Disputes between port workers and their bosses in the US has inadvertently created a food crisis on the unincorporated territory of American Samoa, located some 4,800 miles away in the Pacific Ocean. A reduction in cargo traffic as a result of the dispute has left the aid-dependent islands in a particularly vulnerable position.
This fact does not seem to have been considered by either the port workers, their employees or government officials and yet this was a possession over which America was once willing to risk war.
Between 1887 and 1889, during the Samoan Civil War, a tense standoff occurred between warships of the US Navy and the German Empire at a time when the world’s leading powers were squabbling to secure the few remaining colonial opportunities. With ‘guns loaded and decks cleared’ conflict seemed inevitable until on the 15th March 1889 a hurricane dispersed the fleets, leaving 3 American and 3 German gunboats wrecked on the coral reef of Apia Harbor.
It was a timely intervention by the forces of nature, diffusing an alarming situation which was ultimately resolved in Berlin in 1899 during a tripartite convention which also included the British. Out of this was born American Samoa, with the larger eastern islands being awarded to Germany. (The Germans would lose their Samoan colony early in WWI to a New Zealand expeditionary force).
American Samoa was value simply for the fact that the Bay of Pago Pago off the island of Tutuila afforded the best naval base in the South Seas. The importance of the base led to heavy investment, with one writer noting in 1928 that the Americans had:
carried out the policy of Samoa for the Samoans: it has protected them, suppressed wars, built roads, established schools, improved health and sanitary conditions, advanced the economic situation by keeping taxes low and supervising the sale of the entire copra crop to the highest bidder at prices which bring more to the natives than in the nearby New Zealand Mandate. (Blakeslee).
American Samoa was effectively run by the Navy, with a Naval Governor rather than a civilian administration. It remained this way until being handed over to the Department of the Interior in 1951, by which time many Samoans had served valiantly in the US Armed Forces.
It was only with a constitution in 1967 that the islands became a self-governing American territory. Yet, whilst their strategic importance and economic value have declined in relative terms over the past few decades, the dependence of the American Samoans on their mainland fathers has not.
America would do well to ensure that, whatever the resolution of the port disputes, its ‘colony’ is well-supplied in the event of future crises. Having given and received so much from the Samoans during their early days of government, it would be wrong of the Americans to let these efforts go to waste and, with them, a generation of people.
Blakeslee, G.H., ‘The Future of American Samoa’, Foreign Affairs (October 1928)