German-Pacific relations: the precolonial period

Germany’s presence in the Pacific was part of sustained engagement over a number of decades, involving formal and informal contact through modes of trade, commerce, labour, conflict, and relationship building.

Commercial Beginnings

The expansion of the company J.C. Godeffroy & Sohn into Sāmoa in 1855 was a significant development for burgeoning relations in the Pacific. Arms and ammunition were supplied to Sāmoans at Apia in exchange for land, which was converted into plantations, among other land purchase schemes.

J.C. Godeffroy & Sohn’s presence was not entirely a private commercial venture, as the imperial government utilised the company for purposes of its colonial policy. Their plantations were predominantly producing coconut oil and copra, and Melanesian indentured labour was brought in from the 1860s to work the land. Chinese indentured labourers were also similarly brought to Sāmoa to work on plantations from 1903.

The reliance on cheap, imported labourers was further supported by the annexation of parts of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to Germany in 1884. Operations were mostly centred in Upolu, and other plantations produced cacao and rubber as well as coconut oil and copra; of which new, more efficient forms of drying copra were introduced.

From 1878, J.C. Godeffroy & Sohn went bankrupt and was superseded by the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen Gesellschaft (DHPG).

Soloman Island workers making copra. From the album: Samoa, about 1918, Sāmoa, by Alfred James Tattersall. Te Papa (O.041889)

Germany was not alone in making footholds in Sāmoa but were joined by the American and British powers who also made agreements with various matai and established their own commercial enterprises. Conflict between the three powers and their interference only exacerbated the conflicts between Sāmoans themselves.

A Sāmoan national government had been formed with a joint kingship shared between Malietoa Laupepa and Tupua Pulepule. In 1875, American agent Albert Steinberger, established himself as Prime Minister and sole kingship was afforded to Malietoa Laupepa. However, Steinberger was dismissed in 1876 after the American government wrote a letter which claimed they did not support his position.

Political Conflict

Political conflict regarding kingship and additional struggles came to a head around 1886. What became labelled the Sāmoan Civil War broke out in this period, and various factions were supported by the three imperial powers. Malietoa Laupepa’s kingship ended in 1879 and he was replaced by Malietoa Talavou. Laupepa was once again recognised as King by Germany, Britain, and America in 1881.

When his relationship with German officials deteriorated, he was deported from Sāmoa in 1887. Americans supported Mata’afa Iosefo to take over the king’s position, forming a rival government to that of German-backed Tupua Tamasese Titimaea.

Conflict waged throughout 1888 and came to a head in 1889. Naval warfare was however dashed as a result of the Apia Hurricane sinking 6 out of 7 warships in the harbour. The Treaty of Berlin was signed between Germany, the United States and Britain that year. It was designed to preserve the rights of the three powers in Sāmoa and their separate treaties agreed upon with different matai in the late 1870s.

The treaty also ensured the independence and neutrality of the Sāmoan government at the time, though it gave Sāmoans themselves little power.

The 1890s in Sāmoa was a period of further movement, exchange, and conflict. Tupua Tamasese Titimaea was appointed king, but his position was short-lived when he passed away in 1891.

Malietoa Laupepa replaced him as king despite Mata’afa Iosefo’s victory in the war. The treaty only temporarily resolved the political conflict with contention for leadership resulting in a further war in 1893 during which Malietoa Laupepa secured his position.

In New Zealand, Premier Richard Seddon campaigned for New Zealand to become a British Protectorate in 1894, though this was unsuccessful. From 1895, troupes of Sāmoan men and women travelled from the Islands to Europe to participate as performers in German-organised ethnic shows.

Mataafa's [sic] Soldiers, 1890-1910, Sāmoa, by Thomas Andrew. Te Papa (C.001432)

At Malietoa Laupepa’s passing in 1898, disagreements about who should take on the Malietoa title and succeed as leader broke out. A joint commission organised by Britain, Germany, and the United States was organised which later abolished the king’s office.

This became the Tripartite Agreement which partitioned Sāmoa into east and west, the former controlled by America and the latter by Germany. Britain was awarded parts of the previously German-occupied Solomon Islands.

Representing Sāmoa: The King Malietoa Laupepa Stamp

Issued two and a half penny Samoan 'King Malietoa Laupepa' stamp in black, 1896, Wellington, by Government Printer (N.Z.), Alfred Cousins. The New Zealand Post Museum Collection, Gift of New Zealand Post Ltd. 1992. Te Papa (PH002605)

The oldest object of significance in this project is the “King Malietoa Laupepa” stamp. It stands as a point of interest that lives between significant events; after his recognition as king by the Treaty of Berlin Act in 1889 despite being exiled and his success in the 1893 war prior to the Tripartite Agreement over Sāmoa between Britain, America, and Germany in 1899.

The two-and-a-half penny stamp depicts Malietoa Laupepa, his likeness framed by a decorative border. The stamp was designed by Alfred Cousins who had immigrated to Wellington in 1874. Die proofs for the stamp were produced in 1892, but the image and border design in Te Papa’s collection is attributed to 1894. This stamp was printed in 1896.

It was not the first stamp Cousins had designed for Sāmoa, but he had designed an issue previously in 1886. This stamp was produced in New Zealand by the Government Printer.

Stamps being issued with Malietoa Laupepa’s face made him representative of Sāmoa. His death in 1898 resulted in further contestation and conflict resulting in the Second Civil War. Germany, the United Kingdom, and America continued to grapple for control over Sāmoa, backing different Sāmoan leadership candidates.

New Zealand again offered support against civil resistance. The Tripartite Agreement was reached in order to settle the war; this began the formal German colonisation period which would last until World War I.