island nation, Pacific Ocean
Island country, central South Pacific Ocean, among the westernmost of
the island nations of Polynesia.
Area: 1,093 sq mi (2,831 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 185,000.
Capital: Apia (on Upolu Island). The people are mainly Polynesian,
closely akin to Tongans and to New Zealand’s Maori. Languages: Samoan,
English (both official). Religion: Christianity (mostly Protestant; also
Roman Catholic, other Christians). Currency: tala. Samoa is part of the
Samoan archipelago and consists of two major islands, Upolu and Savai’i,
both of which are volcanic. There are also seven small islands, two of
which, Apolima and Manono, are inhabited. Samoa has a developing economy
based mainly on agriculture, with some light manufacturing, fishing,
lumbering, and tourism. It is a constitutional monarchy with one
legislative house; the paramount chief is the head of state, and the
head of government is the prime minister. Polynesians inhabited the
islands for thousands of years before Europeans arrived there in the
18th century. The islands were contested by the U.S., Britain, and
Germany until 1899, when they were divided between the U.S. and Germany.
In 1914 Western Samoa was occupied by New Zealand, which received it as
a League of Nations mandate in 1920. After World War II it became a UN
trust territory administered by New Zealand. It achieved independence in
1962. In 1997 the word Western was dropped from the country’s name.
Official name Malo Sa’oloto Tuto’atasi o Samoa (Samoan); Independent
State of Samoa (English)
Form of government mix of parliamentary democracy and Samoan customs
with one legislative house (Legislative Assembly )
Chief of state Head of State
Head of government Prime Minister
Official languages Samoan; English
Official religion none
Monetary unit tala (SAT)
Population estimate (2008) 180,000
Total area (sq mi) 1,093
Total area (sq km) 2,831
island nation, Pacific Ocean
country in the central South Pacific Ocean, among the westernmost of
the island nations of Polynesia.
According to legend, Samoa is known as the “Cradle of Polynesia”
because Savai’i island is said to be Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland.
Samoan culture is undoubtedly central to Polynesian life, and its styles
of music, dance, and visual art have gained renown throughout the
Pacific islands and the world. The country’s international image is that
of a tropical paradise inhabited by tourist-friendly, flower-wreathed
peoples. Yet this belies the economic, social, and political challenges
of this diverse and evolving Pacific microstate. Samoa gained its
independence from New Zealand in 1962 after more than a century of
foreign influence and domination, but it remains a member of the
Commonwealth. The country was known as Western Samoa until 1997. Its
capital and main commercial centre is Apia, on the island of Upolu.
Samoa lies approximately 80 miles (130 km) west of American
Samoa, 1,800 miles (2,900 km) northeast of New Zealand, and 2,600 miles
(4,200 km) southwest of Hawaii. Samoa, which shares the Samoan
archipelago with American Samoa, consists of nine islands west of
longitude 171° W—Upolu, Savai’i, Manono, and Apolima, all of which are
inhabited, and the uninhabited islands of Fanuatapu, Namu’a, Nu’utele,
Nu’ulua, and Nu’usafee. (The six Samoan islands east of the meridian are
part of American Samoa.) The total land area is smaller than the U.S.
state of Rhode Island but about 2.5 times larger than Hong Kong.
Relief and drainage
Savai’i, the largest island, covers 659 square miles (1,707 square
km) and rises to a maximum elevation of 6,095 feet (1,858 metres) at
Mount Silisili, a volcano at the island’s approximate centre. Mounts
Māfane, Mata’aga, and Maugaloa are also imposing peaks. Upolu, the other
large island, lies about 10 miles (16 km) to the east across the Apolima
Strait. Upolu is more elongated and uneven in shape than Savai’i and has
lower average elevations. It occupies an area of 432 square miles (1,119
square km), including five offshore islets, and rises to 3,608 feet
(1,100 metres) at Mount Fito. Manono and Apolima are smaller islands
lying in the strait between the two main islands.
