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Hibiscus Around the World
Letters to J.W. Staniford 1963-67
from Ross H. Gast
November 1, 1963
We, like Fiji, and the Fijians, even on such a short acquaintance. This morning we were served tea in our room by a Fijian houseboy who wore a huge hibiscus over his right ear, and after dinner tonight we had coffee in the hotel's "Hibiscus Room". And during the day we visited a number of local hibiscus hobbyists who were proud to show us their fine collections. However, before I tell you about these visits, I should give you a bit of background on Fiji.
Fiji is a British Crown Colony, and might be called "Little England" in may ways. For anyone who has lived in Great Britain feels very much at home here - bed and breakfast hotels, morning and afternoons teas, driving on the left hand side of the road, and the colorful ceremony of changing the guard at the Governor's Palace in Suva every morning.
The group consists of over 300 islands, less than half of which are inhabited. Most of them are of volcanic origin and are thus "high islands". The total land area is 7,000 square miles, more than half of this being the principal island, Vita Levu, on which Suva, the capital, is situated. Other large islands are Vanus Levu, Taveuni, and Kadavu. There is a population of approximately 415,000 people, of which 205,000 are Indians, 175,000 native Fijians, and 11,000 Europeans, Chinese, Rotumans and part-Europeans. The Fijian people are classed as Melanesian, but as there has always been close contact with Tonga and Rotuma, both populated with Polynesian people, the Polynesian influence is strong.
Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer, sighted a few of the Fiji Islands in 1643, but it was not until 1800 that the first white settlers came - most of them deserters from English and American whaling ships. By 1860, British interests were discussing annexation and this was effected in 1874 when the ruling Fijian chiefs signed over complete sovereignty to England.
The Colony is ruled by an Executive Council and a Legislative Council, presided over by a Crown appointed Governor. Both bodies have European, Indian and Fijian representatives elected by popular vote. The political situation here is rather complex due to the population make-up, and they will have to face some tough political programs in a few years, it seems.
The principal economic activities in Fiji are sugar production, gold mining, and tourism, the latter becoming more important each year. Fiji also produces an appreciable tonnage of copra.
Before we left Los Angeles, I had been in correspondence with Mrs. Jean Murray of Suva, the Arboretum correspondent in Fiji. I told her that I wanted to stop off in Fiji not only to try to locate H. storckii, but also to see the Islands. I told her that H. storckii did not seem to be represented in collections around the world, and that presumably Fiji was the only place to find it. She wrote back that while she was glad to learn that we were going to visit Fiji, H. storckii was no longer to be found there. However, as is quite frequently the case, species or varieties which are sometimes thought to be lost to cultivation are found in. some old garden, and I figured that this would be true with H. storckii.
[Later: Proving that I am a poor political pundit, Fiji was given her independence a few years ago, and the change has not met with any political problems. - RG]
On our arrival in Suva; Mrs. Murray showed us through her beautiful estate. She has a nice collection of hibiscus, many of them recent Hawaiian hybrids. As I had sent her some seed a year or two ago, she had two of my seedlings in bloom; they were not outstanding as to flower, but one plant, obviously a Hawaiiana seedling, was ten feet high.
We have also checked over the large hibiscus plantings in the Botanic Garden and other public gardens, but nothing resembling H. storckii was in evidence. These gardens had some old Hawaiian varieties pictured in Bulletin 29, with many cultivars which I took to be local hybrids of these varieties. I have sent you scion wood of these.
We next visited with K.C.L. Perks, who has the largest collection of hibiscus in Fiji, insofar as we could learn. Furthermore, he is a hibiscus enthusiast of the Staniford-Gast school - all out for the flower. He, too, had most of the new Hawaiian hybrids, but he favors the older varieties, particularly the ones which he believes were originated in Fiji, varieties which he is trying to preserve. Here again we had much in common.
Perks has never seen H. storckii, or heard of it by name, either. He did have one plant which appeared to be much like that described by Seemann, but it was not a pink - it was a white with a pink flush over part of the petals. I took it as one candidate for H. storckii, but with no real conviction that I had found the endemic Fijian species.
Through friends in New Zealand, we were contacted by Mr. and Mrs. Sandy Muir, also hibiscus fanciers. They drove us up to their lovely home in the hills above Suva. As we entered their living room, my eye caught a flash of color on a low center table and it turned out to be a beautiful arrangement of Ross Estey. I thanked them for their thoughtfulness in featuring this particular flower and they replied that inasmuch as they had bought it in California, they would display it for a Californian. Naturally, our hosts were greatly surprised and delighted when I told them that it was one of my own originations, named for grandson Ross Estey Walton. I was thrilled, you may be sure, to find "Ross" in such a beautiful setting; the flowers were huge - larger by at least an inch than they are in California.
