Samoan Civil Wars during the 1800s

When Andy of SiberianLight linked to my earlier post on the battle of Khalkhin-Gol/Nomonhan between Japan and Russia in 1938, he headlined it Wars nobody has ever heard of, Part 1043. Well, a Russian reader objected that every Russian has heard of Khalkhin-Gol, and reminded Americans that few Russians have ever heard of Iwo Jima. Fair enough, so let’s get even more obscure. How about the Samoan Civil War of 1898-99, which drastically reconfigured Samoa?

The Samoan Civil War of 1898-99 is what led to its partitioning into what is now Samoa and American Samoa.

On the death of Samoa’s King Malietoa Laupepa (d. 1898), his long-time rival Mataafa (d. after 1899) returned from exile aboard a German warship and was shortly elected the Samoan king as virtually a German puppet. The US and British consuls strongly opposed him, backing instead the dead king’s son. Fighting erupted between Samoans; in January 1899, the capital city of Apia was thrown into chaos with foes fighting in the streets, looting, and burning buildings. At first Mataafa and his Samoan and German supporters gained the upper hand until US and British warships shelled Apia (March 15, 1899). Anglo-American troops took control of coastal roads, but were unable to defeat the enemy in the interior. All fighting ceased with the arrival of a tripartite (US-British-German) commission on May 13, 1899. Both sides agreed to give up their firearms, for which they were fairly compensated, and the monarchy was abolished. By the tripartite treaty (1899), Germany received the western Samoan islands, of which Savaii and Upolu (the site of Apia) are the most important; the United States obtained the eastern islands (American Samoa, with its capital at Pago Pago on Tutuila); and Britain withdrew from the area for recognition of rights on Tonga and the Solomons.

Before Samoa was partitioned and colonized, civil war seems to have been the normal method of chiefly succession. Malietoe Laupepa had secured the throne by civil war.

Desultory tribal warfare had long occurred on Samoa, an archipelago in the south-centr[a]l Pacific, where the United States, Germany, and Britain all signed treaties that gave them commercial and other rights (1878-79). In 1880, the three foreign powers agreed to recognize Malietoe Talavou (d. 1880) as Samoa’s king, whose death later that year brought civil war between contentious groups seeking power. About eight months later, Malietoe Laupepa (d. 1898) secured the throne with the foreign powers’ recognition.

Robert Louis Stevenson happened to be in Samoa during an outbreak of warfare in 1893 and filed a report for the Pall Mall Budget.

The process of gathering a royal army in Samoa is cumbrous and dilatory in the extreme. There is here none of the expedition of the fiery cross and the bale fire; but every step is diplomatic. Each village, with a great expense of eloquence, has to be wiled with promises and spurred by threats; and the greater chieftains make stipulations where they will march. Tamasese, son to the late German puppet and heir of his ambitions, demanded the vice-kingship as the price of his accession, though I am assured that he demanded it in vain. The various provinces returned various and unsatisfactory answers. Atua was off and on A’ana was on and off; Savai’i would not move; Tuamasaga was divided; Tutuila recalcitrant; and for long the king sat almost solitary under the windy palms of Mulinu’u. It seemed indeed as if the war was off, and the whole archipelago unanimous (in the native phrase) to sit still and plant taro.But at last, in the first days of July, Atua began to come in. Boats arrived, thirty and fifty strong a drum and a very ill-played bugle giving time to the oarsmen, the whole crew uttering at intervals a savage howl; and on the decked foresheets of the boat the village champion (the taupou), frantically capering and dancing. Parties were to be seen encamped in palm groves with their rifles stacked. The shops were emptied of red handkerchiefs, the rallying sign or (as a man might say) the uniform of the Royal Army….

War, to the Samoan of mature years, is often an unpleasant necessity. To the young boy it is a heaven of immediate pleasures, as well as an opportunity of ultimate glory. Women march with the troops, even the Taupou-sa or Sacred Maid of the village, accompanies her father in the field to carry cartridges and bring him water to drink; and their bright eyes are ready to ‘rain influence’ and reward valour. To what grim deeds this practice may conduct I shall have to say later on. In the rally of their arms it is at least wholly pretty; and I have one pleasant picture of a war party marching out, the men armed and boastful, their heads bound with the red handkerchief, their faces blacked – and two girls marching in their midst under European parasols….

