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Photographs of Samoa

Reference Code: GBR/0115/RCS/Y309993A

Scope and Contents

A collection of 54 photographs, in two sizes measuring approximately 200 x 135 mm and 240 x 180 mm, most briefly captioned on the reverse. These captions have been reproduced. The photographs fall under five main headings:

1-23 Samoan people, crafts, scenery and life
24-26 The hurricane of 1889
27-41 Scenes and people connected with the Samoan Civil War of 1899
42-45 Robert Louis Stevenson and friends
46-53 Scenes in Pago Pago (Tutuila Island, American Samoa)
54 Unidentified

The photographers:

Y30993A and Wilfred Powell’s other photograph collection reflecting his time in Samoa, Y309B, feature the work of J. Davis of Apia. These items are identified by an embossed stamp reading 'J. Davis, Photo, Samoa' in the corner of the prints. Not all the work thus signed is by Davis himself however. The pictures signed by him in Y309B, using an older design of stamp, are probably his own work featuring, as one photograph does, a picture of his own premises with his name above the door. The dating of the album also corresponds with the time Davis is known to have been alive and working.

The complication in any definitive attribution arises with the arrival of A.J. Tattersall, who came to Samoa to work for Davis in 1886. Davis himself died in 1903 and Tattersall took over the firm. He did not immediately change the name, however, and photographs which are certainly by Tattersall still carry the stamp of J. Davis. Tattersall also sometimes signed his work 'AT', and by 1907, and probably earlier, his business premises displayed the notice 'A.J. Tattersall, Photographer, late J. Davis'.

Powell had lantern slides made of most of the photographs for use as lecture illustrations (with the exception of prints Y309993A/3, 27, 31 and 54). These are stored at Y30993A(LS). The collection also holds 11 lantern slides for which there are no duplicate prints, making 61 slides in total. The lantern slides have been digitised and published on Cambridge Digital Library as Y30993A(LS). They have a separate numbering sequence, although each entry in Y30993A(LS) records the number of the corresponding photographic print.

Events in Samoa leading to the Civil War of 1899

The Civil War of 1899 was the outcome of the complicated and often chaotic framework of the Samoan political scene, and of the uneasy coexistence among the various foreign interests, each seeking to influence the precarious political situation in these nominally independent islands (in 1884, for instance, Stuebel, the German Consul, had managed to persuade Malietoa Laupepe to give German officials a place in the administration). Violence had been narrowly averted in 1889 (in some measure as a result of the great hurricane of that year which destroyed nearly all the German, British and American warships recently assembled in Apia) and a conference was convened in Berlin to decide the fate of Samoa.

The conference resolutions can be seen in hindsight to have some responsibility for the war ten years later. On a general level it was agreed to preserve Samoan autonomy under international supervision, which, if not actually a contradiction in terms, at least begged several questions. Malietoa Laupepe, who had first come to the throne in 1868, and who had been deposed and reinstated several times since, and who was possibly the least suitable candidate for the kingship, was given power, with Mata'afa as a backing authority. Mata'afa however revolted in 1891, and after being beaten by Malietoa Laupepe, was exiled. Following on this Tamasese seized the throne. In the next few years the situation became more and more fragile, with a struggle for the kingship and a simultaneous breakdown in strong and efficient administration by the treaty powers who were equally busy (especially the Germans) in jockeying for position among themselves. The one man, Mata'afa, who could probably have united the Samoans was in exile and eventually the Germans, with the acquiescence of the other powers, decided, with certain conditions, on his return.

Malietoa Laupepe had died in August 1898 and Tamasese not unnaturally hoped to be the German candidate for the throne (especially since Mata'afa had been specifically excluded from the kingship by Bismarck at Berlin in 1889 for his part in the attack on fifty German sailors the previous year). In the event, the Germans backed the 'fono' or assembly, which gave Mata'afa the crown. The British authorities, on the other hand, declared (in the person of Justice Chambers) that the election was invalid (ironically enough invoking Bismarck's exclusion of Mata'afa from the kingship as part of their argument) and decided for Malietoa Tanumafili, Laupepe's son. Mata'afa then formed a government which an Anglo-American force proceeded to destroy - by the bombardment of Apia and the coastal villages, and by sorties on land to round up Mata'afa's followers. They also sent warships to the neighbouring Samoan Islands to bring back warriors who supported Malietoa Tanumafili, arming, training and often leading them in battle. Eventually a commission was sent to resolve the situation, and fighting had stopped by May 13 1899. The partition which resulted was probably the most equitable solution both to the Samoans and to the treaty powers, since it acknowledged Germany's undoubted commercial pre-eminence in Samoa. While giving the islands a single and stable government, it gave America one of the finest harbours in the Pacific in Pago Pago, and it allowed Great Britain generous concessions in other areas (notably Tonga, parts of the German Solomon Islands, West Africa and Zanzibar).


  • Creation: 1899 - 1900


Conditions Governing Access

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

Biographical / Historical

Wilfred Powell was born in 1853. As a young man he served aboard HMS 'Britannia,' 'Victory,' and 'Temeraire'; after this naval apprenticeship he travelled widely, exploring New Britain from 1877-1880 and describing his experiences in 'Wanderings in a wild country' (1883). In 1885 he was appointed Consul in Samoa and Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific, but was recalled in 1886 (this was not a reflection of Powell's ability but was the result of an agreement with the German Government that Stuebel, who had been meddling shamelessly in Samoan Government affairs, should also leave). Powell was then made Consul in Stettin, from which post he attended the Berlin Conference on Samoa in 1889 (see Y309C introduction), acting as Clerk to the British delegation, and as an advising authority on the Samoan situation. Here his contact with the Pacific largely ended, the rest of his career being spent in various consular posts in America. He was promoted Consul-General in 1913, and retired in 1916. He died in 1942.


54 item(s) (54 images) : photograph

Language of Materials


Immediate Source of Acquisition

The photographs form part of the collection of Wilfred Powell, left to the Society on his death in 1942.


Powell, Wilfred (1883), 'Wanderings in a wild country,' London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington.

For a listing of all items in the Powell collection see: Simpson, D. (ed.) (1962), Royal Commonwealth Society, Library Notes With List of Accessions, New Series No. 64, April.

Several of these photographs are used as illustrations in: Barradale, Victor Arnold (1907), ‘Pearls of the Pacific’, London: London Missionary Society.

For further information regarding the photographers Davis and Tattersall see: ‘The Cyclopedia of Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands (illustrated)’ (1907), Sydney: McCarron, Stewart, p.110.


This item level description was entered by MJC using information from the original typescript catalogue.


Powell, Wilfred, 1853-1942, explorer and consular official

Includes index.
2017-09-27 14:40:18+00:00
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

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