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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods



Soon after this I left Apia to take up the post of Agricultural, or District Inspector, in the Island of Savaii; accompanying page 147first the Director of Agriculture, with the other Inspector, on a tour, or malanga, of the island.

Savaii—said to be the cradle of the Polynesian race—the largest and most westerly of the Samoa group, is split up into separate parts, or natural fertile divisions, by three lava-fields which have flowed down fan-wise to the coast from the central wooded masses of the volcanic interior, which attain a height of 6,000 feet. It is about 170 miles in circumference. A part of one of these fields—in the south—is very old and covered with bush, through which there runs a causeway track of mossy clinkers, terminating at a village on a river in an oasis of extraordinary fertility. Indeed each lava-field has its oasis and its village. The lava-flows are of considerable width, and the traversing of them, which has to be done on foot, is arduous, since they are corrugated and broken like the waves of a sea: a wilderness mainly of bare basalt and volcanic scoria, for so far as the eye can perceive. The track—slightly polished—stopping at fissures—surmounting hummocks—is just faintly to be discerned; gleaming ahead across a desert of aridity, and becoming entirely obliterated in the rain.

Where these wastes abut the ocean, in certain places, are long rows of blow-holes; and in rough weather, with a heavy sea rolling in on the lava, the columns of white water, rising, breaking, and falling from a height of thirty or more feet, form a spectacle that is very lovely; particularly if viewed from a boat, with the island in the background.

Between the lava-fields range long and fertile districts; and along their shores lie the bulk of the native villages, for there are but few settlements inland. About the villages rise or straggle native coconut-plantations, penetrating the forest, from which are produced copra. In every village of any consequence, numerically, is a store or trading-station; and sometimes another, if the volume of copra will warrant it. There are in addition numerous copra-buying sheds dotted around the coast, to be found also in those villages where there is no trading-station, competition for this article being keen. These are subsidiary to the various stores in the districts. The island is encircled by a fairly good road, which stops short, however, of the lava-fields.

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The duty of the District Inspectors was to see that the road, which is largely grass-grown—although near the shore, off the reef-bound stretches, it is sandy—was kept clear by the natives of weeds and scrub; that the copra in the sheds was up to the standard required by the Government—for this the trader is held responsible, and liable nowadays to a heavy penalty. The Inspector must enforce also the native coconut-plantations, and the few European plantations, being free of rotting logs and refuse in which the rhinoceros beetle might breed. And he saw to it that sufficient crops of roots and other foods were planted by the natives to provide abundance in the months ahead. The villages had to be kept clean and tidy.

In each village was a pulenuu, or town ruler, a minor Government official, selected by the chiefs, whose duty was to supervise their communal activities and count the larvae, eggs, and bodies of the enormous anormour-plated beetles which every able-bodied male, each Monday, was required to bring in, according to a quota allotted to every village. This pest—the rhinoceros beetle—burrows into the heart of the coconut-palm and is liable to kill the tree. It was introduced into Samoa with rubber stumps from Ceylon in 1911, during the time of the German administration, and has proved more malignant than in its native habitat.

At the outbreak of the War the position as regards the beetle was considered bad. Many trees had been destroyed and countless others damaged. The very existence of the coconut industry was menaced. Colonel Logan tackled the problem by appointing a young English overseer from one of the German plantations as Director of Agriculture. Competitions with prizes were started among the natives for the greatest number of beetles, larvae, and eggs destroyed. Inspectors were appointed to exercise supervision over the native officials.

In November 1918, when Samoa was struck by the world epidemic of pneumonic influenza, the beetle was being more than held in check. Then during those weeks when all life in the islands appeared to cease, and a fifth of the native population died, the insect menace again assumed serious proportions. Now, in 1923, it once more was well in hand, although the page break
A Taupou—with Head-Dress and Dancing-Knife

A Taupou—with Head-Dress and Dancing-Knife

page 149beetle was still bad in parts of Savaii, which was the principal reason for the appointment of an additional inspector.

