2. The origin of Western misconceptions about Samoan adolescent sexuality

My second reason for writing this book is quite different. The anthropological field of Samoan studies has gone through a rather agitated period during the last twenty years in the wake of the so-called ‘Mead-Freeman’ debate. Numerous arguments and counter-arguments have been exchanged about the validity of Margaret Mead’s assertion, published in her first book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), that the Samoan ethos of the 1920s implicitly favoured sexual freedom in pre-marital sexual relations (Mead 1928; Freeman 1983, 1999; Tcherkézoff 2001a). The debate has had some beneficial consequences, and some much less so. Among the latter, there was a quite unfortunate side effect: a Western misconception about the historical transformations in the fa’aSāmoa (‘Samoan customary’) social regulations concerning sexuality. In particular, an unexpected extension of the debate touched upon reconstructing pre-Christian Samoa: it immediately fell back into the two-centuries old Western cliché about unrestrained ‘traditional Polynesian sexuality’.

Derek Freeman’s criticisms in addressing Mead’s book—factually well-grounded when addressing specific contexts of Samoan social life—were advanced within an unacceptable framework of quasi-sociobiology, anti-culturalism and methodological individualism (Tcherkézoff 2001b, 2001c). Freeman, writing in 1983, had no hesitation in condemning the entire disciplinary field of social and cultural anthropology, from Durkheim and Boas through to post-modernism, and, predictably, most of the professional anthropological community were outraged and replied with every possible argument that they could muster. But the numerous reviews highly critical of Freeman’s book that appeared through the 1980s and 1990s neglected to clarify one issue: a salutary opposition to Freeman’s model did not require a defence of Mead’s ethnographical account of Samoa. Mead’s account appears flawed by many instances of misinterpretation when it is set against more detailed ethnography relating to the Samoan representations of gender and sexuality (Tcherkézoff 2003b: 277-442).

Among the authors who opposed Freeman’s thesis, several tried to adopt an historical approach. Eleanor Leacock (1987) and Lowell Holmes (1987) particularly, in brief accounts, and James Côté (1994, 1997) in more extended works, claimed that Mead’s statements about the ‘extensive tolerance’ and ‘great promiscuity’ of ‘pre-marital sex relations’ in Samoa in 1926[5] are validated, at least partly, from what is known of the distant past. According to these authors, it is well established, from early missionaries’ observations, that pre-Christian Polynesian cultures largely admitted ‘free sexuality’—and sometimes ‘institutionalised’ it—for the adolescents and even, in some contexts, for all the adults. This terminology is applied to the Samoan case by Côté (1994: 76-7), a psychologist and sociologist whose knowledge of Samoa is solely derived from the writings of missionaries and early ethnographers (John Williams’s journal of 1830-32 and all the post-1850 literature). Leacock also based her remarks on these writings. Holmes had done fieldwork in Samoa long before this debate, but he mainly studied the chiefs’ system and not the Samoan representations of gender and sexuality. Other authors have referred to this 19th-century literature as well (Shankman 1996, 2001, n.d.; Mageo 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001). In some cases we see that the point of view is more balanced. A thorough examination of these sources would require a more detailed discussion than I am able to undertake here (Tcherkézoff 2003b: 307n., 391n.).

But, generally speaking, too much attention has in the past been given to the opinions expressed by the 19th-century observers, and not enough attention to the ethnographic data found in these sources. A detailed study of the relevant data shows that, in spite of the opinions, interpretations and final remarks proffered by these observers, all the ceremonies and local regulations described in this literature point overwhelmingly towards a strict enforcement of pre-marital virginity, including in families of low rank, for the whole period from Williams’s arrival in 1830 up until the 1930s (Tcherkézoff 2003b: 345-442). As for the opinions and decisive judgements that we find in this literature, we know how much the missionaries and early ‘consuls’ were themselves biased by certitudes which they derived from their reading of the early voyagers’ accounts. As I have undertaken an analysis of the post-1830/1850 literature on Samoa elsewhere (ibid.), my aim here will be to clarify the issues raised by the 18th- and early 19th-century writings which are the source of all subsequent misinterpretations.

Since Côté’s 1994 book aimed primarily at providing a general overview of the whole Mead-Freeman debate, it was widely circulated and welcomed by a number of supportive reviewers. Besides presenting the various opponents and their arguments about the validity of Mead’s conclusions for the 20th century, Côté devotes no less than three chapters (4 to 6), totalling fifty pages, to a historical analysis of Samoan sexual rules and practices in which he upholds the claim of a free-sex pre-Christian Samoa, presenting it to a relatively large audience. For Côté, the contemporary Samoan attitude of valuing pre-marital virginity for all women can only be the result of missionary influence, because free sexuality undoubtedly prevailed in earlier times. (The only exception that Côté and other supporters of Mead’s analysis recognised, as Mead also did, was the case of the ‘taupou, the daughters of high chiefs’, whose virginity was severely guarded). Côté writes:

From these many accounts [by the missionaries who constantly referred to Samoan ‘promiscuity’], there can be little doubt that sexual behaviour in Samoa before it was Christianized was more casual for virtually everyone, including young females. The denial of this by Freeman and some contemporary Samoans can be understood in terms of the concerted efforts of missionaries and the local pastors to create, and then maintain, a hegemony of Victorian sexual values and practices (1994: 82).

