The Wayback Machine -


 Funafuti Impressions


In 1897 a scientific expedition under the leadership of Professor T. W. Edgeworth David went to Funafuti, Tuvalu, to ascertain the structure of coral atolls by putting down a diamond-drill bore to prove Charles Darwin's theory on the formation of coral atolls. This bore can still be seen to this day on Funafuti.

While the men were busy coral boring, undertaking geological surveys and biological work, Mrs. David made friends with all the natives and kept a diary of her observations and of all the small events that made up life for the three months she spent on Funafuti. The book, Funafuti, was written from this diary after her return to Sydney and published in London by John Murray in 1899. The following extracts are from Chapters I and XI of this most interesting book.


It was a grey morning, threatening rain, when the Maori's engines ceased to vibrate, and we heard the shipper's cheery voice ring out, "There's your island, Professor!". We dragged our limp bodies into an approximately perpendicular attitude, and looked round hopefully. We saw what was apparently the open ocean with several islands near, and several more looking like grey clouds on the horizon. I thought one of these islands must be Funafuti, and that we should soon steer for a narrow opening leading into the still waters of a tiny lagoon round which would lie in green ring of palm trees. You know that poetical utterance about the "garland of green in an ocean of blue," don't you? Well, I did, and, although the ocean wasn't blue that morning, I was keen to see the garland of green, chiefly because I steadfastly believed that the water enclosed by it would be perfectly still. So I ventured to ask the skipper when we should get in.

  The Edgeworth David scientific expedition.

Mrs. Edgeworth David is on the far right (sitting).

"Get in where?" said he. "Why," said I, "into the lagoon, of course. I'm just pining to reach that small enclosure of perfectly smooth water, where all the gorgeous coral gardens grow." He looked at me pityingly and then said, "you're in it now." In it now! This enormous piece of the ocean a lagoon! Those scattered misty grey islands so far away from us and each other, do they compose the garland of green? It was necessary to enlarge one's conception of a lagoon, evidently. This lagoon is about fourteen miles across in one direction and eleven in another, and isn't circular at all; and the islets bounding it are all shapes and sizes - some close together, others far apart, and connected only by a thin white line of breakers just distinguishable on the horizon. There are two passages into this lagoon, formed by breaks in the reef, both large enough to admit the largest ship, as well as a strong current and heavy sea from the ocean outside.

While we were making these observations, the Maori was very slowly making her way towards the largest islet on the east of the lagoon, and I wondered why she went so slowly. Looking over the side for the reason, I soon found it in the form of pretty green "patches," treacherous shallows formed by the growth of coral here and there. No wonder we went slowly and tortuously, carefully following the line of indigo-blue water which spoke of safety.

Clearer and clearer the long low line of green, the islet that was to be our home, came out; and just as the ship dropped anchor, out came the gorgeous tropical sun, lighting up sky, sea, and land as if by magic with new colouring, completely transforming the scene. All was not delusion. We anchored close to the lagoon reef, about a quarter of a mile from the shore, and over the side, under the shallow water, we saw irregular-shaped masses of dun-coloured coral, with myriads of brilliant fishes flashing across from hollow to hollow, inquisitive, but timid. Then on the shore was a long narrow crescent of brilliant white sand, lapped by the tiny idle wavelets of the lagoon; beyond that a line of low, thick tausuna and gasu bushes, and behind, a dense mass of graceful cocoa-nut palms. Among the trees we could see the brown leaf huts of the natives, and the large whitewashed mission church and schools. The shore was covered with excited natives running to and fro, shouting and gesticulating. Soon a couple of quaint-looking little brown dug-out canoes put off for the ship, and brought the white trader to pay his respects to us and the supercargo of the Maori.

There was little time to make acquaintance with he trader to-day, for it was Saturday, and we knew the islanders were strict Sunday-keepers, and would work neither for love nor money on the morrow. Therefore, as the Maori was in a hurry to get back to Suva, the officers began discharging the cargo at once and at a terrific pace. Of course it began to rain again as soon as the hatches were taken off, so that such of our personal effects as escaped being dropped in the lagoon got nicely soaked with rain-water. We hadn't a dry garment among us for about a week, it wouldn't leave off raining long enough to dry them, and when at last the rain ceased we found our clothes fragrant and decorated with artistic patterns in mildew.

