Arriving in Āpia (Part 2): Visiting Vailima and Confronting Colonialism

June 9, 2023
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TOWARD the end of last week’s post, I mentioned how I was staying at Karl’s Getaway, shown in this map.

The location of Lynn’s Getaway (on two sites) and Karl’s Getaway. Map data ©2023 Google, north at top.

On the same map, you can see another hotel called Insel Fehmarn. This is German for Fehmarn Island, which lies off the coast of Germany in the Baltic Sea.

Insel Fehmarn is run by the descendants of a colonist named Fritz Kruse who was born on Fehmarn and swept out to sea at the age of 12 on the roof of his house in a huge storm, to be rescued by a French ship. Kruse became a sailor when he grew up, arriving in the romantic South Seas in 1885, where he lived for the rest of his days.

All of which sounds very much like a tale by Robert Louis Stevenson. That writer, best known for Kidnapped, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Treasure Island, lived just outside Āpia himself for a few years between 1889 and his death in 1894, at a place called Vailima, near Mount Vaea.

Stevenson tried to get the Sāmoans to stop feuding among themselves, develop their lands, and unite to prevent colonisation, seeing their condition as similar to the Highlanders of his native Scotland.

Heading south from Karl’s Getaway along Cross Island Road, past the Mailelani Sāmoa Body Care factory and shop, I came to a turnoff on the right. This was Robert Louis Stevenson Road, which leads to Stevenson’s home at Vailima.

Āpia and environs. Map data ©2023 Google, north at top.

I visited his tomb and his house, Villa Vailima, now the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, commonly known as the RLS Museum for short. As you can see from the map just above, it’s hardly any distance from the outskirts of the built-up part of town.

The gates of the RLS Museum

Villa Vailima

RLS’s study in Villa Vailima

The bedroom

The house is decorated with old photographs. Here’s one, sorry about the reflection, which shows Stevenson staring at the camera, with a Sāmoan man and two women. Stevenson looked a bit pinched and really intense, a lot like the modern-day Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, who had his big break in Trainspotting. Are they related, I wonder?

A photo of a chief in the RLS Museum

Sāmoan women

Here is a very curious old photo of a sort of hydroslide. The people are clambering up the sides and sliding down the middle. Perhaps it was inspired by the Papase‘ea Sliding Rocks, a cataract on the western outskirts of Āpia to the west, that has that name because you can slide down the rocks when the water is flowing freely.

The first German governor of the territory, Wilhelm Solf, made Villa Vailima his headquarters, so some of these photos and artifacts were accumulated on the watch of the Germans as well. Like this one for example, where the handwritten caption at the bottom, ‘Hauptling’ is the German word for ‘Junior Chief’:

There is also now a wider National Reserve and Botanical Gardens at Vailima, along with a swimming hole, the Robert Louis Stevenson Pool, that was just my favourite so far.

Vailima Botanical Gardens Gate

The Botanical Gardens

A conservation billboard describing the collection of medicinal plants in the Botanical Gardens

A conservation billboard for the Independent State’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment

Here is another conservation panel for the endangered Ma‘oma‘o, a relative of New Zealand’s bellbird, known in Māori as the Makomako.

Another conservation panel, for the endangered Ma‘oma‘o

I took several photos of the lovely grounds from the balconies of Villa Vailima. Here are three:

A Bit More History

I mentioned in my posts on American Sāmoa that Sāmoa was at one time called ‘The Gibraltar of the Pacific’, a reference to its potential usefulness as an island fort, even though in reality it is a long way from any potential Northern Hemisphere combatants and much less strategic than Hawai‘i, in that sense.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the Sāmoan Islands were torn apart by civil wars, between factions that were to some extent egged on by the three rival colonial powers of Britain, Germany, and the USA, each of which had an interest in eventually taking over Sāmoa.

In 1889, warships of all three nations were in Āpia Harbour, eyeing each other nervously, when a typhoon struck. It seems that none of the fleet commanders wanted to be first to leave the harbour and ride out the storm at sea lest they be seen to lose face and weaken their country’s claim to Sāmoa as a result.

Eventually, the British abandoned the harbour, heading out to sea in the face of a stiff wind at only one knot. It was now too late for the Germans and the Americans, who were duly driven onto the shore and wrecked with the loss of about 200 lives.

Contemporary sketch showing the British abandoning Āpia during the 1889 cyclone to the cheers of ordinary American sailors wishing them the best, and probably wishing that their admiral had been as sensible as well.

Ten years later, in 1899, the British more formally gave up their claim and allowed Sāmoa to be carved up between the Germans and the Americans.

