Volume 106 1997 > Volume 106, No. 1 > Re-constructing landscapes: The social forest, nature and spirit-world in Samoa, by M. D. Olson, p 7-32
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“The god is shining in the banyan.” 1

Determining the cultural basis of ecological transformation has implications for understanding processes of cultural transformation. Its likely relevance increases to the extent the character of each process depends upon the other. The insular character of island contexts, in ecological and cultural terms, is conducive to illuminating relationships between culture and nature (Kirch 1984), but also to understanding internal processes of cultural (Linnekin 1992) and ecological (A. Schultz 1967) transformation. The extent and patterns of ecological transformation occurring in Pacific island contexts suggests a more possible, if not probable, demise of island cultures through human transformation of nature. But despite such implications, relationships between culture, nature and their transformations in the Pacific have been infrequently referred to or addressed in the scientific literature.

Conceptions of ecological and cultural transformation tend to ignore or overlook, beyond superficial descriptions, relationships between processes determining the Pacific's more cultural and natural formations. Yet, mutual and high dependence between the two is implied, for example in Polynesia, in the correspondence between symbolic and material practices referent to nature (e.g., Firth 1967) and in the various descriptions of the symbolic religious (e.g., Handy 1927) and material-economic (e.g., Kirch 1984) role of natural resources in Polynesian societies. As archaeological evidence suggests, Polynesians, and Pacific islanders in general, modified and reshaped their adopted islands' ecology in ways that transcend “cultural adaptation to environmental constraint” (Kirch 1989:37). 2 The changes are traceable in land and sea. The increasing archaeological evidence of widespread ecological transformation in the first few millenia of Polynesian colonisations (e.g., Kirch 1989; Steadman 1989, 1995) mirrors the extent and elevated rates of ecological transformation recorded throughout the Pacific during the past two centuries (e.g., SPREP 1992). The nature of the ecological change, the disappearing native forests, living coral reefs and their associated flora and fauna represent relatively rapid epochs of reductions in bio-physical potentials, if not elimination of vital components, of ecological systems evolving over millions of years within the islands of the Pacific.

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In an ecological (and ethnological) sense, the transformations of nature in Polynesia represent the added ecological disturbance of human influence, their adaptive strategies, cultural expressions and respective evolutions (Kirch 1984). 3 Such theories may account for the emerging discrepancies between the extent of ecological transformation evidenced in the archaeological record and the extent of conservation of nature implied in the various representations of symbolic cultural practices and religious beliefs integrated with and within nature (e.g., Handy 1927, Best 1942, Dudley 1993), or in the various interpretations of conservation ethics and practices (e.g., Johannes 1978, Chapman 1987) in pre-European-influenced Polynesian societies. Neither conservation ethics nor practices are likely to emerge as cultural norms without incidence of the ecological consequence the archaeological record in the Pacific suggests. But neither such theories and interpretations, nor their philosophical and methodological critiques adequately explain the means by which the majority of native flora and fauna persisted during thousands of years of human influence while accounting for their relatively rapid disappearance today.

My interest here concerns less the philosophical or epistemological issues of problematising “nature”, “culture” or their “interactions” within an “ecosystem” bounded, however impermeably, in space and time as posed above, than in positing and beginning to explore the following argument. Pacific island landscapes are social landscapes. They are products of peoples' relations to each other and the ecology of which they are part. Understanding their ecological transformations depends upon understanding their social transformations. As ecological surveys suggest, Pacific island landscapes exhibit throughout and with little exception the effects of historical patterns of human influence (e.g., Wright 1963). This is generally as true for those areas or forests appearing pristine, untouched or little influenced by humans, as for those areas or forests more apparently artefacts of human societies. Landscapes, regardless of the spatial pattern, density, composition or capacity for the growth of plants or trees are social landscapes, social forests, wherever, and to the extent they are subject, or have been subjected, to human influence. I will attempt to demonstrate here, in the context of Samoa, that this influence was equally significant in effect at the time of European arrivals, when native forests covered in excess of 90 percent of Samoa's total land area, as it is today, when native forests cover perhaps no more than one-third of their former extent.

The expressions of social relations in Samoan land and sea, and their respective transformations, are explored more fully elsewhere (Olson 1995). This paper focuses on the changing relations to nature and spiritual authority in Samoa that began with the arrival of Europeans and Christianity. It is - 9 concerned with Samoa before 1860, when the majority of nominal religious conversion marking the ideological shift in Samoan relations to nature is complete and the intensification of Euro-American commercial and political influence is about to begin. It argues that political and material expediency, provoked by changing external relations, underlie the changing cultural basis of Samoa's ecological transformation evidenced in Samoan adoption of Christian religious ideology. The first three sections develop the extent of the “social forest” in Samoa, the social production, modification and use of a forested landscape (after Romm 1991) extending, in pre-European-influenced Samoan societies, throughout the entire land area of the archipelago, except, perhaps, with minor effect to the more remote highlands of its largest island. The latter three sections describe the modification of Samoan spirit-nature relations, related conservation effects and nature-culture transformations occurring with the adoption of Christian religious ideology.

