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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods



Nearly twenty years after Bougainville, in December 1787, the Count de la Pérouse, with his exploring expedition of two ships, having failed to make Quiros's Isla de Gente Hermosa, or Island of the Handsome Nation (one of the Tokelau, or Union, Group, handed over by the Colonial Office to the New Zealand Samoan Administration about 1925), set sail for the Navigators Islands of Bougainville and arrived at Manua, in the eastern part of the archipelago, where he expected to procure provisions.

He perceived no canoes until he was in the channel between the cluster, but a heavy swell on which the two ships tossed about with a danger of falling aboard one another, prevented him from attending to the harangue of an old "Indian" who held a branch of kava in his hand and pronounced an oration of considerable length. This the Europeans, from what they had read, knew to be a sign of peace.

On the breeze reaching the ships, they made sail to get an offing from the coast and the canoes then came up. The islanders, La Pérouse said, were for the most part stoutly made and tall. They approached with fear and unarmed, and everything indicated that they were as peaceable as the natives of the Society or Friendly Islands. The Europeans obtained from page 14them several curiosities belonging to their dress, five fowls, ten gallinules, a small pig, and the most beautiful dove that they had ever seen.

Though the canoes of these islanders were skilfully executed, commented La Pérouse, and afforded proof of ability in working in wood, he could not prevail on their occupants to take hatchets or any iron tools; and they preferred a few glass beads, which could be of no utility, to anything the French could offer them in iron or cloth.

The ships proceeded to the island of Tutuila, to the west of Manua, but still in the eastern part of the group, and ran along it to a distance of half a league, finding it surrounded with a barrier of coral rock, on which the sea broke violently. The reef nearly touched the shore and the coast formed several little coves, before which were openings, affording a passage for canoes and possibly even for boats. There were several villages at the heads of all these coves, from which came off an immense number of canoes, loaded with hogs, coco-nuts, and other fruits, which the Europeans purchased for glass beads. They saw, besides, water rushing in cascades from the mountains to the foot of the villages.

The ships let go anchor and three of their boats were launched. As night was coming on when they reached the shore, the "Indians" kindled a large fire to light the landingplace. They brought to the seamen birds, hogs, and fruits; and after an hour's stay, the boats returned on board. This would appear to be the first time recorded that Europeans set foot in Samoa.

The following day four boats set out for the purpose of procuring water, which was fine and easily obtained. A line of marines was drawn up between the shore and the "Indians," who numbered about two hundred and were prevailed to sit down under some coconut-trees some sixteen yards from the boats. Each had with him fowls, pigs, parrots, pigeons, or fruits; and they were all for selling them at once, which occasioned a little confusion.

The women, some of whom were found to be very pretty, offered, with their fruits and fowls, their favours to all who had beads to give them. In a little while they endeavoured to page 15pass through the line of marines, who made too feeble a resistance to repulse them. Their manners were gentle, sprightly, and engaging. Against such attacks, said La Pérouse, a European who had sailed round the world, a Frenchman in particular, had no weapons of defence.

This episode called forth a passage in R. L. Stevenson's severe stricture on the conduct of Europeans in the Pacific, when, in In The South Seas, he mentions "the really decent women of Samoa" having prostituted themselves in public to the French, who, as he did not say, had conducted themselves thus in other countries.

The men, continues La Pérouse ambiguously, then came up, and the confusion increased; but some "Indians" who were taken to be chiefs appeared armed with sticks and re-established order. Each returned to his place, and the market recommenced, "to the great satisfaction of both buyers and sellers."

While everything was going forward, says La Pérouse, with the utmost tranquillity, and their casks were filling with water, he thought he might venture about two hundred paces to visit a delightful village, situate in the midst of a wood, or rather orchard, the trees of which were loaded with fruit. The houses were placed in a circle, about three hundred yards in diameter, the centre of which formed a beautiful green, while the trees, with which it was shaded, kept it delightfully cool. Women, children, and old men, accompanied him, and invited him into their houses. They spread the finest and freshest mats on the floor, which was formed of little pebbles, picked out for the purpose, and raised about two feet, to secure from dampness. He entered into the handsomest of the huts.

The most skilful architect, he remarked, could not have given a more elegant curve to the extremities of the ellipsis, which terminated this hut: and it was surrounded by a row of pillars, five feet distant from each other, formed of trunks of trees, very neatly worked, between which were mats, laid one over another like the scales of a fish, with great art, and gathered up with cords.

The domed, open-walled houses were thickly thatched.

This charming country, said La Pérouse, united the advan-page 16tages of a soil fruitful without cultivation and a climate requiring no clothes. The coco-nut, plantain, guava, orange, and breadfruit-trees bestowed on these fortunate people abundance of wholesome nourishment; and fowls, hogs, and dogs, which lived on the surplus of their produce, afforded an agreeable change.

"They were so wealthy, and had so few wants, that they despised our cloths and instruments of iron, and would accept only beads: abundantly supplied with articles of real utility, they desired nothing but superfluities. They had sold at our market upwards of two hundred tamed wood-pigeons, which would only eat out of the hand; and they had bartered with us turtle doves, and beautiful parrots, as tame as the pigeons. What imagination would not conceive this delightful place to be the abode of felicity! These islanders, we were continually saying, must be the happiest people upon earth: surrounded with their wives and children, they pass their days serene and tranquil in the bosom of repose: they have no other care, but that of bringing up birds, and, like the first man, of gathering without labour the fruits that hang over their heads."

The following morning M. de Langle, the second-in-command, went ashore to obtain more water, and, contrary to instructions, proceeded to a place not under the protection of the frigates' guns. He was detained on shore by a low tide. The casks, however, were taken ashore, filled, and re-embarked. De Langle and his detachment then, for reasons which seem not sufficiently explained, posted themselves in the long-boats, in a posture of defence, and there it is represented they were the victims of an unprovoked attack, in which he and eleven others were massacred by the natives.

To those who know their character it is inconceivable that the Samoans attacked without provocation. About fifty years later, Stair, a missionary on the island of Upolu, was informed by an eyewitness that the trouble at Tutuila arose when the French, by way of punishment for some petty theft, hoisted a Samoan—one of a visiting party from Falelatai in Upolu—to the top of the mainmast of one of the long-boats by his thumb or hand. This apparently led to the attack. After the conflict had ceased, he says, the Tutuila natives, who had been averse page 17to it, and may not have participated, buried the bodies of the French left on shore, treating them with every respect; while the party from Falelatai left the same night for Upolu, taking with them a boat captured from the French. It would appear that these same men had the hardihood to pay a friendly visit to the frigates, in canoes, the following day when the ships were cruising off Upolu.