The Sailor Cults of Samoa
(Read Part 1 – Cannibal Jack Jones and the Beachcombers of Samoa ) In a development that was quite without parallel elsewhere, the Samoans in the 1830’s discovered a positive demand for a new religion. (1)
This fervent desire, coupled with the fact that the new religion was already beginning to take hold in Tonga and Tahiti, islands with which Samoa had strong cultural and trade links, there grew an insatiable demand for the new religion in Samoa before the Missionaries arrived, and the beachcombers were only too happy to step in and fill the gap.
The beachcombers began to preach. Fusing what little they could remember from Old Testament stories with the cultic expectations of their hosts to form a uniquely Pacific form of worship. To this they added as their ‘hymns’ the only songs they knew; bawdy sailor songs. The islanders joined them and the ‘Sailor Cults’ were born.
Sailors arriving on Samoa. Image source .
Even “ Cannibal Jack ” tried his hand at evangelising, but he had a fiery temper, not suited to religion and often ridiculed people’s beliefs; “I told him that his gods were all false, and that it was the wicked god (the devil) that put these things into their heads, because he was an enemy of the true God.”(2)
The Wesleyan Missionaries were furious about the Sailor Cults developing in Samoa. Reverend John Williams wrote in his diary about the roasting he gave a Cockney whaler who was holding popular Sunday gatherings and who had “baptised” up to three hundred people;
I said to Jerry, suppose you were to go to England just naked as you are now, with your navel tattooed and the lower parts of your tattooed belly showing as it is now, with nothing in the world but a hat and an old pair of trousers on, and go in to a large Church or Chapel and stand up there to baptise people. What would the people think of that? ( 3)
The European sailors tended to their flocks as well they could, but by far the most popular preacher of the new Sailor Cults was a Samoan sailor called Sio Vili, known as ‘Joe Gimlet’ to his shipmates.
The Mamaia Heresy
The ships’ records of the Pacific whaling fleet tell us that Sio Vili sailed with Captain Samuel Henry, first to Tonga, where the London Missionary Society (LMS) was already well established, and then on to Tahiti where the a new religion called the ‘Mamaia heresy’ was fast developing as a visionary and millenarian reaction against the teachings of LMS.(4) The Mamaia’s followers revived ecstatic behaviour associated with the pre-christian religion, combining this with wild sexual conduct, heavy drinking and a belief in the imminent return of Jesus Christ bringing cargo from heaven.(5)
‘Resolution and Adventure with fishing craft in Matavai Bay’, painted by William Hodges in 1776, shows the two ships of Commander James Cook's second voyage of exploration in the Pacific at anchor in Tahiti. Image source .
In order to really understand the complexities at play here one must first understand that traditional Polynesian faith was based on a reciprocal relationship with many gods. There was a strict adherence to ceremony and ritual. Gifts were given to the gods, songs were sung and rituals observed in their honour. All this on the basis that the gods would give something in return. Ostensibly a direct exchange of devotion for reward. The islanders understood the new religion in the context of their existing framework. To them it made complete sense that if they prayed to Sisu (Jesus) then Sisu would in turn reciprocate and deliver to them the same technologies that he gave to the Europeans. That was the mind set.
Polynesian faith was is polytheistic, with four deities most prominent: Kāne, Kū, Lono and Kanaloa. Image source .
“When the Tahitians changed their allegiance from Oro to Jehovah, they carried over their notion of reciprocal obligations. The failure of the new religion to bring property was fairly obvious. A popular notion in the islands in the early days of Christianity, was that learning to write was a direct means of acquiring property. Many found that, to their chagrin, the letters which they wrote were not sufficient to obtain property, whereas the missionaries and traders were quite successful with the same means…The missionaries taught that faith was more important than works, and that good deeds, especially the giving of presents, was of no avail to salvation. The Polynesian, with his idea of reciprocal obligations on the part of gods and men, found this idea difficult to grasp.”(6)
When God’s cargo didn’t appear, the Tahitians lost faith in the London Missionary Society.
