Samoa has a long and fascinating history spanning more than 3,000 years. The islands have experienced an array of new arrivals and occupations, including Western Europeans and the introduction of Christianity, through to the contentious New Zealand political control. Here’s an overview of the makings of modern Samoa and how this small island nation has become the fascinating country it is today.
Samoa is made up of a series of volcanic islands, some of which are still active including its largest island, Savai'i. Volcanic eruptions account for many of the country’s captivating landforms such as massive lava tubes and the spectacular rocky coastlines which were created when hot lava reached cold seawater.
A visual reminder of the islands’ volcanic activity is the skeleton of a church near the Saleaula Lava Fields, which remained standing as lava surrounded and flowed through it to reach the island’s north-eastern coast.
The country’s most recent eruption was Savai’i's Mt Matavanu, which occurred between 1905 to 1911. Samoa’s main island Upolu is also a volcanic island, but the last three eruptions are estimated to be a few hundred to a thousand years ago.
Myth and legends say Samoans descended from the gods and heavens. Modern archaeological research however, points to Samoa’s Polynesian ancestors making their way across the Pacific in ocean-faring canoes around 1,000BC.
Samoa’s oldest known site of human occupation is Mulifanua on the island of Upolu. Stonework pyramids and mounds in star formation found throughout the islands have inspired various theories from archaeologists about the beginnings of Samoan history.
During the centuries that followed the settlement of the Samoan islands, its people travelled often between other Pacific islands, particularly Fiji and Tonga, for trade, battle, and intermarriage. The universe known by the early Samoans included just Tonga and Fiji, to which they regularly journeyed, often waging war. There is still a friendly rivalry between the nations, especially on the rugby field.
Around 950AD, warriors from Tonga arrived. They took Savai’i to rule, and then tried to do the same on the island of Upolu but were defeated by chief Malietoa Savea, whose name, Brave Warrior, came from that battle. Within Samoa itself, villages began to clash with each other, vying for more space along an increasingly populated coastline. Many years of Pacific wars ensued into the 13th century.
Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to sight the islands in 1722, but it wasn’t until 1830 when the Reverend John Williams arrived in Savai'i, that the Christian gospel had an impact on Samoan life. It was Western missionaries who converted the people from belief in Gods for the sun, earth, heavens and sea to one God.
The Samoan Civil War, between 1886 and 1894, was centred around whether Malietoa Laupepa or Mata'afa Iosefo should be king. The German military intervened on numerous occasions, all while tensions existed between the Germans and the US, as both wanted to further their interests in Samoa.
Conflict continued until 1894 when Laupepa finally rose to the throne. When Laupepa died, the Second Samoan Civil War broke out in 1898. Germany, the US and UK were again battling for control of the Samoan Islands.
In 1899 after years of civil war, the islands of the Samoan archipelago were divided – the Germans taking the islands to the west and the Americans taking the islands to the east, now known as American Samoa.
Under the Germans, Samoa saw its first public education system, a hospital sponsored by the governor and an extensive road network. During this time, German companies began introducing people from Melanesia and China to work on and grow extensive plantations that had been established by foreign powers in the late 19th century.
Soon, a Chinese population existed in Samoa and began establishing businesses and enterprises. The Chinese immigrants were known for their hard work, even in harsh conditions and treatment. Many Chinese people remained in Samoa, marrying local people and establishing families, the descendants of which remain in Samoa today.
One of Samoa's most famous residents was Scottish writer named Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (1850-1895). The author and poet is best known for his novels Treasure Island (1881), Kidnapped (1886), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and The Master of Ballantrae (1889).
Born in Edinburgh, Stevenson began writing as a teenager, a passion that eclipsed any desire to become part of the family profession of lighthouse engineering, or the law career he chose and studied but never practised. Stevenson, who enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle, travelled abroad often, and many of his books were produced during those journeys.
Stevenson chartered a yacht for a holiday on the seas from which he would never return, and which would result in the publication of in-depth insights about the South Seas. After visiting several islands for extended stays, where Stevenson found a great interest in immersing himself in the local lifestyle, they reached Samoa in 1889 for a six-week stay.
After a stint in Sydney, he returned to Samoa and set up life in the Vailima house in what is today the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. Stevenson became a popular and well-respected member of the community and continued to write, the climate suiting his health, until his death at age 44. He was buried on top of Mount Vaea, overlooking the sea.
Today, the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum includes excerpts from his work and family memorabilia.
After the outbreak of World War I, New Zealand captured Western Samoa from Germany and following the end of the war took administrative control on behalf of the United Nations from 1918 right through to independence in 1962.
The Samoan people were left feeling angry with the ongoing foreign rule of their country. This led to the Mau resistance movement - O le Mau a Samoa - in the late 1920s, which sought to become independent from New Zealand.
The worst incident in NZ's relationship with Samoa occurred on Saturday 28th December 1929. It was precipitated by a fracas that erupted during a Mau parade along Apia's waterfront to welcome home two members who had been exiled in NZ. The incident culminated in the police opening fire on the crowd, leaving at least eight dead. Tragically, this fire mortally wounded the prominent Samoan leader, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, and to this day is remembered as Black Saturday.
Progress towards a Samoan government was interrupted by the Great Depression and World War II. Eventually, pushed by the United Nations, New Zealand declared Western Samoa independence on 1 January 1962, under Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Mata’afa.
From independence in 1962 through to 1997, the nation was known as Western Samoa, until it dropped the title ‘Western’ from its name to become the Independent State of Samoa, with Samoa celebrating its Independence Day each June.
New Zealand and Samoa continue to have a close relationship and share a vision for a prosperous and resilient Samoa with a skilled and healthy Samoan population. The New Zealand Government supports Samoa to foster economic development and adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. On 4 June 2002, the New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark formally apologised to Samoa.
The start of the new century brought a new kind of national challenge to Samoa. On September 29, 2009, the Samoan archipelago was shaken by an undersea earthquake south of Apia in the Pacific Ocean. The quake generated a tsunami that flooded Samoa in several waves, causing extensive damage; villages were flattened throughout the islands, and scores of people were killed.
Reconstruction efforts over the years that followed, aided by the international community, rebuilt Samoa’s infrastructure, schools, homes, and businesses. Its recovery was swift, with many resorts back up and running by 2010 and 2011.
It's said that Samoa retains the most intact indigenous culture in all of Polynesia and Samoa’s rich culture is no better depicted than by the way of life of its locals. Today, Samoa’s vibrant economy revolves around fishing, agriculture, and tourism, thanks to the islands' scenic attractions and stunning beaches.
If you are at the coast and experience any of the following:
A strong earthquake that makes it hard to stand up, or a weak rolling earthquake that lasts a minute or more.
A sudden rise or fall in sea level.
Loud and unusual noises from the sea.
Move straight to high ground, or as far inland as you can. Don't wait for official warnings as a localised tsunami could arrive in minutes, there may not be time for an official warning. Recognise the natural warning signs and act quickly.