Old Samoa or Flotsam and Jetsam from the Pacific Ocean
Chapter V — Social and Domestic Habits of the Samoans
Social and Domestic Habits of the Samoans
The dwellings of the Samoans often present a very picturesque appearance, especially as seen embowered in the beautiful breadfruit and cocoanut groves which surround them. The Samoan house is generally elliptical, but at times circular, when it resembles an immense beehive. The roof is supported by three centre-posts, and a number of smaller ones are placed under the eaves about three feet apart. These are usually about four or five feet in length. Formerly only the elliptical and circular forms were used by the Samoans in the construction of their dwellings, but latterly many houses have been built after the Tonga model, which is found better adapted to resist the high winds so common at one season of the year. These, called afolau, are often built in a very substantial manner, the centre part of the roof being supported by a double row of posts and cross-beams, from which rise centre-posts, in addition to those which support the eaves.
All dwelling-houses are partly enclosed with thatch, neatly tied to sticks planted upright in the ground and fastened to the eaves, or else protected with blinds of page 106plaited leaves, which can be raised or lowered at will, and form a slight shelter from the weather. In the elliptical form the eaves are of an even height all round, but in the afolau the front end is raised much higher than the back.
Roofs of the best houses are made of breadfruit wood, and these, if well built, will last many years, although not a single nail is used in their construction, the various parts being lashed together with cinet. The thatch, made from the leaves of the wild sugar-cane, is the only part liable to decay, but even this, if well made, lasts for four or even six years.
The houses of the principal chiefs were formerly surrounded with two fences, the outer of which was formed of strong posts or palisading, arid had a narrow zigzag entrance several yards in length, leading to an opening in the inner enclosure, which was made of reeds, and which surrounded the dwelling at a distance of four or five fathoms. Of late years, however, the habits of the people have greatly changed for the better, thus rendering many of the precautions so long adopted unnecessary; hence these enclosures have for the most part disappeared, and the houses of all alike are now left open.
A layer of sand, coral débris, or small stones was spread upon the floor of the house, which, again, was covered over with coarse cocoanut-leaf mats, these being frequently shaken, so that the floors were kept clean. Should the floor be covered with sand, some leaves were spread over it, to prevent its sticking to the mats. Finer mats were spread upon the floor for sleeping on at night, or for use of visitors by day; but these were always carefully rolled up when not required.
The sleeping accommodations of the Samoans were very scanty, a mat or two spread upon the floor, a pillow made from a piece of thick bamboo cane, raised three or four inches from the ground, with a large piece of native cloth for a covering, usually comprising the whole. Sometimes a tainamu was used. This is a contrivance which does duty for a mosquito curtain, and consists of a large piece of siapo fastened to a string running along the centre. This was suspended over the sleeper, and formed into a kind of small tent by two bent sticks placed in the upper part of the siapo. Savaii is credited with the invention of the tainamu.
As a rule, the floors of the dwellings were dry, but the constant effects of the night dews, to which the natives were unavoidably exposed, were most injurious to health. The houses mostly consisted of one compartment, men, women, and children herding together in common; but the young men mostly slept by themselves in the faletele, or great house, which was a favourite page 110gathering-place for all bachelors. They also frequently built for themselves a shed, or light framework on piles over the sea—pae, as they were called. These were placed well out from the beach, and the floors raised several feet above the water, where the natives could sleep without being annoyed by the mosquitos. Unmarried females, especially those of high rank, were carefully watched by several attendants, both male and female, who were appointed for the purpose, some of whom were always in attendance. The females slept by the side of their mistress, whilst the males either watched throughout the night, or else slept in the front part of the house.