I asked the Muirs if they had ever heard of H. storckii, and they had not. However, Mrs. Muir said that there were a lot of Storck's descendants living in Fiji. Later, I did meet Vincent Storck, grandson of the man for whom Seemann named the species. He is the owner and operator of an excursion launch business in Suva. He told me that his grandfather, a botanist, had sailed from Europe to Australia with Dr. Seemann in 1856, and when the latter was sent to Fiji in 1860, Storck came along as assistant. He did not return to Europe, however, but settled back in "the bush", about 50 miles up the Rewa River on Vita Levu. He continued to collect plants and send them to Kew and other gardens throughout the world, but there remains no record of what he sent. Today, the Storck homestead has gone to jungle, to be reached only with great difficulty by river boat and by foot. It was hardly possible that any plantings, or even dwellings, remained, Vincent Storck said, so I ruled out a visit there.
Hoping that he might give me a lead, I visited John Parham, the Government botanist, who is just finishing reading the page proofs of a new book on the flora of Fiji. He said that he had collected for many years on Fiji, but had not seen H. storckii.
When I was in Mr. Parham's office, I was able to see his copy of Seemann's Flora Vitiensis and again check his description of H. Storckii, and to see the colored drawing of this species. As the drawing was made in England, from herbarium material, and from Seemann's written description, it is perhaps not accurate - old horticultural prints seldom are. However, insofar as calyx, bract, leaf and stem characteristics, Seemann's description of H. Storckii would apply to several plants I have seen here.
In this connection, I am not a botanist, but I have observed over the years that there is a great deal of variation in size and shape of the leaves of most hibiscus species and practically all cultivars, depending on where the plant is grown. Furthermore, a species will be described as having so many bracts when, in fact, there is often a different number of bracts on flowers of the same plant. So botanical descriptions are not always helpful in attempting to run down "lost" species.
Apparently you hit the nail on the head when you wrote, after reading some literature on Fiji, that you had never read so much about hibiscus in general and so little in particular. I have consulted old newspaper files, and spent several hours in the Government Archives, but found nothing about early day activities in hybridizing or showing hibiscus. We know, of course, that botanist members of the Wilkes Expedition saw H. flora plena when they visited here in 1840, and that Seemann commented on the fact that it was a very popular garden ornamental when he was here in the early 1860's. But when, from where, and how many other varieties came, I have been unable to learn.
But there must have been considerable interest in hibiscus here during the early years of this century, for Hawaiian Experiment Station Bulletin 29, which, as you know, was published in 1913, shows that the early Hawaiian hybridizers brought many of their introduced varieties from Fiji. It is possible, too, that Indians, who came to Fiji as laborers many years ago, may have brought in some of the older forms from India.
Hibiscus figures importantly in the personal and economic life of the people of Fiji, however. Nearly every home, hotel lobby, store and office has a fresh display of blooms each morning - one sees housewives or houseboys out early picking blossoms for decorative displays, many of which are distinctive as well as beautiful. By ten o'clock there is scarcely an open bloom on dooryard or street plantings of hibiscus in Suva.
Each year Fiji has its "Hibiscus Festival", a week-long gala event featuring fun and frolic much like Aloha Week in Hawaii, or the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Colorful muu muus and bula shirts (the Fijian equivalent of the Aloha shirt) are the dress of the day and night. The trade conscious Indians, the largest ethnic group Fiji, have provided colorful cotton prints with hibiscus designs and these are favored for Hibiscus Festival Week.
The hibiscus motif is well represented, too, in locally made shell jewelry, wood carvings, etc. And TEAL, the New Zealand airline, has its well-publicized "Coral and Hibiscus Route" serving the Pacific Islands, including Fiji. On Vanua Levu, there is the "Hibiscus Highway", a winding stretch of narrow (by our standards) shore road which was originally bordered with hibiscus. However, the first hibiscus plantings were eaten by cattle, so it was decided to use poinsettias as a replacement. But it is still the "Hibiscus Highway".
A red hibiscus - one that looks like a schizopetalus cross - on a light blue background, has been used as the decorative motif of the Fijian nine penny stamp. I understand that throughout the Pacific the hibiscus stamps are very popular.
But in spite of this interest, there is, as I say, no mention of hibiscus in the printed history of the Fijian people. In an effort to learn if hibiscus had any ethnic significance as far as the Fijian people are concerned, I asked Nathaniel, the huge Fijian doorman at the hotel, if the flower was known and used before the Europeans were established in Fiji.
"Oh, to be sure", he replied in his soft-spoken perfect Australian-accented English. "Our people always served up white missionaries with a hibiscus over each well-charred ear."
That remark completed my research on hibiscus history in Fiji; I have been taking on weight recently, and I thought I detected a hungry look on Nate's face. And I have never looked good with a hibiscus over my ear.
With no more leads on the elusive H. Storckii in Suva and having seen all of the important hibiscus collections there, we decided to fly up to this little village, hoping that in some way we might get over to Taveuni, twenty-five miles away. We found that while there is regular plane service to the island, there are no hotel accommodations open to us. We hope we can get over to the island by launch, however, even for a day; or better yet, wangle a bed at the headquarters of some coconut plantation.