Human transformation of nature may increase or diminish capacities to maintain the material and symbolic integrity a society derives from nature without any apparent conscious efforts to maintain the integrity of the ecological processes upon which the society is based (for example, as suggested by Kirch and Yen (1982) for Tikopia and by McCoy (1979) for Easter Island), nor need cultural practices correspond to the character of underlying ecological relationships to have conservation effects (cf. Bulmer 1982, Polunin 1984 and Carrier 1987). Samoan cultural practices suggest as much. Pre-European-influenced Samoan societies effected maintenance of biological resources partially through cultural incorporation of a spirit world integrated in forest and sea. The potential conservation effect of Samoan spirit-nature relations diminished with Samoan adoption of Christianity. This is not to imply that pre-European-influenced Samoan cultural practices reflect a conservation ethic or intent. Rather, in the absence of associated spiritual constraints of pre-Christian religious ideology, Samoan forest and sea practices, past and present, suggest a more utilitarian than conservation or preservation basis. The difference refers to the degree of direct, consumptive use and substitutability between resources, as opposed to values and practices promoting the maintenance and protection of specific natural resource flows or ecological processes. In this sense, the current pattern of nature transformation in Samoa, the decline of native forests and living coral reefs, appears as an extension of material-economic practices devoid of the more symbolic-religious aspects of Samoan relations to forests and sea before the introduction of Samoa to Euro-American Judeo-Christian constructions of nature. What is curious and informative is how this transformation of culture and nature came about, and what it implies about the internal character and transformative capacities of Samoan, and perhaps - 10 more general Polynesian, cultural and political practices.

Transported Landscapes

Over the centuries, Samoans, and Polynesians in general, transported flora and fauna between islands of the Pacific, affecting the rate of plant and animal dispersal and survival, forever changing the ecology of the islands (Kirch 1984). Perhaps equally significant, extending Anderson's (1952:9) conceptualisation of the more mechanical aspects and Sahlins's (1976:209) view that “nature is to culture as the constituted is to the constituting”, Kirch (1984:139) refers to a “transported landscape” in terms of a “cultural concept of landscape”, a “cognitive ‘map’” people carry with them and according to which they modify their environment.

Archaeological evidence indicates that people arrived in Samoa approximately 35 hundred years ago (Green and Davidson 1969, 1974; Kirch 1989), millions of years after geologic formation of the islands pierced the surface waters of the Pacific (Stearns 1944). 4 As throughout Polynesia more generally at the time of Polynesian arrivals, native forests covered virtually the entire land area of the Samoan archipelago (Figs.1 and 2). Arriving in the 18th century, European explorers viewed a humanly altered landscape. Commonly depicting sea to mountain summits clothed in forest, they noted varying, but limited, degrees of an agricultural forest within the Samoan landscapes. Excluding the uninhabited Rose atoll, the island of Ta'u of the Manu'a group in the eastern part of the archipelago was generally first sighted and described in the following terms:

… the whole island is filled [with trees] up to the high crowns of the mountains and as close as grass in luxuriant meadows (Roggeveen 1722:151);

[i]ts shores are every where steep and the whole isle is as it was nothing more than a high mountain, covered with trees… without either vallies or plains (Bougainville 1772:279);

[t]he land rises to the height of two hundred toises [390 m], is very steep, and covered to the summit with large trees, among which we distinguish a great number of cocoas [coconut]… (La Perouse 1799:122).

Of the much larger and nearby island of Tutuila, Bougainville (1772:282) describes it as “interspersed with mountains and vast plains, covered with cocoa-nut and many other trees”.

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Figure 1: Primeval forest, Upolu and Savai'i (after Wright 1963).
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Figure 2: Primeval forests, Tutuila and Manu'a (after Wright 1963 and adapted from Cole et al. 1988)
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Pickering, a naturalist with the United States scientific expedition exploring the Pacific under Wilkes, gives the first detailed written account of the Samoan landscape from surveys conducted between 7 October and 10 November 1839. Describing the “interior of Savai'i”, 5 Pickering notes in his journal “[t]hese woods have a much more sombre aspect than the Brasilian… equally as lofty… or more uniformly so… every leaf placed beyond the reach of ordinary eyes” (1839:139), an image similarly created for the forests of Upolu by Wilkes (1845:104). Of the “vegetation” of the islands in general, Pickering writes:

“Savannahs” were spoken of on Upolu, and perhaps it was these that we saw with the glass from the vessel, looking like artificial “clearings”. With the slight exception the whole of the islands as far as fell within our observation, were covered, or have been at some period, with a dense forest, nowise equivocal in its character, but composed of a heavy growth of timber (1839:138, emphasis in original).

From the surveys, Pickering (1854) lists more than 300 plant species considered “indigenous on the Samoan Islands”, estimating a total number in excess of 1700, while identifying more than 100 additional plant species considered to have been introduced by Polynesians. Polynesians introduced mainly agricultural plants on their voyages between islands (Whistler 1991), such as coconut, breadfruit, pandanus, plaintain, kava and others of the “taroyam complex” (Bellwood 1979, Kirch 1989). But they also introduced, intentionally or unintentionally, other plants and animals characteristic of Polynesian landscapes and influential in their adopted islands' ecological transformations (Dye and Steadman 1990).

Population Dispersal

Elements of the agricultural forest noted by Bougainville and La Perouse, among others, correspond to their sense of the locus of human population. In general, Samoan settlement was perceived as primarily coastal with agricultural lands nearby. For the relatively small islands of Manu'a (58 km2 total) and possibly Tutuila (135 km2), this meant all lands of the islands were accessible and potentially influenced by agricultural and forest practices. La Perouse (1799:121) notes that “houses are built halfway up the hill” on Ta'u. For larger Upolu (1147 km2) and Savai'i (1709 km2), which evidently neither Roggeveen nor Bougainville observed, determination of the extent of inland settlement was more problematic. Among the indicators of human habitation, early European explorers inferred population size and location from the number and presence of Samoan - 14 canoes. “We saw several villages at the heads of all these coves; from which came off an immense number of canoes…”, La Perouse (1799:126) notes of Tutuila. And for Upolu, creating an image of settlement extending much further inland, he writes:

At four… in the afternoon we brought to abreast of a village, the most extensive perhaps in any island of the South Sea, or rather opposite a large plain covered with houses from the summit of the mountains to the seaside.… From this village the smoke ascended, as from the midst of a great city. The sea was covered with canoes, all endeavoring to approach our vessels… (La Perouse 1799:150).

