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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods



From whence the Samoans came in the first instance I will not speculate. There are vague legends of a great white race that once inhabited the Pacific. The Samoans possibly are a remnant, for they differ from all others of their supposed racial type.

"An elaborate courtliness [said Stevenson] marks the race alone among Polynesians; terms of ceremony fly thick as oaths on board a ship; commoners my-lord each other when they meet—and urchins as they play marbles. And for the real noble a whole private dialect is set apart…. The absolute chiefs of Tahiti and Hawaii were addressed as plain John and Thomas; the chiefs of Samoa are surfeited with lip-honour, but the seat and extent of their actual authority is hard to find."

There is, too, a peculiar tenacity about the Samoans which stamps them as being different. And yet Polynesia is known to have been peopled from the Navigators Islands, and Savaii is named as the cradle of the Polynesian nation. How then can one reconcile these seeming divergencies?

The only explanation which affords satisfaction to my mind is contained in the report of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, 1924-26.

page 268

"From time immemorial [it is said] the flux and reflux of race migrations between the South Sea Islands and the Asiatic land masses have swept back and forth along the 4,000-mile chain of Equatorial atolls whereof the Gilbert and Ellice Groups form a section. The last great swarmings from the direction of Asia took place during the first three centuries of our era. The migrants were copper-skinned men of great stature from the East Indian Islands of Celebes, Gilolo, and Ceram. They found already established in the Gilbert and Ellice Groups a race of small black (Melanesian) men. Part of the tawny-skinned swarm stayed and fought and eventually fused with this much darker race, producing a hybrid type. The rest, a great host swept on down the chain of islands into Samoa.

"In Samoa the new-comers, who called themselves the Tongafiti, found a folk even fairer-skinned than themselves. For the next millennium, the inveterate conflict of these two peoples in Samoa scattered fugitives in search of homes throughout Polynesia. In the thirteenth century the Tongafiti were finally hurled out of Samoa. Fragments of the race were flung thousands of miles in all directions from that centre: southwards to Tonga and New Zealand; east and southeastwards to the Cook Islands and the Paumotus; westwards to Santa Cruz and the confines of Melanesia; and northwards, back along the original migration track, to the Gilbert and Ellice Groups, where they fought for new homes against the descendants of their own ancestral kin who had settled there on the southward course so many centuries before."

The word "Tongafiti" subsists to this day in Samoa. It has now two meanings. As applied to oneself or one's friends, it denotes a plan or device. In reference to similar activity on the part of others it signifies a knavish trick: the usual explanation being that the Samoans in their dealings with the Tongans and Fijians found them very evasive; but the origin of the word is no doubt far older than that.

Apart from the expulsion of the Tongafiti, there seems reason to suppose that over a period of centuries, well-equipped and carefully arranged expeditions set out from Samoa, in large ocean-going canoes, and made voyages for exploration to all points of the compass. These canoes were decked, and fitted with sails; fire was carried under cover on a tray of earth and stones; water was contained in bamboos; and it is believed page 269that the early voyagers knew of a certain herb or plant, whose leaves when chewed assuaged the pangs of thirst and even permitted the drinking of sea-water with some impunity. Stair, who left Samoa in 1845, says that the natives did not then know what the leaf was, as the custom had fallen into disuse, but they were confident that such a custom had prevailed in the past, when voyages were more frequently made. He says that he questioned many men of intelligence about the matter without effect. The constant reply was: "We do not know what it was ourselves, but we are certain our forefathers were accustomed to use it."

Stair also affirms that apart from these old-time voyages of colonization or exploration, the Samoans were accustomed to make frequent trips to the groups around, for trading or for pleasure. Of late years, he said, writing towards the end of the last century, such trading voyages had ceased, apparently in consequence of a settled intercourse with Europeans, and also from the disuse of the large sea-going canoe. When I was on Savaii—1923–26—the remains of one of these canoes were still to be seen.