A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 5

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In the House of the Native Catechist,
, Wednesday, 19th.

We have had a long delightful day, and I am tolerably tired; but before taking to my mat, I must give you some notion of what we have seen. All the early morning the ship was surrounded by canoes full of natives, offering clubs, native cloth, and baskets for sale. Some of the canoes had ornamental prows with carved birds, &c.

After breakfast I went ashore with M. Pinart to see all we could of the village. We were invited to enter several houses, which are much more open and less like homes than those in Tonga or Fiji. But the people are all in a ferment, for, as usual in poor Samoa, this is only a lull in the course of incessant tribal war, and the people of Pango-Pango belong to the Puletoa, who were severely beaten in a recent battle. They are, however, keen to return to the fray, and this morning all the warriors assembled in full conclave, holding a council of war. They arrived in large canoes (some of their canoes carry upwards of 200 people, but those we saw had not room for above 50). They are noble-looking men, the fairest race in Polynesia, and truly dignified in their bearing. Some wore crowns of green leaves, and many had blossoms of scarlet hybiscus coquettishly stuck in their hair, which is cut short, dyed with coral-lime, and frizzled and stiffened with a sort of bandoline made of the sticky juice of the bread-fruit tree, mixed with scented oil; so that, instead of being straight and black, it stands round the head in a stiff halo of tawny yellow, like that of the Fijians and Tongans.

Is it not strange that the same curious rage for converting black hair into gold should prevail on this side of the world, just as it has in London in various epochs of fashion's folly, as when the attendants of "The Virgin Queen" dyed their raven locks with a lee of wood-ashes, especially those of "ivy-tree bark," or a decoction of the flowers of broom, either of which was warranted to "cause the hair grow yellow"? Of the various alkaline washes in use at the present day, and the good champagne converted to a hair-wash, I need not speak. Besides, these are mysteries which I have not yet solved.

Here there is no deception at all in the process. It is all carried on in open day, for the simple and cleanly purpose of exterminating wee beasties. The head, whether male or female, that has just been whitewashed, presents exactly the appearance of a barrister's wig stuck on to a bronze statue. But such work is all done on undress days; and of course to-day every one was got up in full suits of mats and foliage, with a good coating of fresh cocoa-nut oil, the effect of which, on a brown skin, is admirable. The Psalmist knew what it was, when he spoke of "oil to make him a cheerful countenance." The man who neglects it looks dull and lack-lustre; while he who, having anointed his flaxen locks, has then given his face and shoulders a good polish, seems altogether radiant.

Of course we found our way to the House of Debate. The spokesmen were apparently eloquent orators, very fluent, making use of much gesticulation and very graceful action. Each carries a fly-flap, which is his badge of office, and consists of a long bunch of fine brown fibre, very like a horse's tail, sometimes plaited into a multitude of the finest braids, and all attached to a carved handle about a foot in length. With this, when not engaged in speechifying, he disperses the flies which presume to annoy his chief. But while talking, the fly-flap is thrown carelessly over the right shoulder. Dainty little flaps of the same sort are carried by many persons in preference to the fibre-fans in common use. I observe, however, that there are fewer fans here than in Fiji, where you are always offered one the moment you enter the poorest hut.

I was struck by the rapt attention with which the audience favoured each successive speaker. The bishop was present, accompanied by the captain. They wished to remonstrate with the big chief on the subject of crtain persecutions of Catholics, and also to urge him and his party to submission. They are but a handful compared with the others, and the strife seems so hopeless, and has already cost so many good lives; but I fear the good bishop's efforts are all in vain. Like the Hebrew peacemaker, he "labours for peace; but when he speaks unto them thereof, they make them ready to battle." And now, in every village and in every house, all the men are busy rubbing up their old guns, and preparing ammunition, making cartridges, and so forth.

