Hardened lava rock at Samoa's Saleaula Lava Field

History of Samoa

Samoa has a long, rich and interesting history, one that is based on the first people who arrived more than 3,000 years ago and infused with the colours of many other nations.

This history is evident in everyday life and traditions, but also in some of Samoa’s fascinating historic locations. 

Here are a few suggestions of taking a trip not just through Samoa, but a journey through the centuries.

Saleaula Lava Field - Savai'i

Many scars remain in the landscape from Samoa’s most recent volcanic eruption on Savai’i Island. This was the eruption of Mt Matavanu, which occurred between 1905 and 1911.

The lava flow that overtook swatches of land wiped out five villages and several churches, but it was so slow-moving that all the people in its path had ample time to escape safely - to Upolu Island or locally on Savai’i. 

Those who left re-settled on Savai’i did so in a new village called Le'auva'a, which today is still home to the descendent of this group.

A notable historic relic of the volcanic eruption 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 rest of the lava field is also interesting, with many fascinating landforms left by the lava as it cooled.

Interpretative signs explain what happened during the eruption, and be sure to read the story behind the “virgin’s grave” which miraculously escaped the lava flow.

Star mound - Manono Island

On the top of beautiful, deeply traditional Manono Island is a 12-pointed ancient star mound. One around 300 recorded mounds in Samoa and the Pacific, this one is located on the flat peak of 110m-high Mount Tulimanuiva.

Constructed of earth and stones, it is thought the mounds were built around 900-1000 years ago when Tonga occupied areas of Samoa. Theories behind their use vary from pigeon catching, religious reasons, rituals and a relationship between the people and the stars.

Whatever their use, most of the star mounds are hidden between the lush jungles of the Pacific, making Manono Island worth the trip to find one for yourself.

Grave of 99 Stones (Pa Le Soo) - Manono Island

At Lepuia’i Village in the southwest of the island, there’s another archeological site worth seeing: the Grave of 99 Stones. Each stone represents one of the wives of the high chief Vaovasa. 

According to the story behind the stones, Vaovasa, who reportedly had 99 wives, was killed by villagers as he tried to escape from Upolu with his 100th, abducted, wife. 

His body was brought back to Manono in his raiding fautasi (longboat) for burial in a grave built with 100 stones. That grave remains unfinished, and today you can see a large gap where the final stone was to be placed. 

Robert Louis Stevenson Museum and tomb - Apia

The beautiful plantation home to Scottish writer and poet Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1895), who chose to settle in Samoa in the 1890s, is now a museum dedicated to his life. 

The author and poet is best known for his novels Treasure Island (1881), Kidnapped (1886), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and The Master of Ballantrae (1889).

Stevenson’s Samoan mansion and beautiful gardens have been preserved in its original state and features his library, travel mementos and personal belongings.

A popular and well respected member of the Apia community, when Stevenson died at age 44 he was buried on top of Mount Vaea, overlooking the sea. Today, visitors can walk up Mt Vaea to visit his tomb at the top of the summit and experience the beautiful views overlooking Apia.

Aggie Grey's Hotel - Apia

Any trip through Samoa’s history has to include a stay at Aggie Grey’s hotel in Apia.

Aggie Grey (1897-1988) is considered as one of Samoa's most famous tourism pioneers, and the hotel that bears her name continues to be one of most iconic accommodation facilities in Samoa, if not the South Pacific. 

Grey, born Agnes Swann, was a half English-half Samoan woman who opened the hotel in 1933. A popular figure on the country’s social scene, Aggie hosted many notable actors at her hotel, including Marlon Brando, and housed American film crew for Return to Paradise (1953).

Aggie Grey’s hotel was devastated by a cyclone in 2012 and subsequently had to be rebuild. 

Now, the 175-room hotel is managed by the Sheraton and known as the Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey's Hotel & Bungalows. It has what is thought to be the largest conference facilities in the Pacific, including a 495sqm ballroom.

Aggie Grey's was sold by Aggie Grey's grandchildren and other family shareholders to Chinese investors for $50 million in 2018.

Museum of Samoa - Apia

Housed in a colonial building that was once a German school, the Museum of Samoa’s collection of photographs and artefacts provides an insight into many of the significant historic events that shaped today’s Samoa, its traditions and its customs.

See 3,000-year-old pottery, stone adzes, and learn about Samoa’s time under Tongan, German and New Zealand rule, including its two civil wars and the devastating influenza outbreak of 1918 that killed a fifth of Samoa’s population.

Entry to the museum is free but donations are welcome.

Sunken Village - Upolu

Some 3,000 years ago, the first people who would become Samoans arrived in outrigger canoes and settled in Mulifanua on the island of Upolu. It is believed they arrived from Tonga.

Samoa’s oldest known site of human occupation is a Lapita village (Lapita is a prehistoric Pacific Ocean culture named for their style of pottery), which is now partially submerged in a lagoon at Mulifanua. Carbon dating has been done at this site to reveal how many thousands of years ago it was settled.

Pulemelei Mound - Savai'i

Underneath an unassuming rise of dense vegetation lies the largest ancient structure in Polynesia.

The Pulemelei Mound, or pyramid, is situated in Letolo Plantation in the Palauli district, at the east end of Savai'i island in Samoa. Its base has been measured as 65m by 60m and it is 12 metres high, with a flat top. 

Thought to have been built between 1100 and 1400 AD and used until as late as 1800, its true use - thought to be ceremonial, as a burial site or otherwise - remains a mystery.

Today, the pyramid has taken those mysteries with it. Even locals struggle to find the structure, which is covered and surrounded by thick jungle, but it remains where it has been for thousands of years.

The remains of a church - Falealili, Upolu

The remnant of the old Methodist Church at Malaemalu on Upolu’s south coast marks a place where, unwittingly, many lives were saved.

In 1970 to 1973 the community made the decision to move 1-2km inland, leaving the church to become a ruin.

The move was believed to have been as a result on seawater encroaching on the community. It was to be a hugely fortunate decision, as the devastating tsunami in 2009 swept through the old settlement but stopped short of modern day Malaemalu.

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