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An Account of Samoan History up to 1918

The Samoan House. — O le Pale Samoa

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The Samoan House.
O le Pale Samoa.

As a piece of artistic work exhibiting clearly the skill of the Samoan as a designer and builder the Samoan house is perhaps his outstanding example. Neatly designed, cleverly executed and admirably suited to the climate in which he lives it will be an unfortunate day for the Samoan when he adopts the European method of protecting himself from the elements.

An attempt will be made to describe the Samoan fale and the ceremonies attending its construction.

The site on which the nouse is built is called the “Tulaga fale” (literally, a piece to stand on.)

Should the family consider it advisable to build a fale they thoroughly discuss the matter and decide on the location of the house and its size and shape etc. Thought is next given as to who they will employ as master builder and when this question is settled the builder is approached and asked to undertake the work. Should he accept the undertaking he is presented by the family with mats and food and in these modern days probably money. The native term for this presentation is “O le tauga o le fale.” It is really a pledge given to the carpenter to secure his services. On a day fixed, the Carpenter (Tufuga) and his men (autufuga) repair to the village of the family for whom they will construct the house. They are feasted and until the work is finished are quartered on the family erecting the fale. The carpenter supplies all the tools required for the work and the owner of the house to be is responsible for the material necessary. In due course the carpenter, his men, and the members of the family repair to the bush and cut the timber required. It is brought to the house site and there prepared. Before the actual work of constructing the house begins the family prepare the site. It may be necessary to fill in the location or build up one end or in other ways make the position suitable. Lava, coral, sand or stones are the materials usually used for this purpose.

The main supporting posts of the fale are first erected. They vary in number, size and length depending on the shape and dimensions of the house. Usually they are between 16 and 25 feet page 2 in length and 6 to 12 inches in diameter and are buried about four feet in the ground. The term for these posts is “Poutu”. In diagram numbered 1 attached hereto they are placed in the middle of the house.

(In the description given herein of the construction of a house, diagram 1 is indicated.)

Attached to the poutu are cross pieces of wood of a substantial size and called so'a. The so'a extend from the poutu to the outside circumference of the fale and their ends are fastened to further strong supporting pieces called La'au fa'alava. Thelaau faalava, placed horizontally are attached at their ends to wide strips of wood continuing from the faulalo to the auau. These wide strips are called iviivi. The faulalo is a tubular piece or pieces of wood about four inches in diamater running right round the circumfernce of the house at the lower extremity of the roof and is supported on the poulalo. The auau is one or more pieces of wood of substantial size resting on the top of the poutu. At a distance of about two feet between each are circular pieces of wood running right round the house and extending from the faulalo to the top of the building. They are similar to the faulalo. The poulalo are spaced about three to four feet apart and are sunk about two feet in the ground. They average three to four inches in diameter, and extend about five feet above the floor of the fale. The height of the poulalo above the floor determines the hight of the lower extremity of the roof from the ground. On the outside of above mentioned framework are attached innumerable thin strips of timber (about half an inch by a quarter by twelve to twentyfive feet in length. They extend from the faulalo to the iviivi and are spaced from one to two inches apart. Attached to these strips at right angles are further strips the same size and the result is that the roof of the fale is divided into an enormous number of small squares. The first mentioned strips are called “aso” and the second paeaso. Attached to the poutu at a convenient height from the ground are cross pieces of timber of a substantial size. They act as shelves on which are stowed food, mats etc. In the construction of a Samoan fale not one piece of metal is used. The whole structure is held together by native sennet or string called “Afa”. It is estimated that in the construction of an ordinary page 3 native house some 30 to 50 thousand feet of afa are used. The preparation of this enormous length is the work of months and one may frequently see the chiefs patiently twisting the afa from the fibres of the cocoanut as they sit at their meetings or are engaged in friendly chats in their houses. It is not considered undignified for the chiefs to engage in this work and it may be likened to the European custom amongst the leisured of playing patience or knitting; it passes the time and serves a useful purpose.

The completed framework is now covered with thatch the preparation of which has been going forward for some time. The making of the thatch (lau) is the work of the womenfolk and it is an interesting experience to watch them at their labours. Comfortably seated on ats they work after the style of the chiefs when twisting afa and pass the village gossip round the fale. The best quality of thatch is made from the leaf of the sugar cane. These dried leaves are twisted over a three feet length of the lafo (s. rattan) as per diagram 2 and are further fastened by a thin strip of the frond of the cocoanut (tianiu) being threaded through the leaves close up to the lafo stem. These sections of thatch are fastened to the outside of the frame work of the fale beginning at the bottom and working up to the apex. They are overlapped so that each section advances the thatching about three inches. This means that there is really a double layer of thatch covering the whole house. The sections are fastened to the aso at each end by afa. Provided the best quality of thatch is used and it has been truly laid it will last about seven years. On an ordinary dwelling house about three thousand sections of thatch are laid.

No levels or plans are prepared by the carpenter who builds the fale; he relies solely on his judgment and past experiences. The weird array of crude ladders, props, supports etc., tend to give one the impression that the finished house will be a model of irregularity; but it cannot be gainsaid that the finished article is as nearly perfect as one could imagine.

