Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Samoa Under the Sailing Gods

Chapter ii — John Williams

page 21

Chapter ii
John Williams


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."


The pioneer missionaries, as indicated in the preceding section, reached Savaii in August 1830. On their way there a Samoan chief named Fauea, whom Williams had met in another group, came and seated himself on the deck by his side and said that he had been thinking of the great work before them, and although he had no doubt but that the chiefs would gladly receive them, and the common people all readily attend to Christian instruction, yet there was a person at Samoa called Tamafainga, and if he opposed them, their efforts would be impeded. Williams inquired who Tamafainga was: when he page 24was informed that he was the man in whom the spirit of the gods dwelt, that he was the terror of all the inhabitants, and that, if he forbade it, the people universally would be afraid to place themselves under instruction.

They glided along for some little time, with a fair wind, but it soon became adverse and a furious storm was encountered which rent the sails and crippled them exceedingly. An influenza also broke out among their people, which laid aside nearly all on board, and it was not until the seventh day out that the cloud-capped mountains of Savaii were descried.

As the wind still blew furiously, and all the people were ill, it was determined, if possible, to find an anchorage, and they ran to the leeward side of the island for the purpose; but could not succeed. As soon, however, as they neared the shore, a number of natives came off in canoes, of whom Fauea asked a variety of questions. At length, with a tremulous voice, as if afraid to hear the reply, he said, "And where is Tarnafainga?" "Oh!" shouted the people, with apparent delight, "he is dead, he is dead! He was killed only about ten or twelve days ago!" Frantic with joy at this intelligence, Fauea leaped about the vessel, and ran towards Williams shouting, "Ua mate le Devolo, ua mate le Devolo," "The devil is dead, the devil is dead! our work is done: the devil is dead!" Astonished, Williams inquired what he meant: when he replied, "The obstacle we dreaded is removed; Tarnafainga is dead; they have killed him; the people now will all receive the lotu." On hearing this, says Williams, he could not be otherwise than deeply affected with the seasonable interposition of a gracious providence.

Finding themselves sixty or eighty miles to leeward of the residence of Malietoa, the principal chief of the settlement, where they intended to make their head-quarters, they had to beat against a very strong wind; and on Sabbath-day, being thoroughly exhausted, their people all ill, and with sails much torn, they determined, if possible, to find an anchorage. As soon as the anchor was dropped, a number of natives came off from the shore, bringing with them females, and articles for barter. Fauea informed them that, as this was e vaa lotu, a praying ship, women would not be received; and that, as it was le aso sa, a sacred day, they must bring off food, and other page 25articles for sale, in the morning. This was to them most extraordinary information.

Fauea, however, gave them to understand who the strangers were, and what was the object of the visit; and having gathered them in a circle around him on the quarter-deck of the little vessel, he informed them of the number of islands which had become Christian, naming Tahiti, Rarotonga, Tongatabu, and others; and then specified some of the advantages which the inhabitants of those islands were deriving from the introduction of this new religion: to all of which they listened with great interest, and expressed considerable pleasure at the prospect of being instructed.

"Can the religion of these wonderful papalangis be anything but wise and good?" asked Fauea of his semi-naked countrymen, who by this time had filled the deck, and who were eagerly catching the words as they fell from his lips: "Let us look at them, and then look at ourselves; their heads are covered, while ours are exposed to the heat of the sun and the wet of the rain; their bodies are clothed all over with beautiful cloth, while we have nothing but a bandage of leaves around our waist; they have clothes upon their very feet, while ours are like the dogs'; and then look at their axes, their scissors, and their other property, how rich they are!" All appeared to understand and appreciate this reasoning, and gazed on the missionaries with great interest and surprise. Some then began to examine the different parts of the dress, when, not meeting with any repulse, one pulled off Williams's shoe. Startled at the appearance of the foot with the stocking on, he whispered to Fauea, "What extraordinary people these papalangis are; they have no toes as we have!" "Oh!" replied the facetious Fauea, "did I not tell you that they had clothes upon their feet? Feel them, and you will find that they have toes as well as ourselves." On finding out the secret, the native was exceedingly delighted, and began chattering away to his countrymen about the discovery he had made. All of them came round, and in a moment the other shoe was off, and both Williams's feet, and those of Mr. Barff, underwent a thorough examination.

