Historical Oddities: The Samoan Civil Wars

The wave of imperialism in the 19th century affected many countries as the European great powers and later the United States and Japan conquered or intervened in local affairs of nearly every other country around the world. One area of this new era of colonization that does not receive much attention is the rush to claim the various Pacific Ocean islands. Many islands were fairly straightforward in the patterns of colonization. The great powers, usually either the British or French, would gradually become more involved in the native governments’ affairs until they were protectorates of the European country. However, in the later 19th century as Germany, Japan, and the United States began to get involved, the situation in the Pacific became more complicated. The biggest dispute was over the kingdom of Samoa, which sparked two civil wars and an international crisis in the late 1800s.

The major powers that had claimed the kingdom of Samoa were the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany. The British had a consul in Apia, the Samoan capital, early in the 1800s. In the 1830s, an American expedition by Charles Wilkes established an American presence in Apia, appointing a commercial agent for the United States to Samoa. In the 1850s, the German trading company J. D. Godeffroy & Sohn established business in Samoa, starting the German claims to the islands. The German trading presence was soon greatly expanded with the establishment of cocoa, coconut, and rubber plantations on the islands. The British expanded their presence with a consulate office and leased harbor rights in Apia, while the United States established a naval base at Pago Pago and allied with some of the local native chiefs. The rivalry between the three intervening powers exacerbated local tensions in Samoa and in 1886 the country erupted into civil war.

The First Samoan Civil War started when King Laupepa of Samoa sought protection from Britain and the United States against increasing German influence in the kingdom, including seeking an alliance with the Kingdom of Hawai’I, then an American protectorate. When the German representatives in Samoa found out about this, they banished Laupepa from Apia and along with their chief allies in the kingdom placed rival Tupua Tamassee Titimaea on the throne of Samoa on September 15, 1887. Two years of fighting ensued, most of which was done by the local Samoan claimants. However, ships from all three Western powers patrolled the islands and tensions continued to escalate as the German ship shelled Samoan villages and local chiefs attacked German plantations. The standoff between the United States and Germany came to a head in 1889, when three ships from each side were positioned in Apia harbor monitoring each other for months. The British ship HMS Calliope was also present to observe the action of the other two powers, thought the British were not as involved in the crisis.

The bitter standoff was quickly defused in March of 1889, when a cyclone struck Apia harbor directly. While the locals had all fled the city, neither side was willing to begin evacuation of the ships until the day of the storm’s arrival. The three American and three German ships were all either beached or wrecked, and the HMS Calliope only survived due to its larger construction, and was able to reach open sea before the bulk of the storm hit. The destruction of the ships quickly brought an end to the hostilities, and both sides recognized Laupepa as king of Samoa once again.

However, the end of the dispute was only temporary. In 1898 after the death of Laupepa, a succession crisis arose that naturally brought Germany, Britain, and the United States back into contention for the control of the islands. The Germans supported Mata’afa (Paramount Chief) Iosefo, while the British and Americans supported Laupepa’s son, Prince Tanumafili. Iosefo besieged Apia in March of 1899 with 4,000 men, but was defeated. The fighting continued to the former German plantation of Vailele, where Prince Tanumafili’s force attacked Iosefo’s. Iosefo with German backing won the battle, but afterward the three powers resolved to end the conflict. In November of 1899, the Germans, British, and Americans signed the Tripartite Convention that removed what nominal independence Samoa had and divided the islands between the countries. Germany received the islands of ‘Upolu and Savai’i, which included Apia and are now the independent country of Samoa. The United States received the island of Tutula containing Pago Pago and the islands to its east. These islands are now the territory of American Samoa. The United Kingdom, while they gave up claims to the Samoan islands, gained concessions from Germany elsewhere. This included Germany giving up any claim to Tonga and the sale of the islands east and southeast of various islands in German New Guinea to the British Solomon Islands Protectorate.

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