Island nation looks inwards after monarch's passing


Death of the King of SamoaThe recent death of the Samoan Head of State, Malietoa Tanumafili II, has elicited public and private comment noting his good leadership and unique status in Samoa’s political history. His death has also thrown into sharp relief some of the ambiguities and tensions between Samoa’s traditional and modern political structures. It has been a time for some Samoans to question the identification of the former leader of this predominantly Christian nation with a non-Christian faith.

Malietoa Tanumafili II’s passing and subsequent state funeral provided Samoa with a rare mention in the international news pages. The bandwidth shared by Pacific news, like that of much global news, is swollen with coups, instability, public violence and natural disaster. For Samoa, the plaudits for the former Head of State suggest an irony in reportage on this tiny nation. The strong moral guidance provided by the man credited as the father of the first independent Pacific nation has enabled the stability that has kept his country off the radar. It is only his death that has caused it, briefly, to reappear.

The oldest Head of State in the world at the time of his death, and the third-longest serving, Malietoa Tanumafili II was not only the holder of the top constitutional office but also a Tama-a-Aiga, or head of clan, of one of Samoa’s two so-called royal families; more than occasionally, the people of Samoa alternate between calling Malietoa Tanumafili II the Head of State and King. Under the constitution, the next Head of State will be elected by parliament to an initial five year term. Any person in Samoa entitled to stand for election as a member of parliament is entitled is to stand for election as Head of State, although under the Electoral Act this franchise is limited to Matai, or chiefs of extended families. However, the media and the local people both appear to assume that his successor will be the current head of the other royal family, the Tupua.

There has been little initial evidence of agitation about the assumed succession path. The current Speaker of the Legislative Assembly was recently reported as saying that "although the constitution is silent about it, we must all respect the Tama-a-Aiga and put them in such paramount positions as Head of State". One person I spoke to, a public servant, indicated some doubt as to whether this will become a long-term convention. He believed that whilst most Samoans now have the expectation that there will be a continuing orderly succession between the heads of the two royal families, the election of the Head of State would eventually succumb to politicking, to the detriment of Samoa’s political stability.

One of the more quixotic aspects of Malietoa Tanumafili II’s rule was that in a country where over 95 per cent of the population are strong followers of a Christian denomination, the former Head of State was identified with the Baha’i faith. Interestingly, as a Head of State, he apparently had this in common only with a Queen of Romania. One of the seven Baha’i Houses of Worship worldwide is situated on the slopes above Samoa’s capital, Apia.

Death of the King of SamoaThe Baha’i faith is well known for accommodating other religious viewpoints. However, my discussions with a small number of people in the days after the former Head of State’s funeral indicated a certain reluctance of some Samoans to accept this aspect of his life. Several people I spoke to, including a distant relative of the former Head of State, played down the extent of his Baha’i faith. One claimed that his patronage of the faith was more of a gesture to his daughter, whose interest and involvement in the Baha’i faith preceded the Head of State.

This view suggested to me a degree of discomfort with the notion of a secular leader in Samoa following a non-Christian religion. While in India the current President is a Muslim and the Prime Minister a Sikh, both minority faiths in India, their appointments were seen to be a strategic strength to a government seeking recognition from citizens of both majority and minority faiths.

In Samoa, it may be that the great respect for the former Head of State as a leader in both traditional and modern political spheres cultivated a tolerance for his religious identification with a non-Christian faith. However, in private, in the days following his death, some appear unable to comfortably reconcile their strong allegiance to their former leader with his minority religious beliefs, which they do not share.

Photographs courtesy of Khoi Cao-Lam and Luke James.



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Existing comments

If I am reading this article correctly, the suggestion by some that the Baha'i Faith was not really important to the Malietoa is similar to attempts by scholars of Alain Locke, the father of the Harlem Renaissance to minimize the importance of the Baha'i Faith in his life. It reveals more about the attitudes of those making such statements than the spiritual life of either of these great men.
Phillipe Copeland | 14 June 2007

Our Samoan News weekly television programme on Auckland's Triangle TV last night aired a story about a memorial service for Malietoa Tanumafili II conducted by the Manurewa Baha`i Faith Centre. The story followed two sides. The Auckland-based Consul-General of Samoa and many local Samoan leaders denied Malietoa's Baha`i Faith membership. Naturally the Baha`i Leaders said otherwise. Finally the news brought written evidence of correspondence between Malitoa signed by himself to the Baha`i House of Justice in Israel. Fascinating investigation into this often unspoken aspect of his life.
Sulieni Leiti | 14 June 2007

Sulieni Leiti,

It's remarkable that such a controversy would arise at all. So powerful a figure as Malietoa Tanumafili II would not allow the Baha'is to publicly declare his membership without it being true.
Jeff Lavezzo | 14 June 2007

