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Old Samoa or Flotsam and Jetsam from the Pacific Ocean

Chapter IV — The Political Life of Samoa

page 83

Chapter IV
The Political Life of Samoa

The Samoan islands are divided into districts, which are subdivided into settlements, and these again into villages. The great divisions or districts are quite independent of each other, their boundaries being well known, and the care of them committed to the two nearest villages on either side, the inhabitants of which were called Leoleo-tuaoi, or boundary-keepers. Formerly a feeling of irritation constantly existed between such villages, and, as in other lands, border feuds were frequent.

The boundaries of the different settlements were well defined, and each place zealously defended its rights. The lands of each settlement were again subdivided and owned by individual proprietors; but if the ownership of these various claimants by any means became obscure and difficult to substantiate, the boundaries of the villages were well known and respected; thus to the very mountain-tops the land had its owners. In the event of the inhabitants of one village trespassing upon the lands of another village to cut down any of the few kinds of timber considered page 84valuable, resistance was offered, even by force of arms if necessary.

The local affairs of each settlement were under their immediate control, and were discussed and decided upon in a public assembly composed of the leading men of each village or district. More weighty matters, such as declaring war or making peace, the appointment and installation of chiefs, or indeed any matters of general importance to the whole district, were deliberated upon in a general fono, or parliament of the whole district, composed of representatives of all the different settle-ments and villages of the district. Each district had a leading settlement called its Laumua.

It was the province of the Laumua to convene the fono, or general assembly of its respective districts, to announce the object for which it had been summoned, to preside over its deliberations, to arrange disputed or knotty points, as well as to sum up the proceedings and dismiss the assembly; in fact, to sustain the office of chairman. These meetings were usually conducted with much formality and decorum, the general fono of the district being always held in the open air, in the great malae of the leading settlement, or Laumua.

The malae, or marae, as it is sometimes called, is a large open space reserved for public assemblies, around which the representatives sit in little groups, each group having its proper position assigned to it, and also the precedence it took in addressing the meeting, which arrangement was scrupulously adhered to. The speakers might be either chiefs, Tulafale, or Faleupolu; the former occasion-ally addressing a fono, but usually the class called Tulafale were the principal speakers. Each chief had page 85generally a Tulafale, who acted as his mouthpiece; and each settlement had its Tulafale sili, who was the leading orator of the district.

The deliberations of these councils were often un-necessarily and tediously lengthened by a foolish custom, which was always observed, to which the speakers adhered with much pertinacity. There were always a certain number of heads of families in a settlement who alone were permitted to address an assembly in the malae; sometimes there were nine, as at Leulumoenga, or seven, as at Fasito`otai, whence the former place was spoken of as the Faleiva (nine houses), and the latter the Falefitu (seven houses). Much stress was always laid upon the privilege of addressing a public assembly, therefore when the time came for a particular settle-ment to address the meeting, the whole of the speakers stood up and contended amongst themselves for the honour of speaking on that day. Sometimes, and especially if the subject was important, the palm was quickly yielded to the speaker generally acknowledged to be the most effective, but on ordinary occasions they contended long for the honour. A quarter of an hour or twenty minutes was a very common time for a speech. They managed to speak in rotation, and although they might not be able to exercise the privilege very often, they all liked to assert their right to speak, and to exhibit their to'oto'o-launga, or orator's staff.

When all but one sat down, he commenced his address by carefully going over the titles of the various districts and great divisions of the islands, each having a distinctive complimentary title by which it was always known and spoken of, quite apart from those conferred upon the page 86different chiefs; and the omission of any title of a district at the enumeration of names of districts at a public meeting was looked upon as an insult, the long time occupied in this complimentary recitation being further lengthened' by the speaker deliberately prefixing an apologetic preface to each name of place or chief.

