5,408 miles away from Samoa on the other side of the world lies a statue of military officer John R. Monaghan.
A huge monument to honour a man born in Washington and killed in Vailele. Monaghan was sent to Samoa during the second Samoa Civil War in 1899. What history books will tell you was a war of “Samoans against Samoans”, but what locals would remind you was a colonial tug of war to see who could annex these Pacific islands. This is where officers like Monaghan come in, him and his men were sent to Samoa with the purpose of winning the islands for the countries they served.
In 1899, Samoa was a warzone as it had been previously during the First Samoan Civil War. On the island of Upolu villages along the coast of Apia to Vailele were filled with armed men given weapons by Germany, USA and Great Britain to fight for the ownership of the nation. The two Samoan chiefs who lead opposite side of the battle were Malietoa Tanumafili and Mata’afa Iosefa. The British and Americans supported and armed the side of Malietoa while the Germans did the same for Mata’afa.
Loyal to the US Military Monaghan’s time in Samoa was not his first entanglement in colonial looting and backwater bullying. He was in the troop that intimidated the people of Nicaragua, when America was trying to build a canal to link the seas. The year before he arrived in Samoa he participated in the ceremonies marking the forced annexation of Hawaii into the American domain. By the time he reached the shores of Apia he was already experienced in the colonial affairs of his country and the work it took to colonize an island.
On the first day of April 1899 the two opposing sides of the civil war were prepared for battle. Mata’afa’s forces for a while were tucked away in Vailele where Malietoa’s supporters together with the US troops were heading to attack. In the heat of the collision of both parties John R. Monaghan found himself in a precarious situation when his force was ambushed.
When his unit's leader was wounded, Ensign Monaghan seized a rifle and attempted to rescue the injured officer but failed. Monaghan was killed on this day along with hundreds of other Samoan caught in the cross-fire.
The American officer was not the only man to die that day fighting for their country. The American, German and British men who were sent to Samoa to fight chose to do so, while majority of Samoans who died that same day were given no choice but to face the battle that was at their doorstep.
7 years after Monaghans death the statue commemorating him was raised in downtown Spokane, Washington. The inscription on the statue reads: "During the retreat of the allied forces from the deadly fire and overwhelming number of the savage foe, he alone stood the fearful onslaught and sacrificed his life defending a wounded comrade Lieutenant Philip V. Lansdale United States Navy".
Alongside the inscription is a carved image of an inaccurate retelling of Monaghan’s death, where Samoans are painted to be “savages” with bows and arrows.
The monument still stands in Spokane today where many Samoans living in Washington are reminded of the dark history of colonial powers pitting Samoans against each other and aiding war with their imported weapons.
The words “savage foe” and images of “uncivilised” Samoans that the monument displays also further haunts the Pacific Island community as they have to be reminded of the racism that existed and continues to exist against them.
Today the “Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Club” at Eastern Washington University are part of the young people rallying to try and remove the John R. Monaghan. The group feel that the racist connotations of the statue is reason enough to have it removed and show the Pacific Island community in Washington that they are valued more than an old monument honouring a man who was sent to the islands to fight and kill locals.
The month of April 123 years ago was one of great importance. We remember all the Samoans who were killed in the battle of Vailele and the last civil war of their island home. Although the hundreds of Samoans who died do not have huge monuments to remember their lives, they live on in the fight of their young people in places like Washington who remember their legacies by questioning the honouring of a man who did not honour them.