An Introduction to Samoan Custom
CHAPTER XI — Present-Day Society
A comprehensive study of Samoan society in relation to the social and economic changes of the last few generations would extend far beyond the confines of a single chapter; nevertheless, an introduction to Samoan custom should not neglect an examination of some at least of the stresses that society is undergoing at present. This section is therefore intended to be not so much a full study of all the forces that are at work, as a statement of certain facts, followed by an examination of some of the effects that are now becoming apparent and an estimate, so far as that is possible, of probable social results that may be expected in the future. It will be less a study of some of the effects of the war, although that aspect will necessarily receive attention, than a consideration of part of the social and economic environment of a new generation, which the writer has been able to observe personally almost from the time of its birth.*
* The author has been a member of the Administration service since 1929.
† All overseas vessels anchor in the roadstead.
But it was during the presence in the Territory of American troops that the local economic situation changed dramatically, for a time at least. From early in 1942, until development of the attack on Japanese outposts in the Pacific, hundreds of young men from all parts of the country flocked to the airport and military reservation some twenty miles from Apia, where for a time nearly a thousand were employed. Some villages both in Upolu and Savai'i accordingly concentrated on the growing of their own foodstuffs for sale at high prices to those in employment in Apia or at the airport. Laundering for many thousands of servicemen kept hundreds of people of both sexes in full-time occupation. Work on ships and wharves attracted others to Apia, although here it was significant that even husky lads preferred to be at the airport, where the work was easier. In this, as in other instances, the Samoans, like any other people in similar circumstances, showed themselves to be selective, and one bad result was not so much the amount of money that could be earned, as the fact that in many cases very little had to be done in return for it. This was the fault of the employers, of course, rather than of the servants. All this was perhaps legitimate enough, but food like fish, poultry, eggs and fruit quickly began to change hands at incredible prices; even luke-warm water or coconuts were sold when troops first landed. Curios of a poor standard of workmanship that deteriorated progressively found ready sale at ever increasing prices; beer, wine and spirits were manufactured in defiance of the law, and even more questionable catering to the local demand brought in greater amounts of cash. This again was the fault of the purchasers rather than of the suppliers. The sharp increase in the amount of money in circulation due to the spending of servicemen coincided with a much enhanced return for tropical products which followed the loss of Malaya and the Philippines to the enemy and consequent better prices on the American and European markets.
The presence of large numbers of eager, interested young men with ample funds and a willingness to spend was naturally appreciated, but there was more in it than that. The Americans are an amicable people, and many Samoans of both sexes formed friendships which they valued highly not alone for the gifts that servicemen dispensed so freely. Contact with a larger and friendlier page 147 English-speaking section of the community, however temporary, led to a rush to all schools for the purpose of learning English. Many young Samoans have shown considerable aptitude for the language, and interest in the subject is far from abating. One may feel that it is not an increased circulation of money that is likely to have the most lasting effect on the local economy — it is the English language. During the war, men or boys who spoke English found themselves in demand as foremen, and for some time after the departure of the garrison, there was some unwillingness on the part of many of them to hire out their services at the rates that previously ruled. Even poultry, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables are still very much more expensive than they were before the war, and are likely to remain so.
Since the Samoan people value money for what it commands rather than for the satisfaction that its accumulation may provide, and because society is organised on the basis of reciprocal assistance and the subjugation of individual to family interests, Samoans have a natural enough tendency to be quick spenders and much of this money found its way rapidly to the local firms. It is true that there were some who quietly opened Post Office Savings Bank accounts, the total of which showed a large increase during the war. There was inevitably, due in part at least to the presence of Americans, a marked increase in gambling games, and interest in these has not subsided. But it should be noted particularly that the enormous increase in the amount of money available did not result in any real change in the Samoan way of living. Naturally many were able to buy certain things they had not previously been able to afford, and they did so. Actually, however, most of them spent more money on the type of activity that had given them satisfaction in the past. In the words of an official report,* “The Samoan reaction was that they undoubtedly enjoyed the ability to spend, yet there are signs that the fundamentals of Samoan culture were not upset. The money was freely spent, but not so much on luxuries of European style as in a greater indulgence in Samoan forms of social intercourse. Now that the tide of money is receding to normal, the Samoans are fortunately not in a position of having adopted a different standard of living while money flowed.”page 148
An opinion heard a good deal while American forces were stationed in the Territory was that the Samoans would find it difficult to return to their old ways of life when prosperous conditions ceased. Conditions now are not quite the same as they were, but it cannot yet be said that the tide of money has receded to normal; there are still large amounts in circulation due to steadily rising prices paid for local primary produce and a vigorous programme of development. Even during the war, however, one could feel that the opinion expressed above overlooked the fact that the cycle of prosperity and depression is not unknown or new to the Samoans. Whatever the prices realized for primary produce, the land and sea still produce as bounteously as in the past, and Samoans are unlikely ever to lack the basic necessities of life. They do not know poverty as we Europeans unhappily understand the term; having no need of them, they are not even aware of artificial forms of social sercurity; and many who realize that their culture is less vulnerable than ours to economic fluctuation derive not a little satisfaction from the thought. The most that a depression can really do to embarrass Samoans is to make soap, kerosene and clothing more difficult to obtain, and there are substitutes available for all three. One result of changed conditions, however, is undoubtedly that some young people have found the attractions of town life a more or less permanent inducement to remain away from their villages.
