Volume 1 1892 > Volume 1, No. 2, 1892 > Uea; or, Wallis Island and its people. Western Pacific, by S. Percy Smith, p 107-117
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IN the belief that any reliable information about the people of Oceania will be welcome to the members of the Polynesian Society, the following notes have been compiled from a French work1 published a few years ago, and which is the only one so far, that describes the people of Uea from the point of view of one who resided amongst them for many years.

Bishop Bataillon had not in view a complete description of the habits and customs of the people in penning his notes. The information which is to be found in the work quoted is therefore, as it were, only to be gleaned by the way, and in illustration of the work he had in hand—namely, the conversion of the natives. Such as they are, however, they are valuable as describing a state of life which has now passed away.

Uea, or, as the French call it, Uvea, is situated in latitude 13° 18′ south, longitude 176° 15′ west, 125 miles north-easterly from Futuna, and 235 miles westerly from Savaii, of the Samoa Group. The main island is about ten miles in length north and south, and about six miles in width. It appears to be divided into three principal districts called Hihifo on the north, Hahake towards the south, and Mua at the extreme south. These names remind us of the Tonga Group, where the first means the west or sunset, the second the east or sunrise, and the last “the front,” and all of them are applied as names of districts in Tonga-tapu.

Uea is surrounded by a ring of coral distant about a league from the shore, which is interrupted here and there by passages, affording egress to canoes, whilst the southern pass, called Honikulu, admits - 108 vessels of considerable size. On this reef are situated several islets, of which the following are the names: Nuku-atea (the only one permanently inhabited), Nuku-fatu, Nuku-loa, Nuku-teatea, Nuku-tapu, Lua-neva, Fungalei, Nuku-i-fala, Nuku-fetau, Faioa, Nuku-ofo, and Fenua-po, situated close to the Honikulu passage. “Gigantic trees, green fields, and numerous streams give a charm to the island beyond that of most of the islands of the South Seas.”

Wallis Island was first made known to the civilised world by Captain Wallis, who together with Captain Carteret made a voyage round the world in 1767.

We are in the habit of saying that such and such an island was discovered by such and such an eminent navigator of one of the European nations, quite ignoring the fact that all inhabited islands must have been discovered by navigators of the native races often many generations before the Europeans had first entered the Pacific. This, of course, was the case with Uea; but who its first discoverer was we do not know. The first and earliest mention of the island is contained in the notes of Rarotongan history published in the first number of this Journal, where it is included in the long list of islands conquered by Tai-te-Ariki. Having been conquered by him, it is obvious that the island was inhabited in his time. In order to arrive at an approximate date for this event we must count the generations downwards to the present day from Tai-te-Ariki, and it will then be found that, according to the Pa family pedigree, there were twenty generations from the conquest of Uea to the settlement of Rarotonga, and from the latter event to the present day there are twenty-five generations, making forty-five in all, or, allowing twenty years to a generation, nine hundred years. We may therefore say that it was about the year A.D. 900 that the island was conquered. Obviously this date depends on slender evidence; several more genealogies are required to compare with the first before any great reliance can be placed on it. It is tolerably certain, however, that the island was known to Pa's ancestors before the arrival of that migration at Samoa and the Tahiti Group, which must be placed at a date certainly previous to 1350, and probably long before that.

Those great navigators, the Tongans, had also visited the island before its discovery by Europeans, as is proved by finding the name of Uea included in a long list of islands given to Captain Cook in 1777, as those with which the Tongans were acquainted, and which they were in the habit of visiting. The distance separating Uea from Tonga is about 550 miles, a distance which these hardy navigators would think little of traversing, as is proved by the statement of Mr. C. M. Woodford in - 109 his “Naturalist amongst the Head Hunters” (Solomon Islands), in which he shows that the Tongans were formerly in the habit of extending their voyages to the Santa Cruz Group, a distance of over 1,800 miles.

Uea Island was also known to the Tahitians before Cook's time, for it is shown on the celebrated chart of Tupaea, drawn up by Cook and Foster, from information supplied by Tupaea. Most of the islands shown on the chart are said to have been visited by either Tupaea or his father, The island is fairly correct as to its position with regard to Samoa and Fiji, thus demonstrating that the Tahitians had correct ideas as to the localities of most of the islands of the Central Pacific, long before they received any outside enlightenment on the subject from European voyagers.

