Inside the Collection

Samoan War Photographs 1899

U.S. Marines with naval gun, Upolu, Samoa, 1899, published by Kerry and Co.
U.S. Marines with naval gun, Upolu, Samoa, 1899, published by Kerry and Co.

Here, then, is a singular state of affairs: all the money, luxury, and business of the kingdom centred in one place; that place excepted from the native government and administered by whites for whites; and the whites themselves holding it not in common but in hostile camps, so that it lies between them like a bone between two dogs, each growling, each clutching his own end. Robert Louis Stevenson 1892

The above quote taken from Stevenson’s insightful, and surprisingly humorous, account of the war which erupted at Apia in Samoa is proof even great writing can fail to turn the tide of war. In this 1889 encounter peace was only reached after nature herself intervened in the form of a hurricane. Playing no favourites it sank and damaged all but one of the American, German and British ships confronting each other in Apia harbour.

Unfortunately Stevenson’s object lesson in the pointlessness of war appears to have been ignored. As a result the people of Samoa were faced with the exact same predicament as European intrigue exacerbated existing tensions in Samoa which erupted into civil war in 1899. In an astounding turn of events the American heavy cruiser U.S.S. Philadelphia shelled Apia on March the 14th almost ten years to the day of the anniversary of the hurricane which ended the first conflict.

The shelling was done in an attempt to dissolve a provisional government set up by Mata’afa and Germany but instead it inflamed the hostilities and Mata’afa’s forces attacked houses in Apia, particularly the Tivoli Hotel where three American sailors were killed. On 30 March a British and American force under Commander Sturdee, along with about one hundred Samoans supporting chief Malietoa under Lieutenant Gaunt, made their way along the coast driving small numbers of Mata’afa’s men before them.

Malietoa supporters and United Sates marines on the streets of Apia, 1899, published by Kerry and Co.
Malietoa supporters and marines on the streets of Apia, 1899, published by Kerry and Co.

On the first of April, and no doubt feeling full of confidence at the ease with which they were forcing Mata’afa’s forces off the coast, they pursued him inland. This tactic was foolhardy in the extreme as they were no longer covered by the fire of the warships and were attacked by thousands of Mata’afa’s men. While only seven were killed, the historian Paul Kennedy considered these were, ‘remarkably light considering the circumstances’. The upshot of all this activity was the establishment of Samoan, American and British forces along the coast while Mata’afa’s Samoan forces and the Germans were firmly entrenched in the interior. The inevitable deadlock was broken by a ceasefire announced on 25 April and in May 1899.

This second conflict was not covered by the Stevenson’s pen but by another medium, photography. The Powerhouse Museum’s ‘Tyrrell Collection’ contains twenty-six glass plate negatives taken during the conflict, which, while not containing the erudite flourishes of an author, do give us some realistic insights into this civil war. These photographs were originally published by the Sydney firm of Kerry and Co., although it is unlikely the company actually took the photographs themselves.

5 responses to “Samoan War Photographs 1899

  • Thanks for these rare images, Geoff. Until you told me about this small war I was unaware that it had taken place and involved the fading superpower Great Britain and the nascent superpower USA.

    In front of one of the buildings at left there is a line of 18 r so people with light coloured head wear. What is this group?

  • Hi Bob
    thanks, its nice to get them into the public domain. I think these are US military forces,probably navy, but unfortunately I haven’t had the time to go into any real detail with the images.

    All the best Geoff.

  • wow, great photos. These buildings were still standing in the early 80s. I believe that where they have the police station in Tufuiopa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *