Volume 91 1982 > Volume 91, No. 4 > A human image from Samoa: some observations, by S. D. Scott, p 589-592
A HUMAN IMAGE FROM SAMOA—SOME OBSERVATIONS
Davidson (1975:352-55) has given careful investigation to one of Samoa's rare human images. Unpublished missionary accounts place that image in the village of Amaile in the Aleipata District of Upolu. When first seen by missionaries in 1836, the image seems to have functioned in a ritual mortuary context, being associated with the preserved bodies of two Samoan chiefs. Missionary records also account for its disposition, first as a gift to Queen Victoria and later given over to the care of the British Museum.
A figurative object such as this, whether studied with the viewpoint of ethnography or art history, is best understood against a background of its ritual, social, religious or intellectual life. Unfortunately, such associations are difficult in the Samoan context due to the effective substitution of Christian theology for Samoan religion (Scott 1969:90). Also, as many writers have noted over the past 150 years, human sculpture was noticeably absent in Samoa. On his arrival in Savai'i in 1830, missionary John Williams, whom we might expect to have been acutely aware of such things, found no evidence of idols. Phelps (1976:156) summarily remarks: “Wood sculpture or ornamental carving was virtually non-existent in late-18th and early-19th century Samoa.” Curiously, other writers such as Stair (1896) and more recently Buhler (1962:22) state that carved figures were made by earlier generations. Wilkes (1844:132) reported carved blocks of wood and stone erected in memory of dead chiefs which were worshipped. Nevertheless, consensus opinion is that from what is presently known of the history and archaeology of the Samoan area of Western Polynesia, figured sculpture was not a characteristic of that society.
Although the British Museum piece is sometimes cited as the only known example from the Samoan Group (Barrow 1956:166), a second and unique specimen of human sculpture is included in the South Pacific collections of the Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts, USA (Fig. 1). The carved wooden figure is said to have come from Samoa and, owing to the rarity of such pieces, it has been occasionally illustrated and briefly commented on, usually in catalogue notations. Dodd (1967:207), for example, comments:
It is hard to believe that this figure, the only one known of his size, 27 inches high, so undefined of sex, so Semitic of feature, is a genuine old Samoan piece. Yet the Peabody Museum of Salem is convinced that his pedigree is authentic and realistic representation is characteristic of Samoan art.
Among the commentators on the Salem carving, Larsson speculates further- 590 - 591
than most about its possible origin. In the context of his comparative research on Polynesian images in a situation of culture contact, Larsson (1960:109) attributes inter-areal influences to the growth of the 19th century whale fishery and specifically to the presence of native islanders among the crews of whalers and trading vessels. He speaks, for example, of Maori influence in the case of some carvings on Fijian clubs (p. 107) and tentatively characterises the Salem figure as possibly holding a Maori mere rather than a tapa beater as in the Salem Museum catalogue description.
This short report makes no attempt to interpret the style of the Salem image. Yet the image's supposed near-contemporaneity with the British Museum piece and its unique appearance, neither entirely Polynesian nor European, would plead a detailed examination of its formal qualities for what light they might throw on the domain of Samoan material culture.
As an aid to such further descriptive study, two new instalments of data are offered. First, is a circumstantial clue regarding the carving's 19th century acquisition. A faded label attached to the back of the image reads,
“Figure Head of Canoe—Navigator's Islands Lat. 14 S long. 171 40 W—Youngs. Stieglitz Aug. 1846”
Captain Selah Youngs commanded the whaler “Stieglitz” when it departed Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1844, returning in 1849 after a 52-month circum-navigational whaling voyage. The Stieglitz was only one of many whaling ships that were frequent visitors to the Samoan group in the mid-19th century. In the Stieglitz log, we find the following laconic entries:
This disappointing reference tells only that the image was perhaps one of several items in the “raft of matter.” No record was found of other ethnographic objects collected in Samoa by the Stieglitz. After the Stieglitz' return to New England on June 21, 1849, the image was given to the Essex Institute in Salem and was then transferred to the Peabody Museum some time before 1867.
In the hope that wood identification may have some relevance for any further inquiry into the figure's origin, samples were removed from the hands and from the base and submitted to the Forest Products Laboratory, United States Department of Agriculture, Madison, Wisconsin, USA. The sample from the hands is a species of Artocarpus, the breadfruit or jackfruit group. This group is common in that part of the world and occurs on Samoa. The sample from the base appears to belong to the Melastomaceae family, and some genera of this group are found in that area. The genus Astronia is a fairly good anatomical match.
The anthropological importance of the Salem carving would depend on a more - 592 certain provenience, and ideally, on information that would reveal its role in Samoan society—vital statistics that perhaps were never recorded. If as Larsson suggests, the Salem image is an example of post-European “evolved traditional art” (Kaeppler 1979:185), its importance may lie in the interplay of local and external 18th and 19th century influences. In either case, the carving seems worth further attention by Polynesian specialists for whatever its material and artistic attributes might reveal of its origin and place in oceanic art.