Elsewhere Series 3 (Part Two): The Mystery of American Samoa

What is American Samoa?  As an American I am ashamed to say that I had no idea this series of five islands and two coral atolls was a part of my nation.  I never even knew that it existed until I noticed that a number of people from this obscure place were reading my pieces every day.  Upon beginning my research, I discovered yet another paradise.  Take a look:

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Image result for american samoa

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An absolutely amazing place, American Samoa should be a much more popular vacation spot than it is.  The opportunities for adventure and tropical fun are more diverse than perhaps any other Pacific Island, a place that has seen its ethnic culture dissolve since the United States claimed it as a territory in 1900.  Here are a few more images to whet your appetite (and I do not work for some Samoan travel bureau; I just really, really want to go here):

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Surfing giant waves, natural hot springs, mountain climbing and volcanoes.  They have exotic marine life:

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Scuba diving is among the most popular activities for tourists.


But that isn’t what American Samoa (or any other tropical paradise) is about, is it?  There are people who live there, and whose jobs, often to their resentment, is to cater to the rich people from mainland America and elsewhere, people who come to rudely exploit the natural beauty, and treat every person they encounter like servants.  And the people smile and grit their teeth and maintain enough composure to help these visitors have a great time.


American Samoa is, in fact, known to have the highest rate of military enlistment of any place that is part of the American empire.  This includes the United States itself.  With limited job opportunities, those who do not wish to mix frozen drinks or teach snotty teenagers how to surf, band together with a sense of desperate patriotism to protect not just their home from outside invaders, but to serve at the will of a president who they will never see other than on television.  There are even some–paranoid, the sort of person you really don’t wish to have armed and ready to kill, who do not believe that mainland America is a real place, and that they are being ruled and tricked by some amorphous ruling power that provides merely the weapons of war and nothing else.  Some even believe that there is an effort to inspire civil conflict (a long-standing stain of Samoan past), having the natives all slaughter one another in order to depopulate the islands and allow the outsiders to claim the land.


People born on American Samoa are considered nationals of the United States, but they are not citizens.  They do not get to vote.  They are led by people selected by others.  Perhaps one of the reasons for such a high military presence is because many soldiers hope that by the end of their service they will be welcomed into the mainland and earn their precious citizenship.


The Samoan islands themselves are a much larger series of islands located in the Polynesian region of the Pacific Ocean, its nearest neighbors both New Zealand on one side and Hawaii on the other.  There are of course numerous other islands not affiliated with Samoa nearby, including Fiji, Tonga, Cook Island and Micronesia.  It is believed that the first organized civilization on these islands existed nearly 3000 years ago, dated by artifacts uncovered by archaeologists.

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The second image is exactly what it looks like, ancient sex toys that were preserved by volcanic eruptions.


During the dark ages many people of means were fleeing on ships, hoping to find somewhere in the world to live, away from the bleak, harsh and murderous terror of the religious fanatics plundering the world.  Many of these Europeans discovered Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, treating the natives they way the fanatics had threatened to treat them.  There was wholesale slaughter of resisting indigenous people.  Hypocritically the Europeans brought their own demanding religions–convert or die thrown into play.  It is during this time that the history of Samoa is lost, the great craftsmanship of their pottery eliminated, the recorded oral narratives coming to an end.


There is a great mythology to Samoa–a secret scripture known only to the descendants of the ancient rulers, crouched in a language no one speaks any more.  Among the few narrative histories that have been allowed to be translated, one tells of the great leader Tui Manu’a, of whom it is told that he landed on every one of these nearby Polynesian islands and established a unity between all the people.  He is credited with founding Samoa, Cook Island, and one named after himself, the island of Manu’a.


