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Amerika Sāmoa: Part One of a two-part post about the less known Sāmoa

Published
May 19, 2023
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ONE good thing about New Zealand is that while it might be isolated from places like Europe or America, it is handy to many of the most fabled isles of the South Pacific. Fabled isles such as those of Sāmoa, to which I flew from Auckland in April 2023.

The Sāmoan islands on the globe. Image created by TUBS, 6 May 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

(The macron means that the first ‘a’ in Sāmoa is longer than the second. Sāmoa is also pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable, not the second: SAAHmoa. Once you get used to this, the usual English pronunciation, SuhMOA, sounds very wrong.)

Here are the Sāmoan islands in more detail, including the names of the islands. There are two more islands off the map that both belong to American Sāmoa: Swain’s Island to the north, and Rose Atoll to the east.

The Independent State of Sāmoa and American Sāmoa. Map data ©2023 Google. The names of Savai’i, Upolu, Tutuila and the Manu’a islands have been added for this post. North at top.

The islands are divided, first, into the Independent State of Sāmoa, which used to be known as Western Sāmoa, consisting of Savai‘i and Upolu plus small outlying islands.

And American Sāmoa, which is much smaller in physical terms and with a smaller population as well, of only 55,000 as opposed to roughly 200,000 in the Independent State to its west and for that matter more than 240,000 Sāmoans, including people of partial Sāmoan descent, living in the actual USA.

That is, as opposed to American Sāmoa, which is not formally part of the United States but more a sort of protectorate. There are also around 188,000 Sāmoans living in New Zealand and 75,000 in Australia.

After spending some time on the island of Upolu in the Independent State, which I’ll blog about separately, I caught the ferry, Lady Samoa IV, to the village-like American Sāmoan capital of Pago Pago, pronounced pango pango, on Tutuila.

Here’s a closer look at Tutuila and its main offshore island of Anu‘u. Nearly everyone in American Sāmoa lives on Tutuila. In fact, most of the population seems to be in the very southernmost part of the island near the airport, the only area that is reasonably flat and arable. The most touristy part is around the harbour of Pago Pago, which is quite scenic in its own right and also backs onto a section of the National Park of American Sāmoa.

Tutuila and Aunu‘u. Map data ©2023 Google. North at Top.

Aunu‘u

The National Park is spread over several islands. On Tutuila, the National Park includes most of the island’s hikes, lookouts, and accessible coastal scenery. In the National Park of American Sāmoa Visitor Center, which is located in a rather nondescript building opposite the Pago Way gas station on the main road on the south side of the Pago Pago Harbour, I saw some displays which give you an idea of the clustering of these attractions and their nature.

Here’s a photo that shows more of the extraordinary, razor-like Pola Island.

Pola Island. Photo by ‘Fatumafuti’, 15 October 1980, CC BY-SA 4.0 via WIkimedia Commons.

The Mount ‘Alava Trail is also good for a view.

Flying from Upolu would have cost $400 return. So, I came over on the ferry, which was rather crowded and seemed to be used exclusively by locals, but quite a bit cheaper.

I was about the only pālagi (white person) on the boat and, indeed, all the time I was in American Sāmoa I saw only a few pālagi. In spite of its attractions, it does not seem to be a huge tourist destination.

Coming over from Upolu, we tied up at the Pago Pago wharf at around half past five to six in the morning, and saw the tropical sunrise. Which was worth it for that, though travelling on the ferry was a bit of a scrum. Getting off the ferry took another 60 minutes, another scramble in hot weather.

It pays to take your bag with you at the Independent State end and store it on the boat: there is plenty of room. It saves having to collect it before you go through immigration, reducing the process by about 50 percent. The Sāmoa Shipping Corporation offices in Pago Pago are opposite the historic Sadie Thompson Inn.

Carry your mobile with you in a mini-bag as it might get stolen. My mobile was stolen in the Independent State. So, once bitten twice shy.

(On the way back, check into the Samoa Shipping Corporation offices in Pago Pago and check in before boarding. Take your bag with you once more. Do not check your bags in, take your bags with you.)