Tavenui, 26 miles long and 7 miles wide, is called the "Garden Island" because of its excellent soil. It was the first island of the group to be developed agriculturally, and Sea Island cotton was successfully grown there nearly a hundred years ago. A study of its agricultural possibilities was the reason for Dr. Berthold Seemann's visit in 1860 when he found H. storckii. He was sent there by Governor William Denison of New South Wales.
Savu Savu is a real beauty spot, the view from the lanai of the little Hot Springs Hotel on a rise above the landing is unequalled in Fiji, at least that part of Fiji we have visited. It is not on a tourist route and the hotel, while comfortable, is patronized mostly by commercial people calling on the plantation owners. We were given the "best room", according to the genial Australian proprietor; the only one with a private bath. This bath turned out to be a shower, the floor of which was plywood covered with linoleum; the "drain" was a hole bored through the center! But it did have hot water, piped from a nearby spring for which the hotel took its name.
These springs, bubbling up over an area of about an acre, were the communal cooking and laundry grounds of the village. Each morning the native women brought their sweet potatoes, taro, meats, an other foods carefully wrapped in leaves and cloth, and these were placed in the spring for cooking. One area was given over to laundry work, with the clothing thoroughly boiled out in the spring water.
The panoramic scene from the hotel lanai out over the bay, and the myriad islands beyond, seem to change in color and form each hour of the day, and it became difficult for me to leave the easy chair that I picked for my own. I was told that I had contracted malua fever, the symptoms of which are a heaviness in certain parts of the body, thus explaining my affinity for my chair. For this condition I began to take a stimulant (Johnny Walker Red Label) and I was joined by a young man who introduced himself as the hereditary chief of the district. He was attracted to me, he said, because one of his ancestors was an American sailor. Also, I looked like his late father and as it was a Fijian custom to adopt a second father, he decided to choose me. Later my wife became his "mother" with elaborate ceremony, during which he presented her with a fine woven pandanus mat.
The evening progressed. My "son" gave me a complete run down on the history of Fiji, stressing the fact that the natives had suffered much in the hands of the white colonizers, just as has been the case in most island groups of the Pacific. As he warmed up on the subject he said that he felt his American blood asserting itself and called on me to join him, and, in the spirit of 1776, drive out the bloody British invaders. However, I urged him to consider the odds, so he decided to take us to a Fijian dance instead.
I must spoil my story here by telling you that while my handsome young "son" was of Fijian ancestry and in fact a hereditary chief, most of his immediate forebears were European - his father, whom I was supposed to resemble, having been an Australian. His family owned a large coconut plantation across the bay, and he had just been elected representative from his district in the Fijian legislature. He was graduated from a New Zealand university in liberal arts, and his particular cultural interest was American literature. Mark Twain was a favorite, but he seemed broadly versed in the entire field of his interest. His early American ancestor was William Driver, who returned to the States and became a well known shipmaster. It was he, according to legend, who first called our flag "Old Glory".
For story purposes, too, I would like to describe the dance as a primitive orgy with scantily clad females and savage-featured males sweating through their age-old rituals. But this was not the case. There was only one dance performed, and this was the Twist. True, some of the Fijian belles wore no shoes and others only Japanese zories, but many were in spike heels. Fijian costumes and muu muus were worn by most of the girls, but a few late design "shifts" were to be seen. And although most of the boys came in the traditional lava lava, a sort of wrap-around skirt, insofar as dress is concerned many of them could not be distinguished from London "Teddy Boys", the British prototype of the tight-pants-pointed-shoe characters in the United States.
But how they could Twist! Their natural grace and inherited ability to control hip movement gave them unusual advantage in doing this particular dance step - or it it a step?
I would also like to be able to write that I entered into the festivities with wild abandon and, placing a flaming red hibiscus over my left ear, unsuccessfully resisted the advances of the most beautiful belles of the evening. But I am, as you know, inherently truthful. Also, there were those years behind me. Also, there was my wife right there in front of me. So I danced one very un-Twisty Twist with a large Fijian lady - one of the barefoot ones. She suffered. And I went to bed.
As we were
on the eastern side of Vanua Levu, with the full length of Tavenui in sight,
I felt that because of a hundred years of contact I might find H.
storckii along the coast. So we hired a car and an Indian driver and
covered some 80 miles of shore road, some of which was the "Hibiscus
Highway" mentioned before. We stopped at many Fijian villages as well as at
abandoned clearings to check over old dooryard plantings. However, it is
impossible to penetrate far beyond the road margin in Fiji because of the
dense native growth. As far as H. storckii is concerned, our trip up
the coast was a bust, but we did see some unforgettable scenery.
