The beach

A SWEEP OF reef, two dashing freshwater rivers and a towering mountain, the bay of Apia, on the north coast of the island of Upolu, Samoa, has seduced many a traveller. As a young New Zealand-born Samoan I used to dream of Apia. I would listen to my grandparents and their stories of Lelata (our family land); they spoke of picnics, the shop on the waterfront, the picture theatre; and I would try to envisage this faraway place.

In the songs and stories shared by my handsome, blue-eyed grandfather, I imagined Apia as a place in-between. A place that had given birth to him and his sense of identity as an ‘afakasi.

In my youth, I took the term ‘afakasi for granted. I knew it loosely translated to half-caste. For my grandfather, the term ‘afakasi went hand-in-hand with his identity as a Samoan, by the way he carried himself, and danced a Samoan siva and the emotion in his voice when he spoke about his heritage. It was a part of his being as a Pacific Islander that he celebrated. His identity could not be cut in half.

The term half-caste was never used in our home. It was a term I heard outsiders use, but I never regarded it as having any practical or tangible relevance to my life. Then, as I entered my teenage years, I came to resent the use of the term half-caste – not because it was ever used in an overtly derogatory way towards me but because it didn’t capture the complexity and beauty of being ‘afakasi.

The difficulty for me, though, as a New Zealand-born Samoan, was that I didn’t grow up with those cultural reference points that validated my mother and grandfather’s identity as ‘afakasi. I had never been to Samoa and growing up in urban Auckland made the islands of my mother’s birth seem distant and removed. On top of this, the Samoan kids at school asserted their identity through shared skin colour. Having brown skin was considered essential. My own skin is white (a trait shared by my grandfather and mother), so I didn’t qualify for entry in to this group. It was around this time that I started to realise that some of my Pacific peers resented – even detested – ‘afakasi. We were considered to be privileged, to be ‘up ourselves’ and not truly Samoan.

Yet, at home, I was expected to behave like a proper ‘Samoan girl’ with strict rules and expectations determining my behaviour. The contradiction was frustrating: why should I behave like a Samoan when I wasn’t accepted as a Samoan by others? At times I wanted to deny my cultural heritage and just blend in. But given the cultural values and pride instilled in me by my grandparents I could never fully let go of that part of myself.

By the time I was thirteen this sense of insecurity led me to seek out experiences, people and places that existed on the periphery. I turned to the streets, I slept in school playgrounds, I smoked drugs with strangers. Auckland’s streets offered a transient space where I could be free to define my own sense of self.

But over time this freedom began to overwhelm me. One day I woke up in a stranger’s house in South Auckland and made a decision to go home. I walked the train tracks from Manurewa to Morningside, made my way home and knocked on the door. As punishment, a male relative beat me and cut off my hair.

I was told that this punishment was light compared to what I would have received if I lived in Samoa. There, I was told, a woman’s hair would be shaved off in front of the whole village. Again, this place I had never been to was shaping my identity.

VISITING SAMOA FOR the first time I was amazed at the beauty of the islands. I found it difficult to recognise the place described to me by my grandfather. Most of the historic buildings in Apia had been demolished and it was only in the physical landscape of the wide shoe-horn bay that I caught glimpses of the place I had travelled to in my childhood dreams.

Soon I would enrol in a Masters in Pacific history and focus on the beach community resident in Apia during the nineteenth century, and there I was to glimpse the place that had shaped my identity as an ‘afakasi long before my birth. And it had a name. It was called ‘the beach’.

In the early years the political nature of the beach was of little importance in comparison to the greater heartlands of the Samoan world. The epicentres of Samoa were ancient places such as Leulumoega, Safotulafai, Manono and Lufilufi. But this would change irrevocably with the arrival of foreigners.

Within the Samoan archipelago there were only two anchorages with the capacity to cater to a large number of visiting ships at any one time. To this day Pago Pago on the island of Tutuila is renowned for its beautiful harbour, ideal for deep draught vessels. By contrast, Apia, on the island of Upolu, sits in a more exposed position (particularly during the cyclone season of December to March) although it has a natural break in the reef, which allows access between the open sea and the lagoon.

During the early years of the nineteenth century the popularity of these two anchorages was largely determined by the influx of whaling ships that began to frequent Samoan waters from the 1820s on. The greatest number were American, from Nantucket and New Bedford. Initially larger numbers of ships called in at Pago Pago, but from the 1840s onwards this began to shift to Apia because of its greater potential to draw on resource supply links from the islands of Upolu and Savai’i.

Slowly the port settlement began to take on a character of its own, with a distinction emerging between the eastern side of the bay at Matautu and the western side at Matafele, Savalalo and Sogi. To the east of the township were the British and American consulates, while to the west was the Hamburg (later German) Consulate, and referred to as ‘the German part of town’; a reputation further cemented by the establishment of the Pacific headquarters of the Hamburg mercantile house of JC Godeffroy & Sohn (in 1857 subsumed by the Deutsche Handels und Plantagen-Gesellschaft), with the English trading company William McArthur & Co settling on the other side of town.

