Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Western Samoa became the first Pacific Island nation to gain its independence from a colonizing power, as its former mandate administrator under both the League of Nations and the United Nations gave up control. By special arrangement at independence, Western Samoa could request New Zealand’s assistance in conducting foreign and defense affairs. The independence of Western Samoa demonstrated that the South Pacific would be a sphere of decolonization and new national sovereignties.

Summary of Event

The Samoan archipelago became a ground of contest for Western imperialism in the late nineteenth century. The United Kingdom, already with extensive holdings in the South Pacific, was competing with two nations that had newly awakening colonial ambitions. These two nations were Germany, determined to make up for its late start in the “business” of colonization, and the United States, seeking to extend its so-called Manifest Destiny westward into the Pacific. Nationalism;Western Samoa Postcolonialism;Western Samoa Anticolonial movements;Western Samoa New Zealand, Western Samoan mandate of Western Samoan mandate Mandates, territorial [kw]Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand (Jan. 1, 1962) [kw]Independence from New Zealand, Western Samoa Gains (Jan. 1, 1962) [kw]New Zealand, Western Samoa Gains Independence from (Jan. 1, 1962) Nationalism;Western Samoa Postcolonialism;Western Samoa Anticolonial movements;Western Samoa New Zealand, Western Samoan mandate of Western Samoan mandate Mandates, territorial [g]Pacific;Jan. 1, 1962: Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand[07180] [g]Polynesia;Jan. 1, 1962: Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand[07180] [g]Western Samoa;Jan. 1, 1962: Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand[07180] [g]New Zealand;Jan. 1, 1962: Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand[07180] [c]Independence movements;Jan. 1, 1962: Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand[07180] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Jan. 1, 1962: Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand[07180] [c]Geography;Jan. 1, 1962: Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand[07180] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 1, 1962: Western Samoa Gains Independence from New Zealand[07180] Malietoa Tanumafili II Tupua Tamasese Mea’ole Holyoake, Keith Lall, Arthur

In 1899, the Treaty of Berlin Berlin, Treaty of (1899) divided Samoa into two spheres: one American and one German. Though German rule in many of its other colonies, such as South-West Africa, was characterized by atrocities and oppression of indigenous peoples, German rule in Samoa was much less severe. This was largely due to the efforts of Wilhelm Solf, an enlightened colonial administrator who, though occasionally quarreling with the entrenched power of indigenous chiefs, championed the rights of the indigenous peoples.

Germany lost control of its part of Samoa early in World War I because of British naval supremacy. Afterward, what was now called Western Samoa was given to New Zealand to administer as a Class C League of Nations League of Nations mandate. “Class C” meant that the League of Nations, a new international supervisory body set up by the victors at the end of the war, considered these territories as far from independence and thus sanctioned their being treated virtually as traditional colonies. Theoretically, though, the idea of a League of Nations mandate stipulated that the New Zealand administration was a mode of stewardship rather than one of control, and that independence might be on the horizon. The situation was complicated by New Zealand’s status—in many respects it was still a British colony, for it did not, for example, supervise its own foreign relations. Similar cases of British colonies administering other British colonies existed in the mandates held by Australia over Nauru and Papua New Guinea and by South Africa over South-West Africa and earlier in the joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium over the Sudan.

Samoa soon became restive under New Zealand’s rule. Despite New Zealand’s enlightened approach to class equality and woman suffrage, and notwithstanding its own Maori population (who formed ten percent of New Zealand’s people and were, like the Samoans, Polynesians in language and culture), many of New Zealand’s administrators held traditionally white supremacist attitudes.

Samoan assertiveness was expressed in the Mau movement Mau movement (Western Samoa) . The Mau movement had actually begun under German rule and was partially revivified by Solf’s crackdown upon chiefly prerogative. At this point, the Mau movement was as much fueled by the resentment of upper-class Samoans about the displacement of their former hegemony under colonialism as it was an outlet of mass popular resentment. This changed in 1919 when New Zealand’s lack of attention to that year’s influenza pandemic among the Samoan population embittered many of the indigenous population. New Zealand tried to coopt rising nationalist sentiment by establishing a legislative council, which would allow indigenous sentiments some outlet, but this only led to these sentiments gaining a more visible platform in the formation of the Samoan League Samoan League in 1926. New Zealanders characterized the Mau movement as led by “half-castes,” Samoans of part European ancestry. Though several so-called half-castes were prominent in the movement, many Samoans of full Polynesian ancestry were also involved. Nevertheless, the government tried to depict Polynesians as an essentially untroubled and innocent people stirred to dissent by those of their number with European ancestry who were dissatisfied with their subordinate condition.