We spent another day or two covering every settlement on the East side of
Vanua Levu with no luck. We did, however, receive an invitation to visit the
home of a coconut planter who had quite a collection of hibiscus. To reach
At one evening meal at the hotel, a table partner who was an official of the Burns, Philp Company, the big South Seas trading company, said that he planned to fly over to Taveuni the next day. I expressed the hope that he might be able to suggest some accommodations for me there, but he said that it was difficult to arrange this on short notice. He promised, however, that he would inquire around for the hibiscus that I had been searching for. He knew the island well, he said, having lived there for seven years. He also told me that a Mrs. Warden, wife of a Taveuni coconut planter, had developed a fine hibiscus garden there many years ago and had brought in numerous varieties from Hawaii and other places. She had also done some hybridizing, and it was his opinion that if H. storckii had been available, she would have used it. Also, he said that Mrs. Warden had been responsible for many of the true Fijian cultivars. She had left Taveuni some years ago. Our friend promised to check the Warden garden, or what was left of it, as well as to make inquires in his contacts with other planters. He has very much interest in my search for the elusive H. storckii and says he will put me in touch with one of his employees who is a descendant of Jacob Storck for whom Dr. Berthold Seemann named the plant.
During breakfast this morning the cook's assistant asked permission to speak to us. He had learned that I was looking for a hibiscus, a pink one, on a rather straggly bush. There was such a plant in the garden of his former employer, a coconut planter some fifteen miles up the coast, he said. He had found it on Taveuni when he was on holiday there with friends and had brought it back and planted it himself. So off we went again, having secured the loan of the cook's assistant as a guide. However, in questioning him more closely as we drove along, it developed that he had not seen this plant for a year or more, that possibly it had not been watered as the planter now lived in Suva. Also, that it was more of a white than pink and, although it was small and straggly where he found it, his plant had subsequently become very large. Furthermore, he had brought in four cuttings and that he hoped he could remember which was which!
When we arrived at the plantation, we found the garden in good shape. Our guide showed no hestitation but took us directly to a plant - or, more accurately, to four plants which apparently had been set as cuttings in a group. One had died, two others were alike insofar as leaf was concerned (there were no blooms) and the fourth had a leaf like the white with raspberry stripes that we have seen so often in Fiji. This one, said our guide, is the pink hibiscus. So once again I took cuttings and sent them on to you, still with no assurance that I had found another candidate for H. storckii. My doubt hardened when, on our return to the hotel, the owner explained that the cook's assistant, although very reliable usually, was sometimes given to flights of fancy. Also, he explained, the Fijian people are pathetically eager to please - overly eager in some respects, and our boy had no doubt overheard our conversations and wanted to make us happy by locating the lost species.
[Later: The picturesque Hot Springs Hotel was demolished several years ago and a Travelogue Motel was built on the site. And, according to an obituary in Pacific Island Monthly our Fijian "son" passed away late last year. - RG]
The first European trading center in Fiji was this little town of Levuka on the island of Ovalau. Because the earliest plantings of hibiscus were supposed to have been made here, we decided to visit the place. The trip was a tough one, particularly hard on the belly and the bottom.
We left Suva at 8 a.m. in an under-powered British car driven by an Indian who, judging from his performance at the wheel, had little to live for. Two hours later, after having covered fifty miles of narrow, gravelled roads - mostly steep grades and curves - we arrived at a jetty near the little Fijian village of Londoni. Most of the inhabitants were out to greet us and to help us. But I thought it best to carry our own suitcases out over the jetty to the landing, a distance of nearly a quarter of a mile. We parked them there with bunches of dalo (taro), bananas, pineapples, crated chickens, and other native foods and gear, to await the launch.
This proved to be a fairly good piece of equipment mechanically, but the seats were made of wooden rounds set too far apart. Consequently, on our arrival here, two hours and nineteen miles of channel waters later, our posteriors were as corrugated as the metal roofing on the wharfside warehouses.
It was a week-end, too, and a large number of natives of Ovalau who worked on Vita Levu were going home for a visit. As a result, we were packed in close, unable to shift our position. The channel was rough and the overloaded boat pitched and rolled like a rodeo bronco. Soon I had a seasick Fijian mother resting her woolly head on my shoulder. She was very much a lady, however, and retained her breakfast, but not without a few near misses.
Levuka was the first capital of Fiji and it was there that the Group was ceded to England in 1874. After seven years, the seat of the government was moved to Suva, and Levuka gradually declined in commercial importance. Today it is a sleepy little port with a single street of false front buildings, looking very much like a Western movie set. It may come back to life soon, however, for Japanese capital is building a fish freezing plant here; a contingent of Japanese technicians and laborers is already on the ground, as are all of the materials and machinery for building and equipping the plant. Soon the trawlers will be brought over. This plant will give employment to a large number of local workers. One wonders why England, now exporting her capital to the United States through investments in huge New York office buildings, is not giving assistance to her own Crown colony.