But Côté goes further and also raises the issue of the early voyagers’ writings. He quotes Robert Williamson (1939: 156) who, at the beginning of the 20th century, on Seligman’s instructions, wrote vast treatises on Polynesia based entirely on the literature—as Côté does now on a smaller scale (unfortunately these treatises by Williamson [1924, 1933] are still considered to be a great scholarly achievement and a reliable source):

Finally, Williamson (1939/1975) carried out an extensive review of all of the early accounts of Polynesian cultures … With respect to premarital sex in general, he said that in Samoa:

‘According to Turner and Brown [early missionaries], chastity … was more a name than a reality … D’Urville says that girls were entirely free to dispose of their persons till married, and Lapérouse tells us that girls were, before marriage, mistresses of their own favours, and their complaisance did not dishonour them’ (p. 156) (Côté 1994: 80; my emphasis).

Through Williamson, Côté is thus calling on, in addition to the missionaries’ writings, early voyagers’ accounts of the ‘South Seas’, namely those of Dumont d’Urville and Lapérouse.

Côté seems unaware of how much these early French voyagers’ views of Polynesian women, whether Tahitian, Marquesan or Samoan, conformed to a preconceived template from the time that Bougainville’s myth of the ‘New Cythera’ took hold. The misconception started after the French ‘discovery’ of Tahiti in 1768 and became ‘common knowledge about the South Seas’ as early as 1775 in all European capitals (Tcherkézoff in press 1). It still played a major role a hundred and fifty years later in the choices made by various publishers for the designs of the book cover of the successive editions of Mead’s work on Samoan adolescence (Tiffany 2001). Some of the strongest evidence for a generalised bias is the recurrence of a rhetorical dualism throughout those accounts, from the 1770s until the 1950s. On the one hand, the Polynesian women are always ‘as beautiful as Venus’, ‘of a very fair skin, almost white’, and described (after 1769) as customarily raised only to master the ‘art of love’. On the other hand, the Melanesian women are said to be ‘ugly’ and are described only as hard workers at the service of men (see Jolly 1992, 1997a, 1997b, n.d.). This rhetoric had long been at work in European narratives as part of the broader stereotype that devalued all peoples of ‘dark skin’ and that invented the ‘white Polynesians’ long before the word ‘Melanesia’ was coined by Dumont d’Urville to discriminate the ‘black race in Oceania’ from the ‘coppery race’. Such rhetorical dualism can be traced as far back as 1595 (Tcherkézoff 2003a).

Côté is right: Lapérouse and Dumont d’Urville did write that ‘girls were entirely free ... till married’, and Williamson drew his conclusions from the two French voyagers’ accounts. But the only statement that really needs to be made is that these two French accounts of 1787 and 1838 constitute the origin of the Western misconception of Samoan adolescent sexuality. With them begins the Western myth which will continue with the missionaries, then with E.S.C. Handy and Mead, up until the contemporary proponents of Coming of Age in Samoa. But the genesis of the Western myth about Samoan adolescence was already itself the result of previous misinterpretations published after the ‘discovery’ of Tahiti (1767-68) and Hawaii (1777).

Besides the problem of his lack of awareness of the hegemonic Western myth about a sexually liberated Polynesia—a myth which has biased all French observations in Polynesia from 1769 to the 1850s—Côté’s allusive reference to Lapérouse’s and Dumont d’Urville’s generalising conclusions about sexual freedom is certainly not sufficiently grounded in empirical fact to permit a valid conclusion to be drawn from the voyagers’ narratives. We need to look more closely at the available literature. Instead of being satisfied with quoting some brief conclusions arrived at by two early observers, we must look in detail at the facts actually described that led these two observers to form these conclusions; and we must also look exhaustively at the writings of all the other early observers, from the earliest contact with Samoan people in 1722 until the late 1830s, after which the missionaries were firmly established and the arrival of commercial boats was a common occurrence in Apia harbour. On what actual observations did the two French navigators base their conclusions? And what were the conclusions of the other travellers who navigated the Samoan waters before and after these French captains?

The game of short quotations taken out of context can be a never-ending source of conflict. What should we do with this other conclusion arrived at by another French captain? Gabriel Lafond de Lurcy stayed in Samoa, mainly in Apia, in 1831 (before any missionary influence could be established) and wrote few years later:

The [Samoan] women were the joyous children of nature described with such charm by Bougainville and Lapérouse. All seemed to suggest that they would be found with little virtue, but my task as a historian forces me to add that the only favours they accorded our seductive lovelaces on board were inconsequential frustrations (Lafond de Lurcy 1845, quoted in Richards 1992: 38).

Instead of bandying about short quotations taken only from the conclusions of the travellers, let us try to find out what these travellers had actually been able to see when they arrived in Samoan waters. The passages mentioning a female presence must not be taken in isolation from the rest: the first encounters at sea, the first exchanges of gifts, the first misunderstandings, the first acts of violence… Detailed study of the context of Lapérouse’s and Dumont d’Urville’s stays in Samoa will show precisely how this European misconception of Samoan sexuality arose.

As the Samoan case illustrates what happened on many other Polynesian islands, this study of the early European visits to Samoa is also a part of the larger work of unveiling the origins of the Western myth of unrestrained Polynesian sexuality and how the myth was constructed. And the study of the Samoan discovery of Europeans and of the ceremonial and violent acts which the Samoans devised for this encounter is a part of the wider comparative study of the pan-Polynesian discovery of Europeans, a study which aims to elucidate the various offerings—including the sexual offerings—and acts of violence that were enacted by the Polynesians in these first contacts with Europeans.




[5] I quote from Mead’s reports written in the field, in early 1926, which formed the basis of the generalisations that she would make a year later in the introductory and concluding chapters of her book on Samoa published in 1928; see references in Tcherkézoff (2001b: note 22).