New view of a high profile Niue murder
A new history of Niue has a new take on the controversy surrounding the murder of the New Zealand Resident Commissioner on the island in 1953.
The first book to chronicle the colonial history of Niue is being released this week.
Niue 1774 - 1974, 200 years of Contact and Change has been written by Margaret Pointer, who spent three years on Niue from the late 1990s when her husband served as the NZ High Commissioner.
She has previously written the tragic account of the Niuean contingent that signed up and joined the New Zealand war effort during the First World War.
The colonial history is an account of a stiff encounter with James Cook, visits from whalers, raids by Peruvian slave traders, earnest missionaries and the often inept management by New Zealand after it became the colonial master.
Don Wiseman spoke to Margaret Pointer about the killing of the Resident Commissioner Hector Larsen in 1953, and began by asking where the New Zealand administration went wrong.
MARGARET POINTER: I think the two main problems with Niue, when it has got its own Resident Commissioner, there wasn't a professional public service of course at the time, there wasn't a department to look after the islands, so they [staff] were always borrowed from somewhere else. They usually came from a background in the Post Office because they were going to produce stamps for the islands, or they came from a background in Customs because tariffs were going to be one of the main ways in which revenue was going to be gained for the islands. So these people came from varying backgrounds, were sent to Niue, and Niue, in particular, was so difficult to find someone who would go there so once they got someone there, they left them there. So one problem was they were there for far too long and the second problem was in the case of Niue they bundled so many jobs together. And of course the very obvious clash is having a Resident Commissioner who is also the judge in the court, but the Resident Commissioner was everything at various times. You could just about any role on Niue and the Resident Commissioner did it sometimes. Perhaps he didn't do operations at the hospital but he certainly did everything else.
DON WISEMAN: Which brings us I guess to this horrific event, the murder of Hec Larsen in the 1950s. As you say the Resident Commissioner often judge and jury and that has been advanced as perhaps one of the reasons why this happened. You paint a very positive picture of Hec Larsen, prior to this horrific event.
MP: I think Hector Larsen has been very badly treated in history, and I am talking about one of the other few books there is about Niue history - 'Would a Good Man Die?' He was the Resident Commissioner for 10 years before his murder and I approached the subject of the Larsen murder - I knew it was going to be the most difficult part of the book to write and I didn't actually know what my opinion was going to be, but I decided I was only going to look at primary source material. I would not talk to people on hearsay, I would not read other work and when I worked my way through all of the [New Zealand] Government papers and many restricted files that I got access to, I got this picture built up of someone who actually did a great deal for the island, particularly in education, and in public health, and who had some very difficult opposition in the form of the London Missionary Society missionary in charge. So I started to get this picture of a man who had worked very hard on the island, who often told Wellington that he couldn't be all these things at the same time, and they took no notice. Who often applied for other positions and he was always turned down. Who was part of the new public service after the Second World War where they introduced annual assessments for people. And his annual assessment said he needs to be moved, perhaps to a position in Wellington to get an overview of the whole island administration, rather than just Niue. But it never ever happened because it was just easier to keep him there than it was to find a new person to go in. And you know as a person he was larger than life. He was a large man, large stature, he had a loud voice. He had a larger than life personality. I can imagine he was sort of person if he went to a party you would hear him right across the room, and he's slap you on the back and he'd tell the jokes and that sort of thing. And that is not always the sort of personality that is easy to get with, so I think that gradually, over a period of ten years, obviously some people did grow to dislike him personally, and it depends on what experience they had with him I guess, but I think he has really had a bad press. And I think the murder was an horrific event, and since the story was written, that he was such a bad man, everybody just accepts that, that that's the truth. And I think there is a lot more to him than what we knew before hand.
DW: This murder seems to have been the prompt for Wellington to pull its finger out?
MP: Well things only happen when there is a political will for it to happen, and with Niue there was no political will in Wellington for any changes to be made. And Larsen made frequent requests for certain things to be done. He wanted more money into education. He wanted an agricultural officer to help develop that area, that court of thing. He got turned down and it was only when the murder occurred and it was all over the front pages of the New Zealand newspapers - it's the first and I think the only time to date that a New Zealander in government service overseas has been killed, and suddenly they had to deal with that and suddenly there became a will in Wellington to make changes, to look really carefully at a new person. They had had perhaps a different experience, and to put a lot more money into the island.
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