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The Samoan Ethos

As we have seen, the punishment traditionally meted out to an erring taupou was deemed by Mead to be „too severe for the Samoan ethos,“ which in all her writings she portrays as „mild“ „relaxed“ and „gentle.“ Thus, according to Mead, „The Samoan system is a very pleasant way of reducing the rough unseemly aspects of human nature to a pleasant innocuousness,“ and it „lacks intensity in every respect.“ „Strong allegiances“ are „disallowed,“ and such is the „general casualness of the whole society,“ Mead asserts in Coming of Age in Samoa, that „no one suffers for his convictions, or fights to the death for special ends.“1

It is to this last depiction that Samoans, and especially male Samoans, take particular exception, for, as they well know, it is a major misrepresentation of their ethos and history. When in 1967 I discussed these generalizations from Coming of Age in Samoa with John Soloi, who was at that time the pastor of Fi-tiuta in Manu'a, he remarked testily that in these statements Mead was depriving the Samoans of deeply human characteristics and depicting them, wholly without justification, as a society of „spineless nonentities.“ Of the lack of justification for Mead's depictions there can be no possible doubt, for as their history amply proves, the Samoans are a people of exceptional punctilio and grit, with „the main virtue required of any male, children included,“ being, as Albert Wendt has described, „personal courage, especially in physical combat of any sort.“2

As I have documented in Chapter 8, during the very period to which Mead's remarks specifically refer, the inhabitants of both American and Western Samoa were conspicuously suffering for their convictions. Thus, as we have seen, not long before Mead's visit to Manu'a a number of the chiefs of Ta'u had defied the naval government by reinstating the title of Tui Manu'a; they told the governor, when he forcibly quashed what they had done, that they were „dissatisfied to the death“ with his interference in their affairs.3

The announcement of Taua-nu'u and his fellow talking chiefs that they were dissatisfied to the death is an expression of one of the principal cultural values of the Samoans. In the course of a serious dispute with another village, for example, talking chiefs, on behalf of their titular chief, will extol the indomitable courage of those ready to die for their local polity and high chief. Such courage is believed to bring to those who display it honor, which the Samoans prize above all else. This attitude was pointedly expressed at a political fono in Satunuma-fono in February 1967, when a senior talking chief adjured the others of his district to stand fast forever and to die if need be, as this was true honor. Again, in 1966, in an incident I have described in detail elsewhere, an untitled man who had been provoked into fighting with a talking chief in the course of a territorial dispute came to fear that he might be attacked by this talking chief's retainers, but he remained defiant. What he had done, he said, he had done with good cause, and he was prepared for whatever the consequences might be. „If I have to die,“ he told me, „then I'll die.“ A Samoan then, whose blood is up, is all too ready, in a culture which extols violence, to go on and on fighting. There is, in the words of N. A. Howe, „a peculiar tenacity about the Samoans which stamps them as being different.“4

This tenacity is closely linked with the notion basic to Samoan warfare that one or other of the contending aides must achieve total dominance—the conquerers being called the mâlô and the conquered the to'ilalo. It is thus commonplace to hear a Samoan averring „I will submit to nothing!“ This spirit they have persistently displayed throughout their history. The high chief Mata'afa Iosefa, for example, who after rebelling against the political status quo was deported to Jaluit in the Marshall Islands, told the Commissioners of Great Britain, Germany, and the United States in 1899, as Tripp records, that he and his people would prefer „to become slaves, if they must, by compulsion, and not by cowardly submission.“ In 1902, various of the chiefs of Ta'ii defied the naval commandant of American Samoa over the curtailment of the traditional privileges of the Tui Manu'a to the point of being fined and exiled. In 1921 Leva-leva, a chief of Tutuila who was opposed to the naval administration, informed that he was to be deprived of his title, exclaimed defiantly that „nobody in this world“ would take it from him. For this gesture of independence he was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to three years' imprisonment. Similar acts of defiance, at no small personal sacrifice, were very frequent during the political opposition to the New Zealand administration of Western Samoa in the 1920s. In July 1927, for example, when Tuisila, a titular chief of Mutiatele, Aleipata, as ordered to desist from political activity in Apia and return to his local polity, he adamantly refused so to do and was sentenced to three months' imprisonment.5