We returned on board at noon; and after luncheon, the bishop had to return in a ship's boat to Leone. He most kindly invited me to accompany him. We were a full boat-load—Père Soret and Père Vidal, two chiefs, two other natives, one officer, and twelve French sailors. The sea was very rough, and we shipped so much water that two men were told off to bale incessantly. Of course our things got very wet. On these occasions the bishop is seen in perfection; he is so cheery and pleasant to every one, sailors and passengers, and makes the best of everything, though himself suffering greatly.

This sort of boating is very different from travelling on our lovely Fijian lagoons, within the shelter of the encircling reef. Here the huge breakers dash madly on the shore, where they spout like geysers through a thousand perforated rocks, and we had to remain fully half a mile from land to avoid their rush. Oh for the calm mirror-like sea-lakes over which we have glided for the last two years, till I, for one, had wellnigh forgotten what boating in rough water means! To-day our ten stout rowers could with difficulty make any way, and our progress was slow.

We saw enough of the island (Tutuila) to agree in the general praise of its green loveliness. Its high volcanic hills are densely wooded, and look more tropical than those of Ovalau (Fiji). But our powers of appreciation were considerably damped by the invading spray, and we watched the rugged coast, chiefly with a view to knowing whether there was one spot where a boat could land in case of need; but in the whole run of twelve miles, there was not a single place where it would have been possible. Even here, at this large native town, there is only a narrow break in the rocks, where landing is tolerably safe in fine weather.

As we drew near we saw a large body of Samoan warriors exercising on the shore, and hear that the people have assembled from far and near to take measures for immediately crushing the rebels at Pango-Pango (our friends of this morning). The chiefs here belong to the Faipule faction.

The good Fathers invited me to tea at their house, and then handed me over to the care of Dorothea, the excellent wife of their catechist, who had prepared the tidy inner room of her house for my reception. Here I am most cosily established. My hostess, with about twenty of her scholars, nice-looking girls, have hung up great screens of tappa to act as mosquito-nets; and under these they are sleeping peacefully in the outer room. Of course I brought my own net and pillow, being too old a traveller ever to risk a night without them; and my bed is a layer of fine mats, beautifully clean and temptingly cool. To these I must now betake me, so good-night.

In the Teacher's House, Thursday Night.

I started in the early morning for a long walk, taking as my guide a graceful half-caste girl with flowing black hair. She wore a fine mat round her waist, and a pretty patchwork pinafore, of the simple form generally adopted here—that is, a fathom of cloth, with a hole cut out of the centre to admit the head and neck. It is trimmed with some sort of fringe, either of fibre or grass. Occasionally two bright-coloured handkerchiefs, stitched together at the upper corners, supply the simple garment, which, however, is not an indigenous product of Samoa, but was the tiputa introduced by the early Tahitian teachers. It is practically the same as a Spanish poncho. All the shore here is edged with black volcanic rock; the lava seems to have formed huge bubbles as it cooled, and many of these have been water-worn till they are connected one with another by innumerable channels. So the waves rush tumultuously into these subterranean caves, and thence through hidden passages, till they reach openings like deep wells which lie at intervals along the shore, at some distance from the sea. Through these chimneys the rushing waters spout in great foam-fountains, and the effect produced is that of intermittent geysers, all along the coast. I think some of the jets must have been fully 100 feet high—and how the great breakers do surge and roar! No peaceful silent shore here!

We passed a very large deserted European house, built by Mr Scott of the Presbyterian Mission. How so large a house came to be required, or why it was abandoned, are mysteries of which I have heard no solution.

I returned to breakfast with the Fathers, to whose house I go for all meals. Happily the kind forethought of Captain Aube has provided me with a private teapot and a good supply of tea and sugar, so that I can have a brew whenever I wish;—a great comfort, as the ecclesiastical hours are very irregular, the Fathers being in the habit of luxuriating on dry yam, drier biscuit, and cold water. The only attempt at cooking is that of a nice half-caste lad, who is the bishop's sole attendant, and combines the duties of chorister, acolyte, episcopal valet, and cook; so his duties in the latter capacity have to wait on the former.