I went across the road, grabbed some food, and took a taxi to where I was staying which was in Futiga. There was no sign to say where I was staying. I went to one wrong plantation, and then to another one.

I was staying with the Anoa‘i Family, a family of wrestlers who also do Airbnb. Their adoptive cousin is the famous wrestler The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), whose mother was the adopted daughter of another well-known wrestler named Peter Maivia, himself adopted by custom into the Anoa‘i Family.

The Rock is worth $250 million and is a real hero to many Sāmoans. The Anoa‘i Family let me take pictures of their memorabilia. Here’s a less serious one.

Loud music was playing next door. So, I relaxed and got up the next morning. A family member from California was managing the place when I was there. Like the vast majority of people of American Sāmoan descent, he actually lived in the USA and just popped over to Sāmoa to visit from time to time. I enjoyed my time at the Anoa‘i place!

After having rested for a bit, I walked down to the small but culturally significant Turtle and Shark Beach and was nearly attacked by marauding dogs. I went down there later on after I had hired a car. Here is a drone video of the beach, which features prominently in Sāmoan legends.

One thing I had noticed already was that, for some reason, dogs were a big issue in Sāmoa. Perhaps the collective way of life, whereby most of the land is tribal and many areas get few visitors, leads the local dogs to think the public road is part of their territory.

Check out the fine print on the display above about the Pola Island Trail. It says, “Due to unfriendly dogs, drive, don’t walk, past the last house at the end of the paved road.” This advice would stand you in good stead down just about any road in either part of Sāmoa, especially as you get toward the end.

On the other hand, the locals in American Sāmoa all stop and offer to give you a ride. They are very friendly, very nice people. The families are all related, as well.

American Sāmoa is the poorest region over which the American flag flies. Having said that, the standard of living seems to be higher than in the Independent State.

There are two views about American Sāmoa. One view holds that while this part of Sāmoa might be more prosperous than the Independent State overall, American Sāmoa is nonetheless lagging behind, that corruption in American Sāmoa means that money is wasted, and there is no accountability, much like the US military or so some say.

The hospital is also called the ‘death hospital’ by some. I met a Filipino woman whose husband had a stroke and died through a lack of machinery and technology. Apparently, the hospital in the Independent State was much better, even if the Independent State is poorer overall.

Strictly speaking, the town of Pago Pago is a rather small place at the very head of the harbour of the same name. The principal town and administrative centre, next door, is called Fagatogo, which also boasts a modern shopping centre called the Fagatogo Square, where you can get cheap Filipino food.

This is where the American Sāmoa Visitors’ Bureau, which is quite distinct from the National Park Visitor Centre and not the same, is also located.

This photo and the next are of the American Sāmoa Visitors’ Bureau

In the Bureau, I had a long discussion with a woman who serves under the Governor about tourism, and basically, they don’t want too much tourism. There aren’t many police on the island. 95% of the island is in customary land except for a hotel district called Tafuna near the airport, where there are a lot of robberies.

Cruise ship people tour the island in a day. But the woman in the Bureau said that people who tour the island for some time learn more. There is also a lot of undocumented tourism, people who come on holiday to see families.

I actually had this conversation on the day that I left. It was then that I picked up a leaflet about American Sāmoa. On a cruise ship you would probably get it on arrival. But if you arrive on a boat or plane you probably don’t, so the woman who worked there told me. Well, I didn’t anyway.

This complex also contains Matai’s Restaurant and the Tumu Fale Café.

There’s meant to be a café called Turtle and Shark that I never got to. And Chinese restaurants.

And there are markets downtown where you could buy okra, bananas, coconuts, and other natural foods.

The next photo is of the Jean P. Haydon Museum in Fagatogo, which I would have liked to have visited, but which was shut at the time due to water damage.

Like many buildings in Fagatogo, the museum was just over a hundred years old, having been built by the U. S. Navy a few years after the Americans took over American Sāmoa, an annexation that took place in 1900. The western part of Sāmoa was annexed in 1899 by the Germans, who were then evicted by the New Zealanders in 1914.

