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Title:  Old Samoan Days
Author: Louis Becke
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Language: English
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Old Samoan Days

Louis Becke


We lived right merrily down there in fair Samoa, four-and-twenty years ago, in the days when our hearts were young, and those of us who had dug our trenches before the City of Fortune took no heed of the watches of the night; for then to us there was no night—only long, long happy days of mirth and jollity, and the sound of women’s voices from the shore, mingling with the chorus of the sailors, and the clink, clink, of the windlass pawls as the ships weighed anchor to sail for distant isles. And no one checked our youthful insolence of mirth; for then there was no such thing known as the Berlin Treaty Act “for the Better Government of Samoa” with its comedy-tragedy of gorgeously bedizened Presidents, and Vice-Presidents, and Chief Justices, and Lands Commissioners, and goodness knows what, of whom no one in England would scarce have ever known, but that the slender, wasted finger of the man who rests on the summit of Vailima Mountain pointed at them in bitter contempt and withering scorn, as silly, vain people who lived in his loved Samoa.

Ah! merry, merry times were those in the olden days, although even then the rifles cracked, and the bullets sang among the orange groves along Apia beach; for the rebel lines were close to the town, and now and then a basket of bleeding heads would be carried through the town by mourning women who beat their brown naked breasts and made a tagi (Lamentation) throughout the night.

There were not quite a hundred white people living in Apia then, half of whom were Germans; the rest were Englishmen, Americans, and Frenchmen. But almost every day there came a ship of some sort into the little reef-bound harbour. Perhaps it was a big German barque, direct from Hamburg, laden with vile Hollands gin and cheap German trade goods; or a wandering, many-boated sperm whaler, with storm-worn hull, putting in to refresh ere she sailed northward and westward to the Moluccas; or a white-painted, blackbirding brig from the Gilbert Islands, her armed decks crowded with wild-eyed, brown-skinned naked savages, who came to toil on the German plantations; or a Sydney trading schooner such as was ours—long, low, and lofty sparred. Then, too, an English or American man-of-war would look in now and again to see how things were going, and perhaps try some few land cases which were brought before the captain, or make inquiries about that Will o’ the Wisp of the ocean, Captain Bully Hayes. And the air was full of rumours of annexation by one of the great Powers interested in Samoa, and the Americans mistrusted the English, and the English the Americans, and they both hated the Germans as much as the Samoans hated them.

* * * * *

One day I set out to pay a visit to a native friend—a young chief named Gafalua (Two Fathoms). And a very good name it was, too, for he was a man who stood over six feet on his naked feet. He lived at a pretty little village named Laulii, a few miles northward from Apia, and I had to cross several tiny rivers ere I came to the final stretch of beach that led to the place. The air was full of a sweet summer softness, and as I walked along the firm, hard sand, with the cool shade of the forest on my right, and the wide sweep of reef-bound water on my left, I felt a strange but delightful elasticity of spirits. Now and then a native carrying a basket of fruit or vegetables would pass me with swinging tread, and give me a kindly Talofa! (The Samoan salutation—“My love to you.”) or, perhaps, setting down his load, would stop and chat for a few minutes.

Presently, as I turned into a bend of the beach, I came across a party of some eight or ten people, seated under the shade of a coconut tree, and talking eagerly together. Most of them were old acquaintances, so laying down my gun, I accepted their invitation to stay and nofo ma tala tala fua, i.e., rest and indulge in a little talk; “for” said one of them, “we have news. There be now an American man-of-war at anchor in Saluafata. She came there last night, and now are we moved in our minds to know what this may mean to Samoa. What do you think?”

I shook my head. How could I tell? I knew nothing of these things. “Perhaps,” I suggested, “she has but come into Saluafata Harbour to give the men liberty, for there is much sickness in Apia.”

“Aye,” said one man, with a sigh, “ ’tis like enough. But are we never to know whether America or England will put their hand over us, or are we all to be swallowed up by the Germans?”

To this I could say nothing, only sympathise; and then I learned to my great pleasure that the name of the man-of-war was the Jamestown, for her doctor was an old friend of mine whose acquaintance I had made in the Caroline Islands a year before, when I was making my first voyage as supercargo. So after smoking a cigarette with my friends I bade them good-bye, and set out again for Laulii.

