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Old Samoa or Flotsam and Jetsam from the Pacific Ocean

Chapter XI — The Agency of Evil Spirits

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Chapter XI
The Agency of Evil Spirits

Were the Samoans and other nations of Polynesia more directly under what is called 'Satanic Agency' in their heathen state than after the introduction of Christianity? is to my mind a question of much interest, and at the same time difficult to answer. It is one that I have often thought upon and looked at from different standpoints during many years of close contact with the Samoans, as they were emerging from their heathen state, and before they had been able to have much intercourse with Europeans, and hence prior to that admixture of thought and feeling which would be likely to follow such intercourse.

After many years of contact with the native mind, it has become my settled conviction that such was the case. Others think so too. In vol. i, p. 362, of Polynesian Researches, the Rev. W. Ellis says: 'In addition to the firm belief which many who were sorcerers or agents of the infernal powers, and others who were the victims of incantation, still maintain, some of the earlier missionaries are disposed to think that this was the fact. They believe that since the natives have embraced Christianity they are more exempt from influences to which they were subjected during the reign of the page 260"evil spirit," or, as the Samoans term it, "the days of darkness."'

I cannot help thinking, too, that such was the fact, and that as in the days when our Lord first set up His kingdom upon earth He was opposed by the bitter hatred of the powers of darkness, so, when in heathen lands the Gospel is introduced, the same thing is repeated over and over again. As a result of this conviction many strange and difficult circumstances became plain to me which would otherwise have been difficult to understand.

In another chapter (IX) I have given some carefully recorded statements of natives, and facts bearing upon the beliefs of the old Samoans upon such matters, and the effect produced upon them by the system of terror that enshrouded them, as growing out of their religious belief and the tyranny with which it encircled them. Their experience fully agreed With that of the Tahitians and other Polynesian peoples, and, as in other cases, the Samoans seemed conscious of thus suffering from the spiritual thraldom that surrounded them at the time the Gospel leavened and spread amongst them. In the chapter on Mythology and Spirit-lore of old Samoa, I have given some notices and stated some facts that go to illustrate in some measure the bondage from which they suffered. The real extent of this suffering, however, both mentally and bodily, it is difficult to speak of or to fully understand. Their whole lives were enshrouded and. enslaved by it, and the time that they suffered from it was well termed by them 'the days of darkness.'

As yet I have only spoken of facts and testimonies given me by the natives themselves, after they had in page 261a measure been released from the thraldom and oppression they had so long smarted under. I now for the first time place on record a few facts and experiences bearing upon this mysterious influence that occurred to me personally more than fifty years ago, during the earlier years of my residence amongst the Samoans, which seemed to me so strange and unaccountable at the time, that I could not understand them or fathom their meaning. They were very simple things, but they were very strange and puzzling, and at the time occasioned me a great deal of annoyance and wonder as to what they could mean. Many native and European friends who were cognizant of the facts were just as perplexed as I was, so that, after exhausting every means and mode of natural explanation, I was at length, forced to the conclusion that they were the result of other than ordinary agencies. Two or three circumstances may be mentioned that occurred at Falelatai, on the southwest coast of Upolu, during my residence there about the years 1839 and 1840. The facts alluded to consisted of a succession of extraordinary noises and visitations that I could never understand or fathom as arising from any ordinary cause. The house we then occupied was a new one, substantial and well built, so as to be free from any easy access for the purpose of annoyance; yet for many months our sleep was disturbed night after night by sundry uncanny noises and doings, that were alike inscrutable to ourselves, our native servants, and occasional European visitors.

A long passage ran through the centre of the house from end to end, having rooms on either side opening into it, and in a most unaccountable manner this passage page 262became the scene of nightly doings and occurrences that utterly perplexed and astonished us. Night after night, when we had retired to rest, this passage appeared to be taken possession of by a party of bowlers, who kept up an incessant rolling from end to end of the passage of what the natives called molis, or wild oranges, for such they seemed to be from the noise they made. Not a sound could be heard other than this interminable mysterious bowling or rolling of these molis backwards and forwards from end to end of the passage, the most careful inspection failing to reveal any human agency in producing these uncanny noises and disturbances.

After a while we became so used to them that they lost their novelty in a measure, and we slept in spite of them, but could never wholly dispossess ourselves of a certain uncomfortable feeling that the nearness of such uncanny visitors and ghostly doings produced. Strangers coming and hearing the noises for the first time were amazed, and the breakfast table the next morning was sure to be the scene of eager questionings by the visitor and after explanations. 'Stair, I wonder you allow your servants to keep such late hours and indulge in such uncanny sports!' 'What do you mean?' I would reply. 'There were no servants about; they had all retired to rest long before we did.' 'Why,' the reply would come, 'I heard them rolling balls up and down the passage last night for hours together, so that I could not sleep;' and great indeed would be the astonishment of our visitor when we assured him that the strange noises of which he complained were of nightly occurrence, and the outcome of unknown ghostly visitants. At other times loud knockings and noises would be heard at the outer page 263doors, which appeared to be battered as though about to be smashed in, but not the slightest trace could ever be found of the delinquents.

