Volume 108 1999 > Volume 108, No. 4 > Who said the 17th-18th centuries Papalagi/'Europeans' were 'sky-bursters'? A eurocentric projection onto Polynesia, by Serge Tcherkezoff, p 417-426
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The Antiquity of the Expression “Papālagi”

As it is well known, Europeans have been labelled “Papālangi” in Western Polynesia (written Papālangi in Tongan, Papālagi in Samoan), apparently since the very first contacts. When Cook arrived in Tonga, he noted the expression ko e vaka no papalangi ‘the boats of Papalangi’ (Cook's transcription was “Towacka no papalangie” and his translation was “cloth ships”) being used for his expedition as well as in referring to the passage of Tasman more than a century before, in 1643 (Beaglehole 1961:178). For Samoa, the earliest mention seems to be from the first missionary John Williams, recalling in his 1841 book (written in 1837) that, when he arrived for the first time in Samoa in 1830 with the Samoan Fauea whom he had met in Tonga, this Fauea, who had been absent for some years, addressed his fellows with a speech mentioning the great powers of the “papalangis” (Williams 1841:282, who adds a note: “Foreigners”). In some cases, Europeans are still called Papālagi in today's languages. In Samoan, it is an absolutely common everyday word, not in any way a metaphoric ceremonial expression used for special circumstances or used in derogatory/laudatory ways.

The word thus predates Cook's arrival and must have been coined when inhabitants of the region saw Europeans for the first time: at least when they saw Tasman in 1643 and maybe at the arrival of LeMaire's expedition in 1616. The latter was the first recorded European encounter, the first experience of being shot by European muskets and the first occasion when European goods were acquired in northern islands of Tongan archipelago—islands that were places of regular passage for Tongans and Samoans. If another word had been coined in 1616, why would it have been replaced in 1643? LeMaire's actions had, and even more than Tasman's, all the ingredients that dramatically forced the Polynesians to attribute a non-human nature to Europeans.

The Invention of “Bursting Through”

The missionary William Wyatt Gill was posted to Mangaia in 1851. In 1777, Cook passed by Mangaia. He did not come ashore, but exchanged some objects with an inhabitant who was brave enough to paddle to the boat and come aboard. Eighty years later, Gill recorded a song recalling this visit of Cook's expedition. One line says:

  • No Tangaroa te vaka: Tangaroa has sent a ship
  • kua tere i te aka i te rangiē: Which has burst through the solid blue-vault.
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This is Gill's translation (1880:183). But it is not accurate. The first line says only: “it is the boat of Tangaroa”, with the genitive form indicating that the possessor is the origin of the possession (no instead of na). The second line is even more over-interpreted. The line says that this boat tere on the sky (more precisely, that the boat tere “on the root (aka) of the sky”?). Tere is given in the Cook Islands Maori Dictionary (Buse 1995) as “be under way (as ship), sail along, […], travel, […], run its course”. The line thus says only that “this boat has sailed on/from the sky”; which was, as we know, the most common interpretation of Polynesians when they first saw Europeans (Tcherkézoff n.d.). These new creatures came from the sky, as partial manifestations of the gods: they were on a boat “of Tangaroa”. It is Gill who adds on his own that they had “burst through” the sky. Invention can be seen plainly in this case, since there is nothing in the apparent etymologies of the words pronounced here which can give the idea of “bursting”.

It is interesting to note that the idea that Europeans came as “sky-bursters” is used by London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries in Cook Islands as their own interpretation of local expressions. For it is the same missionary society which arrived in Samoa after having landed in the Cooks, and it is the missionary George Turner, established in Samoa from 1843 and founder of a theological college in 1844, who published in his ethnological notes—which would become the authoritative work on “early Samoa”—that the Samoan word Papalagi must be understood as “sky-bursters”: “The God of the ‘men who had burst through the heavens’ began to be feared. Of old the Samoans thought the heavens ended at the horizon, and hence the name which they give, to this day, to the white men, viz., pāpālangi, or heaven-bursters” (Turner 1986 [1861]:9).