It seems we have arrived here at a most critical moment. The majority of the chiefs of Tutuila have assembled here to hold council of war how most effectually to subdue the rebels. The majority are in favour of war. A few have not yet arrived. All to-day they have been sitting in parties all round the malœ—that is, the village green. At intervals one of the "talking men" stood up, and, laying his fly-flapper on his bare shoulder, leant on a tall staff, and, without moving from the spot where he had been sitting, threw out an oration in short, detached, abrupt sentences. Having had his say he sat down, and each group apparently made its own comments quietly. There were long pauses between the speeches, which made the proceedings rather slow; but we sat by turns with all the different parties (we, meaning myself, M. de Kerraoul, and M. Pinart, who had walked across the hills from Pango-Pango).

After a while, the bishop was invited to speak—a great exertion, as the audience formed such a very wide circle. He took up his position beneath the shade of a bread-fruit tree in the centre, and though his voice was very weak, he was distinctly heard by all—and his speech seemed impressive. Of course he urged peace, and he has a good hope that at least the Roman Catholic chiefs will allow themselves to be guided by him. But the meeting closed with a bad tendency to war, which was illustrated by various actions in the manner of bringing in the feast, the way in which women, wearing trains of tappa, were going about all day, carrying bowls of kava to the orators, and other symptoms evident to practised eyes. Many of the men wore beautiful crowns of Pearly Nautilus shell, which are also symptomatic of warlike intentions.

The bishop's words, however, were not without effect. The council assembled again to-night, and is still sitting, and I hear that after much talk the chiefs have written a letter to the chief of Pango-Pango, again inviting him to submit, and so avert war.

Just now I mentioned the bowls of kava with which ministering damsels refreshed the thirsty speakers. Perhaps I should explain that it is the identical drink which I so fully described, in writing to you from Fiji, where it was known as yangona—namely, a dry root masticated, till there remains only a fine white fibre, as free as possible from saliva. This is placed in a large wooden bowl, and water is poured over it. It is then strained through a fine piece of hybiscus fibre till all the particles of root have been removed, when there remains only a turbid yellow fluid, tasting like ginger and soap-suds, which is gently stimulating, like weak sal-volatile, and has the advantage of rarely resulting in intoxication, which, in any case, is a very different affair from that produced by drinking spirits. A man must drink a good deal of this nasty kava before he can get drunk; and when he does, his head remains quite clear,—he merely loses the use of his limbs, and has to appeal to the compassionate bystanders to lift him to a place of safety. If his companions were white men, they might obligingly empty his pockets while he looked on helplessly; but South Sea Islanders would scorn to take so base an advantage of a man in his cups. On the contrary, they will obligingly bring him some mountain bananas, nicely roasted in their skins, which are considered a corrective, and will then leave him to sleep himself sober.

Different groups have trifling differences in their method of preparing this national beverage, and the ceremonies to be observed. In Fiji it is considered very incorrect for a woman to touch the bowl,—chewing, straining, and handing it round in cocoa-nut shells, should all be done by young men, whose comrades sing wild melodies during the manufacture, and keep up a peculiar measured hand-clapping while the chiefs are drinking. Here, in Samoa, the girls are all Hebes. They do the brewing, and carry round the cups, but there are no songs (yangona-méké), and the only hand-clapping is done by the drinker himself as he hands back the cup. In Fiji, the correct thing is to send the empty cup skimming across the mat to the great central bowl.

This afternoon a corps of sixty warriors favoured us with a very odd sort of drill dance. Their dress consisted of kilts of black calico, trimmed with cut-out white calico, to look like tappa; on their heads a turban of Turkey red; their mouth and chin hideously blackened, which on these very fair people produces a monstrously ugly effect. They all had muskets, and were called soldiers; but we thought their drill was more funny than warlike, and concluded that they would be quite as dangerous to their friends as their foes. They have a sort of American flag, invented by Colonel Steinberger.

