Elinor Mordaunt travelled extensively in the early 1920s around the world and through the Pacific region. Her recollections of Samoa published in The Venture Book in 1926 give an interesting and colourful description of the culture and lifestyle of Samoa. 

           
 
There are some places - as there are some people - which are unresponsive to us and to which we ourselves are unresponsive; while others affect us so that the merest trifle, such as the way in which the light falls across the trunks of a group of trees, a flower, an aspect of the dawn, endears them to us for ever, and, forgetting every discomfort that we have ever encountered there, we remember this alone. 
 
Now, I find it impossible to write fairly about Upolu, which in speaking of Stevenson, people choose to call Samoa as though it, alone, comprised the whole group - because from the very first moment I set my eyes upon this island, which I had so greatly longed to see, it was altogether dead to me; dead and deadening the heavy green of the mountains, lacing the fine piercing peaks of Tahiti: dead and deadening the dark and uniform masses of growth, with its impression of a scene painstakingly done out in Berlin wool by those Germans who were so long in possession. 
 
Deadening, too, was my first sight of the bay, with its wreck of an old German ship which came to grief there as long ago as 1889; deadening the almost incredibly slovenly beach, the once magnificent coconut plantations, grey with disease and tightly netted over with that convolvulus-like parasite commonly known as "A-Mile-A-Minute," which stifles everything on which it sets its cruel fingers; dead the hotel, or rather the pretence of an hotel, dead and dusty death.
 
 
It is not that the island is not beautiful, for it is, indeed, very beautiful, while the road up to Vailima is perfectly lovely with its green spill-ways to the sea, the tree-clad heights of Vaea, the sharp dipping valleys of the Vai-Singano, the swift running water-courses and waterfalls, the deep pool shaded with orange trees where Stevenson used to bathe; though even here was attracted me more than anything else, the only thing which has, so far, really touched me in the whole island, were the groups of native houses that I passed on my way up to Vailima. And these are, indeed, like nothing which I have ever seen before in their fitness and charm; in the cleanliness and delicacy of their surroundings, with their little lawns smooth as pigeons' breasts, shorn by hand with long knives, their flower-beds thick with roses, cannas, zinnias, and balsams.
 
The Samoan native house carries, indeed, all the enchantment of the dream houses in my childhood days; the Perfect House in the Perfect Wood which even Barrie himself has failed to altogether reconstruct for me; the house of happiness and joy and plenty and beauty; full of song and laughter; familiar to fairies and a very part of the woodland itself.
 
 
The Samoan house has the smoothness and glint of the wing of a golden-tinted butterfly; it is very large, comprising one room only, and round or oval in shape; the immensely high roof of dried and plaited sugar cane - arched over with slender semi-circular laths or wood, crossed by heavier beams, for all the world like the inside of an overturned boat - it upheld by two upright posts in the oval houses and one in the round; the whole being fastened together, for there is not a single nail in the building, with elaborate plaitings of black and red-brown and biscuit-coloured twine worked into an infinitude of geometrical patterns. All the wood in these houses is of delicate shades of biscuit and cinnamon. The sides have open cinnamon-coloured blinds of plaited sugar-cane, ready to let down if the sun is too hot, or the rain beats in too fiercely from one side or the other; while the carpet, raised a couple of feet above the level of the ground outside, is formed of the finest transparent black pebbles smoothly raked. 

For furniture there is a table and a few cedar wood boxes; piles of finely woven and patterned mats - for by the fineness and number of his mats is a man's wealth known - some so rare, so fine, that you can crunch them up in your hand like a piece of silk, and a number of white covered pillows. Today I have been sitting in the house of a chief; or rather lying lazing upon a pile of mats fully four feet by six in size, fringed round with brilliantly coloured wools, looking out upon a pleasant green lawn - with other houses dotted round it, and flowerbeds and borders, like silken patches and gay ribbons, running down to a lake-like inlet from the sea - drinking fresh coconut milk and smoking a cigarette of pungent home-grown tobacco, like a thin black ribbon, wrapped in a string of dried and shredded banana leaf; talking to my host and playing with the baby; while the little wife - who had no English - sat by nodding and smiling, and the retainers, men and women from the other little houses in the village - who do all the work of the chief's house, the sweeping and drawing of water - gathered upon the outer fringe of the pebbled floor, smiling too, full of interest and a fine courtesy; and the air flowed coolly through the open house and around us.

Talofa All - love to you, oh Chief. Will you ever, you native people of Samoa, by your dignity and repose, by the cleanliness and order of your dwellings, shame the strangers in your land out of that queer apathy which seems to hang around them; so that it is impossible to walk along the foreshore of Apia without being reminded of Kipling's lines:

"All along of dirtiness, all along the mess,
All along of doing things, rather more or less."