All the nation’s rivers are shallow, are limited in extent, and
radiate directly from the central highlands to the coast. The islands
are rocky, formed by volcanic activity that progressed from east to west
within the past seven million years. They are ringed by coral reefs and
shallow lagoons except where the shorelines are marked by cliffs formed
by lava flows. Mount Matavanu on Savai’i last erupted intermittently
during 1905–11. Samoa’s volcanic soils support lush vegetation but are
easily eroded by runoff.
The climate is tropical and humid. Precipitation varies from more
than 100 inches (2,540 mm) on the northern and western coasts to 300
inches (7,620 mm) inland. Temperatures vary little, averaging 80 °F (27
°C) and ranging between 73 and 86 °F (23 and 30 °C) throughout the year.
The southeast trade winds prevail, varying occasionally to northerlies
during the wet season (November or December to April), when severe
storms are liable to occur. Typhoons occasionally cause widespread
Plant and animal life
Samoa’s lush vegetation includes inland rainforests and cloud
forests. Large sections of the coast have been covered with taro
plantations and coconut groves. The islands support limited animal life,
although more than 50 species of birds are found there, at least 16 of
them indigenous, including rare tooth-billed pigeons. The only native
mammals are flying foxes, which are endangered, and other species of
smaller bats. Rats, wild cattle, and pigs have been introduced. Among
the smaller animals found in Samoa are several species of lizards, two
snakes of the boa family, centipedes and millipedes, scorpions, spiders,
and a wide variety of insects.
O Le Pupu Pue National Park (1978), Samoa’s first national park,
occupies some 11 square miles (28 square km) on south-central Upolu.
Conservation efforts have been lax in many Samoan communities. Soil
erosion, resulting from farming steep slopes and clear-cutting forests,
has produced runoff that has damaged many of Samoa’s lagoons and coral
reefs. Industrial and residential pollution has become a concern in and
around Apia. Wildfires in 1998, which were started by farmers clearing
land for cultivation, destroyed nearly one-fourth of the forests on
Samoans are mainly of Polynesian heritage, and about nine-tenths of
the population are ethnic Samoans. Euronesians (people of mixed European
and Polynesian ancestry) account for most of the rest of the population,
and a tiny fraction are of wholly European heritage.
The Samoan language, believed to be among the oldest of the
Polynesian tongues, is closely related to the Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian,
and Tongan languages. A large number of Samoan words reflect maritime
traditions, including names for ocean currents, winds, landforms, stars,
and directions. Some verb forms indicate the relative positions of
objects, including directions of movement toward or away from the
speaker. English is widely spoken as a second language.
Samoans traditionally had a pantheistic religion, where family
elders performed most rituals; they appear not to have had a dominant
priestly class. They readily adopted Christian teachings following
European contact, and even the more remote villages built churches,
often of grand proportions. The Congregational Christian Church in Samoa
(formerly the London Missionary Society) was dominant until the late
20th century, but it has since lost many adherents to the Mormon church.
Mormon and Congregationalist groups now account for roughly one-fourth
of the population each. About one-fifth of Samoans are Roman Catholics,
and about one-ninth are Methodists. Pentecostals, Seventh-day
Adventists, and other Christian groups have more limited memberships.
Most Samoans have lived in coastal villages since the region was
first settled, and about four-fifths of the population is still rural.
Apia, on the northern coast of Upolu, is the nation’s only town as well
as the main port and centre for services and trade; it contains
approximately one-fifth of Samoa’s population.
The birth rate in Samoa has been high since the 1950s, when the
population reached about 80,000. Although that number had doubled by the
mid-1990s, the population’s rate of increase remained markedly lower
than the world average because tens of thousands of Samoans had
emigrated to New Zealand, the United States, Australia, and elsewhere.
Life expectancy at birth is 67 years for males and 72 for females. About
two-fifths of Samoans are less than 15 years old.
