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The Origins of International Rivalry in Samoa: 1845–1884


page 194


We have seen the islands, in our short sketch of some fifty-four years, pass from a state of primitive but happy disorder to a condition of semi-civilized but unhappy confusion. From the first disinterested service of a few white men came the later selfish exploitation of others, until the bewildered Samoan chiefs, distraught by intrigues, begged that the burden of government might be lifted from them.

What is it, we may now ask, that this study sets out to reveal? The theme is well worn, that of a civilized people encroaching upon a primitive race. In the Pacific this presented certain peculiar features. In Polynesia, within the Pacific, the problem is distinct from that in other parts of the Pacific. Within Polynesia, the history of Samoa illustrates with peculiar aptness and emphasis the problem of the mingling of Polynesian native with invading white men. The problem at the root of the question might be posed thus: "What form of government can be compassed that will admit of white encroachment, and also of the preservation of the native peoples?"1

The intelligence of the Polynesians, and in certain islands their monarchical form of government, made it seem possible that the ideal form of government for them would be an independent monarchy. Great Britain was anxious to preserve native peoples from exploitation, and sufficiently powerful in the Pacific to enforce her wish, determined that the native peoples should be recognized and preserved as native states. Ultimately this was proved to be impossible throughout Polynesia. In Samoa this was clear from about 1850 onward. The Aborigines Committee in 1837 had expressed the hope that Great Britain would not "ever exert

1 A distinct contrast to the problem which arose later (circ., 1884), i.e. "Who is to have which islands and in exchange for what?"

page 195her power to destroy the political rights of these comparatively feeble and defenceless people: yet it cannot be denied that their national independence cannot be consulted without immediate injury to their social welfare." In this lay much of the problem of British relations with the Pacific islanders. Great Britain attempted to preserve them politically as well as racially, and one rendered the other impossible. As Samoans deteriorated racially, it became impossible to preserve them politically, and as they became more inert and helpless politically, disorder led also to racial deterioration and exploitation by white men.

The impossibility of maintaining an autonomous native State was due partly to the weakness of native political organization and partly to foreign aggression. In Samoa both these features are present in exaggerated form. Nowhere else in Polynesia was native organization looser or more incapable of maintaining order.1 Nowhere was the hold of foreign Powers more tenacious, nor were foreign rights more evenly balanced.

The causes of the interference of Great Britain, Germany, and the United States in Samoa are widely different. The British missionaries first prepared the way for traders. Though the missionaries sought no gain, they won the greatest influence for Great Britain. In the British missionaries and in the Roman Catholic priests only did the natives see men who came unreservedly to give and not to obtain. It was, therefore, in the first place upon the British that they relied for help and protection.

At the same time the British policy in the islands had a more practical basis than mere disinterested service to native peoples. The urgent desire of the Australasian Colonies that Samoa should not be allowed to fall into foreign hands

1 Other native peoples had loose political organization (e.g. the Maoris in New Zealand), but there the second factor, foreign aggression, was simplified to the interference of only one or two Powers.

page 196influenced the British Government in its determination, if not to annex, at least to prevent others from doing so.

The German material interests in Samoa were far greater than British or American. Not merely were the German plantations of intrinsic commercial value, representing German capital and years of labour, such as could not lightly be allowed to suffer harm which might accrue from foreign annexation, but also Apia was the centre for a very wide trade among the surrounding Pacific islands. Further, Germans, glowing with a new patriotism, felt that they might in this remote corner of the world serve their Fatherland, and that when Germany should seek a greater empire, it would be ready for her to grasp. Yet the selfishness of their aims made Germans unpopular with Samoans. The natives felt that they were being exploited by an unsympathetic but powerful people.

The interests of the third Great Power, the United States, were throughout strategic. The potential value of the islands as a strategic base in the Pacific was their reason for steadfastly maintaining and demanding rights equal to the other Powers in Samoa. Because this did not involve dealings on a large scale with natives, nor to any great extent eviction from their land,1 the natives never distrusted or disliked the Americans as a people. American adventurers who influenced native affairs appeared to Samoans as disinterested helpers. Even rogues often appeared to have an element of service in their personal intrigues, quite unlike the callous dealings of Weber and his agents.

The desire of each Power for a foothold upon the islands lay in the strategic position of Samoa. It was the strategic position in relation to New Zealand that gave rise to the demand in New Zealand for their annexation. Likewise was

1 The lands bought, e.g., by the Polynesian Land and Commercial Company were not planted, and so the natives continued to live on them for a time at least.

page 197the propinquity to Fiji put forward, at one time, as a bar to the withdrawal of British influence from Samoa. Similarly, it was on the grounds of their strategic importance on the trans-Pacific trade routes that America claimed the islands. Germany, it is true, put forward her plantations as an especial, incontrovertible interest, but even these depended in the first place upon the selection of Samoa in 1854 as a centre for the Godeffroy trading firm. Because Samoa was an ideal depôt for extensive trade amongst the surrounding islands, land for plantations was bought on the islands.

Thus, on account of its strategic position there was foreign intervention on a bigger scale in Samoa than upon other islands.

The second cause of the failure of native self-government was also particularly marked in Samoa. In other native states of importance it was possible for a native king to maintain an apparently successful autonomous rule. This at least was achieved in Hawaii, in Tonga, and in Tahiti. Though the guiding hand behind the king's was frequently that of a white man, yet the rule was nominally native and neutral, and was such that peace was kept between native factions in the kingdom, and trade could be carried on without frequent disturbance. The Samoan political organization was too loose for peace to be maintained for any length of time. This made evident the fact that autonomous government was not compatible with foreign exploitation of the islands or encroachment upon them.

The settlement of this question in Samoa was made more difficult because the value of the islands to the Great Powers was negative. Great Britain and America wished rather to prevent any other Power from obtaining Samoa than that they wanted themselves to annex it. Similarly, it may be said that until 1884 Germany, too, wished rather that the islands should be neutral than that she should acquire them. Had the natives shown themselves capable of forming an page 198independent Government which maintained order, the problem would not have become so acute. It was the failure of native autonomy that led to attempts to control the native Government.

This early part of the history of European encroachments in Samoa is not merely the tale of conflicting material interests of three of the Great Powers. The clash is also of ideals. The British ideal of the preservation of the native races and of maintaining their political independence is no less real than the ideal of the German traders, who, while pursuing material gain, were yet working for the honour and glory of Germany. With the failure of the first ideal comes the triumph of the second—a new phase in the history of the islands.