Noting that “Tutuila is thickly settled round its shores” (Wilkes 1845:90), Wilkes comments on the extent of the agricultural forest and human settlement for the islands in general:

Many of the trees we have named, as well as other plants are objects of cultivation, but the ground cleared for their purpose does not extend far from the coasts, near which all the villages are situated (Wilkes 1845:104).

Pickering found isolated inhabitants surrounded by dense forest several miles inland during his Savai'ian excursion, even noting “a sort of ‘Lord of the forest’ for the natives do not go into the woods without his permission.…” (1839: entry for 16 October). Early Christian missionaries arriving around the time of the United States Exploring Expedition found evidence of more extensive former inland settlement on Upolu (e.g., Turner 1884, Stair 1897:56). As Sterndale notes in his report to the New Zealand Government following a survey of commercial resources in the 1870s:

… along the coast line and for a few miles inland [Savai'i] is inhabited, the interior being a mere wilderness of the most gorgeous tropical vegetation.… Upolu, like Savai'i, is only inhabited along the coast. This was not the case formerly, as the whole interior exhibits evidence of ancient prosperous settlement… (Sterndale 1874:8).

Sifting through both the archaeological evidence and the various arguments constructed by geographers (e.g., Watters 1958a, Pirie 1964), Davidson finds “some evidence…to support a view that the concentration of so large a proportion of the total population on the coast is a recent phenomenon” (1969:77). “While there are some instances in which the [archaeological] sites form a definite cluster”, she writes of surveys on Upolu, - 15 “they are more usually continuously distributed over the available land” (p.50). The description refers to past periods of more dispersed population distribution of village groups within radial divisions of land (p.78), and to the evidence supporting “the view that the population had declined substantially by 1840” (p.75), corresponding to the general period of Wilkes's (1845:108) estimate of 56,600 total inhabitants.

Forest Practice

The political division of Samoa into radial land segments, from mountain ridges to the sea, corresponds to Kirch's sense of a “transported landscape” carried by Ancient Polynesian Society into their descendants' various and respective islands (Kirch 1984:139). Based on the high symbolic and material relation of Samoans and Polynesians in general to the productivity of the land (Shore 1989), it is logical to interpret such flow of humans inland and to the sea within a radial segment of land in terms of variations in the productivity of land and sea resources among other commonly cited variables, such as population densities, availability of freshwater and strategies for defense.

In Samoan economy, particularly subsistence economy, productivity of the land is related to the regenerative power of native forests. Forests cleared for agricultural purposes returned to forest, according to Watters (1958b:345), in rotations in probable excess of 50 years for the islands of Upolu and Savai'i in pre-1840 Samoa, or sufficient time for a return to an appearance of mature forest (Wright 1963). Areas cleared of forest were planted in taro, often preceded by yams, in Watters's (1958b) description, for approximately two years of cultivation before abandonment from declining soil fertility, creating a mosaic of regenerating forest following its clearance for agriculture. The larger trees, ring-barked and burned at the base, left to fall in their decay, provided a structure for the vines of planted yams (Stair 1897:54). Descriptions of yams growing “wild” in the forest, as in Pickering's “Lord of the forest”, whose “domains… in times of scarcity… are the only resources for the wild yams” (as cited above), add to the evidence suggested by breadfruit trees and abandoned house sites marking previous clearance of inland forested areas (as in Wright 1963) and support oral histories of prior inland settlement and forest clearance many generations past.

It is logical to assume that Samoans at the time of European arrival were in part living along the coast for access to fishing and travel (e.g., Watters 1958a:3, Fox and Cumberland 1962), although freshwater generally surfaces at the coast in springs developed and maintained by villages (Kear and Wood 1959). 6 The wide variety of documented fishing implements and fishing practices (e.g., Kramer 1902, Hiroa 1930) supports the sense of the sea's - 16 high importance in pre-1840 Samoan life and economy suggested by various other images of the past (e.g., oral histories, folktales and proverbs). The numbers of various canoes, their quality and the skill of Samoan navigators are noted by many early European explorers. Bougainville (1772:284) named the islands “l'Archipel des Navigateurs, or Archipelago of the Navigators” undoubtedly, in part, for the term's descriptive value (his reasoning is not made explicit). To Wilkes (1845:88), “[t]he canoes of these islanders were the best we had seen”, referring to the “30-40 ft. long” outrigger plank-constructed canoes. Hiroa (1930:417), an ethnographer, noted in the 1920s that “[e]very person of any status had a bonito canoe”, words seeming to echo those of Steinberger, included in his report to the President of the United States in 1873: “every prominent family owns its bonito-fishing canoe” (U.S. Government 1874:11). The value as well as the art and knowledge of constructing and using bonito canoes, or va 'aalo, apparently faded or is fading, and the importance of canoes in general diminishing greatly with current generations (Olson 1995). The art and knowledge of constructing and sailing the large canoes observed by Wilkes apparently faded before the turn of the last century. 7

In past generations, carpenter guilds controlled the construction of canoes. George Turner, a missionary who arrived in Samoa in the early 1840s, explains:

Any one could fell a tree, cut off the branches, and hollow out the log some fifteen feet long, for a common fishing canoe.… But the more carefully built canoe, with a number of separate planks raised from a keel, was the work of a distinct and not very numerous class of professional carpenters (Turner 1884:163).

