A Quick History of Samoa
From fearless seafaring across the vast South Pacific to building ancient star mound structures to European influence to dividing the islands to gaining independence; Samoa has a colourful history that is well worth exploring during your trip. There are many historical sites to explore across the islands and knowing a little context about Samoa will simply help you appreciate your visit further. Dive into an interesting yet brief history of Samoa!
A Brief Timeline of Samoa’s History
1,000 BC – Polynesian settlers arrive in Samoa
950 AD – Tongan warriors invade Savai’i and Malietoa Savea defeats Tongans on Upolu
1200s – Inter-tribal battles take place for space along the coastlines
1722 – The first European, Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, sights the Samoan islands
1700s – European traders stay clear of Samoan islands after a string of European and Samoan conflicts
1820s – Europeans start settling in Apia
1830 – Missionaries John Williams and Charles Barff bring Christianity to Savai’i
1886 – The Samoan Civil War begins
1889 – Cyclone devastates the Apia Harbour and the Berlin Treaty is signed
1894 – Laupepa is appointed Malietoa and the Samoan Civil War ends
1898 – Laupepa dies and the Second Samoan Civil War begins
1899 – Tripartite Treaty is drawn up giving western Samoa to the Germans and eastern Samoa to the US
1918 – New Zealand takes Western Samoa from Germany during WWI
1920s – Mau Movement is established to campaign towards Samoan independence
1961 – Samoan independence proposed to United Nations
1962 – Samoa gains independence
1997 – “Western” is dropped from the name to become “Samoa”
2009 – Devastating tsunami hits the southern coast of Samoa.
Polynesian Settlement: Who First Settled Samoa?
Samoan people are Polynesian and it is believed that Polynesian people entered the Pacific from the west via the East Indies and Malay Peninsula. These first Polynesians are now referred to as the Lapita people. Archaeological evidence and carbon tests suggest that they discovered and settled the Samoan islands (the islands of both Samoa and American Samoa) around 3,000 years ago, i.e. around 1,000 BC.
Archaeologists have discovered more than a hundred star-shaped stone platforms, known as “star mounds” across the islands with Savai’i‘s Pulemelai Mound being the largest ancient structure in the Pacific – see the 15 Best Historical Sites in Samoa. However, the oldest known site of human occupation in Samoa is Mulifanua on the island of Upolu.
Early Pacific Conflict
Around 950 AD, warriors from Tonga established their rule on Savai’i before moving onto Upolu where they were defeated by Samoan chief Malietoa Savea. The name Malietoa, the name given to the titular head of one of the four royal families of Samoa, means “Brave Warrior” and is derived from this famous battle.
Into the 13th century, villages within Samoa began to battle each other for space along the increasingly populated coastline.
Although whalers, pirates and escaped convicts were among the first to land on the islands of Samoa, the first official record of European contact was Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen who sighted the Manu’a Islands (now part of American Samoa) in 1722. He gave Dutch names to the islands and then sailed away without landing.
Other European visitors followed in his wake over the next 100 years, not without some casualties as some Europeans also brought their conflicts and devastating weaponry. Due to these conflicts between Europeans (with Samoan collateral), as well as between Samoans and Europeans, the Samoan islands had a reputation for being a hostile place. As a result, European traders stayed clear of the islands until around the early 1800s.
By the 1820s, a substantial number of Europeans settled in Samoa, especially in Apia, who were welcomed for their technological expertise. However, these palagi (white people) also brought diseases to which the locals had no immunity.
Missionary Influence in Samoa
In August 1830, missionaries John Williams and Charles Barff on the London Missionary Society (LMS) arrived on Savai’i and converted the local people from believing the many Gods of the sun, earth, heavens and sea to just one God.
The LMS was closely preceded by Methodists in 1828, who didn’t establish a mission initially but still converted many Samoans, and closely followed by Catholic missionaries in 1845. And then in 1888, the Mormons were added into the mix.
Samoans were relatively willing to accept Christianity in its various forms, not only due to the similarity of the Christian creation story to Samoan legend but because of a prophecy that their war goddess, Nafanua, told that a new religion would be established on the islands.
The Samoan Civil War
Between 1886 and 1894, the Samoan Civil War centred around two of the four ‘aiga (families) of Samoa. There were, and still are, four paramount ‘aiga of Samoa: Malietoa, Tupua Tamasese, Mata’afa and Tu’imaleali’ifano.
A dispute arose between the Malietoa leader and the Mata’afa leader on who should be king. This divided the western islands of Samoa and the eastern islands. In turn, Samoans sold their lands to Europeans in order to acquire armaments to settle the dispute.
