The Wild Man of Samoa
A tale from the Graveyard of Strangers - Field Notes by Joseph Kennedy, Ph.D.
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.
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.
More than a few of the men, both blackbirds and indentured laborers, came from the Melanesian islands. Among them was Malua. Whether he had been kidnapped or simply became dissatisfied with his lot, Malua, along with three or four companions, secretly built a crude raft and set sail from the island of Upolu, in the western Samoan islands, across a treacherous forty-mile-wide channel to Tutuila. Stevenson, who was a resident of Upolu at the time, described what followed in his book A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (1892):
There are still three runaways in the woods of Tutuila, whither they escaped upon a raft. And the Samoans regard these dark-skinned rangers with extreme alarm: the fourth refugee in Tutuila was shot down (as I was told in the island) while carrying off the virgin of a village; and tales of cannibalism run round the country, and the natives shudder about the evening fire.
Edwin Taylor Pollock, the governor of American Samoa in the early 1920s, provided a somewhat different summary of the adventurers' fate: "One was drowned or killed by a shark when trying to land, one died or was killed after trying to abduct a Samoan girl, another died presumably about 1910, and one remained in the hills."
But whatever became of the other escapees, Malua and one companion did retreat to the hills, where they began to take on legendary status. Some months later, Malua's companion either came down to the village of Aua on his own or else was captured and brought before the naval governor, Commander Benjamin Franklin Tilley. A later report, apparently based on Tilley's account, describes the man, never named, as "a complete savage" about forty-five years of age and in fear for his life. In a smattering of his own language mixed with German and English, he said he was terrified of the Samoans--yet he refused passage back home to the Solomon Islands. By this account, he feared he had long since been forgotten by his people and, as a stranger, would be killed and eaten.
What ultimately happened to this apprehensive fellow is unknown, but before he slipped into the darkness of history, he did tell everyone in the village that Malua was still alive and living somewhere in the deep recesses of the mountains. Malua became the "Wild Man" of Samoa, and along with that moniker came all the trappings and tears associated with the mysterious and sometimes dangerous men who "take to the hills."
The wild man, as a character type of one form or another, is so common in folklore and literature that he seems ingrained in human consciousness. Stories about a wild man--often envisioned as an unclothed man, hairy and incorrigible as a beast--were widespread in medieval Europe. He was known as Wodewose to the Anglo-Saxons, Schrat in Old High German literature, Salvan to the Lombards, Orken to the Romanians. In earlier incarnations he was Leshiy to the Russians, Enkidu in the Gilgamesh epic of Babylonia, the satyr figure in Greek mythology, and Grendel in Beowulf, the epic English poem from the eighth century. Such figures as the leaf-covered Green Man of the early Britons played essentially the same cultural role: though seemingly more vegetable than animal, they nonetheless embodied the wild.
Similar legends abound elsewhere in the world. In Tono Monogatari, a collection of folk tales from Japan's Iwate Prefecture, a wild man with golden eyes struck terror in the hearts of the local people. He was Nguoi Rung to the Vietnamese, Xueren to the Filipinos, Yeh-ren to the Chinese, and Yeti to the peoples of the Himalaya. In North America he became Sasquatch.
In nearly all his forms, the wild man is said to steal livestock, abduct children, or otherwise threaten the citizenry. So it is hardly surprising that, as a scapegoat for a host of human misfortunes, the wild man has been the object of organized, or at least ritualized, hunts and executions. Various rural communities in Germany, for instance, held traditional enactments in which a local inhabitant was dressed to represent a wild man, sometimes in moss and leaves. He was then chased down and captured. In one region the man even wore a bladder filled with animal blood, which other townspeople stabbed to signify his execution.
The ritualistic hunt for a wild man typically came at the end of winter, and his "death" proclaimed the renewal and resurrection of spring. Anthropologists have often proposed that in folk beliefs, the wild man represented tree and forest spirits. The seasonal decay of the wild man's realm in the fall, then, was a sign that the regenerative powers of those spirits had weakened. When, at winter's end, a community finally took matters into its own hands and destroyed the wild man, his demise enabled a more robust wild nature to emerge. The Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer (1854-1941), who compiled mythic themes from around the world, offered a different, albeit related, interpretation. He compared the killing of a wild man known as the King of the Wood to the slaying of a ruler regarded as a god incarnate. In some traditional societies in Africa and elsewhere, he reported, such a ruler had to be killed at the first glimmer of weakness, so that his powerful spirit could be inherited, undiminished, by a younger successor.