My husband, with marital frankness, had told me that just while the cargo was being landed women would be in the way. I therefore went aft and amused myself trying to dodge the rain and watching the black boys discharge the cargo. It was amusing for about an hour to see a landing-raft made and the heavy cases of machinery hauled up, swung over the side, and dumped on to the raft, to note what immense weights the black boys could lift, and how nimbly they got out of the way just when one expected them to be crushed to death. Occasionally one of the boys or an officer would slip off the raft into the sea in dodging a case that threatened mischief, and the ducked one was fluent and the unducked unduly merry. But even this delightful entertainment palled after a time; there was too much sameness about it, and we were feeling chilly, and had been wet to the skin since breakfast. At last we could endure it no longer, and induced a black man to take us ashore on top of a boatload of luggage.

There was no complaining about cold on shore, wet and windy though it was, and a very short walk reduced us to the trembling stage, so we sat down on a pandanus log and let the flies and natives collect round us. Limp and dejected with four days of sea-sickness, garments dragged and tumbled with wet and four days and nights of lying about on deck, we must indeed have been pitiable-looking objects, and the natives seemed to regard us as such and criticised us openly, and adversely, as we gathered from their derisive laughs and gestures. We were compelled to note that they were not shy. Two handsome girls pretended to be shy, and hid behind palm trees, and peeped r9ound now and again to languish at the tallest and best-looking of the white men who had joined us on shore. These girls had donned their best titi (leaf petticoat) and tiputa (apron blouse), and decorated their heads, necks, and ears with fresh flowers; so we knew the shyness was put on for the occasion.

Men, women, and children were mostly of a pale copper colour, had regular features, large velvety black eyes, magnificent teeth, and the most innocent, confiding, childlike expression imaginable. My heart warmed to the children, dear plump little brownies; but, alas, nearly all of them were disfigured by the revolting skin disease known as Yaws or tonu.

We sat on a log while the sun lasted, and when the rain came down again repaired to the trader's hut, and were there regaled with green cocoa-nut juice, which we quaffed from the shell and found delicious. It is invariably the custom, when a visitor goes into a Funafuti hut, for one of the girls or women of the family to knock off the top of a drinking cocoa-nut and offer the visitor a drink. At first I thought it was etiquette to drink all that was offered, but later on learned to refuse when I wasn't thirsty. There was often over a pint of fluid in one nut, and I had not the Funafuti capacity for fluid. I have seen a native man take eight nuts at one meal and walk about comfortably after it.

Early impressions of Funafuti, 1897. 

In spite of heat, rain and weakness we managed to explore the village. There was a clear space in the centre, close to the lagoon shore, near which were grouped the king's state house, the mission church and schools, and the native pastor's house, all built of coral rubble and cement, whitewashed with coral lime and neatly thatched with pandanus leaves. North and south from this group of buildings, a long straggling street of leaf huts stretched for about half-a-mile in each direction, the huts being separated by spaces of unequal size.

The greater part of the main street was bordered with chunks of coral, and there was an irregular avenue of shady bread-fruit trees - mei fenua muli - about half-a-mile long near the centre of the village, while cocoa-nut palms bordered the road, or path rather, all the rest of its length. The paths and spaces were tidily kept, and I found out afterwards that every Saturday the women swept up and burned all the leaves and rubbish that had accumulated round the huts during the week. Each woman kept "her own doorstep clean," so to speak.

The king's state house is evidently kept for show. I never saw the king in it except on Sunday afternoons between the services; and all the state business was transacted in a large, airy leaf but close by. But it was a cool, clean, nice-looking place, with its whitewashed walls, large open spaces for doors and windows, and white coral pebble floor. A rough table and settee, a good American clock, a tablecloth of matting, and a Bible were its only articles of furniture. It was the only clean coral hut in the island. The trader owned a coral hut, which he generously offered to let to me for the modest rent of 10s. per week. I went to look at it; it had two rooms, about 10 by 12 feet, with apertures for doors and windows, and the ground for a floor. It had been whitewashed in former days, but the whiteness was now toned down by slimy lichen and greasy-looking dirt. I felt that I should die of the blues if I had to live in such a place for three months. It was squalid and grimy, right in the heart of the native village, on the lagoon side of the island, without a breeze from the ocean, with hosts of flies and mosquitoes, and with the constant depressing sight of the dear little brown cherubs covered with sores and flies. While I was looking at the place the natives filled up every door and window space watching me, and the trader admitted that if I lived there many of the natives would spend the entire day lounging about watching me. I began to understand what an inestimable boon is the privacy of the poorest cottage.

