I invite you to take a walk with me along the streets of Apia in the early 1900’s. Wave to Samuel Meredith as he delivers ice to your door. Stop and chat to Montgomery Betham as he builds a new coach and shoes your horses. Lets have our picture taken at Tattersalls Studio. We might spend an enjoyable few hours at the Central Hotel reading the latest English and German magazines. Or play billiards at the Tivoli Hotel. We could sip cordials and aerated waters made by P.Hoeflich and sample the latest pastries made by Christian Hellesoes bakery. Or dance the night away at a Masquerade Ball serenaded by the sounds of the Vineula Band. Mrs P Rasmussen could make us a wedding cake in an “original design that was very generally admired”. We could marvel with 200 other guests at Julia Milford’s dress as she weds James Curry “charmingly attired in a gown of white silk trimmed with chiffon and about her hair a dainty circlet of orange blossom.” Or let’s join the crowd that gathers to welcome home Alfred Fruean from the trenches of Gallipoli and hold in our hands the gas mask that helped to save his life. If we happened to be there on the 21 February, 1920 we could ogle at “a monster eel, the largest ever seen in Samoa caught in the Vaisigano River, 5ft 9in long and weighing 381 pounds.” We could watch children play on a merry go round at the Mulinuu Peninsula or shop at the Saturday Ladies Bazaar at the Apia Protestant Church.
It wouldn’t all be pleasant of course. During our stroll we may be confronted by the horror of a plantation manager whipping one of the Solomon Island workers – because he was napping in the heat of the afternoon. Or hear a familys screams as their mother is dragged away to a waiting ship – because she has supposedly shown telltale signs of leprosy. We would see a mothers desperate grief as she buries yet another child…consumption, tetanus, diphtheria…illnesses most of us will never have to know, all taking their toll. And of course, we would not wish to be in Samoa in 1918 during the influenza epidemic. Every week the newspaper listing more deaths. First a beloved wife, then a child, a parent, siblings – entire families wiped out in the space of a few weeks. Mass graves. Every morning a collection of bodies and hurried burials. Samoa a hundred years ago…
How much do you know about the world your grandparents lived in? About the paths they walked. The struggles they endured. Their tears, triumphs and joys? Cicero said – ‘To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?’ One place to discover your personal history is the Nelson Memorial Library. Browse through newspapers over a hundred years old stored in the Pacific Room and you may catch a glimpse of those who came before you. Get to know your ancestors in a whole new way. Imagine the thrill for my children to read about their twice grt grandmother – “fined 5 shillings for driving her horse and carriage at a speed faster than walking pace over the Vaimoso Bridge.” Apparently old granny was a bit of a speedster in her day! Or a notice forbidding the sale of liquor to their thrice grt uncle due to his ‘unruly drunken behavior in a public place’. (hmm…look out for a genetic tendency towards alcoholism there?!) Another ancestor wrote numerous articles for the newspaper under select pseudonyms…rather like what Im doing now. Its kind of cool to think this writing itch thing goes back that far!
It was there in the library we discovered the death notice for my grt grandfather and were stunned to realize he had died at the young age of 30 leaving his wife to raise 6 children alone. Also that he had served in the German Navy on a warship when he was a teenager. And had acted as a translator for those exiled to the Jaluit Islands. All things we did not know. All things that cast a whole new light on someone we know only from a single faded photograph.
Another treasure trove of ancestral history is the Registry Office. There, stacks of ledgers and journals are disintegrating in piles of dust. Hold fragmenting parchments in your hands and feel history slipping away forever through your fingertips. See a sample of your ancestor’s terrible handwriting as they witness a marriage, sign a contract or register a birth. Be amazed at the resilience of a mother as she registers the birth – and death – of yet another child. Be overwhelmed by the sheer commitment of census and registry workers as they painstakingly recorded thousands of names – all written many times over, all by hand. There is a world held in those records that is all but forgotten. And it is slowly but surely falling to pieces.
And what of our oral histories? For those of us blessed with living grandparents – I encourage you to sit down with your elders today. Have them share their lives with you. Tape record them. Write them down. Retell them to your children. Learn from their stories. Celebrate them.
We keep tripping over in our haste to move forward. To take Samoa blazing into the future. But maybe we should slow down to take that leisurely stroll through our past. For can we really know who we are and where we’re going – until we know where and who we have come from?