When Samoa came under formal German and American control in 1900, the world around the islands was growing smaller. Steamships carried people, goods, and information ever farther. Trade interests went hand in hand with military planning of the growing naval forces of Imperial Germany and the United States. After the War of 1898, the US Navy established coaling stations in the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaiʻi. For its part, the Imperial German Navy set up its Pacific fleet in the treaty port of Kiaochow, southeast of Beijing. One of the leading German naval strategists, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, argued in 1899 that the Samoan islands would be of “great strategic value to the German navy, as an important stopping place on the voyage from Kiaochow, via our possessions in the South Seas, to South America.” And when plans for building a canal through the isthmus of Panama resurfaced at the beginning of the twentieth century, the strategic importance of coaling stations was increasingly hard to ignore. Euro-American competition for control over Samoa was fueled by and subsequently fueled the expansion of colonial infrastructure, such as steamships, telegraph cables, and wireless radio.
In the South Pacific and elsewhere, technologies of communication and power projection were not simply “tools of empire.” By contrast, the expansion of infrastructure in such places as Samoa actively produced colonial spaces dependent on access to markets for cash crops and vulnerable to gunboat diplomacy. As historians of Euro-American imperialism have argued, infrastructure was central to colonial state building more broadly, from the US-occupied Philippines to German Southwest Africa. Both German and US officials saw the building of colonial infrastructure as a way to impose modern ways of life on Samoans and other colonized people. Since Germany and the United States entered the colonial scramble at a time when new technologies were becoming available, integrating colonies like Samoa into global transportation and communication lines reinforced their claim to “enlightened” colonial rule. New transportation and communication links in the colonies also redirected the circulation of people and commodities in the service of Euro-American capital. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, rising consumer demand for tropical fruit in Europe and North America required improvements in transportation and communications in the global plantation belt. In German Samoa, settlers and traders began lobbying the colonial administration to boost trade by expanding shipping and telegraph lines. Across the channel, US Navy officials in Tutuila were concerned less with the circulation of commodities and more with the projection of naval power. In both places, infrastructure was key to the success of the colonial project as a whole.
Colonial officials welcomed the improved communication lines with their superiors in distant metropoles, even as they worried about the workers who built them. The annual reports by German and American colonial officials were filled with references to the various construction projects underway on the islands, but they frequently relied on the passive voice to distract attention from the actual workers who were building the infrastructure. Whereas the so-called labor question played a prominent role in debates on Samoan plantations, workers figured less explicitly in reports about the building of new infrastructure. In the eyes of colonial officials, the latest technologies, such as steamships and radio stations, operated by an invisible hand. In reality, the economic and military significance of colonial infrastructure turned those who built it into important actors. Not only did construction workers contribute their labor to extract economic and strategic value for foreign traders and military officials, but they also put this new infrastructure to their own uses. The hundreds of Samoans, Melanesians, Micronesians, and Chinese who built the coaling station in American Samoa and the wireless radio station in German Samoa developed a shared sense of exploitation as both colonized and working people. Even prison laborers who were forced to work for the colonial administrations found moments of sociality with fellow workers and relatives, to the anger of white settlers. As workers helped build the material infrastructure of Samoa, they created structures of solidarity that brought them closer to one another, across both racial and colonial boundaries.
This is an excerpt from Coconut Colonialism by Holger Droessler, published by the Harvard University Press. All content and images are reproduced with permission from Harvard University Press, which owns the copyright for this work.