Western Sāmoa, as it was then, became independent in 1962. But American Sāmoa has remained a US dependency with an ambiguous constitutional status, not formally ‘organized’ or ‘incorporated’ as part of America’s constitutional realm, in the way that many US-ruled islands from Puerto Rico to Guam are.

As with many of America’s more distant island territories, America’s interest in Sāmoa was almost entirely military in nature to start with.

Pago Pago was seen as an excellent base and coaling station for the U.S. Navy, “the Gibraltar of the Pacific,” as one officer called it at the time.

The annexation of American Sāmoa and several other far-flung island groups for the benefit of the U. S. Navy, all pretty much at the same time, was the subject of a famous 1901 magazine cover.

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

As to the fact that American Sāmoa contained Sāmoans, a Puerto Rican activist named Pedro Albizu Campos said later that when it came to such dependencies, including his own island, the Americans were more interested in “the cage” than in “the birds.”

Most of the people the Americans rule on distant naval-base islands do at least have the advantage of being American Citizens, getting to help choose the next US President as a quid pro quo for being colonised.

Unusually, the inhabitants of American Sāmoa are mostly US Nationals but not US Citizens. Differences include the fact that while non-Citizen Nationals have the right to live and work in the United States, they cannot vote in US elections at the federal level, such as for the President or a member of Congress.

As in the days of ancient Rome, when those who joined the legions were often granted Roman citizenship on retirement, many American Sāmoans join the US armed forces to get full citizenship today.

There has been legal pressure to make American Sāmoans full citizens from birth. On the other hand, a closer association with the USA has been resisted in the past by the chiefs of American Sāmoa, who have feared the loss of a tribal and slow-paced way of life in favour of full-on American commercialism and loss of protections against the alienation of tribal land.

Many people seem to think that American Sāmoa gets more out of its deliberately loose ties with the USA, including the right to live and work in the USA as of right, than it might get out of joining the Independent State.

Another source of loyalty is the fact that the U. S. Navy saved American Sāmoa from the 1918 influenza by establishing a screen of blocking ships so that nobody could get in or out until the pandemic had abated. The Americans understood that the inhabitants of such remote islands would have little immunity, and acted quickly.

The rest of the archipelago, the future Independent State, wasn’t ruled nearly as effectively by the New Zealanders. Huge numbers died while the Kiwis dithered and wondered whether they ought to do something.

(It may have been the bitter memory of this fiasco that led Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand Government to move so decisively to stop the first waves of Covid getting into New Zealand a century later.)

So, it cannot be said that America was really so careless of the well-being of its “birds,” to use Albizu Campos’s expression. Perhaps that was more true of the New Zealanders at the time.

Overall, the present arrangements seem to suit most inhabitants of American Sāmoa, which is also self-governing with regard to all local matters via a Fono, or assembly. They have a two-tier political system, partly based on the matai (chiefly) structure and partly on democratic elections to the Fono.

The Fono in Pago Pago

The former military buildings and past photos of military installations that I also saw on a telescreen in the National Park Visitor Centre all attest to a massive naval presence in the past. In fact, during World War II, there were more American military personnel on the islands than local residents.

Office of the Territorial Registrar, next to the Museum. An old sign on the wall, shown just below, attests to the earlier function of the building it is in.

A late-1940s overview of Pago Pago showing huge military radio towers. The caption credits Auckland Museum for this photo, which appeared as part of a slideshow on the telescreen at the National Park Visitor Centre.

View from the Officers’ Club (Goat Island) toward the Governor’s Mansion, in the 1940s, Photo with a caption that acknowledged the American Samoa Historical Preservation Office as the source of the picture.

Those who supported fortifying the islands and turning them into a sort of Gibraltar liked to point out that Sāmoa was quite central in the Pacific.

Sketch Map from ‘The Origins of International Rivalry in Samoa: 1845–1884’, by Sylvia Masterman, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1934. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

All the same, the Pacific is big, and the very centrality of the Sāmoan islands means that they are a long way from any potential aggressor or likely theatre of battle. Nor do they control shipping lanes in the manner of Singapore or South Africa. Or, for that matter, the actual Gibraltar.

