TALES OF TIME - The Samoan War you didn't know about
By Michael Field
Since United States independence in 1776, the US and Britain had been mostly hostile toward each other - and in 1812 the two were at war. Easter 2019 marks the 120th anniversary of the first Anglo-American alliance.
What is not understood in the South Pacific is that London and Washington united to shell, machine-gun and occupy Sāmoa.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Sāmoans, including women and children, were killed by the Anglo-Americans over three months in 1899. It is a story that is not taught in Sāmoa simply because London and Washington were able to divide and arm Sāmoans against themselves.
Sāmoa has never had a “king” or “queen”, but in the 19th Century this was an inconvenient fact for colonists who wanted to take the country. Imperial Germany lead the way, but London and Washington quickly followed.
Early in 1899, the Anglo-Americans decided a handsome 20-year-old man, just out of school in New Zealand, would be king; the newly appointed tama’āiga Malietoa Tanumafili.
Remarkably the Germans preferred tama’āiga Mata’afa Iosefa, a 67-year-old tama’āiga. Eleven years earlier, Mata’afa and his men had ambushed and killed as many as 30 German marines just outside of Āpia, at a place called Vailele. Alliances change though, and Berlin preferred Mata’afa. And so it seemed, did most of Sāmoa; he had a five to one advantage in men under arms over Malietoa. For ‘Upolu, it meant devastating war was to come with hatred on both sides.
Despite the naming of Malietoa as king, Mata’afa seized Mulinu’ū and established a “provisional government”. Some fighting between Malietoa and Mata’afa followed and the whites who controlled Āpia called for gunboats. This call led to the arrival of the white hulled German Navy’s Falke was playing the role of a neutral against the Royal Navy’s ships Tauranga, Porpoise and Royalist. Malietoa sought protection aboard Porpoise. The 4324-ton cruiser USS Philadelphia arrived with the US Pacific Squadron Commander-in-Chief Rear Admiral Albert Kautz.
As the highest ranked officer in Sāmoa, he assumed command. As an aside, the arrival of the US coincided with the dominance of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower Upon History that argued empires had flourished not by controlling large land areas, but by ruling the seas. It is why the Americans had annexed Hawaii: Sāmoa was next.
Kautz denounced Mata’afa’s ‘provisional government’, calling it ‘revolutionary and subversive of the legal government.…’ Mata’afa was told to go home or be bombed. Mata’afa moved out of Mulinu’ū, not in compliance with Kautz’s demands, but because with warships nearby, his position was indefensible. He went a two kilometres west, across Vaiusu Bay, to set up headquarters at Vaiusu.
At one o’clock on 15 March, Kautz gave the order to open fire. A six inch shell from Philadelphia went over Mulinu’ū and into Vaiusu. Philadelphia’s third shell destroyed a canoe off the village. No record was made of what happened to the people in it. Forty five minutes after firing began, Philadelphia’s salvoes ended. English and American people in Āpia cheered. Other ships then began firing.
The shelling alarmed both friend and foe around Āpia when shot fell close to the town. Several men were wounded at the US Consulate. Āpia houses were damaged and riddled with bullets, either by accident or deliberately.
At no point that day, or in the weeks to follow, was any attempt made by the Anglo-Americans to account for those they killed and wounded. They were fired ruthlessly into homes along the shore, occupied, for the most part, by women and children.
Ashore Anglo-American marines and bluejackets terrorised people with rifle and machine gun fire. Tagoa Coe said officers and soldiers came to the house and told them to get out otherwise they would set it on fire and killed them all; ‘They pushed my mother out with their guns, and we all followed and went on board the German ship.... ‘ The family lost everything.
VILLAGES LISTED FOR DESTRUCTION
Other places bombarded by the Americans and British that month were Sāluafata and Solosolo. Outside of Āpia harbour in that two week period the US and Royal Navy ships shell and burned the villages of Malie, Fale’ula, Afega, Sāle’imoa, Utuali’i, Faleāsi’u, Vaiusu, Fasito’otai, Falefā, Sāluafata, Solosolo, Sāluafata, Lufilufi,Faleāpuna, Fasito’outa, Leulomoaga and Fagali’i.
On 23 March 1899 Malietoa went ashore at Mulinu’ū to be crowned king of that part of the country that the Anglo-Americans let him be ‘under the guns and protection of the English and American fleets.’ British and US ship bands struck up and supporters marched along Mulinu’ū road. Tupua Tamasese Lealofi, a tama’āiga, commanded Malietoa’s army, known as the Red Tops.
‘Understand now you are going to fight for your country and the settlement of good government,’ Ross quoted him addressing his troop. ‘Up to this time these white people have been doing it all for you. Now it is your turn to do something. Go in, never mind what happens, be brave, do not be afraid to get killed. If you are killed good will come out of it, for in time to come even if you are not here your sons and daughters will profit by what you now do.”
In an effort to put more fight into the Malietoa side, Lieutenant Guy Gaunt of Porpoise, created an up to thousand strong group to fight. They went near the village of Māgiagi and without warning, opened fire with two heavy machine gun style weapons. One poured 400 shots a minute into the village church. No one checked how many were killed.
Mata’afa did not want to fight the whites: he knew they had so much more weapons. But that ended on 1 April, 1899 in what would become the Second Battle of Vailele. The Anglo-Americans marched over to Fagali’i and destroyed the village. They moved on and destroyed Vailele and Letogo villages. With that they decided to march back to Āpia.
