Old Samoa

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In the judicial proceedings of the fono, the punishments may be classed under two heads, o le sala, and o le tua; the former consisting of the destruction of houses, livestock, and plantations, with, at times, the seizure of personal property and banishment; the latter consisting of personal punishment.

The severe punishment of o le sala was usually inflicted by the whole available force of the district awarding it. Sometimes it was tamely submitted to, but at other times resistance was offered, if the culprits felt themselves strong enough to do so, when desperate encounters followed; and these at times gave rise to general wars. The sala was also at times inflicted by one family upon another, if the aggrieved party was strong enough. This, although irregular, was connived at by the leading members of the community; but if the punishment was considered excessive, they would then interfere. One great evil attending this mode of punishment was that at times the whole family, or even district, suffered for the offense of one of its members, so that not only did all suffer from the loss of property, but, when, as was sometimes the case, banishment, fa’ateva, was added to destruction of property and dwellings, many suffered from the punishment.

Upon a fono deciding upon this punishment, it was usual to carry it into effect immediately. In that case, the leading men of the settlement, rising from the place of meeting, proceeded towards the residence of the obnoxious family, attended by their followers, where they quickly seated themselves upon the ground in full view of the family they had decided to banish. The latter often heard of the sentence in sufficient time to enable them to remove their mats and other household property to a place of safety; but the livestock generally fell into the hands of the expelling party, who reserved them to feast upon after the work of the day.

Formality was still the order of proceeding, and the anxious family had yet a little time to make preparations for their departure, as one of the judicial party rose to make a speech, or fai fetalainga, for the benefit of the head of the doomed family, in which he informed him of the decision of the fono, and that they had come to enforce it. On the conclusion of this speech one of the judicial party rose up and commenced to ring the breadfruit trees, so as to destroy the part above the injured bark, leaving the stump alive, and uninjured, from which in a short time young shoots sprang up, bearing fruit after two or three seasons. The commencement of this work of destruction was either the signal for resistance to be offered, or for the family to gather up their belongings, and remove from the dwelling with sad hearts, to commence their solitary journey as outcasts on the road, whilst their house was set on fire and destroyed.

Whilst these proceedings were going on, if no resistance was offered, the old men sat around the spot, quietly plaiting their cinet, and chatting together apparently quite unconcerned, and waiting for the return of the young men who had been dispatched to plunder the taro patches, or else, watching with interest the chasing and killing the pigs around, ready for the feast which was soon to be prepared. On the whole of the provisions being collected, they were cooked and eaten by the expelling party, who then returned to their homes. It was a sad sight to witness this driving a family from their homes, and sending them out to wander on until they reached a spot where some friend would give them land on which to build a home.

Sometimes the sentence was to go forthwith and destroy the breadfruit trees, without expelling the family or burning their homes. The length of time the banished party remained absent from their village varied much. Their term of banishment was never specified, nor the place to which they were to go made known, unless on very particular occasions. It was generally considered sufficient to know that the expelled party were on the road; and they might take shelter wherever they liked, beyond the limits of the village or settlement from whence they had been expelled. Sometimes they were specially warned to remove to a distance.

Should the expelled party be influential, it sometimes happened that, having acknowledged the power of their settlement by submitting quietly to punishment, some friend would suggest to his companions that, their authority having been asserted and acknowledged, it would be desirable to recall the banished party, so as not to lose strength. Should this suggestion prove agreeable, those who had previously decreed the banishment went in a body to the place where the refugees were to be found, and made a conciliatory speech, telling them to fa’a molemole (make smooth your hearts), and return to their settlement. This generally healed the breach, but sometimes it took more to smooth the ruffled hearts; and the banished parties remained absent for years, or permanently located themselves in another settlement, which they found no difficulty in doing, from the extent of their family connections.

It occasionally happened, however, that the term of banishment was very lengthened, especially when the sentence had been pronounced in a full fono, and where the offense had been great. One such case came under my notice. A powerful A’ana chief had committed adultery with the wife of a Manono chief, in consequence of which he had been banished to Savaii. Manono remained quiet as long as he absented himself and respected their prohibition of not returning to A’ana, a violation of which would have occasioned war. A’ana was a conquered district, but this chief had powerful family connections on Savaii, who belonged to the Malo, or victorious party, to whom he went and lived under their protection for several years. Although afraid to return openly to A’ana, I was assured that he paid frequent night visits there, to consult with his friends and partisans. At length, after many unavailing attempts had been made by his friends on Savaii to induce Manono to consent to his returning to A’ana, his friends on Savaii called a meeting, at which it was determined to muster a large armed party and take him back to his home in face of the prohibition. They called at Manono on their way, and informed the principal men of that island of their resolve; and the Manono people, seeing that they were determined as to their course, thought it prudent to cease their opposition, and forgive the offense. The Savaii party then quietly accompanied the chief to A’ana, and reinstated him in his former position. After his reproach had been removed, he preferred returning with his friends to Savaii, where he continued to reside.