It is idle to attempt to deny that the war has left a mark, but it is possible that some at least of the conditions observed today are not due entirely to the war. For a generation or more, there have been young men who have either renounced the control of the matai altogether (which is rare) or, more usually, have continued to belong to the family while living in the town. Those whose village is nearby may even return there every night. A regular wage-earner, particularly before the war, was and still is, a considerable asset to the family, for where he retains his connection it is a significant fact that Samoan custom is in many cases still strong enough to induce him to hand over a large proportion of his earnings to the matai. A steady income greatly enhances the importance of the member of the family contributing it. Young men are not unaware of this; they realise the influence it may carry when the time comes to appoint a new matai, and some become a little arrogant in consequence. It is proper that a matai who is responsible for the welfare of the family and bound page 149 by custom to accede to any reasonable request for assistance, should be able to demand the services of his group when required; this preserves the equilibrium of society and his own authority, but the position is a little different when an otherwise insignificant member of it becomes a substantial provider. He must be encouraged to continue his good offices. His importance to the family has to be recognized and a certain deference paid to him, otherwise there is no reason why he should not relinquish a position that may involve considerable physical exertion with poor immediate returns or tiresome restrictions. In an ultimate analysis there is nothing for nothing in Samoan society; obligations incurred must be discharged at some time in one form or another. Prestige, however, is dear to Samoan hearts, and this perhaps explains why many have been prepared and even eager to hand over a substantial portion of their earnings, although one hears nowadays occasional murmurs of dissatisfaction. But whereas under the old order the matai commanded a special respect as the principal provider and source of desirable things, his importance has in recent years come to be shared in some cases by more humble members of society. The latter, instead of suing for favours, have been in times of economic depression almost in the position of granting them. That perhaps is one of the present influences that may ultimately effect some levelling of society in this country, although one result of high prices for produce is temporarily to delay or conceal its workings.
Some at least of the essentials of Samoan society are based upon the respect paid to age and knowledge of Samoan affairs. The 1918 epidemic thinned the ranks of those well versed in the higher details of Samoan tradition and family lore who would normally have passed on more of their knowledge to their successors. There are of course still numerous chiefs and orators whose deep knowledge of such things receives general recognition, but others, whose families lost many of the older members, through no fault of their own, have not had the chance to equip themselves to meet all the demands made upon them; armed, therefore, with a less effective authority than their forebears, they have lived to see the rise of an independent spirit among their young people. This movement has assumed fairly serious proportions; the remnants of the old life and death power of the high chiefs, seen now in the right to administer physical correction to an offender, sometimes call forth the greatest resentment and a threat to complain to the police. The matai themselves are sadly aware of the new spirit that is page 150 emerging, especially where the new generation has been influenced by town and wartime conditions, and both in American and Western Samoa they have asked Government to pass laws upholding their authority, overlooking the point that legislation is rarely effective in curbing the spirit of a people. This cultural change, due in part at least to the epidemic, is even more apparent now than when Keesing drew attention to it.*
* F. M. Keesing, Modern Samoa: Its Government and Changing Life, London, 1934.