The courage and tenacity of the Samoan people are palpably demonstrated in the actions and demeanor of the high chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi HI at the very time that Mead, in New York, was writing of how among Samoans „no one suffers for his convictions, or fights to the death for special ends.“ Lealofi, who as Tupua Tamasese was one of the tama'âiga, or highest-ranking titular chiefs of Western Samoa, first came into contention with the New Zealand administration as a young man when in 1924 he was ordered by the Secretary of Native Affairs to remove a hibiscus hedge from land that he believed to be his own. Certain of his right to the land in question, Tamasese staunchly refused to comply with the order, even when it was issued to him in person by His Excellency, Major-General Richardson, the supreme head of the New Zealand administration. Richardson, with a crass insensitivity to the eminence of the tama'aiga in the eyes of Samoans, ordered that Tamasese should refrain from using his title, and be banished to the island of Savai'i for an indefinite period. Later, when as J. W. Davidson records, Tamasese „left his enforced place of residence to ascertain the duration of his disabilities,“ he was sentenced to imprisonment, deprived of his title, and banished yet again. This oppressive treatment of a „royal son“ of Samoa was one of the main causes of the Mau, the organized opposition to the New Zealand administration, of which Tupua Tamasese Lealofi HI eventually became the active leader.

Early in this movement some of its members had declared that the Samoans, in the words of one of their old proverbs, were moved by love, but never driven by intimidation. The oppression continued, and within a few years the Mau had the support of the vast majority of the Samoan people. So widespread was the disaffection that it amounted to an unarmed rebellion. In 1928, for refusing, with numerous others, to pay poll-tax to the New Zealand administration, Tamasese was summarily arrested at Vaimoso village, to which he had returned, by a posse of thirty-five military police armed with rifles and fixed bayonets. When the first of these military police broke in to Tamasese's house in the early hours of the morning he cried aloud, as one of them later reported, „I won't come, shoot me, kill me“—«o evincing the implacable spirit of a true Samoan. For thus resisting arrest he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment in Mt. Eden Jail in Auckland, New Zealand. In Apia on 28 December 1929, some months after Tamasese had returned to Samoa to resume his leadership of the Mau, the authorities interrupted a procession by attempting to arrest Mata'utia

Karauna, the secretary of the Man. In the ensuing melee Tamasese, who was appealing for the restoration of order, was fatally shot by New Zealand military police. He was still in his twenties. That evening, as he lay dying, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III issued to all Samoans these parting words: „My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in maintaining peace. If I die, peace must be maintained at any price.“7

These magnanimous words are a notable expression of what the Samoans call 'o le fa'atamdli'i, the aristocratically restrained and far-seeing conduct characteristic of a chief of high rank. Their spirit, moreover, epitomizes all that is best in the Samoan ethos, for with their tenacity in altercation and combat, the Samoans also have a special genius for restoring order and regaining amity in the face of outrageous fortune. Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III stands in the history of Samoa as a great patriot who, in rejecting the paternalist control of the New Zealand administration which had been imposed upon his people, movingly demonstrated his willingness to suffer and to die for his country while maintaining its highest ideals. In Auckland in 1929 a chaplain at Mt. Eden Jail remarked that in imprisoning the Christian rebel chief Tamasese, the New Zealand government was defeating its own ends. This was even more evident in the tragic shootings of 28 December 1929, in which ten other Samoans were also killed. Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III had become the hero of his people, and each year the members of the Mau would meet at his grave in commemoration of his sacrifice, the final vindication of which was the establishment in 1962 of Western Samoa as an independent Polynesian state.

The preamble to the constitution of Western Samoa begins: „In the Holy Name of God, the Almighty, the Ever Loving,“ and goes on to declare that the independent state of Western Samoa is based „on Christian principles and Samoan custom and tradition.“ As this declaration indicates, the Samoan ethos derives from an admixture of institutions that emphasize rank and the aggressive defense of ancient privilege, with Christianity and its ethic of mutual love and forgiveness. In the course of history these divergent elements have become contained within a uniquely Samoan ideology which equates the governance of Jehovah with the rank system itself. Thus, as described in Chapter 8 it is now one of the basic dogmas of Samoan society that the rank system is sanctioned by Jehovah. The stern values of this rank system, though fundamentally unchanged since pagan times, have thus been tempered by a belief in an all-seeing and all-powerful God, who, while he relentlessly punishes those who disobey his commandments, is also a God of love.