On the whole I felt I would rather camp somewhere outside the native village, and, if possible, in a leaf hut. These leaf huts, neatly thatched with pandanus leaves, with airy walls of loosely-plaited coarse palm-leaf mats, and floors of white coral pebbles covered with palm-leaf mats, looked cool, clean, and picturesque; and just as I was covetously admiring one of them, my husband steamed up, streaming with rain and perspiration, but radiant with happiness, and said, "Come along now, and see what a lovely hut I have found for you to live in, and what a jolly site I've fixed on for the machinery and the camp." We all followed him. A walk of about a quarter-of-a-mile northward from the village brought us to a branch road leading to the ocean side of the islet, away from the native village, and there, swept by the sea-breezes, and about five feet above sea-level, on a rocky platform, with a background of palms and pandanus, was a large native leaf hut, without walls, but with the eaves coming down to within four feet of the ground. We stooped and entered. There were piles of boxes and provision cases belonging to our expedition covering the floor, the dripping shirts and trousers of our workmen hanging from the rafters - nothing lovely or attractive about such an interior. At that unpropitious moment I could not foresee what a pretty happy little home that hut was going to be for the next three months. I had stupidly promised never to grumble during the expedition (the self-repression thereby entailed nearby killed me), and so with outward cheerfulness accepted the hut; and also said it would do beautifully when the roof was made water-tight and the wall spaces enclosed with mats, and the provisions and rotting vegetation moved out, and a few other improvements affected.

Jack O'Brien, trader, (holding the flag) with part of his extended family, Funafuti.

Mrs. Edgeworth David's house (centre), Funafuti, 1897.


Now we have come to that interesting topic, clothes. No Funafuti husband has to groan over dressmakers' or milliners' bills, every woman is her own dressmaker and milliner here.

In olden times the vegetable kingdom, as represented in Funafuti, supplied all the necessary and very picturesque clothing. Men, women, and children big enough to need clothes wore a leaf petticoat, and wreaths of leaves and flowers; the hair, thick and fluffy, was allowed to grow as long as it would, generally not much below the shoulder.

The favorite wreath for the hair, and a very effective one, was one plaited with alternate strips of orange and green; the green strips were small scraps of palm leaf, and the orange strips were the outer rind of the ripe segment of pandanus fruit.

Since the white trader has taken up his residence on the island, the natives are all keen to possess printed calico, though they have to pay a high price for flimsy goods with blinding colours. Three yards of print are sufficient to make a lava-lava, and as the natives do not think it necessary to hem the borders, the garment is ready for use as soon as the three yards are cut off the roll. The strip of calico is twisted thrice round the waist so as to hang to the knee, and then fastened on one side of the waist for a knowing little twist and tuck-in. These bright-coloured lava-lavas are really very picturesque, when worn with garlands of flowers only. The men always look well on week-days, because they wear nothing but a lava-lava, or a native leaf petticoat. The women spoil themselves, even on week-days, by the hideous tiputas (bust cloths) they wear above the leaf petticoat or the lava-lava. These bust cloths are of various designs, the commonest being an oblong piece of print about a yard long by a quarter of a yard wide, with a hole, big enough to admit the head, cut in the centre. The tiputa hangs down like a handkerchief, back and front, and is blown about by every breeze, so it is absolutely useless as a covering; many of the women wear them rolled up like a string round their necks with the ends just hanging in front. The young girls really spend a great deal of time and trouble over making one of these hideous tiputas. They collect scraps of coloured print, cut them into varied shapes, and applique them on to the outside of the garment; pieces that are to small and frayed to sew on in this way are torn into narrow strips, and tacked all round the edge for fringe.

The Samoan gown is gaining favour in Funafuti; this is a long, straight garment, like a badly-cut night-gown, high up to the neck, with long sleeves, the skirt reaching from the yoke to the heels. Not only is this ugly, but is also comparatively expensive, as it takes about seven yards of material to make, and has the further disadvantages of being dirty and dangerous, especially if worn in the cook-house, where the floor constitutes both table and fireplace, the Samoan gown dips into the dirt and the food, and is more liable to catch fire than is the leaf petticoat. I noticed that the few women who wore them had a great deal of trouble with them, tucking them this way and that to tray to keep them out of the way.