In the meantime, the German military intervened on a number of occasions, all while tensions arose between Germany, the US and Britain, who all wanted to further their interest in Samoa. Each of the powers established a substantial amount of naval hardware in the Apia Harbour, of which most were destroyed by one of the largest cyclones in Samoa’s history in March 1889.
The three powers mellowed after the disaster and made an effort to settle their disputes with the Berlin Treaty of 1889 that stipulated an independent Samoa would be established under the rule of a foreign-appointed Samoan king and that Britain, Germany and the US would be given considerably advisory powers on Upolu.
The Second Samoan Civil War
Although Malietoa Laupepa was appointed to the throne in 1894, when he died in 1898, the Second Samoan Civil War broke out with both Samoan factions and Western powers in conflict.
The Berlin Treaty was declared void on December 2 1899 and the Tripartite Treaty was drawn up instead, giving control of western Samoa (today’s Samoa) to the Germans and eastern Samoa (today’s American Samoa) to the Americans. The British stepped out of the Samoa arrangement altogether in exchange for all renunciations of German claims to Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Niue.
Under German rule, which put Mata’afa in the symbolic position as paramount chief and abolished kingship altogether in order to not give Samoans too much rule over their new territory, Samoa saw its first public education system, a hospital and an extensive road network.
German companies brought workers from Melanesia and China to work on the extensive plantations across the islands. Working conditions were deplorable but the Chinese fared better (mainly because they got some sort of wage) than the Melanesians. Many Chinese people remained in Samoa, marrying local people and establishing families whose descendants remain in Samoa to this day.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Oh, and somewhere between all of this, the famous author of Treasure Island (1881), Kidnapped (1886) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Samoa from 1890 up until he died in 1894. His mansion can now be visited as the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum – see the 5 Best Museums in Samoa.
How Samoa Got its Independence
After the outbreak of World War One, the British persuaded New Zealand to capture Western Samoa from Germany while the Germans were preoccupied on the European Front. New Zealand were the last foreign power to take administrative control from 1918 up until Samoan independence.
With the Samoan people feeling angry about the ongoing foreign rule, the Mau Movement was established, known as O le Mau a Samoa. The goal of the movement, since the late 1920s, was to become independent of New Zealand.
The friction between New Zealand and the Mau Movement hit a climax on Saturday, December 28 1929 during a parade on Apia‘s waterfront to welcome home two Mau members who had been exiled to New Zealand. However, the incident culminated in the police opening fire on the crowd leaving eight dead including prominent Samoan leader, Tuta Tamasese Lealofi III. To this day, Samoans remember this day as Black Saturday.
Although progress towards Samoan independence was interrupted by the Great Depression and World War Two, New Zealand’s grip on Samoa relaxed after the war, and Western Samoa acquired the status of a United Nations Trust territory under the administration of New Zealand.
A proposal for Samoan independence was put before the United Nations in January 1961, which resulted in a referendum on January 1 1962 asking all Western Samoans whether or not they wanted independence. With an overwhelming response in favour of freedom from foreign rule, Western Samoa gained independence on January 1 1962 under the Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Mata’afa.
“Western Samoa” to “Samoa”
From independence through to 1997, Samoa was known as “Western Samoa” and is why you see the local currency sometimes listed as “WSD” or website addresses with “.ws”. In 1997, the “Western” was dropped for the country to become known as “Samoa“.
Natural Disasters and Recovery
Some of the more noteworthy aspects of recent history have been the natural disasters that have impacted Samoa.
2009 Earthquake and Tsunami
On September 29 2009, Samoa was shaken by an undersea earthquake that caused 14m (46ft) waves at their highest on the coast. Around 20 villages on Upolu‘s south coast were destroyed and 149 people in Samoa were killed. More about safety protocols can be seen in The Guide to Earthquakes & Tsunamis in Samoa. Samoa’s infrastructure was rebuilt with the aid of the international community resulting in many facilities and resorts being back up and running by 2010 and 2011.
There have also been a couple of substantial cyclones that have battered Samoa over the last few decades, but they have not had nearly as many fatalities. Find out more about Cyclones Val (1991) and Evan (2012) in our guide to the Samoa Weather in December, the month that both of those cyclones occurred. You can also learn about Samoa’s cyclone history in Cyclone Safety in Samoa: How to Prepare for a Cyclone in Samoa.
Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in strict border restrictions and closures between January 2020 and August 2022, had a serious impact on the tourism economy of Samoa, resulting in many local workers leaving the country in pursuit of jobs elsewhere. Nevertheless, Samoa has since welcomed visitors back to the country with open arms.
More About the History of Samoa
That’s it for our brief history of Samoa. For more about the history of Samoa, take a look at the following guides:
For more about the culture of the islands, be sure to check out A Traveller’s Guide to the Samoan Culture.