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An Introduction to Samoan Custom

CHAPTER I — Introduction

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The Territory of Western Samoa, defined in Imperial Orders in Council as the area situated between the 13th and 15th degrees of south latitude and the 171st and 173rd degrees of west longitude, comprises the two principal adjacent islands of Upolu and Savai'i, the small but politically important islands of Manono and Apolima in the straits between Upolu and Savai'i, and the smaller uninhabited islands of Fanuatapu, Namua, Nu'utele, Nu'ulua and Nu'usafe'e. New Zealand lies approximately 1,600 miles away slightly west of south on the other side of the International Date Line, so that a day is lost or gained on trips between the two countries; Samoan Zone Time is 23 hours behind New Zealand Time. Upolu and Savai'i, about 45 and 46 miles long respectively*, lie in an axis with Eastern Samoa running approximately north-west and south-east; Upolu is over 400 square miles in area and Savai'i 700 square miles, while Manono and Apolima total less than two square miles together. The principal town and seat of administration, Apia, located on a bay opposite a break in the reef which can scarcely be dignified by the name of harbour, and nestling under Mount Vaea, the burial place of Robert Louis Stevenson, lies about half way along the northern coast of Upolu. The wreck resting on the inner reef of the harbour is all that remains of the German gunboat “Adler”, driven ashore during the famous hurricane of March 15th to 16th, 1889, when the British “Calliope” was the only warship of seven then in the roadstead to make her escape to the open sea.

About 70 miles south-east of Apia lies Eastern or American Samoa; the principal island of Tutuila is 18 miles long and is the site of a United States Naval Station. The

* The distances are variously stated as anything from 45 to 47 miles for each island. Existing lithographs, issued in 1922, are inaccurate and out of date, and cannot be corrected until coastal traverses are completed.

page 2 administrative centre, Pago Pago, is located on a fine sheltered harbour on the south coast. There is a small adjoining island, Aunu'u, and 50 miles eastwards a group of three islands, Taū, 'Ofu and Olosega, known collectively as Manu'a, and a small uninhabited atoll 75 miles further east called Rose Island. The approximate area of American territory is stated by various authorities to be from 60 to 73 square miles. The small atoll, Swain's Island, north of Samoa, was annexed to American Samoa in 1925.

All the islands except Nu'usafe'e and the Rose Atoll are rocky and volcanic. Upolu, Savai'i and Tutuila have high ridge areas inland rising in Savai'i to peaks of 6,094 feet, in Upolu to 3,608 feet, and in Tutuila to 2,141 feet. Population is confined mostly to the coastal areas, there being only 11 inland villages out of a total of 192 in Western Samoa. Plantations extend in most cases for only a few miles inland. The interior is heavily forested and many parts have not been properly explored although many crater-lakes and waterfalls of particular beauty are known. Tutuila is stated to be the oldest formation geologically, Upolu being next in geological age and Savai'i comparatively recent. A serious eruption of the volcano Matavanu took place on the north coast of Savai'i between 1905 and 1911, covering several villages and ruining many square miles of rich and productive land. The people rendered homeless by this disaster are now located in two areas on the north and south coasts of Upolu at Leauva'a and Salamumu.

The climate is tropical, the atmosphere humid, the rainfall heavy and the range in temperature, especially at sea-level, small. The latter fact, together with the high humidity, although tempered to some degree by the south-east trade-wind that blows during the drier season roughly from April to September, is undoubtedly the most trying feature of a climate that, while described as mild and equable, is not ideal for people, especially women, born in more temperate regions. The entire Group, although considered by modern meteorologists to be within the hurricane belt, has fortunately experienced very few hurricanes of the degree of severity termed “destructive”.

The Apia Observatory, founded in 1902 by the Society of Natural Sciences of Göttingen for the purpose of taking observations simultaneously with those of an Antarctic Expedition, is located at the end of the Mulinu'u peninsula, a low sandy spit only a few feet above sea-level. The climate there is thus more of the maritime or oceanic type page 3 than that on the true mainland or in the foothills only a short distance away. This fact has a practical and personal significance for residents on the peninsula, but should also be borne in mind by the reader in any critical consideration of the figures quoted in the following paragraphs.

