Archaeologists believe that Polynesians settled in the Samoa Islands about 3,000 years ago. Their great migration halted here for some 1,000 years before voyagers went on to colonize the Marquesas, Society Islands, and other island groups farther east. Thus the Samoas are known as the "Cradle of Polynesia."
The universe known by the early Samoans included Tonga and Fiji, to which they regularly journeyed, often waging war. Tongan invaders ruled the Samoas between A.D. 950 and 1250, and there still is a friendly rivalry between the two nations -- especially on the rugby field.
The first European to see the Samoas was Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, who in 1722 sighted the Manu'a Islands in what is now American Samoa. The first Europeans to land were part of a French expedition under Jean La Pérouse in 1787. They came ashore on the north coast of Tutuila in American Samoa and were attacked by Samoan warriors. Twelve members of the landing party and 39 Samoans were killed.
Colonialism Arrives -- The Germans gained the upper hand over today's independent Samoa by staging a coup in 1887, backed up (unofficially) by German gunboats. They governed through Malietoa, one of Samoa's four paramount chiefs. One of his rivals, Mataafa, lost a bloody rebellion in 1888 and was exiled.
Continuing unrest turned into a major international incident -- fiasco is a better word -- when the United States, Britain, and Germany sent a total of seven warships to Apia in March of 1889. A hurricane arrived unexpectedly, and only a British warship survived unscathed. Of the rest, four were sunk, two others were washed ashore, and 146 lives were lost. (A newspaper story of the time is mounted in the lounge of Aggie Grey's Hotel & Bungalows in Apia.)
In December 1889, an agreement was signed in Berlin under which Germany was given today's independent Samoa, the United States was handed Eastern Samoa, and Britain created a protectorate over Tonga. The two Samoas were split apart and swept into the colonial system. The Germans in Samoa proceeded to make fortunes from their huge, orderly copra plantations.
White-Skinned Sky Busters -- To the Samoans, the first Europeans to visit their shores seemed to have come through the slit that separated the sky from the sea. Thus they named these strange people papalagi (sky busters). Shortened to palagi (pah-lahng-gee), the name now means any Westerner with white skin.
The London Missionary Society's Rev. John Williams, who roamed the South Pacific in the Messenger of Peace, landed the first missionaries in Samoa in 1830. European-style settlements grew up at Apia on Upolu and on the shores of Pago Pago Bay on Tutuila. German businessmen established copra plantations on Upolu by the late 1850s. When steamships started plying the route between San Francisco and Sydney, the U.S. Navy negotiated a treaty with the chiefs of Tutuila in 1872 to permit the U.S. to use Pago Pago as a coaling station. The U.S. Congress never ratified this document, but it served to keep the Germans from penetrating into Eastern Samoa, as American Samoa was then known.
A Kiwi Backwater -- German rule came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, when New Zealand sent an expeditionary force to Apia, and the German governor surrendered. The Germans were interned for the duration of the war, and their huge land holdings were confiscated. New Zealand remained in charge until 1962, initially under the League of Nations and then under the United Nations.
The New Zealand administrators did little in the islands except keep the lid on unrest, at which they were generally successful. In 1929, however, the Mau Movement created an uprising. It was crushed when New Zealand constables fired on a crowd of protestors outside the Courthouse, at Beach Road and Ifiifi Street in Apia, killing nine.
When opposition to colonialism flared up in the United Nations 20 years later, a Legislative Assembly of matais was established to exercise a degree of internal self-government. A constitution was drafted in 1960, and the people approved it and their own independence a year later by referendum. On January 1, 1962, Samoa became the first South Pacific colony to regain its independence from the Western powers.
Samoa remained a backwater during most of its career as a colony and trusteeship territory. Only during World War II did it appear on the world stage, and then solely as a training base for thousands of Allied servicemen on their way to fight the Japanese. Tourism increased after the big jets started landing at Pago Pago in the 1960s, but significant numbers of visitors started arriving only after Samoa's Faleolo Airport was upgraded to handle large aircraft in the 1980s.
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