When the Catholic Mission first landed on Uea in 1837—under the guidance of the well-known Bishop Pompallier—they found a number of Tongans residing there, who had arrived from Vavao in the Tonga Group in 1836, with the intention of converting the inhabitants to Protestantism. These people came fully armed, and war with the people of Uea soon followed. The Tongans entrenched themselves in a fort, and sustained a siege by the whole of the Ueans. Ultimately, overcome by famine, they surrendered at discretion, and were nearly all killed, except the women and children.

The Ueans “only knew of some of the neighbouring islands, but they had exercises of memory to accustom the children to repeat the names of these islands so rarely visited.” Unfortunately Père Mangeret does not supply us with these names, which would be so interesting as illustrating the geographical knowledge of the people. There can, however, be little doubt that their acquaintance with the adventurous Tongans was of ancient date, and that the visits of the latter were somewhat frequent; the Tongans even assert that at one time they were masters of Uea; this is possible, but it has not been proved. It is certain, however, that the Tongans first acquainted the Ueans with the arrival of foreign vessels in those seas, the crews of which they called Papalangi, the name by which Europeans are still known in Tonga, Samoa, &c. There is nothing improbable in the conquest of Uea by the Tongans, for we know that at one time they were masters of a considerable part of Samoa, and were also in the habit of making warlike excursions to Fiji, and there joining in the wars between the various islands of that group.

It is well known that there is another island in the Pacific named Uea, or Halgan, situated in the Loyalty Group. This island was originally peopled by Melanesians, but some generations ago a canoe - 110 (or canoes) drifted out of its course from Wallis Island, and after a thousand miles of navigation landed on Halgan, where the crew settled down, and named the island after their old home. There is no information to hand as to how many generations ago this event occurred, but it would be interesting to ascertain the fact, together with the history of the Ueans since landing in their new home.

The traditions preserved by the old men enumerate only fourteen generations of kings, nearly all of whom died violent deaths. In this particular they seem to differ a good deal from other Pacific islanders, who generally possess long genealogies of their chiefs, often going back over a hundred generations. This statement, however, as to the lack of traditional knowledge of their ancestors, requires confirmation; so wide a divergence from Polynesian custom is difficult to believe.

The population of the island was formerly very much greater than at present, according to their traditions. The people say that an order issued by the king could at one time be transmitted from house to house all round the island. War has been the chief cause of this decrease, followed by cannibalism, which appears to have been introduced at a comparatively late period in their history.

Like most of the Polynesian islanders they accounted for the existence of their island by its being fished up from the depths of the sea. This feat, almost universally ascribed to Maui, was at Uea performed by Tangaloa, a belief which the people share with the Tongans, whose islands were also drawn up by him, and whose fish-hook used on the memorable occasion was—says Mariner—in the possession of the Tui-Tonga until a few generations ago, when it was accidentally burnt. The introduction of the name of Tangaloa in place of Maui into this myth shows the influence of Tongan communications on the history of Uea, a connection which is also supported by the language, which is more like that of Tonga than any other, if we may judge from the dictionary of the language written by Père A. C.2

The following is the brief note of this tradition given by Père Mangeret:—“It was by aid of the net, according to the Uveans, that their island was given to them, as well as the ring of coral which surrounds it. This is the legend:—One day Tangaloa was casting his net. It was the island of Uvea which was caught and brought to the - 111 surface. Satisfied with his marvellous capture, the god—to conserve the memory of his feat—left his line surrounding the isle, and has willed that the beautiful ring of coral, which all the world admires, should represent it.”

The People.

“The Ueans belong to the Polynesian race. Their colour is not darker than that of the inhabitants of the south of France. The men are fine looking under all aspects, with an expressive physiognomy, admirable proportions, and with gestures full of grace and dignity. Their heads are shaded by a thick chevelure of black hair, which floats in the wind like a mane, sticking out six or eight inches from their heads, which causes them to look as if they had on wigs of the time of Louis XIV. The men wear their hair long, the women short, and it is often coloured red by lime. The Uean custom (or Faka-uea) was, that the women never worked in the cultivations; they remained squatting in their houses making mats, beating tapa, or sleeping. They nevertheless used to go out fishing on the reef, and prepared the food for the family. All are tattooed; the men usually from above the hips to just below the knees (like the Samoans), whilst the women have a few fancy lines on the hands and arms. In the men it is always a mark of dignity, and sometimes the recompense of valour; in the women simply an ornament.” The operation is performed precisely in the same manner as in the other islands, and whilst this is the same for all, the designs frequently offer much variety in detail. The clothing was made of tapa, or of mats. The tapa is called siapo, and is made of the bark of a tree.