The dance was a very miserable travesty of a true native méké, such as we have so often seen in the isles further west; but here the vulgarising influence of white men is painfully evident, and one of the prominent figures at the chief's council was a high chiefess in a huge crinoline, a gorgeous red dress, and a hideously unbecoming hat trimmed with scarlet and green ribbon and feathers:

"Oh, wad some power the giftie gie us,
To see oursels as ithers see us!"

Could that proud woman but have known with what different eyes we, the great strangers representing all Europe, looked on her fine foreign clothes, and on the pretty becoming attire of her handmaidens, with their finely plaited and fringed mats, necklaces of scarlet berries on their clear olive skin, and bright blossoms in their hair!

Philosophers tell us there is always good in things evil; and so far as outward appearance goes, the tendency to war is in favour of artistic beauty, as these people (like the Samoans and Tongans) connect the idea of good behaviour with pretty closely cropped heads; but when the war-spirit revives they become defiant, and let their hair grow like a lion's mane, and adorn themselves with gay wreaths and garlands from the neck and waist. When a man has allowed his hair to grow long, he twists it up in a knot on the top of his head, but it would be considered gross disrespect to appear thus in presence of a superior or at a religious service. He must then untie the string and let his hair fall on his shoulders. Rather odd, is it not, that they should have exactly the same idea on this subject as a Chinaman, who dares not venture to appear in presence of a superior with his pigtail twisted round his head?

To-day the great chief's half-caste secretary asked me most anxiously when "Arthur Gordon" was coming from Fiji, and whether it was really certain that he would endeavour to force the Samoans to reinstate King Malietoa. I ventured to answer for Sir Arthur having no such intention, which seemed to soothe the inquirer and all his anxious surroundings. You may remember that we have twice had Samoan chiefs in Fiji. Once when they were brought as hostages on board the Barracouta, and once as a deputation to the British Government, to claim a protectorate from England. In each case, though the protectorate was refused, they were most kindly received by Sir Arthur Gordon, and amongst other attentions, were invited to dine at Government House. So several of those here assembled now recognised me as an old acquaintance, and are very friendly in consequence.

It really is too sad to see those fine manly fellows, who, if they could but work in concert, might be such a powerful little community, now all torn by internal conflicts and jealousies, continually fanned by the unprincipled whites, who hope to reap their harvest in the troubles of their neighbours. I fear it would be difficult in a few words to explain the position of affairs, but I must give you a rough outline.

The old original Tui Samoai.e., kings—were of the dynasty of Tupua. Some generations back the Tongans came and invaded Samoa, whose people resisted bravely, and finally expelled the foe. The Wellington of that day was a brave chief, who was thenceforth known as Malietoa, the "Good Warrior," a title which from that day has been borne by the chief ruler of the isles, even if not in the direct lineal descent. The chiefs of Savaii, and of part of Upolu, with the lesser isles of Manono and Apolima, elected Malietoa their king. The isles of Auna and Atua remained loyal to the Tupua family. They were, however, conquered by a successor of Malietoa, who reigned as king of the whole group till 1840, since which period a ceaseless strife has been waged between the contending factions. These became aggravated in 1869 by a split in the Malietoa camp, when, on the death of the reigning chief, his two sons contested the succession. The chiefs of Savaii supported the claims of the elder brother, while those of the isle Monono elected the second, justly believing that the chiefs of Apia were becoming mere tools in the hands of the foreigners.

This double civil war, fomented as usual by the whites, raged till 1872, when the United States assumed a sort of protectorate over the group, and in the following year a republic was declared, the supreme power being vested in the hands of a representative body of seven high chiefs. These were called the Taimuai.e., the "Pioneers."

