In about 1250 A.D. – nearly 800 years ago – the Samoans staged a surprise armed rebellion against rulers from Tonga somewhere on the brief stretch of coastline shown in the first black & white photo behind the canoe (‘paopao’). The short, violent campaign that followed the attack brought to an end about 300 years of Tongan control of Upolu and Savai’i and saw the creation of the crucial Samoan ‘Tama-a-‘Aiga’ title of Malietoa.
Historic places do not receive much official attention in Samoa, and the Aleipata coastline, which is only a few kilometres long, has no marker or retained knowledge about exactly where the ambush of the Tongan ruler Tala’aifei’i and his escort took place. However, the likelihood is that it was between Satitoa on the left of the photo and Mutiatele on the right, not much more than a kilometre in distance.
The villages in this stretch are Satitoa, Malaela, where my grandmother came from, Lotopu'e and Mutiatele. This road along the shore is known nowadays mainly as a picturesque route to the nearby tourist destination of Lalomanu but its importance in Samoan culture and folklore can be gauged from the fact that the broad details of the Aleipata ambush were handed down for hundreds of years by word of mouth until European historians and ethnologists wrote the account down in the 19th century. They used the yardstick of 25 years = one generation to work back to the timing of the rebellion which occurred 25 generations beforehand i.e. around the year 1250.
My family connection to this locality has provided me with a feeble excuse to tell the story of the overthrow and suggest more recognition for this locality’s historical importance. Here are some old photos from private collections which I’ve combined with captions to describe this turning point in Samoan history. My apologies to my Tongan friends for raking over cold ashes with this account of a rather brutal but pivotal affair but it’s a story which is not often told from a geographical angle and deserves recounting with pictorial support. One could argue that Aleipata’s claim to historical fame deserves to elevate it to a similar lofty status as currently enjoyed by the likes of, say, Falealupo and Vailima.
The 3 centuries or so of Tongan rule apparently began with conquest by Tongan historical figure Asoaitu. Relative harmony prevailed afterwards and no serious resistance arose until the hard rule of Tala'aifei'i began. His cruelty provoked plans for a rebellion by two proven young warriors of Faleata, near Apia, named Tuna and Fata.
There are 2 versions of how the brothers and their supporters planned the attack on Tala’aifei’i and his Tongan camp followers. One story has it that they rallied island-wide support for the rebellion which was pre-planned to occur on the Tongan king’s birthday celebrations to be held ‘at the malae of Aleipata’ two months after the plot was hatched The other version has Tuna and Fata journeying with their warriors to overtake the king’s travelling party which occurred on the Aleipata coast. Weapons were hidden and some of the men joined in the peaceful feasting and celebrations.
A few notes of the famous Tongan siva, Matamatamé, sounded as the dancing began and this was the pre-arranged signal for the ambush. Samoan’s charged from nearby forest. One version has the unarmed Samoan dancers using their feet during the siva to kick away the sand from buried clubs. In any case, a great, one-sided battle occurred, with the figure of 200 of the king’s party quickly killed being mentioned in historical accounts.
My cousin, the late Luamanuvae Pa'ipa’i Schwenke, of Malaela, the large man on the right behind the kerosene lamp told me that human bones were often to be found in the sand on or near the beach around Malaela and just north around Pué. He believed these were from Tongans who had been killed in the fight. Asipau Tafua says that Malaela (‘field of the sun’) was named because it was a sunny spot and was known as the field where the bodies were laid out in the sun following the fighting. Asipau, whose forbears hail from Malaela, says that no one who knew the history of this haunted strip of land would live on it until unsuperstitious Irishman, Ned Purcell, bought it and settled there with his Samoan wife in the mid-1800’s.
Tala’aifei’i escaped the conflict and fled towards Mulifanua at the other end of Upolu where his vaka were moored. Fata and his nephew the warrior Ulumasui led the pursuit of Tongans south around Lalomanu and along the south coast shown in the photo.
Others in the king’s party were chased along the north coast by Tuna and Tapuola, a chief of Aleipata. Historical accounts do not mention which route Tala’aifei’i took.
Tala’aifei’i and some of his men reached their vaka at Nu’usagale, near Mulifanua, and left for Tonga but not before the Tongan leader delivered a generous oration to Tuna and Fata as he stood on a rock ever since known as Tulutalā:
‘Malie toa, malie tau! Afai e o’o mai Tonga, e sau i le Aouiuli folau, ae lē sau i e aouliuli tau.’ ‘Brave, warrior, bravely have you fought! If the Tongans ever come back, it will be for a friendly visit, but never again to fight you.’
The Malietoa title derives from the first words of the speech by Tala’aifei’i. Though Tuna and Fata had been the leaders of the rebellion, one story has it that violent bickering between the two led to the first Malietoa title being bestowed on their older brother Savea. Another version has the brothers giving the first Malietoa title to Ulumasui in gratitude for his part in the overthrow.