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Polynesia; A popular description of the physical features, inhabitants, natural history, and productions of the islands of the Pacific. With an account of their discovery, and the progress of civilisation and christianity amongst them.

Chapter XII. — The Navigator's or Samoa Islands

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Chapter XII.
The Navigator's or Samoa Islands.

samoan "fale-tele," or council-house.

samoan "fale-tele," or council-house.

This beautiful and fertile group is situated to the north-north-east of the Tonga Islands, and about east-north-east from the Figis; it forms a chain extending east and west between the meridians 169° and 173° west of Greenwich, in latitude about 15° south.
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The eastern portion of the Samoa group was discovered by Bougainville in 1768, who bestowed on these islands the name of "the Navigators," on account of the skill displayed by the inhabitants in the management of their canoes.

In 1787 the unfortunate La Perouse visited the island of Tutuila in this group, where M. de Langle, his second officer, together with eleven others, were massacred at Leone Bay, on the northern side of the island.

The Samoas consist of eight islands:—Manua, Orosenga, Ofu, Tutuila, Opolu, Manono, Aborima, and Savaii. On sailing west, the first island of the chain that makes its appearance is Manua; it is circular, and so lofty as to be visible at a distance of forty or fifty miles. Orosenga and Ofu are small islands of but little importance. Next comes the beautiful and romantic Tutuila, about fifty miles west of Orosenga; it is about ninety miles in circumference, and has two good harbours, that of Pango-pango, and Leone Bay, where ships of any burden may anchor in safety.

Opolu, the next island of the group, is in circumference between 150 and 200 miles. The mountains here are very high, and clothed with verdure to their summits. One of its harbours, that of Apia, is spacious, safe, and commodious. Manono is attached by a reef to the south-west extremity of Opolu; it is about five miles in circumference, and is thickly populated; its inhabitants having a kind of political superiority over all the other Samoan islands.

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Aborima is about two miles in extent, from 200 to 300 feet high, and lies half way between Manono and Savaii. It appears to be an extinct crater, being precipitous and inaccessible all round, except at one opening, with a deep hollow in the middle. The people of Manono, to whom it is subject, use it in time of war as a sort of fortress, and as a retreat for their families and property. The entrance is guarded with tripping lines, so that men stationed on the rocks on either side could easily overturn all canoes that attempted to pass. "Barren and sterile as are the sides of the rocks, a very different appearance is presented, when you arrive opposite to the point where the crater has emptied itself. Here the whole of the interior opens at once to view, and anything more beautiful or unique I never beheld. The island is a basin, most regularly scooped out, and ascending with a gentle slope from the centre to the circumference; and, although on approaching it nothing meets the eye but sterile cliffs, when you catch a glimpse of the amphitheatre within, you discover there an impressive contrast to the dreariness and desolation without. Not a barren spot is to be seen, but one verdant mass of tropical vegetation, the whole of which, from the peculiar form of the island, presents itself at a single view, and fills the beholder with delight. If anything could enhance the beauty of the scene, it is the group of native dwellings, which, half revealed among the trees of cocoa-nut, bread-fruit, and banana, form the settlement."

Savaii is the largest of the group, and the most page 268 westerly; it is about 250 miles in circumference, with lofty mountains clothed with noble forests, the tops of which are visible at a distance of seventy miles. In beauty, extent, and importance, Savaii yields to but few of the many lovely islands of the central Pacific.

All the islands of the Samoan chain are lofty and volcanic; the mountains in Savaii attain an altitude of 3000 feet; and the group generally is fertile and beautiful in the extreme. The soil is exceedingly rich, and the islands are well watered, and abound with springs, lakes, and streams. The abundance of trees, bearing the usual nutritious fruits of tropical Polynesia, maintains the natives in plenty; which supply of food is further augmented by the great number of dogs, poultry, and hogs, of which latter it is stated La Pérouse purchased 500 at the period of his visit.

Since the year 1845, the village of Apia, on the island of Opolu, has been the residence of a British and an American consul, whose duty it is to look after the interests of the numerous vessels belonging to their respective nations, which visit the harbours of Opolu and Tutuila.

The United States exploring expedition, under Lieutenant Wilkes, visited and surveyed all the Samoan group in the year 1839.

The devoted John Williams, in connection with the London Missionary Society, first planted a Christian mission in the Samoas in 1830; since which period the islanders generally have embraced Christianity. There exists at Opolu an institution page 269for training and educating native teachers; and, at the printing-press of this establishment, the Scriptures, are issued in the Samoan tongue; a periodical called the "Samoan Reporter" has an extensive circulation throughout Polynesia.

