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Old Samoa or Flotsam and Jetsam from the Pacific Ocean

Chapter XIII — The Record of Early Samoan Voyages

page 287

Chapter XIII
The Record of Early Samoan Voyages

The records of early Samoan voyages and settlement, given in the previous chapter, were committed to writing for me by a native of Rarotonga during my residence in Samoa, and after the introduction of Christianity to the islands. The ability on his part to do this was one of the many blessings that followed the introduction of the Gospel amongst the nations of Polynesia. This document is plainly written for a native document, and occupies forty-two pages of closely written quarto Ms., but (as is the case with most of the native documents) it has no breaks of divisions into chapters or paragraphs, the whole narrative running on continuously. This peculiarity, and the fact of the words themselves being often broken up into fragments, makes the work of the translator and transcriber at times very difficult and puzzling. Still, it is in other respects well and clearly written, and forms an invaluable record of native Polynesian history. As the preservation of native records plays such an important part in these narratives, a few remarks on their history may be interesting.

The fact of records being thus preserved and treasured up by nations ignorant of any kind of writing or marking, even of picture writing, shows how men adapt themselves to circumstances, and how anxious and page 288careful many nations have been to preserve their past records. This desire to secure their past history seems to have arisen, partly from a wish to keep a record of their own doings and sayings, and also from the gratification experienced in the frequent repetition of the acts and doings of the past. Even in the outskirts of Polynesia, as at Easter Island, unknown sculptors have left their records deeply cut in huge blocks of stone. After ages of neglect these are now being examined, and in many cases seem to have been correctly deciphered. Even in Australia, the most unlikely of places, some would say, strange markings and drawings have been found in caverns on the west, and north, and north-east coasts, and to a lesser extent on other parts of the shore-line. These seem to be records of visitors from other lands, who have long since passed away. Some of those found by Captain, afterwards Sir George Grey, in the valley of the Glenelg, West Australia, are remarkable as bearing drawings and marks that resemble the markings on siapo, or Polynesian native cloth.

Not the slightest trace of any such record exists, so far as I know, amongst the Samoans, and I think this statement holds good with regard to the groups of Eastern Polynesia, until we come to Easter Island. In his valuable paper on 'Easter Island Inscriptions,' published in the Polynesian Journal, Dr. Carroll, of Sydney, expresses the opinion that the Polynesians of ancient time must have used some kind of writing or hieroglyphics different from those found at Easter Island, which are American in character. He says, 'I obtained copies of the Easter Island Inscriptions, and upon examining them was much impressed with the many page 289instances in which the characters were similar to those used by the old civilized nations of America, who wrote in hieroglyphics or in phonetic characters. Learning that the natives of Easter Island were Polynesians, and not Americans, I thought it must be only a coincidence that the characters of the Easter Island Inscriptions were like those of the American peoples, and that they must be a kind of writing used by Polynesians; I therefore began to search for similar Polynesian characters and writings of ancient or recent times. After a few years of investigation I discovered that the ancestors of the Polynesians did not write in these or any other characters, after they had passed beyond the Moluccas on their way to the eastward, to the Islands of the Pacific; and that, before then, their writings in ancestral times even were entirely different, and not in any particulars like those of the Easter Island Inscriptions.' Again, Dr. Carroll says, 'Wishing not to mislead myself, I began a fresh investigation into the writings of those who, voyaging across the Pacific before Europeans sailed there, might have left such a mode of writing upon Easter Island; but all such voyagers wrote in very different characters, not at all like the inscriptions under consideration.'

From these statements I think it will be seen that, as in the case of Samoans, the early records of the Eastern Polynesians were seldom if ever preserved otherwise than by traditionary records, which thus became not only deeply interesting, but all-important. No wonder, then, that great store was set by them, and that great care and watchfulness were manifested that they should be preserved pure and uncontaminated. Certain families were set apart in the several districts to act as depositaries or page 290keepers of these national or family records, by whom they were transmitted from father to son through the generations as they passed. It has been suggested that these officials corresponded to the 'Recorders' amongst the Hebrews, but the Polynesian office was much more onerous, since it was unaided by writing of any description. The record-keeper had to trust to memory alone. Many of the Samoans developed marvellous memories; the constant repetition and comparison of their records not only ensuring correctness, but giving wonderful power to their memories. I well remember one striking example, an old orator and keeper of Uputu'u (traditions) of A'ana, named Sepetaio. This chief, who was blind, had not only a perfect knowledge of his national records but a wonderful memory for other things. After the introduction of Christianity and the dissemination of Christian literature, by simply listening to the reading of others be stored his retentive memory to such an extent that he could repeat correctly large portions of Scripture, and quote texts, chapter and verse, with great ease and correctness. In fact, I think he knew perfectly all those portions of Holy Scripture which at that time had been translated into Samoan. I have often heard him repeat whole chapters of the New Testament without mistake, and have seen him stand up before a large audience and preach a capital sermon to an attentive congregation, who. in spite of his sightless eyeballs, gazed upon his animated countenance and significant gestures, so as not to weary during a long discourse. When he was addressing an assembly on political or national subjects, it was impossible to do other than listen with pleasure and follow with interest page 291his animated discussions. His case was no doubt exceptional, but from the constant exercise of their memories numbers of the Samoans possessed what by us would be considered phenomenal memories. These were constantly exercised in the preservation of their much-prized Uputu'u, or traditional records.

