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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods

Chapter iii — Second Voyage of John Williams

page 36

Chapter iii
Second Voyage of John Williams


John Williams, it will have been seen, introduced into Samoa not only the "Word" but also the influenza. In a book entitled Samoa a Hundred Years Ago and Long Before, by the Rev. George Turner—himself a member of the London Mission—I find the following passage:

"Influenza is a new disease to the natives. They say that the first attack of it ever known in Samoa was during the Aana War in 1830, just as the missionaries, Williams and Barff, with Tahitian teachers, first reached their shores. The natives at once traced the disease to the foreigners and the new religion; the same opinion spread through these seas, and especially among the islands of the New Hebrides. Ever since then there have been returns of the disease almost annually."


On October 17, 1832, the Messenger of Peace was again approaching Samoa. On this voyage John Williams determined to touch at every island in the group, taking them from east to west in rotation. Everywhere he met with amazingly good receptions, natives introducing themselves as "sons of the Word," and demanding that missionaries be given them. This included even Massacre Cove, where M. de Langle and eleven companions had been slain—forty-five years before.

On the day after leaving Tutuila the Messenger of Peace was off Upolu, when natives from various parts of the island approached her in canoes, saying as usual that they were "sons of the Word," and that they were waiting for the "religion-ship" of Mr. Williams to bring them missionaries.

"In one of these we perceived two Englishmen. Upon being admitted on board, and learning who I was, thinking that it page 37would afford me pleasure they began to describe their exploits in turning people religion, as they termed it. Wishing to obtain all the information I could from these men, I inquired the number of their converts, which they stated to be between two and three hundred; and, having asked how they effected their object, one of them said, 'Why, sir, I goes about and talks to the people, and tells 'em that our God is good, and theirs is bad; and, when they listens to me, I makes 'em religion, and baptizes 'em.' 'Sure,' I exclaimed, 'you baptize them, do you? How do you perform that?' 'Why, sir,' he answered, 'I takes water, and dips my hands in it, and crosses them in their foreheads and in their breasts, and then I reads a bit of a prayer to 'em in English.' 'Of course,' I said, 'they understand you.' 'No,' he rejoined, 'but they says they knows it does 'em good.'

"In addition to this, I found that these two individuals had pretended to heal the sick by reading a 'bit of a prayer' over them, for which they extorted property from the people, I remonstrated with them upon the fearful wickedness of their conduct, and they promised that they would not again pursue such a course. This is only a specimen of many similar interviews which we had with persons of the same class, and shows the great importance of Christian exertion on behalf of British seamen."


On his reaching the station of Malietoa, after first touching at Manono, the teachers and people manifested extravagant joy at seeing John Williams, as the twelve months during which he had promised to return had elapsed, and they had entertained fears lest they should never behold him again.

After the first expressions of joy had subsided, Williams desired the teachers to inform him what had occurred during the important period of their residence among the people. He learned that Malietoa, his brother, the principal chiefs, and nearly all the inhabitants of their settlement, had embraced Christianity; that their chapel would accommodate six or seven hundred people; that it was always full; and that in the two large islands of Savaii and Upolu the Gospel had been introduced into more than thirty villages. In addition to this, it was page 38stated that the great body of the people were only awaiting Williams's arrival to renounce their heathen system.

As the king, Malietoa, was from home, catching woodpigeons, a sport of which the chiefs were extremely fond, a messenger was despatched to inform him of the arrival. Although he was absent, Williams determined to take up residence at Malietoa's house, knowing that it would afford him pleasure to find him there.