An hour later I reached the village, and was warmly greeted by some forty or fifty people of both sexes. Gafalua, they told me, had gone to Saluafata to visit the warship, yet if I would but send a message to him he would quickly hasten back to greet his white friend. And as they clustered around me, each one volunteering to be messenger, the chief’s daughter, Vaitupu, a charming girl of fourteen, accompanied by a younger brother, ran up and embraced me with the greatest demonstrations of joy, for I was once an old comrade of theirs in days gone by, in many a fishing trip and forest ramble along the shores of both Upolu and Savaii— the two principal islands of the group. And then, having sent off a message to Gafalua and written a note on the leaf of my pocket book to the doctor of the warship, I resigned myself to the never-ending attentions of my native friends. By and by, after I had eaten some baked fish and drank a young coconut, the whole of the elder women in the village entered the house, and seating themselves in a semicircle before me, plied me with questions as to where I had been all these long, long moons. Had I seen the black people of the Solomon Islands—they who ate men? Was it true, the tale they had heard of a trading ship coming from America to sell the people repeating rifles on long credit? Had I seen the great circus in Nui Silani (New Zealand) of which Pili had told them—a circus in which one man jumped over four-and-twenty horses? Or was Pili only a liar?

And then one old dame bent forward, and put the question:

“Why does the American man-of-war come here? Has she come to help our king Malietoa to fight the rebels and drive away the Germans?”

I could only say that I could not tell; for I had been away from Samoa for more than a year.

The ancient lady rolls herself a cigarette in a meditative manner, and then looks gloomily out before her upon the sea-front.

Tah!” she says at last. “It is always the same, always, always. ’Tis all talk, talk, talk. One day it is, ‘Ah, next moon American and English soldiers will come, and they will set up Malietoa, and the flash of their bayonets shall blind his cruel enemies, so that they will shake and turn pale!’; or, ‘Not next moon, but the one after, a big man-of-war will come from Peretania, and bring hundreds of red-coated fighting men, whose chief will draw a line with his sword on the beach at Matafele, and say to the king’s foes, ‘Keep thee all there, beyond that line, and within thine own bought land; step over but a hand’s space and thou shalt hear the rattle of a thousand English guns.’ But they never come—only the men-of-war, whose captains say to our chiefs, ‘Not this time; but by and by we shall help thee.’ And then at night time they make their ships bright with many lights, and the tamaitai papalagi (white ladies) from Apia and Matafele put on beautiful dresses, and they all dance and sing and laugh, and think no more of us Samoans; and in the morning, or in a day, or two days, the ships go away, and we Samoans are like fools, and hang our heads. Then the Consuls say, ‘Hush! be wise and wait’; but the Consuls are liars; one gives us fair words and sweet smiles and says, ‘Vitolia (Victoria) is great, she loves you Samoans, and will help you; but you must not want to fight the great German nation. You must come to us, and we shall send a letter to the great chiefs in Peretania (England) and America, and—by and by help will come.’ ”

It is impossible to describe the sneering, bitter emphasis the old woman gave to her last half-a-dozen words, imitating, as she did to perfection, the voice of the then British Consul. That gentleman is long since dead; and whilst his genial social qualities will long be remembered by those who knew him, his foolish official acts made him many enemies, and caused intense bitterness of feeling among the natives.

The grey-haired dame smoked on in silence, and then a tall, lithe-limbed girl rose from beside the old woman, and came over to me, and, taking the inevitable cigarette from her lips, offered it to me. “She is my son’s wife,” explains the old woman, as the pretty creature seats herself again; and then this soft-eyed, sweet-voiced girl says, with an innocent, childish laugh: “Tah! I love to hear the pa fana (firing of guns). My husband took two heads at Mulinu’u once. Fighting will come by and by, my mother, and your son shall bring you ‘red bread-fruit’ to look at again.”

For the edification of my readers I may explain that the term “red bread-fruit” was then the Samoan slang for decapitated heads. This amiable young lady evidently had a full share of the Samoan women’s spirit that causes them to very often leave the care of their children and houses to the very oldest of their sex, and follow the fortunes of their husbands or lovers to the camp.

Another hour passed, and then there came a rush of excited children along the narrow shady path that led into the village from the northward. “Gafalua is coming,” they cried pantingly, “and with him there are two officers from the ship—a little, dark-faced man with a black moustache, and a big, fat man.”

I ran out to meet them, and in a few minutes was shaking hands both with Dr. T— from the warship, and my native friend, the chief. The doctor, who was in uniform, was bound for Apia, in company with Lieutenant D—, to make inquiries concerning the outbreak of sickness there, the commander of the Jamestown not liking to take the ship to Apia until he had satisfied himself that there was no risk in so doing. The doctor agreed to meet me in Apia on the following day, and, if possible, join Gafalua and myself in a mountain excursion to the other side of the island, where we were to remain for a couple of days at the village of Safata.

