The Origins of International Rivalry in Samoa: 1845–1884
Chapter II — The Origins of British Official Interest in the Navigator Islands, 1845–55, and the French Menace, 1846–62
The Origins of British Official Interest in the Navigator Islands, 1845–55, and the French Menace, 1846–62
The decision of the Foreign Office to make the Navigator Islands the seat of a new consulate1 was very natural. The growing communication of the Australasian Colonies with the Pacific Islands made it desirable that there should be a Consul in the vicinity of the colonies—Tonga and Fiji, both nearer, were still too wild. Their inhabitants were still cannibals, whereas the Navigators were by 1844 apparently well under Christian influence. In 1842 Walpole, the Consul in Chile, wrote to Aberdeen suggesting "the Samoan isles as a spot well adapted as an establishment for the refreshment and refitment of British vessels."2 A later correspondent emphasizes their fertility, implying that they might become important on that account in the future.3 "The Navigator Islands are not much more extensive, but far superior to the Society Islands. The land is fertile to the tops of the mountains, and will produce any quantity of sugar, coffee, spice, arrowroot, coconut oil, and all tropical products and plants. With European capital and labour they would become very important. The natives are peaceable and governed by various chiefs. They are favourably situated for trade with the colonies of New South Wales and New Zealand, and lie almost in the direct line for the Sandwich Islands." And he continues by recommending the establishment of a respectable Resident there.
1 1824, a Consul appointed for Sandwich Islands; 1822, a Consul for Society Islands.
2 F.O. Chile 16/47. Walpole to Aberdeen, August 22, 1842.
3 F.O. 58/26 (Pacific Islands). Consul Miller to Aberdeen (No. 45), August 22, 1844. Encl. 1. Captain Dennett to Miller.
From the beginning Pritchard found his task by no means easy. The country seemed wild and the Samoans barbarous in contrast with his friends, the Tahitians. His landing was inauspicious. The captain of the warship in which he arrived put him on shore, fired a salute of guns, and sailed away without making any attempt to explain his office to the Samoans or to introduce him to the chiefs, and so facilitating his task. He was mortified by not being able to buy a house or land, and his horses were stolen by the Samoans. Only the kindness of Mr. J. Williams1 in inviting him to his own house saved him from being homeless.
The islands were during these years attracting a greater number of ships and Europeans. The mixed, shifting "beach" (or "beachcombers") of Pacific Islands was appearing. With such a community growing up, there arose the likelihood of disputes between Europeans, or between natives and Europeans. Though the Consul was in an official position to look after the interests of British people, he was powerless to redress wrongs or demand reparation for outrages upon British people. Serious affairs had to wait until the captain of a visiting man-of-war could hold an inquiry and enforce compensation. It was difficult to find who was the criminal, and to persuade the natives to deliver him up for judgment or punishment. On occasion, a whole village was burnt before the offender was handed over.
The need for regular visits of warships to those islands where British people were stationed was gradually borne home to the Government. Pritchard's letters alone are constant in their appeals for visits at regular intervals. Within two months of his landing, Pritchard wrote to the Earl of Aberdeen emphasizing the importance of the occasional visits of a British man-of-war.2 A note was made of this, and there the matter rested. Again in October and December his dispatches bear a similar strain. In 1851 Pritchard received a crushing reply.3 "From this paper you will observe," wrote the Under-Secretary for Palmerston, "that the Navigator Islands have lately been more frequently visited by H.M. ships than any of the other groups in the Pacific, and I have to observe that the naval establishment of the British Empire is not sufficiently large to enable the Admiralty to place a ship of war at the disposal of each of H.M. Consuls in distant stations…. The intervention of a ship of war must be reserved as an extreme and last remedy." Nevertheless, Pritchard continued to urge the need with commendable insistence. Again in 1853 and 1855 he presses his point. In the meantime, with the development of trans-Pacific trade the islands were becoming more important. In 1858 a British Consul for Fiji was appointed, and in 1859 one for Tonga. The rapid increase of communications and trade involved the need of a regular oversight of British interests. From 1858 a man-of-war was sent annually on a cruise round the islands.
