samoa was america's first imperial possession -- 1/22/18

Today's selection -- from Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun. America's first imperial conquest was the islands of Samoa:

"In 1878 the United States had entered into a treaty of friendship and commerce with Samoa whereby it gained the right to deposit coal for American vessels at Pago Pago. In return, the United States agreed to use its good offices in behalf of Samoa in disputes with foreign powers. Paying heed to this latter provision, successive American administrations grew increasingly wary of greater British and especially German influence in the islands. The accelerating antagonism among the foreign powers was compounded by fight­ing between rival factions of Samoans. By the late 1880s, German aggressions against the government of Samoa brought Germany and the United States to the brink of war, but in the final weeks of the Cleveland administration, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck moved to allay the crisis by inviting the other two powers to discuss the issue at a conference in Berlin. The effort for a negoti­ated settlement received an unexpected boost when a hurricane at Samoa destroyed most of the naval vessels on the scene and several merchant ships as well. ...

German, British and American warships in Apia Harbor, Samoa, 1899.

"The administration's sine qua non for the conference was the preservation of an independent Samoan nation under the leadership of a king of the people's own choosing. Harrison and Blaine also instructed the American delegates to resist any agreement that dero­gated U.S. rights at Pago Pago. Moreover, they should guard against any move by the other powers to dominate Samoa. Such dominance would threaten the interests of the United States, especially its grow­ing trade with the East, which was bound to develop even more with the eventual opening of a ship canal through Central America. Harri­son regarded an earlier Cleveland administration proposal, which called for the three foreign powers to name a cabinet of three secre­taries for the king, as 'not in harmony with the established policy' of the American government. Still, he promised to 'give weighty con­sideration to whatever plan the conference may suggest.' In the end, he accepted what amounted to a joint protectorate over Samoa, exercised by the United States, Britain, and Germany.

"By mid-June, the conference put the finishing touches on a settle­ment, known as the General Act of Berlin. Designed to check international rivalry and ostensibly secure Samoa's independence, the act was an assumption of sovereignty in all but name by the three powers. It restored King Malietoa Laupepa to power, but it also provided for the three powers to appoint a chief justice, the presi­dent of the municipal council of the port city of Apia, and other officials. The act also instituted a variety of taxes, including import and export duties, license fees, and capitation levies.

"It was a momentous step. The administration had halted Ger­man expansion, but never before had the United States accepted responsibility for the government of a people beyond its own conti­nent. Equally extraordinary, the United States found itself in the sort of 'entanglement' with European powers that for a century it had steadfastly shunned. Nonetheless, Blaine was ecstatic over 'our complete success at Berlin,' and Harrison hoped the act would be 'productive of the permanent establishment of law and order in Samoa.' Unfortunately, the diplomatic triumph fell short in imple­mentation. The powers had difficulty finding suitable persons to fill the posts of chief justice and municipal council president, and the natives resisted the regime. Britain, Germany, and the United States had to keep warships present to ensure the enforcement of the chief justice's orders and the collection of taxes. By 1899, the situa­tion had grown so irksome that Germany and the United States agreed to divide the islands between them."



Charles W. Calhoun


Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893


Times Books


Copyright 2005 by Charles W. Calhoun


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