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Samoan Material Culture



Every person of any status had a bonito canoe. These went out in fleets during the season and sometimes in pursuing shoals got out a good distance. Bougainville, seeing a fleet of fishing canoes, looked upon the Samoans as daring sailors and thereupon called the Samoan group the Navigators Islands. The bonito canoe thus gave the people an unearned reputation. Sampan voyages were mostly confined within the limits of their own group with occasional voyages to Tonga and Fiji. As regards communication between Samoa and Tonga, it was the Tongans who made most of the voyages.

Samoan historical narratives are singularly lacking in detailed stories of long sea voyages, and present a marked contrast to the wealth: of such material in marginal Polynesia. This may be attributed to the fact that the Samoans were early located in a group of islands sufficiently large to absorb their population. Many of the trips of Samoan legendary ancestors were accomplished by swimming, which shows how little pride they took in voyaging canoes, else they would have handed on more details of the form of actual transport. Stair (33, pp. 271-286) has described a number of long sea voyages which the attributes to Samoans but he rather naively explains that he got his information from a Rarotongan. In these narratives he takes all mention of Hawaiki as referring to the Samoan dialectical form of Savaii, and regardless of the many Hawaiki scattered over the Pacific, claims all the famous long sea voyagers of marginal Polynesia as Samoans. Stair, himself, states that the original Samoan double canoe was so difficult for them to handle that the Samoans abandoned it for the Tongan type with which they came in contact comparatively recently. It is significant that the two largest types of canoe, the 'alia and the taumualua, were both adopted from foreign patterns. The Samoan evidently not only did not have the necessity for long sea voyages but he did not have a satisfactory type of large craft in which to make them. It is fair argument to suppose that he had not evolved a satisfactory type because, though he had an organized guild of canoe builders, he had not developed, or had lost, the voyaging instinct. There seems to be no material reason why he should have gone searching for land. Thus, both Bougainville and Stair have given the world a wrong conception of what the Samoans did with the canoes they had.