* * * * * *

Early next morning, accompanied by Gafalua, his son and daughter, and four or five young men and women carrying cooked food for the journey to Safata, I set out for Apia—a three hours’ walk. Inquiring for the doctor at the American Consulate, I found a note for me saying that he and Lieutenant D— had returned to the ship to report that Apia was too unhealthy just then for her to make a stay at; also that he would apply for a few days’ leave, and expected to return in the evening. Leaving Gafalua and his followers at the native village of Matautu, I returned to my own ship, and gathered together a few extra traps for the journey. As I was pulled ashore the boat had to pass under the stern of a large Sydney trading brig, whose captain hailed me, and asked me to come aboard. With him were his wife and daughter, who were making a visit to Samoa after an absence of some years, and, curiously enough, that very morning they had been discussing means of going to Safata, to spend a few days there with the resident missionary, who was an old friend. To sail round in a cutter would mean at least a three days’ voyage, and a vast amount of discomfort.

“Why not come with us?” I suggested, “we can leave this evening, sleep at Magiagi” (a village a few miles from Apia), “start early in the morning, and be at Safata in the afternoon.”

In two minutes everything was arranged; the two ladies were to meet the rest of the party at the Vaisigago ferry, and I hurried ashore, delighted at my luck in securing such charming companions. Both Mrs. Hollister and her daughter spoke Samoan, and were great favourites with the natives of the Apia district. Early in the afternoon the doctor returned—happy with four days’ leave—and we were at once joined by Gafalua and his people. At the ferry we found the two white ladies awaiting us, with another addition to our party—the half-caste wife of an American storekeeper. Then we started.

Our way lay along the principal roadway or street of Apia, as far as the white-walled native church, and then made a detour to the left, inland. The town of Apia, or properly speaking, the towns of Apia and Matafele combined, are laid out in a very irregular manner; and the main street follows the curves of the beach.

The sun was somewhat fierce, and we hailed with delight the cool, shaded road which lay before us after we turned off from the town. It had been raining a few days previously, and the middle of the road was somewhat muddy, but the side-paths were dry enough for the ladies, who declined the offer of our natives to be carried till we reached the first resting-place. The soil here was a rich, red loam; and from the beach for nearly two miles inland the road lay through banana and taro plantations, with here and there populous villages inhabited by the adherents of Malietoa. Every now and then natives would pass us—generally women—with loads of taro, yams, or fruit; and it was pleasant to note the courteous manner in which they left the dry side-walk and stood in the boggy centre of the road while we passed. By nearly every one we were greeted with a smile and offer of fruit for the ladies, or a coconut to drink.

About two hours after crossing the Vaisigago and proceeding in a south-easterly direction, we heard the sound of a cataract, and presently we again got a sight of the river through the trees. We turned off at this spot to look at the favourite bathing place of the white residents, a deep pool of some fifty yards in length, surrounded by a thick, tropical vegetation. The Vaisigago here was a noisy, brawling little stream, and at the head of the pool was a gorge, between the black, gloomy sides of which the bright, clear water came rushing down with many a swirl and hiss, and forming in a deep, rocky depression a miniature lake. Our carriers laid down their burdens, and waited whilst we sat on the edge of the pool, to enjoy for a few minutes the pretty sight. The water was full of fish resembling English trout; and there were also two or three kinds of a small size, and precisely similar to those found in the rivers of Northern Australia. One of the natives went down into the creek, where the water was shallow, and groping with his hands under the boulders, caught two or three large shrimps; great fat, brown fellows, that jumped about in a most active manner when laid on the rocks beside us, making a peculiar snapping noise with their huge nippers. Taking one up, the native bit its head off, and then breaking the body into three or four pieces, desired Miss Hollister to throw them into the water. The instant the dismembered fragments touched the surface there was a rush of fish, and the glassy surface of the pool—for in the centre there was no apparent current—was swirled and splashed and eddied about. The doctor was so excited at such promising indications of sport that he announced his intention of returning to Apia, and borrowing a rod and tackle; but we agreed that on our return we should pay another visit to the pool, and make a day of it. This spot is locally known as “Hamilton’s Pool,” being named after the then port pilot, Captain Edward Hamilton. Many years ago, when H.M.S. Pearl was in Samoa, that ill-fated and gallant sailor, Commodore Goodenough, who was pierced to death by the poisoned arrows of the savages of the Santa Cruz Group, delighted to make his way here and drink in the romantic beauty of the scene.