This 1861 book by Turner, in which the author gathers together papers he published in the local missionary magazine during the late 1840s and 1850s, would be widely read by all missionaries and many others—and W.W. Gill was certainly no exception. I suspect it is because of that European tradition of understanding the word Papāla(n)gi that Beaglehole adds to his edition of Cook's journals a note of his own. When mentioning the Tongan expression noted by Cook, Beaglehole says that the translation of ko e vaka no papalangi is “ships burst from the sky” (Beaglehole 1961:178, note 1). What is quite revealing in Turner's passage is that the idea seemed logical to him because of his view of the Polynesian cosmos, i.e., the heavens as a closed hemisphere resting on the earth, more than for any linguistic reason. Thus, he finds it logical to think that, for the Polynesians, anything extraordinary must have been understood as coming from beyond that heavenly limit. The fact that cosmological representations (in the Europeans' interpretations), more than linguistic arguments, had been operative in the invention of this tradition is confirmed by Gill's passage where he applies the idea to a word which simply cannot be analysed to a base that could mean “to burst”.

The Samoan Contemporary Interpretation

Today, when it happens that Samoans offer an etymological explanation of the word in response to foreigners' queries, which is of course rare and limited to teachers and the like, they give the same explanation as Turner, presenting it as self-evident. - 419 I offer the hypothesis that this feeling of self-evidence comes from the fact that the English expression “sky-bursters” has itself been frozen in a way in Samoa, since the early mission days when English was taught in Samoan mission schools. It seems evident to me that the Samoans who offer this etymology using the traditional (1840s) English expression of “sky-bursters” do not really mean that their ancestors thought that Europeans came from the other side of the sky.

The Cosmological Contradiction

Here lies the problem. “Bursting through” the sky implies an other-side of the sky. Such a representation could not have been a pre-contact Polynesian view. It seems to me that this was the view that Europeans had in their projective reasoning when interpreting Polynesian cosmology. They knew that, in nearly every Polynesian culture they had encountered, cosmogonic myths told of a world where Earth and Sky were together until the civilising hero succeeded in separating the two, thus creating a space for the Light and hence for human life. Since those beginnings, Sky was a vault which joined with the Earth only at the horizon, at the edge of the world which no one could reach. In the European vision of this “Polynesian” universe, the image of the sky vault resting on the earth is “the Polynesian universe”, hence only a part of the great universe (as seen by Europeans). What European missionaries neglected in their interpretation is that for the Polynesians the Sky was an absolute limit, the limit of the universe, and they did not realise that their translation was in fact saying something about their own view of the European arrival through Polynesian images: “we (Europeans) came, as they (Polynesians) thought, from another world beyond their sky-vault”. They did not realised that this translation led to the idea of another side of the sky, an idea that is totally absurd for Polynesian pre-contact cosmology.

As we know, the Polynesian Sky was so much conceived as an absolute limit, in the cosmogonic descriptions, that the sun and the light were conceived as filling the space between Sky and Earth. The sun, the moon and the starts are created within the space organised by the 10 heavenly levels. In the Tahitian cosmogony, recorded by Teuira Henry (1928), once the Sky is propped up, the sun, the moon, the stars appear but are moving around in disorder. Ra'i-tupua leaves the 10th level of the Sky, goes down all the nine levels, and standing on the first one only then contemplates the disorder. The text adds that “the moon had been created within [that space], the sun had been created within, the stars had been created within” (“le soleil fut créé à l'intérieur…”, Babadzan 1993:80). This is also why the Sky was thought of as an entity layered in different levels, the great creator Tangaroa sitting at the last level. The limit—precisely because it is the very last conceivable entity—can be made thick and filled with many subdivisions. But this does not mean that there is something beyond the limit. On the contrary, if there were something beyond the Sky, this limit would not have been conceived as a thick space, subdivided into levels (and in “10” levels as told in the Samoan or Tahitian cosmology, which amounts symbolically to an “infinity” of levels). Note also how, in contemporary Samoan, the modern idea of the whole World is said o le Lalolagi, literally ‘the [space] under the sky’. 1

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No “Bursting” At All: Linguistic Arguments

