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Samoa Travel Guide

Instability and Intrigue

The new Samoan government fumbled on and signed treaties of friendship with the United States and Germany. An intermittent civil war between the chiefly orator groups Pule and Tumua over the four highest ceremonial titles dragged on through most of the late 19th century. Rival Europeans sided with the different factions, but no one was able to establish a single, stable government. In 1879, the European residents of Apia took advantage of the situation to enact a municipal convention, which put control of the town in their hands.

In 1887, the German company Deutsche Handels-und Plantagen-Gesellshaft (successor to Godeffroy), tiring of the vicissitudes of native government in an area where they controlled 80 percent of the business, staged an unofficial coup. The nominal king, Malietoa Laupepa, was forced to flee, and the Germans installed a puppet in his place. The German regime, supported by German naval units but not sanctioned by Berlin, soon alienated the Samoans, British, and Americans.

In March 1889, an armed Samoan rebellion brought the warships of Germany, Britain, and the United States to Apia's port in a major international confrontation. This came to a ludicrous pass when the seven men-of-war refused to abandon Apia Harbor in the face of a hurricane, for fear of leaving the field to the opposing Great Powers.

This colonial stupidity and arrogance caused the wreck of four ships; two others were beached and damaged; 92 German and 54 American lives were lost. The German ship Adler was thrown up onto the reef, and only the British Calliope escaped to the open sea. The Samoans saw it as an act of God. Robert Louis Stevenson compared the struggle between Britain and Germany for influence in Samoa to "two bald men fighting over a comb."

After this disaster, the military posturing abated, and in June 1889 a Tripartite Treaty was signed in Berlin under which the three powers agreed to the formation of a neutral government led by Malietoa Laupepa with the three consuls controlling Apia. Yet instability and open factional warfare alternated with ineffectual government until 1899, when new treaties were drawn up partitioning Samoa between Germany and the United States. Britain, distracted at the time by the Boer War in South Africa, withdrew completely in exchange for German concessions in Tonga and the Solomons.

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