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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods



In 1788, La Pérouse, having handed his journals to Governor Philip in Botany Bay, for transmission to Europe, sailed from New South Wales with his two ships. Neither he nor any of his company was ever seen again by a European. They were wrecked on one of the Santa Cruz Group, where survivors lived for many years.

In the year following occurred the famous mutiny of the Bounty, about a quarter of whose crew, as is well known, established themselves with Tahitian women on the uninhabited Pitcairn Island, where their descendants still remain. In 1790, however, Captain Edwards, in the Pandora frigate, was sent out by the British Admiralty under orders to proceed to Tahiti, and, failing to find the mutineers there, to visit the Friendly Islands and other parts of the Pacific, with the object of securing these men and bringing them to London for trial.

Edwards's visit on this quest (in the course of which apparently he unwittingly ignored smoke signals put up by the survivors of the La Pérouse expedition), in 1791, is the next recorded off Samoa. He did not at that time, it seems, know of the visit there by La Pérouse in 1787. His journal of the voyage being most extraordinarily meagre, is fortunately supplemented by that of George Hamilton, the Pandora's surgeon, who has been described as a coarse and vulgar man, more disposed to relate licentious scenes and adventures, in which he and his companions were engaged, than to give any information of proceedings and occurrences connected with the main object of the voyage. But at least it is a better record than that of Edwards.

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Hamilton says that on June 18, 1791, they discovered an island of more considerable extent than any other hitherto discovered in the south. It was beautifully diversified with hills and dales, of twice the extent of Otaheite (Tahiti), and with a hardy warlike race of people. After trading a whole day with the natives, who seemed fair and honourable in their dealings, they proceeded on their voyage. This was Savaii, to the extreme west of Samoa—the largest of that group. Its position had been determined by La Pérouse.

On the 21st they came upon a very considerable island—Tutuila. It was well wooded with immense large trees, whose foliage spread like the oak; and there was a deal of shrubbery on it, bearing a yellow flower. The natives were remarkably handsome. "Neither sex wear any clothing but a girdle of leaves round their middle, stained with different colours. The women adorn their hair with chaplets of sweet-smelling flowers and bracelets, and necklaces of flowers round their wrists and neck."

On their first coming on board, says Hamilton, they trembled for fear. They were perfectly ignorant of fire-arms, "never having seen a European ship before." They made many gestures of submission, and were struck with wonder and surprise at everything they saw. Among other things, they brought aboard some "most remarkable fine puddings," which abounded with aromatic spiceries that excelled in taste and flavour the most delicate seed-cake. Hamilton suggests that as spices and aromatics are unknown in the South Seas, this was a matter worthy of the investigation of future circumnavigators.

"One woman among many others came on board. She was six feet high, of exquisite beauty, and exact symmetry, being naked, and unconscious of her being so, added a lusture to her charms; for, in the words of the poet, 'She needed not the foreign ornaments of dress; careless of beauty, she was beauty's self.' Many mouths were watering for her; but Captain Edwards, with great humanity and prudence, had given previous orders, that no woman should be permitted to go below, as our health had not quite recovered from the shock it received at Otaheite; and the lady was obliged to be contented page 19with viewing the great cabin, where she was shewn the wonders of the Lord on the face of the mighty deep."

Hamilton having already recorded, "We now began to discover, that the ladies of Otaheite had left us many warm tokens of their affection," his reference to the health of the general crew is fairly plain. But in justice to the ladies of Tahiti I will quote him further. Of that island he said:

"This may well be called the Cytheria of the southern hemisphere, not only from the beauty and elegance of the women, but their being so deeply versed in, and so passionately fond of the Eleusinian mysteries; and what poetic fiction has painted of Eden, or Arcadia, is here realized, where the earth without tillage produces both food and cloathing, the trees loaded with the richest of fruit, the carpet of nature spread with the most odoriferous flowers, and the fair ones ever willing to fill your arms with love.

"It affords a happy instance of contradicting an opinion propagated by philosophers of a less bountiful soil, who maintain that every virtuous or charitable act a man commits, is from selfish and interested views. Here human nature appears in more amiable colours, and the soul of man, free from the gripping hand of want, acts with a liberality and bounty that does honour to his God.

"A native of this country divides every thing in common with his friend, and the extent of the word friend, by them, is only bounded by the universe, and was he reduced to his last morsel of bread, he cheerfully halves it with him; the next that comes has the same claim, if he wants it, and so in succession to the last mouthful he has. Rank makes no distinction in hospitality; for the king and the beggar relieve each other in common… Happy would it have been for these people had they never been visited by Europeans; for, to our shame be it spoken, disease and gunpowder is all the benefit they have ever received from us, in return for their hospitality and kindness. The ravages of the venereal disease is evident, from the mutilated objects so frequent amongst them, where death has not thrown a charitable veil over their misery, by putting a period to their existence.

"A disease of the consumptive kind has of late made great havoc amongst them; this they call the British disease, as they have only had it since their intercourse with the English."

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Before evening—to return to Samoa—the women went ashore, and the men began to be troublesome and pilfering. The third lieutenant had a new coat stolen from his cabin; and they were making off with every bit of iron they could lay hands on—being educated apparently by this time as to its value.

"It now came on to blow fresh, and we were obliged to make off from the land. Those who were engaged in trade on board were so anxious, that we had got almost out of sight of their canoes before they perceived the ship's motion, when they all jumped into the water like a flock of wild geese; but one fellow, more earnest than the rest, hung by the rudder chains for a mile or two, thinking to detain her."

That evening, at five o'clock, the Pandora parted company with, and lost sight of her consort. False fires were burnt, and great guns and small arms were fired without success, as it came on thick blowing weather.

After cruising two days in search of the tender, the Pandora proceeded to the rendezvous at Tonga—the Friendly Islands; but it was not for four months that the tender was found—in Samarang. On the same night of parting company, the natives of the south-east end of Upolu had made a determined attack upon the little vessel in their canoes:

"and their never having seen a European ship before, nor being able to conceive any idea of fire-arms, made the conflict last longer than it otherwise would; for, seeing no missive weapon made use of, when their companions were killed, they did not suspect anything to be the matter with them, as they tumbled into the water. Our seven-barrelled pieces made great havoc amongst them,"