Research

Coconut Colonialism: Samoa and the Making of the Global South (manuscript in progress)

Coconut Colonialism is a global labor history that rethinks the making of the Global South from the vantage point of Samoa. A chain of small volcanic islands in the vast expanse of the South Pacific, the Samoan Islands were located as far away as one could imagine from the imperial centers at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, as trade expanded across the Pacific in the mid-nineteenth century, Samoa was drawn into the orbit of three powerful empires: Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. After decades of devastating proxy wars and a short-lived experiment in shared rule, the tropical islands were divided into a western part that became German and an eastern part under U.S. control. Samoa at the turn of the twentieth century offers a fascinating case study not only of the colonial roots of globalization, but also of the diverse group of workers who made the islands global.  

The book tells the story of Samoa’s globalization from the last decade of the nineteenth century through World War I in five chapters, each dedicated to a central worksite and to those who worked in it: the Samoan subsistence economy, the copra plantation, the ethnographic show, the building of infrastructure, and the colonial service. Coconut Colonialism argues that the globalization of Samoa was driven not only by the interests of metropolitan elites and settler capitalists, but, more importantly, by the motley crew of people working on and off the islands. To resist the commodification of their lives, some Samoans forged bonds of solidarity with fellow Pacific Islanders and the Chinese who came to Samoa to work on coconut plantations. Others traveled the world as part of ethnographic show troupes and made friends with fellow colonized peoples in places far away from home. Asking big questions in a small place, my research on Samoa shows that historians need to focus on workers’ struggles and do so from a global perspective.