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The Commonwealth



Did you know:

On 29 December 2011 Samoa advanced the clock by one day, moving to the west of the international date line, so as to be in the same time zone as its main trading partners such as Australia and New Zealand.

Samoans enjoy a life expectancy of 73 years.

Two Samoans have been regional winners in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Albert Wendt, born in Apia in 1939, won with his novel, Ola, in 1992, and again with The Adventures of Vela in 2010; and Sia Figiel, born in Matautu Tai in 1967, won with her novel, Where We Once Belonged, in 1997.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1970
Population: 190,000 (2013)
GDP: p.c. growth: 1.9% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: 2014: World ranking 106
Official language: Samoan
Timezone: GMT plus 13–14hr
Currency: tala or Samoan dollar (T)


Area: 2,831 sq km
Coastline: 403km
Capital city: Apia
Population density (per sq. km): 67

The name Samoa, from Sa (‘sacred’) and Moa (‘centre’), means ‘Sacred Centre of the Universe’. Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) is an archipelago of nine islands at the centre of the south-west Pacific island groups, surrounded by (clockwise from north) Tokelau, American Samoa, Tonga, and Wallis and Futuna. The nine islands of Samoa are Apolima, Manono, Fanuatapu, Namu’a, Nuutele, Nuulua, Nuusafee, Savai’i (the largest, at 1,708 sq km including adjacent small islands) and Upolu (second largest, at 1,118 sq km including adjacent small islands). Five of the islands are uninhabited.

Main towns:

Apia (capital, pop. 36,726 in 2011), Vaitele (7,182), Faleasiu (3,745), Vailele (3,647) and Leauvaa (3,168) on Upolu; Safotu (1,500 in 2010), Sapulu (1,200) and Gataivai (1,100) on Savai’i.


There are 2,337 km of roads, many being rural-access roads, 14 per cent paved. Apia on Upolu is the international port. There is a ferry service between Upolu and Savai’i, and weekly services to Pago Pago in American Samoa.

The international airport, at Faleolo (34 km west of Apia) can take Boeing 747s, but Samoa, like other Pacific island countries, is remote from world centres and too small for commercial airlines to run frequent flights. The national carriers, Polynesian Blue and Polynesian Airlines, fly to several regional and international destinations.

International relations:

Samoa is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Forum, United Nations and World Trade Organization.

At the Eighth World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Geneva in December 2011, Samoa’s terms of entry were adopted and the country became a full member on 10 May 2012.


Topography: The islands are formed of volcanic rock, but none of the volcanoes have been active since 1911. The highest point, about 1,858 metres, is on Savai’i. Coral reefs surround much of the coastline and there is plentiful fresh water in the lakes and rivers. Much of the cultivated land is on Upolu.

In September 2009 a violent earthquake in the South Pacific, some 190 km south of Samoa, caused a huge tsunami, which devastated coastal regions of the islands, killing at least 129 people and destroying hundreds of houses.


Tropical maritime. Hot and rainy from December to April and cooler, with trade winds, from May to November. Samoa is prone to hurricanes and cyclones which sometimes cause devastation. Cyclone Val, in December 1991 – the worst storm to hit the islands in over 100 years – destroyed over half the coconut palms. The country was again devastated in 1998.


The most significant environmental issue is soil erosion.


Dense tropical forest and woodlands cover 60 per cent of the land area, having increased at 1.4 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Arable land comprises about three per cent of the total land area.


Animal life is restricted to several species of bats and lizards and 53 species of birds. Birdlife includes the rare tooth-billed pigeon, thought to be a living link with prehistoric tooth-billed birds. Due to over-hunting, all species of native pigeons and doves are approaching extinction. Two mammal species and five bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).


Samoa seems, on archaeological evidence, to have been inhabited at least as far back as 1000 BCE by Austronesian- speaking people. Evidence from legends and from genealogies shows that the country had frequent contact with Fiji and Tonga from the mid-13th century. There was some European contact in the first half of the 18th century, and settlement by refugees and beachcombers until the early 19th century. The Christian missionary John Williams came to Savai’i in 1830.

In 1889, Britain, the USA and Germany, all seeking influence in Samoa, held a conference in Berlin and signed a treaty giving the Samoan islands an independent government, with British, American and German supervision. Later in the same year, Britain relinquished its interest in the country, and the other two agreed that Germany should annex Western Samoa and the US Eastern Samoa. In 1914 the New Zealand army occupied Western Samoa, and in 1919 the League of Nations gave New Zealand a mandate to administer the country. An epidemic of influenza broke out in 1918; the Samoans at the time had no immunity to the disease and 20 per cent of the population died in a few weeks.

Samoans resisted New Zealand’s rule, with non-violent action (1926–36), culminating in the Mau uprisings. After World War II, the country was made a UN trust territory, with New Zealand’s role now being to guide Western Samoa to independence.

A legislative assembly was set up in 1947. A constitution, which aimed at combining the traditional lifestyle with modern-style government, was adopted in August 1960. At a plebiscite organised by the UN and held in 1961, the nation voted for independence. The country achieved independence on 1 January 1962, the first South Pacific island country to do so.

In 1970 Western Samoa joined the Commonwealth as a full member. Since 1962 it has had a Treaty of Friendship with New Zealand.

At elections in 1991, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), led by Tofilau Eti Alesana, won 30 of the 49 seats in the Fono, defeating the other main political party, the Samoan National Development Party.

In April 1996, the HRPP was returned, Tofilau retaining his position as Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs with the support of 34 members of the new Fono.

In July 1997, by act of parliament, the country changed its name from Western Samoa to Samoa. This change had been under discussion for some time, but was delayed by awareness of the sensitivities of American Samoa which, in the end, offered no opposition.

In November 1998 Tofilau resigned as Prime Minister; he became Senior Minister without Portfolio and his deputy and Finance Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, succeeded him. Tofilau had been Prime Minister from 1982 to 1985 and from 1988 to 1998. He was 74 and had had problems with his health for several years. In March 1999 he died.

In January 2000, a memorandum of understanding was signed with American Samoa for mutual assistance on trade, health, education, agriculture and policing.

The History of Samoa Independance

Studying Samoan Culture

Learn more about Samoa on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

History of Samoa
by Watson, Robert Mackenzie (1918) (pdf)

A footnote to history: eight years of trouble in Samoa
by Stevenson, Robert Louis (1911) (pdf)


Australia Geographic Explores Samoa

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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