One such circumstance especially made a strong impression on my mind. It was a lovely moonlight night, and a number of natives, chiefs and leading men, had gathered in my front room, as their delight was, to talk over various matters, especially to discuss foreign customs and doings. The room was full, and we were in the midst of an animated discussion, when suddenly a tremendous crash came at the front door, as though it must be smashed in. Instantly the whole party jumped up and scattered, some to the front, some to the back, and others to the ends of the house, so as to surround it effectually and capture the aggressor; and as some of the natives were sitting close to the door, they were outside in a few seconds. Not a soul was to be seen outside, however; and in a very short time the whole party were collected together again, very crestfallen and disappointed at their want of success, as well as keenly discussing who could have caused the noise. The idea of its being the act of a native was scouted by the whole party, who said it was well known that the gathering of leading men was there, and that no native would have dared to commit the outrage.

It was at length generally conceded that it must be the doings of the aitu or aitus, who were such constant aggressors. Yet, for all that, every place, likely and unlikely, was still further keenly searched, but without avail. Later on in the evening we were all collected together at one end of the building near to a large ifi (chestnuttree), in which a good-sized bell was hung for various page 264purposes. Suddenly this bell began to ring violently, without any apparent cause. No hand was pulling it, but it kept on wildly clanging, in full view of the whole party, who looked on in amazement. 'Perhaps there is a string attached, and some one pulling it, who is hidden under that stone wall,' suggested one of the party. One of the number immediately ran to the fence; no one there! Another climbed the tree. There was no string attached, but the bell kept on wildly ringing. There was in reality no need to climb the tree to ascertain the fact of there being no string attached to the bell, for every leaf and twig stood out to view most distinctly in the bright moonlight. The mystery was not solved, and the old conclusion was again come to, that it was part of the mischievous doings of the aitu.

Still another mystery! As we were talking eagerly together outside the end of the house, we were suddenly pelted with small stones, thrown obliquely towards us, which struck some of the party with no little force—some on the breast, others on other parts of the body, myself on the foot-leaving us all so mystified that we separated, the outsiders to their homes, and we to our haunted dwelling, more astounded than ever. Had it not been that the stones were thrown obliquely towards us, I should have thought it possible that they might have been part of a small meteoric shower, but the angle at which they were thrown forbade that supposition. I picked up the small stone that struck my foot and kept it for a time. It was unlike any ordinary stone; a sort of compact concrete, very similar to the stones often thrown at the servants in their room at night, much to their annoyance and discomfort.

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After many months of such constant irritation, my wife's health began to be affected, and after a time to entirely fail under the effect of much nervous prostration brought about by these continued uncanny visitations, aided by the great humidity of the climate of the district, so that it was deemed advisable that we should remove to some more healthy part of the coast, which we did, at much loss and inconvenience. Our dwelling was left, but with the removal we were happily freed from any further ghostly visitations. Much astonishment was expressed by the natives and many Europeans, as they discussed from time to time what they regarded as the occasion of these extraordinary visitations. Some thought the house had been unwittingly placed upon an old native burying-ground. Others suggested that the ifi tree was an old malumalu, or temple of an aitu. If so, the wrath of the various folaungā aitu, or parties of voyaging spirits, must have been stirred at seeing the sanctity of their temple thus invaded.

Amongst the many visits of sympathy made by our friends who came to discuss our unpleasant experience in these nightly visitations was one from an old orator from Mulinuu, named Sepetaio, well known and respected. He was perfectly blind, but a wonderful man as to his knowledge of native folk-lore and traditional records. He had come to the conclusion that the annoyances were most certainly caused by some aitu, who took this particular mode of showing his displeasure; but, said the old man, 'If you will let me have the help of Mu (one of my native servants), I will catch the aitu and bring him to you.' This was rather a startling proposition, but I declined, not wishing to have any closer contact with page 266our tormentor. Sepetaio and Mu were both fearless, and the old man assured me that there would be no difficulty in securing the delinquent and bringing him to book. I thanked him for his offer, but declined it, as above stated. The old man firmly believed in Mu's power over the aitu, and doubted not his ability to capture him. As I have stated in the chapter on Samoan Mythology and Spirit-lore, the same man is declared to have captured one on a former occasion at Palauli, on Savaii, of which adventure a full account is given. As to Mu's fearless courage and bearing, I had many opportunities of seeing them. He was the only one out of numbers around us at that time who was not afraid to go out after dark, the rest of our neighbours having a great dread of venturing out after nightfall, for fear of contact with the aitu, who, even in those days, were considered to swarm in the bush after dark, so that it required a bold heart to run the risk of facing those much-dreaded spiritual beings.

