Archiving History for the Future in Pacific Islands

22 Dec 2014

Wax Seal, from the will of A. Nelson, German Samoa, 1905. Archives NZ Reference: Samoa-bmo4, box 66, Nii 06/05

Article by Uili Fecteau, Archivist/Archives Advisor, Research Services, Archives New Zealand.

History moves in one direction. Archival items document the passage of time, but are also subject to the same forces of nature that cause deterioration, decay and hopefully re-birth. It is the basic premise of this article that 'things' will lapse into decay unless energy is exerted to create or maintain an order or structure. This article focuses on the most recent exertion of energy on archival documents from the German Samoan Administration.

The collection of administrative papers of the German Imperial Administration of Samoa (1900 to 1914) represents a fading insight into the cultural, political and economic machinations of four countries during an unprecedented time of international change and upheaval leading up to World War One.


These files were created by the Imperial German Administration of Samoa, they document day to day interactions between the Administration and the people of Samoa in the early twentieth century. They document subjects as varied as Staff and 'Native' employees, Official Dwellings and Government buildings; and Treasury records. Trade and Communication files document immigration and emigration statistics and correspondence between Samoa, Germany, Britain and the United States of America. Physically, they constitute paper files, registers, maps, plans and photographs.

With the outbreak of World War 1, the administration files were re-appropriated to New Zealand Government departments active in the administration of Samoa, removed from the main collection for people's own purposes, or simply forgotten. Two 'bunches' of files were transferred to New Zealand in the 1920s and 1950s, and another 'bunch' of files was re-discovered in an old Samoan gaol in the 1970s.

About half the physical files are held at Archives New Zealand, Wellington and half at the O.F. Nelson Library in Apia, Samoa. A number of registers and files are also held by current Samoan Government departments, forming the basis of their initial set up under New Zealand administration following 1914.

Turning the tide of Archival Entropy

Archival Entropy is what I term the natural process of disorder and decay that takes place over time to a set of records if left un-managed. The discovery and identification of these records as significant, and worth 'saving' was the first step in preserving these records for future generations. The latest effort to preserve these records has been to digitally capture the documents held in Samoa, funded by the German Democratic Republic.  It is through this current project that a digital reconstruction of the whole body of archival material might be possible in the near future.


Through using the original German file register from 1914, I have been able to tick off the files held in New Zealand, and also those held in Samoa, and eventually to identify what is potentially lost.

Some of the challenges this project faces are:

  • The files are mainly in old German, with some files in Samoan and English.
  • Understanding the Governmental Structure the Germans created to work with existing Samoan political structures.
  • Technical details such as storage and file formats.
  • The fact that this is still only one side of history that has been recorded. Much more has not been captured due to the oral tradition of Samoan society.
  • Maintaining and communicating the enthusiasm about this project.

The future potential of this work lies in being able to list all the files in an online finding aid and attaching the digital images to make them accessible to a wider body of researchers.  It would then be possible to facilitate user-generated translations, summations and the indexing of individuals for genealogical and historical mapping. Much of this useful data could be added to the description of the listed records.

I believe that digitisation is not the end point of archival aspirations in the Pacific. It does help archives to be accessed by a wider audience, but it is the description and thus the discoverability of information that enables people to find what they're looking for. That is what builds a path to understanding, growth and re-discovery.