But we could not linger. We had still some miles to travel ere we reached the bush village where we were to rest for the night. Shouldering their burdens, our carriers move briskly along, and presently we notice that we have almost reached the border of the narrow belt of littoral that lies at the back of Apia; for the road now presents a gradual but very decided ascent. Every now and then we hear the deep booming note of the wild pigeons, and slip cartridges into our guns in readiness for a chance shot, as even at this short distance from the town the great blue-plumaged birds are to be met with. The road has become narrower, and in the place of the tall, slender coco palms, growing so thickly in the flat country, we see all round us the great masoi and tamanu trees, towering up high above all their fellows of the wood. We meet very few natives now, and pass no more plantations. Every now and then the fuia, the Polynesian blackbird, utters his shrill, sharp note, and flitting in front of us perches on an overhanging branch, leaning his head on one side in a pert, impudent manner, and saucily staring with his beady black eye at the intruders. Bird life is plentiful here. Flocks of gay, bright little parroquets dart in quick flashes of colour among the undergrowth of the forest; while overhead there fills the air the soft cooing of thousands of ring-doves. Well have the Samoans named the ring-dove manu-tagi—the bird that weeps —for there is to their imaginative natures an undercurrent of sadness in the gentle cooing notes that fill the silent mountain forest with their plaintive melody, and which is rendered the more marked by the shrill scream of the parroquets, and the proud, haughty “boom!” of the red-crested pigeon.

As we near the village, the deep silence of the forest is broken by sounds like chopping and tapping on wood. It is the native women, beating out with heavy wooden mallets the bark of the paper mulberry to make tappa, the native cloth. Our natives quicken their steps and break into song; the sounds from the village cease, and then we hear plainly enough the soft voices of the women borne through the forest in an answering chorus of welcome. Ten minutes more, the ladies stepping out bravely in our midst, and we round the bend of the track, and there before us is a pretty little Arcadian-Polynesian village of some ten or a dozen thatch-covered houses. In the centre stands the largest edifice, a great mushroom-roofed house, open at the sides, and the floor covered with rough but clean mats made from the coconut leaf. Seated in the house are some five or six women, engaged in making tappa; but they hastily lay their implements aside, and one, quite an ancient lady, bids us come in; and, as is ever the case in Samoa with European or American travellers, welcomes us. We all file in, and in default of chairs or stools sit with our backs against the supporting posts of the house, whilst the women reach down from cross-beams overhead huge bundles of soft white mats with gaily ornamented edges, and spread them in the centre of the house. So far, the old woman alone has spoken, it being considered the height of bad breeding by Samoans for anyone to speak to or question strangers in public, until the chief or chieftainess in authority has done so. The mats being spread out, and having taken our seats cross-legged thereon, Samoan style, the old dame, in a slow, set speech, gave us her name, and said that her grandson, the chief of the village, with all his fighting men, was away at a Fono or native political meeting, and would not return till night, winding up her remarks by regretting that we had sent no notice of our coming, so that food and houses might be made ready for us; but that if our “young men” would assist she would have a pig killed and get food ready instantly.

No sooner said than done! Up jumps Talamai, one of our carriers, and disappears at the rear of the houses; and then arises a horrible squealing, and much laughter from the women and girls, as a huge black porker is dragged before the dame to inspect. She gives a nod. Thump! a blow from a heavy club terminates poor piggy’s woes, and the carcase is dragged off by our carriers and the women, many more of whom are now present, having come in from the plantations with vegetables and fruit.

How the native girls cluster round our two fair fellow travellers, and press fruit and young coconuts upon them; already they have made a couch of layers of tappa, with a soft roll of finely worked mats for a pillow, and the two white ladies recline thereon and look happy, and talk away in Samoan to the girls.

So we chat away till a wild-eyed urchin calls out to the women, and announces that the meal is ready to be taken from the oven of leaves and stones. Away run our hostesses, and in five minutes they return with roasted pork, fish, taro and baked plantains, which are laid out on platters made of interwoven coconut leaves. In the centre is placed a great pile of green coconuts. The two ladies are served with food on their couch; but the doctor and myself seat ourselves cross-legged on the ground and eat in thorough native fashion. Our entertainers sit each one behind a guest, and with a fue (or fly-flap) brush away the flies. Never a word is spoken by any of them except in a whisper; the young unmarried girls devote themselves to Mrs. and Miss Hollister, and leave us to be waited upon by the older women. This is intended as a mark of respect to our mighty selves; for to receive attention and consideration from elderly people in Samoa is looked upon as a graceful compliment.

