Volume 53 1944 > Volume 53, No. 4 > The Vailele earthmounds, by J. D. Freeman, p 145-162
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ON the island of Upolu in the Samoan Group, about three miles east of the township of Apia lies the Vailele plantation, once the property of the German firm Deutsche Handels-und Plantagen-Gesellschaft zu Hamburg; and here it is, on the ancestral lands of the people of Saleupolu, that a series of immense earthmounds is to be found. Standing amid the regular rows of planted palms they are a mute reminder of the storied past. The purpose of this paper is to record something of their situation, their history, and their significance.

The mounds are all constructed close to the Tausala stream 1 which enters the sea midway between the two villages now known as Fangali'I 2 and Vailele. The main aggregation of mounds lies three-quarters of a mile inland and at an elevation of about 200 feet above sea level (Fig. 1).

Of the eight mounds in the area, seven are truncated, rectangular pyramids—four being situated on the western side of the Tausala stream and three on the eastern. Although these seven mounds vary considerably in size, all are constructed of earth, all are of the same type, and all, according to tradition, are of the same historical period. The eighth (which lies lower down on the eastern side of the Tausala stream) is a truncated, conical mound of earth and stone of quite separate origin.

The largest and most important of the rectangular mounds is known as Laupule, and is truly an immense structure (Fig. 2). It stands upon a narrow neck of land between the Tausala and Vaivase streams—the Tausala stream lying to the east and the Vaivase to the west. The mound occupies almost all of the existing flat space. Each of the streams has eroded its bed until they are now about 150 feet below the level of the surrounding country, and thus the ground falls away steeply on either side of the mound. The dimensions of the mound at its base are 346 feet by 314 feet, while those of the upper surface are 190 feet by 143 feet 3 (Fig. 3). The height is approximately 40 feet. The sides of the mound are carefully and regularly graded, and the well-formed corners, despite their age, are still in a good state of preservation. The mound would seem to be composed entirely of earth; at least no other material is observable, even at the northeastern corner where a section has been exposed in the course of road construction.

The expenditure of effort required to build such a structure must have been enormous, for it was the work of Samoans equipped with digging stick, carrying pole and plaited basket. This single mound represents the prolonged and strenuous work of a great body of men; and well organized effort and an absolute control of labour were certainly essential factors in its successful construction.

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Fig. 1.
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It has been suggested (Thomson, “Earthmounds in Samoa”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 36, No. 2) that possibly “a hill stood there originally and at the expenditure of great labour has been worked down into its present shape”. There is convincing evidence against this view. All the mounds are constructed on an ancient lava-flow the surface of which slopes regularly throughout. There is no geological evidence whatsoever to suggest the existence of a hill, and furthermore it is not in accord with the existing Samoan tradition which maintains that the mound was built up. That such work was well within Polynesian capabilities is demonstrated by similar structures in Tonga and the Society islands.

On the northern face of the mound is a pathway about six feet wide, commencing at the north-eastern corner of the base and proceeding at an easy grade to the top (Fig. 2). Samoan informants insisted that this pathway was made at the same time as the mound itself, and is not (as has been suggested) of recent construction.

The mound is at present covered by a scattered growth of coconut-palms and a few bread-fruit trees which were planted during the time that Vailele plantation was in German hands; and by a thick sward of Vailima grass (paspalum conjugatum) and of “sensitive plant” (mimosa pudica). It may be noted that all the mounds face north, that is, toward the sea.

The other rectangular mounds while not of the impressive dimensions of Laupule, are all of considerable size. The three other mounds on the western bank of the Tausala stream all lie in close proximity to the main mound—two in front and one to the rear (see map). The two in front (Figs. 4 and 5) are situated about 90 yards to the north of the mound Laupule. They are both low, each being about 7 feet in height, and not readily discernible under the mass of mimosa which covers them. The base-measurements of the westernmost of these two mounds are 212 feet by 150 feet, while those of the easternmost are 152 feet by 114 feet. The single mound to the rear (Fig. 6) stands on slightly higher ground than Laupule; its base-measurements are 190 feet by 139 feet, and its height is 12 feet. This mound, with its steep sides and restricted size, has suffered considerably from erosion. All four of these mounds on the western side of the Tausala stream come under the term Laupule. This name, however, refers specifically to the main mound.

