History of Samoa: First People, Outsiders and Independence

Home | Category: History and Religion


Official Name: Independent State of Samoa; conventional short form: Samoa; local long form: Malo Sa'oloto Tuto'atasi o Samoa; local short form: Samoa; Former name: Western Samoa. Name of the People: noun: Samoan(s); adjective: Samoan. They are also known as Tagata Sāmoa.

The meaning of Samoa is disputed; some modern explanations are that the "sa" connotes "sacred" and "moa" indicates "center," so the name can mean "Holy Center"; alternatively, some assertions state that it can mean "place of the sacred moa bird" of Polynesian mythology; the name, however, may go back to Proto-Polynesian (PPn) times (before 1000 B.C.); a plausible PPn reconstruction has the first syllable as "sa'a" meaning "tribe or people" and "moa" meaning "deep sea or ocean" to convey the meaning "people of the deep sea". [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ According to one Samoan version, the name Samoa is compounded of "Sā," meaning "tribe, people of," and "Moa," which means "chicken," referring to the "family" of the Tui Manu'a, the highest-ranking titleholder of eastern (American) Samoa. Another proposal suggests that linguistic evidence points to the meaning of Samoa as "people of the ocean or deep sea." [Source: Thomas Bargatzky, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

According to oral tradition, the Samoan archipelago was created by the god Tagaloa at the beginning of history. Until 1997, the western islands were known as Western Samoa or Samoa I Sisifo to distinguish them from the nearby group known as American Samoa or American Samoa. The distinction was necessitated by the division of the archipelago in 1899. All Samoans adhere to a set of core social values and practices known as fa'a Samoa and speak the Samoan language. [Source: Cluny Macpherson, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group, 2001]

Geography and Identity of Samoa

Samoa is a volcanic island group in the South Pacific, comprising the independent state of Samoa and the US-administered American Samoa. Extending about 560 kilometers (350 miles), the islands are predominantly mountainous and fringed by coral reefs. The majority of the population are indigenous Polynesians. The first European discovery of the islands was in 1722. In 2011, Samoa moved to the west side of the international date line to align its days with Australia and New Zealand. Since then the two Samoas have been on different sides of the date line.

The Independent State of Samoa comprises the western half of the Samoa island chain. The eastern half is American Samoa, formerly Western Samoa. There are nine major islands in eastern Samoa: Upolu, Savai'i, Apolima, Manono, Fanuatapu, Namua, Nuutele, Nuula, and Nuusafee, with a total land area of 2,842 square kilometers (1,097 square miles). Savai'i and Upolu are relatively large, volcanic, mountainous islands. The smaller islands of Manono and Apolima or home to a few people. Extensive lava flows on Savai'i have made much of the island uninhabitable. Apia, the capital, is on Upolu. It is home to two thirds of Samoa’s population. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

Samoa is regarded as cradle of Polynesian culture as the cultures of Hawaii, Tahiti and French Polynesia are believed to have originated from there. Samoa became a German protectorate under the terms of a 1899 treaty. New Zealand took control of the islands in 1914 and administered them from 1920 to 1961, first under a League of Nations mandate and then as a United Nations trusteeship. Resistance to New Zealand rule led to a plebiscite. In 1962, Western Samoa gained independence, becoming an independent state within the British Commonwealth. New Zealand administers the country's foreign affairs under a friendship treaty. The country changed its name to Samoa in 1997. [Source: World Encyclopedia, Oxford University Press 2005]

First People in Samoa

The first people in Samoa were Austronesian settlers who arrived around 1000 B.C. The oldest known archeological site in Somao is Mulifanau on 'Upolu island, which has been dated to 1000 BC. The first inhabitants were Polynesians (as opposed to Melanesian who inhabitants nearby Fiji), originally from what is now Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.

About 3000 B.C. speakers of the Austronesian languages, probably from Taiwan (Formosa), mastered the art of long-distance canoe travel and spread themselves, or their languages, south to the Philippines and Melanesia and east to the islands of Micronesia. The Polynesians branched off and occupied Polynesian Triangle to the east.

The Samoa Islands may have first been settled by migrants from what is now Fiji or Tonga. Some have theorized that Austronesian people traveled first to the Philippines and Indonesia. Then they made it the coast and islands of New Guinea. After that they moved eastward towards Fiji and the Pacific islands in that area and possibly westward to Madagascar. The last place to be reached were New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.