Cannibalism was a major part of the natives diet, the natural resources plentiful as far as fruit (breadfruit, primarily) and other edible vegetation went, but the need for meat went beyond the hazard of spear fishing (much of marine life was either poisonous or man-eating).  The act of cannibalism was ritualistic, celebrating the lives of those who passed, those killed in regional warfare (from whichever side), and those who were victims of crimes, both cooked, or eaten raw during native religious ceremonies.  This practice was one of the deepest causes of revulsion among the Europeans of the early 18th century who eventually arrived to take from the islands whatever they could.  Of course some of the missionaries were devoured themselves, leading to the growing horror stories of innocent white people being boiled in a pot, or simply consumed raw by fang-faced, ravenous savages.


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The truth is of course a mixture of legend and recollected history.  In 1722 the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to discover Samoa.  He was transfixed, mesmerized by the singular beauty of the place.

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Roggeveen is perhaps better known for his discovery of Easter Island in the same year, finding the iconic face statues that remain a mystery to this day, similarly consumed vy Druidic imagery alongside the murky question mark of Stonehenge all the way over in Wales (the sixth location in Series 3).


Throughout his journeys, this employee of the Dutch India Company kept detailed maps of the many islands he landed upon, took note of the several thousand indigenous people he found already living there, described the flora and fauna in exacting detail, and generally made no aggressive actions to conquer the natives.  This did not prevent a few resentful tribes from ambushing him and his crew, ultimately killing (and eating) ten sailors, for whom Roggeveen was compensated by the company when he returned to the Netherlands to write his travel memoir.

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In 1768 the far more warlike Louis Antoine de Bougainville, arrived with the intention of claiming the whole network of islands for France.  Bougainville was a brilliant man, the son of a corrupt notary.  He studied law briefly before abandoning it for adventure in the military.  He also wrote a complicated treatise on integral calculus alongside the famous French mathematician Guillaume de l’Hopital.


Bougainville rapidly became a celebrated solider, participating in both the Seven Years War as well as, later, the American Revolution on the side of the colonialists.  Upon his arrival on the Samoan Islands, after a brief war that saw many people, both French and natives, killed, the French claimed the mainland of Samoa, which Bougainville renamed Navigation Island.


By 1789, as France descended into their violent revolution, native warriors on Samoa took advantage and attacked the colonial government, killing many of the highest commanders, causing the fleeing general to rename the island once again, this time “Massacre Island.”  To this day the coast off the site of the attack is named “Massacre Bay.”


By the 19th century religious missionaries swarmed to Samoa, hearing rumors about how violent and dangerous the savages were and thinking that they and they alone could save these primitive people’s immortal souls.  The United States and Great Britain were now the nations sending their priests and soldiers, both guilty of much barbarity in the shadows behind the fanatical missionaries, who would boil the natives alive until they renounced their sins.  Since none of the missionaries bothered to learn the Samoan language, salvation was a very rare thing, left up to the Samoans who had learned English to negotiate peace.

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By the 1880s civil war broke out on the islands, two warring tribal kings, Malietoa Laupepa and Mata’afa Iosefo, sought to claim control over the entire chain of islands, regardless of the American, British, and now German dominance of the entire region.  Laupepa was favored by the western powers, himself being enamored by the modern world that had been brought to his home, although Iosefo took the time to learn English in attempts to get both the Americans and British to side with him.


The war lasted, intermittently, for eight years, up until 1894.  The battles had mostly been led by the Germans, who were busy looting and establishing bases on the islands, while aggressively challenging the British and Americans.  The war itself finally ended in 1894 when Laupepa was finally named king.  Throughout the final years the Germans, British and Americans were all caught up in a stand-off, their warships eyeing each other and occasionally firing shots.  Throughout this first war more than 200 people were killed and many more were crippled, killed in cyclones, or inflicted with leprosy and gangrene.

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The cyclone in question occurred on March 15, 1889.  While the Germans and Americans were busy threatening one another, their navigators were fully aware and busy warning their captains that a catastrophic storm was forming near the coast.  Each side saw this as an advantage, assuming that whatever remained of the war on land would be washed away, and whoever was left standing could claim all of Samoa.  The result turned out otherwise.


