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Articles Blog

Apia, Samoa

Karyn Planett

Polynesia’s Birthplace

“I went off to paradise. I was ambassador to… Samoa.”—Carol Mosely Brown 

In 1997, Western Samoa became quite simply… Samoa, though the sovereign state still encompasses only the western part of the Samoan Islands. American Samoa, on the other hand, still exists as an unincorporated territory of the United States and a breeding ground for National Football League linemen. Originally, the entire Samoan island group was known as Navigators Islands out of respect for the seafaring skills of their inhabitants. 

Many learned scholars and educated anthropologists give a collective nod to Samoa as “Hawaiki [the] cradle of all Polynesian culture.” They believe that these islanders’ forefathers braved uncharted seas and uncertain futures when they sailed to Samoa from Southeast Asia. Polynesians from widely scattered islands like Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Easter Island, and New Zealand agree that Samoa is indeed the birthplace of their cultures.           

In The Beginning 

On the other hand, Samoans themselves look toward their beloved god Tagaloa as the source of their unique creation. It is said that Tagaloa existed in a world devoid of all living things. His task was to change this bleak picture by creating the earth and the rivers, the sky and all the lands. Next, this god created a man and a woman and sent them forth to populate the land. With the sweep of his powerful hand, Tagaloa made the night skies as well as the stars above, the warm sun, and the moon that cast light upon the darkness. 

In time, the wise chief Manu’a was named to rule the people and the lands were carved up into the islands we now know as Manu’a (part of Samoa), Fiji, Tonga, Upolu, and others. 

With his daunting task completed, Tagaloa departed this world commanding that all mankind respect Manu’a which, today, has evolved into the spiritual center for the Samoan Islands and, to many others, all of Polynesia. 

An Author’s Paradise 

An author many considered a literary god was Robert Lewis Stevenson. This noted Scottish novelist, poet, and essayist lived in Apia for four years with his Indianapolis-raised wife Fanny (Frances Osbourne). He had grown ever so weary of Scotland’s damp cold as well as the complications it caused for his tuberculosis. Following a short stay in America, Stevenson set sail for Samoa. It seemed Samoa would be just what the doctor ordered. Stevenson built a home 600 feet above the town in 1889 and named it Vailima. And though the author adored this island life, his love for Scotland never waned. So, to honor his homeland, Stevenson’s household staff wore traditional lava-lavas yet they were made with the Stuart tartan design. 

Vailima eventually became the Prime Minister’s official residence. 

While in residence at Vailima, his “beautiful, shining, windy house,” Stevenson was known as “Tusitala” or the “Teller of Tales” and wrote Catriona and The Wrecker. Following his death, his body was buried 1,540 feet up Mt. Vaea, carried there over a hand-dug road (known as The Way Of Loving Hearts) that had been built by islanders who revered Stevenson greatly. The Samoan chief who spoke at the author’s service declared that on that day “the stones and the earth wept.” Stevenson’s headstone reads: 

Under the wide and starry sky 

Dig the grave and let me lie 

Glad did I live and gladly die, 

And I laid me down with a will.

 

This be the verse you grave for me;

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea;

And the hunter home from the hill. 

Film Stars and Military Stripes 

Travelers to Apia soon hear the tale of a legendary lady named Aggie Grey. She was the proprietress of the celebrated hotel bearing her name. Aggie had come into this world the child of a Samoan woman and a British chemist. In the early 1940s Aggie swung open the doors to her famous watering hole. American servicemen stationed in Apia during World War II soon found respite there, as did James Michener who enjoyed the conversation and a hamburger or two. Some claim, in fact, that Aggie Grey is the spirit behind Michener’s character “Bloody Mary.” 

Hollywood heartthrob Gary Cooper also enjoyed the comforts of Aggie Grey’s while on location in Samoa filming “Return to Paradise” at Lefaga Bay. Many a movie scout claims this to be “the perfect beach.”