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Samoa Under the Sailing Gods



There had been unwonted activity on the wide veranda in the western side of the large, raised bungalow for a day or two; with the elfin Fifiloi and another of the Samoan retainers, to be seen above the hedge, pouring liquor from cauldrons into flat, steaming pans, set out upon the floor, and Charlie Roberts hovering with a thermometer; for he had a theory that beer should be cooled off quickly in the breeze. I was not surprised, for his daughter's twenty-first birthday was pending. One afternoon, instead of merely waving, he called me in. "I don't know what to do; I've made four hundred bottles of beer for Norma's party to-morrow, and it's as bitter as bloody gall!" From the veranda, beyond the steep brown roof-thatch of the elliptical, open-walled hut, or native fale, across the road, could be seen the blue waters of the reef-bound harbour; and behind the white buildings of the town, that fringed the fair buttock of the bay circling to our left, rose the solitary woody hill—advanced from the central masses of the island—on the summit of which was buried R. L. Stevenson.

We were all making illicit liquor, despite—or, indeed, because of—Prohibition; I having been initiated by the famous Charlie, whose house, nearly opposite the red-roofed Pilot Station on Matautu Point, I passed on my way home to my cottage at Vaiala. Often, as to-day, he would be on the veranda and beckon me in—a small, frail figure, with cropped head, in pyjamas and dressing-gown, or tussore silk suit with gold watch-chain hung across the loose waistcoat. "I want you to try some of this!" And then he would talk; he was incisively interesting, and had the finest library in the islands. When first I saw a spacious room he kept alongside it lined with casks of liquor in various stages of fermentation, I was alarmed page 2for him. "Are you not afraid of the police dropping in on this?" I asked. "Not at all," he replied. "I know too much about them!"

Nearly every writer who visited the islands, including Mrs. Jack London, mentioned him; and in this connection he told one or two stories against himself. "The first man I met on landing at Apia was Charlie Roberts—an Australian. The shape of his head showed his criminal ancestry," was the pronouncement of a German. Actually, he was English—possibly, as he claimed, an Oxford man, and he asserted also that he had been associated with the old Pink 'Un crowd in London: Pitcher, the Ape, the Dwarf of the Blood, and the rest of them. He had spent some time on the Australian Turf; was once a "tic-tac," or signaller to a bookmaker; had been barred from the racecourses; and had gone on them in blue goggles and other disguise, so it was said. He told me that he had been offered a considerable sum of money—which he refused—by a firm of Australian publishers, for his reminiscences of the Australian Turf.

Having come to Samoa before the end of the last century he traded for a time in contraband arms, and was present with his friend Blacklock, the American Consul, to hear the first shot fired in history by the Americans and British in alliance, in the Samoan War of 1899. After the hoisting of the German flag in 1900, he had kept, in succession, two or three remarkable and characteristic hotels—or saloons—until 1914. The last of these was named the Tivoli.

In August 1914, when a New Zealand expeditionary force under Colonel Logan dropped anchor in Apia Harbour, and while the Germans capitulated within the half-hour that was allowed, Charlie Roberts was in hospital. (By his own account he had been in the habit of drinking a bottle of whisky before breakfast.) Dick Williams, the Deputy Administrator of Savaii—the largest island of the Samoa Group—the only British subject it was said in the German Colonial Service—had come across from Savaii to hand his resignation to the German Governor, and was present when the Union Jack was hoisted above the Court House. He made himself known to Colonel Logan. "Ah!" remarked Logan. "The very man I want! I have page 3to set up an administration. You, of course, will go back to Savaii—your place is there. I have men who will fill many of the offices; but I must have a man for Chief Judge with knowledge of English and German law and one who also knows the natives. Whom do you suggest?" "Charlie Roberts is the man, sir!" replied Williams. "Right!" said Logan, and noted down the name. Shortly after, the residents of Apia were notified, to their surprise, by proclamation, that Charles Roberts was Chief Judge. It was generally agreed that he was the best Chief Judge the islands ever had. He remained in office until after the War. At the time of which I write he was practising as a lawyer on the beach. He had, while hotel-keeping, appeared occasionally before the German court as a legal agent.

I was able to offer no suggestion for dealing with the four hundred bottles of beer that was too bitter; and indeed it is unlikely that any was expected of me, for I specialized in making wine. When I left, the beer was being decanted into a large tub.

The party on the night following—Norma's birthday party; for "fa'a Samoa," having been born in the islands, she was "Norma" to everyone on the beach—was quite the most noteworthy I have ever seen. There was Charlie, in full evening-dress—very loose-fitting—leaning up against a wall and talking, between asthmatic pauses, with humorous mobile mouth; Mrs. Roberts—a stout and elderly, but rather handsome woman, an Australian, who had once been in the chorus I believe—also in black, bustling about; as was Loibl—the Treasurer to the Administration under Logan's Government—a little man, who went not long ago to search for Jesuit treasure in Bolivia or Peru. Some of the Gentlemen Adventurers from the Narwhal, which was then in port, were likewise there in conventional evening garb; the rest of the men were in the motley of the tropics—a white mess-jacket and black trousers.

The half-caste element, of course, was strong. In Samoa the half-castes rank as Europeans. Some of their dark-haired golden-armed women are lissom and beautiful, and dress very elegantly and in rare good taste, whereby, perhaps deservedly, they have the name of being extravagant. Many white men, including Government officials, were married to these—and page 4alleged, most of them, to be in debt at nearly every store along the beach.

The largest room—a double room it must have been—was cleared for dancing, and there was a bar or buffet somewhere in the offing. Behind this were bar-tenders, who served the drinks into glasses from a variety of receptacles. There was beer, punch, and lemonade. On long tables, behind hedgerows, in the illumined garden, below the high veranda, before the house and to one side, and spread with cloths of snowy whiteness, were piles of eatables: chicken, fish, sweets, salads, cold meats, and a solitary plate piled high with a cone of sliced pineapple—the first perhaps of the season.

The drinks appeared to be remarkably innocuous: the beer was not too strong nor too bitter, the punch—mixed in a cask—as mild as milk. I, in quest of the spirit of the dance, changed from one to another, and then back again; as, no doubt, did many others. The dance was in full swing, and the tropic night was warm.

The first symptom which caused me to think I might have overstepped the mark, was that I cannoned into someone when crossing the otherwise empty floor at the conclusion of a dance.

The next thing I remember is standing near one of the supper-tables in the garden and being highly diverted by the behaviour of one of the tail-coated guests. He was gazing, horror-struck and incredulous, at the empty plate which recently had held the solitary pineapple. "Who's taken this —— pineapple?" he gasped. Then he bent lower as if unable to believe his eyes: "Who's taken this —— pineapple?" he exclaimed. He stooped lower still; his eye now was on a level with the table, and his voice rose to a scream: "Who's taken this bloody —— pineapple?" I saw the Aide-de-Camp make a stampede for the house with two young people of whom he was in charge, driving them before him as a flurried hen does chicks.

It was a somewhat remarkable party, and it marked the end of an era. There were anything up to three hundred people present; nearly everyone of any consequence in Apia. And the larger proportion were anything but sober; but for this I page 5blame in part the insidious nature of the drinks. However, I doubt if it did any harm; and I for one have often looked back to it with pleasure.