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Old Samoa or Flotsam and Jetsam from the Pacific Ocean

Chapter VII — Marriages, Births, and Deaths

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Chapter VII
Marriages, Births, and Deaths

In contracting marriage the Samoan woman was sometimes able to follow her own inclination or affections, but generally speaking the family were the contracting parties, a union often being proposed or arranged by the parents without any reference to the woman's feelings. In case she refused, or manifested any disinclination to yield her will, she was often subjugated to harsh, and even brutal treatment.

Sometimes both parties were betrothed when mere children, whilst at other times a child of tender years was affianced to a man old enough to be her grandfather, through the mercenary or political views of the contracting parties, who hoped to benefit by the alliance. A vast amount of misery was thus often inflicted upon children by their parents, and this, although much modified of late years, has not been entirely abolished.

Amongst the middle and lower classes, courtship was usually a simple affair, easily arranged, and successfully carried out; but amongst the higher ranks it was often the reverse. In the former case, if a young man desired to marry a girl, he either made known his wishes by page 172means of a friend, soa, or else, preparing an oven of food as a present, he posted off with it himself to the family of the young girl. If this was refused, it was an intimation that his attentions were discouraged; but if accepted, it was understood that his visits would be approved by the family, and the marriage was soon arranged,, a few days, or at most weeks, being thought sufficient delay. On the occasion of such marriages but little ceremony was used. Presents were exchanged between the two families, and the young man removed to the house bf the young person of his choice, became an inmate of the family, and took his share of its duties. After some time had elapsed he was at liberty to remove his wife to his own family residence, or commence housekeeping for himself.

Amongst the higher ranks, however, proposals for marriage were always made through the medium of a third party, or soa, literally a companion. Hence, if a chief desired to marry a lady of rank, he sent his soa to her residence, and commissioned him to use every means in his power to obtain her consent, and that of her family, to the marriage. This messenger was accompanied by a retinue, who were the bearers of a quantity of food, sent as an introduction to the lady and her family. If the present was accepted, it was known that the proposal would be entertained, and the soa, with his company, took up their abode near the dwelling, and endeavoured in every way to further the object of their visit. If the present were refused, it was accepted as a rebuff, and the crestfallen party retired to report their ill success.

It sometimes happened that the messengers of three page 173or four rival candidates were permitted to remain and struggle for the prize, thus, at times, causing many amusing scenes, as the messengers not only sought to influence the lady herself, but also strove to gain aid from her attendants, in their favour. The several suitors also came in person, and endeavoured to make themselves attractive by every means in their power. Political and family interests were also mixed up in the question, and many consultations were held by the family as to which of the offers held out the greatest inducements. This rivalry continued for some time amidst much coquetting on the part of the fair one, until at length she formally announced her choice, leaving the messengers of the disappointed ones to withdraw, chagrined at their failure, whilst the successful candidate made preparations for the approaching nuptials. Some months were usually allowed to elapse before the marriage took place, the interval being employed by the family and political connexions of the bridegroom-elect in collecting a large quantity of food, canoes, and European property, which were all taken to the lady's family, either before or at the time of marriage. This gift was termed O le oloa, and in return for it the bride's family gave large quantities of native property, consisting of valuable mats and native cloth, the return gift being called tonga. This custom of the bridegroom's family giving oloa, and the bride's relatives returning tonga, was observed in all future exchanges of property between the two families.

The set time for the marriage having arrived, large numbers of the people flocked from all parts to the settlement where the bride resided, all eager to witness page 174the ceremony, engage in the sports, and partake of the feasts liberally provided on such occasions. The bridegroom, with his retinue, followed, bringing large quantities of food and other articles as a present.

The marriage ceremony commenced with the alala-fanga, which consisted of visitors and strangers clapping their hands; after this a distribution of tonga to the bridegroom and his family took place. This was followed by the consummation of the marriage, O le avanganga, the degrading details of which are utterly unfit for publication. This was followed by much feasting, dancing, sham fighting, with wrestling and boxing-matches, continuing for many days, accompanied with the never-failing scenes of lewdness and dissipation that were the constant associations of such gatherings; after these the visitors took their leave, some to long for the speedy return of such another gathering, others to fight over the distribution of the property awarded to them.

When the newly married couple selected a site for their future dwelling, another gathering of visitors took place for the purpose of forming a fanua tanu, or platform, a raised terrace of stones on which to erect their dwelling in accordance with old established custom. Shortly after this mark of respect had been paid, it was rewarded by another distribution of food and native property. After the lapse of two months another exchange of property took place, the wife's relations giving presents: the husband's relatives returning the compliment with a large quantity of food. The various ceremonies, before noticed, as attendant upon a marriage, were only observed on the marriage of persons of rank; on other occasions but little form or ceremony was used.

