The War of 1893 by Robert Louis Stevenson
In June it became clear that the King’s Government was weary of waiting upon Europe, as it had been clear long before that Europe would do nothing. The last commentary on the Berlin Act was read. Malietoa Laupepe had been put in ex aut oritate by the Powers; the Powers would not support him even by a show of strength; and there was nothing left but to fall back on an “Election according to the laws and customs of Samoa” – by the arbitration of rifle bullets and blackened faces. Instantly heaven was darkened by a brood of rumours, random calumnies and idle tales. As we rode, late at night, through the hamlet near my house, we saw the fires lighted in the houses; and eager talkers discussing the last report. The king was sick; he was dying; he was perfectly well, he was seen riding furiously by night in the back parts of Apia, and covering his face as he rode. Mata’afa was in favour with the Germans; he was to be made a German king; he was secure of the support of all Samoa; he had no following whatsoever. The name of every chief and village (with many that were new to the hearer) came up in turn, to be dubbed Laupepa, or Mata’afa, or both at the same time – or neither. Dr George Brown, the missionary, had just completed a tour of the islands. There are few men in the world with a more mature knowledge of native character, and I applied to him eagerly for an estimate of the relative forces. “When the first shot is fired, and not before,” said he, “you will know who is who.” The event has shown he might have gone yet further; for even after shots were fired and men slain, an important province was still hestitating and trimming.
Mata’afa lay in Malie. He had an armed picket at a ford some two miles from Apia, where they sat in a prodigious state of vigilance and glee; and his whole troop, although not above 500 strong, appeared animated with the most warlike spirit. For himself, as he had waited for two years; wrote eloquent letters, the time to answer which was quite gone by; and looked on while his enemies painfully collected their forces. Doubtless to the last he was assured and deceived by vain promises of help.
The process of gathering a royal army in Samoa is cumbrous and dilatory in the extreme. There is here none of the expedition of the fiery cross and the bale fire; but every step is diplomatic. Each village, with a great expense of eloquence, has to be wiled with promises and spurred by threats; and the greater chieftains make stipulations where they will march. Tamasese, son to the late German puppet and heir of his ambitions, demanded the vice-kingship as the price of his accession, though I am assured that he demanded it in vain. The various provinces returned various and unsatisfactory answers. Atua was off and on A’ana was on and off; Savai’i would not move; Tuamasaga was divided; Tutuila recalcitrant; and for long the king sat almost solitary under the windy palms of Mulinu’u. It seemed indeed as if the war was off, and the whole archipelago unanimous (in the native phrase) to sit still and plant taro.
But at last, in the first days of July, Atua began to come in. Boats arrived, thirty and fifty strong a drum and a very ill-played bugle giving time to the oarsmen, the whole crew uttering at intervals a savage howl; and on the decked foresheets of the boat the village champion (the taupou), frantically capering and dancing. Parties were to be seen encamped in palm groves with their rifles stacked. The shops were emptied of red handkerchiefs, the rallying sign or (as a man might say) the uniform of the Royal Army. There was spirit shown; troops of handsome lads marched in a right manly fashion, with their guns on their shoulders, to the music of the drum and the bugle or the tin whistle. From a hamlet close to my own doors a contingent of six men marched out. Their leader’s kit contained one stick of tobacco, four boxes of matches, and the inevitable red handkerchief; in his case it was of silk, for he had come late to the purchasing, and the commoner materials were exhausted. This childish band of braves marched one afternoon to a neighbouring hill, and the same night returned to their homes on the ground that it was `uncomfortable’ in the bush. An excellent old fellow, who had had enough of war in many campaigns, took refuge in my service from the conscription; but in vain. The village had decided no warrior might hang back. One summoner arrived; and then followed some negotiations – I have no authority to say what; enough that the messenger departed and our friend remained. But, alas! a second envoy followed and proved to be of sterner composition; and with a basket full of food, kava, and tobacco, the reluctant hero proceeded to the wars. I am sure they had few handsomer soldiers, if, perhaps, some that were more willing. And he would have been better to be armed. His gun – but in Mr Kipling’s pleasant catchword, that is another story.
War, to the Samoan of mature years, is often an unpleasant necessity. To the young boy it is a heaven of immediate pleasures, as well as an opportunity of ultimate glory. Women march with the troops, even the Taupou-sa or Sacred Maid of the village, accompanies her father in the field to carry cartridges and bring him water to drink; and their bright eyes are ready to `rain influence’ and reward valour. To what grim deeds this practice may conduct I shall have to say later on. In the rally of their arms it is at least wholly pretty; and I have one pleasant picture of a war party marching out, the men armed and boastful, their heads bound with the red handkerchief, their faces blacked – and two girls marching in their midst under European parasols.