Until within a few years of my leaving the islands, chiefs of rank were always watched with care during the night by several armed attendants, who either sat in some part of the dwelling in which their master slept, or else patrolled around to guard against an attack on the part of men who were deputed to take the lives of rival chiefs. This was especially the case with the family of Malietoa, where the attendants were called Tau-masina, and kept a fire burning during the whole night, around which they watched. Notwithstanding this constant watchfulness, chiefs of high rank sometimes fell victims to the superior stealth or stratagem of the parties plotting their death. The assassins employed on this secret service of death were called Aitu-tangata (men-spirits), and were usually trusty dependants of a rival chief. They always came at night, with their bodies profusely oiled, either entirely naked or with a simple maro, or girdle, tied loosely around their loins, so that if grasped by a pursuer they might escape, page 111whilst the maro was retained. The great object of the assassin was to reach his victim when in a deep sleep, so that he could creep stealthily upon him and thrust the barb of the sting ray into his loins or side. If the assassin could reach his victim, and thrust the small dart into the sleeping man's side or groin, he instantly fled, and often escaped, since it was difficult to seize him, his body having been profusely oiled. Sometimes he was overtaken, when the spear or club quickly did its work of vengeance. The weapon used for this midnight murder, the barb of the sting ray, although simple, was sure and deadly in its action, so that if buried in the flesh, death speedily followed. This was often the case, but at times the wounded man was able to pluck the barb from his body before the jagged extremity was drawn into the muscles, and thus saved his life. Unless this was done quickly, the barb speedily buried itself in the flesh, causing violent inflammation and almost certain death.
Usually chiefs of high rank slept with no better protection and accommodation than the common people, but sometimes the spot where they lay was partially enclosed by a roll of matting, unrolled and placed upright, thus forming a temporary enclosure which could be removed at pleasure.
Upon the marriage of a chief with a lady of rank, the site selected on which to build their house was formed into a fanua-tanu, or paved ground, by the united labour of the inhabitants of the entire settlement or district, as the case might be, according to the influence of the parties. By this means a raised terrace of stones was formed from fifty to seventy feet square, and often page 112many feet in height, on which the house was built. This widespread custom prevailed throughout the whole group, not only in the case of dwelling-houses, but also in sacred edifices or buildings, fale-aitu, houses of the gods. These also were always built on fanua-tanu by the people of the district or settlement. In some remarkable instances these raised stone terraces or platforms were of very massive construction, which seem to have been the work of an earlier but now extinct race of men. The same stone platforms, as foundations for sacred houses or temples, are found throughout Polynesia, and also in many of the islands to the north-west. The late Mr. H. B. Sterndale describes some remarkable cyclopean remains of such stone platforms he visited in the Caroline Islands, from which group he thought this custom; of building such structures had spread widely throughout Polynesia.
The furniture and household utensils of the Samoan house of the olden time may be soon described. On entering the generality of dwellings, nothing in the shape of chair or table met the eye, but suspended from the rafters, or thrust into the thatch, were to be seen fishing-spears, fishing-rods and nets, axes, clubs, bows and arrows, with various baskets containing turmeric and other articles used in the preparation of native cloth, with water-bottles and other utensils. Upon a couple of poles lashed lengthways to the centre posts of the house were piled the fine mats used for spreading on the floor for visitors, as also sleeping-mats and bamboo pillows, with frequently bundles of siapo, or native cloth. In the back part of the house was the fata, a rude kind of stage, upon which were piled bundles of the more page 113valuable native property, consisting of the finer mats, called by the general name of Tonga; whilst from one of the side posts might be seen suspended the large ava-bowl (tanoa alofi), with the usual cocoanut-shell drinking-cup. Baskets of food were slung from a stand called O le to'o-tū, which was fixed upright in the ground. These, with a few other articles used in the preparation of native cloth, such as the păpă, on which it is joined together, the log of wood with which it was beaten, with occasionallya large canoe, comprised the furniture usually found in a Samoan dwelling of the olden time.
In addition to these articles, some beautifully tame doves or pigeons were constantly seen, either perched on small sticks or confined in cages; the former thrust into the thatch, on which the birds contentedly rested. These pets were rendered very tame, much care being bestowed upon their feeding and training; whilst they were made the constant companions of their owners, whether working in their plantations, enjoying the cool of the evening in the front of their dwellings, or journeying by land or by sea. At all times these favourite birds formed their companions. In many cases the birds, both pigeons and doves, were taught to fly from their perches, wheel round, and return to their master's hand when tired, or upon the slightest jerk being given to the string by which they were tethered.
