TALES OF TIME - How American Samoa came into Existence
By Michael Field
120 years ago, American Sāmoa came into existence.
This was the result of imperial games in the 1890s which saw Britain, Germany and the United States divide up bits of the world they felt needed White Man’s Rule.
What we now know of as Sāmoa became a German colony when their Second Reich’s flag was raised on 1 March 1900 at Mulinu’ū. Men from SMS Cormoran formed up outside the German School on Beach Road and marched off down the peninsula.
Americans from a collier, USS Abarenda, followed. German-American antagonism had given away to common cause; the division of Sāmoa. Near the back of this parade was an assortment of mixed culture people, already cursed as ‘afakasi’ or ‘half-caste’. The Sāmoa Weekly Herald said they were ‘all dressed nicely’.
Sāmoans came up the rear: ‘We should say that fully 5000 natives were present…,’ the Herald said. ‘During the whole of the celebration the natives behaved on the whole very well.’
Cormoran Korvettenkapitän Hugo Emsmann, 43, insisted he should raise the German flag as he had been longer in Sāmoa than the new Governor, Wilhelm Solf. In the end they did it together.
And then came American Sāmoa...
On Tuesday 17 April 1900, people gathered on Saugelau Hill, overlooking Pago Pago harbour, 128 kilometres east of Mulinu’ū. A serpentine-like haven sheltered by towering jungle clad mountains, it gave gravity to Washington’s first successful territorial claim in the South Pacific (there had been others, such as Tokelau and atolls in modern Tuvalu to the north, not recognised by other nations).
Because there were few public buildings in Pago Pago, the ceremony was run from USS Abarenda, commanded by New Englander Benjamin Franklin – ‘BF’ – Tilley, 52. Sāmoans, in their Sunday whites, heard Tilley read a proclamation from President William McKinley declaring the islands ‘to be under the sovereignty and protection of the United States of America…,’ Mrs. Henry Hudson, wife of Abarenda’s Chief Boatswain Mate and the first navy wife to live in American Sāmoa, hoisted the flag.
The New York Times published an account based on reports submitted by Tilley.
‘We rejoice with our whole hearts on account of the tidings we have received, the conventions of the great powers concerning Sāmoa are ended,’ the chiefs were quoted saying. Pastors blessed the gathering. Abarenda and Cormoran fired 21-gun salutes. School children sang; dances, sports and games followed. Tilley commented that the feast saw the locals eat ‘so much pig that it is a wonder that they survived’.
Lloyd Osbourne, stepson of author Stevenson, commented that ‘all seemed much pleased to feel that they were henceforth to be under the flag of ‘Amileka.’ The event was spoiled somewhat by Manu’a, 114 kilometres east, declining to be American. Tilley said the Americans meant ‘to shield them from unscrupulous people.’ Tui Manu'a Elisara replied they were not ready to decide.
As Berlin and Washington and later Wellington would find out Sāmoans had a passion for long deliberation. Trying to rush the ali’i and tulāfale was a futile activity.
Manu’a eventually signed a deed of succession on 16 July 1904.
Cover image: Captain Benjamin Franklin Tilley Holding court, 1900. Image PH102-C, courtesy Polynesian Photo Archives, The Dwyer Collection, Feleti Barstow Public Library, American Samoa.
Photos from the International Journal of Navy History