Every country has its customs, say native apologists, and one of the most decisive customs of Samoa ensures the immunity of women. They go to the front, as our women of yore went to a tournament. Bullets are blind; and they must take their risk of bullets, but of nothing else. They serve out cartridges and water; they jeer the faltering and defend the wounded. Even in this skirmish of Vaitele they distinguished themselves on either side. One dragged her skulking husband from a hole and drove him to the front. Another, seeing her lover fall, snatched up his gun, kept the headhunters at bay, and drew him unmutilated from the field. Such services they have been accustomed to pay for centuries; and often, in the course of centuries, a bullet or a spear must have despatched one of these warlike angels. Often enough too, the head-hunter springing ghoul-like on fallen bodies, must have decapitated a woman for a man. But the case arising, there was an established etiquette. So soon as the error was discovered the head was buried, and the exploit forgotten. There had never yet, in the history of Samoa, occurred an instance in which a man had taken a woman’s head and kept it and laid it at his monarch’s feet.

Such was the strange and horrid spectacle, which must have immediately shaken the heart of Laupepa, and has since covered the face of his party with confusion. It is not quite certain if there were three or only two; a recent attempt to reduce the number to one must be received with caution as an afterthought, the admissions in the beginning were too explicit, the panic of shame and fear had been too sweeping.

Jane Resture’s Samoa summarizes the broader context of European colonization of Samoa and elsewhere in the Pacific, and Alexander Ganse’s site, World History at the KMLA (Korean Minjok Leadership Academy, an elite international prep school in South Korea) offers even broader context.



Filed under Pacific, war

2 responses to “Samoan Civil Wars during the 1800s

  1. Allison Oosterman

    If anyone wants to learn more about the role New Zealand played during this time you can’t go further than Angus Ross’s 1964 book “New Zealand aspirations in the Pacific in the 19th century”.

    A New Zealand journalist went to Samoa in early 1899 to report on the so-called”troubles”. His name was Malcolm Ross. He reported for the Otago Daily Times, The Press and the Evening Post.

    Some papers called the shelling of Samoan villages by the combined US and British naval vessels a “scandal”.

    The Evening Post:

    “Perusal of the voluminous despatch of our Special Correspondent in Samoa, published yesterday, will convince many unprejudiced readers that the situation in Samoa has degenerated into an international scandal from which the three Powers concerned can hardly emerge with ought but discredit. Apart from the evident desire of our naval men from the first to “have a smack at somebody”, and the uncompromising attitude of the German officials common, the organised attacks upon the Samoans by the united British and American forces have been both inglorious and ineffective. But the most deplorable, is not barbarous, part of the whole business has been the wanton destruction of the lives and property of the natives by the combined warships of the English speaking powers along the whole line of coast within reach of modern naval artillery. Thousands of pounds worth of ammunition has been blazed away from positions of absolute security to make a destructive demonstration, the net result of which has been to inspire a gallant native race with the evident determination to fight to the death to the last ditch. We in New Zealand have known to our bitter cost how the men of the same race confronted us and fought for years against our rule on much less provocation than has been offered by this ineffective, but destructive bombardment and burning of Samoan villages. And whatever the justification or display of armed force in the beginning, and that is questionable if only for the reason that it was ineffective, the naval authorities might have been fairly expected to stay their hands from further destruction of both lives and property so soon as they learned of the appointment by the powers of the high commission, now on its way to Apia. But instead they have fomented civil war, and, in a spirit -judging by the tone of the letters of our special correspondent-more of brutal sport then an imperative sense of duty, have apparently committed acts of cruelty and destruction for which, as we mistake not, their respective governments will ask a strict account. (Evening Post, Wellington, 29/04/29, p. 4).

  2. Yes. Unfortunately, the scandalous incompetence of the Kiwi administration that assumed control over Western Samoa from the Germans after 1914 had even more deadly long-term results, for which PM Clark issued an apology in 2002.

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