Observatory records over many years show that the average temperature was 79.29 degrees, the mean daily maximum 84.7 degrees, and the mean daily minimum 73.8 degrees. The record maximum shade thermometer reading is 93 degrees and the minimum 63 degrees. All figures quoted are on the Fahrenheit scale. Residents of long standing in the Territory find temperatures approaching the minimum stated above decidedly cool.*

Temperature figures quoted are computed from observations taken in standard meteorological screens. These wooden structures with double-louvred sides and ventilated bases are not designed to reproduce all the features of European living conditions, which are frequently more trying than meteorological records would suggest. Temperatures taken in the open at grass level show a greater range.

The recorded hours of sunshine average approximately 2,500 annually.

The mean relative humidity during the day is about 79 per cent, rising to higher than 90 per cent nearly every night. Some observations have been recorded showing a humidity of 99 per cent.

The average annual rainfall for the last 55 years is 111.63 inches. The greatest fall in twenty-four hours in recorded as 15.95 inches and in one hour 3.36 inches. During the wettest month on record a total fall of 59.57 inches was recorded at Mulinu'u, while Tapatapao, 1,000 feet above sea-level, registered 52 inches of rain in 48 hours in the same months.§ The average rainfall is distributed in the

* One is here reminded of the fact that even temperature has a relative value. In the course of a Government expedition in 1929 through the interior of Savai'i, a temperature of 53 degrees F. was recorded one rainy night at a level of approximately 5,000 feet. A member of the party, born in Samoa, was heard to exclaim, “It can't possibly be as cold as this in New Zealand!” There are natives in Africa who sleep on the top of clay bank furnaces when the temperature falls below 70 degrees F.

The average annual rainfall of Auckland, Wellington, Christ-church and Dunedin is 50, 43, 26, and 37 inches respectively.

§ It is interesting to note that in this month in the following year only 3.3 inches were recorded. The normal for the particular month in question is 17.74 inches.

page 4 proportions of about 78 inches from October to March, and 34 inches from April to September. Thus, although there is a seasonal distribution, there is nothing approaching a true dry season as in some other countries, although in some years the precipitation during the drier part of the year may fall below the normal. There is, however, a noticeable difference in the amount of rain in different parts of the country. Observations at Sogi, merely one mile from the Observatory on the neck of the Mulinu'u peninsula, show that the precipitation there is 9.1 per cent higher, while at the Hospital, 145 feet above mean sea-level, one mile from the beach and a little over two miles south-east of the Observatory, where Dr. Buxton in 1924 and 1925 took special observations for nineteen months,* his figures show that the rainfall is 16 per cent higher. In the mountains the annual precipitation can rise above 200 inches. At one mountain station, Afiamalu, height 2,296 feet, an annual fall of 248 inches has been recorded, while the yearly average for this station is 197 inches. Any part of the country presenting a southern or south-eastern aspect and thus facing the prevailing wind has a correspondingly heavy rainfall. Pago Pago on the south coast of Tutuila, American Samoa, placed among mountains at the head of a deep bay, has a remarkably heavy rainfall of about 200 inches annually, even though it is at sea-level. The influence of locality and the effect of the prevailing wind should be noted because the Observatory is situated both on a peninsula and on the lee side of the island. Rain can frequently be observed in Apia while the Mulinu'u peninsula or the seaward half of it is dry; it is interesting sometimes to see the wet and dry areas marked on a road as plainly as if a line had been drawn across it.
As the temperature and humidity are always high and steady, it is clear that man's comfort depends largely upon the movement of the air either by day or by night. This problem resolves itself substantially into a question of locality of residence and housing ventilation, the latter point having been admirably solved in the construction of Samoan houses. It does not always receive adequate attention in European housing. One effect of living in the foothills or higher in the mountain ranges is that greater variations in temperature and much cooler nights with land breezes are experienced, with a consequent beneficial effect

* This is, of course, too short a period on which to base sound scientific conclusions.