Thanks, Mr. James, for a fair article about a much loved human being. I would add that the Malietoa in fact never shied away from sharing and expressing his Baha'i Faith, although he never used it to proselytise either - a model Baha'i. One can imagine the sensitivity required of the only reigning Baha'i sovereign in balancing his personal faith and his duty to his nation, who from all accounts he served and loved immensely. There is a nice obituary on the Baha'i World News Service, explaining the personal and public facets of the late beloved Malietoa's faith, here
Barmak Kusha | 14 June 2007

Thanks for the interesting article. I have been reading accounts of the Malietoa in Baha'i news stories since childhood and I was always impressed by the manner in which he conducted himself and his love for his people.
It is sad that some would air comments such as him being a Baha'i only for superficial reasons.
His love for his Faith was evident and he certainly did not hide it. I recall seeing the pictures and reading the account of his visit to the Holy Land and his visit to the Baha'i World Centre. He had a great love of his Faith and its vision of the oneness of mankind and unity are evident in how he treated his people.
Jim Ferguson | 14 June 2007

Very informative article. I don't know much about the Baha'i faith, but always interested to learn.
Jez | 14 June 2007

The Malietoa was the Head of all churches in Samoa due to his position as Head of State. One only has to read his annual address to the Fono (legislature) to be struck by his exhortations and encouragement to all the churches and people of Samoa to arise and fulfill their duty to Christ by spreading His teachings throughout the nation and by loving one another as Christ loved us. His address of 1999 leading up to the Millennium Celebrations was posted on the government website at the time and I read it, but unfortunately can't find it now to support my point. As a Baha'i he loved and treated all churches equally and thus earned the love and respect that he was accorded by his people.
Geoffrey Hougland | 15 June 2007

This is a very interesting article which I am sure will be much appreciated by Baha'is around the world. Like others, I have always been aware of Malietoa Tanumafili II's allegiance to the Baha'i Faith, which is well-documented, as well as the wisdom he exercised in practising this Faith whilst leading his Christian country. A brief investigation of the Baha'i Teachings would reassure anyone that there is no conflict!
Carolyn Neogi | 15 June 2007

I am also surprised by the common use of the term "non-Christian". It seems like any religion which does not have the name "Christ" in it, is automatically "non-Christian"! But in terms of the Bahá’í Faith, this is simply not very accurate. Not only do Bahá’ís believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Divine nature but they also believe that His promised second coming is fulfilled by Bahá’u’lláh. In terms of Biblical prophecy, a Bahá’í would understand him or herself to be, in effect, a Christian of the Second Advent. Everything that Jesus taught is part of Bahá’í teaching and practice; Bahá’ís often remark that the Bahá’í Faith has strengthened their relationship with Christ. I even heard once from a Catholic Priest who felt certain that the Bahá’ís and their Faith were more truly Christian than any current form of Christianity. Remarkable!
Nicholas | 16 June 2007

i feel really sorry for our king of samoa to pass away but it was his. but have a good trip.
Flo | 19 June 2007

It is so sad to me that such a noble and fine king should have his faith denied by state protocol and prejudice on his death.
Raymond Brian | 25 June 2007

For those who do not understand the Baha'i Faith, particularly christian and political leaders of Samoa, please be advised that it is basically the fulfillment of the Christian Faith - the teachings of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it can be referred to as super-christian or advanced-christian instead of non-christian as printed.
To make a long explanation short, I beg you to sincerely ascertain what the Baha'i Faith stands for.
With an open mind, possibly you too will appreciate the wisdom behind Malietoa's fastinate vision.
Believe or not, Samoa is now on the threshold of reaping and swimming in the 'milk and honey - tamaoaiga and toafilemu' due to Malietoa's christian enlightenment. These "blessings" will continue to be upon Samoa for generations to come.
I am Samoan living abroad who accepted the Faith in 1965 (before Malietoa embraced it in 1967 but Baha'i Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel finally revealed it in 1973). Everytime I visited Samoa, Malietoa would loved to discuss the Faith with me as a Samoan Baha'i from overseas; particularly the amazing Writings pertaining to world leaders who would embrace the Baha'i Faith.
If your print is true, I am saddened to learn about the denial of state protocol and prejudice toward Malietoa's precious religious beliefs during his final services. However, I am calmed by the understanding that this shortsightedness by those responsible was based on their pure ignorancy and stupidity, which is no excuse whatsoever.
Need I say more?
Do yourself a favour and check out the Baha'i Faith.
You might be the next Malietoa.
Vita Tanielu (Leiataua-lesa Fepuleai) | 20 September 2007

Has Malietoa Tanumafili II written down, before his passing, about his great love of the Teachings of Baha'u'llah? I am more interested to hear what the King said about him self. Not what the Baha'i leaders trying to propaganda their politic using the name of our Samoa King.
Eric Gibert | 19 May 2012

Eric Gilbert: Yes. He has. It's public record. Would you like to see it?
Barmak Kusha | 15 October 2017

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