Ritchie, the Director of Agriculture, was rather a small man, who smoked a large pipe, had dark hair, rimless glasses, and occasional fits of abstraction. He was popular with women, a fine horseman, and inspired the respect and affection of his subordinates.

His most devoted adherent perhaps was Tealigo—the Chief Native Inspector of the Agricultural Department: a Samoan chief, elderly, thick-set, of powerful physique, the same pensive rather womanish cast of countenance as the Director, and tremendous force of character. It was a pleasure to hear him interpreting a speech for Ritchie to an assembly of chiefs and orators, with clear and vigorous utterance, marked by an occasional unstudied gesture of a clenched fist, saying exactly as he was told. There was none of the vulgar bombast of the native missionary, and he never failed to make a profound impression.

Another chief, or talking-man, who invariably accompanied the Director on malanga was a huge brown naked replica of Old Bill—even to the walrus-moustache. So much so that I sometimes found it difficult to preserve my gravity on being struck suddenly by the resemblance. He was the ali-i kai-kai malanga—or the chief responsible for the disposal of our party's ceremonial food: a position of no small dignity. He was not actually a member of the department, but was employed on these expeditions. Both he and Tealigo had accompanied the Director of Agriculture from the first.

It was usual, in most of the villages where we arrived, to find the house allotted to the three Europeans of our party decorated for the occasion. I have seen them with the whole roof-interior festooned and prinked with white, and some few coloured, flowers, so that it was scarce possible to see anything of the inside woodwork and thatch; and the outer posts of the fale also were garlanded, usually with green leaves. The perfume of the flowers, added to the heavy scent of the massive ulas of blossoms and scarlet seeds that were in addition hung about our necks, could be almost nauseating, particularly if the blinds were down. This was the work of the girls of the village, so we always expressed appreciation.

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A Samoan house appears like a gigantic beehive, supported on a circle of short posts, with a floor of pebbles. It may be either round or oval. In the centre are either two or three pillars, twenty feet in length, supporting the ridge-pole, and with substantial rafters lashed across them. The ellipses of the fate are formed of circular sections of breadfruit-wood jointed together and radiating diagonally in perfect symmetry. The whole is bound with cinet, and laths covered with an outer thatch run from the ridge-pole to the eaves. Both from the interior and exterior the house is concise and beautiful, and no nail is used in its construction.

On arriving in the village we would go to the house allocated, to be discerned at a distance by the green leaves about the outer posts. And here, or in an adjoining house, we would find the chiefs and orators assembled awaiting our arrival. If the chiefs were in another fale, the Taupou usually would receive us. The Taupou is the Maid of the Village, selected usually on account of her good looks, but she must also be the daughter of a high-chief. She is mistress of all the girls and unmarried women in the village, and they are supposed to obey her orders implicitly. She is required also to set them an example of chastity and good behaviour. Her other special duty is to entertain distinguished visitors to the village—be they Samoan chiefs or white men. All white men in Samoa, theoretically, rank as chiefs.

Being seated, crosslegged, in the space reserved in their circle—or there might be three chairs and a table provided—the chiefs and orators would give us greeting. "Afio mai lava lou afioga le Pulefaatoaga Sili!"—"Your Majesty, the Director of Agriculture, has arrived!"—and "Susu mai lava lou susuga, etc.!"—"Your Honours the Inspectors indeed have come!" To these greetings, which went on to include themselves, our talking-men would utter presently in dulcet tones a number of similar responses, appending the names of the various personages assembled, in their proper sociological sequence. While they were doing this, we had to make some show of following them.

There would then be passed along or tossed towards either Old Bill or Tealigo, one from each chief or orator, a number of page 151pieces of kava: sections of knotted root of a shrub, sun-bleached. These the talking-man must examine one at a time, "turning his hand as an adjunct to this ceremonial scrutiny," and uttering some pleasant remarks on the subject the while. He would then hand a piece to a youth who would approach—possibly one of our own carriers—bending low and treading like a cat in passing before chiefs, who would then withdraw to the back of the house and there begin to pound the kava-root on a hollow stone reserved for that purpose.