The lavalava, also common to both sexes, was made of native cloth or siapo, and also various kinds of mats. Before the contact with Europeans, and indeed for some time after, the use of siapo as an article of dress was confined to a few unmarried females of the highest rank, O Tausala, titled ladies; all others being prohibited from wearing it upon pain of heavy chastisement. The privileged few only wore it in the house. For a long time past this rule has been broken through, and siapo is now worn by all persons of either sex. The finer descriptions of mats (ie tōnga) were worn by unmarried females at their dances, but on ordinary occasions strong shaggy mats, woven or rather plaited from the bark of trees, were worn. Since the introduction of Christianity large quantities of cloth, print, and calico of European manufacture have been brought to the islands, and are eagerly bought by the natives.
Fond of ornament, the Samoans were accustomed to bestow much attention to decorating their persons after the native fashion. Necklaces of either shells, sharks' teeth, or flowers, and latterly of beads, were highly valued and sought after. Frontlets of small shells, garlands of flowers, as also pieces of mother-of-pearl shells, were worn on the forehead, whilst rings made of various materials page 116decorated the arms. These were made of either cocoanut or sea-shells, which were rubbed to the desired width and thickness on a stone, much labour being often be-stowed in the operation.
One method of ornamenting the body was painful and singular. This consisted in burning indelible marks upon the upper part of the arm and chest by applying to the spot a piece of lighted wood or a small roll of cloth forming a rudely made moxa, which was held closely for page 117Some time to the skin, by which means deep marks were burnt, leaving when healed these much-prized but hideous marks as the result. Sometimes, to vary the ornament, the heated bowl of a tobacco pipe did duty in place of the moxa, leaving a raised ring on the skin instead of the mark before described. Such marks were also used as mourning tokens, or mementos of deceased friends. Sometimes, too, in Samoa, as in other groups, a joint of a finger, or a finger itself, was cut off in memory of a deceased friend; but both customs have long since become obsolete, or nearly so.
Head-dresses (tu'inga) were used in war and dancing. O le pale, frontlet or crown, was also a head-dress in common use amongst the higher ranks. The tu'inga was a small mat or framework covered with hair or red feathers. There were three sorts of tu'inga: one of ordinary human hair; another of brown hair (dyed); and a third, O le tu'inga ula, or red tu'inga, made with costly and much-valued red feathers. These with the pale, or crown, were the usual ornaments of the high chiefs, and from the mention of them made in some of the very old traditions, they would appear to have been very ancient and distinctive tokens of rank. The tu'inga ula, or red tu'inga, was a small mat carefully covered over with highly valued crimson or scarlet feathers, obtained from a species of parrot found in the Fiji Islands and Tonga. In Samoa these feathers were rare and costly; but some chiefs possessed them in sufficient quantities to form armlets and other ornaments, as well as the tu'inga and pale, which were much prized. Some beautiful red feathers were also obtained from one or two Samoan varieties of paroquet, page 118but those obtained from Fiji and Tonga were the most valued.
By permission of] ancient combs from samoa. Percy Smith, Esq.
In their heathen state the Samoan males always wore their hair long, whilst the females kept theirs short. This they accomplished by singeing it off with a piece of lighted toe bark. Five different names were used to designate the various descriptions of human hair, as it ranged from the straight and glossy type of the Malay to the woolly hair of the Papuan. The men wore their long hair either hanging loosely over the shoulders or tied up in a knot, called a fonga, which was worn either in front, or on the back, crown, or sides of the head, as fashion dictated; indeed, they had twelve different styles of wearing the hair, each distinguished by a separate name denoting the position of the fonga.
It was considered a great insult to enter the presence of a superior with the hair tied up, and therefore on such occasions the band confining it was removed, and the hair allowed to fall loosely over the shoulders. A neglect of this observance was regarded as an act of defiance, and resented accordingly. The same etiquette was observed in the case of equals, unless on terms of intimacy. A similar mark of respect is often shown by the Chinese in their intercourse one with another.
In addition to these various modes of dressing their page 121natural hair, the Samoans used three descriptions of wigs for a head-dress in war and at their dances. These were formed of human hair plaited to a kind of network and worn as frontlets.