The women all admired lace and embroidery very much, but clucked and "tapa'ed" in horror when told the price of such articles. They imitated embroidery by cutting holes in strips of white calico, but the raw edges of the holes soon frayed in a disappointing manner.

The men's Sunday upper garment was either a shirt, singlet or coat; and a bright-coloured handkerchief knotted round the neck was considered very stylish. These garments were all purchased from the trader ready-made, as were also the few pairs of trousers that walked abroad on Sundays. Herein, again, the Funafutians are behind the Niue men, who can cut out and make remarkably good trousers. Natives always walk well with an easy, free step, and consequently do not look so well in trousers as in the waist cloth.

Boots and shoes are not yet de riguer in Funafuti; the natives' feet are small and shapely, and the soles quite hard enough to walk on the sandy shore and roads without protection. The men can walk barefoot on the jagged coral reef when spearing fish, but if they have a long day on the reef they wear a rough sandal plaited out of cocoa-nut fibre.

Since it has been the fashion in Funafuti for men to cut their hair very short, men and boys are beginning to wear hats on occasions, even during the week; they delight in being "all a same a white man masher." The tiny boys look very ugly with their little shaven heads; but the girls are very proud of their thick, bushy crops of hair, and try to make their heads look as big as possible. All the women wore their heads look as big as possible. All the women wore their hair down until I arrived, and then they all began to make queer attempts at doing up their "back hair," some of them completely spoiling their appearance. Even the tiny girls tried to keep their hair twisted up, until I showed them the portrait of my two little daughters, immediately after which fringes and hanging locks were the fashion among the small girls.

At my afternoons "at home" in Funafuti the chief pleasures of the women were a examine my clothes, look at fashion plates, and see me do up my hair; and the refreshments that were liked best were sweets and ship biscuits.

I wondered if their interest in the fashion plates was prompted by the desire to obtain fresh patterns of clothes; but one afternoon a Nukulaelae woman (wife to a white man) was present, and after there had been a great chattering over the fashion plates, she turned to me, glanced quickly at my waist, and then pointed to the waist of a figure in the book, and said with great emphasis, "white women planti big fool, tie up belly all tight, bine-by no goody in-a-side!" I felt bound to defend my countrywomen, and explained that, though the pictures were all made like that, only a very few English women were silly enough to squeeze themselves in that way. She explained to the other women, who nodded and hummed in a satisfied way, and after that the fashion plates were not so much in request.

The people, men, women and children were all very fond of decorating themselves with shell or bead necklaces, but they always looked better in their floral wreaths.

Most of the hats worn by men in Funafuti were neatly plaited out of narrow strips of pandanus leaf; and, as only a few women could make them well, their work was much in request. These leaf hats are extremely light and thin, and are, therefore, but little protection from the sun, and the slightest breeze will blow them away.

Although the tiny Tyrolese hat worn by the Funafuti woman is an absurd-looking article, it is a very ingenious piece of work. Tagasia (Opataia's wife) made one so that I could see how it was done, and I was astonished at the resourcefulness displayed in its manufacture, and the amount of labour it entailed. Tagasia pasted together scraps of newspaper so as to make a fairly thick sheet of cardboard, and this was left between flat mats for a day to dry. The shapes of the crown, sides and rims were then cut out and sewn together. the sewing took a long time, and broke several needles; and the edges were then strengthened by palm-pinnule midrib sewn on as hat-wire.

The pastor's wife taught the girls to plait a pretty straw pattern, and many of the girls made plait enough for a hat for themselves, which sewed into a small, rather high-crowned sailor hat. They could buy no flowers, feathers, ribbons, nor lace, with which to trim these hats, and so they frayed out some plait and bunched the wavy stuff into rosettes or aigrettes, and dyes them blue with Reckitt's blue, or red with the juice of the nonu root. so they had their favourite colours on the new hats - red, blue, and white straw trimmings. These straw hats were all made, after 1 had given away a dozen English straw hats, by the girls who were not fortunate enough to get one of mine, and were all finished in time to wear the Sunday before my departure. They were a great improvement on the pasteboard atrocities, but all the girls look much prettier without any hats at all.

