Songs from Samoa

Mitiana Arbon

Society and culture | Pacific


These poems were selected from a suite of poems Mitiana Arbon wrote after a trip to Samoa in early 2012. The poems draw on Samoan culture and ideas from time spent with his mother’s family in the village of Tafua Tai on the island of Savai’i. Sione Monu’s illustrations were inspired by and created for these poems.

 Hark, hark, the cooing of the pigeons
Brings the cool down on their wings
As the bats return to their cavernous sleep;
The bells toll for the whisperings of lotu ole taeao,
With the children beginning their walk
Around the penumbra of the mountain.
They wait for the sun to bring its first beams Of colour into their lives,
Ua sanisani fa’amanuaso
(Singing like the birds dawn chorus)
Arise islands! The morning breeze is stirring,
Ready to bring you out and beyond
The confines of past shadows
Into the warmth of the day

Fruit of the Anatomy

I always knew
Fruit had that way of
…Jogging the memory?
But it wasn’t till one day,
My mother wisely pointed
“Don’t breadfruit look like breasts?”
And then,
The world was perceived anew.
I saw them as she did
Dangling seductively
On sagging branches,
Plump, and half covered by leaves,
For modesty of course,
On display as a numerous peepshow
For giggling children
                             I wonder what they perceived
                             Of bananas?
Aitu (1)

Beware the Aitu who dance
On ancient blood stained ground,
Or slide as eels through jungles,
Or rise out of the ground
As pale butterflies.
Beware of the demon fish
That inhabit the depths
Of still dark pools
Beware the demon women
Of beauty that haunts dreams
With turtle songs
And worship the sharks
Beware the Aitu
Who drum the night

(1) Aitu; evil spirits, demons which are, despite the predominance of Christianity, still prevalent in island superstition

About the illustrator:

Sione Monu is a first year visual arts student at the ANU School of Art, majoring in Painting. Sione is of Tongan decent and is a mentor with Pasifika Australia. In his spare time, he likes to bake cakes that he eats while watching fail clips on youtube.

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A blackbirded past, a healing future

Bianca Hennessy

Society and culture | Pacific


Bianca Hennessy discovers Australia's dark history of 'blackbirding', the recruitment of South Sea Islander workers by questionable means. 

Emelda Davis' email signature ends with a short statement in small purple font: "never underestimate the power of gratitude". A perfectly sensible maxim, one that evokes a lucky life lived graciously.

Emelda's belief in gratitude, however, stands in potent contrast just beneath another snippet also found the end of her emails. It outlines a shameful and tragic history: an indentured labour trade "akin to slavery". 55 000 people taken from their homes. Diseases and death. Stolen wages. Mass deportation spurned by racist government policies.

The setting for this history? Australia.


Between 1863 and 1904, around 55 000 people were taken to Queensland to work under indentured labour contracts in sugar cane plantations. These workers were "recruited" under a method known as 'blackbirding': tricked, kidnapped or recruited under exploitative conditions from the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The definition of blackbirding remains controversial, but the Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) community identifies with a shared history of being the descendants of slaves. Some were coerced with violence, some were lured with cheap objects, and others enlisted with the promise of fair payment - which for many, never eventuated. Clive Moore of the University of Queensland talks of "cultural kidnapping"; even when Islanders enlisted voluntarily, they were bound by contracts they could not understand and most were not properly renumerated for their work.

The injustices suffered by Islander labourers cast a dark shadow on Australian history. Some labourers were violently abused during the recruitment process or by their employers in Australia, and many died from diseases they had no immunity to. The Queensland government misappropriated the wages of deceased South Sea Islander labourers, withholding money from workers’ families once they had died - essentially gaining around $30 million in today's value from the deaths of indentured labourers. 7500 Islanders were forcibly deported after 1901, when the Pacific Island Labourers Act was implemented as part of the White Australia Policy.

This is an enduring history: there are currently between 40 000 and 50 000 Australian South Sea Islander descendants of the blackbirding era. The Queensland towns Mackay and Townsville - where much of this population now live - are named after blackbirders.

Whilst this is a story of a tragic and shameful past, it is also the story of a hopeful and brave future.

Emelda is the President of Australian South Sea Islanders - Port Jackson (ASSI-PJ). It’s an organisation that represents and advocates for descendants of indentured labourers today. ASSI-PJ seeks to promote ASSI culture, raise awareness about their history and advocate for the group politically, socially and economically.

A key initiative of ASSI-PJ is Wantok, a series of conferences run in towns that have a large population of ASSI people – like Tweed Heads, Mackay and Bundaberg. Wantok aims to facilitate healing and the development of family connections among ASSI people.

The following is a video of the 2012 Wantok conference in Bundaberg:


In this video, conference attendee Michael Douglas speaks eloquently about Wantok’s capacity to connect ASSI people with their family’s history:

“I met a group of ladies and chiefs who came from the island where my grandfather comes. And when I met them, I made a connection in my heart and my spirit. And deep down in my soul I wept because I was touching my flesh, my bones, my blood, of my grandfather. And I am honoured to be here with my people. I am honoured to be with what belongs to me.”

Michael’s last few words resonate with Emelda’s vision of ASSI-PJ. She tells me about the power of self-representation, of sharing one’s own stories. The ASSI-PJ website is a platform to collate the self-told stories of ASSI people. It teems with information and multimedia to raise awareness and aid research into the past and present situation of ASSI people, and is a great place to start if you want to learn more about the movement.

