The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 1 (April 1, 1939)
A Royal Kava-Drinking — Memories of Old Samoa
Samoa forty years ago, just before the German flag went up, was a kind of No-Man's Land. The Samoans owned the land, it is true, but they and the Germans, British and Americans made life mighty lively for one another with rifle and head-chopping knife, and Naval big gun and machine-gun; and the royal and dominant native party one month might be the rebels in ambush in the bush the next. In the early part of 1899, when I had a look in at Apia and thereabouts, on newspaper duty, I tried to disentangle for myself the verities and otherwise of the political situation. The Beach that is now such a well-paved motor-way was a chain of quick-firer and machine-gun posts and trenches and parapets. A six-inch gun from one of the warships was mounted at the entrenched entrance to the great native town of Mulinuu, the headquarters of the loyalist or Malietoa faction. British and American naval forces occupied the town, built stragglewise along the waterfront among its breadfruit trees and its tall coco-palms; and their ships of war together with one German gunboat almost filled the unrestful coral-studded harbour.
However, all that, and its sequel is now history. What I set out to describe is a fortunate opportunity of witnessing and taking part by invitation in a royal fono, with its ceremonious and hospitable accompaniment, a King's Kava-drinking.
When the grateful dark came down one night after a blazing, blistering day, and the refreshing breath of the land breeze from the mountains of Upolu page 26 page 27 set the palm-trees swishing, we left our quarters at Matafele and walked along to Mulinuu Point, together with sundry Consuls and naval officers. The invitation had come by messenger, High Council in King Malietoa's house—a Kava-drinking and a big talk. As events proved it was one of the last royal fono's ever held in Samoa, for the frequently-changed kingship was soon abolished. The plumes of the coco-palms rustled softly over us in the night air as we walked down the white path of crushed coral that skirted the beach under the dark blue dome in which the constellations blazed like lamps. Away beyond on the black woody ranges, the night mists stole down; and across the lagoon to our left faintly glimmered in the groves a rebel outpost's camp-fire.
A sentry's challenge was answered, we passed the scrutiny of the hard-jawed Yankee bluejacket, armed with his Lee straight-pull rifle and short sword-bayonet, and passed on through the trenches where an Anglo-American force with naval guns commanded that entrance to Mulinuu. Bare-backed warriors, rifle on shoulder, and the long head-knife hanging at belt, strode soft-footed past us and we entered the largest native camp in the South Sea Islands. We went down a long palm-shadowed road. Hundreds of lights twinkled in the low-sided thatched wall-less houses, oval in shape. Laughter and song came from the houses; in some of the dwellings the families were at their evening devotions, for the sound of hymns chanted in the liquid native tongue, so free from harsh consonants, floated to our ears through the fragrant night.
“Talofa, ali'i!” The welcome came from a grey-headed warrior who stood guard at the great thatched house. “Welcome, chiefs; welcome to the house of the King.” We ducked our heads to avoid the low eaves and seated ourselves on the soft mats. Except for the two lofty ironwood pillars which supported the cross-beams and the coconut-frond roof the centre of the house was clear. Round the outer part of the interior squatted in a semi-circle more than a score of bronze figures, strong-shouldered, wide-chested men, wearing only a short print lavalava or kilt (not the long skirts that are now worn in peace). Their shining faces were set and determined; some wore straggling beards, but most were clean-shaven, except for small moustaches. These were Malietoa's council, the leading chiefs of the loyalists from Tuamasanga, from famed Manono, and from the distant island of Tutuila (it was not American then); they had gathered to hear the word of the white captains concerning Mataafa and the war.
An oil-lamp on the floor lit up the house, and the steady rays illumined the woven leaf-roof, and the sinnet fastenings of the council-chamber, and the dark forms and glittering eyes of the silent warriors.
A portion of the space round the floor-circle had been left for the white guests, and we took our seats on the soft mats. Here were the representatives of the Powers in this remote corner of the seas; the keen-featured commander of the American flagship Philadelphia; alert Sturdee of H.M.S. Porpoise, the Tauranga's Captain Stuart, the Consuls, the Chief Justice of Samoa, and other officials, all cool-looking in their white suits.
