History of Samoa

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Chromograph map of Samoa - George Cram 1896

The Samoan Islands were first settled some 3,500 years ago as part of the Austronesian expansion. Samoa's early and more current history is strongly connected with the histories of Tonga and Fiji, which are in the same region, and with whom it shares historical, genealogical, and cultural traditions.

European exploration first reached the islands in the early 18th century. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville named them Navigator Islands in 1768. The United States Exploring Expedition (1838–42) under Charles Wilkes reached Samoa in 1839. In 1855 J.C. Godeffroy & Sohn expanded its trading business into the archipelago. The Samoan Civil War of 1886–1894 devolved into the Samoan crisis between colonial powers, followed by the Second Samoan Civil War of 1898/9, which was resolved by partition of the islands in the Tripartite Convention, between the United States, Great Britain and Germany.

After World War I, German Samoa became administered by New Zealand as a Trust Territory and eventually became independent as Samoa in 1962. American Samoa remains an unincorporated territory of the United States.

Early history[edit]

Archeologists place the earliest human settlement of the Samoan archipelago at around 2900–3500 years before present.[1] This date is based upon the ancient Lapita pottery shards found throughout the islands, the oldest evidence being in Mulifanua as well as in Sasoa'a, Falefa.[1] This area of Polynesia, Samoa and Tonga, contains evidence from dates of similar times, suggesting the area was settled during the same period. Whatever occurred between 750 BC and AD 1000 remains a mystery, though this may have been the period of great migrations that led to the settlement of present-day Polynesia. Another mystery is that the making of pottery suddenly stopped; there is no oral tradition among the people of Samoa that explains this but some theories suggest the lack of available pottery-making materials in Polynesia meant the majority of pottery was imported during migration and not locally sourced or made.

Samoa's history early was interwoven with that of certain chiefdoms of Fiji as well as the history of the kingdom of Tonga. The oral history of Samoa preserves the memories of many battles fought between Samoa and neighboring islands. Too, intermarriage of Tongan and Fijian royalty to Samoan nobility has helped build close relationships between these island nations that exist to the present; these royal blood ties are acknowledged at special events and cultural gatherings. Other Samoan folklore tells of the arrival of two maidens from Fiji who brought the tools necessary to create the art of tatau, or in English tattoo, whence came the traditional Samoan malofie (also known as pe'a for men and as malu for women).

The foundation of the cultural tradition of Samoa, the fa'asamoa, came with the rise of the warrior queen Nafanua. Her rule instituted traditions of the fa'amatai or local family and village and regional chiefly systems, a decentralized system. Her niece Salamasina continued under this system and their time is considered a golden age of Samoan cultural traditions.

1934 Sketch map showing the central position of the Samoa Islands in the Pacific.

Linguistically, the Samoan language belongs to the Polynesian sub-branch of the Austronesian language family, whose origin is thought to be in Taiwan.

According to oral tradition, Samoa shares the common Polynesian ancestor of Tagaloa.[2] The very earliest history of Samoa concerns a political center in the easternmost Samoan islands of Manu'a, under the rule of the Tui Manu'a. In the Cook Islands to the east, the tradition is that Karika, or Tui Manu'a 'Ali'a, came to the Cook Islands from Manu'a; suggesting that it was from Manu'a and Samoa that the rest of Polynesia as settled.

After European contact[edit]

18th century[edit]

Contact with Europeans began in the early 18th century but did not intensify until the arrival of the British missionaries. In 1722, Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to see the islands. This visit was followed by the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729–1811), the man who named them the Navigator Islands in 1768. In 1787 Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse visited Samoa, where at Tutuila Island, in what is now American Samoa, there was a conflict leading to deaths on both sides, including the deaths of twelve Frenchmen.

19th century[edit]

European and Tahitian and Cook Islander Missionaries and traders, led by John Williams (missionary) began arriving around 1830. Coming via Tahiti, they were known in Samoa as the Lotu Taiti. The Rev. John Williams was helped by the Ali'i Malietoa Vainu'upo to establish the Lotu Taiti, which became the Christian Congregational Church of Samoa.