Other crafts dependent upon forest and sea resources were similarly organised into guilds, such as house construction under supervision of tufuga, a general name for craft specialists in Samoa (Krämer 1902(2):156, Shore 1989), with various similar and related religious connotations elsewhere in Polynesia (Handy 1927).

We know little of the effect of guild authority on forest and sea nor of their interests in maintaining the natural resources necessary to their trades. Other forest practices, particularly those associated with chiefly contention or maintaining chiefly status, tended to have an opposite effect on forests. Impoverished soils, from reputed and repeated forest clearance and burning, characterise tula landscapes, “grass-covered hills” (Wright 1963:40), or “plateau fernlands” of Upolu (Mercer and Scott 1958:355), perhaps corresponding to the “‘savannahs’” … or “artificial ‘clearings’” referred to - 17 by Pickering (1839:138, as quoted earlier). While strategies for defense, or practices more generally associated with inland settlement are theorised, little is known of the human motive or purpose for their creation (Green and Davidson 1974:186). The pattern such practices of repeated forest clearance effect in older relatively infertile (fagaloa) soils is similar to the intended effects from the more widespread forest practices associated with seuga lupe, or the art of snaring pigeons. Of the techniques employed in seuga lupe and the effect on forests and villagers, George Turner offers the following description in The Samoan Reporter, a journal published by the London Missionary Society (1851, no. 13):

The principal season sets in about June. Great preparations are made for it; all the pigs of a settlement will be slaughtered and baked…and loaded with all kinds of food, the whole population of the place go off to certain pigeon grounds in the bush. There they put up huts, and remain sometimes for months.… The ground being cleared, he chiefs station themselves at distances all round a large circular space, each concealed under a low shed or covering of brushwood.… Every man flies his pigeon.… The scene soon attracts some wild pigeon…whoever is next to it raises his net, and tries to entangle it. Some of the pigeons are baked, others are distributed about and tamed for further use.…

Adding that “[o]f all the Samoan sports, none, perhaps, is a greater hinderance [sic] to missionary work than pigeon-catching… whole villages scattered by it on a career of dissipation for many weeks at a time”, Turner marks its decline in popularity in 1851 in relation to the replacement of the pigeon-net by the “fowling piece”, the demand for which is noted similarly by Williams in 1832 in relation to “bows and arrows” employed in the hunt (Moyle 1984:249).

Muskets, in high demand throughout the 19th century, were used primarily for war. War, a frequent occurrence during the 19th century (Gilson 1970) and in previous centuries (Meleisea 1987), 8 tended to etch its effects ecologically in forests. In war, plantations and houses of the vanquished were commonly torched as a means of reducing the capacity for mobilising retaliation, with various associated symbolic connotations (Tamasese 1994:71). “Almost everything is destroyed in war, houses burnt, property plundered, plantations destroyed, pigs killed, breadfruit and cocoa nutt [sic] trees all cut down…”, Williams notes in his journal (Moyle 1984:245). Upon the missionaries' arrival in Samoa in 1830, Williams noticed “smoak [sic] ascending from a village in flames at Upolu, where the two parties were fighting” (p.70). In 1832, recounting the experiences of three Tahitian - 18 teachers he brought to Samoa in 1830, he writes:

[o]n our return home turning a point of land we were startled at beholding Ana [A'ana district, the western third of the island of Upolu] the seat of war the mountain in a blaze and concluded [that the forces of the paramount chief] Malietoa and [the island of] Manono had succeeded in taking the fortress of the poor [A'ana] people which proved to be the case… (Moyle 1984:128).

“When [the next] missionaries arrived, in 1836, and for upwards of a year afterwards, Aana was without a single inhabitant”, writes Wilkes (1845:115), commenting on the exile of the districts' inhabitants following the above war from an area including “nine to ten miles” along an inland passage, “over a mountain”, described as “deserted” by Stair in 1840 (1897:57), although previously “lined with detached habitations, so that the natives, in describing it to me, have often said that a child might have travelled from one place to the other alone… in consequence of the houses being so near to each other along the whole distance”.

Spirits, Forests and a Spirit-World

The spirit-world Christian missionaries encountered upon their arrival in Samoa permeated Samoa's natural world. Thus, forests, ebbing, flowing, and taking shape according to human influence, as described above, are, within Samoan cosmology, places similarly subject to spiritual influence. Aitu ‘spirits, spirit-gods or deities’, appearing in various forms, incarnate in birds and fish, as stones and trees, coloured Samoan relations with forests and sea as relations with spirits and ancestors within a spirit-world. Samoan conversion to Christianity modified these relations, removing constraints associated with various aitu, reducing restrictions on resource use with their corresponding conservation effects.

“At… birth”, writes Turner (1884:17), “a Samoan was to be taken under the care of some god, or aitu”, whose “visible incarnation” became “an object of veneration”. To injure one's aitu was to invite sickness or death. Of Samoa's aitu, Turner differentiates between household gods, village gods, and general gods, gods superior and inferior, some with multiple names, many with multiple incarnations varying with the locality (1884:77). As with each “household”, “every village had its god” and, generally, every village a faleaitu, a spirit-house, “whether a house or a tree” (Turner 1884:18, Stair 1897:226). In Shore's analysis, Polynesian religion corresponds to “an economy of mana in which generative powers were appropriated, channeled, transformed, and bound” (1989:143). In Samoa, only aitu possess mana, - 19 and people's fortune is tied to their relations with their gods.

One effect of Samoan veneration of aitu is rendering “sacred” its incarnation and often the surroundings of its abode. To be sacred, , in the sense applied, is to be untouchable in a harmful way and with harmful consequences, but with a powerful conservation effect. For the district of Salega on Savai'i's south coast, Turner notes:

A rock a short distance from the shore was the principal god of the place. An unusually hollow sound, from a change of the wind and current, was a call from the god for offerings; and for a time the fish were untouched and sacred… (1884:264-65).

