Lesson 9: The Samoas

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THE SAMOAS (Western/Independent and American):
“The origins of Samoa,” says the PacificIslandTravel.com history of Samoa, “are shrouded in an ambiguity that is pure Samoa.” The Samoans may acknowledge the fact that historians believe Polynesians populated their islands after a several thousand year journey via Southeast Asia and then through Melanesian or Micronesian islands. (We learned a bit about the Polynesian/Lapita migration in our featured country e-mail about French Polynesia.) Samoans also assert they originated right where they live, in Samoa, where the god Tagaloa created the world, including people, in a story that has many parallels to the creation story in the Christian bible. However Samoans came to Samoa, the islands were already an active trading post and navigation hub when European explorers started to visit in the mid 18th century. In fact, when French explorers arrived in in what is now American Samoa there were fierce battles resulting in casualties on both sides. The Samoans got the reputation of being “difficult.”

Even so, in the 1830s two missionaries from the London Missionary Society, led by the dynamic John Williams and the unfortunately named Charles Barff, took residence in Samoa and converted most Samoans to Christianity. (Williams met his unfortunate end at the hands in 1939 of islanders from the New Hebrides.) Ancient Samoan culture is based on a complicated set of hierarchies, social customs and a system of government called fa’amati in which a chief, or matai, governs an aiga, an extended family, distributing food and wealth on a basis of communal need. Today Christianity is deeply engrained in Samoan society, so much so that Samoans have integrated these and other local traditions into it; for example, Samoans maintain great reverence for their church leaders, much the same way they defer to their matai. According to PacificIslandsTravel.com, Christianity has been “‘samoanised’ in much the same way that games of cricket are played with three-sided bats and Samoan checkers can include eccentric rules like jumping over the whole board, so the Samoan version of Christianity often has non-Samoans scratching their heads in bewilderment.”

By the end of the 19th century the Germans, the Americans and the British all saw economic interests in Samoa and tried to enhance them by each supplying its own group of Samoans in an eight year Samoan civil war. In 1889 all three powers had war ships in the Samoan harbor of Apia and a three-way battle seemed imminent. At that moment a massive cyclone blew in and laid waste to the ships, and to most of Samoa as well. The three sides stood their guns down for a while but tensions rose again by 1898, when there was another civil war. In 1899, after the U.S. and British shelled each other’s Samoan agents in Apia, the “Tripartate Convention” divided the islands in two. The Germans claimed control of Western Samoa, the Americans of islands in the East. The British ended up with no Samoa.

The Germans ruled Western Samoa until World War I, clumsily trying to integrate German and Samoan hierarchies, attempting to impose loyalty to the Kaiser above loyalty to the Samoan chiefs. In 1914, at the urging of the British, New Zealand’s army landed in Western Samoa and claimed the islands. The Germans didn’t put up a fight.

New Zealand’s relationship with Western Samoa had its many rough patches. In 1918 a ship from New Zealand full of sailors sick with influenza breached quarantine and docked in Samoa. They passed along the flu to the islanders. During the 1918-1919 Samoan influenza epidemic approximately 20% of the population died. New Zealand also inherited protests by the Mau (meaning “strongly held opinion”) Movement, a non-violent popular stirring that had started in the early 1900s, in no small part as a response to Germany’s disregard for Samoan culture. In 1929 a peaceful demonstration of Mau turned violent when forces from New Zealand tried to arrest a member of the crowd. A struggle ensued and New Zealand’s soldiers opened fire, killing eleven Samoans, including movement leader high chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, and wounding thirty. One member of the New Zealand-backed police also died during the clash. Afterward colonial forces declared the movement seditious and cracked down; according to NZHistory.com’s account of the incident, nearly 1,500 Mau “disappeared into the bush.” Samoans call the tragedy “Black Saturday.” In 2002 New Zealand’s prime minister officially apologized for the wrongs committed during New Zealand’s rule. There was also a Mau Movement in American Samoa but the U.S. Navy suppressed it, in part by not allowing movement leader Samuel Sailele Ripley to enter the islands.

When World War II came the United States sent tens of thousands Marines to ‘American Samoa; at one point Marines in American Samoa outnumbered Samoans. After the War the U.S. Congress was unable to pass an “Organic Act” that would incorporate American Samoa into the U.S. and therefore America Samoa remained “unorganized.” Still, throughout the 1960s the U.S. invested heavily in America Samoa, attempting to “Americanize” through both construction projects and the increased ubiquity of American culture. Today American Samoa is an “unincorporated territory” of the U.S. that falls under the jurisdiction of the Office of Insular Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Today American Samoans elect their own governor and legislature (the Fono, the leadership structure of which is still based on the matai family leadership system) and generally manage their own affairs, though they use American courts to settle disputes. People born in American Samoa are “American nationals” but aren’t automatically citizens. This means they can live and work in the U.S. without restrictions but can’t vote in federal elections. American Samoa has representative in Congress but that representative, while able to be part of discussions and the crafting of legislature, isn’t allowed to vote either.

Western Samoa became independent from New Zealand in 1962. Originally the Western Samoan system appointed two paramount chiefs joint heads of state for life, but when the second of them died in 2007 Samoa transformed into a parliamentary republic that elects its head of state for a fixed five year term. Western Samoa changed its name to Samoa in 1997, above the protests of American Samoans who were concerned if Western Samoa became called Samoa they would lose their claim on being considered Samoan.

Today there are three main elements of American Samoa’s economy–the public sector, employing about 5,000 workers, the private sector, employing about 5,000 workers, and the tuna sector. There are two substantial tuna canneries in American Samoa–StarKist and Samoa Packing. Together they employ about 5,000 Samoans as well and export hundreds of millions of dollars worth of canned tuna. (Jokes like “…that sounds pretty fishy!” may readily come to mind. Resist the temptation to say such things out loud.)

 

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