The population of the entire group is calculated not to exceed 37,000, at the present time, though formerly it appears to have been considerably greater. Opolu is estimated, with Manono, as having about 20,000 inhabitants; whilst the population of Savaii may be taken at 12,000; leaving the aggregate amount of 5000 for Tutuila and the Manua group.

These islands are subject to the diseases of ophthalmia and elephantiasis; and for several years past, during the wet season, a severe kind of influenza has occurred in the form of an epidemic; and hooping-cough has also been introduced.

This group, like others in the same parallel of latitude in the western Pacific, is subject to violent hurricanes, between the months of November and May, during which periods the trade-winds are sometimes suspended for two or three days at a time. These rotatory storms are called by the natives "afa fuli fao," or "knock-down winds." Earthquakes are also of frequent occurrence, but they do no injury to the elastic buildings of the country.

The romantic harbour of Pango-pango, in the island of Tutuila, is an ancient crater, very deep, but completely land-locked by lofty mountains, under the protection of which a vessel, with proper page 270precautions, might ride out even one of the fearful summer hurricanes. Mr. Hood, of H.M.S. "Fawn," thus describes the aspect of Tutuila in 1862: "To those who have never beheld tropical scenery, it is difficult to give any description which will enable them to realize the singular beauty of these islands. Here high, rugged mountains, clothed with dense green forests, sink sheer down to the water; a grey precipice now and then relieving the eye. Against the blue sky the outline is broken by a graceful palm, or some high pinnacle, or by the waving bamboo or banana. Silvery sands stretch along in front of the narrow plain, shaded by thick groves of cocoa-nut trees whose leaves wave and dance, reflecting the rays of the bright sun, underneath which are the scattered villages of the natives. Upon the narrow fringing coral reef the dark green waves break dazzlingly, while at the head of the bay, the white cottage and mission church give an air of quiet civilization to the scene, enlivened by numbers of canoes with their picturesque occupants moving about in all directions; and, over all, the deep blue heaven is shaded ever and anon by rolling clouds, borne by the trade-wind, which is seen, not felt."

There appears to be no principal chief exercising supreme authority over the entire group, as is the case in many other islands; every settlement is a sort of independent state, governed by its own petty chiefs, who often unite to oppose aggressions from more powerful neighbours.

Wars were formerly exceedingly frequent amongst them, and indeed have raged more or less up to the page 271present time, in spite of all the endeavours of the consuls and missionaries to quell them.

Mr. Williams says, that at the island of Aborima, the natural fortress of the people of Manono, "though ignorant of writing, they kept an account of the number of battles they had fought, by depositing a stone, of a peculiar form, in a basket, which was carefully fastened to the ridge-pole of a sacred house for that purpose. This was let down, and the stones were counted when I was there, and the number was one hundred and ninety-seven!"

The Samoans, although so frequently engaged in intestine wars and skirmishes of a not very sanguinary character, are certainly less barbarous, and more tractable than most of their Polynesian neighbours. Human sacrifices appear to have been unknown amongst them, and Mr. Williams tells us, "that they were not addicted to cannibalism, which they spoke of with just horror and detestation." On the other hand, the Rev. Mr. Turner, in his "Ethnology of Polynesia," states, "It has been questioned whether cannibalism ever prevailed in Samoa. During some of their wars a body was occasionally cooked; but they affirm that in such a case it was always some one of the enemy who had been notorious for provocation or cruelty, and that eating a part of his body was considered the climax of hatred and revenge, and was not occasioned by the mere relish for human flesh, such as obtains throughout the Figi, the New Hebrides, and New Caledonian groups. In more remote heathen times, however, they may have indulged in this savage custom."

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The Samoans are a remarkably fine-looking race of people. They are very light coloured; and the men are usually tattooed from the loins to the knees. This tattooing of the body from the waist to the knee has all the appearance of a pair of light breeches; and, with the narrow apron of dragon leaves, supplies the place of dress in their estimation. Indeed, so perfect is the deception that, in an account of these islands in 1772, the people were described as "being clothed from the waist downwards with fringes, and long hose made of a kind of silken stuff artificially wrought."

Their features are often beautiful, but the nose is somewhat flatter than with us; this is caused, however, by the mothers artificially pressing them when infants, with a view of improving their personal appearance, as all the Polynesians seem to have a repugnance to long and sharp noses.

