A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI.

A SHORE WITHOUT A REEF—SAMOAN PLANTS—HOUSES—ANIMALS—LAYING FOUNDATION-STONE OF A CHURCH—SCHOOL FESTIVAL—THE NAVIGATOR'S ISLES.
Leone, Isle Tutuila,
Sept. 21, 1877.

At early dawn my pretty half-caste damsel took me to bathe in the river, but the shore was muddy and not very attractive. We returned in time for service in the little church, which is about to be replaced by a much larger building, the foundations of which are already raised, and the great event of this afternoon has been laying its first stone.

Immediately after breakfast at the Fathers' house, I started with M. Pinart and M. de Kerraoul for a long, most lovely walk along the coast, by a path winding among dark rocks and rich ferns, with great trees overhanging the sea, which breaks in real surf below them, washing their roots, which seem alive with myriads of crabs of all sizes, which also wander at large among the branches, like so many birds. Many of the lower boughs are actually fringed with shells and sea-weed, while the growth of parasitic ferns on the upper branches is wonderful to behold. The muddy shore of the river seemed literally moving, from the multitude of burrowing crabs, with one large pink claw; and every now and again a great land-crab would peer at us from some fruit-laden branch, with its curious eyes projecting on movable stalks, which turn about at will.

This is the first place in the Pacific where I have seen grand green waves break on the shore. Throughout the Fijian isles they spend their force on the barrier-reef, and only the gentlest ripple washes the coral sand. The rainfall here is greatly in excess of that in Fiji, consequently vegetation is richer, and the intensity of green more remarkable. So far as I can judge, the general foliage here is identical with that of the most fertile of "our" isles. The cocoa-nuts are much larger.

I am afraid to confess how hateful to me is the very thought of returning to long weary winters in Britain, with six dreary months of leafless undress. Do you realise that in all these isles there are only two or three deciduous trees, and that the majority put forth their wealth of young leaves almost faster than the old drop off? They are "busy trees" indeed, laden at once with bud and blossom, ripe and unripe fruit, and in many cases bearing several crops in a year. No wonder that these light-hearted people care so little to weary themselves with digging and delving, when the beautiful groves yield them fruit in abundance, and the mountains supply uncultivated crops of nourishing bananas and wild yams. For that matter, I suspect it is really quite as fatiguing to climb the steep mountains in search of wild vegetables as it would be to grow them in gardens—probably a good deal more so—for the beautiful mountain-plantain, which is the staple article of food, grows in all the most inaccessible valleys and clefts of the rock. As you look up the steep hill-side, so richly clothed with vegetation, the most prominent forms are these large handsome leaves, with their huge cluster of fruit growing upright from the centre, but to reach them you may have to climb a couple of thousand feet—and such climbing! A man would need to be in very robust health who could face such a walk to fetch his family food. For my own part, I should prefer to sacrifice the romance, and plod steadily at my yam-garden.

These mountain-plantains are the only branch of the family which carry their fruit upright in that proud fashion; all other sorts hang drooping below the leaves, like gigantic bunches of yellow grapes; and the native legend tells how, long ago, all the banana tribe held their fruit upright, but that in an evil hour they quarrelled with the mountain-plantain, and were defeated,—hence they have ever since hung their head in shame.

In heathen days the Samoans seem to have been greatly averse to unnecessary work, and even the art of making cloth of the paper-mulberry fibre was one which their indolence long prevented them from acquiring, though they greatly admired that which their Tahitian teachers made for them. Now, however, they appear fairly industrious, and the women particularly so—those of the highest rank priding themselves on being the most skilful weavers of fans, mats, and baskets, and in making the strongest fibre-cloth. The chief men also are willing to do their full share of whatever work is going on, whether house-building, fishing, working on the plantation, or preparing the oven and heating the stones to cook the family dinner.

Now all the chief men wear very handsome cloth, thicker and more glossy than that made in Fiji, though less artistic in design. Fifty years ago the regular dress of all the men was merely a girdle of leaves—a simple form of dress, but one which was never dispensed with, as in many of the Papuan group; indeed, one of the most humiliating punishments in heathen days was to compel a culprit to walk naked through the village, or so to sit for hours in some public place. To this day a leafy girdle is considered essential as a bathing-dress—the long dracæna leaves being those most in favour. They are so arranged as to overlap one another like the folds of a kilt; and as they vary in colour, from brilliant gold to richest crimson or brightest green, the effect produced is as gay as any tartan. This is the favourite liku, or kilt, in Fiji even now.

