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An Account of Samoan History up to 1918


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The English translation of the word “mavaega” is “will” or bequest but this utterly fails to convey to the European mind the same meaning that is understood by the Samoan. A more literal translation of the word is: “a parting, final and sacred command.” This is how the Samoan viewed the mavaega of a chief and it carried with it the same obligations as the written words of our European “wills.” It would be correct, perhaps, to declare that it was even more strictly adhered to than are the injunctions in our written wills. Disobedience of the spoken word of the departing chief was believed by the listeners to provoke the wrath of the spirits and this of itself was sufficient to guarantee obedience to the commands of the chief after he was dead. The native mind also realises that the written word may be confusing and may be altered or forged; but the spoken word heard by many cannot be so treated. Like many natives, the Samoan has an instinctive and cultivated distrust of the written word because he has learned that often does the written word convey and record an impression different from the true one, but his and many other ears are many evidences of the facts and he prefers to pin his faith to the spoken word of a dying man. He has leanred that the word of the European and European Governments is often but a trap to ensnare him and more often than not is not honoured by those in whom he is asked to place his trust.

In many ways the Samoan is like the Jew, and his social, physical and psychical characteristics indicate the possibility that in the remote past he sprang from the same race. History teaches us that the Jews were ruled by Elders, that they practised circumcision, were fond of their children and were outstandingly conservative; that they believed that they were a chosen people, married within their own race and were jealous of their supposed birthrights. All these characteristics are clearly defined in the Samoans, and have been altered by contact with Europeans probably less than in any other branches of the Polynesian races.

The head of the Samoan family is termed a “Matai” which word is well translated “Head” or “Protector.” He is appointed to this position and maintains it by and through the authority of the family or “Aiga” as it is termed. The family may be small or large, weak or page 2 powerful but it has its matai. In former times, and also today, a family minus its matai is looked on as fair game for those intriguing chiefs who desire to add to their power and lands by assuming control over the “headless” family. Whenever a man is elected to be the matai of a family he becomes a chief and assumes the title of the family. His election to the mataiship and leadership of the family is a matter of moment to the family concerned and is accompanied by much feasting and speechmaking.

The position of matai confers certain honours and privileges on the holder, but his obligations are at least equal to his honours. He may demand the unstinted services of his inclusive family in all matters, but he must provide for and protect them at all times, and this is no light task when one remembers the ability of the Samoans in the line of seeking favours, food, and assistance. His is an open house at all times for visiting members of the family or clan and he represents his people in disputes, business matters etc. He is expected to exercise a benevolent control over all, for which service the family accord him obedience and service. In some large and important families there is sometimes more than one matai and the different matai are more or less subject to what is called the “Matai Sili” or leading matai.

While it would, perhaps, be an exaggeration to state that the authority of the matai was in former times regarded as being of supernatural origin, there is little doubt but that a belief existed that he was an intermediary between the spirits and his people, and this belief was fostered for obvious reasons in much the same manner as our own sacerdotal class claim to have special influence with various deities.

Should the mataiship of a family become vacant as the result of sudden death or deposition the family meet and discuss the question as to who shall be appointed. Much discussion and wrangling often takes place and serious quarrels frequently resulted.

Before the European Governments began to interfere in the native customs the making of a “mavaega” proceeded on about these lines:- When a matai felt that his end was approaching he notified the page 3 members of his family and those living in distant villages hastened to his house. When they had gathered he explained to them that he desired to make his mavaega and said “O la'u mavaega e faapea” (This is my last will and testament.) The most important and usually the first declaration made was the name of the person he had chosen to be his successor. He also explained his wishes regarding land, houses, plantations etc. and exhorted the members of the family to faithfully serve the new matai and to live at peace. The family were also enjoined to play their part in village affairs and to uphold the dignity of the ancient name.

When a mavaega is made the orator of the family is always present as he is the historian of the family and is relied upon to faithfully remember the last wishes of the chief. When the wishes of the matai have been discussed by the family, the chiefs and orators of the village are requested to attend and the old matai advises them of the name of the person he has chosen to take the family title. This is done in order that the whole village may become acquainted of the fact and so lessen any possibility of his wishes being disregarded after he is dead. In other words he adds a number of independent witnesses to his will. It is obvious that the wishes of the matai did not always please all members of the family but so ingrained was the respect for the matai and fear of his spirit that none dared disobey.

It was not customary to appoint illegitimate children to become holders of titles and the matai or the family gave long and serious consideration to the question of who would succeed him. All those eligible to succeed him would naturally desire to be the one chosen and would consequently strive to find favour in his eyes by diligently and faithfully serving him during his mataiship. On the occasions that I have heard mata is making mavaegas the fact that “so and so is chosen to succeed to the title because he has faithfully served the matai and the family”, has been mentioned.

I have refrained from giving the actual words used by the dying matai at the present time because they are so tinged with Christian teaching as to be useless as a record of what was said before the coming of the white man.

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One can picture the atmosphere of tense expectation as the old matai, believing that his end is approaching, summons all his strength to utter his last words; and his family, believing that something spiritual is about to happen, wait like images for the words they possibly dread to hear. It is the tinge of supernaturalism, the belief that something immaterial is about to happen, that keys the family up to a state of expectation, and vests with hidden power the words of the dying chief. To disregard his commands is to defy the spirits and must inevitable bring down punishment on the transgressor. And the fact that a change is about to take place in the body of their leader - a change that their superstitious susceptibilities ascribe to the workings of an allpowerful deity- this fact is of immeasurably greater influence with them than any posthumous will could be. As the members of the family sit in a circle round the house watching, listening and waiting, one is reminded of the Priest-kings of olden cultures with their Consistory and sacral griffins.

