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A Cruise in the South Seas by Louis Becke

(HINTS TO INTENDING TRAVELLERS)

The traveller who makes a hurried trip in an excursion steamer through the Cook, Society, Samoan, or Tongan Islands has but little opportunity of seeing anything of the social life of the natives, or getting either fishing or shooting; for it is but rarely that the vessel remains for more than forty-eight hours at any of the ports visited. Personally, if I wanted to have an enjoyable cruise among the various island groups in the South Pacific I should avoid the "excursion" steamer as I would the plague. In the first place, one sees next to nothing for his passage money if he fatuously takes a ticket in either Sydney or New Zealand for "a round trip to Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, and back." Certainly, he will enjoy the sea voyage, for in the Australasian winter months the weather in the South Seas is never very hot, and cloudless skies and a smooth sea may almost be relied upon from April until the end of July. At such places as Nukualofa, the little capital of the Tonga Islands, an excursion steamer will remain for perhaps forty hours; at Apia, in Samoa, forty-eight hours; and at Papeite, the capital of the French island of Tahiti, forty-eight hours. At the two latter places the traveller will be charmed by the lovely scenery, and disgusted by the squalid appearance of the natives; for within the last ten years great changes have occurred, and the native communities inhabiting the island ports, such as Apia and Papeite, have degenerated into the veriest loafers, spongers, and thieves. The appearance of a strange European in any of the environs of Apia is the signal for an onslaught of beggars of all ages and both sexes, who will pester his life out for tobacco; if he says he does not smoke, they say a sixpence will do as well. If he refuses he is pretty sure to be insulted by some half-naked ruffian, and will be glad to get back to the ship or to the refuge of an hotel. And yet, away from the contaminating influences of the town the white stranger will meet with politeness and respect wherever he goes—particularly if he is an Englishman—and will at once note the pleasing difference in the manners of the natives. Yet it must now be remembered that Samoa—with the exception of the beautiful island of Tutuila—is German territory, and German officials are none too effusive to Englishmen or Americans—in Samoa.

But if any one wants to spend an enjoyable time in the South Seas let him avoid the "excursion ship" and go there in a trading steamer. There are several of these now sailing out of Australasian ports, and there is a choice of groups to visit. If a four months' voyage is not too long, a passage may be obtained in a small, but fairly fast and com fortable boat of 600 tons sailing from Sydney, which visits over forty islands in her cruise from Niué or Savage Island, ten days' steam from Sydney, to Jaluit in the Marshall Islands. But this particular cruise I would not recommend to any one in search of a variety of beautiful scenery, for nearly all of the islands visited are of the one type—low-lying sandy atolls, densely verdured with coco-palms, and very monotonous from their sameness of appearance. Their inhabitants, however, are widely different in manners, customs, and general mode of life. To the ethnologist such a cruise among the Ellice, Gilbert, and Marshall Islands would no doubt be full of interest; but to the traveller in search of either beautiful scenery or sport (except fishing) they would be disappointing.

Let us suppose that the intending traveller desires to make a stay of some two or three months in the Samoan Group. He can reach there easily enough from Sydney or Auckland by steamer once a month, either by one of the Union Steamship Company's regular traders or by one of the San Francisco mail boats. From Sydney the voyage occupies eight days, from Auckland five. The outfit required for a three or four months' stay is not a large one—light clothing can be bought almost as cheaply in Samoa as in Sydney, a couple of guns with plenty of ammunition (for cartridges are shockingly dear in the Islands), a large and varied assortment of deep-sea tackle, a rod for fresh-water or reef fishing, and a good waterproof and rugs for camping out, as the early mornings are sometimes very chilly. And there is one other thing that is worth while taking, even though it may cost from £30 to £50 or so in Sydney—a good secondhand boat, with two suits of sails. Thus provided the sportsman can sail all along the coasts of Savaii and Upolu, and be practically independent of the local storekeepers. To hire a boat is very expensive, and to travel in native craft is horribly uncomfortable, and risky as well. And such a boat can always be sold again for at least its cost.