But on great occasions in olden days, as at the present time, the chiefs, and their wives and daughters, wore very fine mats of the most delicate cream colour. They are made two or three yards square, and are as soft and flexible as cloth. The best are made from the leaves of the pandanus, scraped till there remains only a fibre thin as paper; but the bark of the dwarf hybiscus also yields an excellent fibre for weaving mats. Their manufacture is a high art. It is exclusively women's work, but is one in which few excel, and is very tedious,—the labour of several months being expended on a mat which, when finished, may be worth about ten dollars.

The strong paper-like cloth commonly worn, is much less troublesome to manufacture. There are several plants from which a good cloth-making fibre is obtained. One of them is the magnificent giant arum, the leaves of which often measure from 5 to 6 feet in length, by 4 in width. Its root is large in proportion—truly a potato for a giant. How you would delight in the cosy brown cottages whose thatched roofs just peep out from among such leaves as these. You do realise that you are in the tropics when you see gigantic caladium or quaint papawas, splendid bananas with leaves 6 or 8 feet long, and tufts of tall maize or sugar-cane 15 to 20 feet high, growing luxuriantly at every cottage-door.

To-day we passed through several villages, and were everywhere greeted with the kindly salutation Ole Alofa (i.e., "Great Love "). We were invited to enter many houses; and though our scanty vocabularies did not suffice for much conversation, a mutual inspection was doubtless gratifying to both parties. The language of the Samoans is soft, and their voices musical. To express thanks, they say Faa-fetai. The familiar Vinaka! Vinaka! (i.e., "Well done!" in Fijian) is here rendered by Le-lei! Le-lei! Good-night, is Tofai.e., "May you sleep." The Samoan language is generally described as the Italian of the Pacific—it is so mellifluous. It is, however, a very difficult one for a foreigner to acquire thoroughly, as it has three distinct dialects—the language used in addressing a high chief, a middle-class gentleman, or a peasant, being altogether different; and a further complication arises from the politeness which leads the highest chief to speak of anything referring to himself in the dialect which describes the lowest of the people. In Samoa, however, as in the other Polynesian group, one language is spoken on all the different isles, and there has at all times been free intercourse between them—a very different state of things from that which prevails in such groups as the New Hebrides, where each isle has a dialect—perhaps two or three—unknown to any of its neighbours, and where one tribe dares not set foot on the land of another.

Samoa has always been in many respects superior to most of her neighbours. Not only was she free from the reproach of cannibalism, but also, in great measure, from that of infanticide, which prevailed to so frightful an extent in neighbouring groups. Here children were never destroyed after their birth, though it is supposed that fully two-thirds of those born in old days, died from mismanagement in nursing. The sick were invariably treated with kindness, and old age lovingly tended. Such horrors as the burial of the living, as practised in Fiji in heathen times, were never dreamt of in Samoa.

In no land is old age more beautiful than here—partly because the tendency is to corpulence in place of leanness; and the eyes retain their clear, piercing brightness, and the countenance a kindly expression, which tells of the powerful good sense for which many of these people have been so remarkable. Certainly they are a handsome and attractive race.

We noticed in all these villages the same characteristic in house-building which struck us at Pango-Pango—namely, that there is a good deal of roof supported on posts, but little of anything answering to a wall; so the houses resemble huge oval mushrooms, and home-life is of a very public description. There are, however, movable screens of plaited cocoa-palm, which are put up so as to enclose the house at night, on the same principle as the paper walls or screens which compose the sides of a Japanese house, and which are generally removed in the daytime. The wooden screens invariably are so.

At night the interior of a Samoan house resembles a small camp, as large curtains of heavy native cloth are slung from the roof and hang like tents, within which the sleepers lie on a pile of soft fine mats, their necks, not their heads, resting on a bamboo or wooden pillow raised on two legs. Furniture is conspicuous by its total absence. A few baskets for fish or vegetables hang about the walls, and a few bundles containing cloth and mats lie in the corners. Cookery is done out of doors in the native ovens, for Samoans have no pottery of any sort; so the picturesque cooking-pots of a Fijian kitchen are lacking. The very few cooking or water pots which are sometimes seen in a chief's house have invariably been imported from Fiji, and are prized accordingly.

The roof itself is one of the most precious possessions of the isles. Ponderous as it appears, it can be divided into four parts, and removed from one place to another, should the family have occasion to flit. The great rafters are bound together by strong creeping-plants (vines or lianas) from the forest, and the ordinary thatching consists of sugar-cane leaves, strung on reeds, which are laid so as to overlap one another: sometimes a heavy cocoa-palm matting above all, secures the roof against a very high wind.

