January 1899: Samoa is Split between Germany and America

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American, German, and British ships in Apia Harbor, during the signing of the Anglo-Germany Treaty of 1899. Image: Courtesy of the Wikicommons, Public Domain.

By Historian Ronald G. Mayer Jr.

16 Jan 1899 – it was 124 years ago that the United States Congress ratified the Anglo German Treaty of 1899, splitting the islands of Samoa into German and American hands.

Around the turn of the century control over the islands of Samoa not only caused a civil war with the islanders, but almost a world conflict with America, Germany and Great Britain all claiming control over various parts of the Samoan islands.

On January 16, 1899 – the three countries came together to avoid further conflict.

The Pacific Ocean and its islands were viewed by the major European powers, the Empire of Japan, and the United States as potential bases. At this time the majority of ships relied on coal as fuel for their steam powered engines, and as such these nations needed coal refueling bases and Samoa was perfectly placed for this.

The United States, Germany, and Great Britain all had trading posts on the four main islands of Samoa: Savaii, Upolu, Tutuila and Manu’a. As these trading posts grew, the competition for regional dominance threatened to cause a war.

In 1887 the three nations met in Washington to try and resolve their differences, heightened by the Samoans fighting amongst themselves, with each side being supplied by their own controlling foreign power.

The conference was not a success. The 1889 Treaty of Berlin was signed with a lazzie-faire, live and let live situation where all three sides agreed to protect each ones mutual interest. However, the quest for conquest continued.

With growing problems and all sides not following the “mutual interests” of each other, the Tripartite Convention of 1899, in which the Anglo-German Treaty was signed, seemed to settle the issue.

The Germans and Americans would split the islands of Samoa. The Germans would get the islands of Savai’i and Upolu, and the United States would get the islands of Tutuila and Manu’a.

The British abandoned their claims to Samoa and gained possession and rights to other Pacific Island countries such as Tonga.