Lapita Culture

Archaeological evidence on Upolu indicates that Samoa was colonized by maritime traders of the Lapita culture at least as early as the 1st millennium B.C.. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The Lapita culture is the name given to a Neolithic Austronesian people and their material culture, who settled Island Melanesia via a seaborne migration at around 1600 to 500 B.C.. The ''Lapita Culture'' is named after a site in New Caledonia. The Lapita intermarried with the Papuan populations to various degrees, and are the direct ancestors of the Austronesian peoples of Polynesia, eastern Micronesia, and Island Melanesia. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Archaeologists have been able to trace their influence and probable movements thanks to discoveries on numerous islands of a relatively sudden and widespread appearance of their trademark a distinctive kind of pottery, characterized by small dentate toothlike) patterns stamped into the clay and simple line incisions, often in complex geometric designs. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

Early Samoans

Polynesian historical accounts go back to A.D. 1250. From this time onward genealogies, important titles, traditions, and legends give considerable information on important political events.

Early Samoan established a culture based on fishing and agriculture and were bound together by a semi-democratic systems based on extended family groups headed by a “matai (headman or family head). Early Samoans traded and intermarried with Fijian and Tongan nobility. The fa’amatai system of titles and nobility developed, which dominates Samoan politics to this day; all but two seats in the legislature are reserved for matai.

Genealogical, mythological, and linguistic evidence suggests that relations with both Tonga and Fiji were maintained throughout the period before the arrival of Europeans, with intermarriage occurring among the upper classes especially of the Samoan and Tongan population. [Source: Thomas Bargatzky, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

Samoans may have practiced warfare cannibalism. John Kneubuhl, a Samoan educator and writer, told National Geographic, "I the pre-missionary days...one of the most powerful chiefs in history took his army from Upola to Savai'i [the main islands on Western Samoa] to attack another important family. The night before the attack they were resting in a village, and he saw a beautiful girl, eight or ten years old. He said to his men, 'Prepare her for me.' You might think it was sexual. No. She was roasted. He ate her. But his warriors became disgusted and clubbed him to death."

Did People From Samoa Colonize Much of the Pacific?

It is believed that migrants originally from Southeast Asia arrived in the Samoan islands and from there settled the rest of Polynesia further to the east. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: These future Polynesians “may have arrived in the islands as early as 1000 B.C.. From Samoa they swept out across the Pacific, carrying Polynesian civilization to innumerable other islands. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

William R. Curtsinger wrote in National Geographic: Samoans spearheaded one of the great maritime ventures of all time — the exploration and settlement of Polynesia. In wooden canoes stitched with coconut-fiber rope and rigged with sails of woven leaves, these mariners who knew no instruments navigated 2,100 miles and made their landfall at Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, around the time of Christ. Within a few centuries their descendants — homing in on undiscovered islands revealed by such slight cues as the flight path of a bird-had found every habitable speck of land in an area of the Pacific bigger than North America and Europe combined.[Source: William R. Curtsinger, National Geographic, December 1974]

Among the oldest archaeological artifacts in Tahiti are Samoan type basalt adzes, unearthed at the Rarotongan village of Avarua. They date to the 13th century, about the time of the alliance between the Tahitian Tangiia and the Samoan Karika.

First European in Samoa

The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to visit Samoa. He sighted the h46s in 1721 but did not land on them. Other early-arriving Europeans included whalers, pirates, and escaped convicts. The H.M.S. Pandora sailed to Samoa to look for the Bounty mutineers. Metal tools and weapons were introduced for the first time at that time. After that Samoan history was characterized by colonial domination and Samoan resistance.

Contact with Europeans began in the early 1700s but did not intensify until the arrival of English missionaries and traders in the 1830s. Subsequent European expansion into the islands led to disorder and violence, which was compounded by tribal warfare.

