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No. 20 (November 1957)
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The welcome ceremony of the Samoans. (nps photograph)

The early independence of Western Samoa will be a milestone in Polynesian history. Professor J. W. Davidson of the Australian National University, Canberra, one-time administrator in Samoa, has specially written this authoritative account of Samoan leadership and political development for our journal. The second instalment will be published in our Christmas issue.



Whenever men act together, certain individuals occupy positions of particular importance. These are the men who advocate definite policies of action or serve as spokesmen for a group of followers, who take decisions on behalf of all and bear responsibility for what is done. They supply the element of leadership which is essential to group activity.

In major public activities … whether political, economic, social, or religious … the sources of the leaders's authority are varied and complex. In part, they are derived from personal talent, temperament, and training. But in part, also, they are determined by tradition, which gives sanction to certain kinds of leadership and, in many cases,

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Chief's daughters lead parties bringing gifts from the villages to prominent visitors. The distinctive head-dress (tuiga) is emblematic of their rank and status. It is made of human hair. They are carrying hooked beheading knives. (nps photograph)

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by the long accepted responsibilities of particular classes and of persons with a particular status. The functions of leadership are generally performed most effectively where the factors of tradition or convention are combined with those of personal suitability. A leader who owes his position entirely to the former factors is likely to be unimaginative, ill-informed, and out of touch with the times. On the other hand, one whose position is a result only of his personal exertions, and whose conduct is not guided by a settled convention, is liable to the defects of over-ambition and of resort to trickery to maintain his power. An excessive conservatism in leadership tends to precipitate the overthrow of existing leaders and their replacement by very different men, who may have little to offer but their demagogic persuasiveness. The new leaders, in their turn, produce a renewed mood of conservatism less firmly rooted in tradition, when people have become disillusioned by their unfulfilled promises and by the decay of order.

This problem of leadership is an especially pressing one among peoples who have come in recent times into contact with Western civilisation. New forms of leadership are necessary when a people is remodelling its way of life in accordance with new needs and opportunities and when individuals have gained fresh means of advancement through the spread of Christianity and education and the growth of a commercial economy. Among many peoples, the old leaders…whether chiefs, or priests, or landlords…have failed to adapt their position to changing times and have lost their authority. Those who have replaced them have often shown a superior understanding of what is required. But abrupt change, in these circumstances, cannot be made without loss. People who are struggling to adapt themselves to the conditions brought about by contact with Western civilization stand in special need of the support which only their own culture and traditions can give them.

In this respect, the situation in Samoa is of particular interest. The men who are providing leadership at the present time are fully in touch with the problems of the modern world; but their authority is exercised in ways broadly consistent with long-standing tradition.


The basic unit of Samoan social organization was the lineage, or ‘clan’, whose members traced their origin to a common ancestor. Its leader was the matai, the holder of a title conferred by the group on one of its members. In the course of time, such groups sub-divided; and new titles were created for the various sections of the lineage. One consequence of this process has been the gradual differentiation between major and minor titles. Those which can be traced back to the earlier history of the lineage have more standing than newer titles created during the later stages of segmentation. In addition, of course, other factors have helped to give special standing to certain titles and families; inter marriage with other important families; successful alliances in time of war; or the outstanding leadership of individuals. In these ways, the traditional structure of Samoan society was formed. At its apex, were the leaders of the Tupua and Malietoa families, able to represent, in terms of social status, large sections of

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These placards were displayed everywhere in Samoa during the United Nations Mission in 1947 when self-government for the Samoans was just about to be granted. (nps photograph)

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the Samoan people. Only a little less important were several other families, whose leaders have from time to time emerged as national figures. Below them, were a great number of matai, with varying degrees of standing. Some were entitled to recognition as leaders in their districts; others had an important voice in the affairs of their villages, while the holders of a great many minor titles had influence mainly within their own family groups. This account represents the situation only in a very elementary way. For reasons of space, I have made no mention of the differences in status and functions between the two classes of matai titles, those of chiefs and orators; nor have I touched on the considerable differences between district and district. These matters do not, however, materially affect the argument of this article.

Administratively, the basic unit in Samoa was the “village” community (which might, in fact, consist of several separate hamlets or a single settlement). The village was controlled by a fono (or council) of the local matai. They made decisions on matters of common concern, arranged for village works to be undertaken, received visitors, and punished offenders. Most importantly, they protected the proper balance between the various family groups constituting the village. Thus, a matai who was seeking to increase his own influence and that of his family by actions of a presumptuous or aggressive character, would be severely dealt with…generally by the temporary exclusion of the family from participation in village affairs. Similarly, any individual who harmed the status of a matai…for example, by openly flirting with his wife…would be punished with special severity. Apart from the matai, the other principal groups in the village (untitled men, wives of matai, unmarried women, etc.) had their own organisations, which were concerned both with purely social activities and with the performance of the common duties they owed to the village as a whole.

Above the village level, Samoan society was organised on similar lines, but functions were, in fact, more limited. For example, the fono of a district would be concerned with alliances in times of war and with matters such as disputes between the holders of major district titles. Indeed, both in regard to individual matai and to councils, the higher one went the more one became concerned with matters of status and ceremonial and the less with those of administration. The individual matai, for example, had a more or less unfettered control of the affairs of his own family. In the village fono, if his title were of adequate standing, there were many things he could get done, but he had to be more careful to observe the conventions. At the district level, the important title meant more in terms of formal recognition of status than in those of actual authority. And, at the highest level of all, when there was a tafa'ifa (or king) in Samoa…which was rarely…his position had to be defined in terms of supreme status alone.

This social and political system was suited to the conditions in which it had grown up. For centuries, after the defeat of the Tongan invaders of an earlier period, Samoa was not threatened from outside. Internally, there were no forces at work to produce profound social change. The high degree of decentralisation of control was, thus, appropriate; and the preoccupation of Samoan leaders with the maintenance of a delicate balance in matters of family and district prestige was conducive to the preservation of order. But, with the arrival of Europeans in Samoa in the nineteenth century, the political needs of the country were greatly changed.


Missionaries and traders came to Samoa from about 1830 onwards. Whaling vessels began to anchor in Apia harbour, to give their crews a rest and to obtain supplies. Later, settlers came in search of land on which to establish plantations. The Governments of Britain, the United States, Germany and France, sent their naval vessels to Samoa from time to time, to support the claims of their nationals who were living there; and the first three of these Powers established permanent consulates at Apia.

All these changes affected Samoan society. Individual Samoans gained influence by ways unknown to tradition: by holding office in a mission (as pastor, catechist, or deacon); by ability to speak the English language; or through the possession of money. High chiefs promoted the interests of their title and their family with the backing of European supporters. At the same time, the political structure of the country began to be modified, so that it could deal with the new demands that were made upon it. A central Government was formed to control relations between Samoans and Europeans and to represent Samoa in negotiations with consuls and naval officers.

For a variety of reasons, those changes did not take place smoothly. The Samoan Government, in particular, was never fully effective; and political control in Western Samoa passed first to Germany in 1900 and then in 1914 to New Zealand. But these nineteenth century developments began a process of change which has in more recent years, enabled a new generation of Samoan leaders to emerge, with both the knowledge and the prestige required to tackle successfully the problems of the twentieth century.

(to be continued)