I must tell you that the great nobles of Samoa are called Alii, and the greatest care is taken to preserve their line in direct lineal descent from the ancient chiefs. It is not necessary that the title should descend from father to son, only that it should be bestowed on a member of the family, who can trace back his clear pedigree to the true source. Therefore, on the death of a high chief, the minor chiefs of the tribe elect the member of the principal family, whom they will henceforth acknowledge as their political head, reserving to themselves the power of deposing him should he prove unsatisfactory.

These minor chiefs also hold their title as head of the family by election—a son being often passed over in favour of a cousin, and sometimes even of one who is no blood relation, but is adopted for some political reason. These head men are the Faipule, who act as local magistrates in each village, the affairs of which they discuss in solemn conclave. They have the name of being great orators, and much eloquence flows in these legislative assemblies. The great chiefs never speak in public, that office being deputed to their official spokesman. In a general way the Samoan isles have divided themselves into ten districts, each of which has its distinct fono or parliament, and no action is taken in any matter till the members of one council have arrived at something very near a unanimous decision. Of course, in times of war like the present, these matters are very irregular.

In January 1875, a new experiment was tried. Unheeding the wisdom which forbids having "two queens in Brentford," the Samoans resolved to have a king of each dynasty, who should reign jointly: so Pulepule of the ancient Tupua race ascended the throne in company with Malietoa Laupepa; and the number of the Taimua was raised from seven to fourteen. How long this amicable arrangement might have continued, it is impossible to say; for on the 1st April 1875, a very serious phase of April fooling was enacted by an American adventurer, known as Colonel Steinberger, who, by some means not clearly explained, obtained a passage to Apia in the United States man-of-war Tuscarora, and on landing stated that he had been sent from Washington to organise a new government. As his sole credentials, he presented the Samoans with four pieces of cannon and a Gatling gun, which, he said, were a gift from President Grant.

Utterly ignoring all the foreign consuls, including the representative of the States, he proceeded, under protection of the American man-of-war, to draw up a new constitution, declaring Malietoa sole king, and himself (Steinberger) prime minister, and, in fact, supreme ruler. This matter being settled, the Tuscarora sailed, and Steinberger proceeded to arm the schooner Peerless (which he had purchased in San Francisco) with guns and ammunition, and sailed to Tutuila to put down the disturbances in that island. The American consul (Mr Foster) vainly remonstrated against the proceeding of this unlicensed vessel flying the American flag; and taking advantage of the arrival of H.M.S. Barracouta, commanded by Captain Stevens, he seized the Peerless for breach of the neutrality laws.

Then followed a meeting of all the foreign residents, resolving to free themselves from the tyranny of this self-constituted dictator. Many of the Samoan chiefs joined with the foreigners in claiming British protection—the German consul, Godeffroy's representative, being the only one to stand aloof. The Barracouta arrived on the 12th December; and on the 7th February, Malietoa appealed to the United States consul to aid him in getting rid of his arrogant premier. Mr Foster forwarded this petition to the British consul and Captain Stevens, who, after an interview with the king and the Samoan representatives—the Taimua and the Faipule—agreed to arrest Steinberger, who, accordingly, was carried on board the Barracouta for safe keeping.

His right hand, Jonas Coe, was however left at large, and by his advice the Steinberger faction proceeded that night to seize the king and carry him off to the isle of Savaii, where they forced him to sign a deed of abdication, vesting all power of government in the Taimua and Faipule. Within a week Malietoa contrived to send a message to Captain Stevens, acquainting him with these circumstances, and requesting his further aid. The Barracouta accordingly went to the rescue, and brought the king back to Apia, where he was landed with a salute of twenty-one guns, and a guard of marines was told off to protect him. The town was now full of armed mobs, who surrounded the British consulate in a threatening manner, so that Mr Williams, the consul, was obliged to swear in special constables for its protection.