After coming to anchor, the missionaries had sent the teachers, their wives and families, with all their sick people, on page 26shore. The chief of the bay received them with kindness, and supplied them with some food. A crowd gathered round them, and the wife of Fauea was equally diligent with her husband in describing to the natives the wonders she had seen, and the value of the religion now brought to their islands. When the food was spread out, she stood up, and asked a blessing in the presence of the assembled multitude. In the midst of all this "interesting work," the vessel dragged her anchor, and the missionaries were obliged to send a boat and bring their people off again.

As the wind moderated during the night, considerable progress was made, and the following morning found them in the straits between two of the most beautiful islands they had yet seen, having on the one side the large island of Savaii and on the other Upolu. By ten o'clock they reached the settlement of Sapapalii, where they intended to establish themselves, and to which Fauea belonged. Before they arrived at their destination, this individual led them to a private part of the vessel, and requested them to desire the Tahitian teachers not to commence their labours among his countrymen by condemning their canoe-races, their dances, and other amusements, to which they were much attached, lest, in the very onset, they should conceive a dislike to the religion which imposed such restraints. "Tell them," said he, "to be diligent in teaching the people, to make them wise, and then their hearts will be afraid, and they themselves will put away that which is evil. Let the 'Word' prevail, and get a firm hold upon them, and then we may with safety adopt measures, which at first would prove injurious." The missionaries were filled with admiration.

The ship was soon surrounded by canoes, and the deck crowded with natives, who were so agile that they climbed, like monkeys, over its boarding-nettings, although these were ten feet in depth. At length was welcomed on board Tamalelangi, Son of the Skies, the brother of Malietoa, the principal chief of Sapapalii, and relative of Fauea. After the usual salutations, the missionaries requested Fauea to state to his relative the object of their visit, and also their wish immediately to land their people, many of whom were suffering severely from long confinement in the vessel. A consultation was then held by the page 27chiefs as to what should be done, when it was determined to send forthwith a messenger to Upolu, the seat of war, to inform Malietoa of the arrival, and to request his presence as soon as possible. It was also arranged that the teachers and Fauea should accompany Tamalelangi to the shore, and return on the following morning, if everything was favourable, for their families and property. A canoe was accordingly despatched to Upolu for Malietoa, and the teachers accompanied his brother to the settlement.

An incident had occurred which gave the missionaries "rather an exalted idea" of the character of the people. Tamalelangi, not knowing who they were, brought off some pigs, bananas, and coco-nuts for sale; but, on seeing his relative Fauea, and on being informed of the kindness he had received, and the object of this visit, he ordered the pigs, with everything in his canoes, to be arranged on the deck, and then, presenting them, stated, that had they known, they would not have brought off anything for sale; and that in the morning they would bring a more abundant supply. Every canoe around the ship followed his example.

The following morning the teachers returned from the shore, accompanied by the young chief and about fifty canoes. They gave a most flattering account of their reception, and seemed elated beyond measure. In about two hours the eight teachers, five women, and ten children, took their property with them, and left the vessel grateful and rejoicing. The "poor heathen" were as much delighted as themselves.

As the missionaries were expecting Malietoa from Upolu they did not accompany the teachers, but promised to follow. While they were engaged in lading the canoes their attention was arrested by observing the mountains on the opposite shore enveloped in flames and smoke; and, on inquiring the cause of it, were informed that a battle had been fought that very morning, and that the flames were consuming the houses, the plantations, and the bodies of the women, children, and infirm people who had fallen into the hands of their conquerors.

This battle was occasioned by the death of Tamafainga; for, although all parties are said heartily to have rejoiced at the event, yet, as he was related to the most influential families in page 28the islands, they were bound, by the custom of the country, to avenge it. Several skirmshes had already taken place, and a general and terrible encounter was expected in a few days. It appeared that the people of Aana—a province in Upolu—wearied by his outrages and oppressions, had waylaid and murdered him.