The three remaining rectangular mounds, though in the same general area, are separated from the four others by the ravine of the Tausala stream. They stand at approximately the same level above the sea, but on the opposite bank. All three come under the one name Tapuitea (Pratt, Dictionary of the Samoan Language, 1911, p. 312, Tapuitea, s.—the evening star). Of the two mounds nearest the Tausala stream the southernmost is by far the larger (Fig. 8). In length, at the base, it measures 384 feet (which makes it even longer than the main Laupule mound), and in breadth 235 feet. It is only some 15 feet in height however. The directly adjoining seaward mound (Fig. 7) measures 238 feet by 139 feet at the base, and is about 13 feet high. The third Tapuitea mound (Fig. 9) is some distance removed to the south-east, and stands on a distinct prominence at a somewhat higher level than the other two. Its base-measurements are 165 feet by 128 feet, while in height it measures about 12 feet.

Samoan tradition regarding the mounds is definitive and is still widely known. My information was all obtained at first hand from - 148 the orators (tulafale) and chiefs (ali'i) of Saleupolu 4, the district concerned. In particular, I would mention Samoa, a high chief of Vailele village, and Leatitangaloa, an orator of Fangali'i village, who were my principal informants. All my investigations were carried on in the Samoan language.

According to my informants, all the truncated, rectanuglar mounds belong to the same period; they were all constructed during the era, and at the bidding of Tupuivao—a famous figure in Samoan history. About ten generations have passed since Tupuivao's death (Kramer, Die Samoa-Inseln, Vol. 1, p. 465 seq.) approximately 250 years ago, well before the discovery of Samoa by the Dutch navigator Roggowein in 1722. Tupuivao was a person of the highest rank. His mother Taufau, was a grand-daughter of Salamasina of the Tui A'ana line; while her father Tauiliili i Papa, was a direct descendant on his father's side of the powerful Savai'i family of Salemulianga, and on his mother's of the line of Salima of Saleupolu.

The relevant genealogies (ngafa) are:

First (cf. Kramer, Die Samoa-Inseln, Vol. 1, p. 170)—

Family Tree. (20) 5 Tui A'ana Tamālelangi (m.), Vaetoeifanga (f.) (daughter of the Tui Tonga), Salamasina (f.), (21) Salamasina (f.), Tapumanaia (m.) (of the Tonumaipe'a family of Savai'i), Fofoaivao'ese (f.), Tapumanaia (m.), (22) Fofoaivao'ese (f.), Tauatamainiulaita (m.) (of Satupaitea, Savai'i), Sina (f.), Taufau (f.), (the mother of Tupuivao), Asomuaalemalama (m.)

