The First Hanging at Mulinuu

THE scaffold alone had cost six hundred marks. And that represented so many pounds of copra that all Samoa was mightily impressed. So the island songmakers made new meles to be sung in the great village boats as they would be merrily rowed to Mulinuu on the festal day, and the traders enjoyed a brisk run on their rolls of brightest lava-lava prints.

The whole affair had grown out of such an insignificant matter — simply the killing of one of the German firm’s imported Solomon Island laborers by Fafelé of the Motoola Road village of Tanugamono. In the first place, the somewhat disfigured deceased was so obviously not a white man that it seemed strange that the high chief foreigners should interest themselves at all in the matter. And in the second place, he was equally obviously not a Samoan, with sympathies for the king last deposed, or perhaps for the next to last, so that the affair plainly touched no question of politics.

Inexplicable as it was, however, it was no less certain that the German Consul had demanded of King Malietoa that the murderer be hanged, and the hanging, whatever new and interesting experience that might prove to be, was to be achieved in the kingly village of Mulinuu. Stretching out into the lazy ocean, Mulinuu Point, narrow, low, and almost awash with the gleaming sea-water, but superbly covered with graceful coconut palms, was the abode of the native king and high chiefs and the seat of the highest native official functions.

There had been a trial before the King. The pleasant-faced murderer, wearing a brilliant new lava-lava, listened interestedly to the interpreter of the German firm who recounted the charge against him. He even waved aside the unnecessary verbiage of the ‘talking man’ to confess simply: —

‘Yes, I killed him. Why not? He was in my taro patch.’

He had followed with some surprise and astonishment the German Consul’s positive words, as interpreted with much gesture and emphasis by the official talking man, concerning the enormity of the crime of murder. King Malietoa, dignified and impassive, himself raised his eyes wonderingly at the new vehemence of the high chief Consul.

When the King was ready to pass sentence, he even explained severely to the accused how bad a man he had been, and how very wrong it is to kill people, even black and kinky-haired Solomon Islanders. And then he sentenced the always interested and now large-eyed criminal to three months’ imprisonment in jail and a fine of two hundred marks.

The prisoner smiled pleasantly and humbly begged to be pardoned for putting His Majesty to all this trouble, thanked him for his so-improving words, and turned to go. But the Consul, with purple face, and exploding disgust and anger, hurriedly conferred with Malietoa, who quickly made a sign for all to wait. Then he further signed that all should withdraw a little, while he and the Consul had a short but pointed conference.

The Consul wasted few words in making it plain that such a sentence was absurd, and that death by hanging was the only sufficient punishment for the crime of murder. With the plain intimation in his ears that if he did not condemn the murderer to the gallows the German Governor would find cause for interposition in the matter, with the certain result of the hanging of the murderer and in addition the curtailment of the judicial functions of His Majesty, King Malietoa reconvened the court.

Briefly explaining that the high chief foreign Consul had kindly pointed out to him a slight error in judicial procedure, he reconsidered the sentence already passed, and pronounced a new one — to wit, that Fafelé of Tanugamono should, for the crime of murder duly confessed, be hanged by the neck until dead, and may the Lord have mercy on his soul. Fafelé, still pleasantly interested, but a bit larger of eye, again cordially thanked His Majesty for his courteous attention to the humble affairs of a faithful subject, and quietly walked away with the Chief of Police.

Hanging-day at Mulinuu! Under the swaying palms, curved of trunk and shaggy of top, the humming of a multitude; the soft liquids and quick rippling laughter of the brown men and women; the steady low chattering of the little kinky-haired blacks and the serious gutturals and nasals of the small group of Germans, Americans, and English. All Apia and its neighboring villages and plantations — officials, traders, planters, free Samoans, and serf Solomon Islanders — were there. And from Vailele and Vaitele, and the other half-dozen little villages of mushroom houses that huddle under the tossing palms and heavy breadfruits along the shore line of Upolu, had come the long village boats, each with its score of rowers and score more of passengers, all in festal dress and all singing, ever singing, as they slipped easily along in the safe green water of their aquatic roadway between shore and protecting barrier-reef.