Captain Morvan—a visitor to Uea frequently quoted by Père Mangeret—describes the dwellings of the people as follows:—“I saw under the trees about forty pretty houses, open to the day, floored and carpeted in the interior with mats white as snow. Some are round like beehives, others polygonal, and all are well made. The roofs of most of them are like an open parasol: they come down to within a few feet of the ground, and are upheld all round by bamboo posts fixed in the ground, which are tied together at about the height of a foot from the ground by trellaces artistically worked, made of reeds, lianas, and flexible wood. They are all windows and doors these delightful houses: at night only are they closed with mats made for the purpose. One goes out and comes in where one likes, always, however, stooping, for the roof it not 3 feet above the ground. These delicious houses are delightfully clean in the interior.”

“For furniture they have mats, which are rolled and unrolled at will: these form the beds and the seats. On the post which supports - 112 the roof, and on the transverse beams, are suspended pieces of tapa and fine mats, in fact, all the treasures of the family. Their valuables consist of arms, certain instruments of work, calabashes (to contain liquids) enclosed in nets, cocoanuts polished and cut in halves to serve as drinking vessels, and also entire nuts, which serve as pitchers: these are placed in beds of dried herbs. Their pillows are formed of concave planks resting on feet.”

The food of the people consists of yams, bananas, and taros, and are all cooked on the stones, and eaten without other seasoning than the juice of the cocoanut. Sometimes fish, prepared in the same manner, is added to their bill of fare.


“At Wallis Island there was a King, who reigned, and a first Minister, who governed; the latter under the name of the Kivalu. Two great families divided between them the government of the isle. The sovereignty and the charge or function of Kivalu are both hereditary; not, however, in the direct, but in the collateral line, to the first degree—that is to say, the brothers are called to the succession, and when the King or the Minister deceased have no brothers, then the succession goes to the elder son. When the King dies an immense kava is arranged by the Kivalu, and all the dignitaries of the island are convoked. So soon as all have taken their places according to their rank, their birth, or their dignity, the Kivalu calls him who he chooses for King, and causes him to occupy the highest place in the assembly, and presents him with a kava root. It is thus that the new King is enthroned, and he enters immediately on his functions, presiding during the rest of the ceremony. The succession to the office of Minister should also follow in order of birth, but nevertheless, in the public interests, this order is sometimes deviated from. The King enjoys all the powers of a great prince. He has the power of life or death over his subjects, and the right of ownership over their properties: he may tapu all the people, impose on them certain works, and make peace or war at will. He presides at all public assemblies, at the kava, and at all solemn festivals. The Kivalu alone has the right to question his acts, or even sometimes to veto them. The King is always addressed in the third person, and particular words are used in speaking of or to him, which are never used under other circumstances,” in which these people resemble the Samoans, Tahitians, and some others. “The common people never address him at all, and all sit down whilst he passes, and incline their heads. Those who have the right of speech with the King avoid looking him in the face, and turn a little on one side whilst so doing.”

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“The Kivalu is the second person in the island, and when he is an intriguer, or possessed of intelligence, he exercises a veritable domination over all, even whilst retaining only the second rank in the State. The dignity of Kivalu does not leave the family; it is hereditary, like that of the sovereign; and as the Kivalu designates the successor to the King, so does the latter appoint the successor to the Kivalu, always by the collateral, and not the direct line.”

It was the custom of the country that a murder placed all the inhabitants of the valley where it was committed at the mercy of the King.

The excessive deference shown by the Ueans to the principal chief or king was not universal among Polynesians. The democratic Maori, for instance, showed none of these outward and humiliating signs of respect to his great chiefs, though respecting and fearing them all the same.3 The use also of a “Court language”—if it may so be termed—is confined, practically, to the Samoans and Tongans, and from the latter people no doubt those of Uea derived the custom.