The above is a brief attempt to describe the mavaega as understood by the Samoans and an effort will now be made to show the view point of the younger generation with regard to what was a deeply rooted custom which demanded and received the respect of the people.

It would seem inevitable that wherever European civilisation makes contact with primitive peoples the customs and habits of the weaker or less cultivated races are modified to a much greater extent than are these of the Europeans. It is mere hypocrisy to contend that the white races have constituted themselves the protectors of the Samoans or any other weaker people. Primarily we govern or misgovern all dark races for political and commercial purposes, but to give our acts a semblance of the gloss of justice we preach to an unbelieving world that we are actuated by ulterior motives; we have a conspicuous capacity for creating political chimerae which convince nobody.

Too quickly, the natives will adopt European habits of their own accord, and for political and commercial reasons they will be forced by their white rulers to take over others, with a corresponding loss of their own customs. How and again one hears a few words of page 5 warning uttered by an understanding mind but they would have just as much effect as if not uttered. The early Missionaries were for the most part men of understanding, and to a great extent did not interfere with those customs of the natives which did not run counter to their religious teachings. They realist that it was much more possible to control the Samoans by making use of their customs than by endeavouring to root up and out what had become second nature to the people they were endeavouring to teach. Again, their knowledge was empirical, and they were not obliged to contend with authorities temporarily appointed to administer the country.

Through fear of ridicule, and owing to the fact that his words may be thrown back at him, the Samoan is very reluctant to make clear and concise statements about anything. His language, also, being deficient in words, makes it possible for him to be understood but hazily. For these reasons it is particularly necessary that those who desire to control and understand him should have a knowledge of his language and customs that is sound, and many years of patient and consistent study are required to gain this knowledge. Once gained, it must be used with understanding, for knowledge alone is not sufficient; knowledge is the mere material with which understanding builds, and unless applied at the right time and in the right way, it will but confuse, instead of clarifying the problems.

The European mind is impatient of delay and wishes to bring to pass in a day what evolution amuses herself with for years. It is also a human characteristic to wish to impose on others what one thinks should be done, regardless of the wishes of the victims; and when such wishes are armed with authority we have all the material for a conflagration. It has been the unfortunate experience of more than one of the Pacific Islands to have placed over them men who have lacked training, interest and understanding, and as a result we see hybrid customs come into use, which customs usually do not make for the moral or physical welfare of the natives.

The Samoans had a social system that would be difficult to better and their custom of appointing a title holder who was also the head of the family made for a reasonably efficient and satisfactory control of the people. At the present time that control has to a very great extent disappeared, and the page 6 blame for the lack of authority must be attributed to the authorities who have controlled the Government of the country. The causal nexus has been indubitably the lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of the authorities and it would seem that this fact has not yet become evident to them. Each new arrival to the country brings with him a brand new net of ideas of how to govern the Samoans and a mild suggestion that perhaps he had better wait until he understood something of the people before attempting to force his vicarious views on a perhaps unwilling people only brands one as an inhibiter of progress.

Up to the time that New Zealand took over control of Samoa, the Government recognised the Samoan “Mavaega” and even permitted of its publication in the “Savali” (Government Newspaper in the Samoan language.) As in many other directions, the German Government was loath to alter the salient features of the native social system, and they clearly recognised that the mavaega was a potent factor in the harmonious control of their subjects. Their object was the integration of all the customs that made for the welfare of the natives, the elimination of those that were detrimental to them, and the careful analysis of all acts before being put into operation. In other words - they looked before they leaped.

During the past ten years much legislation has been put into operation that must, and has, by virtue of its intention, rendered inoperative or nearly so, many of the native customs, and particularly that custom dealing with the parting commands of the head of the family. Nearly all native legislation has been in the line of whittling away the authority of the leaders of the Samoan race; and the tragedy of it is that it has not been enacted with this object in view. Ignorant of the fact that the Samoan chief prizes the authority his title confers on him; lacking the understanding that to deprive him of this authority would automatically weaken his control over his family and throw an added burden on to the Government; failing to realise also that the young men would quickly grasp and make use in the wrong manner of their new found freedom, the Government enacted Ordinance after Ordinance, ostensibly to assist all the people, but in reality it resulted in undermining the social system that made for unity and harmonious control.

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The tentative efforts of the New Zealand Government to educate the whole of the younger generation of the Samoans to a degree that transcends all immediate and distant requirements has resulted in a state of change in political outlook that was not foreseen,' and although such a change is inevitable when any system of mental improvement is inaugurated, the new viewpoint should not be forced on the people, but rather they should be left as a body to adapt themselves to the altered outlook. What is not compatible with their racial ideals and aspirations will be discarded and the new and growing system of development will be the one that appeals to and suits the people of the land. We must cease to attempt to force on a weaker people our own peculiar and particular interpretation of their desires. They are entitled to develop in their own way and that way is the one which will bring them the greatest measure of happiness. Our authority should cease when we have prevented deeds of violence, assured them adequate protection against disease and invasion and by example and advice shown them better way to live. Denying the Samoan mavaega and attempting to supplant it with a complicated European system without giving the Samoans an opportunity of evolving to a state when they will voluntarily adopt our method is to deny them the right to advance in their own way.