At about nine o'clock the following morning the white man went to the chapel, accompanied by the teachers. It was built in the Tahitian style, but thatched with the leaves of the sugarcane instead of the pandanus. There were but few seats in it and the floor was covered with plaited coco-nut leaves. The congregation consisted of about seven hundred persons. Notwithstanding their singularly uncultivated and grotesque appearance, it was impossible, said Williams, to view them without feelings of the liveliest interest, while, with outstretched necks and open mouths, they listened to the "important truths" by regarding which they would be delivered from the "appalling gloom" in which they had for ages been enveloped. Service was commenced by a hymn in the Tahitian language, which was sung by the teachers only. One of them then read a chapter of the Tahitian Testament, translated it into Samoan, and engaged in prayer with great ease and fluency. This concluded, Williams addressed to them a short discourse, and, as he spoke in Tahitian, one of the teachers acted as interpreter. His audience appeared to listen with profound attention, and conducted themselves with great propriety. The noble-looking chief Makea—King of Rarotonga, whom Williams had brought with him—excited much interest, for, in addition to his size and commanding aspect, he was dressed in European costume, with a red surtout which was presented to him by Mrs. Buzacott, a missionary's wife, just before their departure from the Cook Islands.

On returning home, Williams inquired of the teachers why they had not taught the people to sing, when they informed him that they began to do so, but, as the females sang the hymns at their dances, they thought it better to desist. On inquiry, he learned that the teachers' wives had also attempted to instruct the Samoa females in the manufacture of white Tahitian cloth, page 39of which they had made large quantities for the chiefs, but that the women were so idle that they could not be induced to learn the art, although the cloth was exceedingly admired. He also found that they had unsuccessfully endeavoured to persuade them to cover the upper part of their bodies, of which they were excessively vain. Indeed, they were continually entreating the teachers' wives to lay aside their European garments, and faasamoa—that is, adopt the Samoa fashions, which was to gird a shaggy mat around the loins, loop the corner of it on the right side, anoint themselves profusely with scented oil, tinge themselves with turmeric rouge, fasten a row of blue beads round the neck, and faariaria, strut about and show themselves, and they enforced their wishes by assuring them that, if they did so, all would admire them.

At about one o'clock Malietoa arrived. He was neatly dressed, said Williams, in a white shirt and waistcoat, and wore a beautifully wrought mat as a substitute for trousers. "He looked exceedingly well, and the contrast between his appearance then and at our former interview, when he came direct from scenes of war and bloodshed, was very striking." After the usual salutation, he expressed his sincere pleasure in again welcoming Williams to the shores of Savaii, where they had been most anxiously expecting him for several months.


Early on Monday morning a present of pigs, bread-fruit, and other food was brought to the visitors, and at ten o'clock a messenger came to request their attendance at a meeting convened in the large public building. On their arrival they found it completely filled within, and surrounded by a crowd who could not gain admission. A vacant space was preserved in the centre for Makea and Williams. Malietoa was seated opposite to them, at a distance of several yards. After exchanging salutations Williams told him that he had come according to promise, and was exceedingly delighted to find that Malietoa had fulfilled all his engagements, and had, with so many of his people, embraced Christianity. To this the old chieftain made a long and sensible reply, after which Makea "entertained and de-page 40lighted" the people with an account of the introduction and effects of Christianity at Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands.

Makea's address is said to have produced a most powerful impression. His appearance convinced everyone that he was a great chief; and his colour, that he was one of their own people; and, in their estimation, he was more splendidly attired than any European they had ever seen, since he wore his red surtout which Mrs. Buzacott had kindly made and presented to him, "which they attributed to his having become a worshipper of Jehovah." In reply, Malietoa stated his full conviction of the advantage which would grow out of the good word. "We," he said, "should never have known each other but for that word." He then declared his strong attachment to Christianity, and his determination to hold it with a firm grasp, as Makea had exhorted him.


In the record of an expedition made on foot, Williams gives a description of a settlement named Safotulafai. They could more easily, he said, have imagined themselves in an English park than a "heathen village." A broad road of hard sand ran through it; a spacious building for their public business and amusements occupied the centre; and, at various distances, there were lawns of greensward, which were appropriated to club fights, fencing, wrestling, and boxing-matches. The pathway was overshadowed by the wide-spreading branches of the tamanue, and other gigantic trees, while the neat houses of the inhabitants were partially concealed by the foliage of the breadfruit-trees and bananas, among which they were embowered. This settlement was kept in excellent order, and had an air of respectability which could not have been looked for among a people "in other respects so barbarous."

