A hurried glance, from a European stand-point, has caused many passing visitors to conclude that the Samoans had nothing whatever in the shape of government or laws. In sailing along the coast of any island of the group, you can hardly discern anything but one uninterrupted mass of bush and vegetation, from the beach to the top of the mountains; but, on landing, and minutely inspecting place after place, you find villages, plantations, roads, and boundary walls, in all directions along the coast. It is the same with their political aspect. It is not until you have landed, lived among the people, and for years closely inspected their movements, that you can form a correct opinion of the exact state of affairs. To any one acquainted with the aborigines of various parts of the world, and especially those of the Papuan groups in Western Polynesia, the simple fact that the Samoans have had but one dialect, and free intercourse with each other all over the group, is proof positive that there must have long existed there some system of government.

A good deal of order was maintained by the union of two things, viz. civil power and superstitious fear.

I. As to the first of these, their government had, and still has, more of the patriarchal and democratic in it, than of the monarchical. Take a village, containing a population, say, of three to five hundred, and there will probably be found there from ten to twenty titled heads of families, and one of the higher rank called chiefs. The titles of the heads of families are not hereditary. The son may succeed to the title which his father had, but it may be given to an uncle, or a cousin, and sometimes the son is passed over, and the title given, by common consent, to a perfect stranger, merely for the sake of drawing him in, to increase the numerical strength of the family. What I now call a family is a combined group of sons, daughters, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, etc., and may number fifty individuals. They have one large house, as a common rendezvous, and for the reception of visitors, and four or five other houses, all near each other.

The chiefs, on the other hand, are a most select class, whose pedigree is traced most carefully in the traditionary genealogies to the ancient head of some particular clan. One is chosen to bear the title, but there may be other individuals, who trace their origin to the same stock, call themselves chiefs too, and any of whom may succeed to the title on the death of the one who bears it. A chief, before he dies, may name some one to succeed him, but the final decision rests with the heads of families as to which of the members of the chief family shall have the title and be regarded as the village chief. In some cases the greater part of a village is composed of parties who rank as chiefs, but, as a general rule, it consists of certain families of the more common order, which we have just mentioned, and some titled chief, to whom the village looks up as their political head and protector. It is usual, in the courtesies of common conversation, for all to call each other chiefs. If you listen to the talk of little boys even, you will hear them addressing each other as chief this, that, and the other thing. Hence, I have heard a stranger remark, that the difficulty in Samoa is, not to find who is a chief, but to find out who is a common man.

As the chief can call to his aid, in any emergency, other chiefs connected with the same ancient stock from which he has sprung, and as he looks upon the entire village as his children, and feels bound to avenge their wrongs, it is thought essential to have some such head in every settlement. If anything in the clubbing way is to be done, no one but the chief, or his brother, or his son, dare do it. With few exceptions, he moves about, and shares in every-day employments, just like a common man. He goes out with the fishing party, works in his plantation, helps at house-building, and lends a hand at the native oven. There are still, however, although not at first sight to a European eye, well-defined marks of his chieftainship. If you listen to the conversation of the people, or attend a meeting of the heads of families for any village business, you hear that he is addressed with such formalities as might be translated into our English Earl, Duke, Prince, or King So-and-so; and, instead of the plebeian you, it is, your Highness, your Grace, your Lordship, or your Majesty. When the ava-bowl is filled, and the cup of friendship sent round, the first cup is handed to him. The turtle, too, the best joint, and anything choice, is sure to be laid before the chief. Then again, if he wishes to marry, the heads of families vie with each other in supplying him with all that is necessary to provide for the feasting, and other things connected with the ceremonies. He, on the other hand, has to give them ample compensation for all this, by distributing among them the fine mats which he gets as the dowry by his bride. A chief is careful to marry only in the family of a chief, and hence he has, by his wife, a portion worthy of the rank of a chief's daughter. To some extent, these heads of families are the bankers of the chief. His fine mats almost all go to them, and other property too. They, again, are ready with a supply whenever he wishes to draw upon them, whether for fine mats, food, or other property.