In the 1850s, Apia became a center for Pacific trading and hosted an American commercial agent and British and German consuls. Between 1847 and 1861, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany competed to align themselves with various Samoan royal families. The entanglements resulted in a civil war in 1889.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: Runaway sailors and other Europeans had already settled among the Samoans and assisted the chiefs in their campaigns. Whalers also visited the islands, and from time to time the warships of the great powers visited Apia to oversee the activities of whaling crews and settlers. Naval officers and missionaries began to consult with the dominant group of chiefs as if it represented a national government and treated its leader as a king. In time, semiofficial representatives of Great Britain and the United States were stationed in Apia. Between 1847 and 1861, the United States appointed a commercial agent, and Britain and the city of Hamburg appointed consuls. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Missionaries in Samoa

The world knew little about Samoa and contact with Europeans was infrequent until the arrival of English missionaries under Rev. John Williams in 1830 and the establishment of the London Missionary Society. He has been called the most influential foreign visitor to Western Samoa. Christian missionaries that arrived in the 1830s speared headed an effort that eventually converted most of the population.

Thomas Bargatzky wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “In about 1800 some isolated European sailors and escaped convicts settled on Samoa, bringing with them the first notion of Christianity. In 1830, the missionary John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS) landed in Savai'i during a power struggle among factions, bringing with him native Polynesian missionaries from Tahiti and the Cook Islands. The first permanent European missionaries arrived in 1835 (LMS and Methodists), followed by Roman Catholic priests in 1845. [Source: Thomas Bargatzky, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

Williams's arrival coincided with the victory of one group of chiefs over another, ending a series of violent internecine wars. Within a decade after his arrival, he and his brigade of Congregationalist missionaries from New England converted much of the population to Christianity. One Samoan told National Geographic, "The missionaries came here to do a job, and by God they did one!"

Britain, the U.S. and Germany Vie for Influence in Samoa

During the nineteenth century, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States vied for influence among the diverse Samoan factions. Between 1847 and 1861, they sent representatives to Samoa and established consular presences and attempted to impose their authority. Mutual suspicion, disunity, and a lack of military resources meant that the powers were largely unsuccessful until they agreed to "rationalize" their Pacific interests at the turn of the century.

A series of governments under Samoan chieftainship and foreign support came and went. In 1878 the United States and the Samoan kingdom signed a treaty giving the United States certain trade privileges and the right to establish a naval station at Pago Pago. Germany and Great Britain were accorded similar privileges in 1879. Germans founded coconut plantations. In 1892, American traders convinced the Samoan king to align his country’s date with the US, moving to the east of the International Date Line.

Following the death of the Samoan king in 1841, rival families competed for his titles, devolving into civil war in 1886 with factions getting support from either Germany, the UK, or the US. Factional rivalries arose as British, US, and German consular agents, aided sometimes by their countries' warships, aligned themselves with various paramount chiefs. Intrigues among the chiefs and jealousies among the representatives of the great powers culminated in civil war in 1889.

In 1889, Germany, Britain and the United States all claimed parts of Samoa and nearly took up arms against each other over them. All three countries sent warships to Apia in 1889, presaging a larger war, and Malietoa Laupepa was installed as king. Seven warships were anchored in Samoan waters but a devastating cyclone moved in an sunk six ships (three American and three German ships). Only the British ship “Calliope” survived.

In the Berlin Treaty, which followed, Britain, the United States and Germany made an agreement to divide the islands and set up a neutral and independent government under King Malietoa Laupepea, with Apia constituting a separate municipality. Britain began extricating itself from Samoa partly because it controlled other islands in the Pacific such as Tonga and Fiji. The death of the King in 1898 led to a dispute over succession, and the three powers intervened once again.

Samoa is Divided Between the U.S. and Germany

Upon King Malietoa Laupepa’s death in 1898, a second civil war over succession broke out. The war ended in 1899 and the Western powers abolished the monarchy, giving the western Samoan islands to Germany and the eastern Samoan islands to the US. The UK abandoned claims in Samoa and received former German territory in the Solomon Islands.

All of the Samoan islands west of long. 171°W were awarded to Germany under the terms of an 1899 treaty agreed upon by Germany, the United States, and Great Britain. The eastern islands became territories of the United States in 1904 and today are known as American Samoa. The United States Navy has established a coal station in there Pago Pago in 1900. The western islands became known as Western Samoa (now the Independent State of Samoa).