We finished our attack on the platters, and then lighting our pipes, “lay around loose,” as the doctor called it, to watch the first shadows of sunset close round the little village. Darkness comes on very quickly in these latitudes; and soon from every house the evening fires send fitful flashes of light through their interwoven sides. The wild-eyed, Italian-looking boy takes a tappa mallet and strikes a long wooden drum standing out in the gravelled village square. It is the signal for evening prayer; and then, ere the rolling echoes of this primitive substitute for a church bell have ceased to reverberate adown the gloom-enshrouded forest, the women and children gather in the house, and decorously seat themselves round the sides. One of our carriers is the young Amazonian who made the pleasant remark anent the “red bread-fruit” at Gafalua’s village. She looks at her Pese Viiga (hymn-book), and says “Pese lua sefulu”—hymn 20— and then her clear bird-like notes lead the singing.

“By thunder, they can sing,” says the doctor, as the melodious voices of the women blend with the deeper tones of our stalwart carriers in a translation of “The Living Fountain.” The singing ceases, and then one of the carriers, a big burly, black-bearded fellow, bends his head and utters a short prayer. The demeanour of these simple natives was a revelation to some of our party; and at the conclusion of the short service the doctor asked to see some of their books. They showed him great, heavily bound translations of the Old and New Testament, hymn-books, and others of a devotional character; published in London by the British and Foreign Bible Society; and, indeed, the doctor admitted that the knowledge displayed by some of the women made him “feel rather low down in Scriptural history.”

Listen! From out the darkness of the forest depths the murmuring of voices. It is the men of the village returning from the Fono. Nearer and nearer they come, and now the women make the fires blaze up brightly by throwing on the dried shells of coconuts. Here they are now—twenty of them —and a brave sight they are, as with a steady tramp, tramp, they march two deep over the gravelly square, the firelight playing fitfully on their oil-glistening, copper-coloured bodies, and shouldered rifles. Every man is in full fighting fig— bodies oiled, hair tied up over the crown of the head with a narrow band of Turkey red cloth, and round their waists broad leather belts with cartridge pouches. Some carry those long, ugly, but business-like looking implements, the Nifa-oti, or death knife, used expressly for decapitation. A few have heavy revolvers of a superior pattern, and tied round the brawny arms and legs of all are ornaments of white shells or green and scarlet leaves intermingled. The chief calls halt, and then in a semi-military fashion dismisses them, and each seeks his house, their women-kind following.

Stooping his tall frame, the chief enters the big house, and in a quiet, dignified manner shakes hands with his visitors, and acknowledges former acquaintance with me by holding my hand and patting gently on the back of it—a custom that is common in many parts of Polynesia, denoting pleasure at meeting a friend. He does not shake hands with Mrs. Hollister and her daughter, but, like a well-bred Samoan, sits himself cross-legged in front of them a few paces distant, and, lowering his eyes, gives the ancient Samoan greeting to women of position, Ua’e afito mai, tamaitai, which rendered in English is, “Your highnesses have come.” His mother brings him food, and then we sit round and smoke in silence whilst the doctor fumbles about our traps and produces a couple of bottles and glasses, and uncorking one asks the chief to “take a taste.” His grandmother frowns disapproval as he pours out a “nip” that would please a second mate, and then, the big man, looking at us with a smile, says, To fa, tamaitai ma alii (Good-night, ladies and gentlemen), rolls himself in his white tappa covering, and placing his head on a curiously shaped bamboo pillow, is soon asleep. Simultaneously we follow suit. The ladies, in accordance with a Samoan custom, retire to sleep in a separate house inhabited by the Ana luma, or unmarried women, who escort them thither by the light of a torch.


We were awakened at sunrise by the villagers, and whilst the three ladies were making their toilettes, the doctor and I, accompanied by Gafalua and the chief of the village, went to bathe in the mountain stream near by. This was a feeder of the Vaisigago, and, like that stream, its waters were of a surpassing clearness, and full of trout and a species of dace. Returning to the village we found our breakfast awaiting us, and everything in readiness for a start. Half an hour later we set out, escorted for the first six or eight miles by the young women and children of the village, who insisted upon relieving our carriers of their burdens. About noon we reached the summit of the mountain range which traverses Upolu from east to west, and here we rested awhile before beginning the descent to the southern shore, and to say farewell to our companions from Magiagi, many of whom wished to accompany us to Safata; but on account of there being ill-blood between the two places they dared not. Only a few months before, so they told us, a war party of Safatans had made an attack on their village, but had been beaten off; some heads were taken on both sides, and the Safatans had retreated, vowing vengeance.