It is devastatingly hot, so hot that one cannot move without everything that one wears being wet through in a moment; while a sort of misty heat hangs over the whole scene, punctuated by clouds of mosquitoes. I take a motor a couple of miles out of town and sending it away move a few yards into the bush and, sitting on a log, watch the building of a great house which is being put up for one of the chiefs. A round house with one immense centre pole. This pole is formed of the trunk of a perfectly straight and very tall tree stripped of its bark and quite smooth. Over seventy men haul at the ropes, which are fastened to the top of it, as to a May-pole; logs are pushed in under the lower part of it to give it a start, and slowly, very slowly - with the butt of it fitted into a hole already prepared, into which more men run forward and roll stones - it rises; while one man swarms to the top and hangs by his knees, fixing the smaller cross-beams, others mount half-way; or sticking smaller, temporary, posts into the ground, mount them, clinging to them with their knees, stretching out their hands to uphold the smaller cross-beams while they are being fastened.

The workers wear nothing but their lava-lavas, a strip of white material round their waists like a petticoat or kilt, shorter than the Tahitian pareu, and always, as it seems, perfectly clean, while in work like this, when they pull them up and fasten them between their legs one realizes the perfectly symmetrical patterning of the tattoo, spread like fine black lace over the upper part of their legs and thighs, enwrapping their bodies; with a curved line below the breast like a woman's stays. The old chief for whom the house is being built sits upon the fallen trunk of a tree beside me, with other white-haired men, gentle and courteous, who talk to me of other houses they have seen being built, recounting length and height of them, the manifold patterns enwoven round the pillars and beams, the wonder houses of past days in a sort of half singing saga.

We are four days out from Apia, having left it in a deluge of rain which seems to have completely extinguished the sun, for the sky is still lead-black, split by incessant lightning. It is very hot; but at the same time there is a chilly dampness in the air. All the portholes have to be closed, and down below one could cut the air with a knife; while the fumes from the donkey engine make it almost unendurable. Up on deck the masts stand bare; the starboard engine is throbbing very faintly, and we scarcely move. The port engine is altogether out of gear, as it has been almost every day since the schooner left San Francisco. The deck is flooded; every now and then a heavy shoot of water slides off from the one scrap of awning which we put up with such joy in Apia. As it is impossible to stay out on the open deck, my only refuge is in the wheel-house; and here, at night, it is impossible to have any light apart from that above the binnacle, where the steersman stands named to his waist; immovable as a bronze statue, save for the motion of the hands which grasp the spokes of the wheel, the sidelong glances of his eyes showing the whites; so immovable that one jumps when he raises his hand to strike the bell above his head.

The last meal of the day is at five o'clock, and it is dark by six. After this there is nothing to be done save to sit on the minute settee, with one's feet on a soap box to keep them 9out of the wet, until one has gathered sufficient courage or is sufficiently drugged with fatigue to go below and sleep; for now that the deck is impossible I am using the captain's cabin, my conscience lulled by the fact that though he stayed in an hotel at Apia he was still obliged to sit up in a chair all night. It is a nice cabin with a good bunk; but there are a great many, too many, cockroaches and copra bugs - seven cockroaches and innumerable bugs fell out of my hairbrush only this morning, and, though they do not bite, they disgustingly soft and squashy, have a passion for perambulating about, all over one's person, so that with the heat, the prevailing damp, the smells and insect life, it is for the time being anything but pleasant on board.

The schooner rolled so last night that the heavy electric fan which the second mate fixed for me in Apia rolled off the table with a tremendous crash, awaking me to the conviction that we must at last have struck a rock; not that I was in a mood to greatly care one way or another. fortunately it stopped raining between three and four, and - feeling as though a thick blanket of fugginess has been laid across my face, my heart stifled in its beat - I wrapped myself in a blanket and went up on deck, slept in snatches, curled up in my deck-chair with the water rushing under me at each roll. It is raining again now, and I rather wonder why I ever came to sea. But I have felt like that before, in short spasms, and I know that it will soon pass; it not, and never will be, in the least like the constant nostalgia induced in me by shores. 

 
Samoa Home Page
Samoa Postcards and Picture Galleries
Oceania Postcards and Picture Galleries
Jane's Oceania Home Page
Jane Resture's Oceania Page

Pacific Islands Radio Stations

Jane's Oceania Travel Page

 
 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 15th November 2008 )
      
  yahoo.gif (465 bytes)