On our first night in Levuka, we strolled down the street after dinner and were greeted by an old Scotchman who wanted to know how we liked his "big city". He told us that he had come to Levuka in 1906 to stay a year and has been in Fiji ever since! He said that he was a coconut planter, with plantations on Taveuni as well as Ovalau. When he questioned me as to our reason for being in Levuka, I told him that in addition to enjoying a pleasurable visit, I was looking for hibiscus, particularly the native species, a pink one, and asked if he had ever seen a pink hibiscus on Tavenui. He replied that he was not the gardener of the family, then turned and called his wife, a large, full-blooded Fijian lady. She said that she had at one time or another had all of the varieties of hibiscus grown in Fiji, but had never seen a plant and flower which looked like my description of H. storckii. And she was a native of Taveuni.
The next morning I called on the hostess of our hotel, where there is quite a large planting of common hibiscus, and asked her if she had ever seen a single flowered hibiscus as described by Seemann. She said that she had, and that, furthermore, there was a very old plant in her garden and that I could take cuttings. Before you could say "Kona" I had my knife out of my pocket. She led me to a plant at the far end of the garden; as usual, no blooms were in sight. But again I took cuttings to ship to you, and we shall see what we shall see.
Levuka is a quiet little town on the surface, very, very English natives included. From our hotel balcony we can look down on the town playing-field where hockey, cricket, and soccer matches are almost always in progress. And over in one corner, a few old Britishers who have missed too many boats, can be seen bowling on the green most of the day.
But at nightfall one could easily imagine a far different circumstance. From the Fijian village down on the shore we could hear the Fijian drums beating out a sombre rhythm. Of course, it's just a routine jam session over the kava bowl, but it could be a signal to light the roasting ovens. And the smell of the cooking fires drifting up to us in undoubtedly "short pig", or pork, but it is not difficult to imagine that it could be "long pig", the native way of referring to human flesh. The Fijians are now a sweet-tempered, kindly people, but were once a fierce, cannibalistic race; one cannot help but wonder that if beneath their sweetness there still lingers a taste for a well-cooked human loin or rib roast.
Later: Two months after this experience, we read in the Australian papers that an over-loaded launch such as that described above had capsized in a storm while attempting to cross the channel from Kadavu to Suva, and 87 persons were drowned.
As ever, Ross
November 13, 1963
We're back in the "big town" again, but since writing you last we have seen Lambassa.
As Savu Savu we were picked up by the "Coconut Clipper", a small plane which takes off from a narrow runway between coconut trees, narrowly misses clipping the fronds, and, if your prayers are answered, gets you safely aloft into the Fijian skies.
Lambassa, a center of sugar cane production in Fiji, is on the opposite side of Vanua Levu from Savu Savu, a flight of about 150 miles. We had no important reason for this trip, but it had been suggested by son David, a model railroad buff, who told us that one of the world's most unique narrow gauge railroads operated there, and hinted that he would like to have some photographs and particulars to be used in one of his frequent articles in a national model railroad magazine. The trip proved to be a dud in all ways; the narrow gauge line had been modernized and was therefore of little interest; the hotel was about seventh class; the food was bad and the mosquitoes were in division strength and wore spiked boots.
We were warned before we landed; a fellow passenger, a lady who called Lambassa home, had been to Suva on holiday. As tourists or strangers of any kind seldom make this trip, she asked us why we were making it, and we told her that we just wanted to see Lambassa.
"My God! See Lambassa!" she said, laughing hysterically. "You can't mean it!"
An hour or so later, after we were established in the hotel, I went into the bar and there I saw our lady friend drinking with her husband, also a very bored creature. By my count, she drank three scotch and sodas before dinner, I had already seen enough of Lambassa to understand why.
There is a sequel to our experiences at Savu Savu. You will recall that I wrote about the Suva businessman who promised to check the Warden garden on Taveuni for H. storckii; I held very little hope that he would have time to do this, as he is a very busy man. But apparently I have not learned to fully appreciate the kindness and generosity of the Fijian people, both native and European. Yesterday I had a phone call from him; he had visited the Warden garden, saw the caretaker, described the wanted species to him, and had been given a cutting from a plant, the flower of which met this description. I lost no time getting down to the Burns, Philp Company offices. Unfortunately, I had failed to explain to my generous collaborator that a cutting for us is pencilsize, and he had taken a cutting which is from a half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter. But I mailed it to you, and I hope that you have a chisel and jack plane to shape the scion.
And, as was the case with all other H. storckii, the plant from which this cutting was taken was not in bloom, so keep your fingers crossed.
As ever, Ross
Aboard the "Tofua"
We boarded the "Tofua" at Suva for our long planned island cruise just before dinner last night, and are now about half way to the island of Tongapatu on which Nukualofa, the capital of the Tongan Kingdom, is situated. During the next two weeks we will visit several island groups in this trading vessel, which makes regular monthly calls with freight and passengers. On this cruise we will cross and recross the International Date Line, so do not be confused by the dating on my letters; we will have two days with the same date, and lose a day.