Some of the Samoan homes revealed very pleasant cool-looking groups of comely lads and lasses lounging on their mats, making and smoking the invariable tiny cigarettes, consisting of a scrap of tobacco rolled up in a morsel of the dried banana-leaf fringe they wear round the waist. A few were whiling away the hot hours of the day by a game with small cocoa-nut shells: each player has five shells, with which he tries to knock every one else's shell from a given spot, leaving his own in their place. They also play a game something like forfeits. They sit in a circle, in the centre of which they spin a cocoa-nut on its thin end; and as it falls, the person towards whom the three black eyes point is considered to have lost. In the same way they cast lots to decide who shall do some work or go an errand. In one village a party of lads had assembled on the village green to play totoga, or reed-throwing—a game very common in Fiji. The reeds, which are 5 or 6 feet in length, have oval wooden heads about 4 inches long, and the skill lies in making these skim along the grass to the furthest possible distance.

In a green shady glade we saw a party of young men, very lightly clad, practising spear-throwing, aiming at the soft stems of banana-trees, which I suppose represented the bodies of their foes. In the game they take sides, and one party tries to knock out the spears planted by the other. Sometimes they carry very short spears, and in throwing these, aim so as first to strike the ground, whence the shaft glides upwards towards the mark. I am told that a feat is sometimes performed which must involve marvellous coolness as well as dexterity. A man, armed only with a club, stands up as a target, and allows all the others to throw their spears at him. All these he catches with his club, and turns them aside in quick succession. It can scarcely be called a pleasant game, however.

We saw several distressing cases of elephantiasis, which is here called fè-fê, and, we are told, is common. It produces hideous malformations; and the sufferers are pitiable objects, the arms and legs being hideously swollen. The natives attribute this disease to the action of the sun; but some Europeans who have suffered from it declare that it is also produced by exposure to the night air, and by excessive drinking of kava. Happily it is painless. Some of the Samoans suffer severely from ulcers; and we heard of some cases of ophthalmia.

Here and there, beneath the green shade of the plantains, close to the houses, we noticed hillocks of white sea-sand, surmounted by a low oblong cairn of wave-worn pebbles, with a layer of white stones on the top. These are the graves of the household. No Highlander is more careful to have his own bones, or those of his kindred, laid beside the dust of his forefathers, than is the Samoan. To him the idea of a common cemetery is repulsive. His desire is to be laid in the tomb in the garden, on land belonging to his family. When a man of any consequence dies, the ends of a canoe are cut off, and it is used as a coffin. This, however, is an innovation. The true old custom was to wrap the body in mats only—fine soft mats—and to lay it in a shallow grave, with the head to the east and the feet towards the setting sun. The wooden pillow and cocoa-nut cup of the dead were buried with him. Then the grave was covered with white sand, and the cairn was raised, always about a foot higher at the head than at the feet.

If the deceased was a chief of any note, bonfires were kindled at short intervals all round the grave, and the mourners sat near and fed the fires till dawn; and this they did for ten consecutive nights. But in the case of commoners, it sufficed to keep up a blazing fire all night in the house, taking care that the intervening space was so cleared as to allow the warm light to rest on the grave. The household fireplace was, as it is still, merely a circular hollow in the middle of the house, lined with clay, only a few inches deep, and rarely exceeding a yard in diameter. As the house has no walls, there is no difficulty about smoke, but considerable danger of setting fire to the surrounding mats. Nowadays, the fire in the house burns only for warmth, and for the convenience of lighting cigarettes; but in heathen days a blazing fire was kindled every evening in honour of the gods, to whom the house-father commended the family and all their interests.

Near one of the villages we caught a glimpse of a dark olive-green snake, the first I have seen for many a day. They are not quite so rare here as in Fiji, but are equally innocent; and the girls take them up without hesitation, and play with them, and even twine them round their necks. We also saw some wood-pigeons and a few paroquets, and lovely little honey-birds, with crimson-and-black plumage.

As we crossed the river a frightened water-hen darted from among the bushes—swallows skimmed lightly through the air, and several exquisite blue-and-yellow kingfishers glanced in the sunlight, as they flashed in pursuit of bright-coloured insects.

Flying foxes are very numerous, and, as they hang suspended from the boughs, head downwards, have the effect of some curious fruit. They are excellent to eat, as we discovered in Ceylon; but most Europeans have a prejudice against them—I cannot see why, as they feed on the best and ripest fruits. I quite understand the objection to the little insectivorous bats, which cluster in thousands among the rocks, clinging one to another, till they appear like brown ropes. The smell of these is simply disgusting.

These are not the only night-birds of Samoa. I am told there are a good many owls. I did not, however, see any, neither was I so fortunate as to see the Samoan turtle-dove, with its exquisite plumage of peacock-green blending with crimson. Green paroquets abound, and a small scarlet-and-black bird.

