Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before

By George Turner

Something of a history book, George Turner offers his observations of the traditions, beliefs, behaviors, and routines of Samoan people sometime around 1880-90 (ish). He describes everything from the geography of the island chain (including American Samoa which was, at the time of publication, part of the country of Samoa instead of a U.S. territory) and the political and decision-making systems of village and district chiefs down to common foods (and how to prepare them) and attire for day-to-day use as well as special events. He even delves into the creation myths from indigenous gods and belief systems, and also the stories behind the names of various islands and villages. If it can be observed and written about by a white guy, Turner documents it.

“Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before” is organized in a straightforward fashion without any preamble, probably similar to other writing at the time of publication (I haven’t read many documents from 1880-90, so it’s hard for me to compare). Each chapter is titled with an entirely self-explanatory heading, and subheadings indicate the specific topic to be addressed in the following paragraph. Chapters are fairly short, which makes it easier to put down and pick up the book for bite-sized reading. Differences in grammar and sentence length sometimes make it difficult to follow the topic of a sentence, which can make it hard to find flow when reading (but certainly make for interesting meta-analysis of the writing and content!).

I read this book mainly because I am an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from Samoa and wanted to know more about the pre-missionary history of Samoa, and partly because the recently released “Moana” movie addresses myths and gods with which I was unfamiliar from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Clearly, my knowledge of Samoa has gaping holes. I found answers to some of my questions, and was particularly fascinated by the chapters detailing the histories of island and village names (to the point of feeling giddy and making exclamations out loud while reading the origin stories). Much of the book I read with a grain of salt because Turner writes with a colonial attitude toward the Samoan natives, frequently referring to their “heathen” behavior. If your interests fall within the very specific range of material addressed in this book, then it is worth the read. For the general public, probably not.

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