About Samoa


This Web site contains information relevant to both Independent and American Samoa. For information specific to one or the other, such as a history post-1906, government and politics, or economy, see either Facts about Independent Samoa or Facts about American Samoa, also on this Web site.


Samoa is a divided nation; the history of independent Samoa (previously the Independent State of Western Samoa) and American Samoa was the same until the islands were divided by Europeans at the beginning of the 20th century. There was no need to distinguish between the Samoans until contact with Western powers caused them to head in different directions.
The Samoan people are Polynesian. The area called Polynesia, meaning 'Many Islands', forms a triangle with points at Hawai'i, Easter Island (off west-coast of South America) and New Zealand. It is believed that Polynesian people entered the Pacific from the west, via the East Indies and the Malay peninsula. This theory is backed up by linguistic and DNA studies, archaeological evidence and oral histories. The first Polynesians are now referred to as Lapita, after a site in New Caledonia, where their distinctive pottery was first found.
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The Samoan islands were probably settled initially by Fijians or Tongans, and many ancient Samoan legends have Fijian kings and princesses as their heroes. The earliest known evidence of human occupation in the islands is the site of a Lapita village, partially submerged in the lagoon at Mulifanua on the island of 'Upolu. Carbon tests have tentatively dated the site at 1000 BC. Undecorated pottery, known as Polynesian plainware, of a comparable age has been found at Aoa on the island of Tutuila and at Tolaga on the island of Ofu.
At numerous other sites on 'Upolu, Savai'i and Tutuila (and to a lesser extent on Manono and ta'u), archaeologists have discovered some odd platforms that have stone protrusions radiating from their bases, which have been dubbed 'star mounds', information gathered from oral traditions and archaeological studies suggests that these structures were used in the ancient sport of pigeon-snaring. On Savai'i, near the village of Palauli, is the pyramid of Pulemelei, the largest ancient structure in the Pacific, and there seems to be no tradition or speculation surrounding it. Evidence suggests that in ancient times many more Samoan settlements were located inland in the valleys and on hillsides and that the increase in coastal settlement was due to European influence and trade. 
In AD 950 warriors from Tonga established rule on Savai'i, the island nearest to Tonga, then moved on to 'Upolu, where they were opposed by Malietoa Savea, the chief of the Samoan islands, whose title was derived from the words malie toa (brave warrior). A treaty of peace between the two countries was drawn up and the Samoans were left by the Tongans to pursue their own course.
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European Contact
Although whalers, pirates and escaped convicts had landed on the islands earlier, the first European on record to approach the Samoan islands was Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen. He sighted the Manu'a Islands in 1722 while searching for the terra australis incognita, the great unknown southern continent. He gave Dutch names to the islands and then sailed on without landing. In May 1768 the French explorer Captain Louis-Antoine de Bougainville passed through Samoan waters and, upon seeing the islanders travelling about in ocean-going canoes, christened the archipelago Les Iles des Navigateurs (the Navigator Islands). He bartered with the inhabitants of the Manu'a Islands and merely sighted the more westerly islands. Next came Bougainville's compatriot Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de La Perouse, who landed at Fagasa on the north coast of Tutuila in 1787. The Samoans went about helping themselves to the intriguing bits of iron found aboard his ships La Boussole and Astrolabe, and the French sailors made examples of a few by punishing them. Word evidently spread westward became the following day, while the sailors were collecting water at A'asu, the locals attacked, killing 12 crewmen, including Commander Viscount de Langle. La Perouse estimated that at least 39 Samoans also died during the encounter. The bay of A'asu was named Massacre Bay and the Europeans departed posthaste. 
In 1791 the British ship HMS Pandora, under the command of Captain Edward Edwards, called in while searching for the Bounty mutineers, who had set their Captain William Bligh and 18 crewmen adrift in Tonga two years earlier. The ship was attacked off the coast of Tutuila and, as a result, many Samoans were killed. These two events introduced the Samoans to the power of European weaponry in dramatic fashion, and gave the Samoans a reputation in foreign circles for being hostile people. The European traders - who had by this time begun plying the Pacific trade routes carrying whale products, sandalwood and beche-de-mer (a species of sea slug) to China in exchange for silk, tea and porcelain - steered clear of the Samoan islands until the early 1800s. by the 1820s quite a few Europeans had settled in the islands, most of them escaped convicts and retired whalers - welcomed by the unsuspecting islanders because they knew the strange ways of the palagi (white-skinned people) who were willing to share their technological expense. Of course, the palagi also brought with them diseases to which the islanders had no immunity.