Should the family be dissatisfied with the work of the carpenter as it progresses, they will dismiss him and seek another, paying the first man for what he has done. Ordinarily, payment for the erection of a house is not made until the job is completed and starnge to say the page 4 amount to be paid is not a matter arranged before the construction commences. During the course of construction it is customary for the family to make presents to the builders and these presents usually take the form of lavalavas or money or both. It is known as “Faalavalava.” Faasamoa the final payment takes the form of fine mats, about ten of them being considered fair recompense for the labour involved. Should the family possess insufficient fine mats they will supplement what they have with beef, biscuits, pigs, money etc. When the work is completed the Carpenter and his men will remain in the village for a period of from two weeks to a month in order that the family owning the house may have an opportunity to complete the remaining work connected with the house, such as cleaning up the rubbish, levelling the floor and covering it with small stones (iliili) making the surrounding land presentable etc. When all is in readiness a day is appointed for the house warming. A feast is held and the carpenter and his men and the whole village attend. Danoing, feasting and speech making take place. On this day the carpenter receives payment for his work. He and his men are then escorted back to their village and presented with further quantities of food. The family now enter into regular occupation of their new home. Until the coming of the white man and even now in some of the most distant villages each fale was provided with a “Taigaafi”. It is a sort of fireplace and formerly was made by mixing earth or lime with water and lining a depression in the floor of the house. A smouldering fire continually burned therein and served as a perpetual source from which the native lamps and fires could be lighted.

Protection from sun, wind or rain, as well as from prying eyes was obtained by suspending from the fau running round the house a sort of venetial blind. The fronds of the cocoanut tree are plaited into a kind of mat about a foot wide and three feet long. They are called “Polas”. A sufficient number of these to reach from the ground to the top of the poulalo are fastened together with afa on the prinoipal of a venetian blind and are tied up or let down as occasion demands. Usually one string of these mats covers the space between two poulalo and so on round the house. They do not last for long but being quickly page 5 made are soon replaced. They afford sample protection from the elements and it being possible to let them down in sections, it is seldom that the whole house is closed up.

With the exception of very few inland villages all Samoan houses are built close to the sea shore and the natural foundations ase coral, sand, lava with sometimes a few inches of earth in some localities. Drainage is therefore good. Occasionally one comes across a house or houses built in swampy localities or on swampy ground, but it is the exception. The porous foundations do in a great part account for the absence of many types of fever and every rain that falls washes away and down any accumulation of filthy matter.

Normally the floors of the houses and the land in the immediate vicinity of the fales are kept clean of rubbish which is usually burned. The Samoans have a bad habit which is most noticeable when they are inside their houses. It is the habit of expectorating in all and every direction. When occupied the house floors are usually covered or partially covered with native mats and it is customary to lift a corner of a mat and expectorate below particularly if it is not convenient to spit outside. Possibly the constant stream of fresh air that blows through every Samoan house tends to alear the air polluted by this unclean habit.

Samoan houses are not permanently partitioned off and any division that is made is usually by means of native Tapa cloth or European cotton material.

There are three pronounced types of houses built by the Samoans:-

Fale Tele (large house). This is usually round in shape and is used an a meeting house. The details of construction are similar to those described by diagrams 3 and 1.

Afolau (long house): Usually occupied as a dwelling house or visitors house.

Fale O'o: (small house): This is long in shape and is really an addition to the main house. It is not so well constructed and is situated always at the back of the main dwelling.

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Tunoa (Cook house): A flimsy structure, small in size, and not really to be considered as a house.

Dr Buck of the Bishop Museum, Hawai'i, was intrigued by the round ends of the Samoan houses and endeavoured fruitlessly to discover a feasible explanation when he was in Samoa. The shape is not usual amongst the Polynesians except in the less important structures such as cook houses. I have many enquiries of the Samoans and ultimately heard from Tuatagaloa, an old and influential chief of Poutasi, Palealili District, an explanation that sounded reasonable and was in keeping with explanations of other similar peculiarities in their customs. To make his meaning and explanation more understandable it must be remembered that the guild of carpenters amongst the Samoans is rather an exclusive one and that it is not every Samoan who can build a house. Master carpenters in Samoa are about in the same proportion as are master carpenters in any other country.

In the time of Tagaloalagi houses in Samoa where of different sizes and shapes and this lead to much confusion and created many difficulties for those who wished to have a house erected as each carpenter was proficient in the building of one shape only. A fono of all the carpenters was held for the purpose of coming to a satisfactory decision relative to house building. Each carpenter wished that his style of house should be the one decided upon and the argument waxed enthusiastic. As there seemed to be no prospect of the matter being amicably decided Tagaloalagi was asked to decide. He pointed to the dome of heaven and to the horizon and decreed that the shape of all houses should be as was the shape of the heavens and it has been thus ever since.

The timbers most frequently used in the construction of Samoan houses are:-

Poutu: Ifilele, Poumili, Asi, 'Ulu, Talia, Launini'i, Aloalovao. (all durable.)
Poulalo: Ditto.
Pao: 'Ulu, Fao, Niu (cocoanut).
Paulalo: Ditto.page 7
Aso: Niuvao, 'Ulu, Matomo, Olamea.
Paeaso: Ditto.
So'a: 'Ulu, Niu.
Auau: 'Ulu.
Talitali: 'Ulu.

The front of a Samoan house is that part that faces the highway through the village as a rule. The floor of the fale is quartered into four and each section is named: Tala luma is the front aide section, Tala tua the back side section, tala, the two end sections. The two end posys named “Matua tala” are the positions occupied by the chiefs and the “Pou o le pepe” by the orators. The positions or posts at the back of the house are occupied by the servants of the chiefs, kava makers etc.

Remembering that no metal of any description enters into the construction of a Samoan house it is remarkable that they withstand the strong gales that blow in the wet season. It is very seldom that a house is blown down and when one is it is usually an old structure.

At the present time there is not much evidence on the part of a desire of the Samoans/to erect European houses and unquestionably their present habitations meet their every need and are infinitely more healthy than any European structure could ever be for them.

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