More than 300 sailors from both sides were drowned, every ship save one was destroyed (the British HMS Calliope).  On land the war went on, the usual feasts celebrating the dead putting it momentarily on hold until the fighting resumed in earnest.


By 1898 the British, Americans and Germans were locked in a much fiercer battle for control of the islands.  Malietoa Laupepa had died and Mata’afa Iosefo was suddenly thrust back into power, much to the horror of the British and Americans, who supported (and controlled) Laupepa’s son, Malietoa Tanumafili I against the German backed Iosefo.  This led to another brief conflict, lasting less than a year.


In the first exchange of the war the US and UK bombed much of the island into submission, causing great devastation to areas that were still attempting to rebuild from the cyclone.  The second exchange went the opposite way, the Germans fighting back with a focused attack that sank many ships and killed many soldiers.  The war ended in a stalemate, which was finally resolved at the Tripartite Convention of 1899, which divided the islands between the German run Samoa, and American Samoa.  Britain opted out by receiving a large payment from Germany, as well as a resolution to end conflict between the two nations.


And so American Samoa was born, fully established in 1900 as a protectorate of the growing United States of America.  It was not officially named ‘American Samoa’ until 1911, but it had rapidly become a Naval Station, the soldiers pouring in, both the William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations eager to expand the domain of the nation.  A coaling station was set up, both to feed the battleships and to ship back home, making the new property into a profitable one.

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World War I left American Samoa alone, although towards the end, when the influenza pandemic of 1918 was killing people all over the world, the governor of the islands, John Martin Poyer, quickly suggested sending quarantine ships to nearby soldiers and citizens, as well as those on the mainland, saving many lives.  American Samoa was one of three places in the entire world to have no deaths from the pandemic.  Poyer was considered a hero by the people on the island and was awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts.

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On December 28, 1929 a non-violent protest for independence was broken up by New Zealand police officers with guns.  The idea of the march had been formed by Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III.  He had previously been arrested and sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to pay his taxes.  The special force New Zealand police were put into place by a British administrator who wished to escape responsibility for the actions he knew were about to happen.  As the conflict erupted, the special forces firing randomly into the crowd, Lealofi rushed to the front of his people, turned his back on the police, and told his followers to be peaceful as he noticed several of them beginning to throw rocks.  The police shot him in the back, killing him.  The story claims that Lealofi’s last words were “My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in peace. If I die, peace must be maintained at any price.”

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During World War II the number of US Soldiers stationed in American Samoa actually outnumbered those living there.  Children as young as 14 were compelled into military service, which they proudly committed themselves to.  The Samoans became know as fierce fighters and excellent soldiers, several of them earning military honors.


In 1949 there was a movement in Congress to incorporate American Samoa and name it a state, giving the homeland an even greater presence throughout the world.  This was defeated, only to be modified in 1959 with the admission of Hawaii into the national community.


Other incidents of note occurring on American Samoa is the retrieval of astronauts from numerous Apollo missions, including the doomed Apollo 13, a few hundred miles off the coast of Pago Pago.


American Samoa and Samoa have grown more distant from one another as the international influences that have guided these lands over the past hundred years have transformed the people into modern aborigines, many of them relegated to encampments and reservations.  This has led to a lot of immigration to New Zealand, for those seeking hope for their futures.


American Samoa is very poor today, which gives the nation its very high military enlistment.  As a result, by percentage, the number of American Samoans who have been killed in the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria is disproportionately large.


A number of individuals from American Samoa have successfully immigrated to the mainland, finding careers in the NFL and WWE–large, powerful men and women with great natural abilities and an ambition that is not generally a priority on the tranquil islands of their birth.  American Samoa remains a faraway place locked mostly in people such as myself’s imagination–the product of a Herman Melville novel or the uncertain perversions of Marlon Brando in the early 1960s, while filming his Mutiny on the Bounty.  But the truth is, for all the reading I have now done to discover just a small fragment of the past of this fascinating place, I still cannot claim to know anything about the culture, about the climate, about the way that people live in a place so very far away from home.


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©2019 Lance Polin

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