Commenting on the foregoing, after its receipt as part of a paper on Samoan mythology and folk-lore for insertion in the Polynesian Journal, published at Wellington, New Zealand, one of the secretaries, S. Percy Smith, Esq., says: 'The supernatural, or, as you call it, satanic influence, saturated the whole Maori mythology and history; there are hundreds of instances of it. I have often thought that the old Polynesian priests were possessed of some knowledge of powers over nature which we have not got hold of, at any rate they had the power of making their hearers believe so. They are very perplexing, and as yet not understood. We can hardly discredit some of the things the Maori page 267 tohungas, or priests, were able to do, and yet cannot explain them. The following is an incident told by the Maoris, but I never heard that Bishop Selwyn ever said anything of it. On a visit of the bishop to Rotorua, he was very anxious to convert an old tohunga, who held out and influenced others against Christianity. In the interview the old man said to the bishop, "If you can do what I can, I will follow you," and then picked up a dead, dry, brown leaf of the ti plant; he twirled it in the air, the same time repeating some words (an incantation), and lo! the leaf was green and alive! This is the Maori account by eye-witnesses, who fully believed what they saw. Of course there may be a natural explanation of this, but we do not know it. I am not aware if the bishop ever mentioned it, and therefore the story is wanting in confirmation; but at any rate it shows the powerful beliefs of the Maoris in the supernatural power of their tohungas, who were extremely tapu, and were very much feared. I know of several instances of their supposed supernatural power, and I have found that all Europeans who have had much to do with the race, and are in their confidence, have some undefined feeling that the tohungas possessed powers of which we know nothing. Even after making allowances for the ignorant credulity of the people, there is still a certain residuum of unexplained mystery which we cannot at present get over.' I quite agree with these remarks of Mr. Smith, and feel satisfied that in Samoa also in the early days the same supernatural power, or mana, was claimed and exercised, and is thus found so often intertwined in their old traditionary records and folk-lore.

It is easy to discuss this question after the lapse of page 268so many years, and perhaps to pooh-pooh the whole matter as unworthy of notice; but as we underwent the experience and passed through the ordeal it seemed not only a very real but a very trying one. As the years have passed along I have many times wondered how we could for so long a time put up with such annoyances, and the often depressing feelings resultant therefrom, as we did. My wife was a brave woman, and battled with dangers and difficulty in a surprising manner. She never complained of the annoyances herself, and always set an example of cheerful courage to the native female servants, who sometimes cowered under the frequent annoyances, and complained to her of their continued frights and alarms; but I could see that she felt more than she expressed, and at length felt the constant strain too heavy to bear, and gave way under it. And no wonder, for such a constant battling with unknown and unseen powers was indeed a hard conflict to fight. One of our visitors of whom I have spoken was our nearest neighbour, the late Rev. Thomas Heath of Manono, a hardheaded matter-of-fact man, looked up to as the father of the mission, and one who from his early legal training was accustomed to take things coolly and investigate closely. When he complained of his broken rest I said, 'Why did you not scold the servants and send them away?' He replied, 'I looked out carefully, but all was darkness, and apparently no one there.' He, was bewildered: could no more solve the difficulty than the rest of us, and had to confess his amazement and perplexity.

Had we been strangers to the district, or had we not been on thoroughly friendly terms with the people, both heathen and Christian, I should have thought it possible page 269there might have been a native priest, or Taulā-aitu, resident near and unfriendly, who was thus showing his animosity and manifesting his ill feeling; but I do not think that such was the case. Had it been so, the fact would have been suspected by some of the many keen and eagerly inquisitive natives who were so closely investigating the matter. As a matter of fact, not long before the time I speak of, or rather whilst my house was building, one of the English workmen, who resided at the only half-heathen village near, was detected stealing timber in the dinner-hour, and denounced to me for the theft by a fellow-workman, a native; and as a consequence of my reproving him for the theft, this man threatened me in the hearing of these half-heathen natives, who immediately told him to leave the district, which he did; and was further cautioned what he might expect if he dared to lift a hand against me. I mention this to show the feeling of the people generally towards me.

An old friend of mine, who went to Samoa after I left, and who was informed of 'our strange experiences' by missionaries who were conversant with them, suggests 'rats' as the offending visitors and bowlers; but I do not remember ever seeing a rat on the place, and the house was a new one, and well built. And then, as to the clanging of the bell in the ifi tree, he suggests that it was due to the wind blowing furiously so as to ring the big bell, oblivious of the fact that, as I have stated, it was a clear, still, bright moonlight night, as I well remember, not a breath of wind stirring.

I feel sure that every natural cause likely to explain the facts would have come under the notice of some one or page 270other of the dozen or more keen-witted natives who were eagerly endeavouring to solve the mystery, but who had to confess themselves utterly at fault. Whatever the agency employed in producing these strange noises and annoyances, I find it impossible to rest satisfied with the conclusion that it was 'flesh and blood.' Speaking of the early struggles of the Christian faith in his own day against heathenism, St. Paul says1: 'Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.'

1 Eph. vi. 12.