Close kinship ties within the villages traditionally bound Samoans
into a collectivist society, but a cash economy developed following
European contact, mainly based on agricultural exports. Tourism,
services, and light manufacturing became increasingly important after
1950. Other major sources of capital now include remittances from
Samoans living abroad (mainly in the United States and New Zealand),
which account for as much as one-sixth of household income, and grants
from the United States, the United Nations, the Commonwealth, and other
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Agriculture accounts for two-fifths of Samoa’s gross domestic
product (GDP) and nearly two-thirds of the workforce; however,
production does not meet local demand, and large quantities of food are
imported. Major crops include coconuts, taro, pineapples, mangoes, and
other fruits. Typhoons caused widespread damage in the 1990s to several
crops, including taro, which was also devastated by taro leaf blight.
Cattle, pigs, and poultry are raised for local consumption. Forestry has
made increasing contributions to the economy, partly because of the
government’s replanting programs. The Samoan fishing industry remains
small, based primarily on catches made from outrigger canoes.
Resources and power
Samoa has few natural resources apart from its agricultural lands,
surrounding waters, and pleasant scenery and climate; nearly half of the
land area is covered by forests. Hydroelectric power provides most of
the nation’s energy needs; petroleum-fired thermal generators account
for much of the remainder.
Samoa’s diversified light manufactures include beer, cigarettes,
coconut products (mainly creams and oils), corned beef, soap, paint,
soft drinks and juices, and handicrafts. Most are produced for local
markets. A Japanese-owned electric assembly plant, which opened in the
1990s, is Samoa’s leading employer after the national government.
The currency of Samoa is the tala, which consists of 100 sene
(“cents”). The money supply is controlled and regulated by the Central
Bank of Samoa, which was established in 1984. Samoa also has several
commercial banks. Banking and finance account for only a tiny fraction
of employment, although numerous companies have registered in Samoa
since offshore banking services were initiated in 1988.
Samoa has a persistently negative balance of trade. Major trading
partners include New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, the United States, Japan,
and American Samoa. Food, industrial supplies, machinery, consumer
goods, and petroleum products are the main imports. Coconut products,
copra, cacao, and beer account for a majority of exports.
Government (including education) and tourism are the foundations of
Samoa’s service sector. Tourism has been an increasing source of foreign
exchange, with a steady supply of visitors from American Samoa and
growing numbers from New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and
Europe. Popular tourist sites, in addition to Samoa’s white-sand
beaches, include Mulinu’u, where the parliament and traditional meeting
and burial grounds are located; Fuipisia Falls, which descends some 180
feet (55 metres); and Vailima, where the head of state now resides in
the last home of the 19th-century Scottish author Robert Louis
Labour and taxation
Nearly two-thirds of Samoans are farmers or agricultural workers.
About one-fifth of the population works in government, tourist, or other
service sectors, and the central government is Samoa’s single largest
employer. There are several trade unions in Samoa, though only a small
percentage of the country’s workforce are members. The majority of the
country’s workforce are men, but women are expected to play an
increasing role. In 1991 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established
to encourage and promote women’s employment.
More than half of the government’s revenue comes from taxes, and
nearly one-third is from grants. In 1994 a value-added tax on goods and
services was introduced amid great protest.
Transportation and telecommunications
International flights connect the islands with American Samoa, Fiji,
New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. Regular shipping services link with
ports abroad, including those in Hawaii and California to the northeast
and Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia to the southwest. About two-fifths
of Samoan roadways are paved, including many coastal highways and the
major streets of Apia. There are no railways.
Samoa has several thousand telephones in use, as well as
international phone connections via undersea cable and satellite. The
number of cellular phones in use has increased rapidly since the
Government and society
In 1962 Samoa promulgated its constitution as the first independent
microstate in the Pacific region, and in 1970 it joined the
Commonwealth. Samoa has a parliamentary government that blends Samoan
and New Zealander traditions. The constitution originally provided for a
constitutional monarchy under two coheads of state, with the provision
that when one died (as happened in 1963) the other would continue as
sole monarch and head of state for life, after which future heads of
state would be elected by the Legislative Assembly (Fono Aoao
Faitulafono) to five-year terms. The prime minister is elected by the
assembly and appoints a cabinet from among its members. The Legislative
Assembly has 49 members. Two are directly elected by the nation’s
non-Samoan and mixed ethnic groups. The remaining 47 are directly
elected from among candidates who are Samoan matai (chiefs).