As the orator proceeded, his party sat around him and acted as prompters, refreshing his memory, giving him topics on which to touch, or recalling him when going astray. It was often very amusing to notice how quietly the orator took all this interruption, and how coolly but dexterously a speaker would retreat from a position or statement he found was obnoxious to his party. Sometimes, if he became wearisome, his com-panions would tell him to sit down and hold his tongue—advice which at times might well be given and acted upon in more civilized assemblies.

Many of the speakers were eloquent, and when the subject was an exciting one I have sat for hours listening with pleasure to their addresses. Their style of speaking was often figurative, and as their addresses frequently contained allusions to their old traditions and past national history that were highly interesting and instructive in their mode of speaking, such occasions afforded good opportunities for hearing the Samoan language to advantage.

These public assemblies, whether general or district, took place in the open air, and always commenced in the cool of the morning. In the early dawn the families of the speakers were astir, and a young man from each took the family orator's staff, and proceeded to the nofoā fono, or seat of the family orator, in page 87the malae, where, driving the staff upright into the turf, he sat down beside it and waited the arrival of the orator represented by the staff. At sunrise the meeting was usually assembled and business commenced.

In A'ana the nine speakers of Leulumoenga were privileged to sit on seats or three-legged stools, which were placed at a little distance in front of their party, whilst the rest of the assembly, high and low, sat cross-legged upon the turf. I do not know if this privilege of sitting at such gatherings was common to all Laumua, but even at Leulumoenga it was only asserted upon special occasions.

A speaker was seldom interrupted in his address, and all were heard patiently, however unpalatable their addresses might be. Sometimes, however, a speaker from another party presented himself to correct a mis-statement, or oppose the position taken up by the party addressing the assembly, when a great deal of wrangling took place between the speakers. As a rule, each little group of speakers had a few trees to shelter them, which was very needful, since their meetings were continued throughout the day, in spite of a burning sun; but a heavy shower of rain caused the assembly to be abruptly concluded or else adjourned.

The villages within the radius of a few miles from the place at which the fono was held provided a quantity of food, which was taken by the parties providing it to the head of their family, if in attendance at the fono, who directed its distribution, first supplying visitors from a distance. Bowls of ava were also brought and distributed in like manner. Business proceeded whilst the refreshments were handed round; but this was generally page 88arranged so as to be at the time when the representative of some unimportant district had the attention of the meeting, the address on such occasions becoming jocose, and at times even ludicrous, when the speaker recognized it useless to attempt gaining a hearing by any other style of address.

It was customary for each speaker, as well as others, attending a fono to carry baskets of plaited cocoanut-leaves containing cocoanut-fibre for plaiting cinet, in which employment they busily occupied themselves during the whole proceedings, laying it aside as they rose to speak, and resuming it again immediately on sitting down.

The general fono, or parliament of a district, was at times convened by the Laumua at the suggestion of one or more settlements; at other times, in consequence of intercourse it might have had with other Laumua.

On summoning the various districts the messengers usually gave information of what was to form the principal topic of discussion, and each district deliberated upon it beforehand, and came prepared accordingly; but it sometimes happened that, in case the leading Laumua was apprehensive of not being able to carry its point, its principal men passed from place to place in a body, and discussed the matter separately with each district, prior to the general fono; a custom having somewhat the same effect as the modern caucus.

In all the principal divisions of the islands there were some settlements, in addition to the leading district, which possessed greater influence than others. In A'ana, the division with which I was most familiar, there were two important settlements that had to be consulted page 89in addition to Leulumoenga, viz. Fasito'otai and Fasi-to'outa. These had the privilege of following the opening speech, and their decision was often final, the other places adopting pretty much the tenor of their addresses; but this was not always the case. So great was the influence of these places, that it required the presence of the representative of one or the other of them to render valid the proceedings of the assembly, so that in case both absented themselves from the meeting, the fono dispersed without entering upon business.

The topics discussed at these meetings varied greatly, from matters affecting the wellbeing of the whole community, to those of trifling import. Intercourse between the natives and Europeans of late years has greatly perplexed and distressed them. With native matters they were familiar, but they are sorely puzzled with European complications. There was also, even in the past, a great want of co-operation amongst the several districts, as well as of power to enforce their decisions, which often caused their attempts at legislation to fail.