No lover of money was ever fonder of gold than a Samoan was of his fine mats. Hence the more wives the chief wished to have, the better the heads of families liked it, as every marriage was a fresh source of fine mat gain. To such an extent was this carried on, that one match was hardly over before another was in contemplation. If it did not originate with the chief, the heads of families would be concocting something, and marking out the daughter of some one as the object of the next fine mat speculation. The chief would yield to them, have the usual round of ceremonies, but without the remotest idea of living with that person as his wife. In this way a chief, in the course of his lifetime, might be married well on to fifty times; he would not, however, probably have more than two living with him at the same time. As the heads of families were on the look-out to have the sons and daughters of the chief married as often as they could also, it can be imagined that the main connecting links between the heads of families and their chief, and that which marked him out most prominently as a superior, was this marriage, or rather polygamy business.

The land in Samoa is owned alike by the chiefs and these heads of families. The land belonging to each family is well known, and the person who, for the time being, holds the title of the family head, has the right to dispose of it. It is the same with the chiefs. There are certain tracts of bush or forest land which belong to them. The uncultivated bush is sometimes claimed by those who own the land on its borders. The lagoon also, as far as the reef, is considered the property of those off whose village it is situated. Although the power of selling land, and doing other things of importance affecting all the members of the family, is vested in the titled head of the family, yet the said responsible party dare not do anything without formally consulting all concerned. Were he to persist in attempting to do otherwise, they would take his title from him, and give it to another. The members of a family can thus take the title from their head, and heads of families can unite and take the title from their chief, and give it to his brother, or uncle, or some other member of the chief family, who, they think, will act more in accordance with their wishes.

The chief of the village and the heads of families formed the legislative body of the place, and the common court of appeal in all cases of difficulty. One of these heads of families was the sort of Prime Minister of the chief. It was his special business to call a meeting, and it was also his province to send notice to the other heads of families, on the arrival of a party of strangers, and to say what each was to provide towards entertaining hospitably the village guests. Having no written language, of course they had no written laws; still, as far back as we can trace, they had well understood laws for the prevention of theft, adultery, assault, and murder, together with many other minor things, such as disrespectful language to a chief, calling him a pig, for instance, rude behaviour to strangers, pulling down a fence, or maliciously cutting a fruit-tree. Nor had they only the mere laws; the further back we go in their history, we find that their penalties were all the more severe. Death was the usual punishment for murder and adultery; and, as the injured party was at liberty to seek revenge on the brother, son, or any member of the family to which the guilty party belonged, these crimes were all the more dreaded and rare. In a case of murder, the culprit, and all belonging to him, fled to some other village of the district, or perhaps to another district; in either case it was a city of refuge. While they remained away, it was seldom any one dared to pursue them, and risk hostilities with the village which protected them. They might hear, however, that their houses had been burned, their plantations and land taken from them, and they themselves prohibited, by the united voice of the chief and heads of families, from ever again returning to the place. Fines of large quantities of food, which provided a feast for the entire village, were common; but there were frequently cases in which it was considered right to make the punishment fall exclusively on the culprit himself. For adultery, the eyes were sometimes taken out or the nose and ears bitten off. I was called into a house one day to doctor the nose of a young dame who had just suffered from the incisors of a jealous woman. A story is told of a husband and wife who made up their minds to end their jealousies by a separation. When all was ready, and the woman was about to leave the house with her share of the mat and other property, she said to the man: "Now, let us again salute noses and part in peace." The simpleton yielded, but instead of the friendly touch and smell, the vixen fastened on to the poor fellow's gnomon, and disfigured him for life.

For other crimes they had some such punishments as tying the hands of the culprit behind his back, and marching him along naked, something like the ancient French law of "amende honorable;" or, tying him hand to hand and foot to foot, and then carrying him suspended from a prickly pole run through between the tied hands and feet, and laying him down before the family or village against whom he had transgressed, as if he were a pig to be killed and cooked; compelling the culprit to sit naked for hours in the broiling sun; to be hung up by the heels; or to beat the head with stones till the face was covered with blood; or to play at handball with the prickly sea-urchin; or to take five bites of a pungent root, which was like filling the mouth five times with cayenne pepper. It was considered cowardly to shrink from the punishment on which the village court might decide, and so the young man would go boldly forward, sit down before the chiefs, bite the root five times, get up and walk away with his mouth on fire.

If two families in a village quarrelled, and wished to fight, the other heads of families and the chief stepped in and forbad; and it was at the peril of either party to carry on the strife contrary to the decided voice of public opinion.

These village communities, of from two to five hundred people, considered themselves perfectly distinct from each other, quite independent, and at liberty to act as they pleased on their own ground, and in their own affairs.

