PopulationWhat little is known about Samoa's early inhabitants comes from oral history. It is generally accepted that ancestors of the Polynesians migrated from the area to Samoa around 1000 BC. Most people are ethnic Samoans of Polynesian descent, and about 7 per cent are of mixed European and Polynesian descent. Europeans make up less than 1 per cent of the population.
Samoan, a language related to Tongan and other Polynesian languages, is the language of Samoa. English is also spoken by many people.
Almost all Samoans are Christian. About half of them belong to the Christian Congregationalist Church. Other prominent churches include the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Latter-day Saints (Mormon), and Seventh-Day Adventist. In general, Christianity plays an important role in the lives of most Samoans, many of whom hold evening prayer services in their homes.
Marriage and Family
A typical Samoan village is made up of a series of families. Samoan society is hierarchical, and respect for authority is instilled from an early age. An extended family or kinship group is called an aiga. A matai leads the aiga, and is selected by members of the group. A family member is anyone who is related to the matai by birth, marriage, or adoption. The matai of a village form a council, called the Fono, which governs the affairs of the village. Each matai is responsible for the labour, activities, well-being, and housing of his family. Family members are obliged to share their food and other possessions with the extended family and, to some extent, with the entire village. Land is held in trusteeship in the name of the matai. Extended families normally have 20 to 30 members.
Young children are taught not to bother adults and are usually supervised by older children. Any adult may freely scold or discipline any child when necessary. Discipline within the home is generally strict; children are taught to respect authority.
Other Polynesians, they say, might have come from Asia but Samoans come from Samoa. They believe themselves to be the cradle of Polynesian culture, a race of people created by the god Tagaloa while he was cooking up the world. In fact the Samoan legend of the beginning of the world is startlingly similar to that told in Genesis.
Despite its reputation as an exotic far-away land Samoa was in fact as busy as a shopping mall from the mid-1770s when trading ships, sailing along the spice route and looking for the Great Southern Land, popped in and out with monotonous regularity. Much of the early contact and bloody encounters between Samoans and Europeans took place in the islands that are now part of American Samoa but the islands of independent Samoa suffered the same diseases and acts of violence that came with the European ships.
By the time the British arrived, looking for the troublesome Christian Fletcher and his band of merry mutineers, the Samoans were hardly in a welcoming mood. In the resulting head-to-head between the British and the Samoans, lives were lost on both sides and gave rise to the unwarranted reputation that Samoans were hostile and aggressive.
Given this violent history it's a miracle that the missionaries arriving in the early 19th century, brandishing their Bibles and threats of everlasting damnation, weren't killed immediately. Instead there were wholesale conversions, a phenomenon that might be explained by the fact that Christianity and old Samoan beliefs were not dissimilar and that the Samoan god Nafanua had predicted the coming of a new religion which would be more powerful and stronger than the old gods. The fire power and wealth of the palagi (Europeans), or 'sky bursters', was obvious and the enthusiastic embracing of Christianity may have had more to do with religious pragmatism than blind faith. These early soul-scouting expeditions were brief affairs, long on brio but short on planning. This changed in 1836 when John Williams and Charles Barff became the first two men to take up missionary positions in Samoa. Williams converted a large number of Samoans before ending up as main course at a traditional Melanesian feast. The untimely demise of Reverend Williams did not stop the onward Christian soldiers and the influence of these early missionaries was so profound that even today Samoa is known as the bible belt of the Pacific.
By the late 19th century Britain, America, and Germany all had their hackles raised and were tugging on Samoa in a three-way tug-of-war, which had a lot to do with commerce and the flexing of military muscles and not much to do with 'protecting' Samoa. Tensions escalated and more ships were called in until there were no fewer than seven warships bristling and snarling inside the small confines of the Apia harbour. The whole shebang started to look like a bad joke ('The British, the Americans and the Germans were in a Mexican standoff in Samoa...'), when the punch line was delivered. So busy were they watching each other that they failed to notice the falling barometer and before they knew it a cyclone of epic proportions had hit. After the dust had settled six of the ships had either sunk or been scuttled. The only surviving ship was the British ship Calliope. The cyclone knocked a bit of sense into the Europeans and they went to the table to negotiate but the result for the Samoan islands wasn't much better. Samoa was carved up piecemeal with Western Samoa being handed to the Germans, Eastern Samoa going to the Americans, and the British going home empty-handed.
Germany made the classic colonialist's error of disregarding local customs and kings and before long the indigenous inhabitants were chafing under autocratic foreign rule. The Western Samoans formed a resistance force, the Mau Movement, dedicated to the preservation of their culture and the establishment of independence. The outbreak of war in 1914 changed the Euro-Pacific arena and Germany had a few other problems on its hands apart from a rebellious Samoan resistance movement. As part of the war effort Britain asked New Zealand if they wouldn't mind, old chap, taking over the radio station in Western Samoa which they duly did in an operation that was more Dad's Army than the Dardenelles. Hoisting a white serviette (no-one could find a white flag or hanky), they were received by one or two minor officials from the German government who apologised for not being able to authorise the surrender of Western Samoa and then promptly went AWOL. New Zealand heroically 'captured' the radio station by fossicking around in the bushes for the parts of the radio station thrown away by the defeated army and then 'liberated' Westeren Samoa.
A change in rulers meant little to the Mau Movement or the majority of Western Samoans who continued to agitate for independence. New Zealand continued to govern the islands, introducing rugby and possibly even jandals into the cultural mix. Finally in 1961 a proposal was put before the United Nations and independence was granted in January 1962. Unfortunately it was not all smooth sailing. Labour disputes and increasing dependence on foreign aid meant reality fell short of the dream, but things really got black when the country was ripped apart by back-to-back cyclones and their main export crop, taro, was decimated by a fungal blight. The country, which changed its name in 1995 to the Independent State of Samoa, fell into an economic hole from which it has never fully recovered, although tourism is now easing the pressure.