After lunch, which we ate under a huge banyan tree, we began our march again, and in a few minutes emerged from the gloom of the mountain forest out upon the verge of a plateau overlooking the coast for twenty miles east and west. But much as we desired to stay awhile and feast ourselves upon the gorgeous panorama of tropic beauty that lay beneath us, we could not, for there were dark clouds sweeping up from the north and a deluge of rain might fall upon us at any moment. So off we started down the steep and slippery path, catching hold of vines, hanging creepers, and branches of trees, to save ourselves from getting to the base of the mountain too quickly. Gafalua had sent Vaitupu and her brother on to announce the approach of a malaga (a party of visitors), and soon after we reached the level ground, and just as the first drops of rain began to fall, we heard the sounds of a native drum beating—the people were being summoned together to make preparations. Soon we gained the outskirts of Safata, and from every house we received invitations to enter and rest till the rain ceased, but we pressed on, and a quarter of an hour later entered the village itself, where we were warmly welcomed by the chief of the place. The three ladies found the missionary and his wife awaiting them, and promising to call upon them at the mission house on the following day the doctor and I bade them good-bye, and took up our quarters with Gafalua and his two children in a house specially set apart for us. A bowl of kava was being prepared, and this we drank with our entertainers, and then prepared to make ourselves comfortable for the night. As the mosquitoes were bad, our hosts had rigged up a screen of fine muslin for each of us white men, a large one for Gafalua and his children, and many smaller ones for the rest of our company. During the night the rain fell in torrents, but we heeded it not, for we were tired out with our twenty miles’ walk, and the natives perceiving our fatigue left us to ourselves at an early hour, after arranging a shooting and fishing excursion on the following morning.

A lovely sunrise greeted us when we awoke, and after eating a hurried breakfast of roast fowl and taro, we started, accompanied by Gafalua, his two children, and one or two Safata natives. We were to fish along the edges of the reef at a spot where it formed a miniature lagoon, and where, we were assured by Vaitupu, who knew the place well, we should have plenty of sport.

The sweet-scented masoi and cedar trees that fringed the forest extending from the foot of the mountain to the beach gave shelter from the rays of the sun to hundreds of the great blue-plumaged, scarlet-crested pigeons, and our progress was somewhat retarded in picking up the prizes that fell to the doctor’s breech-loader. Within twenty minutes of leaving the village we had secured enough to satisfy us all, and the boy fairly staggered under a load of fat, juicy birds. On reaching the beach we found a small native house, built under a giant bread-fruit tree, and untenanted. Into this we bundled our belongings, and set about rigging up our fishing tackle. The doctor, taking his cue from me, elected to fish with a hand line, looking aghast at the gigantic proportions of the rod offered to him by Gafalua, who, in his turn, gazed with astonishment at the doctor as he noticed him tying a large steel “Kirby” to the end of his line. “No good,” says Gafalua, “fish Samoa no like black hook, Samoa fish hook very good,” and displaying to the doctor a large mother-of- pearl fish hook, a marvel of ingenuity and strength. However, the doctor thought his way best, and so off we go. My young friends had not forgotten to bring me a pair of native sandals, woven from the tough fibre of the coconut, and once much used in Samoa; so, discarding my boots, I tied on the sandals in the orthodox manner, eliciting from the natives the laudatory exclamation, Si tagata Samoa, lava—“Like a son of the soil.”

Then all being in readiness we start for the reef.

* * * * *

The deep calm waters of the lagoon are protected on three sides by the coral reef; on the seaward side there is a narrow passage, just wide enough for a small craft to sail through, and through this the spent billows of old Pacific roll lazily and sink to rest in the silent depths of the lagoon waters. We make our way over the dry coral (for it is low tide) and take up our positions where we can drop our lines directly beneath us into the water.

The doctor stands on a little knoll of coral nearest the beach. Gafalua, his son and daughter and myself go further out towards the outer reef, and we are just about to drop our lines when a cry of alarm from the doctor is followed by a shriek of laughter from the girl, as a huge, yellow eel, with red eyes and snaky head, raises its sinuous body from out its coral niche beneath the surgeon’s feet, and shows its glistening, needle-like fangs. The doctor seizes a piece of coral and strikes it a stunning blow on the head, and his attendant native gives the hideous sea-serpent the coup de grâce by snicking off its head with his long knife. Tough customers, these eels; minus his head he still wriggles and twists his greasy, orange-yellow body about, as if losing his head were a matter of no particular moment. The doctor baits his hook with a bit of the eel and throws out his line. Gafalua, poising himself on a little coral knoll, lowers his rod and trails the shining pearl-shell hook, innocent of bait, backwards and forwards through the water, and then Vaitupu calls out triumphantly, “Aue! my father is first,” and sure enough the stout pole in the chiefs hand is bending and straining under the weight of a heavy fish. What a splashing and froth he makes as he comes to the surface, and then with a dexterous swing Gafalua lands a magnificent blue and yellow groper—weight about 10 lbs. Beside me now stands Vaitupu, gaff in hand, her dark eyes dancing with excitement, for the doctor has wagered me a dollar he lands a fish before I do.