Females had seven different styles of dressing their hair, each distinguished by a name denoting the kind of frontlet worn, or preparation used in dressing their hair. Thus one signified that pulu, or breadfruit pitch, had been used to stiffen the hair; and another, that a particular kind of brown earth or clay had been used as a pomade, which, when dressed with limewater, gave a much-desired shade of golden-brown to the hair. The Tutangita was a style restricted to young females during their virginity. In this the centre of the head was shorn from the crown backwards, whilst the side hair was allowed to grow long and hang loosely down over the shoulders.
The ordinary diet of the Samoans consisted of vegetables and fish, which they procured in great abundance, and of excellent quality. They had also large numbers of fowls and pigs, but these were usually reserved for the visits of travelling parties. The woods also abounded with pigeons, doves, and other birds, which were caught in large numbers in some localities for food at certain seasons of the year.
Much order and, in case of chiefs, some ceremony was formally observed during meals, in their heathen state. Chiefs of rank, called Alli pa'ia, or sacred chiefs, always partook of their meals separately, since whatever they touched was supposed to partake of their sacredness, so that all food left by them at the close of a meal was taken to the bush and thrown away, as it was. page 122believed that if a person not belonging to this sacred class ate of it, his stomach would immediately swell from disease, and death speedily ensue! Some chiefs of inferior rank permitted their wives to eat with them, but, generally speaking, the women and children partook of their meals alone, not being allowed to eat with men. This restriction has now been completely swept away.
Two regular meals a day were usually taken by the Samoans, one in the morning and the other in the evening; but they seldom refused food when obtainable, and were thus frequently eating. The food, excepting the made dishes, was always cooked in the usual Polynesian style, being steamed in the native oven, whether fish, fowl, meat, or vegetables. I obtained the names of fifty different dishes or kinds of cooked food, many of them being highly esteemed by the natives, and some were very palatable to Europeans. Nine of these dishes were suitable for the sick.
After each meal the Samoans were accustomed to wash their hands by having water poured over them1; or, in the absence of this convenience, by tearing off a piece of the juicy stalk of the banana plant and rubbing it over their hands.
The different members of a family attended to the various domestic duties amongst themselves, but in the households of chiefs of rank other attendants were kept in addition to the family connexions. These were O le Songa, O Atamai-o-alii, O Fa'atama, and O Salelelisi. Of these, the Atamai-o-alii (spirit of page 123wisdom of the chief) may be first noticed, since they occupied the position of counsellors or prime ministers, and were continually consulted when the chief required advice. Occasionally this official filled the office of shell-blower or trumpeter, walking, like the Songa, before the chief when on a journey, carrying a conchshell, which he blew continually to announce their approach. They were also employed as special messengers, and on difficult negotiations. The Songa performed the duties of barber, cup-bearer, trumpeter, and special messenger. Whenever the chief chose to undergo the torture, the Songa clipped off his beard with a couple of cockle-shells, and also, as occasion required, was expected to futipongaisu, or pluck the hair from his master's nostril. When he officiated as cup-bearer he seated himself before the chief, and on being required to hand the cup, held it to be filled by another official, and then presented it to his.master. This office was a very privileged one, since the Songa might indulge with impunity in any jocose behaviour he chose, or appear in any dress, whether much or little, much after the manner of the old English jester, or court fool.
O le Salelelisi (the quick flyer) appears, however, to have more especially sustained the office of jester, or court fool; and a high-chief's retinue was not considered complete without one of this class, who enjoyed even greater license as to behaviour than the Songa. Persons of this, class belonged to one particular village of Upolu; but individuals of their number roamed about, attaching themselves to various chiefs as their inclination led them.page 124
O le Fa'atama (to be as a father) was a trustworthy official, or kind of steward, much thought of, and to whose care many things relating to the household were confided.
Besides these, there were always a number of other dependants in a chief's retinue. Taule'ale'a (young men) worked on the plantations, prepared food for the household, bore arms in times of war, and were ever ready to carry out the commands of their chief, no matter how tyrannical.
The female attendants of a family were either related by blood or marriage to the families in which they resided; but unmarried females of rank had attendants styled O le soa (companions), who were either male or female, and through whom all negotiations respecting courtships or marriage were conducted. Chiefs of rank had also soa in attendance, but these were always male.