Thus, I have the strongest doubt that the first part of the word Papālagi would come from the verb “to burst”, as it is so often said in Samoa and about Samoa. Another argument is that, at least today, the plural of is pāpā and not papā. It seems to have been the same in the 19th century since, in his ethnographic book, Turner spells the word *“pāpālangi” when implying that the first part of this word is from the base . But Pratt's dictionary (the first version of which was finished in the same years and to which Turner contributed) spells the entry translated as “a foreigner” as “PAPĀLAGI”, with only the second “a” being a long vowel. (It is true that, in the first two editions of Pratt's dictionary, there had been inconsistencies. However, “foreigner” is the translation given for Papālagi in the last edition [1911], which is generally accurate, and it is also noted thus in Milner's 1966 dictionary.)

The word is applied today to such sounds as the bursting of a tyre, also to the same things mentioned for the 19th century in Pratt's dictionary: “to explode as a gun, thunder; to burst as an abcess; to break forth into lamentation […]”. (The same applies to the Tongan “”.) The only use I found where is related to the sky applies indeed to thunder: 'Ua pā(mai) le fāititili ‘the thunder has just crashed’. Of course, the sound of cannons and muskets may have been compared by Polynesians to the sound of thunder. The word said in its reduplicated form, describes the repetition of the action, but then it is always pāpā. If one wants to explain to a child where the thunder comes from: 'Ua pāpā (mai) le fāititili mai le lagi ‘the thunders always crash from the sky’; the particle mai ‘from’ before the word sky (le lagi) could not have been dropped to compose a word *pāpālagi. Also, is it linguistically admissible that this improbable form *pāpālagi would have evolved into papālagi with the first “a” becoming a short vowel, so short actually that the word is really pronounced in Samoa as [p:ālagi]?

Interestingly, John B. Stair, missionary in Samoa (1838-1845), writing his memoirs in 1897, follows the LMS tradition about “sky-bursters”, but has some doubts apparently because he evokes the possibility of a link with the European guns.

These marvellous visitors they called pāpālangi [he spells it like Turner] (sky-bursters), for, said they, these people have either burst through the clouds with their ship; or else, lifting them up, they have passed beneath, and come to visit us. It is possible the name pāpālangi may have been given to commemorate the noise of ship's guns, as they first heard the dread sound. [Stair adds here a note:] After recently perusing this MS., my friend, the Rev. Samuel Ella, says ‘This is also my idea’” (Stair 1897:24).

Stair is more accurate than others in his imagination of bursting through, since he supposes it was through the “clouds”, which then is not contradictory with the cosmological aspect of the Sky as the limit. The problem, however, is that lagi is not “clouds” but sky/Sky. The other problem is that Stair and Turner spell our word correctly for an interpretation with the plural form of ‘bursting’, but incorrectly if we are to judge from contemporary pronunciation and dictionaries, and even - 421 from dictionaries of their own time. Thus the hypothesis of a reference to the burst of guns is unacceptable.

Another Hypothesis 2

More appealing is the Samoan example of papā-vao [papa-a-vao] ‘edge of forest or bush’; similarly, *papa-a-lagi could have been coined as ‘edge of the sky’. There is also papātua ‘back (of man, animal)’, equivalent to tua, the tough side of a thing as opposed to the smooth side, hence also ‘back’ in numerous contexts.

But this word, with a composition attested in contemporary Samoan (Milner 1966) only with vao ‘bush’ or tua, might be the polysemic Samoan (and pan-Polynesian) papa that can mean a ‘board, plank’ (such as used for scraping bark-cloth), and (flat) ‘rock’ (the big and flat black volcanic rocks), and ‘make level, flatten’ (as in preparing the lawn in front of the house that is ceremonial and honorific); or perhaps, if it is the same word, a type of ‘coarse floor mat’. For Tongan, presented in this way by Churchward's dictionary (1959), we find:papa1: “planks”;papa2“floor mat”; papa3: “flat hard sandstone forming a layer or bed of the coast”; papa4: “flat and smooth and hard” (track, sides of a hole). This semantic field may seem heterogenous, but there is unity if one refers it to the cosmogony: The world begins with flat surfaces, which are (in the Samoan myths): papa'ele ‘earth’ (cf. 'ele 'ele ‘earth, soil’), papaone ‘sand’ and papatū ‘solid rock’. The unity of the category is revealed (preserved?) in Central-Eastern languages where papa is also all kind of ‘layer’, ‘base’, ‘stratum’, which can then apply also to the status system, to ‘genealogies’ and to ideal levels of the cosmos.