Today’s Independent State came to be ruled by Germany for fourteen years, from 1900 until late August 1914, when the islands were taken over by New Zealand. A huge German battlefleet turned up about two weeks later in mid-September. Luckily for the Kiwis, the German admiral decided that the fleet had other fish to fry and left the islands to the New Zealanders, who remained in charge until 1962. That year, the Independent State gained its independence as Western Sāmoa, changing its name to the Independent State of Sāmoa in 1997.

Though it was brief, the period of German rule was very influential. There was a considerable amount of German settlement and intermarriage in Sāmoa, which means that many Sāmoans have German surnames, and sometimes German forenames as well.

German rule in Sāmoa was also comparatively sympathetic, as evidenced by the top local Germans getting the pe‘a.

This was largely a consequence of the influence of the first governor, Wilhelm Solf, who was in charge from 1900 until the end of 1911. Solf was a humane and literate man, a scholar of Sanskrit, who deliberately based himself in Stevenson’s old house at Vailima.

Wilhellm Solf, 1911. Photographer unknown. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R73059, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE via Wikimedia Commons.

Having said that, Solf disapproved of the mixed marriages that were common in German Sāmoa, and tried to have mixed marriages banned across the German colonial empire when subsequently promoted to the role of State Secretary of the Colonies.

It is fair to say that such opinions were pretty mainstream among Europeans in those days, opposed only by a few oddballs such as one member of the essentially powerless and advisory German Parliament of the day, who pointed out that white people, for all their pretensions of superiority, were often pale and blotchy, and that girls born to mixed-race unions invariably had wonderful complexions and were typically very pretty. Did racial purists wish to reduce the world’s supply of pretty girls, he asked. Well, that argument’s not terribly PC by today’s standards either, but I daresay he meant well.

This idea might have been enacted had World War One not broken out shortly thereafter, at which point nobody had time to worry about such matters. And then Germany lost her colonies anyway.

Solf’s family and friends would later go on to form an anti-Nazi resistance movement known as the Solf Circle. The circle included Solf’s widow Johanna (he died in 1936) and a daughter born in Vailima called Maria-Elisabeth Augusta Margaretha So‘oa‘emalelagi Solf, or Lagi Solf for short. Both ended up in a Nazi concentration camp, but survived.

Even though his opposition to mixed marriages is racist by today’s standards, being ruled over by Solf was a stroke of luck for the Sāmoans of the western isles, as things could have been a lot worse for them. In the same era, the Nama and Herero peoples in German Southwest Africa, the future Namibia, were reduced to a fraction as a result of being driven into the Namib Desert to die of hunger and thirst.

The Herero and the Nama had rebelled against German rule. To crush the rebellion, the whole of both peoples was expelled into the desert by a ruthless general named Lothar von Trotha, in the deliberate expectation that not many would come back and that the reduced fraction would be easier to administer and, in practice, to enslave. It was an action now considered by many to be the first genocide of the twentieth century and even in some ways a dry-run for the later Nazi Holocaust: all the more so as von Trotha also set up a system of concentration camps into which the survivors were rounded up, even if at that point no further attempt was made to kill them off and they were ‘merely’ enslaved.

While European colonial administrators of the time nearly all seem to have been more or less racist by today’s standards, there was nevertheless a gulf between the paternalistic Solf and the murderous von Trotha.

On such accidents did the fates of entire peoples depend, for it seems that the Kaiser pretty much allowed his administrators to run their colonies as they each saw fit. It is fair to say that von Trotha was eventually removed from his position, but of course, it was too late for most of the Herero and the Nama by then. Solf might have had some old-fashioned attitudes, but to give him credit, nothing remotely like that happened in German Sāmoa even though he, too, had to deal with opposition from the indigenous people, as we shall see below.

These days, many people are surprised to learn that, in the early 1900s, Germany had such an empire, indeed the third-largest overseas empire in the world after Britain and France.

Even the Pacific portion of the German Empire was quite large: all wagered and lost in World War One of course.

German Pacific Possessions on the Eve of World War One. German New Guinea is in dark brown, the Trobriand, Santa Cruz and South Solomon Islands in light brown, the Marshall and other Micronesian islands in purple, and German Sāmoa in red. A large German fleet was also based at Tsingtao, a Hong Kong-like possession on the shore of China. Public domain image worked on by several authors, updated most recently as of the time of publication in 2011, via Wikimedia Commons.

Germany’s Micronesian possessions were mostly transferred to Japan after the Treaty of Versailles. Those further to the south and the east, including the western part of Sāmoa, went to Australia or New Zealand.

The transition from German to New Zealand rule, and things that came after, are recorded in this commemorative broadcast made 100 years later.

Regrettably, after the German colony was taken over by the New Zealanders, a series of disastrous episodes followed.

Most seriously of all, in 1918, the New Zealanders allowed a ship infected with the fatal 1918 influenza virus to dock in Āpia, an action that doomed 22% of the population of the future Independent State.

