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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods



I Had been told before leaving Apia to make a point of calling in at Falealili Plantation—which was the one property on the south side of the island owned, or rather worked, by the Crown Estates. When I came to it, a two-storied white building surrounded by low stone walls and serried ranks of coconut-trees, I threw my reins over the gatepost, walked up the front path and knocked at the door. I heard some whispering and scuffling going on within, and at length the door was opened cautiously, and a cadaverous young man showed himself in the aperture. Somewhat surprised, I explained who I was and what I was doing. He now threw the door wide open and turning his back upon me shouted in an anxious voice—"Don't do it! Don't do it! It's all right!" Then he turned to me again and said—"Come in. I saw you coming and I thought it might be the police." This was somewhat flattering, but my curiosity was not in any way allayed. Perhaps he saw that I was surprised, for he suddenly explained that he had been making some "booze," and that his "missus" was standing at an upstairs window in the back of the house prepared to tip it from its cask to the ground in case of need.

My mare had developed a bad back. The skin was not broken, but it was lumpy and swollen beneath. Chapman pulled rather a long face over it and said that it would be necessary to lance, and that I must not think of going on for a day or two. That afternoon he brought out two whacking great horses, beautifully groomed, and in the pink of condition despite their fair age. These he said he wanted to exercise, as he was training them for a race. We took them out on the firm sands before the house, and I felt very uncertain in my seat after the stolid island-bred horse I had been riding. In the words of page 124Chapman, they "bounced along like india-rubber balls." Then the one I was riding got going and the wind whistled in my ears—I could hear Chapman shouting in warning fashion behind—in anxiety no doubt for his horse. I managed to pull up and we returned home soon afterwards. I was not asked to ride one of them again—Chapman probably considered that he had overestimated my quality as a horseman.

The following morning was the day of either the first or the second palolo, and I was asked if I would come for the fishing. I had never heard of palolo before. I was called about an hour before sunrise, and with Chapman, his half-caste wife and sister-in-law, and the Chinese cook-boy, entered a small well-tarred lighter that was moored off-shore, and poled out about three-quarters of a mile or more until we came over an opening in the reef; and there we waited, equipped with nets about the size and shape of ping-pong bats, consisting of cheese-cloth stretched over a framework. It was the morning of the third quartering of the September or October moon. It was very dark and all about us we could hear the voices of natives similarly engaged in waiting. The little waves surged past us with a rushing sound over the calm surface of the sea. At length the dawn began to break and the owners of the voices, in dug-out outrigger canoes, became visible all along the line of reef, tentatively scooping their little nets into the sea and then holding them up to examine them closely. The voices changed to a note of disappointment; and then, as the dawn broke blood-red and very beautiful, the occupants of the canoes picked up their paddles and swept in a wild race for the palm-fringed shore, their naked bodies bending and the spray flying. Those who had been farther out, as they passed us, shouted greetings and comments on the failure of the fishing; for the palolo—an edible coral worm—had omitted to rise, as they do once, or at the most twice, annually, from the reef.

Chapman took me that day to see a German named Wolf, who lived at some little distance along the coast. His house was a low coral-built structure that comprised two or three rooms, overlooking what was more or less of a true lagoon, and well sheltered by abundant vegetation that grew about it. The floor was closely covered with native fala or mats, not page 125over-clean, and of furniture there was none. A shot-gun leant in one corner. A white man, dressed only in a lava-lava, who was sprawling upon the floor amid a litter of slatternly looking coloured children, started to his feet, shook hands, excused himself, retired into an inner room, and returned a moment later in trousers and shirt. He and Chapman entered into conversation about the forthcoming horse-race which was to be held locally. Wolf was remarkable in that he was the only white man I saw in Samoa who had really "gone native" as understood in Europe. A lava-lava was his usual dress, and it was said that he would take his gun and go off by himself into the bush so attired for two or three days at a time, pig-hunting. Mosquitoes apparently had no terrors for him.

The following day, or the day after, I said that I must be going; but the mare's back being nowhere near well, I was rather at a loss to know what to do for a mount. I was assured, however, that it was impossible to get a horse along the rocky north-east side of the island—between Aliepata and Falefa—and that I was bound to return by way of Falealili; so it was arranged that I leave the mare in Chapman's keeping and that he should lend me the only horse that was available for my purpose—a Roman-nosed pony that was used by the "black-boy" labour for pannier work in collecting coco-nuts about the plantation.

My next halt was to be at a store belonging to O. F. Nelson & Co., also at Falealili, not far from the banks of a river, where Chapman told me to make a point of calling as the trader was "a most illiterate man," which he implied might be somewhat to my taste. The bearer of this character had chanced to call in for a few moments while Chapman was busy shoeing a horse, and had asked me then to look in on my way along the coast; which I now proposed to do with the more curiosity as I found it hard to reconcile him with his reputation for nescience.