page 5 on the health and energy of residents in those places. Buxton's observations and conclusions in this connection are of more than casual interest and seem not to have received the attention his careful studies warrant.*

The lower rainfall and cooler conditions between approximately April and September, and particularly in June and July, make that period the more pleasant part of the year. Summer in the southern hemisphere brings to Samoa a higher rainfall and more cloudy weather with a lower and more irregular range in temperature; it is the winter season, with a more regular and higher daily temperature range, bright sunny days tempered by the trade winds, and clear, cool nights with land breezes, that visitors from temperate countries find attractive. As Buxton has pointed out, under Samoan conditions a difference of a few degrees in temperature minima may make all the difference between a good and a bad night's sleep.

The Mulinu'u peninsula referred to above, the site of the Apia Observatory and the Department of Native Affairs, has been the scene of many stirring events in Samoan history during the last hundred years. It has been both an armed fortress and the seat of a Samoan Government. It is the burial place of some of the leading Samoan figures in the recent history of the country, and also of British, American and German sailors who lost their lives in action in 1888 and 1899.

There is no malaria in Samoa, but filaria, which is the early stage of elephantiasis, may be contracted from the attentions of a particular species of mosquito. There are very few venomous creatures: no venomous snakes, of which there are two harmless§ and far from common varieties, large and small centipedes, scorpions, hornets and bees. The stings are painful and unpleasant, but except possibly in the case of young children, not dangerous.

The flora and fauna are interesting. Samoa is a very fine field for the botanist and entomologist; between 1893 and 1895 Reinecke found 567 botanical genera and 1,224 species, and among these, 142 were new. Of the 52 kinds of birds,

* P. A. Buxton and G. H. E. Hopkins, Researches in Polynesia and Melanesia, Vol. I, Parts I to IV, London, 1927.

It rejoices in the name of Aedes Scutellaris var. Pseudo-Scutellaris.

§ Both Stair and Williams relate that Samoan girls used to twine live snakes about their necks as adornments while dancing.

page 6 34 are land birds and of the latter, 16 are found nowhere else in the world. Some of the remainder are found only in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The Manumea or tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus Strigirostris), now protected, has been considered by ornithologists to be one of the connecting links between bird-life of the present day and the tooth-billed birds of the geological past. Jordan and Searle have described the fish fauna of Samoa as one of the richest on the globe. In a short stay during 1902 they obtained specimens of 475 species, of which 92 were considered at that time to be new to science.

The principal exports are copra (the dried meat of the coconut), desiccated coconut, cocoa of very fine quality used a good deal for blending, rubber, and dried and fresh bananas. Coffee and native tobacco are produced for local consumption.

A census of the Territory of Western Samoa was taken on the 25th September, 1945, and showed a total number of Polynesian residents of 62,422* divided as to 43,768 in the islands of Upolu, Manono and Apolima, and 18,654 in the island of Savai'i. Of this total 61,867 were Samoans, with Niue, Tonga, Fiji, the Tokelau Islands, Wallis Island, Rotuma, Futuna and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and certain others represented in the remainder.

All Samoans profess some form of Christianity, and the census referred to above disclosed denominations as follows:

London Missionary Society 36,661
Roman Catholic 11,786
Methodist 10,580
Latter Day Saints (Mormons) 2,337
Seventh Day Adventists 505
Church of England 4
Congregational Church of Jesus 548
Presbyterian 1

Subsequent registrations of births and deaths and immigration and emigration figures give a total Polynesian population as at 31st March, 1947, of 65,695.

The total of Europeans of Samoan blood as disclosed by the census in 1945 was 5,040, and of Europeans 359.

Roggewein visited the Group in 1722, and later

* The total population of Eastern or American Samoa is approximately 17,000.

page 7 Bougainville in the course of a voyage round the world in 1768, but the first Papalagi or “sky-burster” to set foot ashore was La Perouse in Tutuila in 1787. H.M.S. “Pandora” made calls in the course of the cruise in search of the mutineers of the “Bounty” during the year 1791. Many interesting accounts survive of the experiences and observations of these and other voyagers during the next half century.