Secondly (cf. Kramer, Die Samoa-Inseln, Vol. 1, p. 88)—

Family Tree. (22) 6 Le Aumoana (m.) (of the Salemulianga family of Savai'i), Fuailelangi (f.) (daughter of Salima i Papa, of Saleupolu), Tauiliili i Papa (m.), (23) Tauiliili i Papa (m.), Taufau (f.) (grand-daughter of Salamasina), Tupuivao (m.)
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Salamasina, whose mother as recorded above, was the daughter of the king of Tonga, was the first person in Samoan history to hold all four of the great titles—Tui Atua, Tui A'ana, Tamasoali'i and Ngatoa'itele, which are the essential pre-requisites of kingship. These four titles are known as the tafa'ifā, and the person holding all four of them becomes the tupu or king of all Samoa, with the exception of Manu'a. According to Samoan custom these titles are the gifts of certain districts, and are not necessarily an hereditary right. Thus Taufau, the grand-daughter of Salamasina, received only the two major titles of Tui Atua and Tui A'ana. These are known as the papa tamafafine (Pratt, Dictionary of the Samoan Language, 1911, p. 233, pāpā, s.—a general name for the titles of high chiefs; p. 309, tamafafine, s.—the children of the sister). Tupuivao, it will be seen, stood in direct line of succession to these two great titles and had strong claims to the two minor titles of Tamasoali'i (the gift of Satunumafono, of Safata) and Ngatoa'itele (the gift of Afenga and Malie, of Tuamasanga), for his prospects were considerably enhanced by his affiliations on his father's side. He was a person of exceptional cruelty, however, and used his position of power only to tyrannize the districts over which he had control. Such was his behaviour that his name has become synonymous with that of tyranny and despotism. 7 Although he moved much about the Samoan Group—there are stories of his activities in almost every part of Samoa—his main place of residence was at Saleupolu, his father's village, on the island of Upolu.

In pre-European times the social organization of Samoa was largely feudal in character. Stair (Old Samoa, 1897, p. 65 seq.) distinguishes five classes, viz. Ali'i, Taulāitu, Tulafale, Faleupolu, and Tangatanu'u. The first four of these comprised chiefs, priests, and orators; the fifth, the Tangatanu'u or “people of the island”, were the lowest social class. According to Stair (Old Samoa, 1897, p. 74) their employments were varied “bearing arms in time of war, or cultivating the soil, fishing and cooking in time of peace. In the distant past their lot was often a hard one, and they smarted under the tyranny of their masters”. In short, these Tangatanu'u who composed by far the greatest proportion of the total population, lived in a form of serfdom. This was the class over which Tupuivao exercised his despotic power, and they it must have been who expended their energies in the construction of the great earthmound Laupule. Tupuivao was moreover a notorious cannibal; and even to-day one may hear the old men whisper of Tupuivao—the one who ate human flesh ('O Tupuivao lea, sa faia ona aso i tangata). 8 It is also still related that he maintained a compound (lotoā tangata) in which he confined his intended victims, who were gathered from all over Samoa. This compound was at a place called Naono, which is slightly east of where Vailele village now stands.

In former times the village of Saleupolu was a very large one and consisted, so it is said, of one hundred fuaiala or village sections. These fuaiala were situated inland on either side of the Tausala - 150 stream 9; and here it was that Tupuivao the despot, decided to build the great earthmound which came to be known as Laupule. 10 The literal meaning of this term is “Thy Power” (Pratt, Dictionary of the Samoan Language, 1911, p. 155, lau, pron.—thy; p. 247, pule, s.—a command, and order), a name which permits of some insight into the circumstances under which the mound was constructed.

It may be mentioned that all chiefly houses in Samoa stand on carefully and in most cases elaborately prepared platforms of earth and stone which are termed paepae. The platforms may be either circular or rectangular in shape—both types are common. The platform material is usually of unworked stone. Exceptions are sometimes encountered in areas where stone is difficult to obtain, and then earth only is used. Instances of this occurring at Manase, Savai'i, are reported by Te Rangi Hiroa (Samoan Material Culture, 1930, p. 66). The height and extent of each platform depend on the status of the owner of the house erected upon it. The more eminent the chief, the more impressive is the paepae upon which his fale is constructed; it is merely one of the many ways of giving expression to the hierachy of rank which forms the principal feature of Samoan society. The same motive prompted Tupuivao to build the Laupule earthmound. According to my informants, his house—and his house alone—stood upon it. The mound became a symbol of his power, throughout Samoa.

The other rectangular mounds in the vicinity, were, it is reported by my informants, constructed at the same period and for the same purpose. They were used by some of the more important of Tupuivao's retainers. None of these subsidiary mounds can challange, however, the mound Laupule. Tapuitea, it is said, was used by Tupuivao's warriors.

