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Old Samoa or Flotsam and Jetsam from the Pacific Ocean

Chapter II — Physical Character of the Islands

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Chapter II
Physical Character of the Islands

The islands in many parts are surrounded by coral reefs, which skirt the shore and form lagoons. These are valuable, both as affording good fishing-grounds for the natives, secure and pleasant voyaging in canoes or boats, and, in many instances, safe anchorage for small vessels. Such reefs and lagoons are very extensive around the island of Upolu. In some places they skirt the shore so closely that none but very small fishing-canoes can pass, and that only at high tide; whilst in other parts the lagoons are of considerable width. On the north side of there is a reef, which, commencing about six or seven miles eastward of Apia, passes round the west end of that island, and partly encloses Manono, continuing on from thence to Falelatai, six miles up the south coast, thus forming a continuous reef 33 miles in length. Its distance from the shore varies from 200 yards or so to two miles; but where it encloses Manono it takes a sweep of five miles.

It has been stated that openings in reefs exist only on parts of the coast where streams or mountain torrents flow into the sea. In the case of openings of sufficient page 45 page 46
pangopango harbour, tutuila.

pangopango harbour, tutuila.

page 47 magnitude to admit vessels, of considerable size, this statement generally holds good; but at Salelalonga, on Savaii, there is a good-sized harbour, with, as we were informed, not even a rivulet within many miles of the spot. Springs of fresh water are found there, which, although valuable for watering ships, &c., do not take the form of a running stream. In other parts of the islands there are many openings sufficiently large to admit boats or small canoes, and some even small vessels, in the neighbourhood of which no river is found. This is very much the case with the reef around the west end of before alluded to, where, for a distance of nearly twenty miles, no stream of fresh water is found, with the exception of a small one near Fasito'otai, at which place for some months in the year a very small stream is running; whilst in several parts of this reef openings exist of sufficient size to afford anchorage for vessels of 80 to 100 tons burden, in addition to many only adapted for canoes. On some parts of this coast, however, strong springs of fresh water are very abundant, but along the west end, where small openings are numerous, even these springs are comparatively scarce. On some parts of the coast, at low tide, very large springs of fresh water flow strongly from the sea bed at a short distance from the shore.

Of harbours there are several; one or more on each of the principal islands. Pangopango, on Tutuila, is a very fine one, almost entirely landlocked, and thus well sheltered and safe. It might very easily be strongly fortified, and made safe as to the front entrance; but on a rough day, the change from the sea to the quiet of the lagoon is most startling and agreeable.

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Great caution is often requisite on entering the openings in some of the reefs, and much skill is required on the part of the helmsman to prevent accidents. Such do sometimes occur, especially after bad weather, but they are not very common.

Among the objects of interest presented by these islands may be noticed numerous caverns, some of which are extensive; and although of not much interest in themselves, are so from the fact of their frequently having some romantic history connected with them. I visited several, which presented much the same appearance, differing only in extent.

One of the most remarkable of these caves is situated four or five miles inland of the settlement of Vaie'e, on the south side of , and has a romantic history attached to it. It is called O le Ana Se'uao, or 'the enclosing titles cave.' This cave I visited in 1843, in company with the late Rev. Thomas Bullen. I had heard a great deal of it from the natives, who regarded it with much interest, from the fact of its having afforded shelter for a long time to a remnant of a defeated army, who had taken refuge there, and remained concealed in safety for a long time, until, their hiding-place being discovered, prompt measures were taken for their destruction.

The accounts I heard of the place greatly interested me, and I determined to visit the spot in company with a friend. We found the entrance small, the surrounding soil having fallen down and choked it; but the place was well adapted for concealment. It was needful to stoop on entering, but, after passing the mouth of the cavern, it soon increased in size to 10 or 12 feet in page 49height, and 15 or 17 feet in width. Slightly raised terraces on either side were neatly covered over with small stones or gravel, and extended the whole distance we penetrated, and I have no doubt did so to the full extent of the cavern. These side terraces, or couches, had formed the resting or sleeping-places of the refugees, a footpath about 6 feet wide being left in the centre. Everything connected with these terraces was in perfect order, the stones being as neatly arranged as when left by the former occupants very many years before. Shelves and other resting-places on either side of the cavern had been prepared as additional sleeping-places, and these were also covered over with a layer of small stones or débris, so that the cavern would be able to shelter a large number of refugees. We had provided ourselves with torches, and proceeded some distance into the cavern, but were obliged to return before reaching the end of the cave in consequence of our torches failing, and also because of the anxiety of several of our party to return to the light of day. In several parts the whitened roots of cocoanut and other trees had forced their way through the roof, and hung down in all directions, giving an idea of insecurity to the whole roof; and a heavy thunderstorm passing at the time caused many and loud vibrations, which did not add a sense of security, so that I reluctantly yielded to the request of our party, and decided to return; first planting my walking-stick in the ground at our turning-point, as a memento of the extent of our researches in the cavern, and then sought the light of day. My visit to this spot greatly interested me, as I had previously heard from a chief of the district, Tupua, the history connected with page 50the cavern, and, on my return to A'ana, the information I had gained in Atua was confirmed by an old and well known orator, Viliamu, who also gave me still further particulars and information.

