The Wild Man of Samoa

By Kennedy, Joseph | Natural History, February 2004 | Go to article overview

The Wild Man of Samoa


Kennedy, Joseph, Natural History


A tale from the graveyard of strangers

This past summer an e-mail message reached my office in Honolulu from a friend in Pago Pago, on Tutuila Island, American Samoa. A relentless rainstorm, he informed me, had washed out the pile of stones that marked Malua's grave. He thought I'd want to know.

The story of Malua and his unusual life had only recently come down to me. I had been conducting an archaeological survey not far from Pago Pago when I stumbled onto his grave in a neglected cemetery. Samoans traditionally inter their loved ones close to their homes, rather than in a communal area, so I knew at the outset that the overgrown gravestones I was examining marked the lonely bones of people from somewhere else, a graveyard of strangers. Buried there were sailors from the days when the U.S. Navy administered Samoa, between 1900 and 1951. There were civilian sea captains, killed far from home when their ships ran aground on the reef. There was a blacksmith from New England, a former postmaster of Pago Pago who had been a veteran of the American Civil War, a murdered merchant marine, a woman who died en route to San Francisco, and various beachcombers and adventurers. Most of the markers I saw were concrete slabs, with the occasional cut-stone monument mixed in with the lot.

But tucked into one corner was an anonymous grave that looked quite different from all the rest. It was a simple rectangle of crudely mounded basalt rocks, a distinctive arrangement reminiscent of the way Samoans and other Polynesians marked their dead in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I wanted to know who occupied such a singular grave, and, if the person was indeed a Polynesian, why a South Sea Islander was lying among strangers.

All research involves a bit of luck, and I can hardly deny that good fortune came into play when I entered the American Samoa Archives with thoughts of the nearly impossible and emerged two hours later with a 1942 map of that very cemetery in hand. Six decades before, someone not only had taken the time to record all the grave locations and the names of the occupants but, whenever possible, had also thoughtfully added a brief narrative about the life or death of the deceased.

I took the map back to the cemetery and matched it with the mystery grave. It was plot number 5, occupied by one "Malua, Solomon Islander, the last of a boat crew that landed in Tutuila in 1884."

The Solomon Islands lie in Melanesia, some 2,000 miles west of Tutuila. How had Malua and his fellow crewmen made their voyage? Did they take a native vessel from their homeland and make a purposeful trip to the Samoan islands? Or were they fishermen blown off course, the survivors of an extraordinary ordeal at sea? What happened after they arrived? And what became of Malua's shipmates? With a date and a name, there was a chance that further investigation could yield some answers.

As it turned out, the story of Malua was so remarkable that it had been recorded in a now defunct local newspaper, O le Fa'atonu (Samoan for "to make correct"). Various contemporaries of Malua also chronicled his life: a commander in the U.S. Navy, a chap who took a "jaunt" through the South Seas in the early 1920s, a Mormon missionary, even the master storyteller (and intrepid Pacific traveler) Robert Louis Stevenson. Their accounts were far from complete or consistent, but with them I was able to piece together the basic elements of the story.

Politically, the Samoan archipelago is divided in two. The eastern islands make up the territory of American Samoa; the western islands constitute the independent nation of Samoa. In the 1880s a German firm controlled the production of copra (the dried flesh of the coconut) in the western islands, and was bringing in laborers for the plantations. Some were indentured workers, men who had signed up for a specified period. Others were "blackbirds," South Sea Islanders essentially kidnapped from their homes and forced to do the work. …

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