‘O Taua [The Wars ]

‘O Taua [The Wars]



While there were many rites and rituals and punishments to avoid, even the ifoga (forgiveness ceremony) was not always accepted when offered;  however, if rejected the district claiming to be offended would proceed to publicly humiliate the prisoner and put him to death, in the same manner and with the same indifference as they might slaughter a sacrificial pig. The prisoner was forced to gather the fuel, including wood, rocks and bamboo, for the fire in the umu in which he would be burnt to death promptly.

If the offending side did not accept this harsh result as a final resolution, war would follow, with swift results. Villages and districts were always quick to line up neighboring villages and people to form protective alliances.

War was conducted according to well established routines. The first step in preparation was to protect the women and children by removing them to safety from their hiding places and relocating them to another district or neighboring village. Wives who were especially loyal to their husband or chief were permitted to follow alongside, tending to the wounded, and taking care of those recovering in temporary shelters along the warpath. A brave and loyal woman would always be behind her husband wherever he went, holding his war clubs and the other weapons and provisions he might need.

Many chiefs took bundles of fine mats to different villages and districts to encourage or entice the leadership there to join them in an alliance. Good relationships after the war were prized, since when hostilities ended, some soldiers might not return to their districts to resume family and village life. Loyalty was prized above all. When warriors were selected, all boys who were able to hold a weapon, even if only a stick, were included. Refusal to go to war with one’s village means his title would be stripped and he would be banished from the village forever.

There were districts and villages which used the highest and most honorific title ‘aumua. These warriors would lead the village soldiers into battle, going first, giving and taking the greatest violence and bloodshed. For this reason, twice as many of them died in wars than those who came later. In spite of their high casualties, they were intensely proud of their position as leaders in war, a distinction they would not readily give up. Their strength and bravery were praised and they became famous. When war subsided and some peace prevailed over the land, villagers would show their respect by giving them a proper meal to reward their bravery.

The line of command was strict and unwavering. During a war, the High Chiefs and Talking Chiefs made all the decisions; the decisions of the High Chiefs were invariably supported by the Talking Chiefs.

Weapons included war clubs, spears and slings. In time, metal became available, and the weapons they made included those with potential to inflict extreme damage to the enemy: these included the to’ifaufau (an axe or an adze) or a to’imulifao (an axe like a hammer) with handles as long as a walking stick. Later on, as the international community appears, they were able to procure arms from overseas, including the pelu (machete) , the fanagutuolo (the revolver) and other guns such as the fanamanu, and a spear to put in the mouth of the fana pulusila.

Strategy and tactics were quite predictable. The warriors would encircle a village where the enemy was encamped and build towers out of trees about 8 feet high, covering the spaces in between with the camouflage of other trees. Once ready, they waited about an hour before striking the unsuspecting enemy. It was rarely more than a mile or two between the towers and settlements, so in caution, they approached the enemy going to the far side of the encampment to encircle and outflank them. Fighting in the woods made identification difficult, so they created symbols to recognize one another using secret code, often drawing these on their cheeks with charcoal, or writing lines next to the symbol, which might be a dog or a bird or even a tree branch. Sometimes they would tie a piece of tapa around their neck, perhaps with fish tied to it.

Likewise they marked their boats with symbols to make recognition easier, raising flags on their masts with the painted symbols on them.

The intention to go to war was never made secret. Instead, it was customary before all planned wars to set aside a day for entertainment and dancing to recognize and honor the warriors. But once the war began, they did not attack immediately. They preferred stealth. The aim was to surprise and seize the unsuspecting enemy when they were unprepared. In many wars, no more than 50 warriors might die from each side. All male prisoners were executed, and all the captured women were distributed among the stronger warriors of the winning side.

The brave warriors were usually very fast, like ‘asaeli (meaning “One with the Lord of the Lords” and most likely originating from the term “Israel”) in the Holy Bible. These warriors would jump in front of a gathering and throw their spears; they rarely missed. They were also able to stand firmly in place for hours with their war clubs protecting themselves by batting down the spears being thrown at them.

