Apia

Samoa

End of August 1917

Dear Sir

I have been successful beyond my expectations in getting the Samoan names of parts of the canoe or war ship here.  There is here a German interpreter named Neffgen or Neffghen who I got into touch with and he has copied out a letter he wrote to an old German Governor, that contains the particulars.  I enclose the copy.  He has also in his possession a wooden model of the canoe, the only one in existence and he is willing to trade it.  It cost him 50/- but he is not anxious to sell but will exchange it for any Maori curios or something of that sort of that you may have and that he may want.  He is an authority on Samoa and will be pleased to open up correspondence with you.

The canoe at present is lying under an iron shed and is fast rotting away.  All wood perishes here, the hot moist atmosphere destroying everything.  The planks the boat is composed of are lashed together in the same way as the Fiji boats.  And such things as planking for the decks is dovetailed together and lashed.  Pressure of duty and a sore toe and an injured eye have conspired to keep me in barracks since I last wrote so that a personal inspection has been impossible but I will make one and sent particulars.

The same reason has kept me from visiting the House of the Octopus, but I am going at the first opportunity.  From what I can glean about the Fale of le Fee, it is or has been a house built during the Tongan occupation hundreds of years ago and in the building they used the basalt columns that are common in this volcanic country.  Up many of the creeks among the hills, one comes across columns of basalt formed probably in the same manner as the Grants Conservatory in Ireland.  They are scattered in the creek beds and are so true in their 5 and 6 sided shapes that the ordinary man cannot realise that they have not been worked by a mason.  My companion when I first saw them cried out that someone had started to build a house there and it certainly looked like it.  So possibly the Tongans used these stone columns to build up a fale instead of using wood and there they have remained ever since.  The Tongans and the Samoans in the old days must have put in a lot of work here.  From the centre of the island there has been a series of stone roads made, starting from Lake Lauutoo (an extinct volcanic crater, now a lake) about 2000 feet above sea level.  An old German resident, a plantation manager told me that he had come across traces of these roads in the bush and at one part of the volcano, the western end, some of our men on patrol tell of a high stone wall crossing the island.  How much that is true I hesitate to say, for a row of basalt rock split by contraction, naturally would give the ordinary man the idea of a man built wall.

I came across an interesting thing the other night.  It was a Samoan bait for octopus fishing.  It is built up thus – a dark coloured stone, such as basalt is ground and rubbed to almost the size and shape of a goose egg, with a flat on it.  It is eventually intended to look like a rat, so that will explain the shape.  On the back of this is fitted as covers, two brown mottled shells gathered from the reef and the whole is lashed together with some coconut fibre cord, with a piece of twig standing out like a tail.  I will try and draw the thing.  This will give you some idea of the thing.  It is lowered down from a canoe around a submerged boulder and the octopus catches it, to find himself captured.  The natives have a legend about it.  At some remote period, an octopus and a rat were in a boat that got wrecked and sank.  The rat was saved by the octopus taking him on his head and swimming ashore.  When safely landed the rat turned around to the squid and jeered at him and told him to look what he (the rat) had left on his head.  The octopus looked and found that the rat had deposited excrement (the native did not put it so politely) on the head of the friendly octopus and since then there has been an undying feud between the two animals.   I tried to buy the “bait” but the native would not sell.  It took too long to make.  But I live in hope.

I am afraid I must finish as the canoe has to be considered.  Let me know if these letters interest you or if you want any special information and I will try and fix you up.  But please remember I am one of the most despised outcasts in Samoa, a private soldier, spurned by all the white people, especially the newcomers who are holding good jobs because we hold the island, looked down upon by the half casts, who probably can hardly read and write, and sponged upon by the natives.  Consequently my opportunities for research are limited.  Time is limited and money hardly counts here, in this land of plenty, so one has to do the best one can, and I will do what is possible for you as a labour of love for although the Southern Hemisphere is really new to me (5 years from England) the study of prehistoric works has always held a charm for me.  It is a pity you cannot get here for a month.  I could put you in touch with men who would be far more useful than I.  The American consul here Mr Mason Mitchell is a true naturalist and a much travelled hunter, a friend of Roosevelt and has a fund of information.  Neffgen, the German interpreter is, as I have said an authority on the South Seas and their languages.  I cannot at this moment give you the right spelling and address of Neffgen but to save time you can write to him via my address or to the Court House Apia.  Perhaps the latter would be best.

Hoping the above will be interesting.

I remain yours sincerely

Private JB Fleck

25/345 Samoa


These letters are held in the Alexander Turnbull Library (Inward correspondence - F to H, MS-Papers-0072-03 in the Elsdon Best papers (MS-Group-1795).  They have been published with the permission of that institution.

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