories from families who have exhibited great trust in the writer to record and provide an account of the sacrifices involved. These stories also provide a very ‘Pacific’ flavour – with the oral tradition informing the narrative. As Pointer asserts, ‘It is about Niue and Niueans, they take centre stage in their own story’ (p. 15).
Lynette Carter (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe, Waitaha) is a Senior Lecturer at Te Tumu, School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies, University of Otago. Lyn co-ordinates and teaches in the programme for Indigenous Development. Her main research area is environmental literacy with a key focus on Indigenous development and sustainability in the context of climate change. Her most recent publications include the book Indigenous Pacific Approaches to climate change: Aotearoa New Zealand (Palgrave McMillan Series in Disaster Studies).