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The Origins of International Rivalry in Samoa: 1845–1884


The events of the years 1881–84 justified Gordon's and Maudslay's scepticism as to Malietoa's power to govern Samoa. By 1884 Samoan affairs had again fallen into an inextricable tangle. The situation had, however, changed on all sides. No longer was it possible to patch up a peace locally on the spot. After 1884 Samoa became a subject of dispute between Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, a situation which neither her commercial value nor her strategic position and harbours warranted.

The year 1884 is indeed the end of one period, just as it is the beginning of another. By the end of 1884 the British Foreign Office was willing to acknowledge that independent native rule was impossible as well as impracticable. It was impracticable because the natives showed themselves incapable of ruling themselves, let alone foreigners. It was impossible because there was constant interference by Europeans, either as individuals or as representing a body of opinion,2 so that the government, whether good or bad, was not a native government. By 1884 the British Government admitted that Malietoa's rule had proved a failure.3 There was, however, no longer any question of unwillingness on the part of the Powers to annex Samoa. In the intervening page 171years (1881–84) the situation for the three Powers concerned had changed. By the end of 1884 Germany had manifested her intention of embarking upon a colonial policy.1 The Australasian Colonies, also, had vehemently revived schemes for the neutralization if not the direct absorption of the Western Pacific Islands.2 The matter had, in fact, become international. Once the ideal of native autonomy was effectually exploded, the ultimate annexation of Samoa by one or other of the Great Powers was inevitable. The unquiet years that followed the collapse of Malietoa's government (1884–89) were due primarily to a realization of this by the Great Powers and their agents in Samoa. Each Power wished to claim ascendancy and rights over the other two.3 Events in Samoa became of secondary importance to negotiations in Europe and America. The Samoan islands became a pawn in the diplomatic game, their value assessed and exchangeable for rights, privileges, and territory elsewhere.

This part of Samoan history is outside the story of this book. The collapse of Malietoa Laupepa was virtually (though not actually) in November 1884.4 The events to be narrated in this chapter, then, deal with the cause of that final failure of native government of 1881–84, and the effects upon Samoa of the changed attitude of the Great Powers towards annexation.5

2 Either adventurers who influenced the king, e.g. a certain J. Hunt, 1881, Bartlett, 1879, and others, or the representatives of German interference—e.g. Weber or, to some extent, Steinberger.

3 F.O. 58/199. Bramston to Under-Secretary of State. F.O., May 27, 1884.

1 E.g. by her annexation of New Guinea and her share in the Africa Conference, 1884–85.

2 New Guinea and Tonga, see infra. Inter-Col. Convention.

3 With Great Britain it was not on her own account, but out of consideration for the strong feeling on this matter that existed in New Zealand.

4 In signing the German-Samoan agreement the Samoan Government was under German control. Malietoa lost prestige among his own people. In 1887 he was deported by the Germans.

5 Particularly the change in Germany and in the Australasian Colonies.