In the 1820s an eclectic ramshackle assemblage of tin huts, stone houses, adobe churches and fale (traditional houses) began to spring up from one horn of Apia bay to the other. This township was named after the village upon which it was the most dependent, Apia.

As in other Pacific port towns – Honolulu, Kororareka, Pape’ete and Levuka – the beach was a place of cross-cultural meshing. These port communities were connected to and separated from the beach that fronted their harbours. It was a place of transaction and exchange that brought together fragments and memories and stories – of these the tale of the beachcomber was the most prominent.

The term ‘beachcombers’ was first given popular currency by Herman Melville when his rugged character Salem said to the Consul at Tahiti, ‘I’m nothing more than a bloody beach-comber.’

Through the experiences of the first group of foreign residents in the Pacific the beach came to represent more than the space upon which their survival was dependent; these were also spaces that reshaped their identity.

For some the beach offered a means of escape – from the cramped and often poor conditions aboard ships, from imprisonment in New South Wales (in the case of runaway convicts) and perhaps, most importantly, from the social mores and constraints that shaped the home societies they had left behind. In the Pacific references to the beach evolved, according to Stevenson, ‘as a South Seas’ expression for which there [is] no equivalent elsewhere’.

In the literature the beachcombers were both celebrated and reviled. They were recognised for the essential roles they played in establishing the port town community but at the same time were type-cast as degenerative, disreputable and dishonest. Similarly, half-castes who were acknowledged as playing important roles in the day-to-day cross-cultural functioning of the community were considered to be meddlesome, untrustworthy and cunning.

Writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Becke, and later, Somerset Maugham, established a literary tradition whereby the half-caste would come to subsume the space previously occupied by the beachcombers.

Negative connotations associated with ‘the beach’ and ‘beachcombing’ were put about by missionaries, consuls and naval officials. From them there was little tolerance for white men who had ‘gone troppo’ in the South Pacific. In a visit to Tonga in 1832 the missionary John Williams wrote in his diary: ‘…I was astonished to find so great a number of runaway sailors here. They are a noisome pestilence in the South Seas. They were I believe all bound to the Navigator Islands [Samoa] where at present there are enough to paralyse the effects of the most zealous missionary labours.’

Similarly, in 1856, Apia was described by a visiting US Commodore Mervine: ‘A state of society that beggars all description; composed of a heterogeneous mass of the most immoral and dissolute Foreigners that ever disgraced humanity: principally composed of Americans and Englishmen, several of whom have been Sidney [sic] convicts’.

By the 1850s, the whole community at Apia was seen to share the qualities previously attributed to its first migrant settlers, the beachcombers.

Their circumstances were to improve, and by the 1890s Stevenson assessed them as a ‘fairly respectable population.’ Stevenson as the most internationally recognised writer resident in the Pacific would play an active role in redefining ‘the beach’. In his writing, the beach is only ever mentioned with reference to disreputable characters living out a state of wretchedness inimical to any efforts to bring order and civility to Samoa.

To Stevenson the urban settlement of Apia was a physical manifestation of the squalor found on the beach. Writing from his residence at Vailima (about a day’s journey on horse-back from Apia) he wrote about the various misdeeds of the beach community. In his efforts to redefine the reputation of the community, he was also active in attending and organising fancy dress balls, theatricals and picnics. The Stevenson family even took a lead role in establishing the ‘Half-Caste Club’ at the request of local resident Laulii Willis.

In the narratives of Melville, William Mariner and Becke the beachcomber survives and seeks reintegration back in to the home society. The tale was always told from the viewpoint of the European who returned ‘home’, if indeed they made it home. In Becke’s 1897 story ‘In a Samoan Village’ a beachcomber, Bill, has this to say: ‘…What are we in our own minds? What would any of your or my countrymen think of us but that we are a pair of shameless, degraded beings, unfit to associate with; sunk too low to even think of returning to civilisation again?’

PONDERING THE EVOLUTION of ‘afakasi identity and the transient nature of the beachcombers I recognised tensions in the narratives that resonated with me as an ‘afakasi growing up in New Zealand.

As one walks along the seawall of modern-day Apia there are few remnants of the old beach. Gone are the sand and the shingle, and in the middle of the wide curve of the bay sits a mass of reclaimed land, which marks the place upon which the rusted hull of the German naval ship, the Adler, sat for nigh on fifty years. Any remaining urban evidence of the beach of the nineteenth century is slowly being eroded.

But, as a historian turned poet, I have become interested in the ways in which the past can be excavated through alternative forms of story-telling. On this journey I have dug out the sense of space that connects me to my ancestors. And like those that came before me, I refer to it, simply, as ‘the beach’. Whether I am sitting on a beach in Samoa, on an island in Tongatapu, or at home in Aotearoa or in Hawai’i where I am currently resident  the beach is always within me –

Where that last shard
Of light is broken
And the word is no longer spoken
Where I
Walk the cusp of history untold
To pay homage to deeds
Best forgotten
It is the place that I have excavated for myself
That exists at the edge of all things defined



For more on the power of place, read ‘On matters of national significance’ by Patricia Grace, in the e-book Pacific Highways: Volume 2, available free at

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