JH Webb recalls Albert Henry
In this interview with Ian Johnstone recorded in 1994, Albert Henry's presence and influence are recalled by Resident Agent JH Webb. He also describes how Cook Islanders chose their governing system.
Webb: It took us quite a while to realise what the people who talked about independence and self-government meant. NZ was magnificent; they dealt with us in a very lenient way, said we could have either complete independence or self-government in association with NZ, who would look after foreign affairs, or complete integration with NZ – that option was soft-pedalled. In fact, everybody laughed about that one, including the chap who came to talk about it.
Ian: So the idea of self-government was brought from outside. Who brought it?
A lot of our people were in NZ then and they were probably more aware about these matters. The NZ government didn’t stop them – if anything it encouraged them.
How had that NZ colonial administration been – was it harsh?
People got a bit impatient with the colonial system. They didn’t like having to go to see someone to be able to do this or that. Then they were told that under self-government all the control would be with Cook Islanders and they’d get lots and lots of money from the citrus planting scheme. All the money would go to them.
People from NZ started to talk about how our taxes should be used to pay our own public servants. Some came back from NZ and told workers on the Rarotonga wharf "In NZ we get 5 pounds a day, here you’re only paid 5 pounds a week. You’re being exploited". Until then people here had been quite satisfied. The Unions were the ones who caused considerable unrest.
Albert Henry was a union leader who came back – to his island of Aitutaki. When he arrived on the island for which you, as Resident Agent, were responsible, did you think "here comes trouble"?
I liked Albert. I’d been to school with him. He was a good man, very highly intelligent. His one objective was to free the people from what he thought was exploitation. It wasn’t that – it was just the comparison between living standards. Here, you could buy a week’s supplies with a pound and still have some left over; not in NZ.
Did you have a view of the Cook Islands Party, which Albert Henry led? Presumably you wouldn't have been a member.
I couldn't do that, they'd have been most mistrustful. But they knew I was sympathetic towards it. The CIP was looked on with suspicion by the local government, but not by the NZ government, which saw the growth of political parties as progress towards independence.
The Rarotonga government was staffed by expatriate New Zealanders who weren't trained – they just applied for the job and couldn’t speak a word of Māori when they arrived. All they thought of was working five days then claiming overtime. They didn’t care that local staff didn’t get overtime. They didn’t want anyone rocking the boat.
What did Albert Henry do when he came back? What did you talk about with him?
Albert was a very charming man with the gift - as we say in Māori – of a sweet tongue. Eloquent and forceful, he could have you in fits of laughter, he could control a crowd; he’d pick up a guitar and start to sing and everybody would join in; everybody loved him. He was a fresh wind blowing though the Cook Islands.
His ideas were excellent. All he and his party wanted to do was take over the land which belonged to them. Why shouldn’t we be able to control our own land? Why should expatriates be telling us what to do – where to put the road and so on? Why can’t one of our own people tell us, then we can argue with them?
I’ve heard that Albert Henry was badly dealt to and patronised by the Wellington politicians. Did he come back angry?
He didn't. He said to me "The people there don’t understand what self-government means. I have to tell them what I am going to do". He had some very rough passages there with politicians, but he was unruffled abut these matters.
Did you have to be cautious about meeting him? Talking with him in public?
Never occurred to me. I spoke whenever we met. We often sat on the verandah and had a few drinks. I was just talking to a friend about school days and such – you know each other, you discuss these things - nothing to do with politics, you're just talking to a friend.
You've mentioned the NZ Government was very generous about the choices – independence, self-government and so on. Why were they so slow in letting go, acknowledging the validity of what Henry and the CIP wanted to do?
I thought it was just the lack of expertise, lack of knowledge about what to do. It was a first time for the NZ government, being called a colonial power. Where do you start cutting the ribbon? They didn't have the expertise, like the British did.
Did you ever fear there might be violence?
It never occurred to me there could be that reaction while we were talking about self-government. We had people from the UN come to Aitutaki… one of them was named Pradas. When he came, I'm sure he was quite afraid. I used to go out on my own, driving in my jeep and he asked if I had any police with me. I said “Good heavens, whatever for?” He gave me a UN flag and told me to put it on my jeep. So I said "Thank you very much". I’ve still got it. I never put it on my jeep – I almost sat on the darned thing, to be honest. But he was really worried. And the transition was just like that. The people chose a new form of government. It was so simple. No waving guns. People clapped and what not. That was it. I was amazed.