Mulinuu Point was overrun with the spectators of the hanging — or of whatever was to be the spectacle. Those careless laughing faces certainly betrayed no fear or anxiety of the outcome. There would be some speeches by the talking men, the King would receive the homage and the gifts of his scattered villages, and then would be brought forth those five great tradechests filled with fine mats and tapas, with chickens and octopuses, breadfruit and taro, to be given to the chattering little group of Solomon Islanders in full satisfaction for one black boy murdered. Ah! that was the open secret of all the Samoans present; that was why the hanging was to be celebrated merrily. It was only after much general protest by the people and long days of steady speech by the tireless talking men that the gift-chests had been filled. So much to give for one black boy! But no memory of this remained in the careless minds of the brown men, and it was only as a show and a chance to visit with cousins and friends from the various separated villages that the hanging was now regarded.

But the murmur hushes near the scaffold, where the press is closest, and the hush spreads quickly out to the fringes of the crowd. And as the babble of voices dies away the constant throbbing roar and beat of the ocean on the outer reef rules for the moment; the foaming line of the repulsed breakers catches the eye as one looks out across the shallow green inner water to the limitless blue reaches beyond the reef. A gleaming white tropic bird sails slowly in from the ocean, over the highest palms and on and up, ever with motionless wing, over the very top of Mount Vaea itself. With the bird, one’s eyes turn inland.

Lifting high above Mulinuu is Stevenson’s grave-mountain, its steep slopes lush with tropic bush and forest, on its shoulder the heavy low tomb, made like a Samoan chieftain’s, of the man who came to these brown men as one of themselves, so tuned was his heart to their simple, manly ways.

With the steady low roar of the surge mingles another voice. The talking man of Tanugamono, Fafelé’s village, is introducing the five trade-chests of gifts from the Samoans to the black men. Leaning on his tall staff, a fresh white lava-lava around his brown loins, and a wreath of fragrant peppers about his naked neck and breast, old Manua is making one of his most florid efforts. With an introduction, in choicest ‘mijinery’ language, of thankfulness for all the blessings enjoyed by Samoa from the hand of a gracious Providence, he passes by skillful modulation to the specific interest of the occasion. He speaks long and he speaks loud, but even such a glorious opportunity for the exercise of that fascinating thing, speech-making, must have its period. With a brilliant peroration, the great expiatory gift is formally offered. Sensation and satisfaction among the brown men of Upolu!

A small, disreputable, frizzly-haired black arises. In few words and expressive gestures he refuses the gifts and suggests that the hanging proceed.

Sensation and dismay among the brown men of Upolu! Here was an impossible possibility become real. Fafelé glanced dubiously at the swinging rope. A thousand eyes followed his glance. If the hanging were really to go forward, things might be very uncomfortable for Fafelé. A new murmur joined the always present deeper murmur of the tireless waters breaking on the distant reef.

Then the German Consul stepped forward and, addressing Malietoa, spoke to this meaning: What has so far been done in this matter is well. Justice and its official expression, law, ride in Samoa. Malietoa has made his people understand what heinous manner of crime murder is, and he is now in the very act, so to speak, of dealing out with pitying but unyielding hand the only sufficient punishment for it, death by hanging. All Upolu sees this and recognizes the justice of it, and so do the official representatives of that great nation, Germany, which stands as the benevolent protector of Upolu. Justice is the intention and the will of all. The majesty of the law is unquestioned. It is very good. Let us add mercy to justice. Let the first hanging at Mulinuu be remembered by an act of kingly clemency. As representative of the great Emperor of Germany and her colonies, among which Upolu is a bright particular ocean gem, and on immediate behalf of the German Governor of Upolu, he respectfully suggests that King Malietoa commute the death sentence of Fafelé to the next most severe punishment. Renewed sensation and renewed satisfaction among the listening multitudes at Mulinuu!

The King arises. It is indeed good. Fa’ afe’tai, fa’afe’tai, tele lava (thank you, thank you in the highest) for the chiefly suggestion. Let Fafelé attend. Let the people hear. The sentence of Fafelé, murderer of a small black Solomon Islander, is commuted from hanging to imprisonment in the jail for three months with payment of two hundred marks fine.

General cheerfulness among the brown men of Upolu, including Fafelé. Consternation on the face of the representative of the Emperor of Germany!

Again, as at the trial, comes a hurried conference between the humble representative of overseas civilization and the sovereign king of a tropic isle.

