TNB Night Owl – The Papalagi

Old Geodesy library books in a wooden shelf. Photo by Bibliothek Wissenschaftspark Albert Einstein.

The “noble savage” is a literary trope stemming from the work of French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. In his view, man begins as noble and good and is steadily corrupted by interacting with others and experiencing the trappings of modern society (in his case, “modern” was the 1700s.) Although the theory was popular among some intellectual circles for centuries, it has come to be recognized as fundamentally racist in most of its iterations.

Nevertheless, that viewpoint wound up being demonstrated in reality with the release of the Papalagi in 1920. The book was edited by a German traveller named Erich Scheurmann, and consisted of observations about then-contemporary society by a Samoa chief named Tuiavii. Discussions with the chief were restructured into first-person essays, resulting in eleven distinct speeches detailing Tuiavii’s criticisms of the west.

The book was a firm success in Germany and was subsequently reprinted in a variety of languages including Spanish, Italian, and French. Following World War II, however, interest in the book faded… until 1971, when a new edition was produced among the German collegiate underground. The Papalagi spoke to them, as it condemned modernism and praised the natural life. It developed the nickname of “The Green Bible” in German newspapers and began a second wave of success, this time being translated into languages like English and Esperanto (it was the 1970s, and this was a counterculture book.) The title was even included as part of high school reading requirements in West Germany.

Unfortunately for its thousands of advocates, the book became too successful. An Australian professor, tasked with speaking before a group of native Samoans, decided to incorporate the book into his instruction. The Samoans were confused. First, “Tuiavii” just meant “Chief”, so the name was effectively “Chief Chief”. That inspired a little digging and it was discovered that Scheurmann had spoken with High Chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III and some lower chiefs. Unfortunately for the historical case, the High Chief had not been anti-Western, as was purported in the book; in fact, he’d been a member of the German army in Samoa. He’d also been a Christian, which didn’t mesh with the anti-Christian sentiment in the book. He’d also been fairly well educated, which undercut his seeming inability to understand things like shoes. Lastly, and most telling, he had never been to Europe, which made his speeches about the failings of modernity he’d seen while visiting Europe obvious contrivances. At best, the character was a composite figure; at worst, he was a complete hoax.

Around the same time, the family of another author, Hans Paasche, accused Scheurmann’s book of being plagiarized. All of the attention inspired a hard look at the beloved speeches. By 1987, a deep review analyzing everything from available historical travel data to linguistic patterns common to Samoa at the time conclusively demonstrated that the book was not edited but written by Scheurmann.

It was a fairly ignominious end to what had been accepted as a lifestyle guide for tens of thousands of people. In this case, though, they hadn’t needed the comprehensive forensic analysis; they could have simply looked at what the author did after his literary success… Scheurmann joined the Nazi party and worked for them as a propagandist.

Rule one for anyone looking for a lifestyle coach: don’t pick a Nazi. Believe it or not, they may be willing to lie.

Question of the night: What books or movies from fifty years or more in the past do you still enjoy and recommend?

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.