Can this word, with this idea of “cosmogonic surface / level”, apply to the sky? It does not seem that the Samoan cosmogonic myths that I know make use of a *papa(a)lagi in this way. I do not know about Tonga. But the idea and the word are attested elsewhere.

The Pukapukan idea of the cosmos, complementing the ideology of the soul, is that the cosmos consists of three major levels, indefinitely extensive flat surfaces. The level of this world of humans comprises te papa wenua and te papa moana, the level of the land and of sea. Above is te papa langi, the level of the sky. The sky meets land or sea at the horizon, which is thought of as the side of the sky, te tawa o te langi. Below the level of this world is the Po, the Underworld, itself made up of three further indefinitely extensive levels, te kapi lunga, te kapi lalo, and te po likuliku (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:326).

R. Clark notes (pers. comm.) that “paparangi as a cosmic location is also mentioned for the Tuamotus, by Langdon who cites Stimson, Emory and Montiton as sources” (Langdon 1975:xxx).

Thus we might propose that the word papalagi meant only ‘(beings)of the sky/belonging to the level of the sky’, as opposed to ‘(beings) belonging to the level of the earth/sea’. Note also, in 19th century Samoan (Pratt's dictionary), papatū ‘standing rock’ can also be applied metaphorically to persons: “a courageous man, a hard-working man”. It is then possible that the idea of the “level of the sky” became similarly applied to Europeans.

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This hypothesis is reinforced by a remark made again by Cook about his talk with the Tongans. After having mentioned that the Tongans told him that they remembered the earlier coming of European ships (Tasman's expedition): “…they informed us that their ancestors had told them that two ships, (‘Towacka no papalangie’) like ours had once been at the island….”, Cook adds the following remark: “For what reason I know not, but they call our Ships Towacka no papalangie and us Tangata no papalangie; that is cloth ships and cloth men” (Beaglehole 1961:178). On the same page, Beaglehole adds a note of his own, saying that: “the Tongans also transferred the word papalangi to the things the foreigners brought.” Irrespective of the reason that caused Cook understand that papalangi referred to “cloth”, for the present discussion what is significant is the expression tangata no papalangi. Literally it may be glossed ‘people of the papalangi’, that is, it designated a location, a place from which those “people” are. Thus, the gloss for papalangi would be ‘the (cosmic) place/level (of the) sky’. Moreover, again the genitive form used is no, as in Gill's quotation from Mangaia: the papalangi is thus the origin of the relationship of possession. The expression noted by Cook then meant ‘people originating from the cosmic level Sky’. In the same manner, the expression vaka no papalangi could have just meant ‘the boats from (the cosmic place) papalangi’.

The rather general meaning of ‘people of the (level of the) sky’ fits well with the fact that there were more questions that certainties raised for Polynesians when they first encountered Europeans (Tcherkézoff n.d.). For sure Europeans were perceived as a kind of “celestial” creatures. In Western Polynesia, for the second part of the word papā-lagi, the comments of the Tongans are clear enough: “Vason's mentor chief, Mulikiha'amea, used the expression ‘the men of the sky’ to describe the missionaries who had recently arrived on the ship Duff” (Ferdon 1987:30). In Eastern Polynesia, we know that Hawaiians thought that those creatures whose skin reddened when exposed to the sun, and who were constantly looking towards the sun with their optical devices, were somehow related to that part of the universe. John Ledyard, a member of Cook's expedition, wrote:

…[we] had so much to do with the sun and the rest of the planets […that] we must either have come from thence, or by some other way [be] particularly connected with these objects. […] to strengthen this inference they observed that the colour of our skins partook of the red from the sun (quoted from Beaglehole in Sahlins 1995:173).