Similarly, in many places, sacred groves harboured gods manifest in stones (e.g., Turner 1884:53, 62) or various other forms such as a shell (Turner 1884:23) to which offerings might be made as a form of appeasement or appeal. Henry (1979:9) recounts a version of a story of Lata (or Rata) which emphasises the importance of applying the appropriate appeasement. Henry's account of Lata, a figure of mythical proportions throughout Polynesia associated with mariner exploits, shares with other transcriptions of Samoan oral traditions (e.g., Stair 1897:217, Steubel 1884-94:19) the common element of trees, cut without permission from the deity of the grove, or rather the Polynesian deity of trees (Handy 1927), being commanded to repair and stand again. Lata, within a ring of 12 female aitu is asked by one:

Why have you cut down our children? Who removed the prohibition for you to do this? Did you bring an offering to Tane, the god of trees? If this sacred preparation is not done, you cannot have these trees (from the English and Samoan versions in Henry 1979:9/14, respectively).

While to be sacred is to be untouchable, both stories imply use of the resource, the sea or the trees, with the appropriate appeasement to the deity, an offering, or taulaga, generally of food (Stair 1897, Pratt 1911), to remove the prohibitions.

Taulāitu, as “priests” mediating between aitu and humans, appear in missionary analyses, but not as a separate, entrenched class always distinct from chiefs, nor does there appear to have been in Samoa a “true ceremonial priest, a professional who devoted himself exclusively to sacred learning and ritual” (Handy 1927:152). 9 Sacred chiefs, or ali'i pa'ia, most closely demonstrate Shore's (1989) conception of the channeling of generative power in an economy of mana: for example, as depicted by Williams (Moyle 1984:156) concerning the paramount chief Malietoa, whose “presence - 20 renders a place sacred, and must be sprinkled with water [coconut water, niuui, rendering it common] after he has left”; or, as depicted in oral histories of the paramount chief Tonumaipe'a LeSauoaiga, who, for example, is attributed with removing prohibitions from the forest and the sea roughly 600 years ago in an area of Savai'i's westernmost peninsula, bordering Falealupo and the sanctuary of Nāfanua, a pan-Samoa goddess of war (GP [14]:76).

The Samoan word , used in the current context to refer to something made sacred, corresponds to the more general Polynesian concept of tapu (anglicised to taboo), a term suggesting “a contained potency” as well as being “forbidden or dangerous” (Shore 1989:144). In Shore's analysis “to be tapu was to be empowered, but it was also to be immobilised—literally and figuratively tied up” (p.154). The image of being “tied up” or bound corresponds to the image evoked by a class of chiefly prohibitions in Samoa and common throughout Polynesia: tapui, “restrictions imposed as a matter of chiefly prerogative on the harvesting of productive crops”, where, Shore argues, tapu and tapui, though different, “derive from a common understanding about the channeling of generative power” (1989:151). Turner lists eight common forms of tapui, which rely on retaliation by aitu, or rather the mobilisation of the generative powers, or mana, of aitu in the above schema, against those breaking prohibitions on a resource placed by a human socially empowered to do so (1884:185). Similarly, when accused, for example, of breaking a prohibition, one swore one's sincerity by one's aitu and cast imprecations against the aitu of others if trespassed (Turner 1884).


Samoan conversion to Christianity did not replace Samoan relations with aitu (cf. Charlot 1992), but it weakened aitu efficacy. 10 Chiefs placing restrictions on resources do so with weakened gods if implicating aitu of Samoa, who, without their former sanctity, cannot compel compliance against their manifestation or domain with the same degree of certainty of the requisite interpretation of their retribution (as implied in the story accompanying the introductory proverb). This image of diminished aitu potency with diminishing associated resource prohibitions is evoked in many stories of the process of conversion to Christianity. The following tale of Toa, a chief of a village on Tutuila, is from Wilkes (1845:91):

Toa became quite communicative, and as he showed me about his village, he told me, through the interpreter, that before the missionaries came, the chiefs all had their ‘aitu’ or spirits, which they worshipped, and that they - 21 felt themselves obliged to do every thing they commanded. His aitu were fresh-water eels, which he constantly fed in the brook near the village. I visited it, and requested him to catch one, which he attempted to do; but after a long search, turning over large stones, and examining holes, he was unsuccessful. He said there were many in it formerly, and quite tame; but since he had embraced Christianity, they had all been caught and destroyed. On further questioning him, he told me that he had himself eaten them; and that formerly if any one had touched, disturbed, or attempted to catch one, he should have killed him immediately. He said his eels were very good to eat, and was sorry he could not find any more; and laughed very heartily when I spoke to him about eating his aitu.

Eating one's aitu is a common theme in the stories of Samoan conversion to Christianity, both in the sense of its interpreted symbolic value to Samoans and as a developing ritual in the practice of those performing the conversions (see, for example, Williams' account in Moyle 1984:127). Pre-conversion proscriptions against one's aitu tended not to apply to another's aitu (Turner 1884), referring to the household god under which one was born and lived and meaning all of the particular incarnated species, for example, all freshwater eels in the above tale of Toa. As Stair explains, “although the members of one family were accustomed to regard a given object, say a shark, with… reverence, they were continually seeing [sharks] killed and eaten by others” (1897:216), a practice particularly ripe for insult and retaliation in Samoa depending upon how the killing and eating were done. To eat one's aitu, symbolic of one's conversion, demonstrated one's abandonment of one's protective deity for the protection of another. Williams recounts one early encounter with the practice on Savai'i:

After the usual ceremonies of salutation the Chief asked us if we had brought a fish spear. We replied no we had not. What did he want with a fish spear [?] He said to spear an Eel which was his Etu [aitu] or god to cook it and eat it, which would effectually convince all of the sincerity of his intentions to become lotu or Christian (Moyle 1984:126).