About four o'clock in the afternoon, in a heavy shower of rain, the celebrated old chieftain Malietoa arrived. He appeared about sixty-five years of age, stout, active, and of commanding aspect. Fauea saluted him with the greatest possible respect, bowing sufficiently low to kiss his feet, and making his child kiss even the soles of his feet. He was immediately invited into the cabin; and, having no clothing except the girdle of ti-leaves worn by the people generally, and being excessively cold and wet, the missionaries gave him a large piece of Tahitian cloth, in which he wrapped himself, and with which he appeared much pleased. They then stated their object to him. With this he professed to be highly delighted, and said that he had heard of the lotu, and, being desirous of instruction, was truly glad that they come to impart it. They expressed deep regret at finding him engaged in so sanguinary a war, and inquired whether these differences could not be settled amicably, and the contest terminated. He replied that as a person related to himself, and to all the principal chiefs, had been killed they must avenge his death; and that if he left the war unfinished, and his enemies unsubdued, he should be degraded in the estimation of his countrymen as long as he lived; but he promised that he would take care that there should be no more wars after the present; and that, as soon as it was terminated, he would come and place himself under the instruction of the teachers. He informed the missionaries that he had met the enemy early in the morning, when an encounter ensued, in which he drove them into the mountains, burnt their houses, and desolated their plantations, the destructive blaze of which had been seen. He took his leave, promising to come off in the morning, with his largest and best canoe, to convey them on shore.

During the night the vessel was drifted by the current to a distance from the settlement so considerable that in the page 29morning she was entirely out of sight, and Malietoa could not, in consequence, perform his promise. Supposing the distance not above ten or twelve miles, and it being a dead calm, the missionaries determined to go on shore in their own boat. But they erred in their estimate; and it was past eight in the evening when they landed. Mr. Barff and Williams were themselves compelled to tug at the oar during several hours; besides which, in the severe gale encountered, something had fallen upon the boat, and made her so leaky that it was with difficulty they could keep her above water. Being seen from the shore before sunset, Malietoa despatched a canoe to their assistance, which conducted them to the landing-place. An immense crowd had assembled to witness what Williams believed to be the very first Englishman who set foot upon these shores.

The scene which presented itself was unique and most remarkable. The natives had kindled a large fire to serve as a beacon, and multitudes had supplied themselves with torches of dry coco-nut leaves, to conduct the missionaries to the chief's dwelling. A passage was opened for them through the dense crowd, who were kept in order by a sort of native police, armed with spears and clubs, and stationed there for the purpose; and severe blows were occasionally dealt out by these officials upon, the heads of all who transgressed their orders. In the meantime, some were busily employed in supplying the fire; some in conveying various articles from the boat; others in carrying them to the missionaries' lodgings; whilst a crowd, anxious to testify to their good feeling, as soon as orders were given rushed into the water to haul up the boat. The majority, however, had enough to do to gaze upon the wonderful strangers, and for this purpose they climbed the coco-nut and other trees, upon the trunks and branches of which they were seen in clusters, by the red glare of the fire and the torches, peering with glistening eyes and wondering look from amongst the rich dark foliage which surrounded them.

In these circumstances the missionaries proceeded to pay their respects to Malietoa. Mr. Barff and Williams had each a guard of honour, nor did they meet again until they arrived at the chief's residence. The natives vied with each other to show every possible attention, some by carrying flambeaux, page 30while others with their formidable weapons kept all intruders at a respectful distance. As they were walking along, Williams having intimated to Tamalelangi that he was exceedingly fatigued from labouring the whole day in the boat, the young man uttered something to his people, and in an instant a number of stout fellows seized the missionary, some by his legs, and others by his arms, one placing a hand under his body, another, unable to obtain so large a space, poking a finger against him, and thus, sprawling at full length upon their extended arms and hands, he was carried a distance of half a mile, and deposited safely and carefully in the presence of the chief and his principal wife, who, seated on a fine mat, received them with "all the etiquette of heathen royalty."