The strategic significance of the Sāmoan Islands is further undermined by the fact that they are in the South Pacific, not the North, where Russia, China, Japan, and the USA have historically squared off and where islands such as Guam and the Hawai‘ian chain are thus genuinely strategic. There is far less going on south of the Equator.

David Lange once described New Zealand as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” The Sāmoan Islands are even further out of harm’s way.

As such, Pago Pago’s significance as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific” was probably overhyped. It seems that those in charge of making decisions about where the U. S. Navy should spend its money came to think so as well. For, the last permanent US military installation in American Sāmoa actually closed down more than seventy years ago, in 1951.

(Perhaps the last big American military operation in the area was the rescue of the Apollo astronauts who visited the moon. Most or all of the Apollo astronauts splashed down in the vicinity of the Sāmoan Islands, where they were picked up by American warships and flown out via the airport on Tutuila.)

I did not see anyone in a military uniform when I was in American Sāmoa. I can’t think of any other place ruled by the Americans where you wouldn’t see their troops.

A Samoa Observer article that I came across, dated 13 May, said that the American Sāmoa Government was calling for the restoration of the US military presence in American Sāmoa to help counter the rise of China.

The article reported that American Samoa Governor Lemanu P. S. Maunga’s “direct reference to China” was unlikely to be popular with the Pacific Elders’ Voice (PEV), an association of Pacific leaders, who were generally opposed to AUKUS and anything else that, from their point of view, smacked of stirring up trouble with China.

It seems that the PEV was quite happy with the idea that the South Pacific is not really on anyone’s radar screen. And, that that was how they want the South Pacific to remain.

(Although American bases are often the target of peace-movement protests, it is noteworthy that these protests are seldom joined by the owners of local bars and the local chamber of commerce. Not, of course, that we should necessarily impute any such base motives to those who wish to see Pago Pago, a place so out of the way that not even the Americans have a base there anymore, become, once more, the Gibraltar of the South Pacific.)

On a different note, the National Park Visitor Center also has displays of a more ethnographic sort. Check out these outfits: strictly for special occasions, I suspect!

On the telescreen, there was an old photo of a va‘a, which in Aotearoa we would call a waka, with lush plants on board. Whether they were being transported, or a form of decoration, I am not sure.

Photo credited to the Auckland Museum

I also saw photos of a mid-twentieth-century cableway that used to swing across the Pago Pago Harbour. That must have been really something back in the day. They had nice-looking ships back then, too.

Unfortunately, in 1980, a Lockheed P3 Orion maritime patrol plane was recklessly flown beneath the cableway, which struck the aircraft’s tail, and the cableway was taken down after that.

The remains of the places where you got on and off the cableway are still there. One of them is pretty high up. It must have been such a spectacular ride.

The old Cableway boarding station

Many people would like to see the cableway restored. As for the Orion, it sadly crashed near the Rainmaker Hotel, built in traditional style in the mid-1960s with the support of the American government to try and attract tourists to the island.

The hotel was called the Pago Pago Intercontinental Hotel at first. The name Rainmaker comes from Rainmaker Mountain, the English name for Mount Pioa, which dominates Pago Pago Harbour and traps the clouds, to give Pago Pago the most rain, supposedly, of any harbour. The rainfall on the mountain itself, a steep-sided volcanic plug 523 metres or 1,716 feet high, is about 5 metres (200 inches) a year.

A view of Pago Pago Harbour with Rainmaker Mountain or Pioa in the background.

These days, the surviving parts of the Rainmaker Hotel are known as Sadie’s by the Sea. This is not the same as the Sadie Thompson Inn!

The former Rainmaker Hotel, now Sadie’s by the Sea

The view from a balcony of Sadie’s by the Sea, including Mt Pioa (Rainmaker Mountain)

The present-day façade

Sadie’s by the Sea is a full-service resort where you can stay, and also has a café you can visit.

Part 2 continues next week.

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