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Polygamy at one time was largely prevalent, many chiefs of rank having seven or eight or even more wives at a time. There were generally one or more principal wives, who kept the others in subjection, often exerting their authority with a very high hand. Formerly, a discarded wife of a chief, or one who had voluntarily left her husband, was prohibited from marrying another man, unless the latter were powerful enough to set this prohibition at defiance. As illustrating a custom common at one time in Samoan society, I may mention that many women have assured me that when it is seen that the husband was resolved upon adding another wife to his harem, the principal wife often selected her own sister or sisters, and endeavoured to get them added to the family roll of wives, so that she might have some control over them. This plan was frequently adopted to avoid strangers being brought into the family. Such a custom was apparently known in the olden days, as evidenced by Leviticus xviii. 18. I knew one European who had a plurality of wives, but who seemed ashamed of his action, as also at the manner in which he had allowed himself to be dragged down by native custom.

Various customs were common to the Samoans in connexion with the birth of a child. During pregnancy the woman allowed her hair to grow long, alike as an evidence of her condition, and in deference to the received opinion that the child would thrive better in consequence. After two or three months had elapsed, the first present of food was brought by the husband's relatives; if he had any sisters, by one of them. If the wife were a woman of rank, this offering consisted of thirty, forty, or even fifty pigs; but if she were the wife page 176of a Tulafale only, of eight or ten. Some time after this, an offering was taken to the mother in honour of the expected child, which also consisted of pigs, the gift varying from two to three, up to fifty, according to the rank of the mother. This was called O le popo, 'of the child,' and strangely enough so named from the fact that the expressed juice of the popo or ripe cocoanut was the first food given to an infant. In case of a woman of rank, two months before the birth of the child the afua was observed, which consisted of each Tulafale or land-holder of the district bringing a present of a pig, the number frequently amounting to fifty, and even to one hundred. One more donation of food remained to be made by the husband's relatives and political dependants, called O le taro-fanaunga, the taro of birth, which consisted of a large quantity of provisions. These, with all the previous donations, were taken to the wife's relatives, and by them distributed among their friends and political connexions. Having made these various offerings of food, the husband's relatives awaited the birth of the child, and when within a month of her confinement the wife proceeded to her own family to be confined.

Hitherto the wife's family connexions have been the receivers of property, but now in return they collect large quantities of native cloth and mats, to be given in payment for the provisions previously brought them by the husband's relatives. This property was usually divided into five different portions, and distributed after the birth of the child.

As with the Hebrews of old, the act of birth was generally easy, and the female was soon enabled to page 177busy herself about her domestic duties, sometimes even a few hours after the event. In all cases very shortly after birth both mother and child were bathed in cold water, sometimes in the house, but oftener in the sea, the mother taking her infant to the beach and quietly bathing both it and herself. In the olden times the birth of a child was always announced to the neighbours by a man standing in front of the house and shouting, with a loud voice, several distinct war-cries, or U-u-ū, five for a male, and two or three for a female.

During the first eight or ten days the child was fed entirely upon the expressed juice or milk of the old cocoanut, after which it was put to the breast, and also fed with vegetables previously masticated by the mother. Of late years many females have broken through these restrictions. About the eighth day the child's head was shaved by being scraped with a shark's tooth, as a substitute for a razor, and soon after this the property which had been collected by the wife's family connexions was distributed to the husband's relations. On the conclusion of this ceremony great rejoicings were held, and the event celebrated by much dancing, boxing-matches, club fightings, and other games, and then the visitors separated, taking with them the property they had received. When the child was able to sit upright another feast was provided by the family where the mother was staying, in honour of the event, the same custom being afterwards observed on three separate occasions, viz. on the child's being able to crawl on the floor, to stand upright, and also to walk. A custom answering to circumcision was universally practised throughout the whole Samoan group.

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The prevalence of polygamy amongst the Samoans was a fruitful source of quarrels, and a bar to happiness in many families; but for all that the Samoans were fond of their children, in pleasing contrast to the hardheartedness of the natives of many other islands. The desire for offspring was strong amongst Samoan women, who may in some respects be said to rival the Hebrew women, so that in case they had no children of their own they frequently adopted the children of others.