On Saturday, July 8, by the early morning, the troops began to file westward from Apia, and about noon found themselves face to face with the lines of Mata’afa in the German plantation of Vaitele. The armies immediately fraternized, kava was made by the ladies, as who should say tea, at home, and partaken by the braves with many truculent expressions. One chief on the king’s side, revolted by the extent of these familiarities, began to beat his followers with a staff. But both parties were still intermingled between the lines, and the chiefs on either side conversing, and even embracing, at the moment when an accidental, or perhaps a treacherous shot precipitated the engagement. I cannot find there was any decisive difference in the numbers of actually under fire; but the Mataafas appear to have been ill-posted and ill-led. Twice their flank was turned, their line enfiladed, and themselves driven with a loss of about thirty, from two successive cattle walls. A third wall afforded them a more effectual shelter, and night closed on the field of battle without further advantage. All night the Royal troops hailed volleys of bullets, at this obstacle. With the earliest light, a charge proved it to be quite deserted, and from further down the coast smoke was seen rising from the houses of Malie. Mata’afa had precipitately fled, destroying behind him the village which, for two years he had been raising and beautifying.
So much was accomplished: what was to follow? Mata’afa took refuge in Manono, and cast up forts. His enemies, far from following up this advantage, held fonos and made speeches and found fault. I believe the majority of the king’s army had marched in a state of continuous indecision, and maintaining an attitude of impartiality more to be admired in the cabinet of the philosopher than in the field of war. It is certain at least that only one province has as yet fired a shot for Malietoa Laupepa. The valour of the Tuamasaga was sufficient, and prevailed. But Atua was in the rear, and has as yet done nothing. As for the men of A’ana, so far from carrying out the plan agreed upon, and blocking the men of Malie, on the morning of the 8th they were entertaining an embassy from Mata’afa, and they suffered his fleet of boats to escape without a shot through certain dangerous narrows of the lagoon, and the chief himself to pass on foot and unmolested along the whole foreshore of their province. No adequate excuse has been made for this half-heartedness – or treachery. It was a piece of the whole, which was a specimen. There are too many strings in a Samoan intrigue for the merely European mind to follow and the desire to serve upon both sides, and keep a door open for reconciliation was manifest almost throughout. A week passed in these divided councils. Savai’i had refused to receive Mata’afa it is said they hesitated to rise for the King, and demanded instead a fono (or council) of both sides. And it seemed at least possible that the Royal army might proreed no further, and the unstable allianres be dissolved.
On Sunday, the 16th, her British Majesty’s ship Katoomba, Captain Bickford, C.M.G., arrived in Apia with fresh orders. Had she but come ten days earlier, the whole of this miserable business would have been prevented, for the three Powers were determined to maintain Malietoa Laupepa by arms and had declared finally against Mataafa. Right or wrong, it was at least a decision, and therefore welcome. It may not have been the best – it was something. No honest friend to Samoa can pretend anything but relief that the three Powers should at last break their vacillating silence. It is of a piece with their whole policy in the islands that they should have hung in stays for upwards of two years – of a piece with their almost uniform ill-fortune that, eight days before their purposes was declared, war should have marked the country with burned houses and severed heads.
There is another side to the medal of Samoan warfare. So soon as an advantage is obtained, a new and (to us) horrible animal appears upon the scene – the Head-hunter. Again and again we have reasoned with our boys against this bestial practice; but reason and (upon this one point) even ridicule are vain. They admit it to be indefensible; they allege its imperative necessity. One young man, who had seen his father take a head in the late war, spoke of the scene with shuddering revolt, and yet said he must go and do likewise himself in the war which was to come. How else could a man prove that he was brave? And had not every country its own customs?
Accordingly, as the occasion offered, these same pleasing children who had just been drinking kava with their opponents, fell incontinently on the dead and dying and secured their grisly trophies. It should be said in fairness, that the Mata’afas had no opportunity to take heads, but that their chief, taught by the lesson of Fagali’i, had forbidden the practice. It is doubtful if he would have been obeyed, and yet his power over his people was so great that the German plantation, where they lay some time and were at last defeated, had not to complain of the theft of a single coconut. Hateful as it must always be to mutilate and murder the disabled, there were in this day’s affray in Vaitele circumstances yet more detestable. Fifteen heads were brought in all to Mulinu’u. They were carried with parade in front of the fine house which our late President built for himself before he was removed. Here, on the verandah, the king sat to receive them, and utter the words of course and compliment to each successful warrior. There were spolia opima in the number. Mata’afa’s nephew – or, as Samoans say, his son – had fallen by the first wall, and whether from those sentiments of kindred and friendship that so often unite the combatants in civil strife, or to make by an unusual formality the importance of the conquest, not only his head, but his mutilated body also, was brought in. from the mat in which the corpse was enveloped a bloody hand protruded and struck a chill in white eye-witnesses. It were to attribute to Laupepa sentiments entirely foreign to his race and training if we were to suppose him otherwise than gratified.