From the point of view of the Samoan hegemony this must appear a somewhat gloomy picture, involving scant appreciation of the fact that the office of matai involves very real responsibility; caring for a large and possibly scattered family is not always an easy task. Cases are known where young men in Government and commercial positions have refused to accept titles as involving too great a demand upon their time or resources. These are, however, comparatively few. More frequently it is the other way round. The fact that an aspirant to a title is in a good position may ensure his appointment as being economically useful to the family, and one sees gradually the rise of a class of chiefs who, out of their villages for much of the time, are not always personally present to discharge their duties in the manner of the chiefs of the past. They are careful to arrange, of course, for members of their families to remain in residence to supply the monotaga and attend to other basic social requirements of village life. This class includes a group who have had some degree of European education, acquired at a time when otherwise they would have been sharing in the social and economic activities of their own people, together with a few part-Europeans who, by application to the Court,* have been declared for the future to have Samoan status with the right to assume matai names and to take an effective part in Samoan family affairs. The ideas of such people are naturally to some extent shaped by a knowledge of a foreign culture in place, in part at least, of the more exclusive regard which they would otherwise entertain for their own. This is not necessarily an undesirable social and political development, although the process is attended by growing pains and naturally enough does not always earn the unqualified approval of the older members of society if their personal status and interests are too closely involved. There is a price to be paid for social and political advancement and often it is the older generation that has to pay it. They at least are the group who feel the innovations most keenly. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Samoan custom still has a very strong hold.
* Any European of one half or more Samoan blood may petition the High Court to be declared a Samoan, and a Samoan not of pure Polynesian descent may apply for inclusion in the Register of Europeans. Up to March, 1948, 545 part-Samoans had been granted European status and 30 Europeans had become Samoans.
The assumption of matai names or titles by people who have not spent a large part of their early lives in a village, is, from one point of view at least, perhaps the most effective means of increasing their knowledge of Samoan affairs. It is noticeable and is often the subject of comment by the older generation that at the present day there are young people who appear to lack a knowledge of what constitutes proper conduct; many have been unable in examinations to answer correctly questions on quite elementary Samoan custom; and it is not rare to observe a lad who obviously does not know, for instance, how to serve kava respectfully. Even under the changing conditions of life in modern Samoa, a sound knowledge of custom is still a good thing for young Samoans to possess, and one hope for those who have spent long periods out of their villages is that after they have driven an omnibus or a taxi for a time they may realize what they risk losing. Some do so, and hasten back with cash offerings with which they endeavour to purchase arrears of service. But physical effort and service as exemplified by honest sweat are still important qualifications in candidates for Samoan titles, and some young men find that they have remembered their social aspirations too late.
The practical decay of the taupou system has reduced the duties and to that extent the social significance of one class of matai, the orator or tulafale. Under the old political organisation, the marriage of the taupou was a valuable means of effecting alliances between villages and districts, and it was the duty of the tulafale or groups of tulafale to arrange for an important chief as many such unions as possible. Altered political conditions and social changes like monogamy and church and life marriage render a plurality of these no longer necessary or possible, and although tulafale and taupou may both be seen discharging other ceremonial duties and clothed in the traditional manner, they have lost something of their former importance in this respect at least. The status of the orator as a matai, as the head of his own family and as the repository of the traditional stories of the family, the village or the district, has not, of course, greatly altered as a result of this, but in regard to certain relationships between himself and his chief, his duties and hence his importance, are now rather restricted. In spite, however, of there being less activity along these lines, much of the social life of the village community still centres about the orators, and many old customs still flourish. Leading orators of political areas still page 153 wield great authority when their entire districts assemble in fono.
While Samoan society is organised as it is and gives the satisfaction that it does at present, the subject of marriage is one that is always likely to bring young people back into the social fold. It is true that there are informal run-away marriages (avaga), often of an impermanent character, but sometimes followed by a reconciliation and church ceremony with the consent of the families concerned, that are regarded as irregular by Samoan society itself. There are inevitably rebels and misfits in every community, however rigid some aspects of custom may be, although the run-away marriage occurs so often that it might even be considered to be a part of actual Samoan custom. But members of important families who wish to marry well, with all the formality and prestige and exchange of property that custom requires at such times, can do so only within the family itself and with the good-will and practical co-operation of all its members.
This is not the place for a full discussion of all the social and economic considerations that Samoan marriages entail. Two principal groups are, of course, involved, those of the bride and the groom. Briefly, the girl's family provide for the boy's family as many fine mats, fau bast mats, mulberry bark cloth, fans, oil, sleeping mats and other similar things as it is possible to gather together and the members of the family may be willing to contribute. The greater the number and the importance of the mats collected the higher is the prestige of the girl's family and the more clearly have they demonstrated their chiefly or royal connections. It is then incumbent on the boy's family to collect from all their relatives as great a sum of money as possible in order to signify and maintain their own prestige. Money is the contribution of the male side at the present day where previously it was valuable property like houses, canoes and equipment, weapons, tools, utensils, nets, head-dresses and food. Nowadays both sides co-operate in providing the food required for the festivities. The mats are then passed to the family of the boy and the money to that of the girl, and distributed to members of each group in the proportion in which they themselves contributed. For an important wedding the mats may total many hundreds and the money involved may amount to something in the region of one thousand pounds. Such exchanges allow full play for the display of mutual respect and recognition which is so satisfying and significant an page 154 element in Samoan custom. The young man who does not maintain his family connections cannot expect to appear as one of the central figures at such a function.
