Samoa - Aspects


Archaeologists believe that Polynesians settled in the Samoan Islands about 3,000 years ago from Southeast Asia. Their great migration halted here for some 1,000 years before voyagers went on to colonize the Marquesas, society, and other island groups further east in the great triangle known today as Polynesia. thus the Samoans are known as the "Cradle of Polynesia." The universes known as the early Samoans included Tonga and Fiji, to which they regularly journeyed, often waging war. Tongan invaders ruled the Samoas for some 300 years between A.D. 950 and A.D. 1250.


The first European to see the Samoas was Dutchman Jacob Roggerveen, who in 1722 sighted the Manu'a islands in what is now American Samoa. After visiting Tahiti in 1768, the Frenchman Antoine de Bougainville sailed through the Samoas and named them the Navigator Islands because of the natives he saw in canoes chasing tuna far offshore. The first Europeans to land in Samoa were part of a French expedition under Jean La Perouse in 1787. they came ashore on the north coast of Tutuila in American Samoa and were promptly attacked by Samoan warriors. Twelve members of the landing party and 39 Samoans were killed during the skirmish.

To the Samoans, the great ships with their white sails seemed to have come through the slit that separated the sky from the sea, and they named the strange people sailing them papalagi, "sky busters." Shortened to palagi, the name now means any Westerner with white skin. The Reverend John Williams, who roamed the South Pacific in The Mesenger of Peace, discovering islands and preaching the Gospel, landed the first missionaries in Samoa in 1830. Shortly afterward came traders - including John Williams, Jr., the missionary's son. European-style settlements soon grew up at Apia on Upolu and on the shores of Pago Pago Harbour on Tutuila. by the late 1850s German businessmen had established large copra plantations on Upolu. When steamships started plying the route between San Francisco and Sydney in the 1870s, American businessmen cast an eye on Pago Pago. The U.S. Navy negotiated a treaty with the chiefs of Tutuila in 1872 to permit the U.S. to use Pago Pago as a coaling station. The U.S. Congress never ratified this document, but it served to keep the Germans from penetrating into Eastern Samoa, as present-day American Samoa was then known.


Meanwhile German, British, and Americans jockeyed for position among the rival Samoan chiefs on Upolu, with the Germans gaining the upper hand when they staged a coup in 1887, backed up (unofficially) by German naval gunboats. They governed through Malietoa, one of the island's four paramount chiefs., who had thrown in his lot with them. One of his rivals, Mataafa, lost a bloody rebellion in 1888, during which heads wee taken in Samoan style. Mataafa subsequently was exiled to the German Marshall islands.

Continuing unrest turned into a major international incident - fiasco is a better word - when the U.S., Britain, and Germany all sent warships to Apia. Seven vessels arrived, anchored in the small and relatively unprotected harbour, and proceeded to stare down each other's gun barrels. It was March 16, 1889, near the end of the hurricane season. When one of the monster storms blew up unexpectedly, only the captain of the British warship Calliope got his ship under way. it was the sole vessel to escape. In all, four ships were sunk two others were washed ashore, and 146 lives were lost despite heroic efforts by the Samoans on Upolu, who stopped their feuding long enough to pull the survivors through the roaring surf. Of the three American warships present, the Trenton and the Vandalia were sunk, and the Nipic was beached. Another beached ship, the Germans' Adler, rested half-exposed until the reef was covered by landfill 70 years later. (A newspaper story of the time is mounted in the lunge of Aggie Grey's Hotel in Apia.)

Cooler heads prevailed after the disaster, and in December 1889 an agreement was signed in Berlin under which Germany was given Samoa, the U.S. was handed the seven islands to the east, and Britain was left to do what it pleased in Tonga (it created a protectorate). After many years of turmoil, the two Samoas were split apart and swept into the colonial system. the German flag was raised in Apia and March 1, 1900, after which several stern governors sent more of Mataafa's followers and other resisters into exile. Malietoa followers and other resisters into exile. Malietoa remained as the chosen chief, and the Germans residing in Samoa proceeded to make fortunes from their huge, orderly copra plantations.


German rule came to an abrupt and with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, when New Zealand sent an expeditionary force to Apia and the German governor surrendered without a fight. The Germans in Samoa were interned for the duration of the war, and their huge load holding were confiscated. the plantations are still owned by the Samoa Trust Estates Corporation (WSTEC), a government body whose name you will see all over the country. New Zealand remained in charge until 1962, first as warlord, then after World War I as trustee, initially under the league of Nations and then under the United Nations. The New Zealand administrators did relatively little in the islands except keep the lid on unrest, at which they were generally successful. In 1929, however, the Mau Movement under Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III created an uprising. the movement was crushed when the new Zealand constables fired on Tamasese and a crowd of his followers gathered outside the government building in Apia, killing him and eight others.