The history of Samoa is complex and fascinating, and is principally a story of one internal struggle after another. This is not the place for a discussion of this interesting subject, but successive modern political stages may be conveniently and briefly indicated under five principal headings:


The indigenous Samoan social and political organisation that obtained prior and for some time subsequent to the coming of Europeans.


The Constitution and system of Samoan Government established in 1873 and 1875 with unofficial European assistance.


The tripartite supervision by Britain, America and Germany instituted by the Treaty of Berlin in 1889.


The withdrawal of Britain in consideration of rights acquired in Tonga, the Solomons and elsewhere from Germany, and the partition of the Group between Germany and America in 1899. The German flag was hoisted in Western Samoa at Mulinu'u on 1st March, 1900.


The occupation of German Samoa by New Zealand troops on August 29th, 1914, and the Mandate conferred in 1919 upon His Britannic Majesty, to be exercised on his behalf by the Government of the Dominion of New Zealand, under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.

The precise derivation of New Zealand's authority in Western Samoa appears not always to be fully understood. The legal sequence was as follows:


By Article 119 of the Treaty of Peace with Germany, signed at Versailles on 28th June, 1919, Germany renounced in favour of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers all her rights over German Samoa.

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In accordance with Article 22, Part I (Covenant of the League of Nations) of the above treaty, the Principal Allied and Associated Powers agreed that a mandate should be conferred upon His Britannic Majesty, to be exercised on his behalf by the Government of the Dominion of New Zealand; and His Britannic Majesty, for and on behalf of the Government of New Zealand, agreed to accept the mandate, and undertook to exercise it on behalf of the League of Nations in accordance with certain provisions.


Authority to govern the Territory of Western Samoa was conferred on New Zealand by the (Imperial) Western Samoa Order in Council made on 11th March, 1920, by virtue of powers in the Foreign Jurisdiction Act, 1890. The same Order, as amended by a further Imperial Order in Council dated 9th November, 1920, defined the limits of the Territory.


Paragraph (8), Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, provided that the degree of authority, control or administration to be exercised by the Mandatory Power, not having been previously agreed upon by the members of the League, should be explieitly defined by the Council of the League of Nations, whereupon the latter body, confirming the mandate, defined its terms in seven articles dated 17th December, 1920.


Certain New Zealand Orders in Council making temporary provision for the peace, order and good government of the Territory were made prior to the date of the definition of the terms of the mandate under the authority of the Treaties of Peace Act, 1919, or of the Imperial Order in Council cited above dated 11th March, 1920. The Samoa Constitution Order, 1920, which came into operation on 1st May, 1920, formulated a constitution and a legal code for Western Samoa, and was later superseded by the Samoa Act, enacted by the New Zealand Legislature on 7th December, 1921, which came into force on 1st April, 1922.

New Zealand continues to be responsible for the administration of Western Samoa, subject to the supervision page 9 of the Trusteeship Council set up by the United Nations Organisation in New York in December, 1946. By the provisions of the Trusteeship Agreement for Western Samoa which now takes the place of the Mandate in terms of which the country was previously administered, New Zealand has undertaken to promote the progressive development of the inhabitants of Western Samoa towards self-government.

The Samoan people will be found courteous and hospitable in their dealings with strangers. They will not expect visitors to have at the best more than a superficial knowledge of Samoan custom, and they will be willing to forgive breaches of their own etiquette or custom where it is plain that there is no intention to give offence. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to understand that some knowledge of what constitutes good manners in Samoan society, especially on the part of Government officials or visitors of standing, will add a great deal to the interest and pleasure of initial contacts. Mutual respect for persons and institutions fosters mutual esteem. The Samoans will appreciate a courteous display of interest in their culture, and will be prompt to reciprocate a goodwil that is evidenced by European recognition of the type of conduct that is proper in their own society. It is true, of course, that there are certain differences between what constitutes chiefly or gentlemanly conduct in Samoan and European society, and social ideals are directed towards widely differing goals in the two cultures, but a quiet and dignified bearing is acknowledged and appreciated in both.