The fact that the expense and duties involved are not a serious deterrent to candidates for appointment as matai is seen in the growing practice of splitting titles. Titles are known in which there are two, three or four holders, others with eight or ten, and one at least with over twenty. Such multiplicity results from the division of a family into separate branches or because of a formula adopted by the Samoans themselves to resolve disputes between contending candidates for titles. Two important results follow: the status of particular titles is detrimentally affected but the matai system itself is temporarily strengthened. Undoubtedly the splitting of titles is reflected in the lessening of the importance of, and hence the respect shown to, each holder of the particular title, except one perhaps who is recognized by reason of his years or personality as the elder or senior matai. It would appear at first as if the practice would result in a steady diminution of chiefly authority. The present rate of increase of the population, however, may be expected to go on as European methods reduce infant and maternal mortality. The increase in the size of families is accompanied by a corresponding reduction in the chances of young men to receive titles, and if the number of titles available were not augmented in the manner described, the new generation would have proportionately less encouragement to continue support of a system that had little to offer the more outstanding among them. This practice, therefore, far from striking a blow at the matai system as such, would seem to be something of a factor in ensuring its continuance for some time at least. It is true, however, that there is a greater proportion in these days of younger matai, and although each appointee grows older as the years pass, an immediate effect of the present situation is to take the levelling of society a step further. It is a natural and possibly a painless process, a development sprung from the culture itself.
Keesing considered this social formula a stabilising factor but published no figures to show what actually was taking place, probably because insufficient data were available when he wrote for purposes of comparison. The following tables are therefore of interest. A number of titles are vacant and the proportion of matai would be slightly higher if all vacancies were filled. The acceptance by Samoan custom as of chiefly rank of Native Medical page 155 Practitioners and Pastors of all denominations, whether or not they have titles, raises a little higher the proportion of actual privileged individuals. Percentages have been calculated on the basis of age groups over 14 years because census figures are grouped and published in that form; to extract more suitable figures for present purposes would have required weeks of statistical work.
|Date of Census||1921||1926||1936||1945|
|Number of Males||16,568||18,641||26,468||31,834|
|Number of Untitled Males over 14 years||5,884||6,522||10,149||12,989|
|Number of Untitled Males over 14 years expressed as Percentage of Total Number of Males||35||35||38||41|
|Number of Matai||2,654||2,985||3,100||3,497|
|Total number of Males (Matai and Untitled) over 14 years||8,538||9,507||13,249||16,486|
|Matai Figure expressed as Percentage of Total Males||16||16||12||11|
|Matai Figure expressed as Percentage of Untitled Males over 14 years||45||46||31||27|
|Matai Figures expresed as Percentage of Total Males (Matai and Untitled) over 14 years 31||31||31||23||21|
|Date of Census||1921||1926||1936||1945|
|Average Untitled Persons per Matai||11||11||16||17|
* The author is indebted to Mr. P. W. Glover, B.Sc., F.R.A.S., Secretary to the local Chamber of Commerce, for the suggestion that percentages in this table be computed only to the nearest integer, as also for the useful figures in the second table. Mr. Glover was good enough to point out that taking the calculations to decimal points involved the assumption of absolute accuracy in the census counts.
The percentages based on the census figures of 1921 and 1926 show a marked similarity; it is during the last twenty years and notably in the decade between 1926 and 1936 that some apparently significant changes have taken place. The small steady increase in the percentage of untitled males over 14 presumably reflects the increased birth rate which is now showing itself in the higher age group. It is significant that the actual number of matai has increased, particularly during the last decade. This would not necessarily be so unless titles were divided or new titles created; and the latter is not common. The process also appears to be becoming accelerated; the increasing population is perhaps having an influence on social ambitions, as suggested earlier in the text. There were 115 additional matai between 1926 and 1936 but nearly 400 between 1936 and 1945. Nevertheless, it is clear that the proportion of matai to other sections of the community listed above is not keeping pace with the rate of increase of the male population. Although the splitting of titles may at one stage have operated as a temporarily stabilising influence, it seems not to be adequate now, and the next decade or so may see either new titles come into existence or the practice of splitting titles will have to be carried still further. If something of this sort does not happen, a greater proportion of the population, as the years pass, will see their social ambitions go unsatified; perhaps it is significant that already the numbers of Court disputes relating to titles show an increase. If the acceleration in number of matai can be maintained, and this may well be doubted, the influence and importance of the divided titles will presumably decline.
