Samoa: The Cradle of Polynesia

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Podcast Transcript

Located approximately 1500 kilometers or 950 miles south of the equator and split by the International Date Line, is a small chain of islands which was was believed to be the birthplace of Polynesian civilization.

Today these islands are divided between two different countries. Despite a common culture and language, the differences between them keep getting larger over time.

Learn about Samoa, both Western Samoa and American Samoa, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I first visited Samoa back in 2007. It was one of the first stops I had on my around-the-world trip. 

I instantly fell in love with the country and when people ask me what my favorite country is, the answer I will often give is Samoa. 

Samoa is a pretty small country, situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and it is rather hard to reach. As a result, not many people visit. The vast majority of its visitors come from other islands in the Pacific, especially New Zealand and Australia

Before I go any further, I should mention the pronunciation. I’m going to be using Samoan pronunciation, which is putting the accent on the first syllable, and using an elongated “a”. Most people will pronounce it without any emphasis as just “Samoa”.  

The history of Samoa dates back about 3,000 to 3,500 years ago when the islands were settled by Austronesian people who were working their way across the Pacific Ocean. 

The ancestors of the Samoans are called the Lapita culture and they began their expansion eastward from what is today considered Melanesia, just to the east of the island of New Guinea. 

The early history of Samoa is intertwined with the islands of Fiji and Tonga. Fiji lies southwest of Samoa and Tonga is South southwest. These islands were the closest and so this is where there was the most trade and communication.

Over 1,000 years ago in the 9th century,  the Samoan Empire was established, also known as the Tui Manu’a Empire, or the Tui Manu’a Confederacy. This was a wide-ranging empire that included Tonga and Fiji but went much farther to include some of Kiribati, the eastern Solomon Islands, and much of what is today French Polynesia.

It was loosely ruled as you might expect given the vast distances and time it took to travel.

This began to fall apart around the year 1050 with the rise of the Tui Tongan Empire. Eventually, the two largest and westernmost islands in Samoa, Upolu and Savai’i came under Tongan control and remained that way for several hundred years. 

It was during the Samoan and Tongan Empires that the Polynesian expansion began which resulted in the settling of islands from Hawaii, to Easter Island, to New Zealand. 

This is the reason why Samoa is known as the cradle of Polynesia. This was also one of the last migrations of humans to parts of the Earth that had never been inhabited before. The lateness of this migration is one of the reasons why Polynesian languages are still so similar to each other. 

The next big change in Samoan civilization occurred in the 18th century when first contact was made with Europeans. 

The first European to spot Samoa was the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen who saw it in 1722. However, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that significant contact with Europeans began.

In the 1830s missionaries began visiting Samoa with the intent of converting the local population to Christianity. It was very successful, as you’ll see in a bit.

There was also interest in Samoa commercially from Germany, Britain, and the United States. In fact, in the 1880s, all three countries claimed all of what was then the Kingdom of Samoa. 

Things came to a head with the first Samoan Civil war which lasted from 1886 to 1894. Opposing factions clashed over control of the island and who would be king. The western powers tried to use the war to stake their positions. 

In 1889 all three western powers sent warships to Apia harbor, the capital of Samoa. On March 15 of that year, a major cyclone hit and damaged or sunk many of the ships. 145 Americans and Germans were killed. 

This led directly to a conference in June which lead to “The Final Act of The Berlin Conference on Samoan Affairs”. 

This act guaranteed Samoan independence brought back the exiled king and established rules regarding conflicts and land sales between Samoa and western countries. 

However, the exiled king died just two years later and conflicts began anew in 1894.

The British writer Robert Lewis Stevenson moved to Samoa during this period in December 1899. He built a house and stayed there the rest of his life. He served as a pro-Samoan advisor to the Samoan people to help them navigate the politics of western countries. 

He died there in 1894 and was buried on the island. Today his home is a museum. 

The civil war resumed in 1898 and this time, on March 15, 1899, 10 years to the day of the Apia cyclone, British and American ships shelled the Samoan capital. 

This resulted in another negotiated settlement, but this time the implications were far more pronounced. Britain agreed to renounce all claims to Samoa in exchange for the Germans ceding claims to Tonga, the Solomon Islands, and West Africa. 

Germany gained control over western Samoa, including the islands of Upolu and Savai’i, which are by far the two largest in terms of population and area. This became known as the territory of German Samoa.

The United States gained control over the eastern islands which included the islands of Tutuila and Manu’a. Tutuila is the location of Pago Pago Harbor, which is the best deep water harbor in the Pacific. 

This became the territory of American Samoa.

German Samoa lasted until 1914 and the start of the first world war. At the behest of Great Britain, the island was invaded by New Zealand and the island was taken over without a struggle. 

The Western Samoa Trust Territory was created by the League of Nations which was to be administered by New Zealand. 

Western Samoa was now the colony of a colony. 

This state of affairs remained until 1962 when the territory became the newly independent country of Western Samoa. 

Meanwhile, the other part of Samoa, American Samoa, was and still remains, a United States Territory. 

I should note that the two Samoas are not far from each other. Their closest points are only about 44 miles or 70 kilometers apart. 