Behind the Christianity of the Samoans there still looms, however, the primeval rank system with its oppositions and tensions. In matters of precedence the Samoans, like the ancient Greeks as Thucydides describes them, „are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first.“ In this domain, where the dangers of rivalrous conflict are ever present, „terms of ceremony fly thick as oaths on board a ship,“ and the Samoan ethos remains one of obedience and submissiveness to those in positions of chiefly privilege and authority, as to the God who, it is said, stands at the apex of the rank hierarchy. Indeed, Samoan chiefs are much given to extolling obedience as the essential basis of virtue and concord, and to condemning freedom of action as the source of sin and social disorder. So, in Wendt's powerful novel Pouliuli (1977), which presents a sear-ingly honest portrayal of the realities of Samoan existence, when a 67-year-old chief attempts, in the grip of an „almost unbearable feeling of revulsion,“ to renounce the fa'aSamoa, he is gravely warned by one of his oldest friends that „the individual freedom you have discovered and now want to maintain is contrary to the very basis of our way of life.“9

The Samoan ethos, then, is scarcely pervaded by casualness as Mead claimed. Rather, for most Samoans there is no escape from the insistent demands of their society, one of its fundamental principles being (as described in Chapter 13) that anyone who disobeys the instructions of those in authority should be duly punished. This custom of inflicting punishment to maintain social order is therefore one of the basic characteristics of the Samoan ethos. Thus, while Samoans frequently talk of the boundless love of Jehovah, they also view him as a God who may become „full of anger for sinful people,“ and who will strike down, in infirmity or death, those who have broken his commandments. Jehovah, in other words, is believed by Sa-moans to be a punishing God, and the punishment he metes out, while it is greatly feared, is also looked on as being God's chosen and just way of dealing with the willfully disobedient. Thus, the punitive regime that, so the evidence suggests, has long been endemic among Samoans has, since their conversion to Christianity, been justified in terms of the principles by which Jehovah Himself is believed to rule Samoa. Punishment has become culturally established as the sovereign way of dealing with all those, including young children, who will not heed the dictates of authority.

In 1967, in scathingly dismissing Mead's depiction of Manu'an society as being „characterized by ease,“ John Soloi, the pastor of Fitiuta, remarked that on the contrary, Samoan society was characterized by „iron rule.“ He was referring, he said, to the way in which the chiefly fonos of local polities enforce their edicts with heavy fines and other forms of punishment. Within Samoan society there is very frequent resort to punishment, and I would argue that it is in particular a pervasive dependence on the physical punishment of children that makes Samoans so disturbingly prone to interpersonal aggression. The studies of M. M. Lefkowitz, L. 0. Walden and L D. Eron, and others have clearly shown that punishment enhances rather than inhibits the expression of aggression. And this conclusion has been corroborated by D. D. Woodman's finding that physical punishment is allied to aggression outside the home. Woodman's researches also suggest a biochemical component in interpersonal aggression, with an increase in noradrenaline being linked with increasing aggression in personality. It seems likely that it is the regime of physical punishment, and especially of children, that generates the „air of violence on a tight rein“ reported by Mackenzie, and that results in Samoans flying „from feathers to iron“ at the slightest provocation, to engage in the physical violence that they have come to accept as customary.10

Furthermore, while the punishment of children in Samoa has the pious aim of correcting the young in the error of their ways, it is imposed, as described in Chapter 14, with such dominance as to produce in most Samoans a profound ambivalence toward those in authority, with respect and love alternating with resentment and fear. Because of this system of child rearing and the stringent demands that those in authority make upon the growing individual, Samoan character, as indicated in Chapter 15, has two marked sides to it, with an outer affability and respectfulness masking an inner susceptibility to choler and violence. Judge Marsack, for example, has described the Samoan as being an „odd mixture of courtesy and cantankerous-ness.“ Thomas Trood, in 1909, after an experience of Samoa extending over more than fifty years, commented on how remarkable it was that those who were „pre-eminent for kindliness of disposition and hospitality“ were also a „high-spirited, turbulent people.“ And George Brown, in 1898, having described the Samoans as „kind, lovable and polite,“ at once went on to remark that they are also „extremely sensitive“ to what is considered to be an insult.11

