19th Century Photography – The Samoan War 1899

U.S. Marines with naval gun, Upolu, Samoa, 1899, published by Kerry and Co

Tradition in Samoa dictated that leadership of the islands was to be invested in a hereditary chief, but in the 1880s these claims to power were anything but certain. Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived in Samoa during this period of turmoil, commented that Europeans, used to a history of kings and queens, tended to leap to the conclusion that the office of high chief is absolute. In fact the office in Samoa was elective and held in many ways on condition of the holder’s behaviour and attendance to his many obligations. This confusion was to have ongoing ramifications in the late nineteenth century as European powers asserted their claims to land and political power across the three major islands of Samoa.

In 1881, Laupepa was annointed king on the basis of his holding of three of the five names (Malietoa, Natoaitele, and Tamasoalii) which covered the principality of Samoa. However the two other chiefs who had claims to these highly significant titles, Tamasese who held the name Tuiaana and Mata’afa who held Tuiatua, were not completely satisfied with the arrangement. In an effort to maintain the peace each was given the role of ‘vice-king’ to be held for two year periods.

This situation provided the seeds of discord amongst the Samoans, but a greater threat to the peace of the island was the German, British and American settlers pursuing their commercial interests (particularly the German interests of the firm of Deutsche Handels und Plantagen Gesellschaft fur Sud-See Inseln zu Hamburg ( DH&PG.)) alongside these traditional relationships.

The centre of all this activity was on the island of Upolu at the port of Apia where Samoans, Germans, Americans and Englishmen all resided. Perhaps the best description of the state of these interests is to be found at the beginning of Stevenson’s book, A Footnote to History,

Here, then, is a singular state of affairs: all the money, luxury, and business of the kingdom centred in one place; that place excepted from the native government and administered by whites for whites; and the whites themselves holding it not in common but in hostile camps, so that it lies between them like a bone between two dogs, each growling, each clutching his own end.

European intrigue exacerbated existing tensions which erupted in 1885 and led to civil war amongst the Samoans and fighting between the Germans on one side and the Americans and the British on the other. The German Counsel Dr. Stuebel entered into an agreement with Malietoa and then advocated the deposing of the existing Samoan government. However Malietoa and Tamasese secretly approached the English offering them the islands as a Protectorate. When the Germans found out they sought to replace Malietoa and, overlooking the obvious choice of Mata’afa, selected Malietoa’s accomplice Tamasese as their man.

Tamasese, supplied with weapons by Germans and Americans, raised his flag on January the 28th 1886, Malietoa was forced from Mulinuu, the seat of his royalty and raised his flag in Apia. Here he was confronted by the German Consel Dr. Stuebel who, with the aid of ten men from the German cruiser Albatross forcibly took down his flag. Europe and America sent a delegation to sort out the mess and a lull in hostilities ensued which lasted for nearly a year. But by August 1887 tensions had increased again and no less than five German warships were stationed in the harbour at Apia. On the 25 August 700 Germans came ashore and hoisted the German flag above the Government House in Apia.

In September 1888 a large group of Samoans revolted against Tamasese and the German Government. By December 1888 skirmishes were erupting across the islands and tensions between the European warships in Apia harbour were at their height. On the 21st the German ship the Olga shelled and burned the village of Vailele. By March 1889 the harbour was crowded with three American ships in Apia bay, the Nipsic; the Vandalia and the Trenton, three German ships, the Adler; the Eber and the Olga; and one British, the Calliope. In addition there were six merchant-men, ranging from twenty-five to five-hundred tons, and a number of small craft which further encumbered the anchorage. On the 15 March a hurricane struck and the Eber went down on the reef with nearly 80 drowned, the Nipsce was beached on the sand escaping with a few lives lost, the Adler was lifted onto the reef which broke her back and twenty lives were lost, the Vandalia also went down in the storm after colliding with the Olga losing 43 lives, while the Trenton only lost one life.

The Germans in the wake of this disaster agreed again to talks with the British and the Americans. This allowed tensions to quieten down and a treaty document was signed in which Malietoa was recognised as king by the European forces.

However this was against the wishes of many Samoans who saw another chief, Mata’afa, as the real hero of the conflict. The agreement also established an accord for the tripartite supervision of the islands but, unfortunately for all involved, it appears to have been constructed in haste and the resulting document led to squabbles and by 1892 the island ‘… still lacked any form of peace, order and effective administration’.

Tamasese had died in 1891 and in 1893 another civil war broke out between Mata’afa and Malietoa, the upshot of which was the capture and deportation of Mata’afa. In 1894 fresh conflict broke out between Tamasese’s son and Malietoa which was put down by German forces.

But in August 1898 Samoa’s King Malietoa Laupepa died and his long-time rival Mata’afa returned from exile supported by the German forces. This act was strongly opposed by the British and Americans who backed Laupepa’s son, Tanu, and in January 1899 a war, similar to the one ten yeas previously, erupted in Apia. In an astounding turn of events the American heavy cruiser U.S.S. Philadelphia shelled Apia on 14 March almost ten years to the day of the anniversary of the hurricane which ended the first conflict.

This shelling was done in an attempt to dissolve a provisional government set up by Mata’afa and Germany and re-establish the tripartite solution. Instead it inflamed the hostilities and Mata’afa’s forces attacked houses in Apia, particularly the Tivoli Hotel where three American sailors were killed. Tanu’s forces were outnumbered by Mata’afa’s on Upolu and so British and American ships picked up hundred of supporters from the Samoan Islands of Savai’i and Tutuila and brought them back to Apia where they were armed and trained. On 30 March a British and American force under Commander Sturdee, along with about one hundred Samoans under Lieutenant Gaunt, made their way along the coast driving small numbers of Mata’afa’s men before them.

On the first of April, and no doubt feeling full of confidence at the ease with which they were forcing Mata’afa’s forces off the coast, they pursued him inland. This tactic was foolhardy in the extreme as they were no longer covered by the fire of the warships and were attacked by thousands of Mata’afa’s men. While only seven were killed, the historian Paul Kennedy considered these were, ‘remarkably light considering the circumstances’. The upshot of all this activity was the establishment of Samoan, American and British forces along the coast while Mata’afa’s Samoan forces and the Germans were firmly entrenched in the interior.

The inevitable deadlock was broken by a ceasefire announced on 25 April and in May 1899 a specially set up commission of British, American, and German representatives arrived. Soon after a treaty was agreed to by all parties. This document recognised the independence of the Samoan Government and divided European interests so that Germany received the western Samoan islands with Savaii and Upolu, the United States received the eastern islands with its capital at Pago Pago on Tutuila and Britain withdrew from the area for recognition of rights on Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

These images are two of the 26 images relating to the 1899 conflict held by the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.


cc by sa
Geoff Barker, 2011


Paul M. Kennedy, The Samoan Tangle; a Study in Anglo-German-American Relations, University of Queensland Press, Queensland, 1974

Robert Louis Stevenson, A Footnote to History; Eight years of Trouble in Samoa, 1892, transcribed from the 1912 Swanston edition by David Price, 2005, Project Gutenberg eBook, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/536/536.txt


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