The mediating role of the missionary takes on a more activist dimension in the following story by the Wesleyan missionary Dyson:

One of the sacred forests contained most valuable timber, called ‘ifilele’ [Intsia bijuga]. No Samoan durst touch it, even after all the inhabitants had become nominally Christian.… one of the missionaries… [making] known his intention to cut down one of the sacred trees… carried his purpose into execution.… when they saw no harm come to him they… followed his - 22 example.… The taboo now being removed, the whole forest became common (1882:310). 11

The effects to the resource (the trees, the fish, the aitu) are implied, if not clearly stated, in the lifting of the prohibitions: the purpose appears to be to use or consume that which is not sacred or sanctified. In this sense, aitu present obstacles or barriers to be overcome. Their associative prohibitions concern the sanctity of the gods, not the object of incarnation or abode of the deity. The refugia effects provided by sacred forests or lagoons under prohibitions appear ancillary to maintaining favourable spiritual relations with aitu inhabiting the areas and diminish when made accessible to common(er) touch. The difference implies a conservation effect as a by-product to the ecology of land and sea more than a conservation intent of land and sea resources separate from aitu where the prohibitions apply. Tapui, as restrictions on resources applied by people, imply a conservation intent. They sanctify the resource through channeling the generative capacities (mana) of the deities, but, as such, depend on the vitality or efficacy of the gods, without whom, chiefly or human prerogative, relying more on temporal legitimacy, is subject to greater contestation.

Ecological Transformations and Religious Politics

By 1861 the process of religious conversion appears complete to Turner, who states in The Samoan Reporter, undoubtedly with a touch of hyperbole, “[h]eathenism no longer exists in Samoa…[a] nation has changed its gods” (Turner 1861a). “On the reception of Christianity”, Turner adds elsewhere (1861b:243), “temples were destroyed, the sacred groves left to be overrun by the bush, the shells and stones and divining cups were thrown away, and the fish and fowls which they had previously regarded as incarnations of their gods were eaten without suspicion or alarm.” While reliance on missionary accounts obscures the extent and spirit of conversion before 1860, enough evidence exists from competing or more independent sources to suggest that the picture Turner paints is far more true than false if not merely precursor to a later period of more generally accepted fact (cf. Gilson 1970). In relative terms, the missionaries' various accounts of religious conversion suggest Samoans were among the more receptive of Pacific islanders to Christian missionary efforts to modify their relations with their spirits (cf. Gunson 1978, Garrett 1982). What is not clear is why this would be true.

The process of adoption of Christianity in Samoa begins before the missionary arrivals in 1830. Williams and Barff, the first missionaries to arrive in Samoa, discovered various individuals, including foreign sailors - 23 and Samoans, preaching the Christian Gospel to communities of followers (Moyle 1984). Samoans, to varying extent, were also aware of the process of Christian conversion in other islands of Polynesia, particularly in nearby Tonga, where missionaries first arrived in 1797 (Gunson 1978). It was from Tonga that Wesleyan missionaries were recruited by Samoans after Malietoa allegedly refused their request for one of the eight London Missionary Society (LMS) teachers Williams and Barff brought with them from Tahiti (TMP 1834: entry for 1 October). And it was after travelling to Tonga or Tahiti that Samoans introduced Christianity to their communities before the arrival of the LMS. 12 Tahiti and Tonga denote the origins of the Lotu Taiti and Lotu Toga, the respective terms Samoans came to use to refer to the LMS and Wesleyan Methodist Christian missions (Gunson 1990).

The first Wesleyan missionary to Samoa, Peter Turner, arrived from Tonga in 1834 or 1835 to find that 33 “places” on Savai'i, 3 on Manono, and 24 on Upolu “were of the TongaLotu privious [sic] to my coming, and who acknowledged me as their missionary on my landing”. 13 Peter Turner had sent four Tongan Wesleyan teachers to Samoa from the islands of Vava'u (of Tonga) within the 12 months before his arrival (TMP no. 57,14 February 1836, entry for 8 December 1835, Tuesday). Gunson (1990:184) indicates others arrived a few years earlier. Many of these “places”, or villages, were allied with each other and Tonga or Tongans, and averse to the LMS for political reasons (Gunson 1990). Many remained nominally Wesleyan during the 18-year absence of Methodist missionaries in Samoa following their retreat in 1839 as a means of resolving conflict with the LMS (Dyson 1875, Garrett 1974).

Samoan use of religious authority in historical accounts is subservient to the expression of Samoan political authority (cf. Handy 1927:152, as quoted earlier). Williams' description of Malietoa's attempt to control the allocation of Tahitian Christian teachers (Moyle 1984:123) may explain Samoan appeal through Tongan relations for Wesleyan missionaries, or their use of their “white sons”, referring to foreign sailors in Turner's (1861b:103) analysis, as the next available source. Tongan influence may account for the allegiance of Savai'ian villages and Manono to the Lotu Toga as opposed to the LMS, as argued convincingly by Gunson (1990), Garrett (1974) and others (e.g., Wood 1975). And Peter Turner and Wesleyan missionaries may have been perceived by Samoans, Tongans, and other missionaries as Taufa'ahau's agents extending his, and therefore Tonga's, influence in Samoa (Garrett 1974:77, Wood 1975:284, Gunson 1990:185). But then, each and all of such accounts fit a patterned practice of Samoan use of religious authority in matters of politics and political intrigue.

