Note from the author: As a little girl growing up in American Samoa, my mother would drag me out of bed every Saturday morning to catch our local fresh food market located in the capital (Pago, Pago) where she would peruse the flea market and pick up fresh produce for the following week’s dinner menu. Not being a morning person myself, I would only agree to go with her to the 7:00am market if I could get some fresh, hot Koko Samoa, a “traditional” beverage made of Cacao. The drink was almost a staple throughout my childhood. Today the black “traditional” drink brings back so many memories of crowded markets, my family, laughter, my homeland, sharing, extended family gatherings, and cultural celebrations. In somewhat of an exciting and nostalgic way, it’s been deeply serendipitous to write about Cacao from home as one of my final projects in one of my last classes at Harvard. Even more exciting is the fact I’ve been able to deepen my understanding of the history of Cacao in Samoa and make new memories.
KOKO SAMOA: SIMPLE RECIPE, COMPLEX HISTORY
Cacao in Samoa
Nicknamed the “Navigator Islands” by early European explorers because of the inhabitant’s vast knowledge of seafaring, Samoa is home to some of the biggest and most populated islands of Polynesia. Situated south of the equator in the Pacific Ocean, Samoa’s indigenous population (Samoans) continues to partake in traditional practices, including subsistent agricultural farming. However, today commercial farming is more common throughout the islands, which was introduced to the area during colonial rule. Among the commercially farmed products is Cacao, brought by German imperial powers in the early 19th century by ways of Brazil and Madagascar. Samoa possesses a unique hybrid between Forastero and Criollo Cacao. The foreign seedlings became widely popular among Samoans and became indigenized into a “traditional” food and could be considered a comfort food among Samoans. The local cacao hybrid beverage called “Koko Samoa” has become just as much apart of Samoan culture as any other commodity, even rivaling the local beer, Vailima, as the national drink.
“Koko” is the Samoan word for Cocoa, considered very important to the way of life in Samoa, so much so, that the Samoan government protected the Cacao plant under the “Cocoa Disease Ordinance of 1961” which makes it unlawful to bring any foreign cocoa plants that might be pest or disease infected into the country.
The process of making Koko Samoa is surprisingly easy and quick to make, which is very accommodating to big Samoan events and cultural gatherings.
As the video shows, the recipe to make Koko Samoa is fairly simple because it only requires three (maybe four- if coconut milk is added) ingredients. And although the recipe is very simple, the history of Koko Samoa is incredibly complex with a darker, less known past.
Two Samoas, One People
Tucked away in the South Pacific lies a collection of islands called Samoa. Although the seven islands are considered to be culturally the same, due to a rich history of colonialism, the Pacific islands are divided into two separate nation states, where as the western portion of islands (indigenous names are Upolu and Savai’i) are an independent country called Independent Samoa, and the remaining eastern islands (indigenous name is Tuitila) is a territory of the United States called American Samoa. While the islands are currently two separate entities, the Native populations of both areas identify as one culture, meaning that all the islands speak the same language, practice the same cultural exercises, and share the same genealogy.
In the mid to late 1800s, post-Christian missionary work within the islands, Germany was among the first to take interest in the islands for the purpose of Cacao and copra farming. In a race to stake claim in the area for commercial purposes, Germany, America and the United Kingdom divided the island up between the imperial powers. The territories would be ceded to Germany and America in the Tripartite Convention of 1899, where Germany would prove to get the much, much larger Samoa islands which would enable them to establish Cacao farms. Prior to the partitioning of the islands, in 1880 a German firm named the “Deutche Handels-und Plantagen-Gesellschaft (DHPG) owned four plantations on Upolu and one on Savai’I with a total area of 4,933 acres – the largest complex of tropical agriculture in any of the German colonies.” When the western islands were taken by Germany, it was relatively peaceful and a lot of the culture was kept in tact.