Power is perhaps the most dangerous of possessions: Tupuivao certainly came to an ignominious end. For many years his power was absolute; but his behaviour was such, even towards his own mother Taufau, that on her death-bed she named her nephew Faumuina, the son of Sina, as her successor, and so deprived Tupuivao of his hereditary right to the titles of Tui Atua and Tui A'ana, which she held. War followed between the two cousins, for Tupuivao refused to recognize his mother's decision. Tupuivao received the support of his father's family, the powerful Salemulianga; but Faumuina aided by Atua and A'ana proved too strong. Tupuivao was defeated and banished to the island of Tutuila, where he lived and died in exile. 11

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The truncated conical mound which lies on the eastern bank of the Tausala stream somewhat below the rectangular mounds and at a distance of just over half a mile from the sea is of a different historical period. It conforms closely to the usually type of paepae found in Samoa (Fig. 10). The diameter of the base of the mound is 96 feet, while that of the upper surface is 73 feet. The mound itself is only about 4 feet high, but it stands on a marked prominence and its height above the surrounding country is approximately 50 feet. It is thus in the commanding position suited to the dwelling-place of a high chief. Its height above sea level is approximately 120 feet. The mound is constructed of earth and stone—the stone being used to reinforce the sides. Some distance to the rear of the mound there is a small platform constructed entirely of stones. It was probably an umu site—a place for the preparation of food. The mound stands close to the edge of the eastern bank of the Tausala stream, which falls precipitously to the stream-bed over 150 feet below. The name of this conical truncated mound, according to my informants, is Papa i Ngalangala; and it was once the residence of Salima, the high chief of Saleupolu. Slightly to the north of Papa i Ngalangale is an extensive flat area known as Malae o le Vavau. 12 This was once the celebrated malae of the village of Salaupolu and about it were situated the maota (the premises of a chief) of the various chiefs and orators. The place was certainly well suited for a village. The land is fertile, the neighbouring reefs rich in sea foods, and the Tausala stream an unfailing source of excellent fresh water. So Saleupolu developed into a great and influential village community.

Almost without exception in Samoa, each village unit together with other villages forms a district with a recognized malae and fono (council of chiefs and orators). Each of these districts in its turn, owes allegiance, together with other districts, to a High Chief. Thus on the island of Upolu this process once terminated in the three great chiefs—Tui Atua, Tui A'ana, and Malietoa. The place and function of each village in this political structure is well defined, and understood. To-day the two villages Vailele and Fangali'i (formerly Saleupolo) are part of the district Vaimaunga which owes allegience to Malietoa. In ancient times this was not the case, and it is still recalled with pride that once the people of Saleupolu recognized none other in all Samoa, than their own high chief—Salima. They then were in other words, a power unto themselves—a quite separate and autonomous community. As far as I can determine, the first Salima lived about three generations before Tupuivao.

Connected with Papa i Ngalangala is the following significant custom. Throughout Samoa, Papa i Ngalangala was once recognized as a sanctuary or place of refuge. If a fugitive from the wrath of even the most powerful chief of another district was able to reach Papa i Ngalangala unscathed he was safe, for there he could not be apprehended. The name Papa i Ngalangala is in itself indicative of this. 13 Kramer also makes brief mention of the fact. 14 It is of interest to find the existence of this widespread custom amongst - 152 Samoans. It existed among the Greeks and among the Jews (Numbers 35). In England, Whitefriars or ‘Alsatia’ was for a long period such a sanctuary, as was Holyrood in Scotland.