When these isles were first discovered, an indigenous dog was found in the mountains—a small, dark-grey animal, with very little hair, short crooked legs, long back, and large erect ears. It fed on bread-fruit and yams, having no other animal on which to prey, with the exception of the little native rat. The natives very naturally considered both dog and rat as dainty dishes for high days. Happily they contented themselves with these, and held cannibalism in abhorrence. The wild dog was also found on Hawaii, Tahiti, and New Zealand.

On some of the isles there was a native breed of pigs, lanky, long-legged creatures. Like the rats and dogs, they made a virtue of necessity, and were strict vegetarians. They were found in Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, and the New Hebrides. These are the only three quadrupeds that appear to have been indigenous on any of the Polynesian isles; and now all three are extinct, having died out on the introduction of their foreign kindred, in obedience to that sad fate which appears to rule the destinies both of men and beasts.

The people whose ideal quadruped was a pig, very naturally judged of all imported animals by this standard: so a goat or a cow became known as a horned pig; a horse, a man-carrying pig; a cat, a mewing pig. When the first goat was landed on one of the Hervey Isles, where even pigs were unknown, the natives called one another to come and see "the wonderful bird with great teeth growing out of its head!"

The most interesting aboriginal inhabitant of Samoa is a little kind of dodo, or tooth-billed pigeon, here called Manu-mea.[1] Though now rare, it is still to be found in the forests, generally hiding in the tops of the highest trees. The natives say that it used to frequent the ground, but that since the introduction of foreign cats and rats, which have proved its deadly foes, it has instinctively retreated to safer quarters. Its diminished numbers may probably, however, be attributed to the high value set on it by the Samoan epicures. It is said to be closely allied to the extinct dodo. Its body resembles that of a pigeon, but its head and beak are those of a parrot. Its general plumage is dark-red, the head and breast being grey. Eyes, legs, and feet are all red, and the beak is reddish gold. When captured, it is generally very savage, and bites severely, but it is occasionally tamed, and feeds on fruit.

Formerly the sporting world of Samoa found its chief pastime, not in pigeon-shooting, but in pigeon-catching, which sounds a very innocent amusement, but which was indulged in to such excess that the teachers found it necessary to discourage it, as it led to the schools being quite deserted, and all work at a stand-still, for months at a time—the favourite season being from June till August. The Hurlingham of Samoa was a large circular clearing in the forest—(there were many such). Thither the whole population of a district would resort, having previously prepared great stores of provision. Grandfathers and little children, but especially young men and maidens, delighted in the dove-festival, dear to happy lovers. They erected temporary huts in the forest, and there took up their abode for a prolonged picnic. Many an idyl of the forest might have been sung by the flower-wreathed minstrels of Samoa; and the wide world could offer no lovelier scene than the exquisite tropical forests of these happy isles, where no hurtful creature lies hidden. But I fear that even here the idyls were not free from occasional touches of shadow; though doubtless there were reflected lights, enough to relieve any transient shade, and lovers' quarrels were forgotten in new loves.

All round the central clearing, hiding-places were constructed and covered with green boughs. In each of these a sportsman was concealed, holding in one hand a stick to which a tame pigeon was attached by a string some ten yards in length. These pigeons were all trained to fly round and round; and the wild wood-doves seeing so many of their fellows circling round one spot, naturally supposed there was something good to be shared, and ventured near, when, from each ambush a long slim bamboo was thrust forth, with a net attached, and the stranger was forthwith captured. Of course, he who caught the largest niunber was the hero of the hour, and to him was presented the evening feast—at which baked pigeons figured largely. Some, however, were preserved alive, to be trained as decoy-birds, as this pigeon-taming was a favourite occupation at all seasons of the year,—indeed is so at the present time; for the Samoan takes as much pride in his doves and pigeons, as a Briton does in his hounds and horses. The birds are trained in such habits of idleness that they will not even feed themselves, but sit patiently waiting till their master actually puts their daily bread—yam, banana, or cocoa-nut—into their open mouths.

The Samoan dove and its wooing furnished the theme for one of the prettiest of the native dances. The girls, while gently gliding to and fro, utter the low soft call of the female dove, their mates answering from afar, in deeper resounding tones, and circling around, ever drawing nearer and nearer, till the wooers and the wooed unite in a ballet of much graceful fluttering.

We got back to Leone just in time to see the ecclesiastical procession start from the old church to the site of the new one. At the consecration service, the bishop wore his mitre and a very gorgeous vestment of patchwork, presented by the Samoan ladies. I grieve to have to record that in leading the procession round the foundations of the new church, he made the turn widdershins.[2] I believe that this is contrary to ecclesiastical custom—and of course to my Scottish mind it suggested grievous misfortunes in store.