One of the most peaceable transfers…
Yes. When he found out nothing was going to happen, he said I'll go with you and count all the papers. I told him I’d already done that and I wanted to send them to Rarotonga. But he went round and counted every darned vote himself. We were the first ones to finish and by about 3 am I sent off the final results and he had figures identical to what I had.
Had you heard here about difficult shifts to independence, in Africa for example. Did people know about Mau Mau?
Yes. They were amazed. They said - what are these people doing? Why are they killing each other to be free? That's the last thing you do. What's the use of being a free dead body!
You make it sound a remarkably gentle and almost inevitable process.
For me it was. The people had made up their minds and that was it. No question of killing people to get it because they knew they were going to get it because they had the opportunity to do so. All I had to do was ensure people had the knowledge of what they were doing. I had to go round and tell them… to Manihiki, Penrhyn, Mangaia and various islands.
What did you do when you got there?
I went in a Sunderland flying boat and explained what was required, what was intended, to the whole island…
Did you call a village meeting, or what? How did it work?
The whole island, yes. All I told them was what was intended. There was another man from NZ. He did exactly the same thing. It wasn't for us to tell them what might happen. Nothing to do with us at all. All we said was “This is what is being offered”.
All the people of the island would be there, prepared. We'd all sit down. We sat at a table. I heard them talking about what we’d come for. They were waiting for us to describe all this. They knew what it was but they wanted us to say it… that's the local way of doing things.
Why had you been chosen to do this? There must have been some strong element of trust there.
I like to think so. But we just went round… and for instance in Penrhyn, the people said “Well, who are we going to vote for?” I told them, "If that's the one you want, that's the one you vote for… if that person, that's the one you vote for. That is the democratic way of doing things”. We don't tell you who to vote for. All you do is select the right person that you want to be in power, then you vote for whichever one it is.
So you were having to explain not only the options for governing the Cook Islands but also the process of democracy.
Yes, that was the most important part. New Zealand overlooked that part. They explained the various options, but they forgot about the fact that people here didn't know exactly what to do.
You must have sensed what the feeling was. Were many people in favour of complete independence?
Complete independence was soft pedalled, never spoken of. It was sort of… well, of course, that's another option, but it isn't what you…
Never spoken of by whom? By you?
By the authorities. I think what they were worried about was that UN would say we are forcing the people to integrate. So they leaned over backwards to have that option… of course, you can be completely independent, but it will be far better…
So there was a stress and a persuasion from the official angle towards self-government in association with NZ?
It was between the two... either complete independence, or association. We explained both sides. What would happen.
Do you think the people feared that being independent they would lose their right of free entry to NZ?
That was the main thing. To be completely independent, they were no longer NZ citizens and weren't allowed to enter NZ… which they can do now.
What about the new constitution. Was there much concern about the role of traditional leaders?
The arikis didn’t come into it. It was not an option that was put forward to them.
What was your own feeling? Did you see problems ahead? Did you think it would work alright? Did you want another 5 years of colonial government?
No, I was all for independence in association with NZ. I couldn't see anything wrong with it. I thought we were very very lucky. I thought "Good Heavens, this is going to be a mark in history. Other countries will probably follow this. Good old NZ – a little country like that coming up with something which I’m sure the rest of the world will follow”. I think they have, too.
Earlier you took us to the point where you had counted the Aitutaki votes and your UN colleague had done the same. When the result was published in Rarotonga, how did you hear about it?
What did you do then? Go out and make a formal announcement?
Everybody knew about it. When the votes were counted I announced the numbers.
Can you remember your thoughts as you farewelled expatriate NZers who'd been here under the conditions you were speaking about earlier? Were you glad – or sorry - to see them go?
Well, we'd seen so many of them coming and going, it was all part of the picture. They departed and that was that. We gave them a hat and a mat and away they went.
The Cook Islands Party won General Elections in 1965, 1968, 1972, 1974, and 1978. Albert Henry, knighted in 1974, was Premier throughout.
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