A further point, concerning Salima, is worth recording. As with most high chiefs, the method of presenting Salima's kava during a kava ceremony was a specially devised one. The people of Saleupolu claim indeed that the particular method of presenting Salima's kava was unique in Samoa. When the kava was ready in the bowl (tanoa tau 'ava) the announcement (folofolanga) of Salima's cup (ipu) was made in the usual way by the orator (tulafale) in charge, using the kava-cup title of “Nu'u ma Misi talitali le ipu a Salima,”—“Nu'u and Misi receive the kava-cup of Salima”. Nu'u and Misi were the names of the tafa'i 15 or personal attendants of Salima. Another tulafale, the one actually distributing the kava, then filled the cup and proceeded in the approved manner to the place where Salima and his tafa'i were sitting. One of the two tafa'i was holding another kava-cup. The tulafale went through the act of presenting the cup in his one hand (i.e. the one containing the kava) to the tafa'i, but did not actually pour out any of the kava. He then returned to the kava-bowl at the rear of the fale, and emptied out the cup; refilled it, and once again went through the same ceremony of presenting it to the tafa'i and returning to the bowl to empty it. This was repeated five times in all. On the fifth occasion the kava was poured by the tulafale into the cup in the hands of the tafa'i, and this cup was then presented to Salima himself by the tafa'i. This involved method of presentation demonstrates clearly the honoured position of Salima in former days, and the high regard in which he was held by the people of Saleupolu. The title of Salima is no longer in use.

No systematic excavation was made of any of the eight earth-mounds. They were visited on many occasions, however, and a thorough search was made of the surface of each. Several minor excavations were also made. Nothing worthy of mention was found. Probably systematic excavation would yield little of significance. Samoa in contrast to other regions in Polynesia, such as Murihiku in New Zealand, is notably poor in artifacts to be had in digging. A simple comparison of the material cultures of the two regions makes the reason for this quite apparent.

My thanks are due to Pilot Officer J. D. Coulter for assistance in measuring the mounds; and to Mr. C. G. R. McKay and Dr. H. D. Skinner for advice and criticism.