Then, again, these villages, in numbers of eight or ten, united by common consent, and formed a district, or state, for mutual protection. Some particular village was known as the capital of the district; and it was common to have a higher chief than any of the rest, as the head of that village, and who bore the title of King. Just as in the individual villages the chief and heads of families united in suppressing strife when two parties quarrelled, so it was in the event of a disturbance between any two villages of the district, the combined chiefs and heads of families of all the other villages united in forbidding strife. When war was threatened by another district, no single village acted alone; the whole district, or state, assembled at their capital, and had a special parliament to deliberate as to what should be done.

These meetings were held out of doors. The heads of families were the orators and members of parliament. The kings and chiefs rarely spoke. The representatives of each village had their known places, where they sat, under the shade of bread-fruit trees, and formed groups all round the margin of an open space, called the malæ (or forum), a thousand feet in circumference. Strangers from all parts might attend; and on some occasions there were two thousand people and upwards at these parliamentary gatherings. The speaker stood up when he addressed the assembly, laid over his shoulder his fly-flapper, or badge of office similar to what is seen on some ancient Egyptian standards. He held before him a staff six feet long, and leaned forward on it as he went on with his speech. A Samoan orator did not let his voice fall, but rather gradually raised it, so that the last word in a sentence was the loudest. It is the province of the head village to have the opening or king's speech, and to keep order in the meeting; and it was the particular province of another to reply to it, and so they went on. To a stranger the etiquette and delay connected with such meetings was tiresome in the extreme. When the first speaker rose, other heads of families belonging to his village, to the number of ten or twenty, rose up, too, as if they all wished to speak. This was to show to the assembly that the heads of families were all at their post, and who they were. They talked among themselves for a while, and it ended in one after another sitting down, after having passed on his right to speak to another. It was quite well known, in most cases, who was to speak, but they must have this preliminary formality about it. At last, after an hour or more all had sat down but the one who was to speak; and, laden by them with the responsibility of speaking, he commenced. He was not contented with a mere word of salutation, such as, "Gentlemen," but he must, with great minuteness, go over the names and titles, and a host of ancestral references, of which they were proud. Another half-hour was spent with this. Up to this time conversation went on freely all round the meeting; but whenever he came to the point of his address, viz., the object of the meeting and an opinion on it, all was attention. After the first speech, it was probably mid-day, and then food was brought in. The young men and women of the family, decked off in their best, came in a string of ten or twenty to their chief, each carrying something, and, naming him, said it was food for him. He told them to take it to So-and-so, and then they marched off to that chief, and said that it was food from such a one. This person would return the compliment by-and-by, and in this way there was, for hours, a delightful flow of friendship all over the place. On such occasions parties who had been living at variance had a fine opportunity of showing kindness to each other. Amid all this feasting the speechifying went on. As the debate advanced, the interest increased. They generally broke up at sundown; but if it was something of unusual interest and urgency, they went on speechifying in the dark, or in the moonlight, and might not adjourn till long after midnight. Unless all were pretty much agreed, nothing was done. They were afraid to thwart even a small minority.

Throughout the Samoan group there were, in all, ten of these separate districts such as I have described. In war some of the districts remained neutral, and of those engaged in the strife there might be two against one, or three against five, or, as in a late prolonged war, five against two. The district which was conquered, was exposed to the taunts and overbearing of their conquerors. But a subdued district seldom remained many years with the brand of "conquered." They were up and at it as soon as they had a favourable opportunity, and were probably themselves in turn the conquerors.

II. But I hasten to notice the second thing which I have already remarked was an auxiliary towards the maintenance of peace and order in Samoa, viz. superstitious fear. If the chief and heads of families, in their court of inquiry into any case of stealing, or other concealed matter, had a difficulty in finding out the culprit, they would make all involved swear that they were innocent. In swearing before the chiefs the suspected parties laid a handful of grass on the stone, or whatever it was, which was supposed to be the representative of the village god, and, laying their hand on it, would say, "In the presence of our chiefs now assembled, I lay my hand on the stone. If I stole the thing may I speedily die." This was a common mode of swearing. The meaning of the grass was a silent additional imprecation that his family might all die, and that grass might grow over their habitation. If all swore, and the culprit was still undiscovered, the chiefs then wound up the affair by committing the case to the village god, and solemnly invoking him to mark out for speedy destruction the guilty mischief-maker.