Unlike a majority of colonized areas throughout the 16th-19th century, Germany did not subject the Samoan people to the usual colonized fates. Indeed there was an occupation of homelands, but as Stewart Firth wrote, “in German Samoa the colonial administration was unexpectedly beneficent towards the colonized people, taking neither their land nor their labour.” (155)
This very unusual relationship was partly due to western Samoa’s first governor, Wilhelm Solf, a German native and somewhat of a Samoan culture enthusiast. Governor Solf admired the Samoan culture so much he developed policies which valued the preservation of Samoan culture and people as first priority for which he gained, “an unprecedented degree of rapport with the native community”. (155)
Somewhat progressive for his time, Governor Solf had a very novel approach to the Samoan community. He viewed Samoans as “in some ways superior to the ignorant European, and the Samoans, who constituted 98 per cent of the colony’s population, were his first responsibility.” (Firth, 156) This philosophical outlook did not waver in what would become an intense conflict between the government and the trading and plantation company, DHPG . When the Samoa islands were partitioned in 1900 and Solf assumed leadership, the island colony was dominated by DHPG. The main dispute between the parties involved the labor required for the many Cacao plantations, and the Samoans who were unwilling to do it for the ridiculously poor wages offered. More complicated was the fact the governor refused to back DHPG into forcing the Samoan population into slavery, and the DHPG were not willing to pay fair wages to Samoans to harvest Cacao.
To ease the tensions between all parties, a deal was struck between the German government, German Samoa, and the planters. The only compromise that could be reached between the government and the plantation owners emerged into outsourcing the work force. According to DHPG, because “Samoans would not work for what it considered a ‘reasonable price’ and, with an eye on profits to be made from exploiting the colony’s desperate need for labour, it applied for the exclusive privilege of importing Chinese for fifteen years.” (Firth, 160)
This new outsourcing would usher Samoa into a period of severely detrimental and inhumane conditions for the future Cacao laborers.
Chinese Oppression in Samoa
During the period of 1903-1913, 3,800 Chinese workers would briefly migrate to German Samoa. Unlike previous tactics used in the Pacific like blackbirding, the German planters recruited Chinese workers through indentured servitude, which on average, contracts lasted three years. Those being recruited were labeled “coolies“, or unskilled worker. Unlike Chattel Slavery where, “people are treated as the chattel (personal property) of an owner and bought and sold as commodities” (Lecture 6), Although they would not be treated as property, the Chinese population would not have opportunity to own land or trade within the colony due to a law enforced on March 1, 1903 that prohibited them to integrate into German Samoa society.
This would only be the beginning for the poor coolie population. Though coolie was a term used to reference an unskilled worker, the Chinese population were put under highly intense and demanding expectations to farm Cacao. In regards to Governor Solf, he was “determined to deny coolies the civil freedoms which might have let loose Chinese industriousness.” ( Firth, 161) To Solf, he thought he was saving Samoa from what the “yellow race” had done in the other Pacific communities. This video (although shot in the 1920s) shows some of the colonial attitudes towards Chinese work force. In an article titled, “4000 Chinese coolies head to Samoa”, the Chinese labor forced were described as desperate to leave home, and the local populations of Samoans were seen as “a lazy man in his own country.”
Conditions within Samoa reached such atrocities against the Chinese people, that the government of China stepped in to investigate the situation in Samoa. With a reluctant government, and an even more troubled planter community, two Chinese investigators were allowed to visit Cacao farms. The following are among some of the findings in Samoa:
“Stories of deaths, suicides, and misery among coolies in Samoa, and the Colonial Offices. The first reform… should be to abolish flogging, because the Chinese had been engaged by the German Government to be labourers, not slaves; the coolies should not have to wear brass badges of identification conspicuously on their arms, nor should their wages be deducted for sickness; and they should be better fed. (Hiery, 143)
Another Chinese investigator reported and plead with the German government in saying:
Nobody can expect to be always in good health. Even those who take exceptional care of their health. Even those who take exceptional care of their health cannot prevent sickness. Now all the labourers go to work early in the morning and only relieved late in the evening. Their work is done under the hot sun. It is not an easy job, weeding and planting being hard work. The weed is full of mist in the morning. They remain the whole day long on the plantation with their clothing wet either with mist, sweat or rain…they can hardly protect themselves from being sick during the whole three years. (Firth, 172)
But the oppressions continued. Some of the plantations got worse.