The Missionaries
Some of the itinerants who found themselves in the Samoas during the early 19th century - and several Christian converts from other parts of Polynesia - introduced a form of Christianity known as the Sailors' Lotu (Church). given the similarity of the Christian creation beliefs to Samoan legend regarding a prophecy by Nafanua, the war goddess, that a new religion would take root in the islands, the Samoans were quite well prepared to accept the message of the missionaries who arrived to covert them. The wondrous possessions of the palagi were also used as evidence that the white man's god was more generous than the gods of the island people.
Peter Turner, a Wesleyan Methodist missionary based in Tonga, visited the Samoas briefly in 1828 and passed his message along to many Samoans, but he never established a mission there. In 1830, missionaries John Williams and Charles Barff of the London Missionary Society arrived on Savai'i, and AW Murray came to Tutuila in 1836. Shortly after, others carried their message to Manu'a. To lotu Pope (Pope's church) was brought to Savai'i from Wallis and Futuna in 1845 by French Catholic missionaries, who established a Marist mission. This paved the way for the European  rivalry between Catholics and Protestants that extended throughout the Pacific islands. It didn't take long for the Christian gospel to be accepted wholesale by the Samoans and it has remained an integral part of Island life to the present day.
The lotu Mamona (Mormon church), a latecomer, was introduced by two missionaries sent by an imperialistic white politician in Hawai'i named Walter M Gibson who believed that he could use religion to help annex the Samoan islands to the Kingdom of Hawai'i. by 1888 the missionaries had settled in with Samoan wives and had established an official mission in Pago Pago. shortly afterwards, another mission was established in what is now independent Samoa.
European Control
In 1838 the British Captain Bethune, of HMS Conway, set up a code of commercial regulations that dealt with customs and ports in the Samoas. The following year the Americans sent a scientific expedition under the command of Charles wiles, who was charged with surveying land and observing the natural elements among the more obscure islands of the South Pacific. Wilkes made a trading treaty of sorts with the chiefs of the islands and thereby established another nation's interest in the area. The first British consul to the Samoas as G Pritchard, formerly of the London Missionary Society, who was appointed in 1847. At the time, word of Pago Pago's harbour was spreading throughout the European powers and it was becoming one of the prime whaling ports in the Pacific. 
Between 1850 and 1880 many European settlers arrived on the islands, especially on 'Upolu, primarily for the purpose of trade. They established a society of Apia and a minimal code of law to govern their affairs, all with the consent of 'Upolu chiefs, who maintained sovereignty in their own villages. One extremely important arrival in Apia was that of August. Unshelm, a representative of German trade tycoon Johann Cesar Godeffroy who was interested in trading in Polynesia. by 1861 his firm had established stations in Fiji and Tonga. When Unshelm died, Theodor Weber took over the firm and spread the Godeffroy empire to thousands of islands around the southern, central and western Pacific. He purchased 300 sq km of land on 'Upolu and set the stage to realise his dream of raising the German flag over the Samoas.
His plans were interrupted, however, by the bankruptcy of Godeffroy and the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, and the colonisation scheme was put to rest for a while. Still, quite a few German colonists remained in the Samoas, and the entrepreneurial void was immediately filled by a trading company with the long-winded name of Deutsche Handels and Plantagen Gesellschaft de Sudsee Inseln zu Hamburg (DHPG).
