The oldest evidence of human occupation in Samoa is Lapita village, partially submerged in the lagoon at Mulifanua on the island of Upolu. Carbon tests date the site to 1000 BC.
Archaeologists have discovered more than a hundred star-shaped stone platforms across the islands. It’s believed that these platforms, dubbed ‘star mounds’, were used to snare wild pigeons, a favoured pastime of matai (chiefs). Savai’i’s Pulemelei Mound is the largest ancient structure in the Pacific.
Around AD 950 warriors from Tonga established their rule on Savai’i, and then moved on to Upolu. They were eventually repelled by Malietoa Savea, a Samoan chief whose title, Malie toa (Brave warrior), was derived from the shouted tributes of the retreating Tongans. There was also contact with Fiji, from where legends say two girls brought the art of tattooing. The Samoans never really trusted their neighbours – togafiti (tonga fiji) means ‘a trick’.
Whalers, pirates and escaped convicts apparently introduced themselves to Samoa well before the first officially recorded European arrival in the region. This was the Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, who approached the Manu’a Islands in American Samoa in 1722. Other visitors followed in his wake and over the next 100 years numerous Europeans settled in. The settlers established a society in Apia and a minimal code of law in order to govern their affairs, all with the consent of Upolu chiefs, who maintained sovereignty in their own villages. Along with technological expertise, the palagi (Europeans) also brought with them diseases to which the islanders had no immunity.
In August 1830 missionaries John Williams and Charles Barff of the London Missionary Society (LMS) arrived at Sapapali’i on Savai’i’s eastern coast. They were followed by Methodist and Catholic missionaries, and in 1888 Mormons added to the competition for souls. Samoans were quite willing to accept Christianity due to the similarity of Christian creation beliefs to Samoan legend, and because of a prophecy by war goddess Nafanua that a new religion would take root in the islands. Although interdistrict warfare was not abolished until the start of the 20th century, schools and education were eagerly adopted.
There were – and still are – four paramount titles relating to four ‘aiga (extended families equivalent to royal dynasties), in what is now Samoa: Malietoa, Tupua Tamasese, Mata’afa and Tu’imaleali’ifano. During the 1870s a civil dispute broke out between two of these families, dividing Samoa. Much land was sold to Europeans by Samoans seeking to acquire armaments to settle the matter.
The British, Americans and Germans then set about squabbling over Samoan territory, and by the late 1880s Apia Harbour was crowded with naval hardware from all three countries. Most of it subsequently sunk – not because of enemy firepower, but because of a cyclone that struck the harbour in March 1889. After several attempted compromises, the Tripartite Treaty was signed in 1899, giving control of Western Samoa to the Germans and eastern Samoa to the Americans.
In February 1900 Dr Wilhelm Solf was appointed governor, and the German trading company DHPG began to import thousands of Melanesians and Chinese to work on its huge plantations. But although the Germans had agreed to rule ‘according to Samoan custom’, they didn’t keep their word. In 1908 there was widespread discontent, and the organisation of the Mau a Pule (Mau Movement) by Namulau’ulu Lauaki Mamoe; he and his chief supporters were sent into exile soon after.
In 1914, at the outbreak of WWI, Britain persuaded NZ to seize German Samoa. Preoccupation with affairs on the home front prevented Germany from resisting. Under NZ administration Samoa suffered a devastating (and preventable) outbreak of influenza in 1919; more than 7000 people (one-fifth of the population) died, further fuelling anger with the foreign rulers. Increasing calls for independence by the Mau Movement culminated in the authorities opening fire on a demonstration at the courthouse in Apia in 1929.
Following a change of government (and policy) in NZ, Western Samoa’s independence was acknowledged as inevitable and even desirable, and in 1959 Prime Minister Fiame Mata’afa was appointed. The following year a formal constitution was adopted and, on 1 January 1962, independence was finally achieved.
The Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has been in power for most of the period since independence. Economic development has been excruciatingly slow or nonexistent, far below population growth, but at least the country has been politically stable.
Upolu and Savai’i have been battered by several huge tropical storms over the past two decades, including the severe Category Four cyclones Val (1991) and Evan (2012).
In 2009 the government switched driving from the right-hand side of the road to the left, apparently to allow access to cheap secondhand vehicle imports from NZ.
Earthquake & Tsunami Disaster in the Samoas
On 29 September 2009 Upolu’s southern and eastern coasts and the south coast of Tutuila in American Samoa were struck by a tsunami that killed approximately 190 people and left thousands homeless. It began with an 8.1 magnitude earthquake with its epicentre 190km south of Apia, which struck at 6.48am local time. Eight minutes later, a 10m-high wave demolished Upolu’s south coast where people had little to no warning. On Tutuila, four tsunami waves between 4m and 6m were reported; these waves surged up to 1.6km inland, destroying homes and wiping out the electricity infrastructure.
In the years after the tsunami, resorts were rebuilt, new all-weather access roads were constructed, and visitors to many coastal regions will notice street signs pointing to tsunami evacuation routes leading to higher ground.