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American Samoans lack U.S. citizenship; 5th in a 21st Century American Colonies series

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American Samoa, 14 degrees south of the Equator in the Pacific Ocean, is our most exotic island colony but lacks U.S. citizenship for its residents despite a century of American rule.  Located in the heart of Polynesia, the island group is called Amerika Samoa in native Samoan.


Settled for possibly as long as three thousand years, the Samoan Islands had eight hundred years of contact with Tonga before Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen discovered the islands in 1722.  Another century passed without much interference from the outside world until British missionaries arrived in 1831.  Tribal rivalries and the remoteness of the islands kept European nations from claiming ownership and instead an uneasy truce between the native population and foreign traders governed relations.  Europeans dominated the harbors with their weapons while Samoans controlled the rest of the islands.  Competing interests of the outsiders created tensions on top of the culture clash


By the latter part of the 1800's the three countries most interested in control of the islands were Great Britain, Germany and the United States.  Pago Pago on Tutuila was a much used whaling port and the strategic value of the Samoan Islands attracted warships as well as trading vessels.  In 1872, the United States Navy began regularly using the Pago Pago harbor as a base although the agreement with the Tutuila chief was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.


Germany set out to take Upolu and established a military garrison at Apia in 1887.  Fighting broke out between the Samoans and Germans and hostilities were common for the next two years.  It was a complex and confusing time.  Robert Lewis Stevenson had moved to Samoa and was living at Apia would write, "Foreigners in these islands know little of the course of native intrigue."  German rule, in Stevenson's words, was a series of "blunders and mishaps."  The colonists were little more than an "irregular invasion of adventurers."  Stevenson was so appalled at colonialism in the islands that he wrote A Footnote to History, a tract appealing for peace and justice in the islands.


Britain and the United States sent warships to Upolu to confront the Germans and in 1889 a battle with seven ships from the three nations was about to start when a powerful typhoon hit the island and sunk all the German and American ships.


Nature's intervention led to a treaty called the Berlin Conference.  The three competing countries divided up islands with the British getting the North Solomon Islands, the Germans getting the West Samoa group and the United States taking control of East Samoa.  However, the next decade was an uneasy one as native rulers of the islands and villages did not willingly agree to the loss of their power.  Civil war and unrest, complete with beheadings was the bitter consequence of the Berlin Conference


Warfare and bloodshed on the islands led to increased German and American attention and the formal Treaty of Berlin in 1899 consolidating control of the islands.  Finally, the local rulers capitulated and in 1900 Tutuila and the island of Aunu'u was formally ceded to the United States.  In 1904, the islands of Ta'u, Ofu, and Olosega were also ceded to the United States.  Swains Island did not join American Samoa for another two decades but was finally accepted by a joint resolution of Congress in 1925.


Swains Island, a small coral atoll, had a different history from the volcanic Samoa Islands, and was actually a proprietary island under the ownership of an American family, the Jennings, from 1856 until 1925, where the family ruled passing down ownership of the island from one generation to the next like a royal family.


Germany continued to rule West Samoa but lost the island group as a consequence of World War I and is today the independent nation of Samoa.  American Samoa fell under military rule of the U.S. Navy and became a major supply base in World War II.


Today American Samoa is classed as both an unorganized and unincorporated territory with the residents considered U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens.  Samoans that move to the mainland can become naturalized citizens but only gain citizenship by leaving the islands.  The future status of American Samoa is an important topic in the far reaches of the Pacific but generates little interest in Congress, which controls the fate of the islands.

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Michael Richardson is a freelance writer living in Belize. Richardson writes about Taiwan foreign policy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Black Panther Party. Richardson was Ralph Nader's ballot access manager during the 2004 and (more...)

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