Samoa Under the Sailing Gods
It will, no doubt, have surprised a certain number of readers that the Samoans should have turned so readily to a conventional Christianity. But it would seem that in every case where Polynesians have been approached by missionaries with some degree of decency and common sense (which was not always the case), no particular difficulties have been encountered. In Samoa, moreover, it must be remembered, Christianity was introduced by "two great English chiefs." This undoubtedly demands some explanation.
At the head of every family in Samoa, a Matai is appointed. These are divided into two main classes: the Alii and Tulafale. The alii, or chiefs, form the aristocracy of the land; the tulafale—orators—are the attendants of the chief. Nearly any day, in any village, they may be seen, seated cross-legged in a half-circle round beneath the domed thatched roof of an open-walled Samoan house, upon pandanus mats, on a floor of smooth pebbles or of broken coral, naked but for a lava-lava of gingham or of mulberry bark, in grave and courteous discourse. They may be distinguished one from another by the white fly-switch of the chief, and the black fly-switch of the talking-man. All matters of interest to the community are debated in these Fonos, in which the chiefs sit usually silent, "a kind of a gagged audience for village orators."
One or more tulafales are essential to the dignity of each chief, and in the presence of a chief only the chiefly language should be used. "To address these demigods," Stevenson has said, "is quite a branch of knowledge, and he who goes to visit a high chief does well to make sure of the competence of his interpreter." John Williams, apparently, was the first white man ever to approach the Samoans with a properly qualified talking-man—and, as a consequence, the first ever to appear among them in a manner befitting the great: according to their ideas of decorum. This, by the way, was a matter of the merest luck, and not of design, upon the missionary's part. But for that happy accident his behaviour must have been and his reception might have been different.
Of their reasons for wishing to embrace Christianity, John page 43Williams said that some of the Samoans—as at Apia—thought that vessels would be induced to visit them; others imagined that thus they would be preserved from the malignity of their gods; many hoped by adopting the new religion to prolong their lives; and a few valued it chiefly as a means of terminating their sanguinary and desolating wars.
"Some were undoubtedly convinced of the folly and superstition of their own religious system; and a few had indistinct ideas of the soul and salvation. But, as the natives held numerous meetings for several months to consider this subject, at which it was debated with all becoming gravity, an account of one of these may enable the reader to judge for himself. On this occasion there was a large concourse of people, when a venerable chief arose and said, 'It is my wish that the Christian religion should become universal amongst us. I look,' continued he, 'at the wisdom of these worshippers of Jehovah, and see how superior they are to us in every respect. Their ships are like floating houses, so that they can traverse the tempest-driven ocean for months with perfect safety; whereas, if a breeze blow upon our canoes, they are in an instant upset, and we sprawling in the sea. Their persons also are covered from head to foot in beautiful clothes, while we wear nothing but a girdle of leaves. Their axes are so hard and sharp that, with them, we can easily fell our trees, and do our work, but with our stone axes we must dub, dub, dub, day after day, before we can cut down a single tree. Their knives, too, what valuable things they are; how quickly they cut up our pigs, compared with our bamboo knives! Now I conclude that the God who has given to His white worshippers these valuable things must be wiser than our gods, for they have not given the like to us. We all want these articles; and my proposition is, that the God who gave them should be our God.'"
As this speech produced a powerful impression a sensible priest, after a short pause, arose and endeavoured to weaken it by saying, that he had nothing to advance against the doctrine, which might be good or bad, but he wished them not to be in haste.
"'The people who have brought us this religion,' he added, 'may want our lands and our women. I do not say that such is page 44the case, but it may be so. My brother has praised the wisdom of these white foreigners. Suppose, then, we were to visit their country, and say that Jehovah was not the true God, and invite them to cast Him off and become worshippers of Tangaloa, of the Samoa Islands; what reply would they make? Would they not say, Don't be in haste; let us know something more of Tangaloa, and the worship he requires? Now I wish the Samoans to act just as these wise English people would, under the same circumstances; and to know something more about this new religion before they abandon that which our ancestors venerated.' But, whatever may have been their motives, it is certain that the new religion was highly esteemed by all classes; that the desire for Missionaries was intense; that at many stations the people had erected places of worship, were accustomed to prepare their food on the Saturday, and to assemble at six o'clock on the Sabbath morning, sit in silence for an hour or more, and repeat this a second, and even a third time, during the day. Does the history of the Church furnish a more striking or beautiful fulfilment of the prophetic declaration, 'The isles shall wait for his law?' So anxious, indeed, were the people for someone to conduct their religious services, that they made collections of mats, food, etc., which they gave to runaway sailors, some of whom read portions of the English Scriptures or prayer-book; and others were vile enough to sing infamous songs in the English language, and to assure the poor people that this was the worship acceptable to God."