Beneath the King and Kivalu in rank are the chiefs of villages, who have their own honours, but never receive them in the presence of the King, the Kivalu or the members of the two principal families. The chiefs receive the orders of the King through the Kivalu, and transmit them to those beneath them down to the lowest in the social scale. The people of the lower classes are termed tua. They owe respect to all, and all above them have the right to command them. The custom of Wallis Island is, that when a chief enters a house he enjoys the right to take all in it that he pleases. Tua is also the name of the lowest class in Tonga, and is no doubt identical with the Maori tutua, a person of low birth.

Religion of the People.

After quoting Moerenhout's “Religious Chant of Tangaloa,”4 beginning “Il ètait, Tangaroa est son nom,” Père Mangeret says: “One cannot deny that chant of Oceania to have been impressed with a certain grandeur, nor that it bears a certain likeness to that of the first chapter of Genesis, but that the ideas expressed in it were - 114 common to the people of Polynesia has not been proved.5 At Wallis Island, Bishop Bataillon has discovered no trace of it, and if the Uveans adored Kakahu as a superior divinity they did not attribute to him a nature different to that of their other gods.” The same missionary says: “Now the ideal of divinity (in the mind of the Uvean) was one hurtful to mankind, as is common to all Oceania. The hierarchy of the gods in Polynesian religions possessed therefore a diversity of powers, but not of goodness. The first class included the superior divinities, spirits which never united with bodies; the masters who held high domain over the isle, but who did not deign to manifest their powers by their goodness. The second class comprised the spirits who had lived in the body, above all in those of the chiefs, who were deified after their death, something like the demi-gods and heroes of the fables. These gods of the second class inhabited the night—place of darkness—where they fed less well than man, and had no other occupation or other power than to torment human beings by sending them destructive famines, and above all, death. Beneath the superior and middle-class gods, in the last rank, came the Atua-muli, who had not the privilege, like the others, of passing into the bodies of the priests, and inspiring them. Their sole function was to distribute to man wounds and maladies, without being able to cause death, a power which alone belonged to the higher classes.”

“The people never dreamt of loving these divinities; they did not render them other worship than that of fear, and constantly sought to appease their wrath by offerings. But with these different ceremonies—which were not always edifying—they nevertheless recited prayers. A chief would arise, and in the name of all the people present, would say:—

“Oh the god which we invoke, cease to be mischievous to us. We abandon to you the government of our land; try to render it happy. You see that we do not drive you away as they do in other islands, and to recompense us, you do not cease to speak evil of us to the king, and to send death to us. When then do you intend to put an end to such conduct?” After the prayer, each one renders his offering, which consisted generally of the worst of all the productions of the year, as much as to say:—“See the fine fruits we give you. Have care another time to put the best into our fields!”

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Outside the annual and obligatory fête, there was at Wallis Island no other religious duty imposed on the people, by week or by day. A single observance was in force on other occasions, and that was to untie the hair in passing before the house, or the sign consecrated to the gods, and that not so much out of respect to the divinity as out of fear of his mischievous powers.

The Priests.

Healing was practised by the priests. They did not speak by themselves, but in the name of the divinity by whom they were—for the time being—inspired. In case of failure, it was never considered to be the fault of the priest, but rather that of the god by whom he was inspired. When anyone was taken ill, he went to the abode of the priest, with the invariable accompaniment of a kava root, the all necessary means to induce inspiration. After an abundant libation, the priest became inspired, which was indicated outwardly by tremblings and convulsive movements of the body, loud shouting, discourses composed in a special style and delivered in a tone not less extraordinary. Not infrequently, gravity, reason, or virtue were offended by these strange discourses, but the people were never shocked by anything. Under the influence of the god, the priests indicated the remedies by chance; if his predictions were not accomplished, it was the fault of the god. Frequently the sufferers were told that non-success was due to the insufficiency of the offerings. When the period of inspiration had terminated, the priest informed the assembled people, who would often conjure the god not to leave them for a time, to which he sometimes consented. Afterwards he made his adieu and departed, not towards the heavens, but to the place of night where, according to popular belief, he had elected to reside. After the departure of the god, the functions of the priest ceased, and he became again an ordinary mortal like the rest of the people. Many of these priests after their conversion confessed that their inspiration was mere acting, and a play on the credulity of the people.