Children were subject to a strange training, or as a rule brought up without any real training at all, save such as tended to evil. At one time they were indulged in every wish, at another severely beaten for the most trivial offence, and then shortly after an oven of food was prepared, as a peace-offering to appease their offended dignity. In consequence of the manner in which families usually lived the children were accustomed to witness all kinds of evil, and encouraged to follow deception as a virtue, the only evil attaching to a crime being that of detection. Hence by example, as well as by teaching, children were trained in the habits of deception by their parents and others, an acquisition of which they usually proved themselves but too apt scholars.

During their heathen state, interment in a rudely built stone vault or cromlech, for the higher ranks, or in a shallow grave for the commonalty, was the most common mode of burial chosen by the Samoans, but occasionally other methods were adopted, such as rudely embalming the body, putting it into a canoe and sending it adrift on the ocean, or placing it on a stage erected in the forest, where it was left to decay, after page 179which the bones were collected and buried. Upon the death of a chief his body was usually deposited in a family vault, the sides and bottom of which were formed of large slabs of sandstone or basalt, both of which are found on various parts of the islands. The grave or vault was covered over with a large slab of the same material, thus forming a kind of cromlech, sometimes of large and massive dimensions.

The family of the late Matetau of Manono have one, which I have seen, on Nu'ulopa, and which was a good specimen of its kind. The head being considered a sacred part, the bodies of chiefs were frequently buried; near their habitations until decomposition had set in, when the head was severed from the body and reinterred in some family burial-place in the mountains, to save it from insult in the time of war. Sometimes a chief died at a distance from his own settlement, when after a time his body was brought to the family burying-place with much ceremony and a kind of military show, called O le langi. It was followed by, or rather in part consisted of, sham fights, boxing-matches, and dances, which took place after the skull of the deceased chieftain had been placed in the tomb. It was usually borne thither on a kind of stage and accompanied by a large number of armed men.

On ordinary occasions the body was prepared for burial within a few hours of death, but if the deceased were of high rank it was otherwise, and many customs and observances were attended to which were omitted at the ordinary funeral; indeed, the full burial obsequies were seldom adhered to but on the occasion of the death of chiefs of rank. The generality of persons page 180were quickly buried, with little ceremony, the body being laid in a shallow grave either wrapped in folds of native cloth or enclosed in a rude coffin or box, sometimes formed from a portion of an old canoe, but more generally hollowed out from the trunk of a tree.

On a person being taken seriously ill messengers were sent to the various relatives, who hastened to the spot bearing with them property, as an offering to present to the sick man and his family. In case death was likely to ensue, some of the more valuable mats were brought and laid upon the body of the dying chief, in order to minister to the constantly expressed wish that at the time of death the sick might have the consciousness of being surrounded with valuable property. This curious custom was observed in all ranks, with children as well as grown persons. In the event of the illness of a chief of rank, his female relatives first hastened to attend him, and these were quickly followed by the different male members of his family, in case his illness increased. These brought property wherewith to consult the oracle of the district as to the occasion and probable termination of the disease. The sister of the sick man was also closely questioned as to whether she had cursed him, and thus caused his illness; if so, she was entreated to remove the curse, so that he might recover. Moved by their pleadings the sister took cocoanut-water in her mouth and ejected it towards or upon the body of the sufferer, by which means she either removed the curse or expressed her innocence of having called down any malediction upon him. This strange custom was called O le pūpūnga (rinsing the mouth), and all parties were desirous that it should be page 181performed in all cases of illness, since great dread was felt of the dire effects of a sister's curse. Visits of sympathy were also made by persons from all the surrounding districts, who came to pour forth lamentations both real and feigned at the illness of the chief, as well as feast upon the viands always provided on such occasions; yet but little if anything was attempted, or in fact could be attempted, towards relieving the sufferer, save consulting the oracle or priest.

In the event of all the means used proving ineffectual, and death appearing imminent, a strangely wild scene occurred. Numbers crowded around the dying chief to receive a parting look or word from him, whilst in front of the dwelling might be seen men and women wildly beating their heads and bodies with large stones, and inflicting ghastly wounds, from which the blood poured as an offering of affection and sympathy to their departing friend. It was also hoped that such inflictions might be the means of propitiating the gods, so that they would be induced to avert the threatened calamity.

In the midst of all this confusion and uproar, the voice of a tulafale might be heard calling upon the god of the family in the following terms—'Moso, what does all this mean? Give back to us our chief. Why do you pay no respect to us, faleupolu?' Then addressing himself to the god of the sufferer's mother, he called loudly upon him to interfere, and prevent Moso from taking away the spirit of the chief. But, suddenly, seeing that all his appeals were vain, and that the chief was dead, he lost all patience and began to abuse the god Moso in no measured terms. 'O thou shameless spirit, could I but grasp you, I would smash your skull page 182to pieces! Come here and let us fight together. Don't conceal yourself, but show yourself like a man, and let us fight, if you are angry.'