The United States Exploring Expedition (1838–42) under Charles Wilkes reached Samoa in 1839 and appointed an Englishman, John C. Williams, son of the missionary, as acting U.S. consul.[3] However this appointment was never confirmed by the U.S. State Department; John C. Williams was merely recognized as "Commercial Agent of the United States".[3] A British consul was already residing at Apia.

In 1855 J.C. Godeffroy & Sohn expanded its trading business into the Samoan Islands, which were then known as the Navigator Islands. During the second half of the 19th century German influence in Samoa expanded with large plantation operations being introduced for coconut, cacao and hevea rubber cultivation, especially on the island of 'Upolu where German firms monopolized copra and cocoa bean processing. British business enterprises, harbour rights, and consulate office were the basis on which Britain had cause to intervene in Samoa. The United States began operations at the harbor of Pago Pago on Tutuila in 1877 and formed alliances with local native chieftains, most conspicuously on the islands of Tutuila and Manu'a (which were later formally annexed as American Samoa).

In the 1880s Great Britain, Germany and the United States all claimed parts of the kingdom of Samoa, and established trade posts. The rivalry between these powers exacerbated the indigenous factions that were struggling to preserve their ancient political system. The islands were divided among the three powers in the 1890s, And between the United States and Germany in 1899.[4]

The First Samoan Civil War and the Samoan crisis[edit]

Wrecked vessels at Apia (1889)
SMS Adler wrecked at Apia (1889)

The First Samoan Civil War was fought roughly between 1886 and 1894, primarily between rival Samoan factions, although the rival powers intervened on several occasions with military forces. There followed an eight-year civil war, where each of the three powers supplied arms, training, and in some cases, combat troops to the warring Samoan parties.[5] The Samoan crisis came to a critical juncture in March 1889 when all three colonial contenders sent warships into Apia harbour, and a larger-scale war seemed imminent, until a massive storm on 15 March 1889 damaged or destroyed the warships, ending the military conflict.[6]

Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Samoa in 1889 and built a house at Vailima. He quickly became passionately involved in the attendant political machinations. His influence spread to the Samoans, who consulted him for advice, and he soon became involved in local politics. These involved the three colonial powers battling for control of Samoa - America, Germany and Britain - and the indigenous factions struggling to preserve their ancient political system. He was convinced that the European officials appointed to rule the Samoans were incompetent, and after many futile attempts to resolve the matter, he published A Footnote to History. The book covers the period from 1882 to 1892.[6] This was such a stinging protest against existing conditions that it resulted in the recall of two officials, and Stevenson feared for a time it would result in his own deportation.[7]

The Second Samoan Civil War and the Siege of Apia[edit]

German, British and American warships in Apia harbour, 1899 (Alfred John Tattersall)

The Second Samoan Civil War reached a head in 1898 when Germany, Great Britain and the United States disputed over who should control the Samoan Islands.

The Battle of Apia occurred in March 1899. Samoan forces loyal to Prince Tanu were besieged by a larger force of Samoan rebels loyal to powerful chief Mata'afa Iosefo. Supporting Prince Tanu were landing parties from four British and American warships. Over several days of fighting, the Samoan rebels were defeated.[8]

American and British warships shelled Apia on 15 March 1899; including the USS Philadelphia. Following the initial defeat at Apia, Mata'afa's rebels defeated a combined American, British and Tanu allied force at Vailele on 1 April 1899, with the allies in retreat.[9] According to a war correspondent associated with the Auckland Star newspaper, the aftermath saw Mata'afa's warriors leaving American and British corpses on the field being severed of their heads.[10] Germany, Britain and the United States quickly resolved to end the hostilities by partitioning the island chain at the Tripartite Convention of 1899.[3] With Tanu and his American and British allies' inability to defeat him in war, the Tripartite resulted in Mata'afa being promoted to Ali'i Si'i, the high chief of Samoa.[9]

Division of islands[edit]

The Samoa Tripartite Convention of 1899, a joint commission of three members composed of Bartlett Tripp for the United States, C. N. E. Eliot, C.B. for Great Britain, and Freiherr Speck von Sternburg for Germany, agreed to divide the islands.