Madmen were considered to be possessed by the atua, and were tapu. As such the people avoided all contact with them, and on meeting one, passed round by another way to avoid contamination. Their sacred character, however, did not prevent them being stoned to death sometimes if they became too obnoxious to their neighbours, a custom which was not confined to Uea.6

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The Tapu.

The Ueans would not be Polynesians did they not possesses this well-known custom. “That usage and practice had at the same time a religious and a civil character. The religious dominated, because in its principle or origin the tapu was a proclamation made by the priest. It was a prohibitive law, a solemn ‘touch not,’ which constantly sounded in their ears, and served to keep at a distance the profane and the importunate, and the willful or involuntary infraction of which brought on the transgressor consequences differing according to the nature of the offence, or the rank of the person affected. If it referred to a place declared tapu in an absolute manner, no one might enter under any pretext. If it applied to fish, fruit, or any food, all were interdicted from using them until the tapu was removed. If it was not on a thing, but on some person, it became an obligation on all to abstain from touching that person under pain of becoming tapu also. He who was under the law of tapu was excluded from all communication with his fellow man. The utensils which had been used by him were burnt, and he could not feed himself with his own hands. If the subject of the tapu belonged to one of the noble class, servants were appointed to feed him as they do an infant, and if he were not of that class he was obliged to take his food with his mouth, after the manner of animals, without using his hands. The great care of the people was to avoid the tapu for themselves, and their constant fear was not to have respected it in others. On the occasion of all accidents, all maladies, each one says: ‘I have not respected the tapu, or if not me, it is one of my relatives.’ They then have but one anxiety—to appease the anger of the god offended, or to disarm the wrath of the chief or priest. To that end their custom imposed a sort of public confession; without repentance, it is true, and quite exterior, but at least an acknowledgment of a fault committed, and to an authority recognised. With kava root in hand, which was the ordinary method of entering into conversation with a superior, they sought out a chief or priest, and commenced the confession. The culprit sat down, then inclining forward, the usual sign of humility, said, ‘I am a man who deceives myself often, and I have done so again.’ This confession of fault did not always repair the damage caused to himself or others, but the victim had done what he could to repair his fault, and hence he remained after his confession tranquil and patient.”

Such are the brief notes regarding Uea and its people that are to be obtained from Père Mangeret's two interesting volumes; they - 117 obviously omit much that is valuable. It is greatly to be desired that the French gentlemen who are living on the island in daily intercourse with the people would preserve for us the lore of the natives, much of which must still be retained by the old people. Their traditions, history, poetry, language, and customs are all worthy of preservation, and if not secured now, the opportunity will have passed away for ever. In many lands the Catholic Missionaries have rendered great services to science by their writings on such subjects. Let us hope that those of Uea will do likewise while they have the chance.

1  “Mgr. Bataillon,” by the Rev. P. Mangerat, two vols, 18mo., V. Le Coffre, 90, Rue Bonaparte, Paris, 1884.
2  “Dictionnaire Latin-Uvea,” by Le P. A. C., Paris, 1886. Unfortunately for Polynesian students this dictionary is Latin-Uvea, not Uvea-Latin; its use from a philological point of view is thereby greatly impaired, and it cannot be compared with the Futunian dictionary of Père Grezél for its scientific usefulness. The letters of the Uea alphabet are—a, e, i, o, u, f, ng, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, v.
3  “The New Caledonians appear to have paid much the same outward respect to their great chiefs. Le Mire says: “The men never pass near a chief without bending in respect. At his approach they remove out of his way, and squat down, and dare not look at him. If they are obliged to pursue a route near where he is they do so by crawling.” It was the same in Fiji. Can this custom have originated during the sojourn of the Polynesians in the Fiji Group?
4  See “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. I., page 31.
5  It is possible that the old native priests never disclosed to their christian teachers the higher and esoteric doctrines of their cult. This is known to have been the case in other parts of Polynesia. The unwillingness to mention the old beliefs often arose from a fear that they would become the subject of ridicule.
6  See Hon. W. D. Alexander's “Brief History of the Hawaiian People,” page 34.