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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods


page 74


At Tutuila, officers from the Fawn were entertained at a night-dance in a native fale. It might seem incredible, said one of them, "to our fair sisters in England" that a young lady arrayed in no other garment but a mat tied round her waist should look handsomely dressed; but could they see these Samoan belles enter the circle in their full evening costume, with their coronets of nautilus shell and scarlet hibiscus, and their necklaces of red and yellow flowers, he believed that they would admit that their appearance was highly imposing. Some wore beautifully plaited fine mats, made from the pendanus leaf, which were so highly prized that they cost more than a rich silk or satin dress.

The officers later went to the mission-church and heard Mr. Powell—who had succeeded Mr. Murray—perform service, in the Samoan language, to an attentive congregation. The psalms were sung to the oldest-fashioned tunes, with the long dreary drawl one heard in a Scottish country kirk. The seamen found it rather difficult to preserve their gravity. Wherever their eyes turned, they were sure to rest upon something most astounding in the way of bonnets. Under a huge coal-scuttle of native manufacture, built upon the most exaggerated scale of the fashion prevailing when European missionaries first came to these islands, they saw the happy, contented-looking face of a girl, looking as though she had been got up for a pantomime, who, in her native head-dress of a single flower, would have been much more becomingly arrayed. Perhaps beside her sat her mother, who, with spectacles on her nose pored over her book, with an equally astonishing work of art overshadowing her shrunken figure. The bonnet was considered the proper costume for Sunday; but the notion, it was remarked, was a mistaken one, and the missionaries would have done well to make their religious services as little sombre as possible, especially with a naturally gay and lighthearted people as the Samoans were. One of these bonnets, incidentally, made from turtle-shell, is to be seen in the British Museum; also a top-hat.

The natives, it was said, contributed very largely to the general funds of the Mission. Even in Tutuila, during the late page 75disturbances, when, in consequence of their returning to "heathen" customs, many were debarred from being church members, that is to say, from receiving the sacrament, such as Maunga and his people, they still paid their usual voluntary subscriptions. Another highly creditable mark of the proper feeling of these people was, that, out of respect for Mr. Powell, they never on a single occasion had a night-dance either in the villages of Pango-Pango or Leone, where he had his principal residence and schools. "But the Samoans are a nation of gentlemen, and amongst themselves their politeness and ceremonious observance of their rules of society are very remarkable…. One cannot but feel that they contrast most favourably with the generality of Europeans who come amongst them."

On June 21 (1862) the Fawn was off the coast of Upolu. The morning was dark and rainy, and it was late in the afternoon before those on board could see the mountains and bold coast sufficiently to run into the harbour of Apia, which is partly formed by coral reefs extending from both headlands of the shallow bay. As they approached it, the vessels appeared to be moored along the shore, without any shelter whatever. They found Apia quite a civilized-looking place; three large whaling-ships were lying at anchor; and several smaller craft. Numbers of European-looking edifices, ugly and matter-of-fact affairs, with iron roofs, fronted the bay, and over two of the largest floated the flags of the English and Hamburg consuls. "Alas for the Kanakas! their interesting simplicity has been much worn off here by their association with their new neighbours. There are some two hundred Europeans settled here, many of them no credit to the country they claim to belong to." The British Consul was a son of the missionary John Williams. The principal trading-establishment was that of Mr. Unslem, the Hamburg Consul, who had exported from Apia the previous year nearly seven hundred tons of coco-nut oil.

The following day the Fawn's officers went to the London Mission Church, where it was said they certainly listened to the most unprofitable service. There being no one bold enough to raise the tune, the minister apologized and read the hymns, and then preached a sermon, which was simply a tirade against the "poor Pope," as he called him, and the Catholic missionaries page 76on the island, for withholding the Bible from the natives, geologists also receiving their share of the anathemas, being in some mysterious way chargeable with the same offence. One regretted, the writer remarked, to see how religious differences influenced the missionaries of different sects. With regard to the Catholic priests, it might have been supposed that a fellow-feeling of admiration would have induced their opponents to draw a veil over their errors, and that the consideration of a self-sacrificing zeal, equal to their own, would have inspired a more Christian sympathy for all who preached the Cross, in the hearts of the sternest enemies to form and ceremony. But unfortunately the jealousies existing even between the Wesleyans—who had also established themselves—and the clergymen of the London Mission, were equally detrimental to the interests of both.

Dysentery, it was stated, was very prevalent in Apia, several deaths having taken place. This disease had lately swept off a large number of people in Fiji; and if this wet season continued, its ravages were to be dreaded in Samoa. The natives attributed its appearance to infection brought by a vessel which came from that group of islands ten days since, then lying in Apia Harbour, having on board, preserved in spirits, the body of its late owner, who died of this malady. The epidemic assumed very serious proportions. Wilkes, of the United States Exploring Expedition, writing in 1840, had said that, in Samoa, the dysentery, as an epidemic, was then quite unknown.