Tiki: Tiki Islands / Samoa
copyright by Pacific Island Travel

The origins of Samoa are shrouded in an ambiguity that is pure Samoa. The most popular theory is that Samoans, like other Polynesians, originated from the East Indies, the Malay Peninsula or the Philippines, but Samoans tell a different story.

Other Polynesians, they say, might have come from Asia but Samoans come from Samoa. They believe themselves to be the cradle of Polynesian culture, a race of people created by the god Tagaloa while he was cooking up the world. In fact the Samoan legend of the beginning of the world is startlingly similar to that told in Genesis.

Despite its reputation as an exotic far-away land Samoa was in fact as busy as a shopping mall from the mid-1770s when trading ships, sailing along the spice route and looking for the Great Southern Land, popped in and out with monotonous regularity. Much of the early contact and bloody encounters between Samoans and Europeans took place in the islands that are now part of American Samoa but the islands of independent Samoa suffered the same diseases and acts of violence that came with the European ships.

By the time the British arrived, looking for the troublesome Christian Fletcher and his band of merry mutineers, the Samoans were hardly in a welcoming mood. In the resulting head-to-head between the British and the Samoans, lives were lost on both sides and gave rise to the unwarranted reputation that Samoans were hostile and aggressive.

Given this violent history it's a miracle that the missionaries arriving in the early 19th century, brandishing their Bibles and threats of everlasting damnation, weren't killed immediately. Instead there were wholesale conversions, a phenomenon that might be explained by the fact that Christianity and old Samoan beliefs were not dissimilar and that the Samoan god Nafanua had predicted the coming of a new religion which would be more powerful and stronger than the old gods. The fire power and wealth of the palagi (Europeans), or 'sky bursters', was obvious and the enthusiastic embracing of Christianity may have had more to do with religious pragmatism than blind faith. These early soul-scouting expeditions were brief affairs, long on brio but short on planning. This changed in 1836 when John Williams and Charles Barff became the first two men to take up missionary positions in Samoa. Williams converted a large number of Samoans before ending up as main course at a traditional Melanesian feast. The untimely demise of Reverend Williams did not stop the onward Christian soldiers and the influence of these early missionaries was so profound that even today Samoa is known as the bible belt of the Pacific.

By the late 19th century Britain, America, and Germany all had their hackles raised and were tugging on Samoa in a three-way tug-of-war, which had a lot to do with commerce and the flexing of military muscles and not much to do with 'protecting' Samoa. Tensions escalated and more ships were called in until there were no fewer than seven warships bristling and snarling inside the small confines of the Apia harbour. The whole shebang started to look like a bad joke ('The British, the Americans and the Germans were in a Mexican standoff in Samoa...'), when the punch line was delivered. So busy were they watching each other that they failed to notice the falling barometer and before they knew it a cyclone of epic proportions had hit. After the dust had settled six of the ships had either sunk or been scuttled. The only surviving ship was the British ship Calliope. The cyclone knocked a bit of sense into the Europeans and they went to the table to negotiate but the result for the Samoan islands wasn't much better. Samoa was carved up piecemeal with Western Samoa being handed to the Germans, Eastern Samoa going to the Americans, and the British going home empty-handed.

Germany made the classic colonialist's error of disregarding local customs and kings and before long the indigenous inhabitants were chafing under autocratic foreign rule. The Western Samoans formed a resistance force, the Mau Movement, dedicated to the preservation of their culture and the establishment of independence. The outbreak of war in 1914 changed the Euro-Pacific arena and Germany had a few other problems on its hands apart from a rebellious Samoan resistance movement. As part of the war effort Britain asked New Zealand if they wouldn't mind, old chap, taking over the radio station in Western Samoa which they duly did in an operation that was more Dad's Army than the Dardenelles. Hoisting a white serviette (no-one could find a white flag or hanky), they were received by one or two minor officials from the German government who apologised for not being able to authorise the surrender of Western Samoa and then promptly went AWOL. New Zealand heroically 'captured' the radio station by fossicking around in the bushes for the parts of the radio station thrown away by the defeated army and then 'liberated' Westeren Samoa.

A change in rulers meant little to the Mau Movement or the majority of Western Samoans who continued to agitate for independence. New Zealand continued to govern the islands, introducing rugby and possibly even jandals into the cultural mix. Finally in 1961 a proposal was put before the United Nations and independence was granted in January 1962. Unfortunately it was not all smooth sailing. Labour disputes and increasing dependence on foreign aid meant reality fell short of the dream, but things really got black when the country was ripped apart by back-to-back cyclones and their main export crop, taro, was decimated by a fungal blight. The country, which changed its name in 1995 to the Independent State of Samoa, fell into an economic hole from which it has never fully recovered, although tourism is now easing the pressure.

copyright by Pacific Island Travel


Independent Samoans are very tradition-oriented, very steeped in a complex set of social hierarchies, courtesies and customs that regulate their social, religious and political life. Independent Samoan culture is based on fa'amatai, a system of government that has a chief, or matai, governing an entire aiga or extended family. Wealth and food are distributed on a needs basis and honour and social standing is shared or shouldered equally by all members of the aiga. The matai represents the family on the village council, metes out justice, and makes sure that all customs are properly observed. In fact Independent Samoa has more rules of etiquette than a finishing school for young ladies and a keen sense of propriety and respect. The matai is also a living archive, responsible for remembering the ancient folk lore, the family genealogies, and the stories of the old gods, and passing them onto his successor.

Although Samoan culture dates back thousands of years and is still passed on through poems, genealogies and stories of the old gods, most Samoans these days are devout Christians. Religion is a big part of Samoan life and Sunday service is the most important event in the week.
Absolute fealty to, and respect for, the church leader is a must, as is the strict observance of religious rules. This whole-hearted embracing of a transplanted religion may seem a little odd but more than one person has suggested that Christianity on the islands has been 'samoanised'. In much the same way that games of cricket are played with three-sided bats and Samoan checkers can include eccentric rules like jumping over the whole board, so the Samoan version of Christianity often has non-Samoans scratching their heads in bewilderment.

Dancing, singing and music play a big part in Samoan culture. The fiafia was originally a village play or musical presentation performed by a number of villagers but these days it simply refers to a bit of a Samoan knees up at the larger hotels. Both the siva (a dance performed by women acting out impromptu stories with their hands) and the sa sa (a dance performed to the beating of a wooden mallet) are performed. Tattooing is a significant rite in Independent Samoa and involves more than a visit to the local Tatt Parlour on a Friday night full of Dutch courage and bravado to get a Betty Boop figure stenciled on a bicep. At age 12 or 13 Samoan males go to the tufuga, or tattooist, and get tattooed from waist to knee. The tattoos represent the strength of a man's heart and his spirituality but on a more practical note if you can bear the pain of a months' worth of tattooing, you can bear anything.

Food in Samoa derives mainly from tropical crops, root vegetables, coconut products, fresh fruit, pork, chicken and, of course, seafood. The traditional Polynesian feast is cooked in an umu, an above-the-ground oven. The traditional Sunday meal is nearly always cooked in the umu. 'Ava or kava is a drink made from the ground roots of pepper plants and has a mild tranquilising effect. It is usually drunk as a prelude to ceremonial gatherings and village meetings.


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