And again, as at the trial, Malietoa thanks the Consul for his just correction, and announces to his expectant and pleasant-faced people, standing in glistening brown ranks about the scaffold, a revision of the sentence. Fafelé shall serve fourteen years at hard labor and pay a fine of four hundred marks.

The pleasant-facedness of the glistening brown ranks remains unmodified. No sudden and violent death for Fafelé — that is the point. ‘Hard labor’ — well, that is a phrase not in the bright lexicon of Samoan life and cannot be understood at this first coining of it. And whether it is to be hard labor for fourteen years or twice fourteen, it is life — life under the full warm sunlight of tropic days, and under the soft twinkling of the slowly turning Southern Cross by night; life with the ears full of the rustling of great palm fronds, the singing of the coral sands as the lapping waves grind them up and down the beach, and the throbbing giant pulse of the breaking swell on the outer reef.

So the brown men and women of Upolu, in their gaudiest lava-lavas and with their smooth skins all ashine with coconut oil, come away from the hanging at Mulinuu in great good-humor.

And now Fafelé at hard labor! On the beach road from Apia to Mulinuu, that most favored and frequented of Apia promenades, along which all the happy Samoan world drifts, chatting and laughing, are two men in restful, if rather ungraceful, squatting attitude. One has the uniform of office, obviously a member of the native soldiery or constabulary, a conspicuous figure and pridefully self-conscious of it. The other is Fafelé. They say tofa (good-bye) to a mutual friend who has been making a long gossipy call, just as the heavy German doctor, in vast expanse of well-laundered white, comes down the road. The mutual friend strolls on, the royal guard shoulders his gun, and Fafelé taps lightly with a shining new hammer on a bit of coral rock between his knees. The fullrigged doctor, beating slowly to windward, comes up and on, and disappears down the coast. The tapping ceases and the gun comes to a ‘lean-againsttree’ position. Two long tapering cigarettes, with dry banana-leaf wrapper and crumpled-up home-grown filler, come from their penholder-like rest above the ears, and prisoner and guard resume again their serene contemplation of tropic sky and sea.

Meantime Malietoa is worried. Twenty marks a month from the kingly income — there is no national treasury — goes in salary to the uniformed man, and a varying sum for breadfruit, taro, and coconuts must be paid to keep the prisoner alive. The uniform, too, — envy of all Upolu, not excepting, I fear, royalty itself,—Malietoa well knows is charged on trader Moors’s books to him; and how many pounds off from his copra credit that means he can only shudderingly guess. So when Wailua, a responsible and respected citizen of Vai-vai village, owner of many coconut trees and of the largest fish-seine on the island, appeared one day to make a formal proposition to take over the prisoner Fafelé, now serving fourteen years’ sentence at hard labor, as his bondman and serf, said Fafelé to haul said Wailua’s seine and gather his coconuts, for which service said Wailua will ‘find’ the prisoner and be responsible for his detention, the King, with gleeful heart, though impassive countenance, gave ready ear.

The negotiations were brief and satisfactory to both sides — aye, indeed to all three sides, for Fafelé, although without voice in the decision, had much voice, albeit indulged discreetly, in the expressions of satisfaction. Life under a shady breadfruit tree on the Apia-Mulinuu beach road, with a shining new hammer with which to tap lightly and intermittently on coral rocks, is all right, if sufficient food comes. But economical Malietoa was making each roasted breadfruit last longer and longer, while as for pig or tinned salmon, no taste or smell! And Wailua, who was own brother-inlaw to Fafelé, — it is odd how little knowledge of native family relationships the German authorities have, — was known to cover his banana-leaf tablecloths with an unusual luxury of food.

So finally Fafelé, murderer, hero of the first hanging at Mulinuu, cynosure of the chatting, laughing promenaders of Apia beach, and only prisoner at hard labor in all Samoa, disappears from our view. For Vai-vai village is not on the beach, and what manner of life Fafelé may lead in the household of his brother-in-law, Wailua, is well screened by the great grove of coconuts, bananas, and breadfruits in which this quiet little hamlet nestles. But I have heard that he hopes earnestly to be granted life to serve his sentence out. For Wailua loves his wife, and is a merciful jailor to his wife’s brother.