A beautiful mat having been spread for them, the missionaries squatted down upon it, and stated to Malietoa that they had not come to transact business with him then, but simply to pay their respects before they retired to rest. He expressed himself pleased to see them, gave them a cordial welcome to the shores of Savaii, and requested that they would take up their abode at his house; but, as their people were so unwell, and their stay would be short, they begged to be allowed, while they remained, to reside with them. On going to the house allotted for the residence of the teachers, they passed a dancing-house, in which a number of performers were entertaining a large company of spectators. On looking in, the missionaries observed two persons drumming on an instrument formed of a mat wound tight round a framework of reeds, and six young men and two young women jumping about, and making motions with their hands and feet in time with the drummers, while others contributed to the harmony by singing a song in honour of the arrival of "the two great English chiefs." The missionaries saw "nothing bordering upon indecency" in the performance, which, however, required so much exertion, that the bodies of both the males and females were streaming with perspiration.

On arriving at the teachers' residence, they were grieved to find most of them suffering from influenza. Two of these they bled, and to others administered such medicines as was thought would afford relief.

page 31


Malietoa, being anxious that four of the teachers should take up their abode with him, had sent repeated messages to that effect: to which the teachers replied, that, as the missionaries were expected on shore very shortly, they wished to defer a removal until then. The following morning, on being informed of this, the missionaries determined to place four of the teachers under Malietoa's care, and to give the others in charge to his brother, who had brought them on shore. Having made this arrangement, they thought it advisable to divide the present they intended to make into two equal parts: the one for the elder, the other for the younger brother. This consisted of one red and one white shirt, six or eight yards of English print, three axes, three hatchets, a few strings of sky-blue beads, some knives, two or three pairs of scissors, a few small looking-glasses, hammers, chisels, gimlets, fish-hooks, and some nails. Everything being prepared, they proceeded to the chief's large dancing-house, where they found a great concourse of people waiting to witness this important interview with le alii papalangi, or the heaven-bursting chiefs.

On the missionaries' arrival being announced, Malietoa sent two of his own daughters to spread mats for them to sit upon. They were fine-looking young women, about eighteen and twenty years of age, each wearing a beautiful mat about the waist, a wreath of flowers as a head-dress, and a string of blue beads around the neck. The upper part of their body was uncovered and anointed with scented coco-nut oil.

As soon as they had taken their seats Malietoa made his appearance, bringing in his hands two beautiful mats, and a large piece of native cloth, one end of which was wrapped round him and the other formed a train which an elderly female bore lightly from the ground. Having placed these with ceremony at Williams's feet, he returned, and shortly after came in the same manner and laid similar articles at the feet of his colleague. He then took his seat opposite to them, the people having formed a circle around.

The missionaries thanked him for his present, but added, that to obtain his property was not the object of their visit; for page 32they had come exclusively to bring him and his people the knowledge of the true God, and to place on their island persons to teach them the way of salvation; and they now wished to know whether he was willing that these should remain, and whether he would allow his people to be instructed? He replied that he was truly thankful to them for coming, and that he would receive the teachers, and treat them with kindness. The missionaries then explicitly inquired whether he and his people would consent to be instructed, or whether there would be any obstruction thrown in the way? To this he made answer that he and his people must now go over to Upolu to the war; but immediately after his return he would become a worshipper of Jehovah and place himself under the instruction of the teachers. In the meantime the house in which they were assembled—the largest building in the settlement, a kind of public property, in which all business was transacted and their dances and amusements performed—was theirs, as a temporary place in which to teach and worship; and when they came back from the war they would erect any building that might be required, and the people who remained at home could come to-morrow, if they pleased, and begin to learn about Jehovah and Jesus Christ.

After these assurances, the missionaries informed the chief that they would place their people under the special protection of himself and his brother, and expected that he would preserve the teachers' wives from insult, and their property from pillage. This both of them most readily promised to do. Malietoa then requested that four of the teachers might be desired to come and reside with him, and the others to reside with his brother; and this having been consented to, he pointed out two houses which he intended to present to them for their residence, and said, if they desired it, they could have another. Williams informed him that either Mr. Barff or himself would endeavour to visit them again in ten or twelve months, and, if they found he had fulfilled his promises, English missionaries would come to carry on the work, which those now settled among them might begin.

The missionaries then ordered one of their people to open a basket, and place before the two chiefs the articles they had brought as a present. As soon as the articles were laid out, the page 33chief took up first an axe, and placing it upon his head, exclaimed, "Faafetai le toi tele"—"Thank you for this large axe"; and, having observed the same ceremony with every other article, he concluded by saying, "Thank you for all, thank you for all." He then said that, delighted as he was with his valuable present, he thought far more of them than of their gift; that though he was always a great man, yet he felt himself a greater man that day than ever he was before, because two great English chiefs had come to form his acquaintance, and bring him good. The missionaries were greatly struck by the magnanimous behaviour of Tamalelangi, who endeavoured to pass his present to his elder brother, who, however, refused to accept it.