The figures in the last row of the first table are possibly the most significant of all; these refer to the matai figures expressed as a percentage of the total males, titled and untitled, over 14 years. Whereas in 1921 matai represented nearly one-third of this group, they now represent a little over one-fifth. It seems that society as at present organised has less to offer young men than it had a quarter of a century ago, and if the population continues to increase at the rate shown in the second table, the percentage of matai will progressively and steadily decline. The number of untitled males over 14 years has almost doubled between 1926 and 1945 but the increase in numbers of matai in the same period has been only approximately one-sixth. In these circumstances, it is likely that the next few decades page 157 will witness some important, and possibly fundamental, social developments.
In spite of the economic and social changes that are proceeding, the view is sometimes expressed by visitors that because of the retention of what they claim to be bad institutions and undesirable features, Government should either encourage cultural changes or actively plan a reorganisation of Samoan society. The writer does not agree with this view. In any case, such criticisms are rarely helpful on the subject of the employment of displaced members of such a reconstructed society. Government already has had some experience of the disasters that can follow ill-timed social and economic innovations too hastily applied. Cultural change is not something that can safely be contrived by European opinion and applied overnight. Democracy, or any other form of cultural development, is a sensitive growth that does not transplant well; the seed is most likely to flourish and come to fruition where it sprouts in situ, and any natural process should, unless it offends the law, be allowed to take its course without interference. There are influences at work in Samoan society at the present day which it will be as impossible to obstruct effectively as it would be imprudent to endeavour to force in some other direction. Aspects of custom that have given social, psychological and even aesthetic satisfaction for centuries do not alter dramatically over short periods. Changes are proceeding and already we see signs of them, but for the present it would seem that Samoan society is not as bad as some superficial observers, sbocked by unexpected differences, have represented it to be. It has, indeed, many inherently good qualities. Samoa has weathered more than one depression; the war has come and gone but, although we still see some of its effects, the social fundamentals of the country were actually far less affected by that cataclysm than by some of the changes that have been proceeding quietly and to some extent unnoticed for a generation or more. It is true that there seems to be a present resilience about Samoan custom, something that one observer has called its bamboo-like quality, its ability to give without breaking and to spring back into place to all appearances undamaged; but this, of course, cannot go on indefinitely. If Samoan custom is a rock that has weathered many storms, and reappears above the waves apparently unscathed, a day may come when portions of it may be seen at last to have broken away. That will be a natural cultural change that we cannot prevent, but it may page 158 well be doubted whether we should attempt to hasten any of these processes. Change is inevitable in the nature of things, but the price to be paid for the quick imposition of new and foreign institutions might not be trifling, and much of real worth could be lost in the process.
Samoan society is possibly not unique but it is undeniable that it has many features that other societies lack, and the young generation, although interested at present in its search for something that seems to glitter attractively, may come some day to recognize that some at least of the gold is, after all, bound up in the security of their own way of life. There may be much in Samoan society that democracy deplores: features like communal or free and easy ownership, the rights of privileged groups, the subjugation of the individual to family or village claims, and the almost complete denial of privacy. One does not make a plea for those things in themselves. But they are part of a society that has developed differently from our own, and although there is much that we can give Samoa in health and education, there is also something that we can learn. Health and education are technical matters with which Samoa is at present ill-equipped to deal alone, and in these things we should give of our best. We may well beware, however, lest we teach too much of other things. Our own society is not, after all, without its defects, and while criticising social and moral institutions here, European visitors or newcomers may reflect on the horrible ingenuity with which our world wages war, or the confusion of a situation which for want, apparently, of a better word, we ironically term peace.
A society in which one person may on occasion take with impunity what belongs to another is admittedly different from our own; from certain points of view it may even be considered peculiar. But this is the society that without the horrors of revolution or even a general election has achieved the social miracle that knows neither poverty nor the stigma of illegitimacy; whose warm laws of courtesy and hospitality embrace even the unheralded stranger within its gates; a system that, in the present disordered state of world society, is, with all its faults, something that is rare and rather wonderful.
We of another way of life do well to ponder on these things.