As I mentioned in an earlier post about American Sāmoa, the Americans posted a ring of warships around their part of the Sāmoan Islands, letting nobody in or out until the pandemic had passed. But the New Zealanders stuffed up.

That was the biggest black mark against the New Zealanders. Also, the New Zealanders mishandled an independence movement called the Mau, meaning the resolute ones.

The Mau had originated during the time of German rule, on the island of Savai‘i.

Savai‘i is the larger but less populous of the two main islands, and in those days the writ of the recently-established German colonial government was far more wobbly over there than on Upolu.

The original Mau was therefore known as the Mau a Pule, the Pule being the term for the chiefs of Savai‘i. The Germans responded by deporting a number of the chiefs of Savai‘i and their wives to another part of their Pacific empire. However, at least in this part of the world, they did not resort to any measures harsher than that.

After the conclusion of World War One, the Mau was reborn on Upolu. The rebirth of the Mau was driven by the fact that New Zealand rule in Sāmoa was significantly more “tactless and authoritarian” than that of the Germans, as a recent official New Zealand historical site admits.

Subjected to innumerable provocations and humiliations by the Kiwis, the locals began to think that they would be better off independent or, failing that, ruled more directly by the British, a better class of oppressors as it would seem.

On the 15th of November 1929, twenty-three Sāmoan chiefs who supported the reborn Mau signed a 64-point petition to King George V, enumerating a long list of failings of the local New Zealand administration. The petition requested that the New Zealand-ruled part of the islands be made a direct British possession and that the British also work toward the re-unification of their part of the archipelago with the part that was ruled by the Americans.

The New Zealanders responded harshly to those who had the temerity to complain about their tactlessness and authoritarianism, shooting some of the Mau protestors dead on the 28th of December 1929, in an incident that came to be known as Black Saturday.

Some twenty years after Western Sāmoa finally achieved independence in 1962, Queen Elizabeth II’s Privy Council ruled that Western Sāmoans born under New Zealand rule were entitled to New Zealand citizenship. New Zealand’s Parliament then voted to strip New Zealand citizenship from anyone who might have benefited from this ruling, unless they were otherwise naturalised.

In the circumstances, it is amazing that relations between New Zealand and the Independent State are not worse than they are. Even so, 183,000 people who identify as Sāmoan now live in New Zealand, most of them actually born in New Zealand. In 2014, a historical exhibition called ‘Entangled Islands’ was held at the Auckland Museum, the islands being those of New Zealand and Sāmoa.

Travel Tips

Other things worth checking out in the Āpia area are as follows:

You can also learn more about the following destinations on the website:

Vailima National Reserve

Sāmoa Cultural Centre

I very much doubt whether this exhausts the range of things to do in and around Āpia, so do check other sources if you are going there!

Taxis were mostly pretty cheap. The Independent State’s currency is called the Tālā, worth 61 cents New Zealand and 37 American cents at the time of writing. From Lynn’s Getaway to downtown cost me 6 Tālā. To Vailima was 10 Tālā. To the wharf for Savai‘i cost 60 Tālā, and to the airport cost 80 Tālā.

All in all, I think Sāmoa is a better bet for the tourist experience right now than such packed destinations as Bali. It is just as attractive (more on this next week), but less pressured.

I had a bad impression as soon as I arrived, when my mobile phone was stolen. As in a lot of places, it is a good policy to keep your mobile and other things like that fairly close.

But apart from the one who pinched my mobile phone, I found that the people are honest and friendly and great to know. It is rich in food and, as in American Sāmoa, the people have also done a good job of retaining their communally owned land, a fact that also reduces the level of social pressure and helps to preserve the matai (chief) system and traditional culture in general, thus making it a generally safe place to travel. As in American Sāmoa, the Independent State also has short evening curfews for prayer in many places as well.

Apart from that, the Independent State seems more prosperous than American Sāmoa, perhaps because it is bigger.

The only real complaint I had was that in Āpia the Sāmoa Travel Office were handing out leaflets for diving that had the wrong phone numbers on them. Oh yes, and the pervasive problem of stray dogs all over the place, which I first noticed in American Sāmoa, but which turns out to be an issue on this side of the International Dateline as well. Of course, this is more common in the remoter areas, not something you are likely to run into in downtown Āpia. Like some furry human ancestor living in one million BC, I’ve found that it helps to throw rocks at them if they get menacing.

Why live in NZ, I wonder?

Next week, I head off around the island of ‘Upolu.

Further information

There is a very good series of articles about tatau on the website Anavasamoana, called ‘The Truth about the Samoan Tattoo (Tatau)’.

On historical matters, see also John A. Moses, ‘The Solf Regime in Western Samoa: Ideal and Reality’, New Zealand Journal of History, Vol. 6, №1, 1972, pp. 42–56.


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