1889-1891 Samoans

Ernst Thiele, men from the island Tutuila, Samoa, during a human exhibition in Germany (1890). Collection Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam, id.nr. WMR-908477-1.

Roslyn Poignant (1927 – 2019) 1 focused in her book Professional Savages on groups from North Queensland, Australia, who were exhibited by R.A Cunningham in the 1880s and 1890s. She briefly discussed the group of men who were recruited by Cunningham on the Samoan island of Tutuila. 2 Poignant didn’t include visual materials of this group in her work. Nevertheless, based on her description, it seems plausible that the photograph in the collection of the Nederlands Fotomuseum is a portrait of seven of the nine Samoans.

According to Poignant, impresario Cunningham arrived in Samoa in June 1889, a time when the United States, Great Britain as well as Germany claimed territory in the archipelago. Cunningham intended to exhibit the group for three years, starting in San Francisco. 3
The Washington Post spoke of ‘Samoan Warriors’ : ‘who are brought here to give exhibitions of war dancing and club and knife throwing. Their names are Manogi, Leasodso, Atofau, Foi, Mua, Lealofy, Letungaifo, Tu and Tasita. They will appear in their native costume, which consists of a piece of lappa cloth wound around the loins, a wreath of flowers around their necks and a string of vegetables around their heads.
They do not like San Francisco. They say it is too cold, and they already want to get back to Samoa.
4

In October 1889 Cunningham brought the group to New York, where the New York Tribune called Lealofy ‘the poet of the party, who composes impromptu songs on any occasion. […] The warriors yesterday seated themselves in a row on the floor and took up a war song, started by the poet, to the music of two mulberry sticks. They kept perfect time both in their singing and in the movement of their bodies. 5

Three of the six men described by Virchow, during their stay in Berlin (1890). Source: Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 22 (1890), 385.

The group travelled by ship from New York to Germany. In Berlin, the group was observed by ethnologist Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902). He remarked that ‘ihr Tanz von dem uns geläufigen wesentlich abweicht, indem er nich sowohl mit den Beinen, als mit den Armen un dem Rumpf getanzt wird. Die Samoaner sitzen mit gekreuzten oder ausgepreizten Beinen. flach auf dem Boden in einer langen Reihe und machen dann symmetrische Bewegungen, anfangs langsam, später hastig und gewaltsam, gegen einander.6

The photograph of 1890 shows seven men, accordingly, Virchow mentioned that seven Samoans performed in the Flora of Charlottenburg, a luxurious entertainment establishment in Berlin, beside the river Spree. Besides a stage the Flora consisted of a park and palm garden. However, only six men are included in Virchow’s table of physical measurements. 7 During his anthropometric research, Virchow noted a ‘vortrefflichlen Gesundheitszustande. Ihre Körper sind stark und wohl gebildet, ihr Ernährungszustand gut, ohne zur Fettbildung zu neigen, ihre Leistungen von einer überraschenden Energie.8

Although Virchow praised their outstanding health, Poignant found German newspaper articles reporting two men deceased before the group reached Berlin. Atofau died in Belgium, followed a few days later by Tu when the group stayed in Cologne.
Poignant wrote that Cunningham returned to the United States with five Samoans, where he left the men with another impresario.9 During the continuation of the tour in the winter of 1890-1891, Letungaifo died. His body was embalmed by the local funeral home and put on display as a curiosity. Manogi, Tasita, Mua and Foi were left on the streets of New York, where a journalist reported about them. City officials funded their return trip to Samoa. Manogi died en route and was buried in the United States. Only Tasita, Mua and Foi returned to Tutuila, Samoa. 10


  1. Martin Thomas, ‘Roslyn Poignant Obituary’, The Guardian (December 16, 2019) https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/dec/16/roslyn-poignant-obituary
  2. Roslyn Poignant, Professional Savages: captive lives and western spectacle (New Haven; London 2004) 198-201.
  3. Poignant, Professional Savages, 198.
  4. ‘Warriors from Samoa: Nine natives of the island come over to give exhibitions’, The Washington Post (July 15, 1889).
  5. ‘A Samoan war song’, New York Tribune (October 24, 1889).
  6. Rudolf Virchow, ‘Saomanern’, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 22 (1890), 387-392, here: 390-391.
  7. Christopher Balme, ‘New compatriots: Samoans on display in Wilhelminian Germany’, The Journal of Pacific History 42/3 (2007)331-344, here 337. Balme interprets Virchow’s research on pages 337-339.
  8. Virchow, ‘Saomanern’, 388.
  9. Poignant, Professional Savages, 199.
  10. Poignant, Professional Savages, 200.