Then came His Majesty King Tanu Mafili Malietoa, an under-sized young fellow in a white jacket and a print lavalava. He was accompanied by the Vice-king Tamasese, a vigorous athletic young warrior, a great contrast to the boy King.
“The 'ava is ready!” announced the King's talking-man or tulafale. He stood up, a tall burly fellow, his only garment a waist-lavalava, falling to the knees, but looped up on one side to show the intricate-patterned leg tattooing of which Samoans are so proud. “The 'ava is ready!” and with a polished half-coconut shell he dipped into the huge wooden bowl, on the pebbled floor. Filling the shell the talking-man solemnly raised the first cup of 'ava towards the sky. This first cup was for the gods, a propitiatory drink-offering to the house deities of the people. With a slow sweeping movement of the arm the tulafale waved the shell-cup heavenwards, watched in the deepest silence by the gathering; then with equal solemnity he lowered the offering and poured it slowly out at the foot of the massive central house-pillars, a libation to the old-time aitu of Polynesia.page 28
The gods appeased, our turn came. Dipping his half-shell again into the big bowl, the house-orator announced in a loud voice, modulating his speech in a quaint sing-song, “'Ava for the King, 'ava for the chiefs.” Then he advanced, in a deeply respectful, half-bowing, half-crawling manner, and with courtly and ceremonious flourishes presented the cup to Malietoa
The new-made King was a “mission-boy” and a teetotaller; he did not drink, but lightly touched the cup, which was equivalent to acceptance. Then the liquor was handed to big, manly Tamasese, who sat next to the King. He drained the coconut-shell at one swallow, after pouring out an offering on the mat in front of him, and deftly returned the empty cup, Samoan style, by spinning it out on to the middle of the floor.
Once more the tattooed cupbearer filled high the bowl, and handed the well-diluted liquor to each in turn, first to the officials and naval officers in order of rank, then to us three press correspondents, and lastly to the chieftains ranged around. The Samoans are most particular on the subject of precedence, and the tulafale must have gone to some trouble to ascertain the relative ranks and degrees of importance of the papalangi visitors before he handed out his drinks. The name or the title of each officer and civilian present was loudly proclaimed by this Ganymede of Mulinuu as his turn came, and with graceful obeisance the flourished cup was presented. We each poured out the small libation for the unseen spirits of the household, and then drank the gingery queer-flavoured liquor at one draught, after saluting the King with a polite “Manuia,” equivalent to “Your very good health,”—our Maori “Kia ora.”
Round the half circle of chieftains of the island clans passed the council-cup in gravest silence, broken only by the high-pitched chant of the master of ceremonies, as he presented the semisacred drink, and the deep-voiced “Manuia” of the recipient.
The King and the dignified head-chiefs bade adieu to their white visitors, with warm-hearted benedictions of “Talofa,” and “Tofa soifua,” and we went out again into the tropic night, just as the nine o'clock gun boomed from the flagship, and the bugle notes of the “Last Post” rang out over the calm lagoon.
“Punch's” famous “advice to those about to marry” was “Don't.” R. L. Stevenson's advice to ladies contemplating matrimony, was “never marry a non-smoker.” Charles Reade, the novelist, who flourished before cocktails, night-clubs, votes for women, and the intellectual superiority of the “softer sex” were invented counselled ladies to encourage their husbands and finances to smoke all they wanted to. Daring advice at a time when women hadn't learned to smoke and hated—or said they hated—tobacco. Ah, well, the world grows wiser every day! And it is becoming generally recognised that, given the right baccy, smoking, so far from proving harmful, is often positively beneficial. Unfortunately, however the right baccy is not so common as it should be—save in New Zealand. There are five brands: Navy Cut No. 3, Cavendish, Riverhead Gold, Desert Gold, and Cut Plug No. 10. Not one of them contains any nicotine worth mentioning; all are famous for their splendid quality. They are toasted!—and quite harmless. They don't affect heart or throat, and are as pure as they are delicious.*