A twin-screw motorship, the "Tofua" is a tidy vessel of 5300 tons burden. She carries 73 cabin passengers, and about the same number of deck passengers, mostly natives who bring their own bed mats and sleep on deck. However, they will probably spend most of the night singing and dancing. I once worked on inter-island steamers out of Honolulu, and the nights aboard the "Tofua" will no doubt bring back memories of other nights long ago when the world was my oyster and there were pearls to be found.
You may wonder how we happened to book on this cruise. Well, Joe, it all came about through - you guess - hibiscus! Last year a retired Auckland, New Zealand, nurseryman visited us in Los Angeles and in our conversation he mentioned the Union Steamship Company monthly sailings to Fiji and other Pacific Islands. We were interested in this cruise, and told him of our plans to go to England via the Pacific in the fall. However, he warned us that because the company held most of its cabins for businessmen and government officials, it would be difficult to get reservations. We wrote the steamship company, however, and were advised that a February booking only was available.
Meanwhile, we had been sending hibiscus cuttings to a prominent Auckland produce man, a hibiscus fancier, Harvey Turner. In one of our letters we told him of our disappointment in not being able to get on the "Tofua" early enough for our plans. He wrote back air mail saying that he had checked with the company, and that our booking was now advanced to November, the month we hoped to secure! It seems that this fine gentleman and hibiscus lover always kept a booking on each sailing for one of his representatives, as he traded heavily in the islands. At his request, we were given his booking. Our cabin is large and comfortable. Hibiscus, what wonders are committed in thy name!
We are also receiving V.I.P. treatment aboard, as we are seated at the captain's table. This is proving to be exceptionally interesting, for Prince Tungi, oldest son of Queen Salote of Tonga, came aboard with us at Suva, and is one of the seven at our table. The prince, who is Premier and therefore executive head of the Tongan Kingdom, is a handsome, middle-aged man who carries his reported 375 pounds quite well. He was graduated as a Doctor in Laws by Sydney University, and we are told that he is a very progressive leader, especially in matters having to do with the advancement of the Tongan economy. He arrived in Suva a few days ago on board a freighter which he had bought in Holland to be used in transporting Tongan copra to processing plants and markets.
At the captain's table, too, is the newly appointed head of the ship's owners, the Union Steamship Company, on his first cruise to island ports. It seems that such moves as Prince Tungi is making by operating his own ships and other "nationalistic" ventures in Samoa and other islands that the company serves, is creating some concern. Obviously, the politeness at our table is a bit strained.
But the main purpose of this letter is to sum up my reactions, hibiscusly, to our three weeks in Fiji. I've written several letters to accompany the several shipments of cuttings, but these have necessarily been brief and hurriedly written.
While Fiji has hibiscus varieties not seen in Hawaii or elsewhere, some varieties common to all areas are grown there. In fact, the variety which we call Pink Versicolor in California, and is erroneously called H. cameronii (as well as Puahi Bishop in Hawaii) is perhaps the most widely grown hibiscus in Fiji, if park, street and public landscaping in general are taken into consideration.
Another very commonly seen variety is the one called H. archerii; at least, it resembles the one that is grown elsewhere under this name. The presence of this variety interested me because it is supposed to have been originated in the West Indies as a cross between H. liliflorus, and H. schizopetalus. But it would seem that as these two species are native to the south Indian Ocean area, hybrids would have occurred naturally or through pre-European discovery selection.
The old double red H. flora plena is popular in Fiji, too. But it will surprise you to learn that while most of the "oldies" are found in Fiji, I cannot recall of having seen one plant of Brilliant, the common single red. Considering its popularity in other parts of the world, it is difficult to understand why this one is not grown widely in Fiji.
The double pink which we call Kona is grown as Suva Queen in Fiji and is quite popular. But I saw no Agnes Galt or any other single pink resembling it in Fiji gardens.
The pink with a dark eye zone known in California and Hawaii as Painted Lady is quite common, as is the brick red single we call Princess Takamatsu, and also Flame. The H. schizopetalus hybrid Pink Butterfly, so widely grown as a hedge plant in many parts of the world, is seen in Fiji, as is the Pink Dainty, a smaller form. And I was surprised to find the little White Dainty, too. As you know, this one has always been considered to be of Florida origin, coming as a sport of Pink Dainty about ten or twelve years ago. However, in Suva garden I saw a plant of this that was over twenty years old producing both pink and white flowers.
Apparently such sporting is quite common in Fiji. I was told that many of the older varieties in that area originated as sports, and it is a matter of little surprise to a hibiscus fancier to find two flowers of a different collar on his plants.
The most distinctive feature of the strictly Fijian varieties is that almost all have dark center zones, of various colors. Many have the same center zone formation as Pink Versicolor, and also the white markings on the back of the petals which characterize this variety. Others have a dark eye zone shading out to the petal color in wide, evenly spaced rays. There are also some with a small, light colored halo separating the petal color and the center zone, like the Hawaiian variety Grace Goo. And with the exception of the red H. flora plena and Suva Queen (our Kona) I saw no doubles. Most common colors are pinks and reds, but not many yellows are numbered among the older varieties. There are, of course, many yellows from Hawaii in private collections.
