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The Origins of International Rivalry in Samoa: 1845–1884

i. The Copra Trade

i. The Copra Trade

It has been shown that until 1855 the commercial value of the islands lay in the supplying of articles of European manufacture to missionaries and to natives under missionary influence. Payment was made by supplying pigs and fruit, and also a little pearl and tortoiseshell. As the natives came under missionary influence there was added to these coconut oil, the production of which was encouraged by missionaries, who taught them to construct presses for the purpose.

Further commercial developments during the century arose from two things: firstly, the increased demand for oil in European markets for the manufacture of candles and soap; and secondly, the readiness and efficiency of the Hamburg merchants, Godeffroy & Son, in availing themselves of this to build up a far-reaching organization for the satisfaction of the demand. Moreover, Samoa became the centre of their activity.

As the copra and oil trade was essentially dependent upon the demand for oil in Europe, it is well to examine the antecedents of that demand. Until the early nineteenth century the chief house illuminants were either wax or tallow candles, the wax dear, the tallow unpleasant. With the rapid increase in the population, and the rise in England, and later all over Europe, of a prosperous middle class, there arose also a demand for candles. Improved methods of illumination caused an increasing tendency to exploit the hours of night, and vice versa the spread of this habit led to a demand for illuminants.

Until the experiments of Chevreul1 had led the way in

1 1811–23; see Encyclopædia Britannica, articles "Chevreul," "Soap," "Oil."

page 58splitting up the constituents of fat, both candles and soap were made from tallow. Chevreul's discoveries made possible the employment of other fats. Spermaceti, it was found, could be used for candles, and the Pacific sperm whaling industries profited. Continued researches threw on the market another Pacific product. In 1829 a certain J. Soames took out a patent (No. 5842) for separating coconut oil into solid and liquid constituents. In 1840 coconut oil was used for soap,1 and in the course of the next decade Price & Field, prominent candle manufacturers to this day, introduced it into their candle manufacture. The demand for it rose rapidly: Ellis, a missionary in Tahiti, wrote in 1831 that oil had recently become an article of exportation, "although the value is so small as to afford but little encouragement to its extended manufacture."2 Within twenty years its price was to rise to £12 a ton in the Pacific and £20 a ton in England—a value which amply repaid not only export but special cultivation. The trade was indeed foster-brother to the whaling industry, not ousting it, but with it helping to meet the needs of the new age. The islands, previously merely picturesque ports of call, now afforded wealth in a more tangible form, and the traders began to reap the fruits of the missionaries' civilizing efforts, to which they had made no contribution.

In Samoa, the first export of coconut oil was by Williams, the son of the missionary, who in 1842 shipped 6 tons of oil.3 In 1859, 592 tons worth £14,0004 were exported, and in the year 1875 the copra export was valued at £121,360.5

The profits of this extensive trade lay partly in the ease with which copra and oil could be produced and partly in

1 R.L. Sturtwant, Patent No. 9230.

2 Ellis, Polynesian Researches, vol. i, p. 57.

3 Murray, Missions in Western Polynesia, p. 466.

4 P.P. 1860, vol. 65, c. 2753. Report on the Navigator Islands.

5 P.P. 1876, vol. 76, c. 1589. Report on the Navigator Islands; 15, 170 tons copra worth $606,800, 20 tons oil worth $2,000.

page 59the ready markets for oil in Europe. The production of oil was in due course supplemented, and then superseded, by copra (about 1868–74).1 The pressing of oil was a laborious task for the idle Samoan. The simplest method of preparing oil, by drying the nut in the sun and allowing the oil to run off, was wasteful. The presses invented by the missionaries were primitive. The transport of oil required barrels, not always easily obtained or manufactured on the islands. Besides, the Samoans jibbed at any work that they could avoid—copra could be much more easily prepared. The nut was opened, the flesh cut in small pieces, allowed to dry in the sun, and so was ready for export. In this form it was easily packed into sacks, and from it not only was oil obtained but the residual cake was found, in Germany, to be suitable for feeding cattle. Another product of the coconut palm, the fibre, found a market in Europe for making mats. In spite of the luxuriant growth of the palm on the coasts of all the tropical Pacific islands, certain disadvantages in its production became manifest to the copra and oil traders by about 1865. The first was the laziness of the natives. Even as late as 1890 the communistic principle of division prevailed. Two influences tended to undermine the ancient custom. The example and teaching of the missionaries separated the converts from their families, and they emulated their teachers' neat plastered houses and civilized garb. Christians, moreover, became the proud possessors of Bibles, books, paper, ink, and clothes, all forms of private property contrary to communal custom. The other influence was that of warfare, which continued to distract the country until the end of the nineteenth century. The Samoans learned that the white man had one thing that he prized—firearms. In the wars of the late 1870's they were even willing to part with their land to obtain guns and gunpowder.2 Spirituous