The wars were very bloodthirsty; the warriors took extreme pride in their skills, demonstrating their prowess by the number of heads they had cut off and thrown down in front of their chiefs and supporters. This demonstrative behavior, and frank glee in killing, was entirely unlike the European soldiers who, in contrast, more resembled those at a sporting event. The happiness and dignity of a Samoan warriors was expressed by this ritual enthusiasm for the number of heads he had taken. The public demonstration was most important. Villagers received the display with a sense of worship, dancing and laughing and they called out his name, the village name, and even the name of the victim, if they knew it. The heads were laid at the feet of his chief, who congratulated him and publicly showed respect and pride. The warrior in turn encircled the others, stomping his feet in a brief dance before leaving to resume his place in battle to bring even more heads from the fallen enemy.

When the battle was over, they would pile the heads in the open field (malae) of the village. Respectfully, the head of the chief, if taken, would be placed at the top of the pile. The families of the victims came to retrieve the remains, and those unclaimed would be buried together in a common pit.

While the heads of the victims were displayed, their bodies were left in the forest, and buried only when known. If unknown, they would be left for foraging wildlife to consume. On occasion, the dead bodies were circulated around the malae and showed extreme inhumanity. In a once recorded story, a missionary became overwhelmed as he watched in horror as a warrior ran into the malae with the chin of his victim between his teeth while dragging the cut up body behind in the dust.

Wars in Samoa always began with an elaborate ceremony; these were often different. They first asked the Gods for victory with a sacrificial offering; they might plant special plants and trees, or bury water wells under camouflage. The planning was elaborate and sophisticated. For a large war with many districts and villages, they would divide the warriors into three separate units, one for the road, one for the forest, and one for the ocean. Typically, thirty to forty canoes prepared to take three hundred or even four hundred warriors. Battles in the forest were equally dangerous as those on the open water, because they did not know where the enemy was hiding or lying in wait, and did not know the hour of attack. That would be revealed only moments before. Secret instructions were key to their success. They would gather, perhaps, in the middle of the night, encircle the village to be attacked, approaching it from the rear, before the village awakened, trapping it between two flanks. After this attack, they would retreat to their canoes waiting in the ocean to carry them off. This was all done hastily, since once alerted, the single young men of the village would be in pursuit of them. If the ambush was discovered promptly, many would be killed and much blood would be shed.

The palagi historians and missionaries record some vivid scenes and memories. In once instance, the gratuitous murder of an old man, found praying innocently, occurs when another thirteen are beheaded; in another a mother wraps herself around a child as is slashed from head to toe, a rare event since killing women was looked upon with great disfavor. She and the child both survived, since they did not find the child who was hiding safely in her arms.

The wide reputation for extreme inhumanity and brutality of the Samoan warriors is not necessarily unfounded. This reputation reached its highest point when the first papalagi encountered Samoans at Tutuila. In 1787 a French expedition, led by Jean Francois de Galaup la Perouse, approached Tutuila and entered the harbor at the village of A’asu. The officer, Paul Antoine Fleuriot de Langle landed on the beach and was greeted by the villagers. He returned to his ship with assurance that it would be safe to go ashore, which they did the next day. A scuffle broke out, and mutual suspicions arose. A rumor began among the palagi that a Samoan man had stolen something from the ship, so he was summarily shot and killed, whereupon his family and the villagers sought revenge. They expressed their anger by throwing rocks, killing everyone on board. Ever since that incident, the people in that village were labeled as wild and ferocious and Europeans were advised by one another never to visit there.

Despite that the Samoans buried all of the palagi who they had slaughtered, unsurprisingly their reputation for ferocity did not abate, and they became known in Europe and elsewhere as “heathens”, although the Samoans were firmly following their own principles of a “just war, “exactly as most other cultures everywhere do.

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