Samoa, formerly Western Samoa, is in the South Pacific Ocean about 2,200 mi (3,540 km) south of Hawaii. The larger islands in the Samoan chain, Upolu and Savai’i, are mountainous and of volcanic origin. There is little level land except in the coastal areas, where most cultivation takes place.
Polynesians, possibly from Tonga, first settled in the Samoan islands about 1000 B.C. Samoa was explored by Dutch and French traders in the 18th century. Toward the end of the 19th century, conflicting interests of the U.S., Britain, and Germany resulted in an 1899 treaty that recognized the paramount interests of the U.S. in those islands west of 171°W (American Samoa) and Germany’s interests in the other islands (Western Samoa).
New Zealand seized Western Samoa from Germany in 1914, and in 1946 it became a UN trust territory administered by New Zealand. A resistance movement to both German and New Zealand rule, known as the Mau (“strongly held view”) movement, helped to edge the islands toward independence on Jan. 1, 1962. A constitutional monarchy, Samoa has a legislative assembly whose members are from the matai, or titled class.
Barraged regularly by cyclones that have wreaked havoc on the country’s primarily agrarian economy, Samoa has begun stepping up its tourism industry—not such a difficult undertaking in this archetypal South Pacific paradise.
A referendum in 1990 gave women the right to vote for the first time. In 1997, a new constitutional amendment changed the country’s name to Samoa.