1 F.O. Pacific Islands 58/67. Pritchard to Palmerston, April 17, 1847. The F.O. reply commended the behaviour of the naval captain as an example to Pritchard.
2 F.O. 58/38. Pritchard to Aberdeen (No. 6), September 8, 1845.
3 F.O. 58/71. Palmerston to Pritchard, July 9, 1851.
Though Pritchard urged the visits of warships, it was only as an immediate measure of expediency. Ultimately he and other of H.B.M.'s servants in the Pacific hoped for the annexation of Samoa by Great Britain. Two points of view are given; the one setting forth the supposed advantages to Great Britain, the other considering primarily the islanders. Grounds for the first point of view3 were the fertility of the islands, the ease with which they could be seized, the desirability of anticipating French action. Grounds for the second4 were, that ultimately the islands would have to be annexed by some European Power. It was, therefore, desirable that annexation should come before disorders became too serious.
1 And, of course, to natives who had outraged British subjects.
2 Chap. vii. The establishment of the Municipality of Apia. This controlled foreigners who had had no consular jurisdiction, i.e. all except British, German, and American.
3 That of Pritchard.
1 Lundie, Missionary Life in Samoa, p. 280.
3 See chap, i, p. 34.
4 Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol. viii, pt. ii. Chapter on "The Western Pacific."
At the end of some five months in office Pritchard described outrages and the lawlessness of the islands. "It is in the opinion of many," he wrote, "that the only way in which an alteration for the better can be effected, is for some foreign Power to take possession, and place over them a Governor with equitable laws. This might be accomplished with perfect ease, for the natives are so divided among themselves that they would not unite in opposing any Power that might come to take possession."2
The matter was not considered. Great Britain had enough to concern herself with in her colonies to wish for more. Though at the very time Grey3 was dreaming of a new British Oceana with New Zealand at its heart, yet these were the ideals of a visionary, not of the practical opportunist at the Foreign Office table. The dispatches to Pritchard epitomize the British attitude. Britain did not wish to interfere, nor would she gladly suffer any other Power to do so.
1 F.O. 58/27. Aberdeen to Pritchard (No. 2), January 15, 1845.
2 F.O. 58/38. Pritchard to Aberdeen (No. 9), December 31, 1845.
4 F.O. 58/74. Pritchard to Malmesbury, January 1, 1852.
Alas for Pritchard! Malmesbury merely poured cold water on his schemes for territorial aggrandizement. "I have heard of him," a minute reads, "as a busy, active, meddling man, and he will be doing something on his own account if you don't stop him."1
1 F.O. 58/74. Minute, July 27, 1852. Pritchard to Malmesbury.
2 F.O, 58/82. St. Julian to Denison, May 10, 1855.
During the first three decades of the nineteenth century the British had a virtual monopoly of the South Pacific. Had they wished, they could have claimed the whole island world. This was very naturally undesirable, but the absence of rivals left Great Britain supreme, and later the advent of other Powers was regarded by British subjects in the Pacific (e.g. missionaries) as an intrusion. The British monopoly was broken into first by the French, and then by the appearance of Germans and Americans. Of the growth of German and American interests in Samoa there is more in a later chapter.3
The French influence in Samoa was only that of the Roman Catholic priests and was not political. For a time, however (1845–62), the British Consuls considered that there was a danger of French intrusion into island affairs, and for this reason the extent of French interests deserves consideration.