In the course of another journey he mentions having passed through one of the nun devolo, or devil's villages. He thought, when first he heard the expression, that it was an opprobrious term. Upon inquiry, however, he found that it was not so understood by the natives; for, on asking a man who had not joined the Christian party, whether he was a "son of the Word," page 41he replied, "No, I am a man of the devil." This, with other circumstances convinced Mr. Williams that the term was used simply for the sake of distinction, and not for reproach.

On reaching his destination on this occasion, Malava, they were conducted to the "government house," and here they were met by the chief, who, after shaking hands, instead of rubbing noses, withdrew. He was rather tall, about the middle age, and of sedate appearance. "As he wore a white shirt, a finely wrought mat as a substitute for trousers, and a hat, he presented a more civilized appearance than most of his brethren." After about a quarter of an hour's absence, he returned, accompanied by about a hundred men and women, the former carrying pigs and vegetables, and the others pieces of cloth; and, having seated himself, he said, "I feel highly honoured by a visit from so great a chief, a chief of religion. I am now a worshipper of Jehovah; my heart and thoughts are in love with the good word, and my sincere desire is, that speedily it may spread through the land, and that not a tanata-devolo, a devil's man, mayremain." He then begged Williams's acceptance of the food, which had been prepared in expectation of his coming.

Williams expressed his thanks, and the gratification with which he had heard the sentiments; adding, as he did not come there to obtain property of which they had plenty at home, he would only accept a little of the food, and three or four pieces of the cloth, for the purpose of showing their friends in England what clothing they wore, but the rest he must allow him to return. To this the chief would not listen. Williams therefore sent the food on board the vessel, and presented the cloth to Makea. Before the meeting terminated, the chief and people of another settlement, about three miles distant, came to beg for a missionary; and two messengers from a large settlement, about six miles farther, on the same errand, and also to solicit the honour of a visit. Although, said Williams, the spirit was both willing and delighted, the flesh was too weak to allow him to gratify them.

After visiting Manono and Apia, where there was not a single white man then resident, John Williams again quitted the Navigators Islands.

page 42


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."


Regarding the intentions of the Mission itself towards Samoa, Williams said that the Navigators group was, with the exception of Hawaii, the largest and most populous in the Pacific at which missions had been commenced, and in a few years would, no doubt, rise into considerable importance.

"As it lies in the vicinity of the Friendly Islands, the extensive Fiji group, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and numerous other solitary islands, intercourse between them could be easily maintained, and thus a civilizing and religious influence might be exerted upon the countless thousands of benighted heathen, who dwell between the Samoas and the coast of New Holland1;

1 Australia.

page 45and, whether we view this group as a mart for commercial enterprise, a field for scientific research, or a sphere for the exercise of Christian benevolence, we must regard it with feelings of the liveliest interest.

"A few years ago it was much wished by the inhabitants of New South Wales that the British Government would form a settlement at one of the South Sea Islands, where ships might refresh and refit, without being exposed to danger. The fate of the unfortunate Oldham whaler,1 and the numerous tragical events which were constantly occurring at these islands, gave rise to this suggestion. Although the danger has ceased where Christianity has been introduced, yet, should such an establishment be determined upon, the Navigators group is a most eligible place for its formation. Its central situation, the excellence of the harbours, the abundant supply of water and provision, the amazing extent of rich and arable land, and the quantity and variety of the timber are important prerequisites for an establishment of this description, and such as must ensure its prosperity."

In reference to the islands generally, said the missionary, it might be observed that the blessings conveyed to them by Christianity had not been simply of a spiritual character, but that civilization and commerce had invariably followed in her train.