Much etiquette was observed by the Samoans in their intercourse with each other, and many customs and habits had either been handed down from past generations, or had sprung up, which must have been excessively irksome and oppressive. A rigid attention was exacted to all of these, no matter how galling, and any omission or breach of them was a certain cause of offence, which often issued in a quarrel, and sometimes bloodshed.
These causes of offence were numerous and varied; some very simple and even ludicrous, such as stepping over a person's leg that might be stretched out on the floor; standing upright before another person who was seated; throwing a piece of food or other simple page 125article over the head of another; as well as omitting to make a circuit so as to avoid a company seated near a public pathway, during a fono or meeting of parliament. These were all great insults, and fruitful sources of quarrel, and, at times, of war.
If a person seated in a house saw another approaching, and called for some food to eat, this gave immediate offence, as it was considered that his action was equivalent to asking for vegetables to eat with the body of the person then approaching. Or, again, if an individual seated in a house required a knife, and called for one to be brought him without first offering an apology to any person who might be seated near him, a grievous insult was offered, as it was considered that the offending person had called for a knife or hatchet with which to cut up the body of the person sitting near him. If a cocoanut were broken in a house by a person at the time that another was approaching, a quarrel immediately commenced, breaking the cocoanut under these circumstances being considered equivalent to expressing a desire to smash the approaching person's head. If a person approached a dwelling in which another happened to be cutting anything with a knife, the latter immediately ceased cutting until the stranger had been welcomed and was seated, lest the new-comer should imagine that the article being cut represented his own body undergoing mutilation. Or, if any persons were working, chopping wood, or beating siapo on a block, they were compelled to cease their work every time a person passed; since to continue would be regarded as equivalent to beating the person passing. If the spot where the work was proceeding was enclosed, page 126the work might continue without fear of giving offence. These customs were also observed towards children if they were of higher rank than the persons approached.
Carrying a lighted torch past a chief's house was another great insult and cause of offence, the attendants of the chief rushing forth club in hand to avenge the indignity offered. Thus if a travelling party carried lighted torches, they always extinguished them on approaching the dwelling, and passed the place in darkness, lighting their torches again after they had passed the house.
In olden times, many other vexatious customs pressed upon the people, and troubled them greatly in their social intercourse, which are now obsolete, though at times the old leaven will show itself. Some two or three years before I left the islands an instance of this occurred. A quarrel was pending between two villages of Atua, when a party from one village passing through the other, found a fishing net hung out to dry on the beach, which they immediately gathered up and cut to pieces with a hatchet, such an action representing the cutting to pieces the body of the owner. In this case the insult was designed. As soon as the people of the village knew of it, they watched for some person of the offending village on whom they could revenge themselves. After a time their turn came, as one day they met a poor fellow returning from his work, whom they literally hacked to pieces. Of course his fellow-villagers sought further revenge, and slew one or more victims. After a time the quarrel was ended by the intervention of some neighbouring villages.page 127
Dedicating the body of another person to moso, to eat; threatening to cook or bake the throat (tunu lou pona ua) of the person insulted, or consigning him to the Fafā (Hades), as a curse, were all fearful imprecations, and fruitful sources of quarrel and bloodshed. A fifteen years' peace was broken by the stupid recrimination of two villages on Savaii. An orator of Safotulafai, in a public assembly, compared the people of Palauli to fingota-fano-loa (shell-fish obtained on the last day of the moon's age), which are then watery and without substance or heart; in, fact, calling them poltroons. Palauli retaliated by baking a large pig and taking it to a travelling party from Safotulafai, resting at their village, and with much formality and ceremonious speech telling them that it was O le Tangaloa-tea (the white Tangaloa), that being the name of the official messenger of their district. Of course this gross insult could not be passed over. Safotulafai at once took up arms, and notwithstanding every effort to prevent it, war ensued, and many lives were lost in consequence of a ridiculous comparison.