Twenty years later, after opposition to colonialism flared up in the United Nations, a Legislative Assembly of matais was established to exercise a limited degree of internal self-government. A constitution was drafted in 1960, and the people approved it and their own independence a year later by referendum (the only time until 1991 that all Samoans could vote). On January 1, 1962, Samoa became the first South Pacific colony to regain its independence from the Western powers. For most of its life as a colony and trusteeship territory, Samoa remained in the backwaters of the South Pacific. Only during World War II did it appear on the world stage, and then solely as a training base for thousands of Allied servicemen on their way to fight the Japanese in the islands father west and north. Tourism increased after the big jets started landing at Pago Pago in the early 1960s, but significant numbers of women started arriving only after Faleolo Airport was upgraded to handle large aircraft in the 1980s.


3,000 B.C.   Polynesians arrive from the west, settle the Samoa Islands.
23,000 B.C.   Samoans venture south and west, colonize Tonga, Marquesas, society, and other island groups.
A.D. 950   Tongans invade, conquer Samoans, and rule until 1250.
1722   Dutch explorer Jacob Roggerveen is first European to sight the Samoan Islands.
1768   After finding Tahiti, de Bougainville sails through the Samoas but does not land; names them the Navigator Islands.
1787   Thirty-nine Samoans and 12 members of French exploring team under jean La Perouse killed during skirmish at Massacre Bay on Tutuila in American Samoa.
1830   Reverend John Williams lands first missionaries at Leone on Tutuila, American Samoa. European-style settlements soon established at Apia and Pago Pago.
1850s   Germans start plantations on Upolu.
1872   American Navy negotiates treaty with Tutuila chiefs for American coaling station at Pago Pago.
1887   German residents on Upolu stage a coup, set off an argument between U.S., Britain, and Germany.
1888   Ousted chief Mataafa leads bloody rebellion at Apia but loses to German-backed chief Malietoa.
1889   Warships arrive at Apia to back claims of Western powers, hurricane sinks four, drives two aground, kills 146 sailors. Treaty of Berlin is negotiated and signed. Robert Louis Stevenson settles in Apia.
1890   Treaty goes into effect giving Samoa to Germany, Eastern Samoa to U.S. free hand in Tonga to Britain. 
1894   Robert Louis Stevenson dies at Vailima, his home above Apia; is buries at end of the "Road of the Loving Hearts."
1900   Germany officially establishes colony of Samoa, raises its flag at Apia, U.S. negotiates treaty with Tutuila chiefs to cede their island; U.S. flag raised at Pago Pago.
1905   chief of Manu'a finally cedes his islands to the U.S., completing American possession of Eastern Samoa.
1914   New Zealand expeditionary force seizes Samoa from Germany at outbreak of World War I, confiscates German lands.
1920   League of Nations establishes New Zealand trusteeship over Samoa.
1929   New Zealand constables put down Mau rebellion, killing nine Samoans, U.S. Senate ratifies treaties of 1900 and 1905 turning Eastern Samoa over to U.S.
1942   45 Allied troops use both Samoan as training bases for World War II battles in central and southwestern Pacific. Aggie Grey starts her hot dog and hamburger business in Apia.
1949   New Zealand creates local legislative assembly in Apia, grants Samoa limited internal self-government.
1951   U.S. government transfers administration of American Samoa from Navy to Interior Department.
1960   Samoans vote for independence, draft a constitution.
1961   Reader's Digest criticises American Samoa as 'America's Shame in the South Seas." U.S. aid starts flowing to Pago Pago.
1962   Samoa becomes first South Pacific colony to gain independence.
1977   American Samoans choose first locally elected governor.
1990   First of two hurricanes devastate crops, destroy roads.
1991   Second hurricane hits, universal suffrage comes to Samoa after 30 years of only chiefs voting for Parliament.
About 110,000 people live in Samoa, the vast majority of them full-blooded Samoans. They are the second-largest group of pure Polynesians in the world, behind only the Maoris of New Zealand. Although divided politically in their home islands, the people of both Samoas share the same culture, heritage, and, in many cases, family lineage. Despite the inroads that Western influences have made - especially in American Samoa - they are a proud people who fiercely protect their old ways.
"Catch the bird but watch for the wave" is an old Samoan proverb that expresses the basically cautious approach followed in the islands. this conservative attitude is perhaps responsible for the extraordinary degree to which Samoans have preserved fa'a Samoa while adapting it to the modern world. Even in American Samoa, where most of the old turtle-shaped thatch fales have been replaced with structures of plywood and tin, the firmament of the Samoan way lies just under the trappings of the territory's commercialized surface.
The foundation of Samoan society is the extended family unit, or aiga (pronounced "ah-eeng-ah"); unlike the Western family; it can include thousands of relatives and in-laws. In this basically communal system, everything is owned collectively by the aiga; the individual has a right to use that property but does not personally own it. As stated in a briefing paper prepared for the government of American Samoa by the Pacific Basin Development council, "the attitude toward property is: if you need something which you don't have, there is always someone else who has what you need." this notion is at odds with Western concepts of private ownership, and visitors may notice the difference directly when a camera or other item left unattended suddenly disappears.