“Here, here, O my dear friend,” cries Vaitupu, “drop your line here; down there in that great blue valley between the rocks are the great red puru (rock cod). Oh, such monsters, as big as a shark.”

Baiting with a large, wonderfully coloured crab, I drop my line into the “blue valley” while the girl and I watch the bait sinking slowly, slowly down, till it is almost lost to sight. A dark, misty shape rises up from the depths below, and Vaitupu clutches my arm.

Aue! it is a puru; strike, strike, my friend.”

No need for that, my girl; a vicious tug at the line nearly capsizes me, and puru makes a bolt. My line is, as the doctor says, thick enough to throw a buffalo, so no fear on that score; but now, with a soft chuckle of delight, the girl lends her aid, and we pull up hand over hand.

Tah,”says the little maid; “surely it is the king of all puru, it is so heavy.”

Whiz! and away he goes again, nearly taking the line away from us; gently now, he’s turned again, and we haul up quickly. Ah! there he is in sight now; a great scarlet-scaled fish with gleams of gold along his broad, noble back. “Bully boy,” calls out the doctor, “stick to him,” and the two chiefs give a loud Aue! of satisfaction as he comes to the surface struggling and splashing like a young alligator. Bravely done, Vaitupu! She stoops over the coral ledge, thrusts her right hand under his great gaping gills, and planting herself in a sitting posture hangs on like a Spartan, although the great strength of the puru nearly drags her over the reef. Leaping from knoll to knoll over the distance that separates us, Gafalua comes to our aid, and then reaching down his great brawny, brown hand, he too seizes puru under the gills, lifts him clear, and tosses him, lashing and struggling savagely, on the reef. Io triumphe; or rather Aue! We have conquered; and the blushing, panting Vaitupu smiles appreciation to the doctor’s encomiums of her pluck.

“Hurrah!” exclaims the medico, as he grasps the struggling prize with both hands by the tail, and attempts to lift it up. “What a pity we can’t take him back to Apia with us and see him served up on the Jamestown’s ward-room table. Sixty pounds’ weight, too, if he’s an ounce.”

We take up our positions again, and now both Gafalua and the other chief land fish fast enough; mostly species of trumpeter about 6 lb. or 8 lb. weight. The doctor gazes sadly at his line, not a sign of a bite yet, and turns for solace to his cigar case, when he starts up and gives an excited jerk at his line. “Hurrah! got one this time,” he calls out, and some ten fathoms away, near the surface of the water, we see the silvery sheen of a pala, a long slender fish like an attenuated salmon. An eccentric fellow this, for instead of allowing himself to be pulled in like any well-regulated member of his tribe, he executes some astonishing gymnastic feats, jumping clear out of the water and coming down again with a sounding thwack, then darting with lightning speed to port and then to starboard; and, as he realises it is not a joke, making a wild dive deep down into the coral caverns of the lagoon. But Esculapius keeps a steady pull, and with a wild whoop the doctor lands his first fish in Samoa.

Aue!” shouts the lively Vaitupu. “Oh, Misi Fo Maè (medicine man); oh, clever American, you too are a lucky man to thus catch a pala with a steel fish hook.”

And now the calm waters of the lagoon begin to swell, and gently lap the sides of the coral rocks; it is the tide turning, and the place seems alive with fish of all sorts of colours and shapes. Quickly as we drop our lines there is a tug and a splash, and every one of our party is too actively employed on his own account to heed the prowess of his companions. Half hour or more we retire from the field of our exploits to the little house on the beach, and whilst resting on the mats have the pleasurable satisfaction of seeing the boy laboriously dragging our captures over the coral reef and depositing them on the beach.

Grateful enough it is to rest after our labours and regale ourselves with cold pigeon and taro and bread-fruit, which the nimble fingers of Vaitupu spread out on extemporised platters of leaves. She is now at home with the doctor, and laughs gaily as she sees him endeavouring to open a young coconut. Her tiputa is thrown aside over one shoulder, revealing all the budding beauty of coming womanhood, and round her head she has already entwined a wreath of scarlet hibiscus flowers, gathered from a bush that flaunts its wealth of flowers and foliage near by.

