While the Pacific and its peoples had animated the European imagination for centuries, it was only in the late nineteenth century that image and reality began to clash in the context of formal colonisation. Starting in the 1880s, the German Empire—coming late to the scramble for territory—annexed several colonies in the region, from Kiaochow in China, the Caroline and Marshall Islands, to New Guinea and Samoa. Since the early nineteenth century, German romantics had portrayed the South Pacific as an exotic garden where man and nature coexisted peacefully and remained free from the corruption of industrial modernity ravaging Europe. Yet what promised to be an ‘El Dorado’ for Germans, and a boon to the colonised, soon turned out to be a colonial venture like many others: lucrative only for some and a veritable nightmare for many, especially for the Pacific Islanders themselves.
In this article, I explore the imperial history of Samoa in the context of President Barack Obama’s recent revalorization of the Pacific as a field of strategic interest for the United States. Samoa, I argue, deserves our attention because it represents a microcosm for the long history of U.S. imperialism in the Pacific, its various afterlives in the present, and, quite possibly, also the shape of things to come. First, I analyze the ways in which U.S. decision-makers perceived the South Pacific at the end of the nineteenth century as an increasingly important region for trade as well as the projection of military and political power. The result of this growing interest was a naval station in Pago Pago and the annexation of American Samoa in 1899, which remains an unincorporated territory of the United States to this day. Second, I trace continuities and changes in these dominant perceptions across the twentieth century into the still imperial present. Third and finally, I analyze how Samoans have continuously fought against the reductive perspectives from the imperial center which, ever since annexation, was more interested in the islands’ strategic location than in their inhabitants.