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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods



The publication—by the National Assembly in France, then in the throes of the Revolution—of the journal of the missing La Pérouse is supposed to have given the Samoans such a reputation for treachery and savagery that for many years their islands were left unvisited by Europeans. But this can scarcely be correct, for when the pioneer missionaries, John Williams and Barff, landed on Savaii in August 1830, there were already white men living among the natives, in Upolu at any rate, and, indeed, it was by now almost a point of etiquette—as establishing a certain status—for the various chiefs to have each their particular white man resident. He would assist in war, lend advice, and if he had any skill as an armourer his services are said to have been greatly valued.

Williams, at the conclusion of the narrative of his two voyages to Samoa, remarks that during his second visit many facts were communicated to him, some of which he thought it necessary to notice. The first being the number of runaway sailors, and other Europeans, who resided among the people, and did them incalculable mischief. Many of these were convicts from New South Wales, who had stolen small vessels and had thus made their escape. The native "teachers," he says, whom he left in Samoa on his first voyage informed him that, subsequent to their settlement, a gang of convicts came there in a fine schooner, which, after stripping off her sails and every article of value, they scuttled and sunk a few hundred yards from the shore.

Some time before this, continues Williams, another gang came, in a stolen vessel, to the Society Islands; and although treated with the utmost kindness by the chief, Mahine, they contrived, after plundering his house of all his property, among page 22which was a blunderbuss and a small cask of powder, to decamp at midnight in Mr. Barff's whale-boat.

Subsequently these men reached the Navigators Islands, where they entered with delight into the wars of the natives; and having fire-arms and powder, made fearful havoc among them. The leader soon fell a victim to his own temerity. On one occasion, seeing a number of the opposite party clustered together, he fired his blunderbuss, heavily loaded with bullets, and killed nine upon the spot, besides wounding others. The natives, however, did not give him time to reload, but rushed upon him and killed him with their clubs.

A second was drowned in endeavouring to make his escape; a third fell in battle shortly afterwards. But to the "monster of iniquity" whom the natives put to death shortly before the missionaries' arrival, a longer time had been allowed. Of this individual, John Williams said he received the most terrific accounts. It was stated that he had killed upwards of two hundred persons with his own hands. Being an excellent marksman, no one could escape who came within range of his musket. The natives fled as soon as they perceived him; and, to avoid detection, he smeared himself with charcoal and oil. He seldom left the fort of the party for whom he was fighting without killing a number of the enemy, whose heads were invariably cut off, and ranged before him during his meals. He often seated himself upon a kind of stage, smeared with blood, and surrounded with the heads of his victims. In this state his followers would convey him on their shoulders, with songs of triumph, to his own residence.

The party for whom he fought was, however, conquered; and he saved his life by fleeing to the mountains, where he lived for three months upon roots, or whatever else he could obtain. At length he came to the island of Manono, and threw himself upon the mercy of the chiefs, who spared him, upon the condition that he should never again engage in their wars. But a few months after this, having received information of his secret intrigues with the opposite party, the chiefs held a consultation, at which it was determined to put him to death. One of their number, a powerful young man, was charged with this commission; and, selecting a few followers, he proceeded at page 23midnight to the murderer's house, and, by a single blow, severed his head from his body. The surgeon of the Oldham whaler was sitting by his side at the time.

When, says Williams, he was on Manono he found the people at one part of the island exceedingly shy, and, on landing, the chief sent a message requesting him to come to his residence. The chief then stated that, having ordered an Englishman to be killed, he feared that the missionary would be angry and avenge the death. Williams says he told him that the King of England would not allow his subjects, who conducted themselves well, to be injured with impunity in any part of the world; but that "as this individual had been such a murderer" they had nothing to fear, for the Government of his country would approve of their conduct.

"While at the Navigators, I heard of two vessels having been taken at islands on which the people were still heathen. In one case all the crew, and in the other the greater part of them, fell victims to the excited feelings of the natives. In both instances, however, the English were the aggressors. In the one, the chief's son was threatened with death, and in the other, the drunken captain and crew were in the act of dragging the chief's wife on board their ship. A short time after this disastrous event, a man-of-war visited the island, when sixty of the inhabitants were killed. Surely if the natives are to be so severely punished for avenging their injuries, some method ought to be adopted to prevent our countrymen from inflicting them."