But no Polynesian knew for sure if these celestial creatures were gods, images of gods (e.g., Cook in relation to Lono's cult in Hawai'i [cf. Sahlins 1995]), spirits—but what kind of spirits? (e.g., “spirits tupua but not [as] our spirits”, said the Maori when Cook disembarked [Salmond 1991:87-88]). In his observations to which we already referred, Gill notes the “Solo” of the song commemorating Cook's passage: “E pai kua aa teia? Of what sort are they?” (1880:185).

The configuration of the Polynesian vision about the first Europeans—a certainty of them being “not-simply-earthly-hence-celestial-creatures” and the indeterminacy on the sort of celestial creatures that Europeans were—favours an etymology where - 423 the first part of our word Papā-lagi is not too precise, and definitely not meaning that Europeans were sky-“bursters”. The implausibility of an etymological “sky-bursters” origin holds whatever might be other future findings or propositions about the meaning of papā-. The “sky-bursters” idea is another result of the already very long list of Eurocentric projections arising from various attempts to interpret Polynesians concepts.

Supplementary Remarks

For the rest, there are still uncertainties. The first possibility is that the word papālangi was indeed coined in Western Polynesia: (i) in the Tongan-Samoan-Futuna-Alofi islands where the inhabitants had the misfortune of an encounter with LeMaire's or Tasman's expedition (given that Niuatoputapu and Tafahi were just as much “Tongan” as “Samoan”), or (ii) at the latest, in Samoan islands in 1722 when Roggeveen passed by. In all those cases, I do not see a better candidate than the cosmogonic concept papa.

But there is the possibility that the word had been coined in the Tuamotus, an archipelago that was visited by the same LeMaire's expedition of 1616 before it reached Western Polynesia, and even ten years before by Quiros (1606). Contacts between West and East are indeed plausible, so it is not impossible that a word coined in the Tuamotus (Paumotu language) was brought into Western Polynesia. In that case, the Tahitian Popa'ā/Papa'ä could also be from that Paumotu source. Davies' 1851 dictionary has: “Papaa, s. a foreigner, formerly applied to the inhabitants of the Paumotu islands before Europeans visited them, but since to all foreigners; in some islands it is papalangy [sic].” This last remark is crucial for the hypothesis of a Tuamotu origin, dating maybe from 1616 or 1606, especially as the Paumotu worldview had a “Paparangi” cosmic location. If the Tahitian etc. Papa'ā is linguistically unrelated to the Papā- of Papālagi, then we still have to think of the word papālagi spreading from Western Polynesia to the Tuamotus, because we cannot exclude the possibility that this word began to be used in Eastern Polynesia only after it had been coined in the Western Polynesia during the 17th century. Of course, there might be other independent possibilities for a local eastern origin of Papa(')alPopa'ā, but I am not competent to discuss them, beyond noting that the cosmogonic papa is very much present in Central-Eastern languages, with the same meanings of ‘layer, stratum, base, root, genealogy’.


I wish to warmly thank Ross Clark for his careful reading of the original manuscript and for his comments and additions, and Judith Huntsman for her suggestions and for accepting the burden of editing a text written initially in an odd language that could be called Frenglish.

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1   On “traditonal” and contemporary changes in Samoan cosmologic and social concepts, see Tcherkézoff 1997.
2   The whole following discussion assumes that, whatever is the origin of the first part of our word, the second part refers to the sky. This presumption, i.e., that the Samoan word Papālagi is to bedecomposed as Papā+lagi, as obvious as it may seem, is only a hypothesis. The grounds for it are the constant references made by Polynesians in first contacts that Europeans had something to do with the sky. Also, in the list of Proto-Polynesian morphemic bases (see POLLEX [Biggs and Clark 1999]), there is no other choice, as no base such as *palagi is attested (except one *palagi, with reflexes attested throughout Polynesia, but which is semantically totally unrelated to our topic because it designates the ‘surgeon fish’ [Acanthurus sp.]). It implies that any other option than considering the word as bases partly on ‘sky’ (lagi) would have to be a theory of borrowing from a non-Polynesian language—an option which must always be left open, if we consider, for example, the recent demonstrations that various Polynesian words are in fact borrowings from the Dutch through early contacts with the Dutch expeditions (Tent and Geraghty 1997, Geraghty and Tent 1997).