"Until the people are brought under the influence of religion, they have no desire for the arts and usages of civilized life; but that invariably creates it. The Missionaries were at Tahiti for many years, during which they built and furnished a house in European style. The natives saw this, but not an individual imitated their example. As soon, however, as they were brought under the influence of Christianity, the chiefs, and even the common people, began to build neat plastered cottages, and to manufacture bedsteads, seats, and other articles of furniture. The females had long observed the dress of the Missionaries' wives, but while heathen they greatly preferred their own, and there was not a single attempt at imitation. No sooner, however, were they brought under the influence of religion than all of them, even to the lowest, aspired to the

1 Taken at Wallace Island.

page 46possession of a gown, a bonnet, and a shawl, that they might appear like Christian women. I could proceed to enumerate many other changes of the same kind, but these will be sufficient to establish my assertion. While the natives are under the influence of their superstitions, they evie an inanity and torpor from which no stimulus has proved powerful enough to arouse them but the new ideas and the new principles imparted by Christianity, And if it be not already proved, the experience of a few more years ill demonstrate the fact, that the Missionary enterprise is incomparably the most effective machinery that has ever been brought to operate upon the social, the civil, and the commercial, as well as the moral and spiritual, interests of mankind."

Nor, said Williams, were the heathens the only parties benefited by such exertions.

"The whole civilized world, and our own countrymen especially, share the advantages. Without dwelling upon the improved state of religion in our churches; the holy and elevated feelings which have been called into exercise; the noble instances of Christian benevolence which have been displayed; and the reflex influence of the missionary enterprise upon home exertions; we may simply glance at the commercial advantages which have resulted and are still resulting from the labours. In the South Sea Islands alone, many thousands of persons are at this moment wearing and using articles of European manufacture, by whom, a few years ago, no such article had been seen: indeed, in the more advanced stations, there is scarcely an individual who is not attired in English clothing, which has been obtained in exchange for native produce. Thus we are benefited both in what we give and in what we receive…. At present, the Samoa islanders have nothing to dispose of but a little cinet,1 and small quantities of tortoise-shell. In a very few years, however, should our labours be successful, they will be taught to prepare hundreds of tons of coco-nut oil annually; to manufacture sugar; to cultivate their land; and to supply our shipping with provisions. Thus, wherever the Missionary goes, new channels are cut for the stream of commerce; and to me it is most surprising that any individual at all interested in the commercial prosperity of

1 String.

page break
A Samoan Girl

A Samoan Girl

page 47his country can be otherwise than a warm friend to the Missionary cause."


Regarding all these projected changes, I have only a platitude to repeat: "Experience begins to show us," reiterated Stevenson, "at least in Polynesian islands, that change of habit is bloodier than a bombardment."

Sometimes, going along a road through the dripping forest in Samoa, one comes upon a party of girls, bare-breasted, wearing the sufficient lava-lava, and carrying their frocks upon their arms. At the sight of a white man they will stop and struggle into the redundant garments, or hurriedly, as they pass, will hide their breasts in simulated shame. This is one of the major triumphs in Samoa, of religion. But fortunately there is an obstinate, and sensible, streak in the Samoans, and the evil of clothing—for it is liable to spell death to the Pacific Islander—has not been foisted upon them to the extent that it has in certain other groups, where the missionaries have managed to exercise more sway.

I beg indulgence—lest its truth be denied—to illustrate that point. With the light of a century of experience to guide them, this is the best the London Mission, among others, has been able to do for the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. I quote from the Colonial Office Report, 1924–26:

"European clothes have been used in the Colony for a quarter of a century. The dirtiness of the garments worn by women and infants in arms is often horrible and indescribable. While such conditions persist, the race will continue to carry the chief focus of filth and contagion next to the skin. Clothes are now so closely associated, in the popular mind, with Christianity, that an open crusade against them would be regarded by the native as a deliberate assault upon religion; they must now be regarded as an ineradicable evil, and the only hope is to promote a habit of cleanliness and good sense in their use. As a small step in this direction, the import duty has been removed from soap so that the price of this article may better conform to the native's purchasing power."

page 48

It would seem, of course, that the Gilbertines must be a naturally filthy people. But not so. They wore, formerly, a hygienic costume, intrinsic to them, and when dirty they could throw it away. The idea, in consequence, of washing clothing was, and still is, strange; and they cannot afford to discard lightly that for which they have paid in hard coin.