Official intercourse between the settlements or districts convening meetings, with other matters of business, were always conducted by means of specially appointed messengers, each settlement having a different name for its messengers.

The duty of summoning warlike meetings, carrying messages as to a projected attack, or means of conducting defence, was generally if not always confided to one settlement, whose messengers were entrusted with the discharge of these duties. In A'ana this duty devolved upon Nofoali'i.

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The deference shown in the general fono was great. As these meetings were always held in the open air, the public footpath frequently passed through the malae, where they were held, so that the continual passing and repassing of persons would have occasioned much annoyance, were it not that by universal custom the road passing through the malae was always closed when a fono was sitting. In consequence of this well-understood rule, all persons or travelling parties of whatever rank left the pathway at some distance before reaching the place of meeting, and taking a wide circuit, so as to avoid the assembly, hurried past, as though feeling themselves on forbidden ground. So universally observed was this custom, that the omission of it by a party passing through the assembly was considered as an insult, and looked upon as a soli or trampling upon the company assembled, and through them, upon the entire district. Formerly, in such a case many armed men would have rushed upon the intruders with clubs and spears, and made them pay dearly for their rashness. Although less particular than formerly, even at the time I left the islands such an intrusion would have met with strong disapprobation; and in some places chastisement would have been added. I have sometimes seen a foreigner who was either not aware of the custom, or chose to disregard it, pass through an assembly, and have heard murmurs of disapprobation from many; whilst others apologized for him, and attributed his offence to want of politeness or ignorance. In their heathen state foreigners equally with natives would have been punished, and perhaps slain for such an intrusion. The usual attention to page 91etiquette on such occasions was shown when a message had to be sent from one party to another during the sitting, when the messenger sent always passed behind any intervening group.

In the judicial proceedings of the fono, the punishments may be classed under two heads, O le Sala, and O le Tuā; the former consisting of the destruction of houses, live stock, and plantations, with, at times, the seizure of personal property and banishment; the latter consisting of personal punishment.

The severe punishment of O le Sala was usually inflicted by the whole available force of the district awarding it. Sometimes it was tamely submitted to, but at other times resistance was offered, if the culprits felt themselves strong enough to do so, when desperate encounters followed; and these at times gave rise to general wars. The Sala was also at times inflicted by one family upon another, if the aggrieved party was strong enough. This, although irregular, was connived at by the leading members of the community; but if the punishment was considered excessive, they would then interfere. One great evil attending this mode of punishment was, that at times the whole family, or even district, suffered for the offence of one of its members, so that not only did all suffer from the loss of property, but, when, as was sometimes the case, banishment, fa'ateva, was added to destruction of property and dwellings, many suffered from the punishment.

Upon a fono deciding upon this punishment, it was usual to carry it into effect immediately. In that case, the leading men of the settlement, rising from the page 92place of meeting, proceeded towards the residence of the obnoxious family, attended by their followers, where they quickly seated themselves upon the ground in full view of the family they had decided to banish. The latter often heard of the sentence in sufficient time to enable them to remove their mats and other household property to a place of safety; but the live stock generally fell into the hands of the expelling party, who reserved them to feast upon after the work of the day.

Formality was still the order of proceeding, and the anxious family had yet a little time to make preparations for their departure, as one of the judicial party rose to make a speech, or fai fetalainga, for the benefit of the head of the doomed family, in which he informed him of the decision of the fonot and that they had come to enforce it. On the conclusion of this speech one of the judicial party rose up and commenced to ring the breadfruit-trees, so as to destroy the part above the injured bark, leaving the stump alive, and uninjured, from which in a short time young shoots sprang up, bearing fruit after two or three seasons. The commencement of this work of destruction was either the signal for resistance to be offered, or for the family to gather up their belongings, and remove from the dwelling with sad hearts, to commence their solitary journey as outcasts on the road, whilst their house was set on fire and destroyed.