At the close of this interview, Malietoa informed his people that a large quantity of valuable property had been given to him, and that the English chiefs, to whom he was indebted for it, would want something to eat on their return; "for," he said, "there are no pigs running about on the sea, neither is there any bread-fruit growing there." Upon hearing this, the whole company instantly arose and departed, and in about an hour they returned, bringing with them fifteen pigs of various sizes, with a large quantity of bread-fruit, yams, and other vegetables, the whole of which the chief presented, and observed that it would have been much more but for the war, during which everything was quickly consumed.

That night the missionaries' rest was disturbed by a company of warriors, who had just arrived from some other parts of the island, and who kept up a "rude and noisy dance, to still ruder music," during the whole of the night.

Early the next morning, Malietoa sent a messenger, requesting them to come to his house. They obeyed the summons, and found his majesty seated on the pavement which surrounded his residence. A mat being spread for them, the missionaries sat down, and inquired the business for which they were summoned; when he replied that, having been informed that their water-casks were empty, as it would be inconvenient to fill them at his settlement, where there was no safe anchorage, he wished to acquaint them that there was a fine harbour at Upolu, where they could obtain, with ease, as much water as they required. They thanked him for his information; but intimated page 34that, as it was the seat of war, they might be exposed to danger from both parties, for, at the islands with which they were acquainted, it was a common thing to strip a friend of all that he possessed, to prevent his property from falling into the hands of his enemies, and this might also be a Samoan practice. He replied, that there was no danger, and that he himself would go to protect them, and assist in procuring all that they wanted, but they must wait a day or two, as he could not possibly accompany them immediately.

The missionaries were anxious to learn the cause of the delay: when they were informed that he had sent some axes and other things, which they had given him, to purchase a handsome young wife, who had just arrived, and that the ceremony of marriage was now about to begin.

A group of women, seated under the shade of a noble tree which stood at a short distance from the house, now chanted, in a pleasing and lively air, the heroic deeds of the old chieftain and his ancestors; and opposite to them, beneath the spreading branches of a breadfruit-tree, sat the newly purchased bride, a tall and beautiful young woman, about eighteen years of age. Her dress was a fine mat, fastened round the waist, reaching nearly to her ankles; while a wreath of leaves and flowers, ingeniously and tastefully entwined, decorated her brow. The upper part of her person was anointed with sweet-scented coco-nut oil, and tinged partially with a rouge prepared from the turmeric-root, and round her neck were two rows of large blue beads. Her whole deportment was pleasingly modest. While listening to the chanters, and looking upon the novel scene before them, the missionaries' attention was attracted by another company of women, who were following each other in single file, and chanting as they came the praises of their chief.

Sitting down with the company who had preceded them, they united in one general chorus, which appeared to be a recital of the valorous deeds of Malietoa and his progenitors. This ended, a dance in honour of the marriage was begun, considered one of their grandest exhibitions, and held in high estimation by the people. The performers were four young women, all daughters of chiefs of the highest rank, who took their stations at right angles on the fine mats with which the page break
"Beneath the Spreading Branches of a Breadfruit-Tree"

"Beneath the Spreading Branches of a Breadfruit-Tree"

page 35dancing-house was spread for the occasion, and then interchanged positions with slow and graceful movements, both of their hands and feet, while the bride recited some of the mighty doings of her forefathers. To the motions of the dancers, and to the recital of the bride, three or four elderly women were beating time upon the mat with short sticks, and occasionally joining in chorus with the recitative.

The missionaries saw nothing in the performance worthy of admiration, "except the absence of anything indelicate." They hated the idea of wives being bought.

Having now accomplished all they could, they thought of their beloved wives and families at home, and prepared for their departure. After commending their friends to the gracious protection of God, and supplicating His special blessing upon their labours, they walked down to the beach, accompanied by the teachers, their wives, and children, who wept bitterly at parting from them.