Samoan local government is the responsibility of more than 360
villages in 11 administrative districts, five of which are based on
Upolu—A’ana, Aiga-i-le-Tai (with Manono and Apolima islands), Atua,
Tuamasaga, and Va’a-o-Fonoti—and six on Savali—Fa’asaleleaga,
Gaga’emauga, Gaga’ifomauga, Palauli, Satupa’itea, and Vaisigano. Each of
Samoa’s several thousand aiga (extended families) designates at least
one matai to lead and represent it; the matai, in turn, form village
councils to administer local affairs.
Justice and security
The justice system is headed by a Supreme Court, whose chief justice
is appointed by the head of state on the advice of the prime minister.
Supreme Court judges also preside over the Court of Appeal. Among the
lower courts are the Magistrate’s Court, which hears most criminal
cases, and the Lands and Titles Court, which handles civil matters.
Samoa has a police force but no standing military. New Zealand is
bound by treaty to provide military assistance upon request.
Universal suffrage for Samoans aged 21 years and older was
instituted in 1990. Political parties first appeared in Samoa in the
late 1970s, and by the turn of the 21st century there were more than
five. The major parties are the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) and
the Samoan National Development Party (SNDP). Women participate in
government but hold few elected offices.
Health and welfare
Immunization programs since the late 20th century have greatly
reduced the incidence of disease, particularly among children; however,
there are few doctors, and the quality of hospital care is limited.
Obesity and poorly balanced diets are leading health concerns. The
leading causes of death are congestive heart failure, cancers,
cerebrovascular diseases, accidents, pneumonia, and septicemia. Water
shortages are common because of the islands’ porous soils and limited
watersheds; wells and cisterns are the only water source for much of the
Nearly all Samoans are literate. Education is compulsory between the
ages of 5 and 14; however, only a small fraction of the population has
completed secondary school. Selected pupils receive higher education at
government- or mission-run secondary, vocational, or teacher-training
institutions. The University of the South Pacific has its School of
Agriculture at Alafua, near Apia. Some students attend the National
University of Samoa (1984) and Avele College (1924), but most enroll at
overseas institutions such as Victoria University of Wellington, New
Zealand, the University of Hawaii, and Brigham Young University–Hawaii.
Although some Samoan values and customs have changed markedly since
European contact, particularly in Apia, Samoans have strived to preserve
the fa’a Samoa (“Samoan way of life”); thus, many traditions and outward
features of rural life have remained virtually unchanged.
Daily life and social customs
Most Samoan villages have a church and a meetinghouse, which doubles
as a cultural centre. Clustered around the village green are several
fale—traditional oval-shaped houses with open sides and thatched or
corrugated tin roofs supported by wooden pillars. Rolled palm-leaf mats
can be let down at the sides of each house to offer protection from the
elements. Many fale have been replaced by rectangular houses of timber
or concrete blocks with walls and windows. Kitchens are often located in
Typical foods, grown or caught locally, include taro, yams,
breadfruit, fish, and shellfish. Chicken and pork dishes are also eaten.
Imported foodstuffs have become increasingly common, including Asian
rice, frozen meats, and packaged foods and beverages from other parts of
the world. Kava, a traditional nonalcoholic, euphoria-producing drink,
is prepared from a tropical pepper plant and consumed at social events,
mainly by matai, who customarily pour a small amount on the ground
before and after drinking. Related customs include sitting cross-legged
in a home before addressing one’s host and refraining from eating while
standing indoors or walking outdoors.
Music, dance, tattooing, and oral literature are significant art
forms in Samoa. Males at age 12 or 13 visit a local tufuga (tattoo
artist) for tattooing from waist to knee, a prolonged and often painful
process that is considered a rite of passage. Christian missionaries in
the 19th century, believing that tattooing was contrary to biblical
teachings, eliminated the practice from many Polynesian islands;
however, Samoans maintained the tradition and helped revive it among
Tahitians and other groups in the late 20th century. Few early works of
siapo (bark cloth) art, basketry, and featherwork have survived, and
handicrafts are now produced only in limited numbers.
