The origins of Samoa are shrouded in
an ambiguity that is pure Samoa. The most popular theory is that Samoans,
like other Polynesians, originated from the East Indies, the Malay
Peninsula or the Philippines, but Samoans tell a different story.
Polynesians, they say, might have come from Asia but Samoans come from
Samoa. They believe themselves to be the cradle of Polynesian culture, a
race of people created by the god Tagaloa while he was cooking up the
world. In fact the Samoan legend of the beginning of the world is
startlingly similar to that told in Genesis.
Despite its reputation as
an exotic far-away land Samoa was in fact as busy as a shopping mall from
the mid-1770s when trading ships, sailing along the spice route and
looking for the Great Southern Land, popped in and out with monotonous
regularity. Much of the early contact and bloody encounters between
Samoans and Europeans took place in the islands that are now part of
American Samoa but the islands of independent Samoa suffered the same
diseases and acts of violence that came with the European ships.
time the British arrived, looking for the troublesome Christian Fletcher
and his band of merry mutineers, the Samoans were hardly in a welcoming
mood. In the resulting head-to-head between the British and the Samoans,
lives were lost on both sides and gave rise to the unwarranted reputation
that Samoans were hostile and aggressive.
Given this violent history it's a miracle that
the missionaries arriving in the early 19th century, brandishing their
Bibles and threats of everlasting damnation, weren't killed immediately.
Instead there were wholesale conversions, a phenomenon that might be
explained by the fact that Christianity and old Samoan beliefs were not
dissimilar and that the Samoan god Nafanua had predicted the coming of a
new religion which would be more powerful and stronger than the old gods.
The fire power and wealth of the palagi (Europeans), or 'sky
bursters', was obvious and the enthusiastic embracing of Christianity may
have had more to do with religious pragmatism than blind faith. These
early soul-scouting expeditions were brief affairs, long on brio but short
on planning. This changed in 1836 when John Williams and Charles Barff
became the first two men to take up missionary positions in Samoa.
Williams converted a large number of Samoans before ending up as main
course at a traditional Melanesian feast. The untimely demise of Reverend
Williams did not stop the onward Christian soldiers and the influence of
these early missionaries was so profound that even today Samoa is known as
the bible belt of the Pacific.
By the late 19th century Britain, America, and
Germany all had their hackles raised and were tugging on Samoa in a
three-way tug-of-war, which had a lot to do with commerce and the flexing
of military muscles and not much to do with 'protecting' Samoa. Tensions
escalated and more ships were called in until there were no fewer than
seven warships bristling and snarling inside the small confines of the
Apia harbour. The whole shebang started to look like a bad joke ('The
British, the Americans and the Germans were in a Mexican standoff in
Samoa...'), when the punch line was delivered. So busy were they watching
each other that they failed to notice the falling barometer and before
they knew it a cyclone of epic proportions had hit. After the dust had
settled six of the ships had either sunk or been scuttled. The only
surviving ship was the British ship Calliope. The cyclone knocked a
bit of sense into the Europeans and they went to the table to negotiate
but the result for the Samoan islands wasn't much better. Samoa was carved
up piecemeal with Western Samoa being handed to the Germans, Eastern Samoa
going to the Americans, and the British going home empty-handed.
Germany made the classic colonialist's error of
disregarding local customs and kings and before long the indigenous
inhabitants were chafing under autocratic foreign rule. The Western
Samoans formed a resistance force, the Mau Movement, dedicated to the
preservation of their culture and the establishment of independence. The
outbreak of war in 1914 changed the Euro-Pacific arena and Germany had a
few other problems on its hands apart from a rebellious Samoan resistance
movement. As part of the war effort Britain asked New Zealand if they
wouldn't mind, old chap, taking over the radio station in Western Samoa
which they duly did in an operation that was more Dad's Army than
the Dardenelles. Hoisting a white serviette (no-one could find a white
flag or hanky), they were received by one or two minor officials from the
German government who apologised for not being able to authorise the
surrender of Western Samoa and then promptly went AWOL. New Zealand
heroically 'captured' the radio station by fossicking around in the bushes
for the parts of the radio station thrown away by the defeated army and
then 'liberated' Westeren Samoa.
A change in rulers meant little to the Mau
Movement or the majority of Western Samoans who continued to agitate for
independence. New Zealand continued to govern the islands, introducing
rugby and possibly even jandals into the cultural mix. Finally in 1961 a
proposal was put before the United Nations and independence was granted in
January 1962. Unfortunately it was not all smooth sailing. Labour disputes
and increasing dependence on foreign aid meant reality fell short of the
dream, but things really got black when the country was ripped apart by
back-to-back cyclones and their main export crop, taro, was decimated by a
fungal blight. The country, which changed its name in 1995 to the
Independent State of Samoa, fell into an economic hole from which it has
never fully recovered, although tourism is now easing the pressure.
more general information
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