The Tripartite Convention gave control of the islands west of 171 degrees west longitude to Germany, (later known as Western Samoa), containing Upolu and Savaii (the current Samoa) and other adjoining islands. These islands became known as German Samoa. The United States was given control the eastern islands of Tutuila and Manu'a, (present-day American Samoa).[3] In exchange for Britain ceding claims in Samoa, Germany transferred their protectorates in the North Solomon Islands and other territories in West Africa. It does not appear that any Samoans were consulted about the partition and the monarchy was also abolished.


Exiled group aboard German warship taking them to Saipan. Standing 3rd from the left is Lauaki Namulauulu Mamoe, 1909.
New Zealand sailors removing the white strip from lava-lava, the insignia of the Mau uniform, circa 1930

From 1908, with the establishment of the Mau movement ("opinion movement"), Western Samoans began to assert their claim to independence. The Mau movement began in 1908 with the ‘Mau a Pule' resistance on Savai'i, led by orator chief Lauaki Namulau'ulu Mamoe. Lauaki and Mau a Pule chiefs, wives and children were exiled to Saipan in 1909. Many died in exile.[2]

World War I broke out in August 1914, and soon after, New Zealand sent an expeditionary force to seize and occupy German Samoa. Although Germany refused to officially surrender the islands, no resistance was offered and the occupation took place without any fighting. New Zealand continued the occupation of Western Samoa throughout World War I. Under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Germany relinquished its claims to the islands.

In November 1918, the Spanish flu strongly hit the territory. 90% of the 38,302 native inhabitants were infected and 20% died. The American Samoa population was largely spared this devastation, due to vigorous efforts of its governor, John Martin Poyer. This led to some Samoan citizens petitioning in January 1919 for transfer to U.S. administration, or at least to the central British administration. The petition was recalled a few days later.

The Mau movement gained momentum with Samoa's royal leaders becoming more visible in supporting the movement but opposing violence. On 28 December 1929 Tupua Tamasese was shot along with eleven others during an otherwise peaceful demonstration in Apia. Tupua Tamasese died the following day; his final words included a plea that no more blood be shed.

New Zealand administered Western Samoa, or Samoa i Sisifo in the Samoan language, first as a League of Nations Mandate and then as a United Nations Trust Territory until the country received its independence on 1 January 1962 (from New Zealand) as Western Samoa.[11] Samoa's first prime minister following independence was paramount chief Fiame Mata'afa Faumuina Mulinu'u II.

Samoa i Sisifo was the first Polynesian people to be recognized as a sovereign nation in the 20th century. Samoa became one of the Member states of the Commonwealth of Nations on 28 August 1970. In 1977, Queen Elizabeth II visited Samoa during her tour of the Commonwealth.

A conflict briefly emerged between Samoa and American Samoa following Samoa's decision to drop the adjective "Western" from its name. The change was made by an act of the Legislative Assembly of Western Samoa adopted on 4 July 1997.[12] The step caused "surprise and uproar" in neighboring American Samoa, as for some American Samoans the change of name implied a claim to be the "real" Samoa and implied that American Samoa was just an American appendix.[13] Some in the American territory said it implied that there was only one Samoa. Two members of American Samoa's legislature traveled to Apia in September 1997 to meet with Samoan head of State Malietoa Tanumafili II, and lobbied to have the name change reversed in order to maintain peace and good relations.[13] An American Samoan petition to the United Nations for a ban on Samoa's using the name Samoa was seriously discussed and ten American Samoan representatives sponsored an unsuccessful bill aimed at preventing American Samoa from recognizing independent Samoa's new name.[13] The proposed American Samoan bill was criticized by independent Samoa's Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana who called the bill "rash and irresponsible".[13]

In 2002, New Zealand's prime minister Helen Clark formally apologized for two incidents during the period of New Zealand's administration: a failure in 1918 to quarantine the SS Talune, which carried the 'Spanish 'flu' to Samoa, leading to an epidemic which devastated the Samoan population, and the shooting of leaders of the non-violent Mau movement during a ceremonial procession in 1929.