Whilst these proceedings were going on, if no resistance was offered, the old men sat around the spot, quietly plaiting their cinet, and chatting together apparently quite unconcerned, and waiting for, the page 93return of the young men who had been dispatched to plunder the taro-patches, or else, watching with interest the chasing and killing the pigs around, ready For the feast which was soon to be prepared. On the whole of the provisions being collected, they were cooked and eaten by the expelling party, who then returned to their homes. It was a sad sight to witness this driving a family from their homes, and sending them out to wander on until they reached a spot where some friend would give them land on which to build a home.

Sometimes the sentence was to go forthwith and destroy the breadfruit-trees, without expelling the family or burning their homes. The length of time the banished party remained absent from their village varied much. Their term of banishment was never specified, nor the place to which they were to go made known unless on very particular occasions. It was generally considered sufficient to know that the expelled party were on the road; and they might take shelter wherever they liked, beyond the limits of the village or settlement from whence they had been expelled. Sometimes they were specially warned to remove to a distance.

Should the expelled party be influential, it sometimes happened that, having acknowledged the power of their settlement by submitting quietly to punishment, some friend would suggest to his companions that, their authority having been asserted and acknowledged, it would be desirable to recall the banished party, so as not to lose strength. Should this suggestion prove agreeable, those who had previously page 94decreed the banishment went in a body to the place where the refugees were to be found, and made a conciliatory speech, telling them to fa'a molemole (make smooth your hearts), and return to their settlement. This generally healed the breach, but sometimes it took more to smooth the ruffled hearts; and the banished parties remained absent for years, or permanently located themselves in another settlement, which they found no difficulty in doing, from the extent of their family connexions.

It occasionally happened, however, that the term of banishment was very lengthened, especially when the sentence had been pronounced in a full fono, and where the offence had been great. One such case came under my notice. A powerful A'ana chief had committed adultery with the wife of a Manono chief, in consequence of which he had been banished to Savaii. Manono remained quiet as long as he absented himself and respected their prohibition of not returning to A'ana, a violation of which would have occasioned war. A'ana was a conquered district, but this chief had powerful family connexions on Savaii, who belonged to the Malo, or victorious party, to whom he went and lived under their protection for several years. Although afraid to return, openly to A'ana, I was assured that he paid frequent night visits there, to consult with his friends and partisans. At length, after many unavailing attempts had been made by his friends on Savaii to induce Manono to consent to his returning to A'ana, his friends on Savaii called a meeting, at which it was determined to muster a large armed party and take him back to his home in face of the page 95prohibition. They called at Manono on their way, and informed the principal men of that island of their resolve; and the Manono people, seeing that they were determined as to their course, thought it prudent to cease their opposition, and forgive the. offence. The Savaii party then quietly accompanied the chief to A'ana, and reinstated him in his former position. After his reproach had been removed, he preferred returning with his friends to Savaii, where he continued to reside.

The other class of punishment, noticed under the head of O le Tuā, was personal, and, like the former, was inflicted immediately sentence had been pronounced, in the presence of the whole assembly. This punishment was awarded for the following offences: theft, insulting travelling parties, preparing pitfalls, and taking the comb out of a married woman's head.

Amongst these punishments may be noticed the fa'afoa, which consisted of compelling the delinquent to inflict severe wounds and bruises upon himself, by beating his head and chest with a large stone; until the blood flowed freely. If there appeared any disposition on the part of the culprit to inflict merely slight wounds, the chiefs assembled immediately ordered him to strike harder; which command was further speedily enforced by the prompt and unsparing use of a war club, if necessary.

O le-ū-tevi, or causing to bite the tevi, a poisonous and acrid root, was a common and very painful punishment. On biting the root the mouth swelled greatly, and the sufferer experienced intense agony for a considerable time afterwards.