A stay of two or three days, or at most a week, in Apia is quite long enough, and the stranger will get all the information he requires about the outlying districts from the Consuls or any of the old white residents. Such provisions as are needed—tea, sugar, flour, biscuits, tinned or other meats, &c.—can be had at fairly cheap rates; but a large stock should be taken, for, besides the keep of the native crew of, say, four men, it must always be borne in mind that a white visitor is expected to return the hospitality he receives from the native chiefs by making a present, and the Samoans are particularly susceptible to the charms of tinned meats, sardines, salmon, and falaoa (bread or biscuit). That such a return should be made is only just and natural, though I am sorry to say that very often it is not. Then, again, it is very easy to stow away in the trade box in the boat eight or ten pieces of good print, cut off in pieces of six fathoms (which is enough to make a woman's gown), about 30 lbs. of twist negrohead tobacco (twenty to thirty sticks to the pound), half a gross of lucifer matches, and such things as cotton, scissors, combs, &c., and powder, caps, and a bag of No. 3 shot for pigeon shooting. Now, this seems a lot of articles for a man to take on a short Samoan malaga (journey), but it is not, and for the £50 which it may cost for such an outfit (exclusive of the boat and crew's wages) the traveller will see more of the people and their mode of life, be more hospitably received, and spend a pleasanter time than if he were cruising about in a 1,000-ton yacht. The wages or boatmen and native sailors in Samoa are usually $15.00 per month, but many will gladly go on a malaga (the general acceptance of the word is a pleasure trip) for much less, for there is but little work, and much eating and drinking. But, as sailors, the Samoans are a wretched lot, and the local living Savage Islanders, as the natives of Niué Island are called, are far better, especially if there is any wind or a beat to windward in a heavy sea. These Savage Island "boys" can always be obtained in Apia. They are good seamen and very willing to work; but they have to be fed entirely by their white employer, for the Samoans seldom make a present of food to a crew of Niué boys, for whom they profess a contempt and designate au puáai.e. , pigs.

The Samoan Group consists of five islands, trending from west by north to east by south. The two largest are Upolu and Savaii. Tutuila, and the Manua Group of three islands are too far to the windward to attempt in a small boat against the south-east trades. And it would take quite three months to visit the principal villages on the two large islands, staying a few days at each place.

The best plan is to make to windward along the coast of Upolu after leaving Apia. A large boat cannot be taken all the way inside the reef, owing to the many coral patches which, at low tide, render this course impracticable. The first place of any importance is Saluafata, fifteen miles from Apia (I must mention that Apia is in the centre of Upolu, and on the north side), then Falifā, an exquisitely pretty place, and then Fāgoloa Bay and village, eight miles further on. This is the deepest indentation in Samoa, except the famous Pāgo Pāgo Harbour on Tutuila, and the scenery is very beautiful. After leaving Fāgoloa, the open sea has to be taken, for there is now no barrier reef for ten miles, where it begins at Samusu village, to the towns of Aleipata and Lepā, two of the best in the group, and inhabited by cleanly and hospitable people. This is the weather point of Upolu, and after leaving Lepā the boat has a clear run of over sixty miles before the glorious trades to the lee end of the island—that is, unless a stay is made at the populous towns of Falealilli, Sāfata, Lafāga, and Falelatai, on the southern coast. The scenery along this part of the island is enchanting, but sudden squalls at night-time are sometimes frequent, from December to March, and 'tis always advisable to run into a port at sunset.

Two miles off the lee end of Upolu is the low-lying island of Manono, which is, however, enclosed in the Upolu barrier reef. It is only about three miles in circumference, exceedingly fertile, and is the most important place in the group, owing to the political influence wielded by the chiefly families who have always made it their home. A mile from Manono, and in the centre of the deep strait separating Upolu from Savaii, is a curiously picturesque spot, an island named Apolima. It is an extinct crater, but has a narrow passage on the north side, and is inhabited by about fifty people, who are delighted to see any papalagi (foreigner) who is venturesome enough to make a landing there.

Savaii is distant about ten miles from Upolu. Its coast is for the most part itu papa —i.e., iron bound—but there are five populous towns there—Palaulae, Salealua, Asaua, Matautu, and Safune. After making the round of Savaii, the boat has to make back to Manono, and then can proceed inside the reef all the way to Apia, making stoppages at the many minor villages which stud the shore at intervals of every few miles.

These malaga by boat along the coast or from one island to another are much in favour with many of the white residents of Samoa, who find their life in Apia very monotonous. European ladies frequently accompany their husbands, and sometimes quite a large party is made up. More than five-and-twenty years ago, when the writer was gaining his first experiences of Samoan life, it was his good fortune to be one of such a party, and a right merry time he had of it among the natives; for in those days, although there was party warfare occasionally, the group was free from the savage hatreds and dissensions—largely fomented by the interference and intrigues of unscrupulous traders and incapable officials—which for the past ten or twelve years have made it notorious.

In travelling in Samoa one need not always rely upon native hospitality. Though most of the white traders at the outlying villages nowadays make nothing beyond a scanty living, they are as a rule very hospitable and pleased to see and entertain white visitors as well as their poor means will allow, and in nine cases out of ten would feel hurt if they were ignored and the native teacher's house visited first; for between the average trader and the native teacher there is always a natural and yet reasonable jealousy. And here let me say a word in praise of the Samoan teacher—in Samoa. Away from his native land, in charge of a mission station in another part of Polynesia or Melanesia, he is too often pompous and overbearing alike to his flock and to the white trader. Here he is far from the control and supervision of the white missionaries, who only visit him twice in the year, and consequently he thinks himself a man of vast importance. But in Samoa his superiors are prompt to curb any inclination he may evince to ride the high horse over his flock or interfere with any matter not strictly connected with his charge. So, in Samoa, the native teacher is generally a good fellow, the soul of hospitality, and anxious to entertain any chance white visitor; and although the Samoans are not bigoted ranters like the Tongans or Fijians, and the teachers have not anything like the undue and improper influence over the people possessed by the native ministers in Tonga or Fiji, to needlessly offend one would be resented by the villagers and make the visitor's stay anything but pleasant. As for the white missionaries in Samoa, all I need say of them is that they are gentlemen, and that the words "Mission House" are synonymous in most cases with warm welcome to the traveller.

Travelling inland in Savaii or crossing Upolu from north to south, or vice-versâ, is very delightful, though one misses much of the lovely scenery that unfolds itself in a panorama-like manner when sailing along the coast. One journey that can easily be accomplished in a day is that from Apia to Safata. Carriers are easily obtainable, and some splendid pigeon shooting can be had an hour or two after leaving Apia till within a few miles of Safata. Pigeons are about the only game to be had in Samoa, though the manutagi , or ring-dove, is very plentiful, but one hardly likes to shoot such dear little creatures. Occasionally one may get a wild duck or two and some fearful-looking wild fowls—the progeny of the domestic fowl. Wild pigs are not now plentiful in Upolu though they are in Savaii, but they are exceedingly difficult to shoot and the country they frequent is fearfully rough. In some of the streams there are some very good fish, running up to 2 lbs. or 3 lbs. They bite eagerly at the ula or freshwater prawn, and are excellent eating; and yet, strange to say, very few of the white residents in the group even know of their existence. This applies also to deep-sea fishing; for although the deep water outside the reefs and the passages leading into the harbours teem with splendid fish, the residents of Apia are content to buy the wretched things brought to them by women who capture them in nets in the shallow water inside the reef. Once, during my stay on Manono, a young Manhiki half-caste and myself went out in our boat about a mile from the land, and in thirty fathoms of water caught in an hour three large-scaled fish of the groper species. These fish, though once familiar enough to the people of the island, are now never fished for, and our appearance with our prizes caused quite an excitement in the village, everyone thronging around us to look. And yet there are two or three varieties of groper—many of them weighing 50 lbs. or 60 lbs.—which can be caught anywhere on the Samoan coast; but the Samoan of the present day has sadly degenerated, and, except bonito catching, deep-sea fishing is one of the lost arts. But at almost any place in the group, except Apia, great quantities of fish are caught inside the reefs by nets, and one may always be sure of getting a splendid mullet of some sort for either breakfast or supper.

Let us suppose that a party of Europeans have arrived at a village, and are the guests of the chief and people generally. Food is at once brought to them, even before any visits of ceremony are paid, for the news of the coming of a party of travellers has doubtless been brought to the village the previous day by a messenger from the last stopping-place. The repast provided may be simple, but will be ample, baked pork most likely being the pièce de résistance, with roast fowl, baked pigeons, breadfruit (if in season), and yams or taro, with a plentiful supply of young drinking-coconuts. (Should the host be the local teacher, some deplorable tea and a loaf of terrible bread are sure to be produced.) This preliminary meal finished, the formalities begin by a visit from the chief and his tulafale, or "talking-man," accompanied by the leading citizens. The talking-man then makes a speech, welcoming the guests, and is by no means sparing of "buttery" phrases which indicate the intense delight, &c., of the inhabitants of the village at having the honoured privilege of entertaining such noble and distinguished visitors, &c. A suitable reply is made by the guests (through an interpreter, if no one among them can speak Samoan), and then follows a ceremonious brewing and drinking of kava. This is a most important function in Samoa, and to the stranger unaccustomed to the manner of making the beverage, the ordeal of drinking it is an exceedingly trying one. It is prepared as follows: The dried kava root is cut up in thin slices and handed to a number of young women, who masticate it and then deposit it in a large wooden tanoa , or bowl. Water is then added in sufficient quantity till the tanoa is half-filled with a thin yellowish-green liquid, which is carefully strained by a thick "swab" of the beaten bark of the fau -tree. This straining operation is performed only by a very experienced lady, and is watched in respectful silence. Then the drink is handed round in a polished bowl of coconut-shell. But for a full description of all the details of a kava-drinking, let me commend my readers to the best and most charming book ever written on South Sea life, "South Sea Bubbles," by the late Earl of Pembroke and Dr. Kingsley. Nowadays, however, many Samoan households, out of deference to European tastes, have the kava root grated instead of being chewed.

The kava-drinking over, all stiffness and formality disappears for the time, and the visitors are surrounded by the villagers, eager to learn the latest news from Apia, and from the world abroad. The discussion of political matters always has a strong attraction for Samoans, who are anxious to learn the state of affairs in Europe, and their knowledge and shrewdness is surprising. Should there be any white ladies present, the brown ones make much of them. The Samoans are a fine, handsome race, and the faces and figures of many of the young women are very attractive; but the practice of cutting off their long, flowing black hair, and allowing it to grow in a short, stiff "frizz" is all too common, and detracts very much from an otherwise handsome and graceful appearance, especially when the hair is coated with lime in order to change its colour to red. Many of the men, particularly those of chiefly rank, are of magnificent stature and proportions, and their walk and carriage are in consonance.

An announcement that the visitors intend to go pigeon shooting is warmly applauded, and each white man is at once provided with a guide, for, unless he has had experience of the Samoan forest, he will return with an empty bag, as, however plentiful the birds may be, their habit of hiding in the branches of the lofty tamanu and masa'oi -trees render them difficult of detection. The natives themselves are very good shots, and very rarely fail to bring down a bird, even when nothing more than a scarlet leg or a blue-grey feather is visible. The guns they use are very common, cheap German affairs, but are specially made for Samoa, being very small bored and long in the barrel. The best time is in the early morning and towards the cool of the evening, when the birds are feeding on masa'oi and other berries; during the heat of the day they seldom leave their perches, though their deep crooning note may be heard everywhere. In the mountainous interiors of Upolu and Savaii there is but little undergrowth; the ground is carpeted with a thick layer of leaves, dry on the top, but rain and dew-soaked beneath, and simply to breathe the sweet, cool mountain air is delightful. At certain times of the year the birds are very fat, and I have very often seen them literally burst when striking the ground after being shot in high trees. Their flavour is delicious, especially if they are hung for a day. I may here remark that, in New Britain, precisely the same species of pigeon is very often quite uneatable through feeding upon Chili berries, which in that island grow in profusion. In shooting in a Samoan forest one has nothing to fear from venomous reptiles, for, although there are two or three kinds of snakes, they are rarely ever seen and quite harmless. Scorpions and centipedes—the latter often six inches in length—there are in plenty, but these detestable vermin are more common in European habitations than in the bush. At the same time, mosquitoes are a terrible annoyance anywhere in the vicinity of water, and delight in attacking the tender skin of the stranger. Then, again, beware of scratching any exposed part of the skin, for, unless it is quickly covered by plaister or otherwise attended to, an irritating sore, which may take months to heal, will often result.

There are, during the visit of a travelling party to a Samoan town, no fixed times for meals. You are expected to eat much and often. During the day there will be continuous arrivals of people bringing baskets of provisions as presents, which are formally presented—with a speech. The speech has to be responded to, and the bringers of the presents treated politely, as long as they remain, and they remain until their curiosity—and avarice—is satisfied. A return present must be sent on the following day; for although Samoans designate every present of food or anything else made to a party of visitors as an "alofa"— i.e., a gift of love—this is but a hollow conventionalism, it being the time-honoured custom of the country to always give a quid pro quo for whatever has been received. Yet it must not be imagined that they are a selfish people; if the recipients of an "alofa" of food are too poor to respond otherwise than by a profusion of thanks, the donors of the "alofa" are satisfied—it would be a disgrace for their village to be spoken of as having treated guests meanly.

After evening service—conducted on week-days in each house by the head of the family—another meal is served. Then either lamps or a fire of coconut-shells is lit, and there is a great making of sului , or cigarettes of strong tobacco rolled in dry banana leaf, and there is much merry jostling and shoving among the young lads and girls for a seat on the matted floor, to hear the white people talk. A dance is sure to be suggested, and presently the fale po-ula, or dance-house, is lit up in preparation, as the dancers, male and female, hurry away to adorn themselves. Much has been said about the impropriety of Samoa dancing by travellers who have only witnessed the degrading and indecent exhibitions, given on a large scale by the loafing class of natives who inhabit Apia and its immediate vicinity. The natives are an adaptive race, and suit their manners to their company, and there are always numbers of sponging men and paumotu (beach-women) ready to pander to the tastes of low whites who are willing to witness a lewd dance. But in most villages, situated away from the contaminating influences of the principal port, a native siva , or dance, is well worth witnessing, and the accompanying singing is very melodious. It is, however, true, that on important occasions, such as the marriage of a great chief, &c., that the dancing, decorous enough in the earlier stages of the evening, degenerates under the influence of excitement into an exhibition that provokes sorrow and disgust. And yet, curiously enough, the dancers at these times are not low class, common people, but young men and women of high lineage, who, led by the taupo , or maid of the village, cast aside all restraint and modesty. In many of the dances the costumes are exceedingly pretty, the men wearing aprons made of the yellow and scarlet leaves of the ti or dracoena plant, with head-dresses formed of pieces of iridescent pearl-shell, intermixed with silver coins and scarlet and amber beads, and the hair of both sexes is profusely adorned with the scarlet flowers of the hibiscus, while from their necks depend large strings of sea-sea, masa'oi, and other brightly-coloured and sweet-smelling berries. Of late years the Tahitian fashion of wearing thick wreaths of orange or lemon blossoms has come into vogue.

Before concluding these remarks upon Samoa, I must mention that the climate is very healthy for the greater part of the year; but in the rainy season, December to March, the heat is intense, and sickness is often prevalent, especially in Apia. Still fever, such as is met with in the New Hebrides and the Solomon Group, "the grave of the white man in the South Seas," is unknown, and one may sleep in the open air with impunity. Before setting out from Apia the services of a competent interpreter should be secured—a man who thoroughly understands the Samoan customs as well as the language. Plenty of reliable half-castes can always be found, any one of whom would be glad to engage for a very moderate payment. Too often the pleasures of such a trip as I have described have been marred by the interpreter's lack of tact and knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the in habitants of the various districts and villages. The mere fact of a man being able to speak the language fairly well is not the all in all; for the Samoans are a highly sensitive people, and the omission by the interpreter of a chief's titles, &c., when the guests are responding through him to an address of welcome, would be considered "shockingly bad form."

But the reader must not imagine that the Samoan Group is the only one in the South Pacific where an enjoyable holiday may be spent. The French possession of the Society Islands, of which the pretty town Papeite, in the noble island of Tahiti, is the capital, rivals, if not exceeds, Samoa in the magnificence of its scenery, and the natives are a highly intelligent race of Malayo-Polynesians who, despite their being citizens of the French Republic, never forget that they were redeemed from savagery by Englishmen, and a taata Peretane (Englishman) is an ever-welcome guest to them. The facilities for visiting the different islands of the Society Group are very good, for there is quite a fleet of native and European-owned vessels constantly cruising throughout the archipelago. To cross the island of Tahiti from its south-east to its north-west point is one of the most delightful trips imaginable. Then again, the Hervey or Cook's Group, which consist of the fertile islands of Mangaia, Rarotonga, Atui, Aitutaki, and Mauki, are well worth visiting. The people speak a language similar to that of Tahiti, and they are a fine, hospitable race, albeit a little over-civilised. Both of these groups can be reached from Auckland by sailing vessels, but not direct from Sydney. As for the lonely islands of the North Pacific, they are too far afield for any one to visit but the trader or the traveller to whom time is nothing.