The Rev. John Marriott, in writing recently from Samoa, gives an interesting instance of a remarkable prophecy uttered a long time since by an old Samoan Taulāitu, or sorcerer, at Manu'a, in response to the inquiries of some chiefs from Upolu who visited him as a renowned prophet, respecting some war matters they were then considering. Mr. Marriott states that at the Jubilee meeting of the Malua Native Teachers' Training Institution, held at Malua on Sept. 24, 1895, several natives spoke at the public meeting held on that occasion. Amongst them an old man, who when he was twenty years of age was present when the Rev. Messrs. Williams and Barff, the first missionaries to Samoa, landed at Sapapālii, Savaii, from the missionary ship, the Messenger of Peace. Mr. Marriott says, 'It was most refreshing to hear this "old man eloquent," who told us what I never heard before, viz. that some diviner Taulāitu at Manu'a had said to some Upolu chiefs who went to consult him about war matters, that "the generations to come in Samoa would be blessed, for there was soon to be set up in Samoa a kingdom of peace and goodwill."' A refreshing instance this, as Mr. Marriott says, amongst many others, 'of God's Spirit going before His servants to prepare the way for them.'

At the time the speaker told his countrymen of this prophecy he was an old man, some eighty-five, years of page 292age, yet still vigorous and eloquent. The fact of these Upolu chiefs having undertaken this long voyage of some 150 miles to consult this Manu'a sorcerer, tells of the sanctity attached to his utterances and the reverence in which he was held in those days.

Another remarkable instance of foretelling future events by Polynesian divines or prophets is mentioned by the Rev. W. Ellis in his Polynesian Researches 1. No approximate date is given for the prophecy, but it must have been uttered before the advent of Europeans. Mr. Ellis alludes to it as 'the prophecy of a famous diviner named Maui, of whom there were several of that name, but the most celebrated of them usually resided at Raiatea. This man, on an occasion of his being under the supposed inspiration of his god, predicted that "In future ages a Va'a-ama-ore (literally an outriggerless canoe) would arrive at the islands from some foreign lands." 'In all cases their, canoes were provided with an outrigger, or they would be useless, so that the natives considered it impossible that any vessel could keep afloat without them. Hence the foreign ships were marvels when they came, and were not only looked upon as marvels, but. were considered as part fulfilment of Maui's prophecy. But their amazement was still greater in after years, when the first steamship came into harbour, and gave a full and complete fulfilment to Maui's famous prophecy. It would seem that there were two parts to this widely known prediction, the first, of the arrival of Te Va'a-ama-ore, or the canoe with no outriggers, which received its fulfilment on the arrival of the first European ship. In the second part the prophet declared that after page 293the arrival of a vessel without an outrigger, there should come to their shores E Va'a-taura-ore, i.e. 'a vessel without ropes or cordage,' a prophecy which was amply fulfilled in after years by the arrival of the first steam vessel at Tahiti.

Mr. Ellis records the fact that the natives themselves were sceptical as to the truth of this prophecy, and declared that what Maui foretold was an impossibility. He said,'No,' and assured them that it would be so; at the same time launching his umeti, or wooden bowl upon the water, and saying that the foreign ship would so float. These early predictions were for a long time preserved amongst the traditions of the natives, until the arrival of the vessels of Captain Wallis and Captain Cook, which were at once accepted by the natives as the fulfilment of the first part of Maui's prophecy. Since that time, survivors have been still more astonished by the fulfilment of the second part of this remarkable prediction, as steamships have time after time visited and amazed them!

Sometimes deep meaning lies treasured up in these old traditions, which seem to lead thought backwards, far into the distant past. The following is one instance:—Of the island, or land, Pulotu (the Samoan Elysium), a very old record says, Saue'a, Se'uleo, and Motu nu'u, children of Tangaloa Langi, came from above, north or north-east, to Olo Tele, in Tonga. They thought it a nice place, and the first two proposed to Motu nu'u that he should remain there. He said, 'No; let us all seek other lands.' They sailed westward, and found Pulotu. Saue'a and Se'uleo remained there, but Motu nu'u returned to Tonga>. Saue'a and Se'uleo built a page 294house, and after a time sent Poualii, to toto'o atu le va'a loa, i. e. 'to pole thither the long canoe,' to fetch Motu nu'u, to be a post in their house, as his son was old enough to take the title. This custom was perpetuated for three generations.

I had read this tradition over and over again without detecting the significance of the expression used to describe the mode of propelling the canoe across the ocean, until recently thinking over the meaning of another sentence in the Atafu tradition, as it describes the means by which a doomed company escaped destruction in what is called O le Ta'a sa (the sacred Ta'a, or raft), I turned to this old record for an illustration, when, for the first time, what seems to be the true meaning and significance of the words struck me.

Professor Dana's theory, that the vast Pacific Ocean marks the site of what is now a submerged continent, strengthens the opinion that these old narratives must have had reference to a time analogous to that period.

It seems to me that this old tradition with its reference to 'poling' the long canoe across the ocean to fetch the spirits of successive chiefs, as they deceased, refers to a time when the surrounding ocean must have been shallow, and when it was traversed in the manner described; since the expression can only refer to a mode of propulsion utterly impossible in later times.

There can be no question that vast changes have taken place in the Pacific, of which we are profoundly ignorant. Now and then, even in late years, glimpses of changes are afforded; and sometimes it appears as if an old record points to the former action of forces now, for a long time, quiescent.

1 Vol. i. p. 383.