In the distant past A'ana with some allies were at war with a portion of Le Tuamasanga, and after a severe conflict the latter were defeated, and fled to this cave, their stronghold or Olo, where they took refuge with their wives and children; continuing for a long time to elude the search of their enemies. At last they were discovered, and the horrible resolve taken to burn them, and suffocate them in their hiding-place. Accordingly the woods soon resounded with preparations, and piles of firewood were heaped up in front of the cavern, to accomplish the dread purpose of the victors. Before these preparations were finally completed, and whilst the whole body of the pursuers were collecting at the cavern's mouth, an old blind orator of the vanquished party resolved to attempt the deliverance of himself and companions. Led by his little grandson, the old man attempted slowly to make his way to the cavern's mouth, through his excited and terrified companions. As they passed through the crowd he was pitied by some, abused by others, and assailed with the taunts of the more desperate: ' What did he, an old blind and helpless man, mean by pressing forward into the front of the danger? Better by far return to the inner part of the cave and quietly await the end.' Still the old man pressed forward through every obstacle, until at length he and his little grandchild stood in the entrance of the cavern. Once there, he commenced questioning the child as to the distinguishing dress and ornaments of the various page 51warriors who were continually arriving, party after party, and collecting in the vicinity of the cave, so as to surround it. Time after time the boy described the dress of the warriors, but the old man remained silent. At length the child said, 'Warriors are approaching with white cloth bound round their heads, followed by others who are headed by a leader whose body is quite covered with shells.' These were the warriors of Leulumoenga and Fasito'otai, the latter being headed by Taua'e, one of their principal orators, and priest of the war-god of the district O le Fe'e, and who was the person anxiously sought after by the old man in the cavern's mouth. He immediately addressed himself to this leader, and silence having been commanded, he pleaded hard with his friend that himself and companions might be spared. He acknowledged their perfect helplessness, and that they were at the mercy of the conquerors, but begged for life, pleading that, in the event of their being spared, they would not again bear arms against their deliverers, but would always assist them. 'Should you still resolve upon our destruction,' continued the old man, 'a remnant of our families will still survive, who will sullenly brood over our destruction and plot schemes of vengeance. Be merciful, and spare us in our extremity.' A long and animated discussion followed this appeal. As the old man expected, the orator and war-priest he had at first addressed was for pardoning the vanquished; others as vehemently contended for their destruction. At length, another and influential orator named Iuri made a powerful appeal on their behalf, and they were spared. Since that time the tide of war has turned, A'ana has been more than page 52once the vanquished party, but 'the cave of Se'uao' is still spoken of by the orators and leaders, both of A'ana and Le Tuamasanga, in quoting from their bygone history, and in their public discussions.

The appearance presented by the Samoan forests is striking and beautiful, so that, although from a long residence on the islands I became familiar with them, they never failed to excite in me feelings of delight. The number, size, and variety of the trees, whose branches often seemed interwoven into one another; the large size and often strange shapes of the foliage; the quantity and variety of beautiful parasitical plants with which most of the large trees were covered, added to the numbers of wild vines, either trailing or coiled upon the ground, or else hung like huge cables or ropes from some of the highest trees, were objects of interest upon which I could always look with surprise and pleasure.

Many of the large forest trees, especially in rocky and mountainous situations, present the remarkable appearance of buttresses projecting out from all sides of the trunk, commencing from about 8, 10, or 12 feet from the ground, and joining on to the roots, of which they form a part. Their thickness varies from 2 to 5 inches, but they are often several feet in depth. They slope, with a curve inwards, from the part of the trunk where they commence to the end of the exposed portion of the roots of which they form a part, and these then spread abroad for a considerable distance, thus forming a marvellous natural support to forest trees growing in localities where the soil is rocky and not of sufficient depth to allow the roots to strike downwards, and thus get a proper hold.