Immediately after death, all the mats on the floor of the house were thrown outside, and the thatched sides of the house were either torn down or beaten in with clubs; whilst the relatives and assembled crowds wrought themselves to frenzy, uttering piercing cries, tearing their hair, and wounding their bodies by repeated and heavy blows from stones and clubs.

After a short time the body was laid out by women, no males being allowed to assist, and when that was finished four women seated themselves around the corpse, one to each limb, where they watched in silence, no one being allowed to speak above a whisper. These women remained until relieved by others; and unless thus relieved, no one could leave their post, no matter how urgent the call might be. If the relatives were all assembled, the body was speedily buried, unless it was to be kept above ground and placed upon a stage, or rudely embalmed, as was the custom in some families; but if any relatives had not arrived, for whom it was considered desirable to wait, a large pile of siapo was formed, called an epa, on which the corpse was laid to await the arrival of the expected friends, the upper piece of siapo being frequently removed as decomposition advanced. It sometimes happened that distant friends were delayed, so that the body had to be buried before they arrived. The house in which the body lay, as well as any person approaching it, were considered sacred; none of the watch even being allowed to handle food, all being fed by others.

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On the body being laid in the grave, the Ilamutu, or. near relative of the deceased, a sister, if one survives, seated herself at the head of the grave, and waving a piece of white cloth over the body, commenced an address to the dead. 'Compassion to you. Go with good will, and without bearing malice towards us. Take with you all our diseases, and leave us life.' Then pointing towards the west, she exclaimed—'Misery there.' To the east, 'Prosperity there.' Into the grave, 'Misery there; but leave happiness with us.' Valuable mats and other property were Sometimes buried with a corpse, and the grave of a warrior was surrounded with spears placed upright in the ground, whilst his musket and war-club were sometimes placed upon the grave and allowed to decay, no one presuming to touch them. I once saw a musket thus placed upon the grave of a warrior at Matautu, on Savaii, which had fallen to pieces from long exposure to the atmosphere. A few little trinkets and playthings may be often seen lovingly placed upon the grave of some beloved child, as with us, in fond remembrance of the dead. Graves were sometimes marked by stones placed around them, inside of which sand or coral déhris was spread, whilst a railing of the beautiful ti plant, with its handsome plumes, at times gave the whole a picturesque appearance.

The funeral obsequies of a chief of rank lasted from ten to fifteen days, during which time the house in which he died was watched night and day by men appointed for the purpose. After burial, and until the days of mourning were ended, the days were usually spent in boxing and wrestling-matches, with sham fights; the nights being occupied with dancing and practising page 184a kind of buffoonery, common to these seasons of mourning for the dead. This was called O le tau-pinga, and in it the performers amused themselves in making a variety of ludicrous faces and grimaces at each other, so as to see who could first excite laughter; thus seeking to while away the hours of the night. These amusements were kept up until the ten or fifteen days of mourning were expired.

If a person died a natural death, no anxiety was manifested by survivors respecting his spirit, since it was supposed to have proceeded immediately to the Fafa, whence it either made its way to the Nu'u-o-nonoa, 'the land of the bound,'or else to the Nu'u-o-aitu, 'the land of the spirits.' But in case a person died a violent death, much fear was expressed by survivors lest the disembodied spirit should haunt its former abode. To obviate this, a woman proceeded immediately to the spot where the death occurred, if within reach, and spreading a piece of siapo upon the ground, waited until an ant or some other insect crawled upon the cloth, which was then carefully gathered Up, and, with the insect, buried with the corpse. The insect was supposed to have received the spirit of the dead, and no further fear was felt respecting its reappearance; but where the person died in battle, or from other cause at a distance, so that the spirit could not be obtained, the surviving relatives were often troubled and disturbed by visits from the restless, homeless warrior.

A rude kind of embalming, called O le fa'a-Atua-lālāina (made into a sun-dried god), was formerly practised in Samoa by two families, Sa-le-Tufunga, and Sa-Mataafā, the former being a branch of the latter family. page 185It was practised more generally, and continued longer by the Mataafä family. So late as 1841, I saw several bodies in the family burial-place of this family at Aleipata on Upolu, which were preserved in this manner. Although the spell of sacredness which had formerly surrounded them had been broken, they were still watched over and protected with care. I am not able to speak as to the probable age of these mummies, but they had evidently lain there a number of years. Some older bodies which had been long preserved there were buried not long before my visit.