According to missionary and oral historical accounts, the period of LMS - 24 arrival in Samoa was one of prolonged and excessively violent war of political consolidation, succession, and retribution (cf. Gilson 1970, Meleisea 1987 and the oral history recounted in Tamasese 1995), the effects of which on A'ana district residents have already been referred to above. As reported by Williams, the war of Malietoa and Manono against A'ana was in retaliation for the killing of Tamafaigā (Moyle 1984), the leader of the mālō, or government of the victors in war (Tamasese 1995; see also Meleisea 1987). As was (and is) widely believed among Samoans, Tamafaigā's personal power derived from his relation to Nāfanua, the pan-Samoa goddess of war. The killing of Tamafaigā was perceived as an attack on the spiritual authority of Nafanuā (Moyle 1984, Tamasese 1995). It was through Nāfanua's descendants, the Sā Tonumaipe'a, that Manono was aligned with Malietoa in the wars of retribution against A'ana (Gilson 1970, Meleisea 1987, Tamasese 1995). And it was through Nafānua's descendants, the Sā Tonumaipe'a, that Manono was aligned with Tonga in the intrigue of Taufa'ahau and Wesleyan Methodism in Savai'i (Gunson 1990). In this sense, Malietoa's control over, or use of, LMS teachers is a potential means of gaining leverage against the Sā Tonumaipe'a, whose political influence within many Savaiian villages provided (and provides) the base of support for the establishment of Wesleyan Methodism in Samoa as with the earlier religious dominance of Nāfanua. 14

The above implies the transformation of religious authority through processes of political transformation. It implies the transformation of nature as a by-product of internal social-political change modifying Samoan spiritual relations integrated with nature. While this may or may not be sufficiently clear for the relative lack of non-missionary and Samoan sources, or a more explicit critique of their respective ideological bias, we see the seeds of ecological and cultural transformation such religious transformation implies in the politics and pragmatics colouring the history of Samoan relations with foreigners in general (for example, see Gilson 1970, Meleisea 1987, but more specifically in the context of the current discussion, Olson 1995). 15 This article explores only the beginning of this history. But as it suggests, Samoans actively engaged and incorporated foreign influence within the dynamics giving effect to their cultural practice. A shift in the dynamics of cultural production could then be expected to shift the pattern cultural practices effect in land and sea to the extent specific landscapes and seascapes are an effect of culture.

Samoan landscapes before 1860 were dominated by native trees and native spirits. Their relative composition, dominance, and spatial distribution depended upon the character of Samoan societies and Samoan cultural practices. Samoan cultural practices were as significant in their ecological - 25 effects at the time of early European arrivals as they are today, when Samoan landscapes, dominated by non-native and cultivated plants, are more evident artefacts of human societies. Little evidence exists to suggest Samoans sought to maintain the ecological integrity of native forests and native forest resources separate from maintaining favourable relations with native spirits. Their adoption of Christianity signals a change in an ideology of prohibition against Samoa's spirits and the associated conservation effects in Samoa's ecology to an ideology reinforcing values of more direct consumptive use of forest and sea resources dominant in missionary, commercial and colonial interests of post-1860 Samoa (Olson 1995). In effect, Samoan acceptance of Euro-American Christian constructions of nature created a landscape open to greater economic exploitation and political claim consistent with increasing European and American economic and political influence, and one relatively devoid of the sanctifying effects of Polynesian and Samoan deities.


I am indebted to Jeff Romm and the many members, past and present, of the Social Forestry group at Berkeley for my current understanding and use of the concept of the “social forest”. Nancy Peluso, Allan Pred and Arnold Schultz, too, greatly influenced my conception of social forests and the thesis from which this paper is drawn. I am grateful to Mark Baker and Kim Berry for their comments on an earlier draft and for the constructive comments in an anonymous review. Archival and ethnographic field research from which this paper is drawn was conducted under East-West Center and Fulbright-IIE sponsorship respectively.