Catching poisonous spined fish in the hand after they had thrown them in the air was another severe personal page 96punishment, commonly inflicted at fonos. This fish was covered with sharp-pointed spines, and the punishment consisted in making the culprit throw it into the air, and then catch it in his naked hand as it fell. Whenever a spine entered the hand, it caused great agony and suffering.

O le fa'a-lā-ina, or exposure to the sun, was another punishment commonly inflicted for theft. The culprit's hands and feet were tied together, and a pole passed through them, when he was carried to a public place, and placed in the broiling sun, to be exposed to the intense heat for many hours together. On other occasions the offender's feet were tied together, and he was then hoisted up to the top of a tall cocoanut-tree, and suspended head downwards, for many hours together. These five punishments have now mostly if not entirely become obsolete, and fines of pigs, property, &c., have taken their places.

In cases of murder or adultery, the common mode of making compensation to the injured party or their relatives was by the Ifonga, or bowing down, accompanied with a totongi, or payment of a fine. In case the offending party thought it prudent to tender this satisfaction, he collected some valuable mats, in number and quality according to the nature of the offence, and with his friends prepared to make his submission. When it was thought necessary to appear very humble, the parties took pieces of firewood, stones, and leaves with them, to, signify that they put themselves entirely into the power of the aggrieved party, who might kill, cook, and eat them, if they thought proper. On nearing their place of destination, which they usually managed to reach page 97before or by daybreak, the culprit wrapped some valuable mats around his body, and with the rest of his party proceeded to the place where they intended to make their submission. If the offended party was a chief, they proceeded at once to his residence, where, prostrating themselves before his house, they awaited in silence his decision. The position assumed on such occasions was that of bowing on their hands and knees, or sitting cross-legged, with the head placed between the knees.

Immediately on their arrival becoming known, the chief was informed of it, and this was the critical time for the anxious party outside the dwelling. The ifonga, however, was usually deferred until it had been ascertained that the angry feelings first felt had in some measure subsided; but it occasionally happened that the injured party were unable to control their passions on seeing their enemy prostrate before them; in which case they rushed out spear and club in hand to inflict, summary chastisement upon the humbled company. Some of the latter, who were on the look-out for such a contingency, narrowly watched the movements of the party within, the house, and were ready to give prompt notice of any meditated onslaught, so that the, whole ifonga were ready to take flight on, the first notice of an onslaught, either to the bush, or else to their canoes. Severe wounds were often given in such cases, and sometimes even lives, were sacrificed, where the look-out had been carelessly performed, or the onslaught was unusually fierce.

Generally speaking, the ifonga or submitting party were well received, and a messenger dispatched to invite page 98them to rise and enter the dwelling to fai fetalainga, or hold a consultation. The payment of property was then tendered, accompanied with an apology on behalf of the transgressor by one of his companions. The chief and his friends replied, and sometimes vented their displeasure upon their visitors in no very measured terms. To this wordy chastisement the ifonga replied with all due submission, took their leave and retired, heartily glad to escape with their lives, or indeed with whole heads and limbs.

On one occasion an A'ana chief of high rank, named Tui-one-ula, had a quarrel with a Manono chief when they met at sea fishing within the reef off Mulinu'u; words led to blows, ending in a fight in which the Manono chief was killed. They were alone, and fought with their paddles, but Tui-one-ula being the more powerful of the two, killed his opponent. It would seem to have been a chance blow, and unpremeditated, at the most amounting to manslaughter, but a general cry for vengeance arose on the part of the deceased chieftain's relatives, who considered Tui-one-ula a murderer, and demanded his punishment. Preparations for war were therefore quickly made by Manono and her allies, to lay waste his district. The offender also prepared for resistance. He retired to his inland fortress, summoned his allies, and seemed determined to defend himself, so that war seemed inevitable.

Many meetings of the district were held to discuss the matter and try to avert the conflict. As a last resource, a large and influential meeting of chiefs and leading men from many places around was convened at Fasito'otai, a settlement in A'ana some few miles page 99distant from where the conflict seemed likely to be. This meeting was largely attended, and the matter long and earnestly discussed, with the result that late in the afternoon a decision was arrived at that a large deputation should at once proceed to interview Tuione-ula, and try to get him to ifo, and tender a fine in expiation of his offence. At the same time I was asked to form part of the deputation and back up their pleading.

