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The Origins of International Rivalry in Samoa: 1845–1884



While the commercial activities of the German merchants were raising the intrinsic value of the islands, new discoveries were taking place that affected the Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa groups profoundly. The discovery of gold in America, New Zealand, and Australia produced an increase in trans-Pacific traffic which naturally raised the importance of the three groups on the main route.

The opening up of the Pacific coast of North America began with the gold rush of 1849 in California. Until then communication between East and West had been almost entirely by way of Cape Horn, or over the Central American Isthmus—a tedious and uncomfortable horseback journey. With the speeding up of communications, plans for an inter-oceanic canal were revived,1 and a company was formed to examine the Nicaragua route. It was called the "American and Pacific Canal Company." Secondarily to this main purpose it conveyed passengers from coast to coast by small steamers which ran up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua, and by coaches from thence to the Pacific coast.2 This mode of transit proved a most successful venture,3 and even the railway at Panama, opened in 1855, did not usurp its work. Only the completion of the trans-American railway (1869) diminished its importance. These

1 To tackle the Nicaragua route. This was revived in 1872—the Panama route was attempted by de Lesseps in 1881. Ultimately the canal was not opened until 1914.

2 Henderson, American Diplomatic Questions, p. 72, "The Inter-Oceanic Canal Problem."

3 Although the attempts to prosecute their original projects for a canal failed.

page 83two ventures, this steamship and coach company and the Panama railway, affected private individuals and increased the volume of traffic over the isthmus. Cargo ships, gold-carrying ships, and warships kept to their old routes. Until the canal was completed the value of the islands as strategic points on the route to Panama was hypothetical.

By 1869 the trans-Continental railway was completed. This was the culminating point in a series of events that combined to make America a Pacific Power.

The Australian gold discoveries came in 1851. In February Hargraves, a Californian gold miner, first found gold at Summerhill Creek, twenty miles north of Bathurst. By September the great gold fields of Ballarat and Bendigo were opened up. Two years later a new turn was given to affairs by the discovery of gold in Otago, New Zealand.

The importance of these discoveries upon the Pacific Islands is evident. By the increase of wealth of these Pacific countries, by the acceleration of their development, they became capable of a more ambitious policy than previously. America began to look west towards Japan and China. In 1851 the eastern Australian States and New Zealand were given constitutions. Thus at a time when growth was most rapid, a freedom was given which encouraged independence of action. Within the succeeding decades the United States, Australia, and New Zealand began to release themselves from internal problems and to join in the tussle for a share in the island world of the Western Pacific.

The immediate effect of the gold discoveries was the inter-communication between the three countries. Until then Australasian Colonies had communicated with Europe by Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope route. There was no north-east flow of ships.1 Now miners, prospectors, traders, poured from one country to another.

1 As has been mentioned, individual people travelled via the West Indies, Panama, and Callao, but it was a laborious and uncertain journey (e.g. Pritchard describes his journey by this route in 1845. F.O. 58/38).

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So it was that by the middle of the century Samoa came to have an importance quite unrelated to its commercial value. It was in an advantageous position between the North American Pacific slope and Australia and New Zealand. It was on the main route between the eastern Australian ports and Panama, important from the aspect of naval defence. Indeed, in his report1 in 1859 on this, Admiral Washington strongly recommended the acquisition of one or other island group. It would be a point from which to defend the main route along which, in the event of the completion of the inter-oceanic canal, the gold ships from Australia would pass. The Home Government, however, did not consider the need urgent. Despite an offered cession of Fiji in 1859,2 and of the Navigators in 1862,3 the British Government determined to support the independence of the various island peoples. The third factor affecting Samoa was the growth of a feeling in Australia and New Zealand of the need to acquire the surrounding islands partly for defence and partly for commercial expansion. The Australasian Colonies, in fact, began to promulgate a Pacific Monroe Doctrine, and they chafed at the British Government which refused to follow their plans and which restrained them from putting their policy into practice. They desired that the whole island world from New Guinea to Tonga4 at least should be reserved for them to develop. The fear of Germany, the United States, or France stepping in first intensified their impetuosity and annoyance at the hesitation of Downing Street to act. The weakness of the position of

1 CO. 209/232 (No. 4967). Quoted in Vogel's Memo., March 11, 1874.

2 Scholefield, The Pacific, p. 77.

3 F.O. 58/96. Williams to Earl Russell, May 14, 1862.

4 See N.S.W. Papers, Legislative Assembly, 1883–84, 3rd Session, vol. 9, "Proceedings of Inter-Colonial Convention of 1883." Australasian Colonies wanted islands from New Guinea to the New Hebrides. New Zealand wanted, especially, Samoa and Tonga.

page 85these Colonies, indeed, was that they had not the resources to back up their demands. Thus, while idealists dreamed of a British or perhaps Australasian Western Pacific, the politicians knew very well that they could only raise a small part of the necessary money to help in the materialization of their dreams.1

1 In 1883 at the Sydney Convention (N.S.W. Papers, 1883–84, 3rd Session, vol. 9), all the Colonies consented to "bear such share of the cost" of annexing New Guinea "as may be deemed fair and reasonable." This was, however, only a part of the total sum annexation would involve, and New Guinea was only part of their total scheme, which included Samoa and Tonga. The British Government was, however, cautious after the refusal of the Colonies to contribute toward the cost of the government of Fiji (see infra, p. 103).