And there we lay and smoked and talked, and gazed sleepily out upon the sparkling sea with the long line of foaming, reef-bound surf far below us, till the first air of the land breeze crept down to us from the mountains. Then, shouldering our burdens, we returned to the village to watch an evening dance, and then sleep peacefully till the morn.

* * * * *

The morning for our return to Apia broke brightly, with the booming of the feeding pigeons, and the shrill cries of the gaily-hued parroquets, as they flitted from bough to bough in the bread-fruit grove surrounding the town. The doctor had been up and away as the first streak of sunrise pierced through the lattice-worked sides of the house, to walk to the mission house and bid farewell to the ladies, who had sent us word that they had decided to stay at Safata for a week. As Gafalua and myself were having our breakfast we saw him striding down the leafy path in company with the missionary, who had returned with him to say good-bye. We made quite a strong party going back, as although we left the ladies behind at the mission, we found awaiting us some twenty natives of both sexes, who begged to be allowed to join our party, as they had business in Apia. The more the merrier, we say; and as we have already said farewell to the old chief and the principal people of the town, we now rub noses with the chief ladies thereof, and depart amidst a chorus of good wishes.

But I must not forget. It was Gafalua’s intention to leave Vaitupu with some of her Safata relatives for a few weeks, and with tears of vexation dimming her eyes she had said farewell to us at the village. The girl had quite won our hearts by her amiable and pleasing manners, and so the doctor and I, joining forces, begged her father to let the “little maid” cross the island again, and see the fighting ship with its guns that “loaded from behind.”

“Only let me go with you,” she pleaded, “and I shall be as silent as the dead. When we get to Apia, is not my cousin, Manumea, there? And I can stay there with her while you, my father, go to the olo (forts) of the Tua Masaga. But I, oh, most of all, I want to see the big man-of-war.”

The burly chief looked at his daughter, and then at myself and the doctor, and turning to the girl, patted her hand affectionately. “Thou shalt come, little one,” he said at last with a smile.

We followed the same road that had brought us to Safata, and as we struck deeper into the leaf-covered arcades of the forest, we lost the low murmuring of the breakers as they dashed upon the outer barrier reef, and heard the sudden calls of the pigeons resounding and echoing all around us. The morning dew was still heavy upon the trees, and as the birds flew away from or alighted upon them, a shower of pearly drops fell to the ground; then ever and anon we heard the shrill cackling note of the wild cock, as with outspread wings and scurrying feet he fled before us to his hiding-place in some vine-clad covert. Two miles more and we had crossed the narrow belt of littoral, and were ascending the mountain path, and now the vegetation grew denser at every step; for the sides of the mountain were clothed with a verdant jungle through which the rays even of the mid-day sun could scarcely penetrate. The path was, however, well worn, although in some places very slippery and precipitous. We envied the ease with which our native friends made the ascent, whilst we, with our boots clogged with the tough, adhesive red clay, every now and then slipped and fell.

An hour before noon we had reached the summit of the range, and with a sigh of relief assented to Gafalua’s suggestion to rest for an hour or so. And so we leant our weary backs against the buttressed trunk of a great white-barked tree, and enjoyed to our full the beautiful scene below.

The trade wind was very fresh, and had tipped with “white horses” the blue bosom of the Pacific; but away to the southward, where the outer reef reared its solid barrier against the ocean roll, there showed within its long sweeping curve the green, placid waters of shallow depth that glinted and sparkled in the tropic sun; and about the distant rush and roar of the breakers as they fell upon the reef ascended a misty haze that hovered and wavered perpetually above the swirling sheets of foam sweeping across the coral rock. Sometimes, when the waving branches above our heads ceased their soughing for a moment or two, we heard from seaward a faint murmuring sound that we knew was the voice of the ocean borne to us on the breeze. Far down below us we saw through an opening in the forest the thatched houses of the village, and our thoughts went back to the kindly, honest-hearted people who dwelt there. To the northward of us was hilly undulating country, and from the sides of the lesser hills we saw clouds of smoke ascending, showing that the men of the bush villages were at work clearing their yam plantations. It was a scene like to many such that may be viewed almost anywhere in the high mountainous isles of the Pacific, but to us at that moment it seemed the very perfection of tropic loveliness.

We reached Apia as darkness fell; and then, bidding goodbye to the doctor and Gafalua and the little maid, I hurried aboard our schooner, and found that she was only awaiting my return to sail at daylight.

And as the red sun shot up from the sea, the sharp bows of our little vessel cleft the swelling blue as she stood away northward and westward towards the distant Carolines, and long before noon Upolu was but a misty outline astern.

Louis Becke,


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