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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods



Regarding all these projected changes, I have only a platitude to repeat: "Experience begins to show us," reiterated Stevenson, "at least in Polynesian islands, that change of habit is bloodier than a bombardment."

Sometimes, going along a road through the dripping forest in Samoa, one comes upon a party of girls, bare-breasted, wearing the sufficient lava-lava, and carrying their frocks upon their arms. At the sight of a white man they will stop and struggle into the redundant garments, or hurriedly, as they pass, will hide their breasts in simulated shame. This is one of the major triumphs in Samoa, of religion. But fortunately there is an obstinate, and sensible, streak in the Samoans, and the evil of clothing—for it is liable to spell death to the Pacific Islander—has not been foisted upon them to the extent that it has in certain other groups, where the missionaries have managed to exercise more sway.

I beg indulgence—lest its truth be denied—to illustrate that point. With the light of a century of experience to guide them, this is the best the London Mission, among others, has been able to do for the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. I quote from the Colonial Office Report, 1924–26:

"European clothes have been used in the Colony for a quarter of a century. The dirtiness of the garments worn by women and infants in arms is often horrible and indescribable. While such conditions persist, the race will continue to carry the chief focus of filth and contagion next to the skin. Clothes are now so closely associated, in the popular mind, with Christianity, that an open crusade against them would be regarded by the native as a deliberate assault upon religion; they must now be regarded as an ineradicable evil, and the only hope is to promote a habit of cleanliness and good sense in their use. As a small step in this direction, the import duty has been removed from soap so that the price of this article may better conform to the native's purchasing power."

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It would seem, of course, that the Gilbertines must be a naturally filthy people. But not so. They wore, formerly, a hygienic costume, intrinsic to them, and when dirty they could throw it away. The idea, in consequence, of washing clothing was, and still is, strange; and they cannot afford to discard lightly that for which they have paid in hard coin.

Said Stevenson, writing of their dress in 1890:

"The ridi is its name: a cutty petticoat or fringe of the smoked fibre of the coco-nut leaf, not unlike tarry string; the lower edge not reaching the mid-thigh, and the upper adjusted so low upon the haunches that it seems to cling there by accident. A sneeze, you think, and the lady must surely be left destitute. Yet if a pretty Gilbertine would look her best, that must be her costume. In that, and naked otherwise, she moves with an incomparable liberty and grace and life, that marks the poetry of Micronesia. Bundle her in a gown, the charm is fled, and she wriggles like an English woman."

It is in the Gilberts—a chain of coral atolls right on the Equator—that the missionaries have succeeded in enforcing Upon the women the Mother Hubbard—a long tubular garment like a nightgown, designed to hide completely the "lower limbs." It is equally adapted to three other things: trailing the dirt, soaking up rain—there is an average annual rainfall of between 150 and 180 inches—and storing perspiration. (The Gilbert girl sees no necessity, I am told, for changing wet garments, even if she could.) One is not surprised then to learn that tuberculosis is responsible for thirty per cent of the total deaths; and that the "appalling proportion" of eighty-one per cent. of children require operation for diseased glands. This, with what was until recently one of the most virile races in the Pacific!

Turning, in conclusion, to the Colonial Office Report, we find that—

"Sex morality in the past was high. Girls went naked until married, and were protected by usages of extreme ferocity. To molest a maiden was to court death by slow strangulation, or by being tied to a log and floated out to sea. Now, morality is not so fierce. British justice has abolished the death penalty, page 49robbing the offence of its terror. At the same time, by prohibiting polygamous marriage, the law has traversed the whole customary code within which a native's life was once so strictly ordered. The spirit of the old severe system is gone; it has been replaced by the mere letter of the new, to which the native accords lip-service without understanding. He is a man deprived of moral landmarks. Clothes, covering bodies which once went naked and unconscious, have contributed to his moral decadence by stimulating nasty curiosities, which never before existed."