Squabbling Powers
There were (and still are) four 'paramount' families - equivalent to royal dynasties - in what is now independent Samoa, the Malietoa, Tupua Tamasese, Mata'afa and Tu'imaleali'ifano. during the 1870s the Samoans became involved in a civil dispute between two kings, one on the east and one in the west, contending for supreme power. Samoans sold their lands to the Europeans to acquire ornaments to settle the matter. In the meantime, Britain and the USA wee struggling to attain some sort of peace in the islands. In 1872 the USA had been offered exclusive rights to a naval base in Pago Pago Harbor by the high chief of Tutuila, in exchange for the protection and backing of the US government. The following year Colonel AB Steinberger, serving as an official agent of the US government, drafted a constitution and bill of rights for the Samoan islands and set up a government whereby the squabbling kings would serve alternate four-year terms. Steinberger ultimately became Premier of Samoa. He severed ties with the US government and began negotiations with the Germans regarding taxes, German land claims and administration of German financial interests in the Samoas.
The British and American consuls were unhappy that Steinberger had usurped power, and arranged to have him deported to Fiji. As soon as he was gone, the Samoan self-government scheme collapsed, leaving a member of factions seeking political advantage. A delegation of Samoans sought protection from the British in Fiji and the Americans in Washington, but both refused. Because the USA had ignored the invitation to set up a naval base on Tutuila, the Samoans made both Germany and Britain the same offer. By the late 1880s warships of all three powers had been sent to Apia Harbour and the affair had heated up sufficiently to inspire tension all arond.
As one Samoan author put it, they were 'like three large dogs snarling over a very small bone'. As if nature was reprimanding the three bickering countries, on 16 March 1889, Apia Harbour was hit by one of history's worst cyclones. The Germans lost three4 warships - Olga, Adler and Eber. The Americans also lost three - Vandalia, Trenton and Nipsic. The British warship Calliope battled her way out of the harbour in time to escape destruction. There were 92 Germans and 54 American crew members killed in the storm.
All three powers mellowed a bit after the disaster and made a real effort to settle the issue by drawing up the Berlin Treaty of 1889. This stipulated that an independent Samoa would be established under the rule of a foreign-appointed Samoan king and that the consuls of Bri8tain, Germany and the USA would be given considerable advisory powers on the island of 'Upolu. After the Berlin Treaty, the Malietoa king was given the official vote of confidence, but his hold on power was tenuous. In the years that followed, the Mata'afa king continually challenged the Malietoas' right to power. As the factions continued their struggle and the Western powers again began to quarrel, the foreign rulers realised that they were getting nowhere in their attempts to settle the dispute.  The Berlin Treaty was declared void, and on 2 December 1899 the Tripartite Treaty was drawn up, giving control of western Samoa to the Germans and that of eastern Samoa to the Americans. Britain stepped out of the picture altogether in exchange for renunciation of all German claims to Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Niue.
The Germans placed Mata'afa in the puppet position of paramount chief of their territory, abolishing the kingship altogether lest the Samoans be allowed too much power over the new German colony. One of the objectives of the Mau Movement would be to increase German and, later, New Zealand respect for the nation's highest ranking native son, but until his death Mata'afa remained only a figurehead. From this point, the histories of the 'Samoan islands diverged. The period from 1900 to the present appears in the introductory History section for each area.
The Samoan islands are made up of mostly high but well-eroded volcanic islands that lie more or less in the heart of the South Pacific, 3700 km southwest of Hawai'i. To the south lies Tonga, to the east the northern Cook Islands and to the north Tokelau. Independent Samoa, with a total land area of 2934 sq km, consists primarily of the two large islands of Savai'i (1700 sq km) and 'Upolu (1115 sq km). Both are of volcanic origin and are much higher than the islands of American Samoa. The Samoas' highest peak, Mt Silisili in Savai'i, rises to 1866m. Independent Samoa's other two inhabited islands, Manono and Apolima, lie in the 18km-wide strait separating 'Upolu and Savai'i. American Samoa, which occupies the territory east of the 171st meridian, comprises seven islands and a few rocky outcrops. Its land area is 197 sq km.
Tutuila (145 sq km) is a narrow, dragon-shaped island 30km long and up to 6km wide, consisting of a sharp, winding ridge and plunging valleys. The island is nearly bisected by Pago Pago Harbour, a deep indentation in its south coast. The Manu'a group, about 100km east, consists of the three main islands of Ta'u, Ofu and Olosega. All are wildly steep and beautiful examples of volcanic remnants. Darwin's theory about the life of a Pacific island can be roughly traced by travelling west to east through the Samoan islands. Savai'i, a very young island, remains volcanically active and has erupted during the past century. Just to the east, 'Upolu appears to be extinct at the moment, but its subtle peaks and ridges illustrates that it is still a fairly new island. Tutuila and the Manu'a group, on the oth4r hand, are heavily eroded and many of the volcanic craters they once contained are broken and submerged in the sea.
