But the obligation was only moral; it could not be, or was not, enforced; as a matter of fact, it was disregarded. The language had recently to borrow from the Tahitians a word for debt; while by a significant excidence, it possessed a native expression for the failure to pay--"to omit to make a return for property begged." Conceive now the position of the householder besieged by harpies, and all defence denied him by the laws of honour. The sacramental gesture of refusal, his last and single resource, was supposed to signify "my house is destitute." Until that point was reached, in other words, the conduct prescribed for a Samoan was to give and to continue giving. But it does not appear he was at all expected to give with a good grace. The dictionary is well stocked with expressions standing ready, like missiles, to be discharged upon the locusts--"troop of shamefaced ones," "you draw in your head like a tern," "you make your voice small like a whistle-pipe," "you beg like one delirious"; and the verb pongitai, "to look cross," is equipped with the pregnant rider, "as at the sight of beggars."

This insolence of beggars and the weakness of proprietors can only be illustrated by examples. We have a girl in our service to whom we had given some finery, that she might wait at table, and (at her own request) some warm clothing against the cold mornings of the bush. She went on a visit to her family, and returned in an old tablecloth, her whole wardrobe having been divided out among relatives in the course of twenty-four hours. A pastor in the province of Atua, being a handy, busy man, bought a boat for a hundred dollars, fifty of which he paid down. Presently after, relatives came to him upon a visit and took a fancy to his new possession. "We have long been wanting a boat," said they. "Give us this one." So, when the visit was done, they departed in the boat. The pastor, meanwhile, travelled into Savaii the best way he could, sold a parcel of land, and begged mats among his other relatives, to pay the remainder of the price of the boat which was no longer his. You might think this was enough; but some months later, the harpies, having broken a thwart, brought back the boat to be repaired and repainted by the original owner.

Such customs, it might be argued, being double-edged, will ultimately right themselves. But it is otherwise in practice. Such folk as the pastor's harpy relatives will generally have a boat, and will never have paid for it; such men as the pastor may have sometimes paid for a boat, but they will never have one. It is there as it is with us at home: the measure of the abuse of either system is the blackness of the individual heart. The same man, who would drive his poor relatives from his own door in England, would besiege in Samoa the doors of the rich; and the essence of the dishonesty in either case is to pursue one's own advantage and to be indifferent to the losses of one's neighbour. But the particular drawback of the Polynesian system is to depress and stagger industry. To work more is there only to be more pillaged; to save is impossible. The family has then made a good day of it when all are filled and nothing remains over for the crew of free-booters; and the injustice of the system begins to be recognised even in Samoa. One native is said to have amassed a certain fortune; two clever lads have individually expressed to us their discontent with a system which taxes industry to pamper idleness; and I hear that in one village of Savaii a law has been passed forbidding gifts under the penalty of a sharp fine.

Under this economic regimen, the unpopularity of taxes, which strike all at the same time, which expose the industrious to a perfect siege of mendicancy, and the lazy to be actually condemned to a day's labour, may be imagined without words. It is more important to note the concurrent relaxation of all sense of property. From applying for help to kinsmen who are scarce permitted to refuse, it is but a step to taking from them (in the dictionary phrase) "without permission"; from that to theft at large is but a hair's-breadth.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

All Pages of This Book