Said Stevenson, writing of their dress in 1890:

"The ridi is its name: a cutty petticoat or fringe of the smoked fibre of the coco-nut leaf, not unlike tarry string; the lower edge not reaching the mid-thigh, and the upper adjusted so low upon the haunches that it seems to cling there by accident. A sneeze, you think, and the lady must surely be left destitute. Yet if a pretty Gilbertine would look her best, that must be her costume. In that, and naked otherwise, she moves with an incomparable liberty and grace and life, that marks the poetry of Micronesia. Bundle her in a gown, the charm is fled, and she wriggles like an English woman."

It is in the Gilberts—a chain of coral atolls right on the Equator—that the missionaries have succeeded in enforcing Upon the women the Mother Hubbard—a long tubular garment like a nightgown, designed to hide completely the "lower limbs." It is equally adapted to three other things: trailing the dirt, soaking up rain—there is an average annual rainfall of between 150 and 180 inches—and storing perspiration. (The Gilbert girl sees no necessity, I am told, for changing wet garments, even if she could.) One is not surprised then to learn that tuberculosis is responsible for thirty per cent of the total deaths; and that the "appalling proportion" of eighty-one per cent. of children require operation for diseased glands. This, with what was until recently one of the most virile races in the Pacific!

Turning, in conclusion, to the Colonial Office Report, we find that—

"Sex morality in the past was high. Girls went naked until married, and were protected by usages of extreme ferocity. To molest a maiden was to court death by slow strangulation, or by being tied to a log and floated out to sea. Now, morality is not so fierce. British justice has abolished the death penalty, page 49robbing the offence of its terror. At the same time, by prohibiting polygamous marriage, the law has traversed the whole customary code within which a native's life was once so strictly ordered. The spirit of the old severe system is gone; it has been replaced by the mere letter of the new, to which the native accords lip-service without understanding. He is a man deprived of moral landmarks. Clothes, covering bodies which once went naked and unconscious, have contributed to his moral decadence by stimulating nasty curiosities, which never before existed."


With regard to the government of Samoa, John Williams said that every settlement was a little independent state, governed by its own chief, or chiefs, who did not appear to him to possess very extensive authority. Indeed, he was informed that if a chief was oppressive, it was not an infrequent occurrence for the tribe to assemble and condemn him to death. In this case his son, or some other relative, was generally nominated as his successor. During war an aged chieftain was appointed both to preside in their councils and act as generalissimo.

There appeared, he continued, to be no principal chief exercising kingly authority over the whole group, as at the Society1 and other islands; unless Tamafainga, whose office was in many respects peculiar, might be so considered. Yet a power of this kind, he said, must have been vested somewhere; for a month or two prior to his arrival an influential chief who had endeavoured to excite a war was put to death, after a regular trial. This trial lasted three days; and the execution took place on the day after it was terminated.

"I suppose the authority in such cases to have been vested in Malietoa and others; for immediately after this event the whole tribe came to Sapapalii, each carrying a stick of firewood, a stone, and some leaves: and on arriving in front of Malietoa's dwelling they prostrated themselves, and held out the token of their submission. The chief then ordered them to arise, and cast away these emblems of their degradation; and having done this, they entered his house, kissed his feet, and, after page 50receiving assurances of pardon, presented cloth and mats as an atonement, and returned home. As wood, stones, and leaves are used in preparing the native ovens, they may have been designed to signify that the culprits were at the mercy of the chief, and that they had brought the materials with which they might be baked, if he commanded it; or the act may have been intended simply to intimate that they were his slaves, to cook his food and perform his servile work."

Cannibalism, as admitted by John Williams, seems never to have been practised in Samoa.

1 Tahiti.


John Williams died a martyr's death. He was clubbed or speared upon a beach of Eromanga, in the New Hebrides, in 1839. In the old print upon that subject, his stove-pipe hat is shown as floating in the lagoon, while, frock-coated, he is staggering in the water. It was in the New Hebrides, of course, as well as at Savage Island, that the missionaries were known to the benighted heathen as "the bringers of disease." It was not for a quarter of a century—for a similar offence—that they were bombarded by a warship with a missionary aboard—the only occasion, it was recorded, that the man of God had ever been known to smile.1

1 VideJ. L. Brenchley.