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Large tree-ferns and cocoanut-palms give interest and loveliness to many parts of the islands; the latter not only adding greatly to the beauty of the landscape, but also enabling the traveller to refresh himself at all times with a cool drink of delicious, slightly effervescing water, when perhaps he may be miles away from any spring or rivulet. It is difficult to over-estimate the value of such a luxury when tired or thirsty, on a journey. Of this invaluable tree there are sixteen varieties, including the niuvao, or wild cocoanut-tree, found in Samoa.

The soil, which is very rich, is being replenished by processes which are always proceeding to an extent and with a rapidity difficult to realize unless witnessed in progress in a tropical climate. Notwithstanding the great variety of trees, there are but few kinds of timber that can resist for any length of time the effects produced upon them by exposure to the damp and heated atomsphere of the islands. In travelling through the forests, I have often sunk ankle deep into the trunks of trees which to all appearance were sound, but which were quite rotten and decayed; and this rapid process of decay, which is proceeding at all times, is constantly adding to a soil previously rich and fertile beyond description.

This rich soil is so easily cultivated that the small amount of labour usually bestowed upon it, simply scratching the surface, in fact, is quickly rewarded by a large supply of excellent vegetables, such as yams, taro, sweet potatoes, as also the banana, plantains, and other valuable fruits; with, of late years, European and Asiatic fruits as they became known and were introduced.

I have alluded to the rapid decay of timber in the forests, when exposed to the alternate heat and moisture page 54of the climate, which greatly aided the process of clearing the land and preparing it for cultivation. It gave the cultivator but small concern as to what might be the description of timber or size of the trees that covered the land. Armed with a small hatchet and large knife, he commenced clearing the brushwood and creeping vines that blocked his way, and on coming to a tree he ring-barked it, to use a colonial phrase, i. e. he chopped the bark so as to form a small circle around the trunk to obstruct the sap, and then, having kindled a fire at the root of the tree with the brushwood, he passed on to the next tree, until all at hand had been similarly treated. In the course of a few days a good-sized piece of ground would have been cleared, nothing remaining but the trunks and leafless branches of the stately forest trees, when preparations would be made for planting.

The first crop was generally yams, which require a peculiar, culture and frequent change of site, two succeeding crops being seldom obtained from the same land. Should, however, the space available for cultivation be limited, as at Manono, the same land is planted again with yams after two or three years' rest. In newly-cleared ground the yams are planted at the foot of each tree-trunk left standing on clearing, the vines running up the trunk, which thus comes in handy.

After the first crop of yams has been cleared, taro is planted for several crops in succession, this root not requiring a change of site, like the yam. As an instance of the rapid decay of timber in the tropics, I may mention that where a fresh piece of forest land has been cleared and cultivated, by the time the second crop of taro is ripe, say eighteen months from the time of page 55first planting the yams, the greater part of the tree-stumps have usually fallen and become far advanced in decay. Some few large trees, however, remain for two years after the burning; but by this time few, if any, traces of the once stately forest trees remain.

Of the breadfruit, an invaluable tree, which with the taro plant forms the staff of life of the Samoans, there are twenty varieties. It is claimed for the variety known as O-le-ulu-Manu'a, 'the breadfruit of Manua,' that it was the first ever brought to the islands, and was the gift of Tangaloa-langi, 'Tangaloa of the skies.' The first chief of is said to have been Tangaloa; and he might have been the benefactor of his future countrymen.

Although called a fruit, it is really a vegetable; and to be enjoyed to perfection must be cooked, or rather steamed, in a native oven, when it forms a never-ceasing supply of valuable food to meet the daily wants of the people; some varieties being always ready to render up their treasures. Its fruit not only forms much of the staff of life to the people, but the tree itself is a lovely object in the landscape, where with its massive, dark, glossy green leaves and large apple-green coloured fruit, as well as handsome growth, it forms a striking object that ever causes delight to the beholder. It is difficult to imagine the loveliness of the scene presented by a grove of breadfruit-trees as seen in the bright moonlight, from which here and there the native houses, with their picturesque surroundings, stand out to view, or nestle in the thick grove. It is indeed a sight most beautiful to behold, and one that is usually long remembered. The wood of this tree is also of great value to the Samoans.