Rose Atoll, the easternmost island of the Samoas, has no peak of any kind. In fact, the volcano that caused it is not visible ab ove the surface of the sea, the atoll is the result of coral polyps that have colonised its remains. 
The Independent State of Western Samoa officially changed its name to the Independent State of Samoa in July 1997. Throughout this Web site I refer to the country simply as independent Samoa.
Early Colonial Period
In February 1900, after a bitter colonial power struggle between Germany, the USA and Britain left the Germans in control of Western Samoa. Dr Wilhelm Solf was appointed governor and the new caretakers of the colony settled in to rule. The German trading company DHPG began to import foreign labour to Western Samoa. At least 7000 Melanesians were brought from Germany territories in New guinea and the Solomons to work on the plantations,  and soon Chinese were also being brought to the colony as labourers.
Health and working conditions were deplorable but, of the two groups, the Chinese seemed to fare better because they were paid a wage, however minimal, for their labour. In 1908 a Chinese consul was appointed to oversee their affairs in Samoa, and the Chinese were given the official and legal status of Europeans. They were thereby given the freedom to work for whomever they chose, while the Melanesians were restricted to employment with DHPG. Although the Germans had agreed to rule 'according to Samoan custom', they hardly kept their word. Upon assuming the governorship, Solf deposed the reigning king at the time, Tupu Samoa, and determined that the highest power in local affairs would be an ali'i (paramount chief). His next act was to disarm the people and, at the end of his first year of rule, all the gift rifles distributed during the dispute between the three powers were confiscated.
In 1903 Solf established a Lands and Titles Commission, ostensibly to determine land ownership and settle conflicts. What is actually determined, however, was the 35% of arable Samoan land had already been sold to Europeans.
Early 20th Century
Although the first decade of the 20th century was more peaceful than the previous decades had been, Solf continued to ignore Samoan tradition in favour of personal and European interests, causing a breakdown in communications between the Samoans and their colonial rulers. In matters of dispute, the governor assumed the rule of dictator. By 1908 many Samoans had decided they could take it no longer. An official resistance force, the Mau a Pule (Mau Movement0 was organised on Savai'i by Namulau'ulu Lauaki Mamoe, the talking chief of Fa'asalele'aga district. Its members tried by all peaceful means available to persuade the Germans to see things from a Samoan viewpoint, but Solf was unmoved. Fearing violence, Germany sent warships, and in January 1909 Namulau'alu and company were exiled to the Micronesian island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands (at the time a German colony). While all this was going on, nature was wreaking havoc on Savai'i. In 1905 Mt Matavanu exploded and the entire island heard and felt the eruption that devastated the north coast, destroying villages and crops, and polluting the water supply. Fortunately, there was enough warning to evacuate the area before it disappeared under the river of boiling lava that surged down from the mountain, and no-one was killed. The Mormon and Catholic churches in the area were flattened, but the flow 'miraculously' spared the Methodist church.
Eruptions continued until 1910, and the German administration acquired land on 'Upolu on which to resettle the displace4d and famine-stricken Savai'i people. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 and Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Germany was involved in a rush to colonise as many countries as possible before the entire world was swallowed up by other powers. German imperialism, however, was thwarted by Germany's alliances with Australia. When Russia allied itself with Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia. Britain, France and the USA joined Russia and WWI ensued. At the outbreak of war, Britain persuaded New Zealand to seize nearby German Samoa. Preoccupation with affairs on the home front prevented Germany from resisting.
New Zealand occupation continued peacefully under the military leadership of Colonel Logan until 30 April 1920. When the Mau Movement leaders in Saipan heard of the New Zealand takeover they decided it would be necessary to learn English of they wanted to deal with the new administration at home. The leader at the time, I'iga, built an outrigger canoe on Saipan and escaped to the American colony of Guam, arriving after only two days at sea. In honour of this crossing, the strait between Saipan and Guam became known as I'iga Posa. Finally, I'iga was allowed to return home and was invited by Colonel Logan to serve as the Secretary of the Office of Samoan Affairs, a position that he held until 1954. 
