I had a request from Private D Higgins to send you some particulars about Samoa – its caves, stone implements and the old war canoes. He had lately come in from the back and thought that I could answer your letter better than he, as I have been interested in stone implements and prehistoric work in England. I have not yet seen the letter with the details that you require, but for love of the thing I will send every mail a further contribution as I can find time and material. There is little here but I can get with touch with that little. Unhappily I am no linguist but will do my best.
The account I am enclosing is a hurried one, I have little time for writing and I have not revised it, so kindly accept it with its imperfections. I know my bad writing from letter experience. If you write me personally I will try to carry out your request. Like most busy people I expect I can find time all right.
Private JB Fleck
P.S. I shall be home in NZ on Furlough about the end of the year and I may arrange an interpreter that will be better even than all I can write.
The Samoan Caves
These caves are situated about 8 miles from Apia in Samoa and about 4 or 5 from the sea coast. The whole island is apparently partly volcanic in its origin and is practically all composed of volcanic rocks and scoria, the soil being all decomposed volcanic rocks enriched with the decayed vegetation. The general contour of the country is best described as a range of low mountains about 2000 feet running due east and west, very steep near the summits and right up to the coast in some parts, but in other places there is a considerable stretch of fairly level land running from the hills to the coast. It is towards the top of one of these couple of relatively easy slopes that the caves that I visited are found. The ground under which the caves lie is undulating only and the present entrance consists of a circular depression in the ground, about 50 feet and about 20 feet deep. At opposite sides of this crater like cavity are small holes, which are entrances to the caves proper. From all appearances this entrance is not the original one, but has been formed by the roof of the cave falling in cutting the cave into two parts. The caves run through a very open porous scoria or rock and are best described in the words of one of our men, as a badly twisted and bent railway tunnel. The roof is arch shaped, varying in height from 15 to 30 feet high and the sides descend to a floor that is comparatively flat from side to side, but taken lengthways it is far from level. Steep accents and descents with occasional fairly level stretches and with numerous sharp bends. We did not go far into one, the shortest one, but went right to the end of the other. There is one branch in the cave that re-joins the cave further along forming a loop. The floor is covered with small boulders and mud formed by the weathering of the rock and the constant dripping of water. I do not know how to exactly define the cave in a geological term but it gives on the impression of a long bubble formed by confined gases, while the scoria was in a fluid state. I knew nothing about what to expect in the cave, as the natives are particularly ignorant about it, the only legend being that it used to be a hiding place during the visits of the hostile Tongans. A few yards from the entrance, up one of the steep slopes, I noticed that the stones and boulders had been built up into a wall but it was badly battered and I was hardly sure that it was human work. Further in I noticed more breast works or walls and then came upon more definite and decided traces of human habitation.
The natives here, when building a “fale” or house, for flooring build a low wall, about 1 foot to 18 inches high of rubble enclosing the space that is to be covered by the house. This space is then filled up with more rubble and top dressed with small rounded gravel to form a floor. This porous or perhaps I had better say, loose gravel floor has a number of advantages, and is practically the only method used by the natives. The definite signs I found were these low walls enclosing spaces filled up with small scoria, arranged along the sides of the caves, leaving a well-defined path down the middle. Right in the cave towards the end these platforms were absolutely perfect. Each platform would vary in shape due to the shape of the cave and if occurring on a slope, was built up level, each rising above the other like terraces. Naturally the path was not straight sometimes due to the formation of the cave and sometimes to one platform being larger than the other and sometimes winding around a large boulder that, projecting from the floor, had been too large to clear away. We went right to the end of the cave and returning took one of the loops. I think there are two of them. The loop was also fitted up with platforms. At the end of the cave we were near enough to the surface to find the root of some tree or plant coming into the cave, so perhaps the original entrance had been there. If it had been, it must have been closed up for a considerable time, for it was at the end that the platforms were least disturbed.
Unhappily we had not expected to find any such signs or remnants there and were badly provided with lights. But since then I have someone who has worked more systematically. His party found and brought away several stone axe heads, putting the date of these caves back in the Stone Age for this place. I do not think that the Germans here have ever really examined these caves. That they had been here we could see from the empty beer bottles there, but there is one German inhabitant here who should be able to give me all the particulars that the Germans possessed. He is an authority on these matters and on the South Sea history, so I will interview him. Recently I have heard that the manager of the plantation where the caves are, has discovered some more, but has not explored them. He says that there is water in one so I am hoping to organise a party to go and investigate, and will let you know.
There are some other things that Private D Higgins has asked about. One is the House of the Octopus or te fale o feete. This is a very ancient stone building but can get no particulars so I am going to see it myself. It is up a gully about 8-10 miles SE from Apia and when I can get leave, I and a friend are going. It means a native guide and perhaps a two day trip. I will get all the legends about that and they are many and varied to send you.
The only old canoe left is easily examined. I have visited it often but will get an old native to show me the names of the parts.
Strange to relate the natives of Samoa have few if any “arts”. They weave some very fine “mats” or really grass cloth, but it is very expensive. Five pounds is very little for a good fine mat. Some large ones are valued at fifty pounds. In the old days and even now they are used, not as ornaments or for use, but as currency. I enquired once what it would cost to build a native house and the native told me that he paid “two mats”. At important weddings or functions they form part of a dowry or wedding presents, not only to the bride and groom but to their family or tribe, the village of the bride or groom giving them to the heads of the other village, literally exchanging mats when all is said and done. Other than the mats there is nothing ornamental done or made by the Samoans. They are skilful in their own particular woodwork such as cutting out canoes from the solid logs or building their houses or weaving rope from the fibre of coconuts but they have no ornamental arts. Nothing is carved or decorated beyond cutting a few lines or drilling a few holes in the handle of a large plantation knife. I can find nothing ornamental in any of the real “antiques” and they are few that I have seen. The designs painted on the tappa cloths are all modern geometrical ones.
The few stone implements I have seen are all axe heads. As there is no flint here and no stone that can be chipped like flint, the axes are apparently just roughly chipped and hammered to shape and then ground. I have one that I will send you and you can see then for yourself. They can make some fancy blankets but these ideas of ornately are very crude and of European origin. They seldom produce anything that is really of high grade. I did today get four little flat basket work discs that could be used as fale mats that were above the average, but they are the only ones that I have seen. I am not sure that the woman who sold them was the maker, although she said she made them. They are all “m…..” here, so one does not trust them far or believe all they say. They may have been made by a Soloman Islander, or a Fiji or a Gilbert Islander, or a native of some other island who is living here, for there is a mixed lot here.
There are some other caves in the South Coast of the Island and from the little that I can glean about them, they are longer than the local ones and are reputed to run under the sea. Will make further enquires.
Private JB Fleck