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American Samoa

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History

There is still some debate about where the Polynesians who first colonised Samoa actually came from, though conventional wisdom suggests people arrived from the East Indies, the Malay Peninsula or the Phillipines. The Samoans themselves are far from conventional on this issue however: other Polynesians might have come from Asia, but Samoans, they say, come from Samoa. They believe themselves to be the cradle of Polynesian culture,the 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 the Bible; a fact that assisted the later transition to Christianity. Carbon testing on the remnants of a village on the island of Upolu (now in Independent Samoa) date the site from about 1000 BC.

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, plying the spice route and looking for the Great Southern Land, popped in and out regularly. Even before this, pirates, whalers, and escaped convicts had discovered the kinder shores of Samoa and were opting out of the rat race. The first official European contact came in 1722 when Dutchman Jacob Reggeveen did little more than name the islands and sail away again. 

Captain Loius-Antoine de Bougainville passed through next and renamed the islands the Navigation Islands before leaving the field open for the Compte de La Pérouse. La Pérouse seriously strained public relations by punishing a number of Samoans caught helping themselves to the ship's fittings. This resulted in retaliatory action from the Samoans and the final body count tallied over 50. By the time the British arrived, looking for the troublesome Fletcher Christian and his band of merry mutineers, the Samoans were hardly in a welcoming mood. In the resulting fracas many Samoans were killed and the incident gave rise to the mistaken impression that Samoans were hostile and aggressive.

It's actually a testament to the Samoans' easy-going nature that the missionaries who arrived in the early 19th century, brandishing their Bibles and threats of everlasting hell and damnation, weren't killed immediately. Instead there were wholesale conversions, explained by the fact that Christianity and the old Samoan beliefs were not disimiliar and that the god Nafanua had - in a curious move by a deity - predicted the coming of a newer, better, stronger religion. The firepower and obvious wealth of the palagi (Europeans, or 'sky bursters' as they were known) was obvious and the enthusiastic embracing of Christianity may have had more to do with a pragmatic approach to the affairs of god and men than with blind faith.

Spreading the Good News of the Lord early in the 19th century was haphazard at best, with various independent zealots working the islands. This changed in 1836 when John Williams and Charles Barff became the first two men to take up official missionary positions in Samoa. Williams converted a large number of Samoans before ending up as a main course at a traditional Melanesian feast. But despite these occasional hiccups, the missionaries' influence was considerable and even today Samoa and nearby islands are known as 'the Bible belt of the Pacific'.

Although Americans had trade relationships with islander chiefs, American interest in the region kicked off properly in 1872 when the USA gained exclusive use of the deep water port of Pago Pago - popular until then as a whaling port - from the High Chief of Tutuila island. The British and Germans also had trade and political interests established, and by the 1880s a three-way tug-of-war over the islands was raging in earnest. A series of leadership systems based on power-sharing were introduced. Colonial powers being what they were, however, these schemes didn't stand a chance. Ships were called in. Tensions mounted. More ships were called in until there were no less than seven warships bristling and snarling inside the small confines of the Apia Harbour (now in Independent Samoa).

The situation deteriorated into something that resembled the first line of a bad joke - the British, the Americans and the Germans were in a Mexican standoff in Samoa - but the punchline was totally unexpected. The mighty combatants were so busy watching each other that they failed to notice the falling barometer, and before they knew it, a cyclone of monumental proportions had hit the harbour. After the palm leaves had settled, the only ship to survive was Britain's Calliope. This blow seemed to knock a bit of sense into the Europeans, and in 1889 they went to the table to negotiate. After a decade or so, western Samoa was ceded to the Germans, eastern Samoa to the Americans, and the British - happy with German renunciation of claims to Tonga, the Solomons and Niue - hopped in their sturdy ships and went home.

Formal annexation of eastern Samoa by the USA happened on 17 April 1900, when the region fell under the auspices of the Department of the Navy. Traditional rights were protected in return for a military base and coaling station. Islanders became US nationals, but not citizens. They couldn't - and still can't - vote in US elections. And right up to the early 1960s, life in American Samoa remained almost entirely traditional and subsistence. With the publication in an American magazine of an article entitled 'America's Shame in the South Seas' (an exposé on the 'poverty' of the simple lifestyle of the locals), the subtle and restrained US presence was suddenly over. President Kennedy leapt into the modernisation car, put the pedal to the metal and drove full-tilt through tradition, smashing the 'Samoan way' forever. American Samoa became a construction project.

In just a few years American Samoa imported much from the modern world, including European-style homes, sewage plants, an international airport, tuna canneries, television, alcoholism, crime, unemployment and juvenile delinquency. By the time the modernisation project ran out of funds in 1967, locals were already lamenting their lost traditions and the creation of a directionless welfare state. With America's focus diverted to Southeast Asia, the following years saw the slow but steady unravelling of the new society. In a series of referenda, American Samoans voted to continue under the direction of appointed governors, however after a little coercion from Washington, locals determined that they were ready for democratically elected leadership and some level of autonomy. The first elections took place in 1977. Commoners and women were, and still are, not permitted to vote. Though never a wealthy nation, austerity measures were nevertheless introduced in the early 1990s to combat the US$17 million deficit and the devastation of Cyclone Val, and by 1996 hundreds of public servants had lost their jobs and the deficit was down to US$9 million.

For more general information on Samoa, go to:

For more regional information on Samoa, go to:

For more product information on Samoa, go to:

We have included Samoa in some of our specials to the South Pacific, eg. our Bounty Voyage and South Sea Dream Voyage.

Another option is to create your own package to Samoa by utilizing the seperate travel components, like hotels, carrental, flights and excursions on the islands.


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