Their dress is either the "lava-lava" of native cloth, similar to the tappa of Tahiti, and which they gather round their waists in flowing folds like a Roman toga, or the "titi," a picturesque sort of petticoat of the fresh leaves of the dracæna or dragon-tree, which sets off their fine muscular limbs to advantage. The women usually adopt, besides the "titi," a garment called "tiputa," resembling a small poncho, with a slit for the head, hanging so as decently to cover the bosom. The higher class also wear a white mat or petticoat made from the fibres of the native cotton tree, and they decorate their necks with beads, and their heads with a profusion of gay-coloured flowers.

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Unfortunately, amongst the converts, and especially those who are more immediately connected with the missionaries, hideous bonnets, of native manufacture, yet fashioned somewhat after the grotesque style of those worn in England thirty years ago, are adopted by the women, instead of the wreath of natural flowers formerly used, at once so elegant and simple. Indeed, articles of European clothing are now being rapidly introduced into many parts of Polynesia, and are worn by both sexes with absurd and unbecoming effect. In speaking of a mission service in Samoa, Mr. Hood says, "Wherever one's eyes turned they were sure to rest upon something most astounding in the way of bonnets. Under a huge coal-scuttle of native manufacture, built upon the most exaggerated scale of the fashion prevailing when Europeans first came to these islands, you saw the happy, contented-looking face of a girl, appearing as though she had been got up for a pantomime, who, in her native head-dress of a simple flower, would have been much more becomingly arrayed. Perhaps beside her sat her mother, who, with spectacles on her nose, pored over her book with an equally astonishing work of art overshadowing her shrunken figure. The bonnet is supposed to be the suitable costume for the Sunday, but with these people the idea is a mistaken one."

But few of the women are tattooed, though many of them adopt the practice of sengisengi, or spotting, which is effected by means of raising small blisters on the skin with the burning tinder of native cloth. page 274These, when healed, leave the spot of a lighter colour than the ordinary skin.

The Samoans have the custom, not generally adopted in Polynesia, of purchasing their wives; and sometimes as many as two hundred pigs, together with a quantity of siapo or native cloth, is given for a comely damsel. The system of their polygamy is to allow each wife to enjoy three days' supremacy in rotation, and by this arrangement comparatively little quarrelling occurs amongst them.

Their women are treated with great consideration, and their lives were always considered too valuable to be sacrificed on the death of their husbands, as was the case in some parts of Polynesia. When a chief dies, his widow is generally taken by his brother or some near relative.

Of the younger population seen at Tutuila, Captain Erskine, of H.M.S. "Havannah" (who visited the Navigator's in 1850), says, "The girls were generally good-humoured looking, but the inferiority of their beauty compared to that of the men, is most striking, and cannot be accounted for, as in New Zealand, by their being called upon to perform laborious and inferior duties, as they are here held in much higher estimation. The manly beauty of the young men is very remarkable: one, in particular, who accompanied us to-day, and had decked his hair with the flowers of the scarlet hibiscus, might have sat for an Antinous."

They are exceedingly fond of their children, often injudiciously so, permitting them to eat whatever they like, and as much as they please. "On the whole," says Mr. Hood, "a happier race of page 275people could not be found than the Samoans. A scowling or discontented face is seldom seen; want or poverty is unknown; and nature has showered upon their country her choicest gifts. They are very partial to amusements; the inhabitants of the various villages frequently pay each other visits, and on these occasions the evenings are usually spent in singing and dancing. Men and women generally dance separately, but sometimes together. The men, splendid-looking fellows, in full native costume, wear aprons of red dracæna leaves, well oiled. All the tattooing is visible, of course. On their heads they have full wigs of a reddish colour, frizzed out, and made of their own hair, which every man, for a certain period, allows to grow long, for the purpose of making these head-dresses, which are worn in war and in the dance. Around their foreheads both sexes twine strings of large ornaments made from the pearly nautilus, or coronets of the flowers of the scarlet hibiscus, which together look very handsome." Indeed, when the Samoan belles enter the dancing circle in the full evening costume, with their shining pearly coronets and their necklaces of red and yellow flowers, their appearance is really imposing. Some wear mats of great value, beautifully plaited; whilst others display snowwhite shaggy dresses of cotton-tree fibre, of the most ample proportions.

In matters of cleanliness and habits of decency these people carry their customs to a higher point even than the most fastidious of civilized nations, although they are not so far advanced in the useful page 276and ornamental arts as the Society Islanders and other people to the eastward.

Their canoes are built of separate pieces of timber tied together, with the usual outrigger, and the covered part or deck is ornamented with rows of white ovulum shells. Their larger canoes are hauled up on the beaches beneath thatched sheds, to protect them from the sun.