In 1900, a series of conventions were signed that made Samoa a German protectorate. The German administration continued to experience difficulties, leading to the exile of several Samoan leaders and the suspension of others from office. The German administration was determined to impose its authority and tried to undermine the Samoan polity and replace its titular heads with the kaiser. These attempts provoked varying degrees of anger between 1900 and 1914, when a small New Zealand expeditionary force, acting on British orders, ended the German administration. [Source: Cluny Macpherson, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group, 2001]

New Zealand and Violence in Samoa in the 1900s

Prodded by Britain, New Zealand seized the German islands in Samoa in 1914 without a shot at the beginning of World War I and occupied them during the wars and received a mandate to administer them from the League of Nations in 1920. New Zealand was determined to establish authority and pursued a course similar to that of the Germans but proved to as an inept at achieving these goals as it was at administration.

Opposition to New Zealand’s rule quickly grew. In 1918, the S.S. Talune, a New Zealand ship, introduced the Spanish flu, infecting 90 percent of the population and killing more than 20 percent.

The Mau, a non-violent popular movement to advocate for Samoan independence, formed in 1908. The Mau movement grew in the 1920s bases on its to opposition to taxes and support independence. The Mau was most active between 1926—1936 and earned the support of about 90 percent of the Samoan population at its height. In 1929, New Zealand police shot into a crowd of peaceful protestors, killing 11, in an event known as Black Sunday. During all this American Samoa remained a United States territory. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

The Mau movement was supported by both Samoan and the European communities. As part of its civil disobedience campaign its members withdrew from political life, from schools, and from all contact with the government. The protests lasted in various forms until 1936, when the leaders of the Mau reached an agreement with the administration and reentered the political life of the territory. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]|

The mishandling of the S.S. Talune's and its violent reaction to the Mau procession in 1929, left Samoans suspicious and disillusioned of New Zealand administration. These incidents, along with clumsy efforts to promote village and agricultural growth, further reinforced the resolve of Samoans to regain their independence. Their pleas were heard by a sympathetic Labor government in New Zealand during the mid-1930s, but progress was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. [Source: Cluny Macpherson, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group, 2001]

Samoa’s Road to Independence After World War II

Samoa did not see much action during World War II. After the war, in 1946, The United Nations made the islands of Samoa a trusteeship of New Zealand. In 1951, the U.S. Navy turned their territory over to the Department of Interior in American Samoa. New Zealand rule was still unpopular in Western Samoa.

When the United Nations made Samoa a trusteeship it gave New Zealand responsibility for preparing it for independence. A better trained and more sympathetic administration and a determined and well-educated group of Samoans led the country through a series of national consultations and constitutional conventions.

The Samoa Amendment Act of 1947, along with subsequent amendments, dictated Samoa's path towards independence. An Executive Council was re-established in 1957, and the New Zealand High Commissioner withdrew from the Legislative Assembly, which was thereon overseen by an elected speaker. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

From 1947 until 1961, a series of constitutional advances brought Western Samoa from dependent status to self-government. A constitution was produced in 1960 and it came into effect with independence. The constitution was a unique embodiment of elements of Samoan and British political traditions and it led to a peaceful transition to independence. [Source: Cluny Macpherson, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group, 2001]

In 1959, an Executive Cabinet was introduced, and in 1960, the Constitution for the Independent State of Samoa was approved. This was followed by a vote under UN supervision in 1961, in which an overwhelming majority of voters approved the adoption of the constitution and supported independence.

Samoa Regains Independence

Western Samoa became an independent state on January 1, 1962 — after the United Nations–supervised plebiscite was held in 1961 — with kings Malietoa Tanumafili II and Tupua Tamasese Mea'ole serving as joint heads of state. It was the first Pacific Island country to regain its independence and dropped the “Western” from its name in 1997. The eastern islands remained under U.S. control.

After Samoa became an independent Tupua Tamasese Meaoli and Malietoa Tanumafili II became joint heads of state. When the former died in April 1963, the latter became the sole head of state, serving until his death in 2007. Fiame Faumuina Mataafa was independent Western Samoa's first prime minister (1962–70) and served again in that post from 1973 until his death in 1975. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

After constitutional changes, Peter Tali Coleman became the first elected native Samoan governor in 1977. The Human Rights Protection Party dominated politics from 1982 until current Prime Minister FIAME Naomi Mata'afa's Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi or FAST party gained a majority in elections in 2021. Tuiatua Tupea Tamasese Efi, a former prime minister, was elected to succeed Fiame Faumuina Mataafa and was reelected after that. Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi became prime minister in 1996. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2023

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.