The British Empire Library

Pacific Prelude: A Journey To Samoa And Australasia 1929

by Margery Perham

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by R.A.I.
This book by the well-known writer on African affairs is sub-titled "A Journey to Samoa and Australasia, 1929" and only eight and a half pages (on Fiji) are strictly concerned with an ex-colony.

The author had just been awarded a Rhodes Trust Travelling Fellowship for twelve months which began with visits to the USA (three weeks). East and West Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand (3 weeks), Australia (1 week) and on to South Africa. We thus have an account by a blue stocking of 34 of a large slice of the Empire as it was sixty years ago. Fortunately for the reader there are an introduction and detailed notes by the editor, Mr. A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, who thus has supplemented the book which was revised by the author in 1972. The American visit will not be dealt with here nor a brief stop-over in Hawaii, actually Oahu.

When thinking of the South Seas one recalls the words of Robert Louis Stevenson: "The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island are memories apart and touch a virginity of sense". Margery Perham's first island, shared as it happens with the reviewer's, was Tutuila in American Samoa whose main town is the well-known Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango). The author lists the coral reef, lagoon, coconut palms, deep cobalt sea, white breakers and black volcanic rocks but describes the circular fales (Samoan houses) as mushroom-shaped which seems an odd word; the notes refer to their rectangular ground plan, again unusual for buildings with rounded ends. The vessel on which Margery travelled had also the new governor about to take over this American naval base. He had been well-briefed to ensure that his dependency must not follow that of nearby Western Samoa where this New Zealand mandate was in the throes of political strife led by a half-caste agitator.

Pago Pago did not cater for travellers and finding accommodation was the main problem and accounts for a large portion of her notes amplified with the inauguration of the new governor and a party for a visiting German warship. It was a wrench for her to leave "the nearest place to Paradise on earth that I shall ever see". After a most unpleasant voyage in a small, dirty and over-crowded ship the 70 mile crossing was made to Apia, capital of Western Samoa. This ex-German colony had been taken over by New Zealand forces in 1914 and in 1929 was a C class mandate under the League of Nations.

Apia proved disappointing - Margery's adjectives are dirty, neglected, battered with decay and inertia to the fore. Even worse were the unhelpful officials and insolent natives and it was just her luck, when out for her first walk, to stumble on a meeting of the Mau (not the Mau Mau) who were a rebellious group. Full details of this simmering uprising are given in the notes with an account of the leader, a Swedish/Samoan agitator called O. F. Nelson. Although he was now detained in Auckland he was able to direct the rebellion which proved a tricky problem as no less than three-quarters of the people belonged to the Mau who refused to pay taxes or keep the law. The police for their part had strict orders never to let a situation lead to bloodshed.

The administration had been criticised for years as not being up to the task with everyone from the Resident Commissioner downwards being the target for severe criticism. This failure was primarily due to the fact that there was no pool of trained young men such as our Colonial Civil Service. Margery found that education was largely in the hands of the missionaries - this was also the case in other places. The policy of sending New Zealand schoolmasters to teach agriculture to natives was particularly poor as they probably knew less than their pupils on the cultivation of taro, coconuts and bananas, their ancestral crops.

A slip occurs in the notes on the death of the unfortunate Revd. John Williams who was clubbed and "consumed by the natives of Erromanga, new Guinea" which should be Erromango of Vanuatu. At this time there were one thousand Chinese in Western Samoa who were brought in as indentured labourers ostensibly on a three year contract but usually stayed on. As only bachelors were allowed it was only natural that half-caste children were in evidence - always a problem. They are said by the teachers to be "the sharpest part" at school.

Full marks must be given to our author for a most accurate and interesting account of the life history and damage caused by the rhinoceros beetle against which unsuccessful efforts were made to carry out the control measures in use in German times. Although it was in the natives' own interest to keep plantations clean and destroy rotten wood in which the grubs mature, this they failed to do, so that the beetle pest steadily and visibly advanced - to the detriment of the palm fronds and subsequent crop of copra. As a break in her official duties she was taken to see Vailima, the home of R.L.S. which she describes as a "low, friendly wooden house looking over a lawn". The setting and the beautiful flowers cannot fail to make an abiding picture as the reviewer found was the case some twenty years later.

On her arrival at Suva, capital of Fiji, she found a most desolate port, untidy dock in desolate land leading to a shabby mostly Indian town with a dirty hotel - her luck must have been out. However, she did agree that Suva Bay was glorious and was most impressed by the fine physique of the Fijians. A rather long account is given of her encounters with government officials; it so happened that a change of governors was imminent with the Colonial Secretary away on tour. Her refusal to meet the wife of the acting head of government was neither wise nor courteous. A trip was laid on for her and she was impressed by the rich tropical vegetation where "vegetable parasites of all kinds dripped, or mossed, or trailed or hunched themselves about in growth". A visit to a boys' government boarding school was made with the Director of Education but on arrival there was not a soul there as all the pupils were busy planting taro. Their deep, harsh voices sang with great energy Fijian and Maori songs - the latter seems most unlikely as they had plenty of their own.

Next on her itinerary were the huge crushing mills of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company which provided schools for the children of the Indian cutters most of whom turned out under questioning to want to be schoolmasters. Later she visited Fijian schools where the pupils were more cheerful than the Indians. On her return to Suva she asked officials if the adaptable, clever Indians would not gain over the easy-going communal Fijian, they assured her that the Colonial Office will see to that and will protect the Fijian - if only this could have come about! Margery realised this intractable problem and hoped if the Fijian can stick to his land and learn to develop it, perhaps he will be safe. She concludes by saying the future of Fiji and of Indian and Native is still open to question, one I cannot try to answer. In the footnote for this part it is noted that the Indians are given as 60,000 for both the years 1917 and 1921 - the latter is correct.

One appreciates what a task this whole visit must have been for here was a woman on her own making detailed enquiries on a semi-official basis and having to be entertained by the very people about which she had to comment, not always in flattering terms.

British Empire Book
Margery Perham
Peter Owen


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