This touchiness is especially evident in political settings within the rank system For example, when in 1967 a member of the Legislative Assembly of Western Samoa interjected „Alas for Samoa!“ while the high-ranking prime minister was speaking, he was told, although he retracted his remark and formally apologized, that even though a nail be withdrawn from a plank the hole it has made remains. Again, during a kava ceremony at Sa'anapu in May 1966, Leaula, a talking chief from the neighboring and rival polity of Salamumu, was deliberately slighted by being lowered in the order of precedence because his village had declined to join in the rebuilding of the local hospital. His annoyed response, after gulping down his kava, was to fling the coconut shell cup back to the untitled man who had served him, instead of waiting for it to be ceremonially retrieved. At this brusque gesture the assembled chiefs of Sa'anapu visibly stiffened, and, as soon as the kava ceremony was at an end, Vole Na'oia, the officiating talking chief of Sa'anapu, turned to Leaula to ask in angry tones why he had behaved in such an unruly manner. Leaula retorted that he had wanted to hurry things up. At this the tension mounted even higher. For a time there was an ominous silence. It was broken, at last, when another talking chief from Salamumu, apprehensive at this turn of events, wryly remarked „Perhaps he was in a hurry to go to the beach to relieve himself,“ at which the entire fono exploded in laughter. The danger of a serious breach had passed, but Leaula, smarting at the insult to his rank, quickly hit back. There was, he said, one chief of Sa'anapu whose behavior was quite exemplary. He was Vole Na'oia, who was forever trying surreptitiously to rape his own sister. To Samoan ears this imputation is utterly outrageous, and the shock of Laula's retaliatory sally was released in further roars of cathected laughter. As these examples indicate, the Samoan ethos is far from lacking intensity in every respect as Mead reported. Rather, the pent-up antagonisms of the rank system are tenuously contained within a regime of formal etiquette in terms of which the Sa-moans forever contend for the upper hand, but with the saving grace of usually being able, at critical moments when open conflict threatens, to laugh uproariously at their obsessive concern with the declensions of rank.

Despite these deliverances of etiquette and laughter, the rank system and the fono, with their rivalries and punitive sanctions, do still constitute, as indeed does the wider society, a decidedly stressful psychological environment In Chapter 151 have dealt with some of the consequences of the stress to which children and adolescents are exposed. Comparable stress is experienced by many adults, and especially by the men whose lives are lived within the purview of the fono of their local polity. In Leaves of the Banyan Tree, a pungent study of the baleful consequences of chiefly ambition in twentieth-century Samoa, Albert Wendt has one of his characters remark that being a chief is „an invitation to obesity, ulcers, strokes and heart attacks.“ In the last three of these ailments stress is certainly a factor, as the researches of H. G. Wolff and others have shown, with the gastrointestinal tract being, in Hans Selye's words, „particularly sensitive to general stress,“ peptic ulcer having been described by some clinicians as „a disease of unfulfilled aggressiveness.“ It is thus of some pertinence that Dr. L

A Refutation of Mead's Conclusions

Winter, a former Director of Medical Services in American Samoa, noted in 1961 that ulcers were „extremely common“ there. A more recent study, directed by B. P. Maclaurin, of approximately 500 persons over the age of 18 in each of the three major health districts in Western Samoa during 1976 revealed, as compared with New Zealand, „an unusually high prevalence of peptic ulceration,“ with an average incidence of 7.3 percent, the approximate ratio of male to female sufferers being two to one. This incidence is appreciably higher than that found in the National Health Survey of 1957-1959 of the United States.12

In refuting the conclusions reached by Mead in the 1920s I have necessarily had to discuss in some detail the darker side of Samoan life, which, in constructing her negative instance, she so ignored as to turn the complexly human Samoans into characterless nonentities. The Samoans, as I have shown, do indeed have a dark side to their lives, but this, I would emphasize, is something they share with all human societies. And, as with all human societies, they also have their shining virtues. For John Williams, the pioneer missionary, the Samoans were a „very lively, jocose, kind people.“ John Erskine, a widely traveled naval officer, after visiting Samoa in 1849 declared he had never seen a people „more prepossessing in appearance and manner,“ and they are justly famed, in Ernest Sabatier's words, as „the most polite of Pacific peoples.“ Beyond these formal virtues the Samoans are also wonderfully hospitable and generous, and in their devotion to the ethics of Christianity they can display great magnanimity, as did Tupua Tamasese Lealofi HI, in the most testing of situations. In fonos throughout Samoa it is common to hear mutual love extolled as an ideal, and there is perhaps no more memorable instance of the kindliness of Samoans than the road that a group of high-ranking chiefs built for Robert Louis Stevenson at Vailima, not long before his death in 1894. Tusitala, as they called him, had cared for these chiefs during their tribulation in prison, and „the road of the loving heart,“ which they built with their own hands, was their gesture of gratitude. It was a road, they said, that would „go on for ever,“ just as will, I am sure, all that is best in the fa'aSamoa.13


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