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Old Samoa or Flotsam and Jetsam from the Pacific Ocean

Introductory Notice

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Introductory Notice

The author of the present volume will not need introduction to those familiar with the story of Polynesian Missions; but his little book is not a record of missionary work, and appeals to a very varied circle of readers. In these days, current Samoan events are chronicled in the cable columns of every paper, and the political destiny of the archipelago awakens general and sometimes excited curiosity; but Mr. Stair's book rarely touches on the recent life of Samoa. Its unique interest consists in minute personal recollections of Samoa and the Samoans at a time when the islands were only gradually becoming known to Europeans, and when reminiscences of their first visitors, and the old traditions and customs of the islanders, if beginning to pass away (as they have very page 10largely done by this time), were at least fresh and definite in their memories, and eyewitnesses of strange scenes in the past could be met with, and catechized. It was still the ' Stone Age,' Mr. Stair claims, with the Samoans, and it is fortunate that a resident of so eminently ' historic,' i.e. keenly inquisitive, a mind spent seven years amongst them at that juncture, and can recall with so much precision the facts and experiences of half a century ago.

Mr. Stair is still (1897) on the staff of my Diocese (Ballarat, Victoria), though somewhat advanced in years, and exempt from pastoral charge. I found him Incumbent of St. Arnaud in 1875, where I periodically visited his parish, and was always freshly impressed with the keen interest he cherished in Samoa, and the abundance and accuracy of his personal recollections of his life there. His 'Flotsam and Jetsam' nowise exhausts these; indeed, I miss from it more than one racy story of old Samoa to which I listened at his table. The book reminds me strongly of these talks at the parsonage. Its writer makes no pretensions to elaborate literary style, but imparts his information after a simple unstudied method, the conversational flavour of which will not, perhaps, render it less acceptable to some of his readers. His store of original and carefully verified details is astonishing; and few can fail to be interested and entertained by his account of the island forests and page 11caves, the climbing ferns, and bowery breadfruit-vines, the subaqueous wonders of the lagoons, and the mysterious voices of the reefs. Of the way Samoans tempered the despotism of the Tapu with the ceremonious interference of the Tulafale; of the running of the gauntlet by unpopular chiefs at Tutuila, the daring voyage of Tu A 'ana to Rarotonga, and the strange return visit of Malietoa long afterwards on a loftier errand; of the bearing aloft of the chief's pet bird at a coronation progress, and the observances of the Fono, or parliament;-the orator's staff (no relation to our Speaker's mace), and the wholesome custom of manual work by members while listening to speakers; and of the in-genious forms of judicial punishment inflicted by the criminal himself under the judge's eyes (surely there is sound philosophy in this?), such as self-stoning, biting the poison-root, and jactitation of spine-bearing fish, he has much to say that is of abiding value. One traces a strain of honour and fairness and good sense in much of the old social traditions of the Samoans: and it is no small thing our author can say of them. that he found no evidence of systematic slavery ever having prevailed in the islands. Indeed, he succeeds in inspiring his reader with some of his own warm feeling towards the Samoans as he found them. That feeling was strong in an eminent writer lately passed away; but the Samoa of Mr. Stevenson was not that of Mr. Stair. The interest page 12of the latter's descriptions consists, we repeat, in their character of first-hand recollections of a period in Samoan history which it is his good fortune to have been able, by this his modest labour of love, to have rescued from oblivion.

Samuel Ballarat.

Bishopscourt, Ballarat.