It was late when we started, and by the time we reached the beach where the road branched off into the forest track that led to the fortress it was quite dark, so that torches had to be kindled to light the track. The olo, or fortress, was on the mountain side several miles inland, and thus occupied a commanding position, overlooking the track from start to finish. We knew this quite well, as also that the bush on either side swarmed with armed scouts, who would closely watch our travelling party, which was a large one. This was quickly recognized by a portly Manono chief and native teacher, who had been asked to head the company, but whose heart very soon failed him, so that he begged to be allowed to relinquish the leadership and go to the rear, as he feared a pulufana (musket-ball) would soon be sent through him if he led the advance. His request was granted amidst much laughing and jeering at his bravery, Sikioni, or Moepou, a fine young A'ana chief, taking his place.

We then started through the forest, the winding track being lit up with the many torches carried by the company. After an hour's walk or so we neared the fortress, and very soon met signs of watchfulness and page 100defence. As we moved on our way we were challenged, and had to explain our presence; but the outposts were soon passed, and at length we drew near to the entrance of the fortress itself, where our business was more formally inquired into. We sent in our request for a personal interview with the chief, stating our object in thus seeking the interview. As a matter of fact, he had long been duly informed of our approach, as also of the object of our visit, so that very soon the messenger returned with a request that a certain number of chiefs and tulafale, mentioned by name, and myself would wait upon him. We were thereupon led through the passage leading to the olo, and soon reached the inner chamber, where we found the chief. We were all well known to him, and friendly, so that we soon entered upon business and explained our message. At first we were met with what seemed to amount to an almost curt refusal. Why should he run the risk of almost certain death, and not be able to defend himself? Better stand the chances of war and die fighting, if it came to that. After some discussion we could see that he wavered, and at length he promised to consider the matter, and let us know his decision in the morning. We were satisfied, and took our leave, glad to get clear of the evidences of turmoil and confusion visible on every hand, yet thankful for what seemed to be a favourable result to our mission. In the morning we were informed that the chief would make his ifonga on a certain day, which he did, and tendered his fine in expiation of his offence. With the exception of a threatened assault by a young man, a relative of the deceased chieftain, but which was presented by some page 101of his own friends, Tui-one-ula was well received, and the threatened war happily averted.

In cases of adultery, especially amongst the lower ranks, payment only was taken to the injured party; but if this was not accepted, and the offence unexpiated, the injured party and his friends watched for an opportunity to wreak their vengeance upon the offender, or the first person belonging to his settlement they could catch.

The ifonga is also the usual mode adopted by a conquered people on submitting to their conquerors. On such occasions there was often much bloodshed, but the poor wanderers were driven to this extremity by being hunted and half starved in the woods. It was also used occasionally by parties who were desirous of securing help from their more powerful neighbours after a defeat.

Sometimes other punishments were inflicted, as O le ta-o-le-isu (tattooing the nose), also O le tipi o le talinga (splitting the ear), both of which marks of degradation were at times inflicted for certain offences.

In the only case of deliberate execution for a crime (murder) that occurred during my residence on Samoa the victim was bound to a tree, the rope being fastened around the legs and then wound slowly but tightly upwards, the wretched criminal meanwhile shrieking fearfully, and beseeching his executioners to kill him with an axe, or otherwise put an end to his misery. This execution took place in Atua, and was the result of a long and anxious native trial, and much discussion as to the mode of execution that should be adopted. The one chosen was decided upon as being more in page 102unison with native custom than hanging. The culprit's name was Toi, and his crime a most revolting family murder, in which he sacrificed five or six lives. For a very long time he evaded capture, being sheltered in the mountains, but was at length hunted down and executed.

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samoan house.

samoan house.