I did get one outstanding variety, I think. This is a creamy white single with heavy raspberry colored rays extending from the base of the petals almost to the tip. It appears to be a strong grower with good foliage, and I am sure that it will become a welcome addition to our commercial list when we introduce it.
The people of Fiji are extremely hibiscus conscious, yet, they, like ourselves, do not have the best of luck with imported Hawaiian hybrids. This is perhaps due to the fact that the Hawaiian hybrids, particularly when grown on their own roots, are fussy about wet feet, and the average annual rainfall recorded at the Botanic Garden in Suva is 125 inches. The distribution is not even, however, and droughts occur. Another apparent reason why the more sophisticated hybrids are not always at their best in Fiji is that all hibiscus are treated just like Topsy and are allowed to "just grow". Fertilization is not common, and pruning is irregular. However, the "oldies", which are mostly first or second generation hybrids, seem to bear larger flowers with better color than I have seen in any area of the world.
It would seem to me that the hibiscus enthusiasts of Fiji could and should do what we in California are trying to do - develop varieties to fit our special climatic conditions. Certainly they have the basic varieties available for such a program. However, so far as I could learn, little hybridization has been done in Fiji; other than that reportedly carried on by Mrs. Warden and a Suva woman, Mrs. Hedstrom. Ken Perks is now doing some crossing.
While we were apparently unsuccessful in our search for H. storckii in Fiji, it is possible that it may show up later in a botanical examination of the many cultivars of which I collected propagating material. If this does not prove out, we can possibly trace it to a collection somewhere in the world for, in 1941, A Skovsted, Danish cytologist, made a chromosome count of the species which is reported in "Chromosome Atlas of Flowering Plants", by Darlington and Wiley. So it must have been available a little over twenty years ago.
[Later: Following the death of Queen Salote several years ago, Prince Tunga became the King of Tonga.]
Off Nukualofa, Tonga November 19, 1963
This letter will have much more to say about Tongan royalty than about hibiscus, the reason being that Tonga has an abundance of royalty but apparently very few hibiscus. At least we did not see many during a long day ashore spent walking along most of the streets of this sunny little town and driving several miles over Tongatapu roads.
As I told you in a previous letter, Prince Tungi, Prime Minister of Tonga, came aboard at Suva, and was our table partner last night and again this morning. To the royalty-conscious citizens of New Zealand and Australia travelling with us, the presence of the Prince was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the occasion of much dithering, particularly on the part of the ladies. But the Prime Minister seemed oblivious to it all; he appears to be a very charming, courteous and serious-minded gentleman with no "side" whatsoever. He neither drinks nor smokes, and last evening did not join the bingo game as it called for a shilling stake; both he and his mother, Queen Salote, are devout Wesleyan Methodists. Tonga is one of the few countries which has a Sunday observance law written into its constitution and it is not lawful to work, engage in trade, or play games on Sunday.
However, this morning when we docked in Nukualofa, the Prince's status changed very quickly. A 50-piece Royal Band, together with a company of smartly uniformed police, was marshalled on the small pier to welcome the Premier. Also, most of the townspeople crowded at the head of the jetty out to the landing. When Prince Tungi went down the gangplank, he was no longer in a conservative business suit but wore the traditional dress of his people, with his special ta'o cala, of course. This is a wide belt or apron of plaited pandanus leaves, and the design indicates the family and the caste of the wearer. A black, custom-built Pontiac Safari drew up, and after the band played the Tonga national anthem, and a welcoming address was made by a high chief, our huge, friendly table partner stepped into the car which moved slowly out along the jetty and through the cheering crowds to the Royal Palace not far away.
But Tonga is not an opera bouffe kingdom, nor are Queen Salote and her son the often pictured rulers of a Pacific island kingdom. It is truly a kingdom, however, and the only one in the Pacific Ocean area, but is also under the protectorate of Great Britain which handles its foreign affairs.
Tonga consists of two main groups totaling 150 islands and, while the land area is only about 250 square miles, it occupies a broad expanse in the Pacific extending from 18 to 22 degrees latitude, south of the equator. Tongatapu and adjacent islands are what are termed "low islands" (the highest elevation is 60 feet), but much of the group are volcanic in origin, five of them with active volcanoes.
The Tongans are highly intelligent, aggressive people and once ruled a much greater part of the Pacific, even as far away as some of the Fiji group and Samoa. Today, this aggressiveness is given vent in al all-out "Tonga for Tongans" policy, and in their trade relations, as a nation, and personally as well. Both the people and the government are very thrifty; a savings bank was established forty years ago, and 10,000 island residents are now depositors. The government has no national debt and last year its surplus funds amounted to $2,292,000. all carefully invested in gilt-edged Commonwealth securities. Such fiscal responsibility is all wrong, of course, and sooner or later Washington will send down a delegation to instruct these poor, benighted folk the advantages of deficit spending.