Music has always been central to Samoan life. Vocal music is
predominant, both in religious services and social gatherings, and is
accompanied by rhythmic percussion and wind instruments. Dances often
presented for tourists include sāsā (a sitting dance performed mainly
through arm movements) and fa’ataupati (in which men rhythmically slap
their limbs and torsos). Samoans often entertain one another at weddings
and other family gatherings with ula, in which two groups alternate
between singing and dancing. The pese is another popular song style.
Oral literature in Samoa dates from earliest settlement. Genealogies,
legends, chants, and spells have all been passed down and elaborated
through the generations, and matai are still expected to deliver
rhythmic and poetical orations at council meetings and other major
events. Many of these traditions have been translated into written form
since the 19th century. International acclaim has been garnered by some
Samoan writers, including Albert Wendt, who has explored aspects of the
fa’a Samoa—including power struggles, social restrictions, and family
relations—in works such as Pouliuli (1977) and The Birth and Death of
the Miracle Man and Other Stories (1999).
Samoa has few major cultural institutions apart from the School of
Agriculture, Avele College, and the National University of Samoa. The
Robert Louis Stevenson Museum (1990) and the Nelson Memorial Public
Library (1959) are located in Apia.
Sports and recreation
The main holidays include Independence Day (usually celebrated for
three days: June 1–3), Christmas, and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Although Samoan music and dance styles remain popular, radio stations
often broadcast imported Hawaiian and other Polynesian music, as well as
rock. American and Chinese films, the latter with English subtitles, are
Rugby football is a popular sport among Samoans, who have long played
for New Zealand and Samoan national teams. Australian Rules football is
also increasingly popular. Entire communities sometimes play kirikiti,
which is similar to cricket but involves teams of unrestricted size;
games are social as well as sporting events, with spirited cheering and
singing by spectators and unlimited food and drinks provided by the host
village. Samoans and other Polynesians have used outrigger canoes since
establishing their first island settlements. Most of the canoes are
confined to lagoons, but many are also paddled in ocean races.
Footracing, cockfighting, tiak (darts), and spear throwing are also
traditional Samoan sports. Select groups participate in tennis, golf,
bowling, and other competitions. Samoa has competed in the Olympic Games
Media and publishing
The country’s newspapers include The Samoa Observer, the Samoa News,
Savali, and the Samoa Weekly; each has a limited circulation—from a few
hundred to a few thousand copies. Samoa has three radio stations. Its
first full-time television broadcaster began operating in 1993, offering
locally produced programs and satellite transmissions from overseas.
(For further discussion of Samoan cultural life, see Oceanic arts and
The following discussion focuses on Samoa since European contact.
For additional treatment in a regional context, see Pacific Islands,
Polynesians traveling in outrigger canoes arrived in the Samoan
archipelago about 1000 bc, as indicated by Lapita pottery shards found
in Mulifanua Lagoon on Upolu. Characteristics of the Samoan language
indicate that the settlers probably came from Tonga. Local pottery
manufacturing ceased by about ad 200, by which time Samoa had become
central to much of the settlement of eastern Polynesia. Contact between
Samoans, Tongans, and Fijians continued and was recorded in hundreds of
legends and genealogies that were passed down through oral literature.
Like other Polynesian peoples, Samoans were master navigators,
boatbuilders, and fishers; every aspect of their society was related in
some way to maritime life. Basic agriculture was also developed,
including the cultivation of yams, taro, breadfruit, bananas, sugarcane,
and coconuts. Most Samoans lived in villages ruled by councils of matai
(chiefs), and numerous fortified villages of 30 or more houses grew up
along the coast. Extended blood ties traditionally linked family groups
and villages, with the major families striving for supremacy and
regularly plunging the islands into warfare.
