Glotzer Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Albert Gates

The U.S. Empire – Its History

The Acquisition of Samoa

(December 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 35, 2 December 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Samoan Islands have many times been cinematically acclaimed as a paradise without equal, the simplicity of its natives, the beauty of this South Pacific archipelago. Its capital, Pago Pago, has been immortalized in at least one ribald song and a dozen movies. But to the U.S., Samoa has more than pictorial importance. While the Islands are not of immense economic importance, being only a minor American possession, they do have strategical military-naval importance.

The way in which Samoa became a colony. of the United States is an illuminating story, for it illustrates some of the class measures employed by imperialist nations in their quest for territory, markets, raw materials and military-naval bases.

The Samoan group is not over seventy-five square miles in area, with a population of about ten thousand. Its chief product is copra (coconut) from which copra oil is derived, a commodity used in the making of soaps, candles and similar products. With an extremely small population, it is not a formidable market for manufactured goods. But Samoa, situated in the southern part of the vast Pacific Ocean on the route from Honolulu to Australia, is an invaluable military supply base.

The Islands were known for many years to American missionaries. They were also known to New England whalers. But in 1872, again as a result of a naval cruise, the United States became definitely interested in the Samoan Islands.

The U.S. Navy Acts

After his defeat in the matter of annexing Santo Domingo, President Grant “turned his imperial glance upon the islands of Samoa.” In the aforementioned year, Admiral Meade of the United States Navy, while cruising in the south seas, discovered what he regarded as a strategic center for sea power in the small island of Tutuila. With the customary independence of the Navy Department, and apparently with little difficulty, the Admiral obtained from a native prince a treaty granting to the United States a naval base at Pago Pago, the capital of the Island of Tutuila. The Senate failed to appreciate “the delicate diplomatic action” and ignored the document. The matter, however, did not rest there.

President Grant, “pressed by certain highly respected persons,”, sent out a confidential agent, Colonel A. B. Steinberger, to investigate the Samoan situation at first hand. The Colonel, with money and the prestige of a great power behind him (this combination always works “wonders” in colonial countries and small islands), fomented a revolution, made himself prime minister, and placed the island under the protection of the United States.

The work of Grant’s confidential agents never struck a responding note in the American Senate. As in the case of Santo Domingo, the Senate failed to be impressed by Steinberger’s action and turned its back on the offer. But not for long. A second uprising followed; the American flag way raised above the “capitol building”, and a high chief by the name of Mames took a long and expensive trip to Washington. There, through connections with “friends”, he obtained a treaty which ceded a part of the country to the “Great White Father.” The United States obtained the use of the harbor of Pago Pago and the Island of Tutuila as a naval base. In return, it promised that, “if unhappily any differences shall have arisen of shall hereafter arise between the Samoan government and any other government in amity with the United States, the government of the latter will employ its good offices for the purpose of adjusting these differences upon a satisfactory and solid foundation.” (U.S. Congress, House Ex. Documents)

Germany and England Move In

The peculiar wording of the treaty was not without good reason. There were Germany and England to contend with. Germany already enjoyed a considerable prestige through her trade, the major part of the Island’s business, and wanted possession of the whole archipelago. England likewise sought to expand her domain to include this group. Each in turn proceeded to bribe tribal chieftains in the manner of the American representatives, with the result that for a period of almost ten years, the Islands were torn by internal dissension which resulted in their easy submission and subdivision.

The treaty with the United States, ostensibly to insure Samoa’s independence, was in reality America’s means of keeping control out of the hands of Germany and England. Those countries, too, were embarked on the course of colonial expansion and each in turn sought to control the Islands. The conduct of the powers was directly responsible for the ten year’s turmoil that settled down upon the heads of the innocent, but duped natives. Internal quarrels continued over “consular jurisdiction”, over the theft of pigs owned by an American half-caste named Sanlan. There were protests and counter-protests, flags hoisted up and flags lowered, national honors insulted and apologies demanded. In these struggles, the Germans favored “King Tamasese” while the English, with the support of the United States, took up cudgels for “King Mataafe.”

The Tripartite Protectorate

In 1886, the American consul suddenly proclaimed a formal American protectorate over all the Samoan Islands, but he was quickly repudiated by the State Department in face of the tense relations which existed between the three powers. Two years later a committee was sent to investigate island conditions and to negotiate an agreement with Germany and England. But in the following year, 1889, with no agreement in sight, the powers determined to resolve the dispute by armed might. Warships patrolled the Island waters and a sharp conflict threatened, when “Providence” came along in the form of a terrible hurricane which destroyed all the warships. When the hurricane left, only one British steamer remained.

The aftermath of the hurricane was a truce between the three powers, which, under the “General Act of Berlin”, established a German, British, American protectorate over Samoa. This treaty, which brought the United States into an international agreement over some land in the far Pacific Ocean, led Secretary of State Gresham to state that it was a departure from the “traditional and well established policy of avoiding entangling alliances with foreign powers in relation to objects remote from this hemisphere.” But the Secretary was living in the past. The tripartite protectorate, however, did not bring peace to the Islands. The native king was dissatisfied with what he regarded as rank discrimination when he learned that the budget plan which gave him a monthly income of $9,500 was six times less than the amount given to a Swedish employee, under “Christian” auspices, to administer justice. Local chieftains, already corrupted by the conduct of the three powers, were still more dissatisfied. Having been eliminated from the throne by the settlement, they coveted the small revenues, as they did the titles associated with them.

The disputes were cruelly “settled” by the white soldiers, “adding anguish to the Samoan misery”. Even the ailing Robert Lewis Stevenson, protested against the atrocities, “perhaps with a certain tenderness to British concerns ...” Those to whom Stevenson protested were themselves still engaged in a terrific struggle for complete control of the Islands.

The conditions in Samoa at that time are graphically described by Charles A. Beard, in discussing the effects of the activities of the three powers:

“Their merchants struggling for the petty markets, their capitalists buying up native lands, their missionaries saving souls for the hereafter, their consuls sparring for fine diplomatic points, and their naval officers punticiously watching with eagle eyes for Imperial advantages, filled the foreign colony in Samoa with gossip, intrigue, and rancor.”

The natives, naturally, were not unaffected by the morals of the “Christian civilizers” from the rich capitalist countries whose primary aim above everything was profit. Such were the conditions in Samoa up to the Spanish American war. When the seizure of the Phillipine Islands revealed the United States as a world power. In 1900, the Senate ratified a treaty which disposed of Samoa in the following way: Tutuila and several smaller islands went to the United States; Germany received the remainder of the group; and England was satisfied by concessions in other parts of the world. The war of 1914 ended Germany’s proprietorship. She lost her share of the Islands to England. Official control of the Islands, however, was established by the United States in 1929. In this way, the Samoan Islands lost their independence to a great power which required them in the interests of her growing imperialist empire.

(The third article in this series on the History of the U.S. Empire will appear in the next issue of Labor Action.)

Top of page

Labor Action 1940 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 4.11.2012