Yet, this narrative of abuse and slavery within the Cacao industry is nothing new – maybe new to the Pacific region at the time – but definitely not a new system. Harvard Professor and Chocolate expert Dr. Carla Martin said it best when she stated, “Labor rights issues in cocoa production are nothing new. They are tradition.”Before the inhumane treatment of Chinese coolies in Samoa, there was already a long, rich and tragic history of slavery that began from the Spanish Crown granting the Encomienda. The Encomienda approved colonial forces in the America to force Indigenous populations to forced labor, which in turn would revolutionize labor populations and birthed the Slave Trade. The practice of forced labor would later create a labor market that resulted in 10-15 million enslaved Africans. Yet although some scholars of the time considered the slave trade as a purely economic venture, it still does not justify the harsh theft of bodies that continue to have residual effects of racial tensions today.
Since their arrival in Samoa, Chinese laborers would suffer through nearly 13 more years of those conditions before any feasible compromise was struck. Wages were raised for the coolies, but they were still denied land rights within Samoa. By that time, at the end of 1913 and beginning of 1914, the whole world would be entering it’s first World War and the crimes against the coolie community would fall to the wayside.
Though this small piece of history may not have been on the scale or magnitude of the Slave Trade, the coolie era within Samoa is significant to “The substances and acts to which meanings attach – inside kinds of meaning – serve to validate social events. …These are historically acquired – they arise, grow, change, and die – and they are culture specific as well as arbitrary, for all are symbols. They have no universal meaning; they “mean” because they occur in specific cultural and historical context.” (Mintz, 153) As a Samoan who was born in my homelands, I was very surprised to learn of this history that virtually went unchallenged. I use to look at Koko Samoa with very reminiscent and somewhat jovial expectations – which I still do when I’m around family. But it has been sobering to learn about the history that was so close to home when I use to believe that the atrocities of Cacao were so far and unrelated to my place of origin. But this is a perspective that I am grateful for. Because of this knowledge, I am unable to look upon my own narrative and place it within a globalized narrative. The Cacao that was harvested by the coolies was a major reason Cacao was able to be launched within communities of Samoa and then indigenized into Koko Samoa. In 1939, the prominent British colonial administrator Herman Merivale wrote at Oxford:
“We speak of the blood-cemented fabric of the prosperity of New Orleans or the Havanna: let us look at home. What raised Liverpool and Manchester from provincial towns to gigantic cities? What maintains now their ever active industry and their rapid accumulation of wealth? The exchange of their produce with that raised by the American slaves; and their present opulence is as really owing to the toil and suffering of the negro, as if his hands had excavated their docks and fabricated their steam-engines…
Every trader who carries on commerce with those countries, from the great house which lends its name and funds to support the credit of the American Bank, down to the Birmingham merchant who makes a shipment of schakles to Cuba or the coast of Africa, is in his own way an upholder of slavery: and I do not see how any consumer who drinks coffee or wears cotton can escape from the same sweeping charge.” (Martin, Lecture 6)
Everyone is implicated by this traditional culture of Cacao; I will forever contemplate my implication within this culture whenever I drink a hot cup of Koko Samoa.
Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. Michael D. Coe. Revised. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2007. Print.
Firth, Steward, “Governors versus Settlers: The Dispute over Chinese Labour in German Samoa”, New Zealand Journal of History 11 (1977) Online. http://www.nzjh.auckland.ac.nz/docs/1977/NZJH_11_2_05.pdf
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 25. Spring 2015. Class Lecture. Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power : The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Print. Moses, John A. “The Coolie Labour Question and German Colonial Policy in Samoa, 1900-1914”. The Journal of Pacific History Vol. 8 (1973), pp. 101-124 http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/25168139
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st revised. Berkeley California: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.
Hiery, Herman. “Samoa and The New Zealand Experience (1914-1921)” The Neglected War: The German South Pacific and the Influence of World War I University of Hawaii. (1995) Online. p. 154-172 https://books.google.com/books?id=H9ljl2CKgDQC&lpg=PA154&ots=zUSY4ZmWRk&dq=deutsche%20handels-%20und%20plantagengesellschaft&pg=PA154#v=onepage&q=deutsche%20handels-%20und%20plantagengesellschaft&f=false
Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio University Press Athens. (1910) Print. p. 1- 33
 Moses, John A. “The Coolie Labour Question and German Colonial Policy in Samoa, 1900-1914”. The Journal of Pacific History Vol. 8 (1973), pp. 101
 Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 25. Spring 2015. Class Lecture. Lecture 7
 Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 25. Spring 2015. Class Lecture. Lecture 6
 Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power : The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.
 Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power : The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.