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History of Samoa

The early history of Samoa is somewhat unknown as there was no written history by the earliest settlers so the base of knowledge derives from oral traditions and archeology. According to the archeologists, the first settlers to Samoa arrived in about 1800-1500 BC. The earliest people likely arrived from the west as during this period most of Polynesia was settled by a few waves of people, primarily all originating from what is today Southeast Asia. The combination of these people over a couple thousand years created what is today known as the Polynesian people.

The Polynesian languages, and that of the Samoan language in particular, reflect this past as Samoan is very distantly related to other Austronesian languages as well as Tagalog of the Philippines, another place some of the earliest settlers may have arrived from.

Oral traditions only date Samoa's history back to about 1000 AD. According to these histories the supreme ruler or god, Tagaloa, created Samoa, the earth, and people. This oral history also claims that people grew from worms, so the people never took a long sea voyage to discover Samoa, rather they were born there as worms and later evolved into people. It was from Samoa that the people of many South Pacific countries migrated according to both these traditions as well as most archeological evidence. No matter what science claims, these oral traditions are very important to the Samoan culture today and truly defined the Samoan culture in the island's early history.

Likewise, the Polynesian people everywhere have a similar origin story as they believe they all originated from the same location, although the location of this almost mythical place is debated if not entirely a legend. The Maori of New Zealand claim their ancestors came from the island of "Hawaiki," the Polynesians on the Cook Islands claim their homeland is called "'Avaiki," and the Polynesians on the Society Islands call their home "Havai'i." Additionally, the Hawai'ians call their largest island "Hawai'i" and in Samoa the largest island is called "Savai'i." Due to linguistic differences, these names sound even more similar; the Samoans tend to claim that all Polynesian people originated in Samoa, meaning Savai'i may be the island the Polynesians claim to be home. No matter the true, it seems Samoa is an important center of Polynesian culture.

The earliest people likely lived off the land by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Their lives were simple and based on survival, but they also had a strong belief in Tagaloa and other higher beings; in many ways it was also believed that Samoa was the center of the world. Because of these religious beliefs a number of things common in Samoa, both in the past and today, arose. Tattooing was done to represent numerous religious figures and creation (this practice arrived from Fiji and is called malofie, pe'a, or malu in Samoa). Additionally, most houses and structures in Samoa are round in shape because Tagaloa told the people to build houses in the shape of heaven, which is round. In the early history, and even into the 1800s, the people lived a simple life based on survival with a strong focus on religion.

Another important aspect of early Samoans history revolves around the local culture and communities, which were based on chiefs. These local governments tied the people to their family and community as relations were generally good, but warring was not uncommon. Wars took place between Samoans as well as between Samoans and other islanders. Despite the wars, the people worked well together on many occasions and the Samoans, Fijians, and Tongans seemed to be in fairly close contact for much of history. In fact high ranking chiefs or their children often married their equals on these other islands and these marriages generally kept good relations between the islands.

The people of Samoa continued to live this lifestyle for thousands of years until the first Europeans arrived. Although Europeans may have spotted the islands earlier, most people agree that the first European to spot the islands was Jacob Roggeveen from the Netherlands in 1722. However Roggeveen didn't actually stop and after him other Europeans explorers also came and went without stopping. It wasn't until the early 1800s when Europeans and Americans began to land and settle the islands. By 1830 both the United Kingdom and the United States had a presence on the islands and their presence vastly changed the culture and people of Samoa (then known as the Navigator Islands).

The British and the Americans didn't make a true effort to colonize the islands; however some people did settle the region and each set up trading posts on the islands. It wasn't until the Germans arrived in the mid- to late-1800s that the culture changed as the Germans began to use the islands for commercial gain, hence altering the culture to a significant degree.

Although missionaries were already present prior to Germans arrival, the Germans increased the number. The Germans also created large plantations to grow coconuts, cacao, and rubber. As German presence increased, so too did British and American presence with each expanding their trading posts, their influence, and their claims on the land. These three powers also began dividing the people as each built strategic alliances with local chiefs on varying islands.

These foreign powers destroyed much of the historic culture of Samoa. The missionaries converted most of the people to Christianity, leaving behind their historic religion, but keeping much of the symbolism from that religion (for example round houses and tattooing are still common). In other ways, the historic culture survived or even thrived. Local chiefs not only maintained, but increased their power as they were working with powerful European and American allies. In another way though, these chiefs eventually lost most of their power to these foreigners as the political and social structure were slowly altered to be run on a larger level and by outside powers.

These foreign powers were so powerful that their influence led to civil war in Samoa in 1886. This war was led and fought by the chiefs, but the chiefs were each supported by a foreign government. The Germans, British, and Americans all supplied arms and training to the local chiefs and on a few occasions even got directly involved in the war. Although the civil war was one fought by the locals, foreign powers sparked, or at least encouraged the prolonging of the war. Even famed author, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the war in his book A Footnote to History, which he wrote while living in Samoa during the war.

After this first civil war a second one broke out in 1898, but this war was more openly between the three foreign powers vying for control over the islands (primarily a war of Germany versus the United Kingdom and the United States). In a way this was fought as a domestic war, but the foreign powers supported different local chiefs and supported them through supplies, but in this war the foreign powers were directly involved.

This war ended like it started, with the foreign powers dictating terms. The Germans gained control over what is today Samoa, while the Americans gained control over what is today the American Samoa, and the British stepped away from the islands in exchange for other German lands in the South Pacific.

More than anything, these wars divided the local people and destroyed much of the culture in Samoa as each side gained more of an affinity to the culture of their ruling power. The local chiefs became quite supportive of their foreign supporter as they gained their technology, language, religion, and political structure at the sake of many traditional items. Again though, numerous aspects of their religion continued on and the Samoan language was never lost.

The wars also led to independence movements as many people were upset at the complete control over the islands by these foreigners. These movements began in the early 1900s and were strongest in "Western Samoa" (modern day Samoa). However, these calls for independence went nowhere at the time since in 1914 World War I broke out in Europe and New Zealand quickly came in to take control of Samoa ("Western Samoa" at the time) from the Germans. Under the rule of New Zealand the independence movement continued, primarily in a peaceful fashion and little changed in the way of the Samoan culture other than the fact that English became the second language instead of German.

Despite the calls for independence, "Western Samoa" remained under the control of New Zealand until 1962. They declared independence under the name "Western Samoa" (this was changed to "Samoa" in 1997) and were led by chief Fiame Mata'afa Faumuina Mulinu'u II and became a part of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The American Samoa is still a dependency of the United States.

Since independence, Samoa has continued on its path of westernization, but their economy has struggled numerous times. Samoa has, in many ways, adopted a culture not unlike that of New Zealand, or many other western countries. They have all the technology and amenities that any other country has as their lifestyles reflect that of much of the world. However, their economic struggles prevent most people from purchasing cars and other modern technology as farming and fishing tend to remain the primary forms of the economy.

This page was last updated: February, 2013