These large canoes, in which they make voyages to the neighbouring islands, are capable of holding fourteen paddlers besides the helmsman, and are constructed, in addition to the floating outrigger, with a long spar projecting to windward, on which stands one of the crew as ballast, regulating his distance from the gunwale according to the strength of the breeze. The sail is of matting, narrow at the top and set between two masts. As they have no way of reefing, they are sometimes blown off the coast, and either perish or are picked up by some passing vessel.

A Samoan village is thus described by Captain Erskine: "Our approach to the village of Fanga-saa was indicated by the provision-grounds, fenced with low walls of broken coral, in which, interspersed with bread-fruit trees, were growing bananas, yams, taro, and the kava pepper (Piper mythisticum). A neatly-kept path led into the village, situated under the shade of a cocoa-nut grove, and only a few yards' distance from the sea, on the borders of which were seen their canoes and sheds. The houses stand at irregular distances, and in no formal order; the path or street being, however, cleanly swept, as is page 277the open space in front of the large house, which is common to all the inhabitants when meeting either for business or amusement, and is also the residence of casual strangers. This house, although of larger dimensions, is of similar construction to all the others, forming an oblong with elliptical ends, of about fifty feet long by twenty broad. Three posts of from twenty to thirty feet high support the ridgepole, which, with the surrounding line of posts of five feet high, form, as it were, the skeleton of the structure. The roof, which is constructed separately from the rest of the building, is composed of three parts, the centre and the two ends, the rafters of the former being parallel to each other, and those of the ends curved, and resembling an immense cabriolet hood. The effect of the latter is very singular and pleasing; and they being of considerable length are made of separate pieces of the wood of the bread-fruit tree, joined together by an ingenious scarf or joint. These portions of the roof, which are well thatched with the leaf of the sugar-cane, being elevated on the frame above mentioned, are securely lashed with cord made of the cocoa-nut fibre, first to the lower row of posts, and then to each other, no nails or pegs of any description being made use of; thus leaving the whole house open to the height of five feet from the ground. Mats suspended from the lower part of the roof may, however, be let down when required; and the floor, which is raised some feet above the level of the surrounding ground, and paved with pebbles like many of our summerhouses, is covered with soft mats for sitting or re-page 278elining. Two wood fires are generally kept burning between the central posts, and the large kava bowl occupies a conspicuous place." All cooking is performed outside of the houses, in the hot stone ovens common to Polynesia. When a stranger of consequence enters a house, a new and clean mat is offered for his seat, and an air of cleanliness and freshness pervades the whole building. These houses occupy a considerable time in their construction, and a regular gang of carpenters are employed for that purpose; when built they are easily taken to pieces and moved from one place to another, the three compartments of the roof being made so as to form separate loads.

In the missionary villages there are chapels of coral plastered with lime, and the dwellings of the missionaries are usually constructed of the same more durable material.

Although former voyagers who have come into contact with the Samoans described them as fierce and dishonest, and M. de la Pérouse spoke of them as a set of barbarous savages, later visitors to these islands give us a much more favourable account. Captain Erskine says that, on leaving Tutuila, "there was a general feeling of regret in parting with these people, who are certainly the most agreeable to deal with of any I have ever seen in a similar condition. That this has been owing, in great measure, to their communication with a good class of white men, and to the teachings of the missionaries, no person who reads the opinions of the first discoverers with respect to these islanders is likely to deny."

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Captain Wilkes mentions that the massacre of Le Langle, eighty years ago, was projected by the then savage people in consequence of the death of one of their number, who was shot alongside one of the French ships; and, were both sides of the question impartially told in connection with the various massacres that have taken place in former times amongst the Polynesian Islands, it is probable that the Europeans would be found frequently to have been the aggressors in the first instance.

It is a matter of regret that this fine race has so little stimulus to steady industry. They lead an easy and happy life in the luxurious climate of the tropics, the lavish gifts of nature surrounding them on every side with all that they require in the shape of food and clothing. They could easily produce cocoa-nut oil to an almost unlimited extent, as well as cotton and arrowroot; and all descriptions of tropical produce might be grown in abundance on these fertile islands.

Their manner of extracting the oil from the cocoa-nut is of the simplest kind; they merely scoop out the kernels of the nuts, and, putting them into an old canoe perforated at the bottom, leave the oil to drip through into vessels placed beneath to receive it. The missionaries have obtained iron tanks in which to store up the oil, and several hundred pounds' worth of it have been contributed annually by the Samoans for sale on behalf of the missionary societies.