Before their partition, there was one common Samoan culture across all of the islands. This Samoan way of life is known as Fa’a Samoa.

For the most part, this is still the case. The Samoan language is spoken in both regions and you can still find traditional fales, which are the thatched-roof bungalows. 

However, over a century of being separate territories has given each Samoa its own character. 

Western Samoa actually changed its name in 1997 to just Samoa. This actually caused a spat with American Samoa because they felt they had an equal claim to being called Samoa. 

To this day, the upper-level domain name for Samoa is .ws for Western Samoa. 

The name wasn’t the only thing that was changed. 

In 2009, Samoa became the only country in history to change the side of the road they drove on from right to left. 

In 2011, they made another huge change when they moved across the International Date Line. They went from the -11 UTC time zone to the +13 UTC time zone. Prior to this change, Samoa was considered the westernmost country, because it had one of the last inhabited islands where the sun would set on a calendar day.

Samoa did this by completely skipping the day of December 30, 2011.  

The reason for both the date change and the driving change was to align themselves closer with New Zealand and Australia. Many Samoans live and work in New Zealand and Australia and they are also the biggest trade partners and the largest source of tourism. 

However, in the course of doing this, they further distanced themselves from American Samoa. The International Date Line now runs between the two Samoas and you can’t drive a car the same way on either side. 

One of the other cultural differences which have arisen is sports. 

The nation of Samoa is crazy about rugby. They consistently have one of the best rugby sevens teams in the world. 

American Samoa has embraced American sports, especially American football. There have been several dozen players with American Samoan roots who have played in the NFL including such standouts as Junior Seau, Tua Tagovailoa, Marcus Mariota, and Troy Polamalu. 

I also have to recognize the incredible success that the American Samoan Anoa’i family has had in professional wrestling. Almost every Samoan in professional wrestling has come from this one family, including the likes of the Wild Samoans, Rikishi, Yokozuna, The Usos, Roman Reigns, and of course, The Rock. 

They actually had a photo of the Rock at the Apia McDonald’s when I was there.  

Where many people from Samoa go to New Zealand or Australia, American Samoans often will live or work in Hawaii or California

American Samoa also is known for having the highest rate of enlistment in the armed forces of any US state or territory. 

American Samoa has a very unique status in the United States. All other populated territories are what is called organized territories. American Samoa is the only unorganized territory.

That means that unlike people in Puerto Rico or Guam, American Samoans are not US citizens. They are considered US Nationals. 

They can travel, live, and work anywhere in the United States, and they travel under a US passport. The only difference is that they can’t vote in federal elections or hold federal office, and their passports say “US National” instead of a citizen.

Traveling between Samoa and American Samoa isn’t hard. The flight is only about 20 minutes. However, it can be difficult for Samoans who want to visit American Samoa as they need a visa to make the short trip.

American Samoa is home to American Samoan National Park, which is one of the 63 national parks in the US. 

Both Samoas are profoundly Christian countries. In the nation of Samoa, 98% of the country professes to be Christian. However, the odd thing is that no one denomination is predominant. 

The three largest denominations are Congregationalist, Catholic, and Mormon. People of different denominations will often be found within the same village. 

Almost everyone in both Samoas is bilingual, speaking both Samoan and English. 

If you wish to visit Samoa or American Samoa it isn’t hard, but it will take some effort. Flights to American Samoa only come from Apia and Honolulu. Flights from Hawaii are very expensive because Hawaiian Airlines has a monopoly on the route. 

There are regional airlines that service the nation of Samoa from Tonga and Fiji, but most international visitors will be flying in on Air New Zealand from Auckland. 

One constant debate is what the future of Samoa and American Samoa will be, especially American Samoa. 

One option would be for independence for American Samoa. However, with a population of only 46,000, that would be very difficult.

Another option, which has been talked about since Samoa was split, is Samoan reunification. A combined country would have a population of a bit under a quarter-million people, and it would certainly be easier for family members on each side to visit each other. 

The problem is the recent moves by the nation of Samoa with regards to the time zone and the side of the road they drive on has made unification more difficult.

In fact, there hasn’t been much action on the part of American Samoa at all to do anything. They have a high degree of autonomy in managing their own affairs but have the financial and military support of the United States behind them. 

Both Samoa and American Samoa are great places to visit and the people there are friendly and welcoming. Most people think of Samoa as an exotic faraway place, but visiting is actually quite doable if you are willing to make the effort. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener websandrew over at Podchaser. They write:

The best thing to come out of COVID. Gary started this podcast because he couldn’t travel and put his curious mind to work on this daily pod that is entertaining, fascinating and bite-sized. It really does span everything, and each subject he manages to make interesting because each is interesting to him. I’m more of a science and history nerd, and this pod definitely appeals to that, but even the sports subjects I find entertaining. And he has a great speaking voice! As long as he can make more episodes, I’ll be listening. Thanks Gary!

Thank you websandrew! I’m glad something good came out of COVID. If it wasn’t for this podcast, it would have just been Zoom calls. 

??I want to thank everyone who left a review over at Podchaser in April to help raise money for Ukrainian refugees. If you happen to listen to the show on a podcast app that doesn’t have a review option, you can always leave a review at Podchaser.