The Wayback Machine -
Samoa - Early Recollections of a Visitor

hd_450a.gif (7537 bytes)



The travels of William Shaw have been published in 1851 in his book Golden Dreams and Waking Realities. This Web site concerns his visit to Samoa and his observations of Samoa and the Samoan people at that time. These observations provide quite a fascinating glimpse of Samoa and the many authentic things Samoan that have now passed into history.

On our arrival at Apea, swarms of natives came on board; both men and women were similar to those of Sera, but more accustomed to Europeans; fruit was abundant, which they offered in exchange for calico, or discarded wearing apparel; for money was not current among them. Both sexes were excellent swimmers, playing about in the water quite at their ease, as if they were amphibious; their favourite pastime being to ascend the rigging and plunge from a height into the water; which the women also did fearlessly. Two mothers with infants at their breast, ascended the shrouds, and clambering out to the end of the top-sail yard, precipitated themselves head-foremost into he sea with their babies in their arms; the plunge from such a height was tremendous, and as they disappeared the water foamed and eddyed around, but in a few seconds they rose unconcernedly a few feet beyond, as if enjoying a bath.

It is customary for the natives of this group to offer themselves as cicerones to fresh arrivals, and on entering port you are dunned by individuals offering their services; each stranger being supposed to require what they term a "Friend," whose duties are to show you the most interesting features of the place, provide you with food, accommodate you in his hut, and be always ready to escort you on foot, or in his canoe. They are very useful fellows, ever attentive to your wishes, and zealously performing whatever you request, night or day: nor are they exorbitant in their expectations, being well satisfied if you give them some used-up apparel on your departure. Perceiving the necessity for such an auxiliary, I selected as my mentor a middle-aged man, a civilized native, tattooed in limitation of knee breeches, and who was apparently a leading character amongst them. His canoe was only six feet long, and eighteen inches in width, and on descending the ship's side, I stepped (as I thought, carefully) into this frail back, but happening to lean too much on one side to speak to a shipmate, it lost its equilibrium and turned over, upsetting me into the water. I kept myself afloat until my native Friend righted the canoe, when, jumping dexterously into it he essayed to get me in likewise; but this was a rather difficult achievement, these canoes requiring the most equal balancing to maintain their equilibrium. Whilst I endeavoured to get in one side, the native leant his whole force on the other side; but no sooner did I succeed in scrambling in, than it again upset: at last safely seated at the bottom of the canoe, I was glad to be paddled ashore amidst the laughter of the Mazeppas. On the canoe touching the beach I leaped out into the surf, when my companion, Hiluni, quickly picked up his boat, put it on his shoulders and carried it hastily out of the reach of the rollers.

The Samoans of Apea are divided amongst themselves. At the western end of the island dwell the religious portion, obedient to the missionary doctrines, more moral, more tractable, and less warlike than their heathen brethren. In the central part, where Mr. Pritchard resides, it is neutral ground. On the eastern side, live the war faction, their precincts being denoted by high stockades. These Philistines delight in war, and are averse to the missionary doctrines; they have occasionally assailed the religious community of the western side, and are far more belligerent than their converted brethren.

Winding my way through a cool grove of cocoanut and palm trees I came to the hut of Hiluni. It was very spacious, made of bamboo, thatched with grass, the roof slanting to within three feet of the ground; the dwelling was completely sheltered by an impenetrable foliage of lofty trees, and fruits of various descriptions hung from the branches around. The place combined the fertility of a garden with the luxuriant negligence of a wilderness.

The interior of the hut was no less pleasing: the floor was composed of dry grass two inches thick, covered with elegant mats. The various articles of household use were made of tamanu and other polished fancy woods well adapted for furniture; and tapa cloth decorated the walls and roof. Seated on the mats were three young women, clothed in loose white apparel, reading religious works printed in the native tongue. Another was making a species of cloth, called maro, from the fibres of trees or plants interwoven. Baskets of fruit were piled in one corner; in another was a bark fire, which emitted a most fragrant perfume. I was duly introduced to the wife and sisters of my host, and whilst Hiluni prepared a repast, the women shampooed me: which, in tropical countries, is a most cooling and refreshing operation during the heat of the day.

The Samoans cook vegetables in a manner similar to the Australian natives; steaming the potatoes as well as any European cook. We had a small pig for dinner, cooked in the Samoan fashion; its entrails being taken out, it was stuffed with herbs and bound up with plantain leaves, then placed on a heap of hot stones and covered over, which dressed the flesh to perfection: yam and roasted bread-fruit were also served up in cocoa-nut shells. After our repast smoking commenced, of which the women are fond; lighting a pipe and taking a puff, they inhaled the smoke, emitting it through their nostrils, and then passed the pipe to their next neighbour.

The principal missionaries of this group of islands are Mr. Pritchard, formerly the British consul of Tahiti, and the adviser of Queen Pomare, and Mr. Williams, the American consul, son of the lamented missionary who was murdered at the island of Mallicolo.

At Apea there are about five European houses inhabited by white people. Mr. Pritchard's house is a very commodious villa, prettily situated on rising ground facing the harbour; a small river crossed by a foot bridge skirts his premises. He is the only one on the island who keeps a store, where the natives can traffic for manufactured goods: the demand is but trifling, his business is quite unostentatiously carried on; for the shop is only open occasionally.

Close to his house is a small chapel, to which the natives resort to hear the Gospel: it is constructed entirely of zinc brought from England. Wherever shipping resorts there is generally to be found a house for the sale of spirits; and, though without a regular shop, Apea has its groggery--a small white-washed mud cottage, which, but for four suspicious-looking kegs, would not be taken for a house of public resort. The landlord was a South American, of middle age; his wife a pretty pensive, half-caste girl of fifteen, with an infant. They were both attired partly in European costume, and seemed intelligent and conscious of their superiority over the native Samoans.

In the evening, I and a shipmate visited the 'war party.' Passing through a thick uninhabited scrub, we came to high pallisadoes of bamboo, which formed a stockade ten feet high, serving as a boundary line; and entering a narrow railed pass, easy to be defended by a few against a large numerical force, we beheld the native village. The huts were scattered about under the shade of a grove of lofty cocoa-nut trees, which extended for a considerable distance; and along the beach were some very extensive buildings, opposite to which were the war canoes drawn up from the beach.

The moon shed a clear light over the whole scene. The natives were distributed mostly in groups, some eating, some singing, others dancing around the fires, which blazed in every direction, and the buzzing of the population reminded one of a mighty hive. These natives had not long since been guilty of cannibal practices, and were notorious for their attacks upon boat crews; but the heathen practices customary with them are forbidden on the other side. As a substitute for spirits they imbibe very freely a liquid called cava; the supposed mode of preparing which is very repulsive to European notions of delicacy; the leaves of the cava tree when gathered, undergo a process of chewing or mastication from the women, and the juice thus extracted is squirted into calabashes, to which cocoa-nut milk is added; when fermentation ensues it is considered in a fit state to drink.

(Note: The 'cava' commonly known as 'kava' throughout the Pacific is normally made from the root of the kava plant and not from the leaves).

Walking into the village we soon attracted notice, and were surrounded by several natives: to find one-self at midnight encompassed by savages, jabbering a strange language and almost limbing one out of sheer curiosity, is not a very agreeable position; but, though some scowled and had the savage stamped upon their countenances, the majority seemed well disposed people. We strolled through the village, entered several huts and joined the dances, making ourselves quite at home.

These dwellings were of an oblong shape, about thirty feet long and twelve wide; the roofs about twelve feet high, thatched with grass or the leaves of the bread-fruit or palm tree externally, and lined with bamboo internally, are supported by three parallel rows of posts the inner height from the pitch of the roof is about ten feet, and the eaves slant to within three feet of the ground. The floor is covered with grass spread over with mats, and is as soft as a mattrass to lie upon. Some of these huts were well lighted up; the substitute for oil lamps being the kernels of an indigenous nut, strung together on a slender piece of bamboo, which penetrating the centre, served for a wick: these nuts must have contained a quantity of oil, for they burned very steadily, and were very luminous.

Leprosy and elephantiasis were very frequent; and the native knowledge of pharmacy being very slight, this endemical disease prevails unchecked to a fearful extent. Some other deformities, also, which are thrust upon the notice, were most revolting to behold; and notwithstanding constant ablutions and cleanly habits, cutaneous eruptions and ophthalmia are common.

The children are very precocious, swimming at two years old, and climbing trees with the agility of monkeys for cocoa nuts. At the birth of a child, it is the national custom to plant a plantain; which tree adding a bark ring on its trunk every year, the age of the child is easily and indubitably determined by the number of rings on the tree.

The usual food of the natives if fish, pork, yam, tara (taro), and potatoes; fruits are very plentiful--the guava, pine-apple, bread-fruit, banana, cocoanut and other varieties grow uncultivated: the cocoa-nut is the Samoan's favourite nourishment. The European may chop the nut with an axe or knife till he is tired before he gets at the fruit, but the native, lacing the nut between his toes and fingers, fixes his teeth firmly into the husky substance which clings to the nut, and by the force of his jaw peals off the exterior covering.

The only land bird that I noticed was a species of pigeon.

The timber of the Polynesian group is not large; though the trees attain to a great height, and are very numerous, forest-trees with massive trunks and spreading branches are wanting. The wood is mostly tough and diversity grained; the tamanu, ebony, nutmeg and other fancy woods, are well adapted for furniture. Axe-handles, clubs, and spears are made from these woods; these weapons are beautifully carved and polished, the handle being ornamented with sennet of the cocoa-nut fibre: some clubs which resemble the darkest mahogany, are as hard as iron and extremely heavy. The spears are sometimes ten feet long, and are jagged at the end with flints or teeth, forming a barbed point that causes most frightful wounds. The wood of the cocoa-nut tree seems to be preferred for these weapons although not hard when first felled, after it has been buried for a time in a particular kind of clay it becomes as durable as lignum vitae.

Tortoise-shell and rock-coral are very abundant, and can be obtained for a trifle. A very lucrative trade might, I think, be carried on in these articles. In most of the huts may be seen quantities of the unpolished shell and coral, valued very little more than we do oyster shells. The vessels which touch here are mostly whalers; but Sydney vessels come occasionally and load a cargo of cocoa-nut oil and arrow-root: the former sells for thirty pounds a ton in Sydney.

On the mission side, the crew and passengers of the Sabine had been quartered; receiving an invitation to spend the evening with a select party, in company with a mate of the Mazeppa I went to their habitation. It was one of a small cluster of huts in a thick grove, and the noise of revelry intimated to us which it was we sought; stooping under the caves and pushing aside some matting we found a goodly company assembled.

The hut was about fifty feet long, the roof fifteen feet high; seated in a circle, cross-legged on some mats, were seven men and five women. In the centre were a dozen bottles and a huge soup tureen of punch, and in a corner of the room blazed a fire upon which was a kettle of water; above their heads hung four bouilli tins filled with oil, serving for lamps, each having a large wick. The hut was in a perfect glare of light, and the lamp-smoke and smell of liquors were enough to take away one's breath upon entering. The hut was divided by a matted partition, where the Samoan family resided; they had in vain remonstrated upon the noisy occupation of their dwelling, and being unable to sleep were spectators of the proceedings.

The party consisted of Paddy S---- the Sydney champion, a mate of a Yankee whaler, an editor of a sporting paper, and four other flash men; all citizens of Sydney. One of the women had her husband with her; the other four had husbands in California, to which place their conjugal love had induced them to go in search of them. One named Stokes was the wife of a mariner; who, by a singular coincidence, we had shipped at Francisco for the run to Honolulu, where he left us to return to California; had he accompanied us to Sydney, as he thought of doing, he would have had the unexpected felicity of meeting his adventurous spouse.

Most of the Sabines were rather a loose set; many of them had left comfortable situations and broken up their establishments; others were too abandoned to do well anywhere. Mr. Pritchard the consul had billetted them in pairs, at the expense of the government, upon the best huts. The sudden visitation of so many hungry whites, who consumed the best pigs and the fat of the land, was rather obnoxious to the natives; for the remuneration received by the Samoans, was inadequate to the cost and trouble given them. Paddy S--- -- was the only one they respected, and this more for his pugilistic prowess than any other qualities: he had pitted his skill and strength against their mightiest men of valour, and was victorious each time. Powerful as was the Samoan brute strength, it was not a match for the trained strength of S---, especially in long encounters; nor does the vegetable diet of savages give them the stamina and powers of endurance which a constitution strengthened by animal food possesses. So great was their admiration of Paddy S--- that he might have been elected chief had he been so disposed.

The wrecked passengers, vexed at being arrested in their El Dorado expedition, and tired of a life, of indolence on the island, with chagrin found themselves necessitated to return to Sydney, to work and toil ere they could accumulate sufficient to start again. Being British subjects the consul was obliged to defray the passage expenses to Sydney of those who had no money; the arrival of the Mazeppa and the Captain Cook, offering a fitting opportunity, he sent some of them with the prisoners in the Captain Cook, and the others as steerage passengers in the Mazeppa.

During our stay at these islands I visited Mr. Pritchard, who lives in a very comfortable style. His wife, celebrated in Tahitian annals, is a fine matronly lady and greatly respected. Mr. Pritchard has a rather dignified appearance, he is much sunburnt and is grey with years; his usual costume is a straw hat, naval blue coat, and brass buttons. He had held the office of consul for many years in the Pacific Islands, has amassed money by trade, and is said to possess perseverance and resolution in his missionary labours, though attentive to the loaves and fishes, as well as to the spiritual wants of his hearers. Although Her Majesty's representative, he does not consider it infra dig, to keep a retail store, as aforesaid, at the back of his premises. In company with the surpercargo, I went on one or two occasions to procure various articles required for the ship, such as hosiery, groceries, beef and pork: in short, the consul could supply us with anything, from "a needle to an anchor."  He seemed well adapted for business, and disposed of his commodities in a tradesman-like manner, weighing out soap and other things in a pair of scales with the utmost accuracy; then buckling a steel round his waist, knife in hand, he expatiated on the qualities and the prime parts of the pork. Besides occasionally retailing shop goods, he supplies ships with cocoa-nuts, oil, and other natural products; which from his missionary influence he is enabled to procure at a trifling cost, and sell at large profits. Apart from his business, you could hardly identify, in the grave magisterial functionary, the bustling accommodating store-keeper.

On Sunday I attended church, the small zinc edifice before-mentioned; the dimensions are about thirty feet long by twenty in width. The congregation, consisting mostly of Samoans, with the passengers of the Sabine, were seated on forms. Mr. Pritchard officiated, dressed in a blue coat, brass buttons, and tweed trousers; after reading the church service, he preached an extempore sermon; his text being appropriately taken from that chapter in the Acts of the Apostles, referring to the shipwreck of St. Paul on the island of Melita, or Malta. His sermon and delivery were very good; though neither his dress or manner were exactly clerical. The chapel was very full, and the solar rays striking down upon the zinc made the metal actually hot; so that the inside temperature was that of an oven, and the congregation were streaming with perspiration. 

Procuring a supply of water, taking in some casks of cocoa-nut oil for cargo, and building bunks for the accommodation of steerage passengers, we made ready for sea. We had twenty-five steerage passengers of the Sabine, and five in the cabin. Among the latter was a missionary with his wife: he had resided on the island for fifteen years and was sincerely behaved by his disciples, and it might be truly said of him that

"His preaching much, but more his practice wrought,

"A living sermon of the truths he taught;

"For this by rules severe his life he squared,

"That all might see the doctrines which they heard."

Before weighing anchor, the vessel was crowded with boats, containing natives of both sexes, who had come to bid adieux to their pastor; the principal natives delivered to him an address, expressing their gratitude for his ministry and sorrow at his departure.


Samoa Home Page
Jane Resture's Oceania Page
click here Jane's Polynesia Home Page
   click here Jane's Micronesia Home Page
  click here Jane's Melanesia Home Page  
 click here Jane's Oceania Home Page     
Pacific Islands Radio Stations
Jane Resture's Oceania Page
Jane's Oceania Travel Page
(E-mail: -- Rev. 11th December 2002)