The Papalagi and reverse anthropology

Carlos Carabaña

It was in the years before the Great War, the “war to end all wars,” the First World War. Tuiavii of Tiavea, a Samoan chief, was in England. He was surprised by the customs of the Papalagi, a Samoan word than means ‘white man,’ and when he got home he gave a series of 11 speeches to explain to his subjects the strange customs he had seen. For years they were considered an important exercise in reverse anthropology: the usual student, the white Anglo-Saxon, becomes the object under analysis.

The book was published in Germany in 1920 by a German artist, Erich Scheurmann, who travelled to Samoa –then under German domination– to avoid service in that war. It was there that he supposedly came across chief Tuiavii and his speeches. Scheurmann gives the 11 chapters different titles, such as How the Papalagi cover their skin; Stone boxes, stone islands, cracks and the things inside them; The round metal and the heavy paper; and The Papalagi don’t have time. It can easily be found online.

Here an excerpt dealing with time:

“The Papalagi feel passion for something that you can’t understand, but which nevertheless exists: time. They take it very seriously and say all kinds of silly things about it. Although there is plenty of it between sunrise and sunset, this doesn’t satisfy them…They blame the Great Spirit for not giving them more of it. Yes, they defame God and his great wisdom by dividing a new day into a complex pattern, cutting it into pieces…They carry a small machine, flat and round, that tells them the hour. When part of the time has passed in a European city, an enormous raging noise results. When this timing noise is sounding, the Papalagi complains: “It is a heavy burden that another hour has passed.” At the same time he puts on a sad face, like a man who is burdened with great suffering, although immediately a completely new hour arrives.”

The text can be read as a trope by the “noble savage” on the world of the white man and the customs and values of anti-natural Western civilization. The first full edition was published in Holland in 1929. Then it was translated into English and became a surprise bestseller. The edition that’s considered “definitive” contains drawings by the Dutch artist Joost Swarte, an incredible cartoonist in the line of Hergé and his ‘Tintin.’ It’s been a favourite with hippies, ecologists and anti-globalists.

In spite of the book’s subtle irony and descriptive powers, there is a crucial element: its authenticity. While there is no clear evidence that Tuiavii of Tiavea ever existed, and while most editions don’t mention the matter, everything indicates that the real author is Scheurmann. As in the case of the famous letter by the Indian Chief Seattle, its dubious authenticity has been used to attack its content. But in spite of being a big hoax, it’s still a wonderful read, even a way the reader can get to know himself better.

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