So matters went on till the 13th March, when the king, wishing to explain to his people his reasons for dismissing Steinberger, summoned all the chiefs to meet him at the neighbouring village of Mulinunu, which lies on a green peninsula beyond Apia. Malietoa was escorted by his principal chiefs, the consuls, and foreign residents, and Captain Stevens, with a guard of sailors and marines; the latter with unloaded arms, which were piled on reaching the village. Then, in their rear, appeared a strong party of armed natives, cutting off their retreat, and evidently meditating an attack. An officer, with a small party of marines, advanced to parley with these men, but were received with a volley of musketry, which killed and wounded several. Then followed a sharp skirmish, in which the sailors fought at a great disadvantage—the enemy being 500 strong, and concealed by the dense thickets of bananas and sugar-cane. Eleven sailors and marines were killed and wounded, and the assailants lost about double that number. Grave fears were entertained that the British and American consulates would be attacked; so they were put in a state of defence, which proved a sufficient precaution. Next day Mr Jonas Coe was tried by his consul and countrymen, and sentenced to be deported. So he enjoyed the privilege of joining his chief on board H.M.S. Barracouta, which soon afterwards sailed for New Zealand, calling at Fiji on the way (on which occasion I made friends with the three Samoan chiefs whom Captain Stevens had brought away as hostages for the good behaviour of their party).

Much oil having been poured on these troubled waters by the soothing intervention of both French and English missionaries, and especially by the personal influence of the bishop, a superficial peace was established, and Malietoa Laupepa once more reigned as king. How soon disturbances have broken out, we now see too plainly.[1]

After our evening meal at the Fathers' house, I took a turn in the moonlight with M. Pinart and M. de Kerraoul, hoping to see a Samoan dance, which was to come off soon after sunset. But the council having again met, the dance was deferred till so late that I thought it better to come back here, where I found all the pretty little school-girls adorned with garlands, singing and acting very pretty quaint songs and dances, illustrating their geography, arithmetic, &c. Then about twenty grown-up women, who had come in from the village, sprang to their feet, and volunteered to show me some of the real old Samoan night dances—Po ulu faka Samoa. These were exceedingly ungraceful, and half their point seemed to consist in making hideous grimaces and contortions, and in reduccing wearing apparel to a minimum, consisting chiefly of green leaves. I think that on the slightest encouragement they would have dispensed with any. Each figure was more ungainly than its predecessor, and seemed likely to be prolonged indefinitely; so, as it struck me that the entertainment would scarcely meet with the approbation of the good Fathers, should it occur to them for any reason to come over, I suggested that the children should give us a parting song, whereupon they sang "Malbrooke" and "Bon Soir" very prettily, though I daresay the French words they repeated did not convey much more to their minds than do the Latin prayers.

Then the party dispersed, and now the school-girls are all safely stowed away beneath their close tappa mosquito-curtains, like a regiment under tents, and I am in possession of the inner reeded room. It is a great boon to have such a haven of refuge from the multitude of gazing brown eyes.

By the shouts from the rara I know that the council has broken up, and the real Samoan dance has now begun; but from the specimen given to me by the ladies, I think it is just as well that I came away.—Now, good-night.

  1. The struggle lasted for some time. Finally, Malietoa again got the upper hand, and was acknowledged king by the foreign Powers, General Bartlett, U.S., being his prime minister. In August 1879, the Hon. Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, Commissioner for the Western Pacific, arrived at Apia, and concluded a treaty with the king and Government of Samoa, declaring perpetual peace and friendship between the people of their respective isles. The Samoans ceded to Britain the right to establish a naval station and coaling depot, as had previously been granted by treaty both to Germany and America. On the 8th November 1880 King Malietoa died. He was barely forty years of age, and a man greatly loved by all his own people. Probably but for the disturbing presence of the meddling whites, he might still be reigning over a happy and prosperous people. As it is, the country is once more in a state of anarchy; and the good bishop, whose heart yearned for the peace and prosperity of the people, has himself passed away to the world where all is peace.