Collaboration with academia, particularly Professor Clive Moore a University of Queensland historian, has offered a basis for more stories to be built upon. Wantok conferences are meticulously recorded and shared online, to broaden the scope of community access. Participation and engagement is seen as an ongoing collaborative process.

There is still much work to be done. ASSI people are campaigning to be recognised by governments as a distinct group with a distinct culture, and are overcoming the huge socioeconomic disadvantages faced by their people.

I ask Emelda why gratitude is important to her. Given the terrible sufferings experienced by her descendants and people like them, and the current disadvantages faced by ASSI people, why does she feel grateful?

She tells me about her grandmother, mother and daughter: all healers and nurturers. She tells me that people adapt to disadvantage, and that gratitude can be a tool of strength.

It is apparent that ASSI-PJ and the Wantok conferences employ many tools for strength. They mobilise communities, commemorate tragedy, lobby governments and help individuals to learn about their families and reconnect with the culture of their ancestors. But perhaps the greatest strength is ASSI-PJ’s capacity to not only fight to change the future of ASSI people, but to feel grateful to be able to do so.

5 minute read

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A Letter From Samoa

Society and culture | Pacific


Nikki Mariner, ANU academic, writes to us from Talofa, Samoa.

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Greetings from Samoa aka The Pearl of the Pacific.

The crisp Canberra autumn I've loved in recent years as an ANU PhD candidate feels a world away from my study leave in hot wet Savai’i. After years of being permanently attached to a keyboard and internet, I have found myself reduced to a Samsung phone and daily data recharge for the last two months. But, no complaints here. The weather is fabulous for my skin and the technological deprivation is liberating. I can still easily find my loved ones on Facebook.

I’ve been to Samoa before. In fact, my father is Samoan so I'm not a total tourist. I've taught Pacific Studies at ANU, so I know the geography, culture, history, sociology, demography and politics of the region. However, living here is a whole new education. Working here is a study in innovation. And, village life is schooling me big time.

I am here with my Samoan husband, Lalovai Peseta, and we are living with his family in the village of Avao, on the island of Savai’i.  He is an artist, carver and tattooist, and we are establishing a bespoke art business in Samoa. Thanks to the internet we have a global market (even if the local postal service is rather unpredictable).

Living in Savai’i, we have plenty of space and creative inspiration. We have commandeered the family fale (fah-leh) as our studio. A fale is a breezy Samoan structure, which could be described as a floor, upright poles (usually made from tree trunks) and a roof. Every family, school, and church in Samoa has a fale; each tailored in size and formality to suit its occupants.

Funnily enough, the family pigs live under our fale-turned-studio. We literally work above the rhapsody of ten pigs going about their lives. The look on the faces of tourist customers being tattooed while listening to the swine sing below is just priceless!
We have accepted payment of pigs three times in exchange for tattoos in accordance with local bartering custom, so this is the tale of three piggies:

1. Evan

In December 2012, Cyclone Evan destroyed much of Samoa. We ourselves ended up running for our lives and staying in an evacuation centre for days. Not long after, we received a small black piglet as payment for a tattoo, so we named her after the cyclone; Evan. Our little pig with a mighty spirit began to thrive and grow. As our very first pig, she had nothing but the dogs for companionship and even responded to her name. Evan was special, and she knew it.

One day she disappeared for two weeks. A fisherman told us he saw her on the ledge of a cliff. After injuring her leg, she couldn’t climb back up. Once home, she recuperated under the fale, and was back to herself within a month – she even grew bigger than the dogs. We were proud as punch when she gave birth to two female pigs - one black and one white - so I named Evan's girls Salt-n-Pepa!

Sadly, Evan turned feral. Pigs grow and live well within a household as vegetarians. However, after eating with the dogs, Evan developed a fetish for chicken bones. She didn’t discern whether chickens were dead or alive and began to eat our chickens and the neighbour’s chickens. This antisocial behaviour created chaos! Unfortunately Evan had to say goodbye, but lives on through her daughters. Thankfully, Salt-n-Pepa inherited her good looks but not her dark appetite for chicken bones.

2. Madonna

In October 2013, Maeli gave us a sleek red pig in exchange for a sleeve tattoo. Maeli has begun working with us. He has a lot of designing talent, a good eye and perfectionist streak that was not being nurtured by taro farming. Now he does half days at the plantation and the other half painting and carving with us.We called the pig Madonna because she is established, she knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. Right now Madonna is heavily pregnant with her first litter. We are all eagerly watching Madonna for signs of labour. Any day now!

3. Lil’ Kim

Two weeks ago, we were given another round black piglet in exchange for a shoulder tattoo. She just loves eating bananas and has been christened Lil’ Kim. She is currently confined to a large airy wooden pen while she gets used to the sights and sounds of her new home. When she first arrived, my mother-in-law smeared her eyes with coconut oil so that she would forget her way to her former home. Then, Maeli and Lalovai snipped her ears as a form of branding. Now she happily eats coconut and bananas every day, from her penthouse pen. Soon to be released!

So this is has been the Tale of Three Piggies: Evan, Madonna, and Lil Kim.

Alofa atu (much love) from Samoa!

Nikki Mariner

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