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  • 1. Map of part of Vailele plantation showing the position of the earthmounds.
  • 2. Sketch of the earthmound Laupule, looking to the south-east. A number of coconut-palms have been omitted from the foreground.
  • 3. Plan and elevation of the main mound, Laupule.
  • 4. Plan and elevation of mound in front of, and west of Laupule.
  • 5. Plan and elevation of mound in front of, and east of Laupule.
  • 6. Plan and elevation of mound to the rear and east of Laupule.
  • 7. Plan and elevation of northern Tapuitea mound.
  • 8. Plan and elevation of southern Tapuitea mound.
  • 9. Plan and elevation of mound south-east of the two main Tapuitea mounds.
  • 10. Plan and elevation of the mound Papa i Ngalangala.
  • 1. Freeman, J. D.—“The Seuao Cave,” Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 52, No. 3, 1943.
  • 2. Gifford, E. W.—Tonga Society, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 61, Hawaii, 1929.
  • 3. Kramer, Augustin—Die Samoa-Inseln, Stuttgart, 1902.
  • 4. McKern, W. C.—Archaeology of Tonga, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 60, Hawaii, 1929.
  • 5. Powell, T. and Pratt, G.—“Some Folk-songs and Myths from Samoa,” Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Vol. 25, 1891.
  • 6. Pratt, G.—Grammar and Dictionary of the Samoan Language, Samoa, 1911.
  • 7. Stair, John B.—Old Samoa or Flotsam and Jetsam from the Pacific Ocean, Oxford, 1897.
  • 8. Te Rangi Hiroa—Samoan Material Culture, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 75, Hawaii, 1930.
  • 9. Thomson, Andrew—“Earthmounds in Samoa,” Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 36, No. 2.
  • 10. Thomson, J. Allan—“The Geology of Western Samoa,” New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, Vol. 4, No. 2, Wellington, 1921.
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Fig. 2. Sketch of earth-mound Laupule.
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Fig. 3. Plan and elevation of the main mound, Laupule.
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Fig. 4. Plan and elevation of mound in front of and west of Laupule.
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Fig. 5. Plan and elevation of mound in front of and to east of Laupule.
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Fig. 6. Plan and elevation of mound to the rear and east of Laupule.
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Fig. 7. Plant and elevation of northern Tapuitea mound.
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Fig. 8. Plan and elevation of southern Tapuitea mounds.
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Fig. 9. Plan and elevation of mounds south-east of the two main Tapuitea mounds.
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Fig. 10. Plan and elevation of the mound Papa-ngalangala.
1   This stream is usually referred to on maps as the Fangali'i stream. The Tausala stream is, however, the correct historical name.
2   According to Samoan usage this would be Fagali'i—the letter ‘g’ being used where the sound is ‘ng’.
3   All measurements were made with a 100 feet tape.
4   In ancient times Saleupolu was a single community. To-day it is divided into two separate villages known as Vailele and Fangali'i. Each of these two villages now has its own fono (a formal gathering of chiefs); but the old fa'alupenga (honorific courtesy titles) of Saleupolu are still in use—applying to both villages.
5   This is the twentieth recorded generation of the Tui A'ana line.
6   This is the twenty—second recorded generation of the Salemulianga line.
7   Pratt, Dictionary of the Samoan Language, 1911, p. 343. Tupuivao, s. 1. the name of a despotic chief. 2. a despot. 'O le tupuivao.
8   Powell, Rev. T., “Some Folk Songs and Myths from Samoa,” Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 1891, p. 120. “Tupu-ai-vao was another person to whom human sacrifices were offered, but Fua-lau, of Falealili, informs me that Malietoa—the fierce, and he were two different persons. Malietoa lived “far, far back, but Tupu only about ten generations ago; he daily feasted on human flesh, like the king of Fiji”.
9   Tausala is a term of respect for a titled lady, and this particular stream owes its name to the fact that it was used as a bathing place by the three famous women—Taufau, Sina, and Sualupe.
10   Thomson (“Earthmounds of Samoa”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 36, No. 2), gives Maota Pulemanava (literally, The Dwelling-place of Pulemanava) as being the name of the main mound. All my informants disclaimed any knowledge of such a name. There is, however, an orator (tulafale) called Pulemangafa at present living at Fangali'i. But he, himself, assured me that this title had no connection with the mounds. His title was actually obtained at the Seuao cave. (Freeman, “The Seuao Cave”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 52, No. 3.) Thomson in his paper makes no mention of any of the other mounds in the area, the main Laupule mound only, being discussed.
11   Thomson (“Earthmounds of Samoa”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 36, No. 2) makes mention of two varying legends connected with the mound Laupule. The first legend ascribes the mounds to the Tongans, and the second is a legend that he was given by ex-Judge Gurr (of American Samoa) which traces a relationship with Manu'a. Both of these legends I believe to be apocryphal. The chiefs and orators of Fangali'i and Vailele disclaim any knowledge of them and maintain that they are not authentic. Furthermore, Thomson does not in either case give the final source of his material. He apparently did not consult the people of Fangali'i and Vailele.
12   Pratt, Dictionary of the Samoan Language, 1911, p. 188, Malae, s.—an open space in a village where public meetings are held; p. 351, Vavau, a. — lasting, perpetual.
13   Pratt, Dictionary of the Samoan Language, 1911, p. 233, Papa, s.—a rock; p. 149, Ngalala, v.—1. to have intense thirst, to be parched with thirst; 2. to long for.
14   Kramer, Die Samoa-Inslen, Vol. 1, p. 267, “Papaigalagala eine kleine Hohle hinter Fagali'i, welche als Asyl galt, wie das Haus de Tofaeono in Vaiala”.
(Papa i Ngalangala is not a cave, however, as Kramer suggests.—J.D.F.)
15   Pratt, Dictionary of the Samoan Language, 1911, p. 297, Tafa'i, s.—those privileged to sit on the right and left hand of a titled chief.