Between the Vaivase stream and Faleālili Street Mata’afa ambushed the Americans and the British. The foreigners suffered a resounding battlefield defeat, with many killed.
The Anglo-Americans fled the battlefield and Mata’afa achieved the globally unique moment of having beaten the Germans, the Americans and the British in battle.
A monument was erected at Mulinu’ū honouring the Anglo-American dead. There are no monuments to any Sāmoans; it’s not even known how many were killed. Even the voices of those who were there, fighting for Mata’afa, went silent and then were lost in a tragedy 18 years on.
HIGH EXPLOSIVES ON VAILIMA
The shelling and destruction of villages continued. HMS Tauranga threw experimental ‘lyddite’ shells at Vailima. Each shell contained a powerful chemical explosive, stronger than dynamite. From 1896, they were the first of Britain’s high explosive shells. Their big moment would come in the Great War ahead.
‘The Stevenson residence was found in ruins and there were evidences of a fearful slaughter
Gaunt, with a woman, Tulia, beside him. She was said to be a water carrier. The Red tops lost 10 men with 17 wounded. The Stevenson house had a German flag flying over it. When Gault captured it, the flag was ‘handed to the tāupou, or village belle…,’ Tulia.
The world came to be shocked at what the British and Americans were doing.
The strongest attack came from Fanny V de G. Stevenson, widow of the novelist: ‘the exodus of the panic-stricken non-combatants rushing hither and thither; shells bursting everywhere; the cries of the bed ridden and the helplessly wounded burning alive in their blazing hours; women in the pangs of childbirth (for Nature takes no count of bombardments); mangled children crawling on the sands - the sea before them, the bush behind them; and we read that the woods also are shelled. Who is to be held accountable for those deeds that disgrace both England and America?’
Australian Catholic Cardinal Patrick Moran said what was happening was not warfare, but deliberate murder. America was bent on making the Pacific a new American lake. He looked upon this as very dangerous, not only to the natives of islands in the Pacific, but to the British Empire. It was clear to him Americans fermented the disturbances to suite their own ends, Moran said.
The Catholic journal les Missions Catholiques called it all a ‘cruel and ridiculous spectacle of two great powers, the United States and England, with all the resources of modern artillery, uniting their forces to give battle to some handfuls of natives. During two months their ships discharged more than a thousand shells into the villages of Upolu.’
The news of battle did not deter New Zealand: Prime Minister Richard John Seddon volunteered to send New Zealand soldiers to help the Anglo-Americans. Through April the attacks on villages continued: Papasē’ea, Utumau’u, Fagaloa and Fālifā.
Eventually the three powers decided Sāmoa began to believe it was not worth the coin and decided to send a trilateral commission out to effectively divide up the Pacific. No one in Sāmoa was asked their opinion. The commission arrived on a US cruiser. The American commissioner, Bartlett Tripp, wrote a moving book on it all. He told of when Mata’afa arrived at the cruiser for talks: ‘Mataafa was clad in a long white robe which came down to his feet and was partially gathered at the waist by some form of belt but flowing somewhat loosely about his large stalwart form, giving him, with his dignified mien and presence, something of the appearance of a Roman Senator. His head and feet were bare, and he wore no ornaments of any kind except a necklace of beads and a cross, the emblems of his church.’
The talks between Mata’afa and Malietoa are the stuff of movies; the very best of fa’a Sāmoa on display. Both sides agreed to surrender their weapons.
All Sāmoans were betrayed, of course.
The true death toll in the civil war was never known; no authority ever tried to establish it. There are monuments to dead white people killed in the conflict in several countries; none to the Sāmoans. A century later, the loss of so much life is unaccountable. The soldiers and sailors who died were just players in a vague colonial sideshow; no one in the colonial capitals were prepared to escalate the conflict into a full-scale war. In a lightweight Treaty of Westphalia, diplomats seriously considered tossing sovereigns, dollars or marks into the air to decide on the division.
Kaiser Wilhelm wanted ‘Upolu because German blood had been lost there.’ Pago Pago appealed to him. In the dealing, he offered London possession of Savai’i, Tonga and Niue. Germany would withdraw from Zanzibar or the English part of New Guinea or the Solomon Islands. German planters worried about giving up the Solomons as it was a labour source. It was bookkeeping on a global scale with bits of land in the Volta Triangle and the Yendi part of the Neutral Zone in West Africa. The Americans were determined to keep Tutuila, not least because of Pago Pago.
AN INTERNATIONAL CRIME
Malietoa believed the deal was a ‘crime against the law of nations, only equal to the dismemberment of Poland, Denmark, and France’. He blamed missionaries, missionaries ‘with their holy or unholy presence introduced the same religious differences and hatreds against each other as pertained at the hour in civilized States. The missionaries live in palatial, concrete houses, with all the luxuries their countries can afford, and charge us for Bibles and Prayer Books, which we understand are sent as free offerings.’
There are monuments to the dead Americans and British in Washington DC, Spokane, Washington, California and Mulinu’ū - just down the road from the old Fale Fono.
There are no monuments to the Sāmoan dead.
Nor is there a day set aside in Sāmoa to recall the terrible disaster.
Later in April, Sāmoa will however pause and recall the deaths of Australians and New Zealanders - somewhere else.
Time to change this?