In the meantime one of the orators of the village would have commenced a speech of welcome. This would be in the chiefly language, and included numerous genealogical references and poetical allusions: the courtly ceremonial of the race being extraordinary. In reply to an address, for instance, it is a commonplace for an orator to say that your eloquence is such that they are like birds caught in the fowler's net. But if you have a good talking-man, it will be mere bagatelle for him to cap this, when it comes to his turn again to speak.

The kava having been pounded, it is scraped into a glossy bread-fruit leaf and tipped into the many-legged kava-bowl on the floor of the far side of the house. Behind the bowl squats the Taupou, the heels of her palms resting on its rim and elbows inflected slightly inward; these women having singularly beautiful arms. Beside her—also crosslegged—is seated another handsome girl also with a flower behind her ear, who now takes a round black bottle composed of an entire polished coconut-shell and pours water over the Taupou's taper hands, which she submits for that purpose. The Taupou then takes the fou—resembling a bundle of garden raffia—and plunges it into the bowl, where water is slowly added. Gradually she blends the powdered kava and water, the mixture taking on an opaque yellow hue; and from time to time she wrings out the raffia, and swings and flacks it gracefully from one of its extremities at arm's length above her head. The object of this procedure is to free the fou from sediment and scraps of fibre, and so gradually to strain the liquor in the bowl.

Just as the operation is about complete the orator, who has been covertly watching it, brings his speech of welcome to page 152an end. A master of ceremonies, seated not far from the kava-bowl, now cries a short and purely ceremonial peroration, which ends abruptly and most loudly on the final word. The assembled company then indulge in a measured clapping of hollowed hands—peculiarly resonant; and the cup-bearer—usually the damsel of the water-bottle—approaches the kava-bowl, carrying a coconut-shell cup. The Taupou plunges the fou into the liquor, and then raises both hands at arm's length straight before her, the kava pouring from the raffia being caught in the cup, which is filled in this way. The cup-bearer now turns and stands poised, while the master of ceremonies cries the name of the person to whom it shall first be carried.

In addition to his title, each chief and tulafale has a special kava-name, to be used only on these occasions. This applies also to Europeans, and the Samoans will invent one a nickname, sooner than cry "the cup for Smith, or Brown." When first I went among the people of Savaii they dubbed me Filemu—meaning Quiet—for use at these ceremonies. But later I was given a proper name, Uli Masau (I don't know how to spell it), meaning, so far as I could discover, One Who Rides Upon A Battle-Axe, which was perhaps more to my liking. The title attached to this seemed to be that of a god, goddess, or fiend—I could never quite determine—rather than that of a chief. But the people of Falealupo, who so honoured me, were very insistent in pointing out that the personage in question was one who had assisted them greatly in the past, and it seemed to be implied that this line of conduct might reasonably be expected of me in the future. At a time, I was told, when the people of Falealupo were being forced by their enemies to climb coconut-trees upside down,1 relief had come from my namesake, who flew across from Fiji for that purpose, and dealt death and destruction to the foe.

At these ceremonies, if white men are present, their kava-names are always called first: that being the place of honour. The damsel then approaches, and, standing at the greatest possible distance, makes a graceful inclination, presents the cup, and withdraws a pace or two. The proper thing now is to pour a few drops of kava on the pebbles before one—as an page 153offering to the gods, wish the company good luck, drink off nearly all that remains in the cup at one draught, and throw the dregs behind, outside the house—as a sign that one is not greedy. You then hand back the cup, which is refilled and taken to the next person to be named. As a sign of the good-feeling of the Samoans, you will note that if the cup-bearer is a stranger, or inexperienced, the chief or orator whose name has been called will give his hands a single modest clap, to indicate his presence. Kava, incidentally, tastes rather like soapy water, and induces an immediate craving for tobacco.

After the kava-drinking your talking-man replies to the speech of welcome. The chiefs and orators then get up and leave the house. Its owner may stay for a couple of minutes, and then he too departs, and for so long as you remain, that house is yours. You will see very little of your host; but if he is wanted he puts in an appearance.