But, instead of appealing to the chiefs, and calling for an oath, many were contented with their own individual schemes and imprecations to frighten thieves and prevent stealing. When a man went to his plantation and saw that some cocoa-nuts, or a bunch of bananas, had been stolen, he would stand and shout at the top of his voice two or three times, "May fire blast the eyes of the person who has stolen my bananas! May fire burn down his eyes and the eyes of his god too!" This rang throughout the adjacent plantations, and made the thief tremble. They dreaded such uttered imprecations. Others cursed more privately when a thing was stolen, and called in the aid of a priest. In common disputes also, affecting the veracity of each other, it was customary for the one to say to the other, "Touch your eyes, if what you say is true." If he touched his eyes, the dispute was settled. It was as if he had said, "May I be cursed with blindness if it is not true what I say." Or the doubter would say to his opponent, "Who will eat you? Say the name of your god." He whose word was doubted would then name the household god of his family, as much as to say, "May god So-and-so destroy me, if what I have said is not true." Or the person whose word was doubted might adopt the more expressive course still of taking a stick and digging a hole in the ground, which was as if he said, "May I be buried immediately if what I say is not true." But there was another and more extensive class of curses, which were also feared, and formed a powerful check on stealing, especially from plantations and fruit-trees, viz. the silent hieroglyphic taboo, or tapui (tapooe), as they call it. Of this there was a great variety, and the following are specimens: -

1. The sea-pike taboo. - If a man wished that a sea-pike might run into the body of the person who attempted to steal, say, his bread-fruits, he would plait some cocoa-nut leaflets in the form of a sea-pike, and suspend it from one or more of the trees which he wished to protect. Any ordinary thief would be terrified to touch a tree from which this was suspended, he would expect that the next time he went to the sea, a fish of the said description would dart up and mortally wound him.

2. The white shark taboo was another object of terror to a thief. This was done by plaiting a cocoa-nut leaf in the form of a shark, adding fins, etc., and this they suspended from the tree. It was tantamount to an expressed imprecation, that the thief might be devoured by the white shark the next time he went to fish.

3. The cross-stick taboo. - This was a piece of any sort of stick suspended horizontally from the tree. It expressed the wish of the owner of the tree, that any thief touching it might have a disease running right across his body, and remaining fixed there till he died.

4. The ulcer taboo. - This was made by burying in the ground some pieces of clam-shell, and erecting at the spot three or four reeds, tied together at the top in a bunch like the head of a man. This was to express the wish and prayer of the owner that any thief might be laid down with ulcerous sores all over his body. If a thief transgressed, and had any subsequent swellings or sores, he confessed, sent a present to the owner of the land, and he, in return, sent back some native herb, as a medicine, and a pledge of forgiveness.

5. The tic-doloureux taboo. - This was done by fixing a spear in the ground close by the trees which the owner wished to guard. It was expressive of a wish that the thief might suffer from the face and head agonies of the disease just named.

6. The death taboo. - This was made by pouring some oil into a small calabash, and burying it near the tree. The spot was marked by a little hillock of white sand. The sight of one of these places was also effectual in scaring away a thief.

7. The rat taboo. - This was a small cocoa-nut leaf basket, filled with ashes from the cooking-house, and two or three small stones, and suspended from the tree. It signified a wish that rats might eat holes in the fine mats of the thief, and destroy any cloth, or other property which he might value.

8. The thunder taboo. - If a man wished that lightning might strike any who should steal from his land, he would plait some cocoa-nut leaflets in the form of a small square mat, and suspend it from a tree, with the addition of some white streamers of native cloth flying. A thief believed that if he trespassed he, or some of his children, might be struck with lightning, or, perhaps his own trees struck and blasted from the same cause. They were not, however, in the habit of talking about the effects of lightning. It was the thunder they thought did the mischief; hence they called that to which I have just referred, the thundertaboo.

From these few illustrations it will be observed that Samoa formed no exception to the remarkably widespread system of superstitious taboo; and the extent to which it preserved honesty and order among a heathen people will be readily imagined. At the present day the belief in the power of these rude hieroglyphics is not yet eradicated. In passing along you still see something with streamers flying, dangling from a tree in one place, a basket suspended in another, and some reeds erect in a third. The sickness, too, and dying hours of some hardened thief still bring out confessions of his guilt. Facts such as these which have just been enumerated still further show the cruelties of the reign of superstition, and exhibit, in striking contrast, the better spirit and the purer precepts taught by that blessed volume which is now received, read, and practised by many in Samoa. In days of heathenism there was no good rendered for evil there, and the only prayers for injurers and enemies were curses for their hurt and destruction.