They have no real straw on the island, and so the girls make "straw" to plait by peeling the outer skin off the pulaka stalks, which is soaked and bleached, and when dry it makes a pretty delicate shiny "straw," which, however, soon loses its brightness. In Niue the women make similar "straw" in the same way from sugar-cane and arrowroot leaves.

The rougher kinds of leaf petticoats were made from palm pinnules which had been soaked and dried. When the pinnule was dry and sufficiently matured the skin of the upper side would rip off easily, and formed a soft, curly string, and it was this skin of which nearly all the women's petticoats (titi) were made. When the titi was needed for great occasions, a row of ribbons of dyed pandanus leaves, or of feathers, would be arranged round the waist, so as to flap over the outside of the petticoat as the wearer walked. The titi were very full and bunched out round the hips, and when the girls walked in them the slight up and down movement of the hips gave them a curious emu-like gait and appearance. The titi were always fastened by a string just big enough to go round the waist.

The men's petticoats (takai) were made on a different plan, and of different material, too, when needed for a gala dress. The ordinary working petticoat made of half-palm pinnules was harsher and rougher than the titi, but the gala takai was a very fine kilt long enough to go two and a half-time round the body, and had a plaited waist quite unlike the knotted arrangement in the titi. These gala takai were always made out of the beautiful, creamy bast of the fo fafine tree - a lovely hibiscus bearing a cream-coloured flower with a ruby centre. The bast had to be striped and soaked in the sea for many days, bleached in the sun for many more days, drawn piece by ;piece over the blunt edge of a knife to make it supple, then split u into strips of about a quarter-an-inch wide, and put away in bundles.

The two native dyes used for colouring pandanus leaves for ornamenting titi, takai, or mats, were red, from the mangrove; but now that the natives can buy pitch from the trader, they use that for black dye, instead of troubling to extract the dye from the mangrove.

The preparation of the fala (pandanus) leaves for making and ornamenting petticoats was tedious. Peke took me through the whole process. To begin with, Peke, 'Sarai, Petise, and myself started off one afternoon, armed with long knives, in search of young pandanus trees. We selected healthy, strong, young plants about six feet high, not having yet shot up into the trunk stage. With the long knives we cut these down about six inches from the ground, leaving a row or two of old and damaged leaves on the stump; then we cut off about eighteen inches of the top of the stem, rejecting the young half-grown leaves at the top which were too immature for our purpose. Then came the delightful work of stripping the leaves from the centre of the stem; this needs great care, for pandanus leaves have strong saw-like margins, and strong and saw-like also are the backs of the midribs, so that a jagged scratch from margin or midrib will prove very painful, even if it does not fester, as it is prone to do.

It is thought a good practical joke in Funafuti for a girl to saw an unsuspecting youth with a pandanus leaf; a good deal of laughter on the one side, and volubility on the other is the usual result of this joke.

When we had collected as many pandanus leaves as we could carry, we took them into the village where Famerea, Tanei's wife, had made a good blazing fire, and through the fire we drew all the pandanus leaves, and the saw-like back and edges were softened so as to be quite harmless.

The leaves were then put into the lagoon to soak for a week or more, and they were taken out and spread on the sand in the sun to dry and bleach; this part of the work should not be hurried, or the leaves will shrink after they are plaited, and spoil your mats.

When the leaves are well shrunk and bleached and dried, you have to peel off the saw-like margin and back, tons of the pulaka leaves - leaves that had had all the green rotted off them by being buried in mud, and then dried in the sun. When these ingredients had been well stirred and boiled into the oil for about five minutes, the oil was again strained, then cooled, and bottled for use.

This oil is clear, but has a queer, stifling smell, not at all a European's notion of toilet scent; but the natives delight in it, and rub themselves lavishly with it on sing-sing nights.

They have another method of preparing cocoa-nut oil to burn in their lamps. The kernels of old nuts are flaked and put out in the sun, then squeezed and kneaded in a kumete day after day until all the oil funs out. whenever I saw a kumete full of this evil-smelling, dirty-looking stuff, I got on the windward side of it with all expedition.