Folklore aside, stories of people gone off to subsist alone in the wild are hardly uncommon. For about thirty years, until his death in 1889, one such wanderer hiked a regular circuit around Connecticut and southeastern New York State, begging housewives for food and finding shelter in nearby caves. Called the Leather Man because he dressed in patches of leather, he was believed to be a Frenchman who had fled to America when his spirit was broken by failures in business and love. Only a few years after the Leather Man was laid to rest, even as Malua was hiding in the hills of Samoa, another wild man was allegedly sighted in Winsted, Connecticut. A heavily armed mob of more than a hundred men and boys gathered on a street corner and then set off to hunt him down. (The mob succeeded only in catching up with some pigs running through the wood.)
One especially resonant form of wild man is the so-called wolf child, or wild child, the lost or abandoned child purportedly saved and then raised by wolves. Even if the nurturing role of the wolves may be doubted, the story of a child raised in nature, isolated from normal human socialization, is an endless source of fascination.
Contemporary explorers seem obsessed with similarly "wild" figures, such as the elusive Sasquatch and Yeti. Both creatures, at least by reputation, share much in common with the wild men of other legends. As is often the case, the boundary between legend and concrete evidence (and whether the preponderance of the evidence suggests a "cryptic" animal or an outright fraud) is, at best, a disputed one.
Whatever the reasons, the idea of a wild man has become fixed in the minds of people throughout history and around the world. Late-nineteenth-century Samoa was certainly no exception. When the news spread that a strange man was living somewhere in the hills of Tutuila Island, the responses would undoubtedly have been much like the responses to wild men in other places at other times. Parents would have warned their straying children to come home lest the wild man take them away. Malua would have been blamed for every pig or chicken missing from a farmer's pen. Governor Pollock noted in his account that reports of wild-man sightings "were generally received with smiles." But he adds that "there have also been harrowing tales about one or two people disappearing, the assumption being that they were stolen and eaten by the 'tamauli,' as this black man is called by the Samoans" (tamauli means "black man" in Samoan).
Then, in the spring of 1923, events took an unexpected turn. A renowned Samoan climber named Ielu left his young wife and family on Upolu Island and, like Malua, traveled to Pago Pago to seek his fortune. Before he could find a job in American Samoa, however, he was convicted of theft and locked up in jail. Part of his punishment was to work with a prisoner road crew during the daytime hours. He quickly became despondent about his fate and so resolved to commit suicide by scaling the nearest mountaintop and jumping to his death. Bolting from the road crew, he soon out-climbed his pursuers and escaped into the mountains.
On reaching a remote precipice where he contemplated ending his life, Ielu heard, in the stillness of his surroundings, coconuts dropping one by one to the ground. The rhythm of the sounds suggested someone was up in a tree, harvesting. When Ielu turned to address this unlikely possibility, he found himself face to face with the naked wild man. Something, perhaps the primordial impulse to "capture the wild man," propelled him to struggle with his fellow fugitive. And, as so often happens, the younger man won the day. Ielu bound Malua, covered his nakedness with a piece of cloth torn from his lavalava (the characteristic Samoan skirt), and after a long hike reported with his captive to the steps of the courthouse. It must have been quite a sight.
Yet here, too, the story takes a surprising turn. Instead of being killed, displayed, or otherwise roughly treated by the local population, Malua, who by now had white hair and was probably in his sixties, was welcomed by his captors. He was groomed, fed, given sweets (which he is said to have loved), and made to feel like a long-lost member of the family.
The reason for this unusual civility was that the Samoans had created a society in which no one was allowed to remain orphaned, hungry, or homeless. Polite behavior and friendly hospitality were almost a religion. Of course, Samoans were still perfectly capable of defining some people as outsiders, and they shared with the rest of the world an almost morbid fear of a wild man. Yet, once confronted with the mysterious backwoods creature in the flesh, the Polynesians embraced him as one of their own. Any stigma he might once have borne was quickly dispelled by their own overwhelming sense of humanity.
In the weeks following his arrival, Malua formed a particularly strong bond with the man who had captured him: Ielu became both his savior and brother. For his part, Ielu was sent directly back to jail and the road crew. But Malua, the former wild man, slept on the floor of Ielu's jail cell and helped him on the road crew. They were inseparable.
Unfortunately, the tale of the Wild Man of Samoa does not have a happy ending.
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