1 In 1875 oil was still being exported in small quantities.

2 P.P. 1873, vol. 65, c. 828, p. 923. Report of Consul Williams. P.P. 1880, vol. 74, c. 2577. Report of Consul Graves.

page 60liquor, though imported, was not retailed on a large scale to natives.

Another handicap to the growing coconut oil and copra trade, besides the unwillingness of the natives to work, was the reluctance of the natives of certain islands to part with their copra. In the Ellice and Gilbert Islands, for example, coconuts formed the staple food and drink of the natives. They preferred to let the surplus rot than to risk a famine. These disadvantages led to the principal traders, the German firm of Godeffroy & Co., to embark upon the policy of buying land for plantations. The important effects of this step are dealt with later in the chapter in connection with the growth and organization of the Godeffroy firm in Samoa.

So much space has been devoted to copra because it was undoubtedly the most important product of Samoa. It was the demand for oils that had led the enterprise of the Hamburg merchants to the South Seas. The cultivation of cotton was for a time a source of profit second only to copra. In 1859 Williams, the British Consul, reported that cotton grew luxuriantly.1 During the American Civil War, which had important effects upon planting in Fiji, cotton was grown in Samoa. In 1864, when the demand for cotton was great, the first shipment was exported. In 1875, 150,000 1b. to the value of $227,000 was shipped from Apia.2 Two varieties were grown, the sea island cotton which was utilized in the silk factories in Alsace-Lorraine, and the kidney which was used in Saxony.3 Cotton seed was also exported. From 1865 on, cotton was planted on the German coconut plantations for the first seven years, to shelter the young palms. When these were grown the cotton bushes

1 P.P. 1860, vol. 65, c. 2753, pp. 14–15.

2 P.P. 1876, vol. 76, c. 1589.

3 Congress Docs., Hse. Mis. Doc, Cons. Monthly Report, 1881, No. 3, vol. ii, September 18, 1880. Total export 1880, 2,500,000 lb.

page 61
Fig. I.—Exports from Apia, 1859–1875

Fig. I.—Exports from Apia, 1859–1875

page 62were cut down, grass planted, and cattle grazed. Ultimately the labour problem proved to be a bar to the successful cultivation of cotton. By 1895 it was no longer grown in German plantations.1 The fact that no attempt was made to revive its culture may indicate that the islands were not altogether suited to it.

There were in the 1880's and 1890's considerable and hopeful experiments in coffee, cocoa, and india-rubber.2 In 1888 the U.S. Consul-General Sewall reported that the Germans had 450 acres of coffee planted, from which they obtained a crop of 90,000 lb.3 The outbreak of coffee disease in 1895, however, ruined this culture in succeeding years. Cocoa has since become a source of profit to the islands, and a little rubber is exported at the present day.4 These later experiments, however, lie outside the period under consideration. As early as 1880 it was becoming clear that the first estimates of the fertility of the group were exaggerated.5 The failure of successive crops at a time of native disorders in the 1890's and a severe depression in the Australasian Colonies set the islands on a new standard of value. In the negotiations of 1899 the issue for Germany was one involving sentiment and national honour rather than national gain.6

1 P.P. 1893, vol. 101, c. 1587.

2 Ibid.

3 Congress Documents (Hse. Misc.), 50–55, Cons. Report, No. 97, vol. 27, August 15, 1888. Coffee. Attempts to introduce coffee were made in 1863, 1879, and 1882. It was found to thrive on the upland plateau at a height of about 800 ft. above sea-level.

4 Handbook of Western Samoa.

5 F.O. 244/341. Memo, by Maudslay, November 9, 1881.

6 Gooch and Temperley, British Documents on the Origin of the War, vol. i. Lascelles to Salisbury, March 24, 1899.