“By a great part of the people the missionaries are treated as deceivers and as persons inimical to their interest. From the time the people in general embraced a profession of Christianity, there never was a period in which they manifested such a desire to return to their former customs, as they do at present.” (7)
And so, a local amalgam of christianity and the old polynesian religion grew up in the form of the ‘Mamaia heresy’; a ‘cargo cult’ that adopted Jesus as its central God. Samuel Crook, one of the LMS Missionaries described the Mamaia’s expectations; “They are to have a ship load of cloth from the skies and a large boat made for the purpose is to bring the ship from above. They are to have swarms of fish come on the strand for their use, wine from heaven in bottles, and cows out of the clouds.” (8)
The Sio Vili Cult
The Samoan sailor Sio Vili was in Tahiti to witness the birth of the Mamaia movement. It must have had a powerful effect on him, because on his return to Samoa in 1829, Sio Vili started his own indigenous religion and built the biggest following of all the Sailor Cults.
“As the Mamaia cult had done earlier, the Siovili movement stressed spirit possession… Also in line with Mamaia philosophy was the Siovili emphasis on accepting Jehovah as God and building chapels for Christian-type religious services. Furthermore, Joe Gimlet [Sio Vili] taught there was but one god, with whom he had direct communication, and that this deity's son Sisu [Jesus] would one day come to Samoa riding on a giant wave to reward the faithful and punish the sinners.” (9)
Reputed to be a spirit medium, Sio Vili was a visionary prophet, touring all the Samoan islands and drawing huge crowds of up to six thousand people to his sermons. (10)
Like the Mamaia of Tahiti before them, the SioVili cult “professed (1) that their leader was at the time of inspiration really God (2) that the missionaries are all liars in as much as they state that the soul never dies (3), that hell fire is figurative not real (4), that men ought to eat and drink abundantly and take any wife they long for that the land may be full of people.” (11)
Sio Vili set feast days and held sermons once a month. Here we have a transcript of one of Sio Vili’s sermons, recorded by Reverend John Williams in 1832.
“Behold, come is Sio Viii.
A man-of-war will present itself on the sea
With knives and musket balls and ramrods
Run in haste and be saved.
She will bring for us blue beads.
How long is our ship coming on her watery way.”( 12)
The Sio Vili sailor cult introduced a blend of traditional Samoan beliefs with a single Christian God and reinforced the belief that adopting Christianity would bring the islanders the technology, wealth and power of the European visitors. “To some extent all subsequent Pacific Island Christian practice has combined aspects of local custom and culture with the European forms of Christian observance imported by missionaries. In this sense Christianity has been both “sailor cult” and local church from its early days in the Pacific.”(13)
Featured image: “Let the Work Begin” by Kelley Price – missionaries arriving on Samoa
(Read Part 1 – Cannibal Jack Jones and the Beachcombers of Samoa )
(1) (Page 129 Campbell Ian Christopher. “Gone Native in Polynesia: Captivity narratives and experiences from the South Pacific.” Greenwood Publishing Group 1998)
(2)(Page 129 Gone Native in Polynesia)
(3)(Page 37 - THE DECISION TO LOTU: NEW PERSPECTIVES FROM WHALING RECORDS ON THE SOURCES AND SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY IN SAMOA)
(4)(Page 37 Richards Rhys. “The decision to Lotu: New perspectives from whaling records on the sources and spread of Christianity in Samoa.” Pacific Studies 17.1. Wellington. 1994)
(5)(Page 254 to live among the stars)
(6)(Volume 71 1962 > Volume 71, No. 2 > An account of the Mamaia or Visionary Heresy of Tahiti, 1826-1841, by Niel Gunson, p 208-243)
(9)(Page 479 Holmes Lowell D. “Cults Cargo and Christianity: Samoan Responses to Western Religion. Missiology. 8:471 1980)
(10)(Page 37 Richards Rhys. “The decision to Lotu: New perspectives from whaling records on the sources and spread of Christianity in Samoa.” Pacific Studies 17.1. Wellington. 1994)
(11)(Volume 71 1962 > Volume 71, No. 2 > An account of the Mamaia or Visionary Heresy of Tahiti, 1826-1841, by Niel Gunson, p 208-243)
(12)(Page 479 - 480 Richards Rhys. “The decision to Lotu: New perspectives from whaling records on the sources and spread of Christianity in Samoa.” Pacific Studies 17.1. Wellington. 1994)
(13)(Page 4 - To Live Among the Stars: Christian Origins in Oceania By John Garrett)