The sacredness attributed to many chiefs of high rank gave rise to observances which were irksome to their families and dependants, since whatever they came in contact with required to undergo the ceremony of lulu'u, or sprinkling with a particular kind of cocoanut-water (niu-ui); both to remove the sanctity supposed to be communicated to the article or place that had touched the chief, and also to counteract the danger of speedy death, which was believed to be imminent to any person who might touch the sacred chief, or anything that he had touched; so great was page 128the mantle of sanctity thrown around these chiefs, although unconnected with the priesthood. Thus the spot where such a chief had sat or slept was sprinkled with water immediately he had left it, as were also the persons who had sat on either side of him when he received company, as well as all the attendants who had waited upon him.
This remarkable custom was also observed on other occasions. It was always used on the occasion of deposing a chief, and depriving him of his Ao, or titles, in which case the ceremony was performed by some of those who had either conferred the titles or bad the power to do so. In the case of O le Tamafainga, the usurper who was killed in A'ana in 1829, his body was first sprinkled with cocoanut-water, and his title of O le Tuia'ana recalled from him, before he was hewn in pieces. The ceremony consisted of sprinkling the body with cocoanut-water, and the officiating chief or Tulafale saying, ' Give us back our Ao', by which means the title was recalled, and the sacredness attaching to it was dispelled. It was also used over persons newly tattooed, and upon those who contaminated themselves by contact with a dead body. In each of these cases the ceremony was carefully observed, and reverently attended to, as very dire consequences were considered certain to follow its omission.
The Samoans were fond of visiting, gadding about, tafatafao, so that travelling parties were continually passing from settlement to settlement. These journeys were undertaken from love of change and pleasure, and were eagerly sought after and enjoyed; page 129being accompanied by a continual round of boxing-matches and sham fights, feasting by day and dancing by night; many of the dances, one especially, and that the most popular night dance, being most obscene and objectionable in all its details. Sometimes these journeys were undertaken as a means of securing a temporary cessation in the constant demand made upon the plantations and provision-grounds of the settlement, when getting exhausted. If food began to grow scarce, a journey was planned, and the taropatches having been put into good order, the whole community, or the bulk of them, started on their journey with light hearts, and equally light travelling equipage, trusting to the hospitality of their entertainers to supply their wants. Meanwhile their plantations were left to grow and their groves to thrive under the care of the few persons left in charge.
Having reached the nearest settlement, they stopped for the night, and were treated to the best of everything the settlement or district could afford. Upon the travellers reaching a district they bathed, and then scattered themselves in various directions, taking up their abode with little ceremony in the different houses of the district, where the best accommodation was always given up to them. The heads of the travelling party proceeded to the Faletele, literally the guest-house of the district, which was specially appropriated to visitors, and where their formal reception took place, Shortly after the visitors had settled themselves, they were visited by some of the leading men of the settlement, when many complimentary speeches were made on either side. After a time the, visitors were left page 130to themselves, whilst the whole settlement was more or less alive with the bustle of preparing a suitable entertainment for the visitors. At such times sad havoc was made amongst the fowls and pigs of the settlement, the people generally being desirous of treating the visitors hospitably, so as to ensure a similar treatment for themselves at some future time, when their return visit should be made. In case the progress of the travellers had been announced beforehand, and a large party expected, preparations were made on a large scale many days and even weeks before the time appointed; quantities of fish being caught and partially re-cooked from time to time as required.
The next day the party proceeded onward to the nearest settlement, where they were entertained in a similar manner at each place; the young people gathering into parties for amusement, whilst their elders sat to discuss politics or the news of the day. Thus they continued passing from place to place throughout the entire journey, until, after a lengthened absence, they reached their homes, to find their plantations thriving, and in a fit condition to afford them a good supply. But the relief gained was merely temporary, since they speedily had to entertain a suc cession of visitors in the shape of their late entertainers, who, finding their own plantations needed rest, started off to pay return visits, and enjoy the excitement of a lengthened tour.
Many evils were attendant upon this system. In the olden days it led to much dissipation and immorality, as well as fostered lazy and dissolute habits to such page 131an extent that very few young men cared to settle down and work so as to provide for the family wants unless compelled to do so from dependence upon a chief, but spent their time roving from place to place in careless indolence. Of late years this system has been greatly modified, as the natives have become more chary of their property, and learned to depend more upon their own individual efforts.
1 See, for reference, 2 Kings iii. II, 'Elisha the son of Shaphat, which poured water on the hands of Elijah.'