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History of Samoa

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Title: History of Samoa  
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Subject: History of Oceania, Samoan nationality law, History of Samoa, Samoan New Zealander, Piula Theological College
Collection: History of Samoa, New Zealand–pacific Relations
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History of Samoa

Chromograph map of Samoa - George Cram 1896

This article details the history of Samoa. The Independent State of Samoa, formerly known as Western Samoa, is a country encompassing the western part of the Samoan Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. It became independent from New Zealand in 1962.


  • Myths 1
  • Samoa before the arrival of Europeans 2
  • European contact 3
    • 18th century 3.1
    • 19th century 3.2
    • The First Samoan Civil War and the Samoan crisis 3.3
    • The Second Samoan Civil War and the Siege of Apia 3.4
  • Division of islands 4
  • Independence 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


According to legend, Samoa shares the common Polynesian ancestor of Tagaloa; according to many legends, Samoa was Tagaloa's first creation.[1]

Samoa is recognized as the center of Polynesia, from where people migrated eastward to the Marquesas, southward to Niue and the Pukapuka islands of Rarotonga, and northward to the Tokelau and Tuvalu island groups; in all these islands, oral tradition is maintained of ancestral voyages from the Samoan islands. These migrations reflect the extraordinary courage of these seafaring people in navigating without instruments to sail throughout the vast Pacific Ocean.

Samoa before the arrival of Europeans

Archeologists place the earliest human settlement of the Samoan archipelago at around 1500 B.C. This date is based upon the ancient lapita pottery shards found throughout the islands. Samoan oral history, however, extends only as far back as 1000 A.D. Whatever occurred between 1500 B.C. and 1000 A.D. 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.

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.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the early 1700s, Samoa's history 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 exists even to the present day; 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 art of tatau, or tattoo, to Samoa, whence came the traditional Samoan malofie (malofie is also known as pe'a for men and as malu for women).

Bestowal of the highly reverential title "Malietoa" marked a period in Samoan history. The title refers to the parting words of Tongan warriors, "Malie toa, malie tau" (literally, "Brave warrior, bravely fought"). This was given by The Tongan King after finally been conquered and driven out of Samoa after 50 years of ruling the pacific and Samoa. The title was amended as part of the more ancient royal courts and titles of Tui A'ana, Tui Atua.

These tales reflect Samoa's colorful and at times fierce past.[2]

European contact

18th century

Contact with Europeans began in the early 18th century but did not intensify until the arrival of the British. In 1722, Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to sight 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.

19th century

The United States Exploring Expedition (1838–42) under Charles Wilkes reached Samoa in 1839 and appointed an Englishman, John C. Williams, 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".[4] A British consul was already residing at Apia.

Missionaries and traders arrived in the 1830s. 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 scale 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 the United Kingdom had cause to intervene in Samoa. The United States began operations at the excellent 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 latter part of 19th century, the United Kingdom, 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 First Samoan Civil War and the Samoan crisis

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 though 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. 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.[5]

Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Samoa in 1889 and built a house at Vailima. He quickly became passionately interested, and 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 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

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

The Second Samoan Civil War was a conflict that reached a head in 1898 when Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States were locked in dispute over who should have control over the Samoa Islands.

The Siege of Apia, or the Battle of Apia, occurred during the Second Samoan Civil War in March 1899 at Apia. 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 the course of 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 the Siege of Apia, Mata'afa's rebels defeated a combined American, British and Tanu allied force at Battle of Vailele on 1 April 1899 with the allied 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, the United Kingdom and the United States quickly resolved to end the hostilities; with the partitioning of 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 results in Mata'afa being promoted to Ali'i Si'i, the high chief of Samoa[9] .

Division of islands

The Samoa Tripartite Convention, 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 accepted the eastern islands of Tutuila and Manu'a, (present-day American Samoa).[3] In exchange for United Kingdom ceding claims in Samoa, Germany transferred their protectorates in the North Solomon Islands and other territories in West Africa. 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 early beginnings of the national 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.[11]

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, in August 1914, 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. In 1919, under the Treaty of Versailles, 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. As in American Samoa, the flu was kept away thanks to the action of its Governor, it led in January some Samoans to asking for the transfer to US administration, or at least general British administration. The petition as recalled a few days later.

The Mau movement gained momentum with Samoa's royal leaders becoming more visible in supporting the peoples movement but strongly opposed violence. On 28 December 1929 Tupua Tamasese was shot along with eleven others during a peaceful demonstration in Apia. Tupua Tamasese died the following day, with the advice that no more blood should be shed.

New Zealand administered Western Samoa first as a League of Nations Mandate and then as a United Nations trusteeship until the country received its independence on 1 January 1962 as Western Samoa.[12] Samoa's first prime minister following independence was paramount chief Fiame Mata'afa Faumuina Mulinu'u II.

Samoa was the first Polynesian people to be recognized as a sovereign nation in the 20th century. In 1977, Queen Elizabeth II visited the Samoa during her tour of the Commonwealth.

In July 1997 the constitution was amended to change the country's name from "Western Samoa" to "Samoa." Samoa had been known simply as "Samoa" in the United Nations since joining the organization in 1976. The neighboring U.S. territory of American Samoa protested the move, feeling that the change diminished its own Samoan identity. American Samoans still use the terms "Western Samoa" and "Western Samoans."

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 the age of 95. He held this title jointly with Tupua Tamasese Lealofi until his death in 1963. The late 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.

See also


  1. ^ Tuvale, Te'o. "An account of Samoan history up to 1918: Chapters I-IV". Retrieved 19 September 2011. 
  2. ^ Tuvale, Te'o. "An account of Samoan history up to 1918". Retrieved 19 September 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c Ryden, George Herbert. The Foreign Policy of the United States in Relation to Samoa. New York: Octagon Books, 1975. (Reprint by special arrangement with Yale University Press. Originally published at New Haven: 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. ^ Ryden, George Herbert. The Foreign Policy of the United States in Relation to Samoa. New York: Octagon Books, 1975. (Reprint by special arrangement with Yale University Press. Originally published at New Haven: Yale University Press, 1928)
  5. ^ Stevenson, Robert Louis.  
  6. ^
  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. pg. 249
  9. ^ a b Kohn, George C (1986). Dictonary of wars, Third Edition. Facts on File Inc, pp. 479–480.  
  10. ^
  11. ^ Tuvale, Te'o. "An account of Samoan history up to 1918: Chapter V — A Record of events in Samoa since 1822". Retrieved 19 September 2011. 
  12. ^ New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage (19 July 2010). "Towards independence - NZ in Samoa". Retrieved 29 April 2011. 
  • Eustis, Nelson. 1979. Aggie Grey of Samoa. Hobby Investments, Adelaide, South Australia. 2nd printing, 1980. ISBN 0-9595609-0-4.

External links

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