European navigators, who began to visit Samoa in 1722, were at
first welcomed for the technology and goods that they brought. John
Williams, a member of the London Missionary Society, arrived to
establish a Christian mission in 1830. He made a convert of Malietoa
Vainu’upo, who had just conquered all of Samoa, and the rest of the
population soon followed suit. A foreign settlement had developed around
Apia Harbour by the 1850s. Samoans began to resist, however, as more
settlers arrived from the United States, Great Britain, and Germany and
tried to persuade their respective governments to annex Samoa. Rival
matai played the three foreign powers against each other in pursuit of
their factional wars, and they, in turn, frustrated attempts by the
Samoans to establish a national government. In 1878 the United States
signed a treaty allowing it to establish a naval station in Pago Pago
Harbour (now in American Samoa). Great Britain and Germany signed
similar agreements the following year. Warfare between the three powers
in 1889 was prevented only by a great typhoon, which sank six of their
warships. They subsequently signed the Berlin Act to provide for the
neutrality of the islands and to avoid further conflict; however, in
1899 the United States annexed eastern Samoa, whereas Germany annexed
the western part of the islands—Western Samoa. The division was carried
out without consulting the Samoan people, and many of them resented it
In Western Samoa the drive for political independence began in 1908
with the Mau a Pule, a movement led by the orator chief Lauaki
Namulau’ulu. The matai were dissatisfied with the German governor’s
attempts to change the fa’a Samoa and centralize all authority in his
hands. After the governor called in warships, Lauaki and nine of his
leading supporters surrendered, whereupon they were tried and exiled to
Saipan in the Mariana Islands.
Rule by New Zealand
Troops from New Zealand occupied Western Samoa in August 1914,
meeting no resistance from the German or Samoan populations. However,
the New Zealand administration was accused of negligence after more than
one-fifth of Western Samoans died during the influenza epidemic of
1918–19, and most Samoans united against foreign rule. The League of
Nations nevertheless granted New Zealand a mandate over Western Samoa in
1920. The New Zealand-appointed governor made additional attempts to
undermine the power of the matai leadership and that of the local
business community; in response, an organized political movement called
the Mau (“Strongly Held View”) emerged. The Mau was led by Olaf
Frederick Nelson, whose mother was Samoan, but New Zealand outlawed the
movement, claiming that Nelson and other “part-Europeans” were
misleading the Samoans. New Zealand troops were sent in, and Nelson was
exiled to New Zealand. During a Mau demonstration in December 1929, the
matai Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III and other unarmed Mau supporters were
shot and killed by New Zealand troops. This only strengthened the Mau’s
New Zealand’s first Labour government came to power in 1935 and soon
recognized the Mau as a legal political organization. Relations between
Samoans and New Zealanders improved somewhat, but many Samoans remained
dissatisfied. The islands’ economy improved during World War II, when a
garrison of U.S. troops was stationed on Upolu and built several roads
and an airport. New Zealand allowed a Western Samoan council of state
and a legislative assembly to be established in the late 1940s, and a
constitutional convention met in 1954. Several government reforms were
carried out during the next few years, amid continuing Samoan agitation
In 1962 Western Samoa became the first Pacific nation of its size to
regain its political independence. The monarch Susuga Malietoa
Tanumafili II became the cohead of state in 1962 and head of state (O le
Ao o le Malo) the following year, a post he held until his death in
2007. Major political figures in the late 20th century included Fiame
Faumuina Mataafa, who served twice as prime minister (1962–70 and
1973–75) and Tupuola Taisi Efi, who was prime minister during 1976–82.
The religious makeup of Samoa was altered markedly in the late 20th
century, as many in the country joined the Mormon church. The tourist
trade grew rapidly during the same period, partly because of
improvements to Upolu’s transportation infrastructure. Tofilau Eti
Alesana, who served as prime minister during 1985–98, had mixed success
with the economy and engendered controversy by attempting to censor
critics of the government. A referendum in 1990 instituted universal
suffrage, and in 1997 the legislature changed the country’s name from
Western Samoa to Samoa, despite protests from neighbouring American
Samoa. The islands continued to face economic and social challenges at
the beginning of the 21st century.
On Sept. 29, 2009, the Samoan archipelago was shaken by an undersea
earthquake of magnitude 8.3, centred some 120 miles (190 km) south of
Apia in the Pacific Ocean. The quake generated a tsunami that flooded
Samoa in several waves, causing extensive damage; villages were
flattened throughout the islands, and scores of people were killed.