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Early Polynesians are believed to have established their first village in Samoa on 'Upolu at Mulifanua, probably around 1000 BC. Europeans began fully acquainting themselves with 'Upolu in the early 19th century. Among these visitors were Christian missionaries such as John Williams, who began spreading his holy words in 1830, and Peter Turner, who landed on Manono in 1835. European traders began flooding into 'Upolu after 1850 and for the next 50 years the island became the centre of a territorial dispute between Germany, Britain and the USA, who at one stage all dispatched warships to Apia's harbour - six of these sunk during a massive cyclone in 1889. Germany triumphed but during WWI was relieved of control by New Zealand, which administered Samoa up until the country's independence in 1962.

'Upolu has had a habit of being battered by tropical cyclones in the past two decades, beginning with cyclone Ofa in February 1990 and cyclone Val in December 1991 - the latter caused 13 deaths and economic devastation. The most recent storm to hit the island was Olaf in February 2005, though damage on 'Upolu was much less than at first feared.