The trader was out when I arrived, but I took a chair in the living-room of the store, at the invitation of a slight woman, considerably darker of texture than were the native women of the island, and presently was rewarded by the owner striding in, swinging a cane and whistling as he entered. His whole bearing, from his solar topee to his buckskin boots, was page 126above the average. He was slight, had a bald top to his head, and dark moustache. I was scarcely surprised when he addressed me in the most cultured accents and his conversation acclaimed him a man of education. He now extended his invitation and insisted that I should stop the night. Thereupon he called a young native boy out of the store and directed him to dispose of my horse. "People waiting to buy, master," said the boy. "Oh, well," replied Mr. Peacock, "they will have to wait! They should not come at such inconvenient times. Do as I tell you." "I always refuse to open the store until there are several people waiting," he remarked to me, "and then I clear them out at the end of five minutes, whether they have made their purchase or not. I believe in being businesslike! Of course it drives away a lot of trade," he added parenthetically.

At this time Mr. George Westbrook's weekly letters to the Samoa Times, under the name of "Observer," in criticism of the Administration, were being replied to by one styling himself "Bob Server." At the present stage of my evolution I gave little attention to local politics, but I knew that the controversy aroused considerable interest on the Beach. Chapman, assisted by Peacock, I learned later was Bob Server.

I stayed with Peacock on my return for a day or so. I remember then crossing some vile foot-bridges across the rivers thereabouts, consisting of relays of two coconut-logs, side by side, elevated high above the stream, about the shape and thickness of telegraph poles, and highly polished by the countless bare feet that had passed over them—affording the most miserable foothold for leather-soled boots. And I recall stopping outside Peterson's store, and being obliged to refuse an invitation to enter for a bowl of kava owing to lack of time, which I have always since regretted. Peterson was a tall man with a rather careworn face; and in his own particular way one of the most notable who ever came to the islands. His first arrival at Samoa was said to be in an open boat which he had borrowed off the beach in Fiji, and in company with a barmaid from Suva. But the unsporting Fijian authorities haled him back to Suva and shoved him in jail for borrowing boats without permission. I do not know what happened to the barmaid. He was said to have made some other remarkable page break
A Pau-Pau Canoe

A Pau-Pau Canoe

page 127voyage in an open boat, of which I have forgotten the details. When trading in Savaii, it is told that being thirsty and having run out of liquor, he on several occasions in the old days, crossed the Apolima Straits—a distance of twelve miles, where there is always a strong current and often a high sea running—in a pau-pau—a meagre little one-man outrigger canoe—a feat which no native would willingly attempt, filled up his tiny craft with bottles, and paddled back to his own island.

Having resumed my journey, I remember traversing long stretches of road through the bush, built of blocks of lava rock piled into a sort of causeway. This was known as a Tongan road; for the Tongans, a people rather like the Samoans, during an invasion set their luckless Samoan captives to the abhorred task of making highways, which exist to this day. One has not the heart to ride a horse over them, and it was necessary here to walk.

I remember also in this locality staying at a village—a small place, and, like most Samoan villages, by the sea. Behind it towered wooded cliffs, and I was told that from these a woman had that day fallen, and had since been buried. My informant was a youth who could speak English fairly well. When the time came for me to retire for the night, he asked me if I would like to sleep with the Taupou. I was scandalized at this suggestion—not at the immorality of it, but because the Taupou is the Village Virgin, required to set all the other girls an example in good manners and chastity, and I supposed that such a proposition if known to the natives would result in annoyance, to say the least. I refused indignantly; the more so possibly because the Taupou chanced in this case to be singularly unprepossessing. The wretched youth tried to explain that his suggestion was quite in order; but I would have none of it. In fact, he was perfectly correct, according to Samoan custom, and was merely trying to pay me a compliment not often indulged in these days. The custom—of which I was later to have actual experience—is intended to show confidence in the integrity of the guest.

There are one or two places hereabout where fairly wide rivers must be crossed, and one learns that the proper way to page 128tackle them is to make a detour out to sea, where there is usually a sand-bar thrown up across their mouths.

Just before coming to the Aliepata district the road skirts the edge of the coast very closely; some of it, off one or two black rocky promontaries, being under water at high tide.

Aliepata—at the eastern end of Upolu—is perhaps the fairest district of all Samoa. It seems remarkably clean and bright and sunny, being a coral-sand formation, and densely strewn with fine villages, through which the trade-wind blows. The reef lies far out, and several beautiful little palm-crowned islets appear to float off-shore.

At length, after thinking that I should never reach it, I saw the Union Jack flying above what proved to be an old trading-station, brown-painted and rather larger than the usual. The Resident Commissioner, an elderly man, iron-grey, about six-feet-four in height, chanced to be standing at his gate, talking to some lady visitors from Apia just returning there by boat, when finally I rode up, conscious of making a very filthy appearance.