In 2007, Samoa's first head of state, His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II, died at age 95. He held this title jointly with Tupua Tamasese Lealofi until the latter's death in 1963. Malietoa Tanumafili II was Samoa's Head of State for 45 years. He was the son of Malietoa Tanumafili I, who was the last Samoan king recognized by Europe and the Western World.

Samoa's current head of state is His Highness Tui-Atua Tupua Tamasese Tupuola Efi, who was anointed the head of state title with the unanimous endorsement of Samoa's Parliament, a symbol of traditional Samoan protocol in alignment with Samoan decision-making stressing the importance of consensus in the 21st century.

Calendar usage in Samoa[edit]

As European traders began commercial (and later domination) activities in the Samoan Islands, they imposed their datekeeping system on their transactions. Thus by the 19th century, Samoan calendars were aligned with those of the other Asiatic countries to the west and south. However, in 1892, American traders convinced the king to alter the country's dating system to align with the United States; thus the country lived through 4 July 1892, twice. But 119 years later, the economic geography of the island had changed, and most business was being done with Australia and New Zealand. To make the jump back to the Asian date Samoa and Tokelau skipped 30 December 2011.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Petchey, Fion J (2001). "Radiocarbon Determinations from the Mulifanua Lapita Site, Upolu, Western Samoa". Radiocarbon. 43 (1): 63–68. doi:10.1017/S0033822200031635.
  2. ^ a b Tuvale, Te'o. "An account of Samoan history up to 1918: Chapters I-IV". Retrieved 19 September 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d Ryden, George Herbert. The Foreign Policy of the United States in Relation to Samoa. (Yale University Press, 1928), p. 574; the Tripartite Convention (United States, Germany, Great Britain) was signed at Washington on 2 December 1899 with ratifications exchanged on 16 February 1900.
  4. ^ Paul M. Kennedy, The Samoan Tangle: A Study in Anglo-German-American Relations 1878–1900 (University of Queensland Press, 2013).
  5. ^ Spencer Tucker, ed. (2009). The Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars: A Political, Social, and Military History. ABC-CLIO. pp. 569–70. ISBN 9781851099511.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  6. ^ a b Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa. BiblioBazaar. ISBN 978-1-4264-0754-3.
  7. ^ Letter to Sidney Colvin, 17 April 1893, Vailima Letters, Chapter XXVIII
  8. ^ Mains, P. John; McCarty, Louis Philippe (1906). The Statistician and Economist: Volume 23. p. 249
  9. ^ a b Kohn, George C. (1986). Dictionary of wars, Third Edition. Facts on File Inc, factsonfile.com. pp. 479–480. ISBN 978-0-8160-6577-6.
  10. ^ [1] Papers Past (website)
  11. ^ New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage (19 July 2010). "Towards independence - NZ in Samoa". nzhistory.net.nz. Retrieved 29 April 2011.
  12. ^ Constitution Amendment Act (No. 2) 1997 (No. 15)
  13. ^ a b c d Migration happens: reasons, effects and opportunities of Migration, Katarina Ferro, Margot Wallner and Richard Bedford, 2006. p. 72
  14. ^ [2] slate.com, The Philippines Skipped A Day

Further reading[edit]

  • Kennedy, P. M. "Bismarck's Imperialism: The Case of Samoa, 1880-1890." Historical Journal 15, no. 2 (1972): 261–83. online.
  • Kennedy, Paul M. The Samoan Tangle: A Study in Anglo-German-American Relations 1878–1900 (University of Queensland Press, 2013).
  • Ryden, George Herbert. The Foreign Policy of the United States in Relation to Samoa (Yale University Press, 1928).

External links[edit]

  • [3] Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago And Long Before, George Turner (1884), an eText available from Project Gutenberg