An immense crowd of people had assembled, and the influence of European bad taste was too apparent in several cases; as for instance, in the uniform selected by a large college of young men, and provided by themselves—namely, white trousers, magenta blouse, and sky-blue waist-band! The girls wore white calico sulus[3] and pale-green pinafores, which, with their hair dyed yellow, were becoming. But they looked a thousand times better when, at a school-festival held later, they exchanged the white skirts for very fine cream-coloured mats embroidered round the edge with scarlet wool, necklaces of large scarlet berries and green leaves, and scarlet hybiscus and green leaves in their hair. They went through some very pretty school exercises, illustrated by much graceful action.

Then some very fine women came up, wearing handsome new mats of hybiscus fibre, which, when newly prepared, is pure white, and after a while becomes creamy in hue. They presented us all with very pretty fans of woven grass.

Then came a presentation of much food, including about thirty pigs, which were, ere long, devoured by the assembled multitude.

The bishop was terribly exhausted by all this prolonged exertion and much talking; but as an instance of his never-failing kindness to everybody, I may tell you, that when the school-feast was over, I came to this, my special nest, remarking to some one that I was fatiguée, forgetting that the word may be interpreted as "not well." So when the kind bishop came home to his much needed rest, he heard this, and, tired as he was, at once came to this house, which is at some distance, bringing a great roll of native cloth to soften my mat couch, and chocolate and other little delicacies, which he thought I might fancy. I was so sorry,—but it illustrates the beautiful unselfishness of that genial nature.

To-morrow we are to leave this lovely isle Tutuila and cross to the great isle of Upolu, on which is situated Apia, the capital.

This group, which in our schoolroom days we were taught to call the Navigators Isles, but which its inhabitants know as Samoa, consists of eight principal isles and several small islets. By far the largest are Savaii and Upolu—the former being 250 miles in circumference, the latter 200. Both are very beautiful, having high mountain-ranges, visible at a distance of 70 miles, and richly wooded. They are separated by a strait about 12 miles wide, the mouth of which is, as it were, guarded by two small islands, Manono and Aborima.

The former lies close to Upolu, and one reef encircles both. It is the home of some of the high chiefs, and is an exceedingly fertile little island, clothed with the richest verdure. It is about five miles in circumference.

Aborima, as seen from the sea, appears to be only a huge precipitous mass of rock, rising to a height of 200 or 300 feet. It is about two miles in circumference, and is probably the crater of an extinct volcano, for it is shaped like the hollow of a hand, whence it derives its name. It is inaccessible, except at one small opening between the steep cliffs; but passing between these you enter an amphitheatre, which, from the base to the summit, presents an unbroken mass of tropical vegetation—a most marvellous transformation scene from the desolate crags of the seaboard. A charming little village nestles beneath the fruit-bearing trees in the basin.

This natural stronghold belongs to the chiefs of Manono, who use it in time of war as a safe refuge for their families and store-house for their property. All they need do, is to guard the narrow entrance, which they can either defend by dropping rocks on the invaders, or by so placing ropes across it that they can overturn their canoes. So, although the warlike men of Manono have occasionally been driven from their own isle, they have always found a secure retreat in this lovely rock-girt fortress, where they take good care always to have abundant stores of food ready for emergencies. That they need such a place of refuge, you may infer from the fact that when they were first visited by white men, about fifty years ago, a basket was suspended from the ridge-pole of a sort of war- temple, and in it were preserved 197 stones, which were the record of the number of battles which, the men of Manono had fought up to that date!

I do not know how many of these isles we are to visit. The more the better, since all are beautiful. But whenever I admire anything, the invariable reply is, "You like this? Ah, wait till you see Tahiti!" Evidently it is the ideal isle. No one will believe that I am not going on. Indeed I am beginning scarcely to believe it myself. Well, we'll see when we reach Apia.




  1. Didunculus strigirostris.
  2. Or more correctly, in old Celtic parlance, tuaphol—that is to say, a turn contrary to the course of the sun, keeping the left hand towards the centre. It was only used when invoking a curse, as opposed to the turn deisul, which invoked a blessing on the object round which the turn was made. The superstition is common to all lands in whose early mythology sun-worship held a place. See 'From the Hebrides to the Himalayas,' vol. i. p. 203.
  3. The sulu of the Friendly and Fijian Isles, the pareo of Tahiti, the sarong of the Malays, or the comboy of the Singalese, is simply a fathom of cloth wrapped round the lower limbs, and reaching to the knee or the ankle, according to the width of the material.