At the head of each of more than 10,000 aigas is a matai ("mah-tie"), a chief who is responsible for the welfare of each member of the clan. although the title of matai usually follows bloodlines, the family can choose another person - man or woman - if the incumbent proves incapable of handling the job. The matai settles family disputes, parcels out the family's land, and sees that everyone has enough to eat and roof over his or her head. Strictly speaking, all money earned by a member of an aiga is turned over to the matai, to be used in the best interest of the entire clan. Accordingly, the system has been threatened as more and more young Samoans move to the U.S. or New Zealand, earn wages in their own right, and spend them as they see fit. Nevertheless, the system is still remarkably intact in both Samoas. Even in Samoan outposts in Hawaii, California, Texas, and Auckland (which collectively have a larger Samoan population than do the islands), the people will rally around their aiga, and matais play an important role in daily life.
As is true throughout the South Pacific, land ownership is a touchy subject. About 11% of the land here is freehold, which Samoan citizens can buy and sell. The rest is communal land held by the aigas, not by individuals. non-Samoans can lease freehold and communal property, but they cannot buy it.
Above the aiga, Samoan life is ruled by a hierarchy of matais known in English as high talking chiefs, high chiefs, and paramount chiefs, in ascending order of importance. the high talking chiefs do just that: talk on behalf of the high chiefs, usually expressing themselves in great oratorical flourishes in a formal version of Samoan reserved for use among the chiefs. The high chiefs are senior matais at the village or district level, and the paramount chiefs can rule over entire island groups. The chiefly symbol worn over the shoulder, is a short broom resembling a horse's tail.
The conduct and relations between chiefs are governed by strict rules of protocol. Nowhere is ritual more obvious or observed than during a kava (pronounced) 'ava in Samoan) ceremony. this slightly narcotic brew is made by crushing the roots of the pepper plants Piper methysticum. In the old days the roots were chewed and spit into the bowl by the virgin daughter of a chief. that method of kava preparation has disappeared in the face of modern notions of disease control. coconut shells are scooped into a large wooden bowl of the gray liquid (which tastes of sawdust) and passed around. Each participant holds out the cup, spills a little on the mats covering the floor, and says "Manuia" ("Good health") before gulping it down. It's all a show of respect to host and honored guest. Kava works on the lips like Novocain, which must do wonders for the conversation that follows.
Although some Samoans can become unruly after imbibing too much of potions containing not kava but alcohol, the showing of respect permeates their life. They are by tradition extremely polite to guests, so much so that some of them tend to answer in the affirmative all questions posed by a stranger. The Samoans are not lying when they answer wrongly; they are merely being polite. Accordingly, visitors who really need information should avoid asking questions that call for a yes or no answer.
The Teller of Tales
The salvage crews were still working on the hulks of the British, American, and German warships sunk in Apia's harbour by a hurricane in 1889 when a thin, tubercular writer arrived from Scotland.
Not yet 40 years old, Robert Louis Stevenson was already famous - and wealthy - for such novels as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He arrived in Samoa after travelling across the United States and a good part of the South Pacific in search of a climate more suitable to his ravaged lungs. With him were his wife, Fanny (and American divorcee 11 years his senor), his stepmother, and his stepson. His mother joined them later.
Stevenson intended to remain in Apia for only a few weeks while he caught up on a series of newspaper columns he was writing. He and his entourage stayed to build a mansion known as Vailima up on the slopes of Mount Vaea, overlooking Apia, where he lived lavishly and wrote more than 750,000 published words. He learned the Samoan language and translated into it. "The Bottle Imp," his story about a genie. It was the first work of fiction translated into Samoan.
Stevenson loved Samoa, and the Samoans loved him. Great orators and storytellers in their own right, they called him Tusitala, the "Teller of Tales." On December 3, 1894, almost 5 years to the day after he arrived in Apia, Stevenson was writing a story about a son who had escaped a death sentence handed down by his own father and had sailed away to join his lover. Leaving the couple embraced, Stevenson stopped to answer letters, play some cards, and fix dinner. while preparing mayonnaise on his back porch, he suddenly clasped his hands on his head and collapsed. He died not of tuberculosis but of a cerebral hemorrhage. More than 200 grieving Samoans hacked a "Road of the Loving Hearts" up Mount Vaea to a little knoll below the summit, wher4 they placed him in a grave with a perpetual view overlooking Vailima, the mountains, the town, the reef, and the sea he loved. Carved on his grave is his famous requiem:
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Like other Polynesians, the Samoans in pre-European days worshipped a hierarchy of gods under one supreme being, whom they called Le Tagaloa. When the London Missionary Society's Reverend John Williams arrived in 1830, he found the Samoans willing to convert to the Christian God. Williams and his Tahitian teachers brought a strict, puritanical Christianity. His legacy can be seen both in the large white churches that dominate every settlement in both Samoas and in the fervor with which the Samoans practise religion today.
the majority of Samoans are members of the Congregational Christian church, a Protestant denomination that grew out of the London Missionary Society's work. Samoa almost closes down on Sunday, and even in more Westernized American Samoa things come to a crawl on the Sabbath Swimming is tolerated in both countries only at the hotels and, after church, at beaches frequented by overseas visitors.
Christianity has become an integral part of fa'a Samoa, and every day about 6.30pm each village observes sa, 10 minutes of devotional time during which everyone goes inside to pray, read Scripture, and perhaps sing hymns. A gong (usually an empty acetylene tank hung from a tree) will be struck, once to announce it's time to get ready, a second time to announce the beginning of sa, and a third time to announce that all's clear. It is permissible to drive on the main road during sa, but it's not all right to turn off into a village or to walk around. Even if you can't understand the sermon, the sound of Samoans singing hums in harmony makes going to church a rewarding experience.
You should be aware of several other customs of this conservative society. a briefing paper prepared by the Pacific Basin Development Council for the American Samoan Office of Tourism gives some guidelines that may be helpful.
*   In a Samoan home don't talk to people while standing, and don't eat while walking around a village.
*   Avoid stretching your legs straight out in front of you while sitting. If you can't fold them beneath you, then pull one of the floor mats over them.
*   If you are driving through a village and spot a group of middle-aged or elderly men sitting around a fale with their legs folded, it's probably a gathering of matais to discuss business. It's polite not to drive past the meeting place. If going past on foot, don't carry a load on your shoulders or an open umbrella (even if several of Pago Pago's 200 inches (500cm) of annual rainfall are pouring on you).
*   If you arrive at a Samoan home during a prayer session, wait outside until the family is finished with its devotions. If you are already inside, you will be expected to share in the service. If you go to church, don't wear flowers.
*   If you are invited to participate in a kava ceremony, hold the cup out in front of you, spill a few drops on the mat, say "Manuia," and take a sip. In Samoa you do not bolt down the entire cup in one gulp as you would in Fiji, instead, save a little to pour on the floor before handing back the empty cup. And remember, this is a solemn occasion - not a few rounds at the local bar.
*   Whenever possible, consult Samoans about appropriate behaviour and practices. They will appreciate your interest in fa'a Samoa and will take great pleasure in explaining their unique way of life.
The Samoa Islands, which include independent Samoa and the territory of American Samoa, stretch for some 480 kilometres (300 miles) across the central South Pacific, some 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) w4est of Tahiti and 4,000 kilometers (2,600 miles) southwest of Hawaii. Samoa has the nine western islands; the others are in American Samoa.
Independent Samoa's nine islands have a land area of 2,800 square kilometers (1,090 square miles), two-thirds of which are on Savai'i, the largest Polynesian island outside Hawaii and new Zealand. A series of volcanoes on a line running roughly east to west formed Upolu, which is about 63 kilometers (39 miles) long and 21 kilometers (13 miles) wide, or about the size of Tahiti. Although it's considerably smaller than Savai'i, 21 kilometers (13 miles) to the west, some 75% of Samoa's population lives on Upolu. On the other hand, Savai'i in many ways is the most "old Polynesia" of any island covered on this Web site; there are no towns there, and the villages live very much by fa'a Samoa. Apolima and Manono, the tops of two small volcanoes, sit in the Apolima Strait between the two main islands.
With few exceptions, all of the Samoa Islands are high and volcanic, lush, and well watered. Geologically they are younger than the islands in French Polynesia - volcanoes on Savai'i erupted as recently as 1911. Consequently the islands are fringed with coral reefs that have had time to enclose few deep lagoons; the islands are fringed with coral reefs that have had time to enclose few deep lagoons, the reef pounds directly on black volcanic rocks in many places. in others there are small bays with some of the most picturesque beaches in the South pacific.
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 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 15th November 2008)

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