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The Origins of International Rivalry in Samoa: 1845–1884



In the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century, the small island group of Samoa played a part in world affairs quite out of proportion to its size and intrinsic importance. It is in and after 1884 that published correspondence on Samoa becomes voluminous. In that year the German Consul in Samoa forced an agreement on the de facto Samoan rulers—the native King and Vice-King—which virtually handed over the government to Germans, while the British and American Consuls protested vigorously and ineffectively. The act was not repudiated. In January 1885, the German flag was hoisted and remained flying for a year; in 1887 Germany declared war on the Samoan King's party, and from that time Samoan affairs were constantly before the public in Europe, the United States, and Australasia. The important point is that these events were brought before public notice, and became subject-matter for diplomatic correspondence—Anglo-German commissions were held in 1885 and 1886 to inquire into the causes of the disturbances; conferences were held to discuss the future of the islands (1887, 1889, 1899), not because native disputes in themselves mattered, but because they were interfering with the ambitions of the great nations concerned. The tangled affairs irritated statesmen in Europe and America, who, while recognizing the apparent insignificance of the question, yet refused to give up rights on the islands. On one occasion (1889) the outbreak of hostilities between page 16German and American men-of-war in Apia harbour was only averted by a hurricane that wrecked three German and three American warships. On another occasion (1899) hostilities actually broke out, and an American man-of-war bombarded German plantations. On at least two occasions the Samoa question was the cause of strained relations between Germany and England.1 The sudden prominence given to Samoan affairs is not because there were no Samoan affairs of importance before 1884. It is because after 1884, when Germany embarked upon a colonial policy and there was the likelihood of German annexation, the problem, which had been primarily one of keeping Samoa peaceful with a minimum of trouble, now was one of maintaining a balance between the rights of Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. This delicate task was the work of diplomatists in Europe, and not foreign representatives in Samoa.

If by 1884 the matter had become of international importance, clearly the origins of the Samoa question must lie farther back in its history. It is with this early part that this book deals. It is an attempt to trace the antecedents of the troubled years 1885–99, to show the reasons that attracted Europeans to Samoa, and the effects of that contact in modifying native political organization, warfare, and ownership of land. As the century advanced there arose the problems of conflicting interests. There was the humanitarian desire to preserve and benefit the native race, manifested partly by missionaries, partly by the British Government, giving rise to the policy of non-, or rather the minimum of, intervention in native affairs. There was also the commercial ambition of Germans to utilize Samoan natural resources to the utmost. This, in turn, led to political interference, the realization of the need to control the

1 1887; see Die Grosse Politik, vol. iv, p. 150. 1899; Schwertfeger, B., Die Diplomatischen Akten, pt. i, chap, xcvi, no. 4056 des Auswärtigen Amtes., pt. iii, Die Politik der freien Hand.

page 17native political organization, in order to utilize fully the commercial resources of the country.

Apart from the growth of these conflicting interests within Samoa, its strategic position attracted the Australasian Colonies and America. Consequently there grew up, outside Samoa, a demand from New Zealand for annexation, quite unrelated to New Zealand interests within Samoa, which were negligible. Similarly, the growth of American interests in the islands was due, only partially, to the activities of Americans in Samoa itself.

On the one hand, therefore, we find interests growing up within the islands which assume dimensions large enough to summon the attention of outside Governments. On the other hand, we find interests that grew up, in the first place, outside the islands, and that were extended to the islands in the course of growth. By 1878–79 the rights and obligations of the three Powers in Samoa were crystallized into treaty form. Equality of rights1 may have been possible while each nation was concerned with the good behaviour and protection of its nationals and the maintenance of peace amongst natives, but in the face of more extensive ambitions it was impossible. The later story of affairs after 1884, whether of the island disturbances or of the diplomatic negotiations, is outside the field of this inquiry.

1 Each treaty had a "most favoured nation" clause.