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1   O lo'o mamalu le atua I le aoa. The English translation is Charlot's (1990:428). The explanation of the proverb in E. Schultz 1980:52 reads:
The owner of a certain plantation had his crop stolen time and again. So he prayed to Tagaloalagi, the highest god, to help him. The god gave him a fetish (tupua) [sic? tapui] which the man hung up in an aoa tree (banyan). When the thief returned and saw the charm, he was frightened.
O lo'o mamalu le atua i le aoa. The god shows his power in the banyan tree. The thief soon found out that the fetish did not harm him, so he stole again.
2   See also Kirch and Yen (1982:368), who state “men reach out to embrace and create their ecosystem rather than the reverse proposition”, quoted in Kirch (1989:17) apparently in partial critique of the lack of analysis of “culture-nature interaction” in “most Polynesian ethnographies”: “if an environment was seriously discussed at all, it was usually in the context of cultural adaptation to environmental constraint” (Kirch 1989:37). The concept of “ecosystem” implies an interrelationship among the component parts, a system comprised of biophysical and, arguably, socio-cultural elements interacting in complex ways, wherever people are part of the system (A. Schultz 1967).
3   See also Sahlins (1958) and Goldman (1970) for related and earlier theories addressing differences in Polynesian organisation based on environmental variation.
4   In contrast, various versions of Samoan mythology depict the origin and development of Samoans in their islands (see Charlot 1991 for an analysis of Samoan origin myths). Drawing upon archaeological and liguistic evidence, Kirch (1989) theorises that by the first millenium A.D., Samoans became distinctly Samoan in their islands, developing from an “Ancestral Polynesian Society”, inhabiting eastern Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, “descended from ancestral Austronesian peoples who first penetrated the western Pacific more than 4,000 years ago”. See also Green (1979), and Graves and Green (1993).
5   During a nine day excursion from Sāpapali'i on Savai'i's east coast, Pickering, assigned to the crew charged with surveying Savai'i, made it no farther than an estimated seven miles into Savai'i's interior (Pickering 1839), or most likely still within the lowland and foothill forests of Savai'i. Forest-types follow Wright (1963).
6   Surface flows are generally relatable to soil development: perennial streams are found on soil types developing on the older volcanics. Most of Savai'i and the western third of Upolu are comprised of soil types developing on the younger volcanics which tend to exhibit virtually little or no surface flow except in heavy rains (Wright 1963). The islands' geologic age decreases from east to west (Kear and Wood 1959).
7   The canoes in question were most likely 'alia, and possibly of modified Fijian design, that replaced the larger Samoan va'atele and Tongan tongiaki in the late 18th century (Haddon and Hornell 1975). “Like the 'alia of Samoa”, Haddon and Hornell write, “the Tongan kalia is in no essential particular different from the Fijian ndrua” (1975:272). Stair described what he believed to be the last va'atele in Samoa belonging to “Pe'a, a chief of Manono” that broke up soon after his arrival in Samoa in 1838 (1895:617). German administrators noted the existence of only one 'alia in the country in 1900, given as a gift to the Kaiser of Germany (GSA), a picture of which is reproduced in Haddon and Hornell (1975:242).
8   For example, the island of Manono chronicled their victory in war by the size of the rock kept in a basket at the nearby island-fortress of Apolima. Their geographic position astride the sea lanes between Upolu and Savai'i increased their likely importance and involvement in military conflicts (Meleisea 1987). In 1832, according to Williams, the number of rocks reputedly totalled 197 (Moyle 1984:164, 221).
9   Handy (1927:152), commenting on the absence of the ceremonial priest in Samoa, adds:
This is not at all surprising, for in Samoa, and in Tonga probably as a result of Samoa's influence, the social order and institutions rather than the religious held the most prominent place in the native life; and therefore it is to be expected that the masters of ceremony would be social rather than religious.
Of taulāitu, Stair (1897:222) writes, “this office was also sometimes held by the head of the family [i.e., the chief] or his sister”. Referring to household gods, Turner notes: “the father of the family was the high-priest” (1884:18). For village gods, “[t]he priests in some cases were the chiefs of the place; but in general some one in a particular family claimed the privilege, and professed to claim the will of the god” (Turner 1884:20).
Handy refers to taula, as in taula a aitu or taulāitu, more generally throughout Polynesia as prophets interpreting the will of the gods (1927:159).
10   Compare Shore's concept of the economy of mana, above, as well as of tapu in “an economy of potency: to empower gods is to debilitate man; to empower man is to enfeeble the gods” (1989:155).
11   Turner (1884:63) tells a similar story [if not a version of the same story] of a village on Savai'i, with an added touch of irony: “The spirit abode of Tuifiti was a grove of large… ifilele. No one dared cut that timber.… In later times the trees fell harmlessly under the axes of the villagers, and were very useful in building a house for their missionary.”
12   See also Freeman (1959) and Garrett (1974) for a general discussion of Christian influence in Samoa before LMS arrival with Williams and Barff.
13   TMP, letter dated 1 October 1834, Manono, P. Turner to General Secretary of the Wesleyan Missionary Society, London. The “places” Turner lists are the names of current, and likely past, villages (cf. Kramer 1902). Wood (1975:272) and Gunson (1990:184) put these numbers at 40, 3 and 25 for each island respectively, and with Garrett (1974:69) indicate 1835 as the date of Turner's arrival in Samoa. I am yet unable to account for the discrepancy in the dates and numbers, nor am I able to give an accounting of the total number of Samoan villages in 1834. Steinberger lists a total of 58, 6 and 43 for Savai'i, Manono (with Apolima) and Upolu, respectively, in 1873, with an additional 51 in the islands to the east (US 1874:57-58).
14   Compare Tamasese's (1995:9-10) version of an oral tradition accounting for Nofoasaefa's assassination, which occurred several generations before Tamafaigā's. Nofoasaefa's assassination followed his attempt to establish a rival religion to Nāfanua near her sanctuary in Falealupo:
Fearful of his drawing power as shaman/deity, [Nofoasaefa's] opposition [the Sā Tonumaipe'a] enlisted the support of his principal aide…[to provoke] the unsuspecting Nofoasaefa into a confrontation with the Tonumaipe ’as.…[After Nofoasaefa repeated a prior sacrilege against Nāfanua,] [t]he Nāfanua priest incanted in fury…he is accursed’, which was a signal to his assassins that the person of Nofoasaefa no longer possessed tapu… [meaning] there would not be aitu retribution following the act.…
See also Krämer (1902), Henry (1979) and Olson (1995) for additional transcriptions of oral traditions of Nāfanua, the Sa Tonumaipe'a, and their relations to the aristocracy of Samoa. See Charlot (1991 and 1992) for an analysis of the Nāfanua tradition and Samoan oral texts.
15   Religious politics is not the general interpretation Christian missionaries offer in explaining the process of religious conversion in Samoa. But then Christian missionaries tended not to reflect upon their own involvement in Samoan politics. Samoan motives are most often attributed to their growing recognition of the spiritual superiority of the Christian pantheon, albeit in pragmatic terms, for example, as suggested in the following excerpt from Dyson:
From admissions from natives themselves which have been made again and again to us, we are bound to believe that it was the hope of gifts, and secular gain, which led the chiefs in 1855, to clamour for [the return of] Wesleyan missionaries (Dyson 1875:68; see also Wood 1975:292).