We’ve just reached the shortest day of the year, here in the southern hemisphere, but in Samoa, an even shorter day lies ahead, when 31 December 2011 disappears completely.
Western Samoa has just announced that on 29 December, it will move forward by a day, leaping from -11 hours GMT to +1 hour GMT. This means that Samoa will be closer to the time zones in New Zealand and Australia (Eastern Standard Time in Australia is +10 GMT). Samoa’s time originally followed behind the time zones of its colonial rulers, Germany and America (and American Samoa may stay in the present time zone), but according to Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sailele,
our trading partners have dramatically changed since and today we do a lot more business with New Zealand and Australia, China and Pacific Rim countries such as Singapore.
In doing business with New Zealand and Australia we’re losing out on two working days a week. While it’s Friday here, it’s Saturday in New Zealand and when we’re at church Sunday, they’re already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane.
On short-notice trips over to New Zealand and Australia, it’s almost impossible to get a visa to New Zealand or Australia after Tuesday.
Thus peacefully, painlessly and of its own free will, a major Pacific archipelago has moved from one sphere of influence to another. Amazing, when you consider the various crises and alarums that shook Samoa during the 19th century, as three powerful empires, German, American and British, fought for dominance there.
In the mid-19th century, a small group of Pacific islands became tangled in the foreign policy of the Great Powers, that is to say, the European powers, Britain, France and Germany, with the US and Japan dipping their toes in towards the end of the century. These tiny specks of land were – and increasingly are again – strategically important in this scramble for handholds in the Pacific.
Nowadays, they are important because they control a lot of ocean, complete with fish and other resources. They also control votes – on the International Whaling Commission, for instance.
Early European explorers called the Samoan archipelago the Navigator Islands. Traders and missionaries began to move in during the 1830s. In 1839 an American scientific voyage led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes explored the islands. They were particularly impressed by the harbour at Pago Pago, potentially important as a port in the age of sail, perhaps even a future naval base.
Meanwhile a German company based in the North Sea port of Hamburg started to buy land for coconut plantations. Coconuts were strategically important in the production of armaments. [see my post The Lamington Goes to War]
Add several denominations of missionaries; trading companies competing for land and labour; a newly-united Germany, a re-United States and British colonists from Australia and New Zealand, all trying to push their own imperial interests through untrained consuls; and increasing interest in a good natural harbour where steam ships could be refueled – and by the 1870s, there was an explosive mix in Samoa. Add in an American adventurer called Albert B. Steinberger with the ear of President Ulysses Grant, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Samoa’s first celebrity dropout. The local population was divided, too, as the great powers played off the different clans and tribal groups – and were played off in their turn.
It all reached a climax between 1887 and 1889, when three American and three German warships converged on Apia (now the capital of Western Samoa, then an overgrown beach community consisting largely of expats and their mixed race families). Unlikely though it may seem, for a while there it looked as if a war in the Pacific might break out. A British ship was there as well though (allegedly) only as an observer.
Then Nature trumped human nature. At the very end of the cyclone season of 1889, the winds swept in. Over two days, 15 and 16 March, all the German and American ships were wrecked. Only the British ship, HMS Calliope, managed to make it out to sea where she was able to ride out the storm.
Robert Louis Stevenson was there, and recorded the event. He concludes:
Thus, in what seemed the very article of war, and within the duration of a single day, the sword-arm of each of the two angry Powers was broken; their formidable ships reduced to junk; their disciplined hundreds to a horde of castaways, fed with difficulty, and the fear of whose misconduct marred the sleep of their commanders. Both paused aghast; both had time to recognise that not the whole Samoan Archipelago was worth the loss in men and costly ships already suffered.
The hurricane acted like a bucket of water at a dogfight. Tempers cooled, and the competing parties backed off. In 1900 a great Anglo-German treaty carved up much of the Pacific into spheres of influence – and most of Samoa became a German colony, while the island of Tutuila, which contains the harbour of Pago Pago, became (and remains) American Samoa.
So Samoa’s time was tied to that of its two colonial powers, Germany and America. In 1914, New Zealand’s first act of World War I was to invade German Samoa, but the time didn’t change. Western Samoa became independent in 1962, but the country still drinks New Zealand beer. Today many Samoans live in New Zealand and Australia, so it makes sense for them to shift closer to our time zones. It will also make it easier for them to watch their top rugby players – most of whom play for the All Blacks. On the other hand, American Samoa is remaining a day behind, closer to American time – which is fine for watching the many Samoans who play in the National Football League in America.
This map of the international dateline from Wikipedia gives an idea of how complicated the international date line is.
The Smithsonian Museum has digitised the scientific publications of the Wilkes Expedition here