The cocoa-nut palm, as I have already remarked, is a miraculous tree; it supplies food, drink, cord, bait, thatch, mats, oil for lamps, anointing oil, firing, saucepans, bottles, plates, spoons, brushes, and clothing. The old dry leaves that fall with a warning swish - mind you get out of the way when you hear one coming, for it is heavy enough to stave in a strong boat - are gathered by the girls and bound into "lama" (torches), and used in the canoe-fishing on dark nights. The tiny rootlets that grow at the base of the stems are often used to help in the making of fish-traps, and the hollow trunks of veteran trees make roomy tanks for the rain water. In fact, every part of the tree is used in some wonderful and eminently satisfactory way, and, knowing its value as a food-bearer, I was astonished to see a magnificent, tall, straight specimen cut down while in full flower to help in building a new house.

This indicates the value of building-timber. Trees used only for their timber are not plentiful, and least of all on the main islet, so that sometimes valuable palms have to be sacrificed thus. The trees used only for their timber grow chiefly on the other islets, and it is quite a week's business to go over in boats, cut down trees, and float them across to the main islet. Every kind of tree that grows on the atoll is used for building purposes, although durable hardwoods like kanava, fetau, and milo are preferred: hardwood trees are not common, and are used for making tuai, kumete, tuki-tuki, pillows (luuga), boxes (turuma), axe-handles, fish-hooks, husking sticks, etc., etc.; so when a man wants to byuild a hut or a cook-house, he has to build it of what he can get-not of the best materials for the purpose. In one hut I have seen posts, beams and rafters made of all the different hardwoods, and palm, pandanus, pua, mangrove, and valovalo into the bargain.

The soft, light wood of the puka tree is reserved for the building of canoes. The short, scrubby tree called gie (pronounced "ngia") produces small branches of beautiful hardwood. This is not large enough for building, but makes very tough and durable tuki-tuki, fish-hooks and huskers. The smaller pieces of gie makes excellent firewood, but the natives prefer using cocoa-nut husks and shells for this purpose. They used to supply gie, but in two-feet lengths, at the rate of ten shillings a ton, for the furnace of the boiler belonging to the diamond drill. The only drawback to the use of this as fuel was that, while the average diameter of the sticks was three inches, about one-third of this was sodden bark and wet moss. It burned very well, however, when thoroughly dried. The pliable roots of the toga (mangrove) are also in great request; in fact, the trees are so few in number and varieties that the natives have learned to make use of every part of most of them - root, stem, bark, sap, branches, leaves and fruit.

Next to the cocoa-nut palm the most useful tree on the atoll was the fala (pandanus). There are two varieties of this tree; one called fala vao, which is self-sown, and springs up everywhere from the castaway chewed segments of the fruit. The pandanus is even more marvellous in its feeding than the cocoa-nut palm, for it seems able to extract sufficient nourishment from solid rock and the air alone. The fala vao looked exactly like its cultivated cousin, the fala kai, except at fruiting time, then the cone of the fala kai is twice the size of that of the fala vao, and much more juicy. The edible seeds of the fala are not eaten in Funafuti; the natives wait until the segments of the cone have turned a bright orange colour, then they pull them apart, and chew the pointed end; the square end containing the seeds is thrown away, and this accounts for the number of young fala plants that are seen springing up in every direction.

The natives were very fond of chewing pandanus fruit, and the hermit crabs esteemed it dainty also; I tried it one day, but it was like slightly sweetened gumarabic, and I did not repeat the experiment.

The fala kai, which is planted and cultivated, is private property, and only the man who owns it has a right to the fruit of it, but the fala vao is common property, and anyone can help himself to the fruit or leaves, no matter upon whose land the plant may grow. The children generally keep their eyes on a ripening pandanus cone, and when it is declared fit to eat, a dozen youngsters will share the booty. As fala leaves are so constantly in request for making hats or mats, it is a great boom to the poorer women that the plant is free.      

Funafuti Island, Tuvalu

Jane Resture's Oceania Page

Jane's Oceania Home Page Newsletter
to get the latest news, information and Web site updates!
Please enter your email address below,
then click the 'Join' button for your free Newsletter!

 Join newsletter! 

Pacific Islands Radio Stations

Jane's Oceania Travel Page

(E-mail: -- Rev. 5th June 2003)  


yahoo.gif (465 bytes)