The other class of punishment, noticed under the head of o le tua, was personal, and, like the former, was inflicted immediately sentence had been pronounced, in the presence of the whole assembly. This punishment was awarded for the following offenses: theft, insulting traveling parties, preparing pitfalls, and taking the comb out of a married woman’s head.

Amongst these punishments may be noticed the fa’afoa, which consisted of compelling the delinquent to inflict severe wounds and bruises upon himself, by beating his head and chest with a large stone, until the blood flowed freely. If there appeared any disposition on the part of the culprit to inflict merely slight wounds, the chiefs assembled immediately ordered him to strike harder; which command was further speedily enforced by the prompt and unsparing use of a war club, if necessary.

O le-u-tavi, or causing to bite the tavi, a poisonous and acrid root, was a common and very painful punishment. On biting the root the mouth swelled greatly, and the sufferer experienced intense agony for a considerable time afterwards.

Catching poisonous spined fish in the hand after they had thrown them in the air was another severe personal punishment, commonly inflicted at fonos. This fish was covered with sharp-pointed spines, and the punishment consisted in making the culprit throw it into the air, and then catch it in his naked hand as it fell. Whenever a spine entered the hand, it caused great agony and suffering.

O le fa’a-la-ina, or exposure to the sun, was another punishment commonly inflicted for theft. The culprit’s hands and feet were tied together, and a pole passed through them, when he was carried to a public place, and placed in the broiling sun, to be exposed to the intense heat for many hours together. On other occasions the offender’s feet were tied together, and he was then hoisted up to the top of a tall coconut tree, and suspended head downward, for many hours together. These five punishments have now mostly if not entirely become obsolete, and fines of pigs, property, etc., have taken their places.

In cases of murder or adultery, the common mode of making compensation to the injured party or their relatives was by the ifonga, or bowing down, accompanied with a totongi, or payment of a fine. In case the offending party thought it prudent to tender this satisfaction, he collected some valuable mats, in number and quality according to the nature of the offense, and with his friends prepared to make his submission. When it was thought necessary to appear very humble, the parties took pieces of firewood, stones, and leaves with them, to signify that they put themselves entirely into the power of the aggrieved party, who might kill, cook, and eat them, if they thought proper. On nearing their place of destination, which they usually managed to reach before or by daybreak, the culprit wrapped some valuable mats around his body, and with the rest of his party proceeded to the place where they intended to make their submission. If the offended party was a chief, they proceeded at once to his residence, where, prostrating themselves before his house, they awaited in silence his decision. The position assumed on such occasions was that of bowing on their hands and knees, or sitting cross-legged, with the head placed between the knees.

Immediately on their arrival becoming known, the chief was informed of it, and this was the critical time for the anxious party outside the dwelling. The ifonga, however, was usually deferred until it had been ascertained that the angry feelings first felt had in some measure subsided; but it occasionally happened that the injured party were unable to control their passions on seeing their enemy prostrate before them; in which case they rushed out spear and club in hand to inflict summary chastisement upon the humbled company. Some of the latter, who were on the lookout for such a contingency, narrowly watched the movements of the party within the house, and were ready to give prompt notice of any meditated onslaught, so that the whole infonga were ready to take flight on the first notice of an onslaught, either to the bush, or else to their canoes. Severe wounds were often given in such cases, and sometimes even lives were sacrificed, where the lookout had been carelessly performed, or the onslaught was unusually fierce.

Generally speaking, the ifonga or submitting party were well received, and a messenger, dispatched to invite them to rise and enter the dwelling to fai fetalainga, or hold a consultation. The payment of property was then tendered, accompanied with an apology on behalf of the transgressor by one of his companions. The chief and his friends replied, and sometimes vented their displeasure upon their visitors in no very measured terms. To this wordy chastisement the ifonga replied with all due submission, took their leave, and retired, heartily glad to escape with their lives, or indeed with whole heads and limbs. . . .

Sometimes other punishments were inflicted, as o le ta-o-le-isu (tattooing the nose), also o le tipi o le talinga (splitting the ear), both of which marks of degradation were at times inflicted for certain offenses.

In the only case of deliberate execution for a crime (murder) that occurred during my residence on Samoa the victim was bound to a tree, the rope being fastened around the legs and then wound slowly but tightly upwards, the wretched criminal meanwhile shrieking fearfully, and beseeching his executioners to kill him with an ax, or otherwise put an end to his misery. This execution took place in Atua, and was the result of a long and anxious native trial, and much discussion as to the mode of execution that should be adopted. The one chosen was decided upon as being more in unison with native custom than hanging. The culprit’s name was Toi, and his crime a most revolting family murder, in which he sacrified five or six lives. For a very long time he evaded capture, being sheltered in the mountains, but was at length hunted down and executed.1

1Stair, J.B.n/an/an/an/a, , 91–102, passim.

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Chicago: Old Samoa in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GEHI9UKVE289A9Y.

MLA: . Old Samoa, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GEHI9UKVE289A9Y.

Harvard: , Old Samoa. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GEHI9UKVE289A9Y.