But it was not so throughout. Every country has its customs, say native apologists, and one of the most decisive customs of Samoa ensures the immunity of women. They go to the front, as our women of yore went to a tournament. Bullets are blind; and they must take their risk of bullets, but of nothing else. They serve out cartridges and water; they jeer the faltering and defend the wounded. Even in this skirmish of Vaitele they distinguished themselves on either side. One dragged her skulking husband from a hole and drove him to the front. Another, seeing her lover fall, snatched up his gun, kept the headhunters at bay, and drew him unmutilated from the field. Such services they have been accustomed to pay for centuries; and often, in the course of centuries, a bullet or a spear must have despatched one of these warlike angels. Often enough too, the head-hunter springing ghoul-like on fallen bodies, must have decapitated a woman for a man. But the case arising, there was an established etiquette. So soon as the error was discovered the head was buried, and the exploit forgotten. There had never yet, in the history of Samoa, occurred an instance in which a man had taken a woman’s head and kept it and laid it at his monarch’s feet.
Such was the strange and horrid spectacle, which must have immediately shaken the heart of Laupepa, and has since covered the face of his party with confusion. It is not quite certain if there were three or only two; a recent attempt to reduce the number to one must be received with caution as an afterthought, the admissions in the beginning were too explicit, the panic of shame and fear had been too sweeping. There is scarce a woman of our native friends in Apia who can speak upon the subject without terror; scarce any man without humiliation. And the shock was increased out of measure by the fact that the head of one of the heads was recognized for the niece of one of the greatest of court ladies; recognized for a Taupou-sa, or Sacred Maid of a village, from Savai’i. It seemed incredible that she who had been chosen for virtue and beauty, by vigil and duennas, whose part it was, in holiday costume, to receive guests, to make kava, and to be the leader of the revels – should become the victim of a brutal rally in a cowpark, and have her face exposed for a trophy to the victorious king.
In all this muttering of aversion and alarm, no word has been openly said. No punishment, no disgrace has been inflicted on the prepetrators of the outrage. King, consuls and mission appear to have held their peace alike. I can understand a certain apathy in whites. Head-hunting, they say, is a horrid practice; and will not stop to investigate its finer shades. But the Samoan himself does not hesitate; for him the act is portentous; and if it go unpunished, and set a fashion its consequences must be damnable. This is not a breach of a Christian virtue, of something half-learned by rote and from foreigners in the last thirty years. It is a flying in the face of their own native, instinctive and traditional standard: tenfold more ominous and degrading. And, taking the matter for all in all, it seems to me that head-hunting itself should be firmly and immediately suppressed. “How else can a man prove himself brave?” my friend asked. But often enough these are but fraudulent trophies. On the morrow of the fight at Vaitele, an Atua man discovered a body lying in the bush, he took the head. A day or two ago a party was allowed to visit Manono. The king’s troops on shore, observing them to put off from the rebel island, leaped to the conclusion that this must be the wounded going to Apia, launched off at once two armed boats, and overhauled the others – after heads. Theglory of such exploits is not apparent; their powers for degradation strikes the eyes. Lieutenant Ulfsparre, our late Swedish Chief of Police and commander of the forces, told his men that if any of them took a head his own hand should avenge it. That was talking. I should like to see all in the same store – king, consuls, and missionaries included.
The three Powers have at last taken hold here in Apia. But they came the day after the fair; and the immediate business on hand is very delicate. This morning, 18th, Captain Bickford, followed by the two Germans, sailed for Manono. If he shall succeed in persuading Mata’afa to surrender, all may be well. If he cannot, this long train of blunders may end in what is so often the result of blundering in the field of politics – a horrid massacre. Those of us who remember the services of Mata’afa, his unfailing generosity and moderation in the past, and his bereavement in the present – as well as those who are only interested in a mass of men and women many of them our familiar friends, now pent up on an island and beleaguered by three warships and a Samoan army – await the issue with dreadful expectation.
(The Pall Mall Budget, 1893)