The Taupou now takes the visitors in tow and escorts them to the bathing-place, carrying their costumes, soap, and towels. This may be a rock-bound spring of fresh water on the shore, a pool in the bush, a stream, or at one place on the north coast of Savaii, it is a miniature lake in an underground cavern. At another village not far away—Safune—it is necessary to be paddled in a canoe across a lagoon to get to the bathing-place, a great welling upflow of fresh water.

Having bathed and changed into pyjamas—and the Taupou having usually pinched your soap, by way of a perquisite, particularly if it be scented—you return to the house and lie down on the bed that has been prepared: a pile of mats on a foundation of coconut fronds, surmounted by a sheet and pillow and canopied by a mosquito-net. This usually is shielded by a screen of tappa cloth hung across the house, and the blinds on that side of the fale are lowered. Here one may read, or sleep, for it is probably in the heat of the day; or if he has come from any considerable distance a couple of girls will put in an appearance and squat down beside him and give him a lomi-lomi, which they will usually continue until he goes to sleep. Indeed, they would sometimes seem to carry on after that; for I have awakened and found them fallen forward asleep across the foot of the bed.

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This siesta is probably terminated by the arrival of the food. On certain occasions—when accompanied by the Director of Agriculture—the villagers would honour our party with a talolo. This is rather a special honour. All the inhabitants of the village—men, women, and children—would then approach slowly, from a distance, singing a song peculiar to the village, and bearing each some article of food: one a fluttering white fowl, another some roots of taro, a third a pineapple, two more carrying on a pole a roast pig, others some baskets of bread-fruit. Having placed an immense quantity of food outside the house, they would withdraw to a distance of some fifty yards and seat themselves on the ground, while their spokesman cried a speech professing communal shame at the paltry nature of their gift. Our talking-man then would go outside the house, and leaning on an orator's stave would make an address of thanks extolling the princely munificence of the presentation. The villagers then would go away.

But the more usual procedure was for their young men to come bearing roast pigs, green coconut-leaf baskets full of taro and bread-fruit, baked fish, and other commodities, which they would place outside the house. Here a master of ceremonies—an elderly man—would examine the donation of each individual family in turn, holding various articles up for us to see, and shouting a running comment for the whole village to hear on the quantity, quality, and nature of the gifts, being equally impartial in blame and praise. This was done in semi-humorous style, and appeared to afford much amusement and to cause no particular humiliation.

Our carriers would then bring the food inside the house, where the pigs were cut up and dismembered with extraordinary rapidity, and pieces of the steaming roast pork, together with roots of taro and baked bread-fruit and fish, were placed in various baskets at the direction of Old Bill or my interpreter. The boys were then despatched running to the houses of the various families in the village bearing these baskets. All the food was disposed of in this way, save what was reserved for the needs of the native members of our party. The original donors thus got back nearly as much as they gave, and the whole village participated in a feast. Concerning the distri-page 155bution of food in this fashion, the most expert knowledge is required. There are several points to be taken into consideration. The back of a pig, for instance, is food for chiefs; while orators must be furnished only with legs of pork. That was where Old Bill's usefulness came in.

In the afternoon we would inspect the plantations and village, and probably have a meeting with the chiefs later. Then we could get down to business. After the evening meal the girls might entertain our party with a dance, unless dancing had been interdicted by the native missionary. Sometimes—in honour of the Director of Agriculture—a "concert" would be got up by the village women—a sort of gigantic charade—the comedienne invariably being afflicted with elephantiasis. At its conclusion, after the inevitable speeches, Ritchie would have to make a present of about a couple of pounds—from his own pocket. There were few officials, I imagine, equally conscientious in this respect. But the omission of a gift would have been considered decidedly mean. If the opportunity afforded, and his company was congenial, we preferred to spend the evening with the local trader, who had probably made preparation for such a contingency by manufacturing a brew of beer, and was glad enough to see some white visitors.