1 See chap. vii.
2 See chap. iv.
3 Chaps, iii and v.
The proceedings of the Roman Catholic missionaries were not confined to the conversion of souls. Traders and priests went hand in hand. "It seems," so reads an article in the Samoan Reporter of 1846, "a strange mongrel affair for his Holiness the Pope to be engaged in the buying of oil and in disposing of powder and shot."2 Pritchard wrote to the Foreign Office (1846) that the Society of the Virgin Mary was formed "for the purpose of supplying the whole of Polynesia with merchandise at a little more than cost prices in France, and to render facilities for opposing the Protestant missions, by placing amongst them Roman Catholic priests, and by these cheap goods to win over to the Roman Catholic faith all the isles of the Pacific."3 He feared that the influence would be "very detrimental to British commerce in this part of the world."
2 Samoan Reporter, November 16, 1846.
3 F.O. 58/45. Pritchard to Palmerston, November 16, 1846.
1 F.O. France 27/6go. Aberdeen to Cowley, 1844 (quoted by J. Brookes, Anglo-French Rivalry, 1815–61, p. 170).
2 F.O. Pacific Islands 58/38. Aberdeen to Pritchard (No. 3), January 15, 1845.
In the succeeding years Pritchard wrote with alarm of the visits of French warships. "If we have not an equal force out here [to that of the French], I am fully persuaded that all the principal groups of islands in the Pacific will, ere long, be in the hands of the French, which may prove a most serious affair for our British Colonies, etc."2 It must be remembered, though, that Pritchard had every reason to be violently suspicious of the French, and his interpretation of their visits was inevitably coloured by his vivid memory of their treatment of the Tahitian kingdom, even if his judgment was not impaired by a deep mortification and personal loss resulting from his rough imprisonment and deportation.
Again in 1846 he indicated a French menace, feared, so he stated, by the natives. He added the sting that the chiefs believed that the British would not be able to give protection if the French interfered.3 In November of the same year he described the arrival of two French ships "laden with priests, merchants and merchandise."4 In 1847 he wrote that "many of the natives are fearing this [French aggression] and are wishing they were under the protection of the English. If H.M. Government should be disposed to do anything with these islands, they must act promptly or it will be too late."5
1 Samoan Reporter, September 1846.
2 F.O. 58/38. Pritchard to Aberdeen (No. 8), October 11, 1845.
3 F.O. 58/45. Pritchard to Aberdeen (No. 1), May 28, 1846.
4 F.O. 58/45. Pritchard to Palmerston, November 16, 1846.
5 F.O. 58/57. Pritchard to Palmerston, April 17, 1847.
6 F.O. 58/57. Pritchard to Palmerston, July 30, 1847.
In 1855, then, British interests in the islands were greater than those of any other Power.3 The missionaries by their influence had induced a general regard among the natives for England, English customs, and civilization. The presence of a British Consul kept the Foreign Office in touch with the British and foreign commercial developments on the islands, with native affairs, and with any actions of foreign Powers that might be construed as political or aggressive.
At the same time the British Government were clearly averse to annexation, and were unwilling to extend their influence by the visits of warships or any other means. Yet they were also desirous of preserving natives and native rights. The reference to the "regard for the true interests of the natives"4 may be construed as a piece of Victorian hypocrisy, veiling an unwillingness to incur responsibilities or to allow other Powers to reap benefits. In practice, however, leniency towards natives was applauded at a time when every other nation used force. This attitude, only faintly outlined during these years 1845–55, is indicative of the British standpoint in the decades that followed.
Before 1855 there was indeed little incentive to annex the Samoan islands. They were remote in the Pacific until trans-Pacific communications developed. As yet their productive resources were unexploited. It was the developments of the years 1855–79 that enhanced the value of Samoa and made the group important Pacific affairs.
1 Commodore Erskine, in A Cruise Among the Islands in 1853, writes of this in Tonga, and adds that "this apprehension of foreign occupations has been very general among the Polynesian islands since the establishment of the French at Tahiti" (p. 133).
2 The only exception was in 1880—see chap. vii.
3 The Americans had a Consul, but otherwise they had practically no interests.
4 P. 50.