It was during Logan's rule that a ship carrying passengers infected with Spanish influenza was carelessly permitted to dock in Apia Harbour. In the months that followed, 8500 Western Samoans - almost a quarter of the population - died of the disease. During the crisis, the New Zealand administration refused offers of medical assistance from American Samoa. Although the Mau Movement's leaders had been exiled, the organisation continued at home, and by the 1920s tolerance for New Zealand rule was growing thin. It remained a peaceful organisation and many European residents of the Samoas also joined. The administration became tense about its popularity and had several of its European affiliates banned. The growing hostility between the factions erupted in violence on 28 December 1929. One of the exiles, Mr Smyth, was enthusiastically greeted in Apia by the Mau upon his return after three years. Armed police took the opportunity to arrest some wanted Mau members and a fight resulted. The authorities fired a machine gun into the crowd of unarmed people, killing 11, including the movement leader. Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III.
The Mau were officially disbanded and a New Zealand warship was sent to enforce the policy of an increasingly paranoid administration. When a Labour government came to power in New Zealand in 1935, the conflict cooled and relations between Samoans and the government improved.
During WWII, US marines stationed on 'Upolu were involved primarily in public works that might have been useful in the case of attack. When they left, New Zeland's grip on Samoa was relaxed and the islands acquired the status of a United Nations Trust territory under the administration of New Zealand. In 1947 the Council of State was established to serve as the executive body of local government, although it was still subservient to the United Nations Executive Council. It consisted of the New Zealand High Commissioner, who was president, and two Samoan chiefs, who were advisers. A legislative assembly was established simultaneously. Seven years later a constitutional convention met, and in 1957 the centre government of Western Samoa was reorganised in preparation for the independent of the country. In September 1959 a prime minister, Fiame Mata'afa, was appointed and the following year a formal constitution was adopted.
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A proposal of independence was put before the United Nations in January 1961. This resulted in a referendum on 1 January 1962 that asked all Western Samoans whether or not they approved of the constitution. It also asked whether or not they wanted independence. Of course, the overwhelming response was in favour of freedom from foreign rule. This was the first and last time that the Western Samoan commoner was allowed a say in government matters until 1990, when universal suffrage was adopted. Until that time, only matai (chiefs) were permitted to vote in elections. The two high chiefs who had served with the New Zealand High Commissioner on the council of State, Tupua Tamasese and Malietoa Tanumafili II, became joint heads of state. The death of the former, on 5 April 1963, left the latter as the sole head of the newly independent state of Western Samoa. 
The official economic plan was to proceed slowly from a subsistence economy towards a cash economy, but by 1965 the vision of imminent prosperity had faded. Labour disputes and a devastating cyclone in 1966 did nothing to improve the situation. Numerous Samoans emigrated to New Zealand and many more made plans to do so. Western Samoa became increasingly dependent on foreign economic aid during the '60s and '70s, and the idea of promoting foreign investment and tourism began to take hold. roads were sealed, the airport was improved, and the Tusitala Hotel (since taken over by Japanese interests and now known as the Hotel Kitano Tusitala was opened to accommodate business visitors and holiday-makers. Though tourism continues to be an important growth industry, the government still relies heavily on foreign aid and overseas borrowing.
In February 1990 and December 1991 the islands were struck by Cyclones Ofa and Val. Thirty-two people were killed, villages were destroyed and crops and forestry plantations were devastated. Little evidence of the damage remains, but some crops, such as coffee and cocoa, have never fully recovered. In 1993 and 1994 the country's biggest export crop, taro was wiped out by a virulent fungal blight. By 2001 it was growing well again, but mainly for domestic consumption. The past few years have seen an increase in taxation, a decrease in agricultural subsidies, rising foreign debt and continued high levels of corruption. In 1997 the country made international news with a scam involving the sale of Samoan passports for up to US$3300 in Hong Kong.
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