Japan already had a foothold in the South Pacific when it launched war on Great Britain in 1941 by virtue of its also holding a Class C mandate in the Pacific (the formerly German holdings in the Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana Islands). Samoa was too far east to come under Japanese attack, but Samoa was affected by the postwar independence of many former British colonies. It seemed that the goal of independence was even more within the grasp of Samoan nationalists. Furthermore, dissent in Western Samoa registered as a Cold War threat to Americans, due to its proximity to American Samoa. The “winds of change” heralded by British prime minister Harold Macmillan as sweeping across Africa clearly were also being felt in the South Pacific. Ironically, New Zealand’s links with Samoa permitted Samoans to work in New Zealand, especially Auckland, from which they sent back revenue that strengthened the Samoan economy and made it more self-supporting. The Legislative Council, now known by the Samoan name of Fono Fono , began to increase its call for Samoan self-government.

In 1959, a United Nations Trusteeship Council United Nations Trusteeship Council visited Samoa, meeting with a Samoan delegation at Tiafau. One of the leading figures on the Trusteeship Council was Arthur Lall, an Indian-born diplomat residing in New York, whose legal knowledge and diplomatic politesse proved invaluable in negotiations. The following year, 1960, saw the coming together of a Samoan constitutional convention, with 174 delegates.

There were two primary, and immediate, barriers to Samoan independence, although the Labor government in New Zealand was willing to sanction that independence. First, in 1960, the Labor Party Labor Party, New Zealand lost to the conservative National Party, National Party, New Zealand whose leader, Keith Holyoake, showed little enthusiasm for Samoan self-rule. Second, there was pressure from within the Samoan community itself to have the matai (certain) system overtly acknowledged in the constitution, whereas Western diplomats wanted the constitution to include universal adult suffrage with no particular formal role allotted to the nation’s chiefs. A compromise was reached by which two Samoan chiefs became co-heads of state, but Samoa was not made a kingdom in the sense that Tonga is a kingdom. This compromise, as well as pressure placed by Macmillan on Holyoake to permit the process to proceed, enabled the proclamation of Samoan independence on January 1, 1962.


Western Samoa was the first of many South Pacific nations to become independent in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Despite economic problems, which were partially due to poor weather, Western Samoa was free of the ethnic tension of Fiji or the civil strife in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

Some Samoans, however, were dissatisfied with the political situation and felt hamstrung by the way the chieftainship system was not given formal recognition in the new nation’s laws. The Western Samoan Constitutions;Western Samoa constitution, for example, specified that the coheads of state should be known jointly as O le Ao o le Malo. Despite both founding coheads, Malietoa Tanumafili II and Tupua Tamasese Mea’ole, being paramount chieftains, the Samoan constitution specifies that, upon the death of the surviving member of the two coleaders, the next head of state should be elected by the legislature. The compromise, by which a de jure democratic mechanism was set up but the actual practice of chiefly prominence was tacitly acknowledged, was resented by some Samoans who wanted the chiefs to assume their full traditional functions. Other Samoans, though, called for even greater transparency and social equality in the nation.

In 1997, Western Samoa formally changed its name to Samoa, no longer worried about being confused with American Samoa, by then an integral part of the United States. In 2005, New Zealand, which had long downplayed its colonial role in the archipelago, formally apologized to the Samoans for their treatment under colonialism. Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Clark, Helen gesture brought closure to the process of decolonization and also demonstrated the respect independent Samoa had earned in the South Pacific. Nationalism;Western Samoa Postcolonialism;Western Samoa Anticolonial movements;Western Samoa New Zealand, Western Samoan mandate of Western Samoan mandate Mandates, territorial

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, J. W. Samoa mo Samoa: The Emergence of the Independent State of Western Samoa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Although dated, this work remains the most comprehensive source for studies of Samoan independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Field, Michael J. Mau: Samoa’s Struggle for Freedom. Rev. ed. Auckland, New Zealand: Polynesian Press, 1991. A strong nationalist account of the Mau movement and struggle for independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Rosemary, ed. Western Samoa and Tokelau: A Collection of Legislation Relating to Constitutional Development. Port Vila, Vanuatu: USP Complex, 1995. Particularly useful on the complex interweaving of Western and indigenous legal principles in the Samoan constitution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawson, Stephanie. Tradition Versus Democracy in the South Pacific: Fiji, Tonga, and Western Samoa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A theoretical and anthropological analysis of the constitutional development of three of the most complex South Pacific societies, including Samoa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockwood, Victoria S., ed. Globalization and Culture Change in the Pacific Islands. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004. A theoretical and anthropological study of the region’s cultural development, which includes an account of the relationship between political independence and other forms of social transformation.

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