Tonga has a unique land system in that all property belongs to the Crown. However, every Tongan, when he reaches the age of 16, is entitled to a "bush allotment" of 8-1/2 acres and a town site of 2/5 acre. He pays an annual rental of $1.25 for his "bush allotment" and none for his town site. No foreigners may own or lease land; some Europeans are still working plantations under leases made many years ago, but when these run out the land will revert to the Crown. These planters will not be compensated in any way for their improvements. And beachcombers are discouraged - one cannot land in Tonga without a permit secured previous to his arrival, with a bond covering outward passage.
Prince Tungi, in his efforts to stabilize and improve the economy of his people, has brought all of the Tongan coconut planters together in the Tonga Copra Board, a cooperative processing and marketing organization. Small vessels operated by the Board concentrate the copra at three main points in the islands where it is graded and made ready for the market. I have already told you about the 2000 ton freighter purchased by Prince Tungi in Holland and brought to Suva by him last week. The major operations of this ship, I'm told, will be to transport coconut to Pago Pago in American Samoa where a new enterprise, the Coconut Processing Corporation, is being put into operation. The Tongan Copra Board purchased about 40 per cent of the stock in this operation, and will supply most of the 9,000,000 coconuts a year that the plant will turn into coconut oil, desiccated coconut coir, charcoal, and coconut flour. Coir is pulverized coconut husk, used for making wallboard and other building materials badly needed in Tonga.
In addition to the Tonga Copra Board, there is a Tonga Produce Board which handles bananas, watermelons, and other products. Prince Tungi is chairman of both Boards and, according to reports, chief economist and market strategist. For instance, prior to last year New Zealand allowed Tongan bananas to come in only on a negotiated quantity and price system which was not always favorable to Tongan growers. But under Tungi's leadership, a Japanese market for bananas is being opened by the Produce Board. The government also purchased a fishing boat last year, and all fish caught is sold through government stores.
We docked quite early this morning - too early, in fact, to see the ship maneuver through the reef entrance which takes some careful navigation, I'm told. The small dock is situated at the end of a wharf about a quarter of a mile long leading directly into the central area of Nukualofa and only a few hundred yards from the Queen's palace and Chapel. Along the sea wall, spacious lawns shaded with huge trees were given over this morning to the Tongan womenfolk who set out their varied goods for sale to "Tofua" passengers. This once-a-month opportunity to sell woven baskets, beads, and other handicraft is an important economic event in their lives.
Hibiscus, of course, always takes precedence in our daily planning, se we decided to visit the palace area and the town before venturing farther afield. We found, however, that the palace grounds are not open to the public, but, as it was surrounded only by a low fence, we were able to get a good view of the gardens as well as the palace and the Queen's chapel. No hibiscus were in evidence; the plantings in general did not seem to be outstanding. A wooden structure of Victorian design, the palace was completed in 1882. A close view reminded one of a New England estate, circa 1890. Residents like to point out that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip sent the night in the palace during their visit to Tonga in 1953.
Another reason for our visit to the palace area was to meet Tuimalila, one of the best known residents of Tonga. Tuimalila is a tortoise, said to have been given to Queen Salote's ancestors by Captain Cook when he visited Nukualofa in 1773. Although Tuimalila has reportedly attained great age, his days in modern Tonga appear to be numbered; in recent years he has strayed from the grounds on several occasions and now has a large dent in his shell as a result of a collision with an automobile!
While some hibiscus plantings were in evidence in Nukualofa gardens, it was apparent that the flower is not widely grown on Tongatapu. Perhaps this is because, being a low island, it is subject to hurricanes which heavily damage light shrubs. Of the varieties seen as dooryard plants, the ubiquitous Versicolor seemed to be most popular. H. archerii and the double red H. flora plena (which may be our Lamberti) were also noted. The latter was found here by early explorers.
Condition of hibiscus plants that were seen was not up to Fijian standards, and from our standpoint actually appeared to be "ratty". Apparently the Tongans go in for trade rather than gardening, as the following experience would seem to indicate.
As you know, the so-called "Tongan Rounds" - commemorative stamps - were issued last year by Queen Salote's post office department, and immediately received world-wide publicity because they were not only unique in size and shape, but also beautiful in design. From the very first they were in great demand by collectors; the face value of the stamps is one pound four shillings, Tonga, roughly $5.00 American, but today the asking price was from $15.00 to $20.00, although we were told that a set could occasionally be purchased at a lower figure. I did want a set for my daughter-in-law if I could get it at a fair price, so I went to the postmaster and asked where the stamps could be purchased.
"You can get them from a dealer in stamps", he told me.
"But where are these shops located - up in the village?" I asked. "No, just around here and there," he replied.
We had no sooner left the post office when we were approached by a huge, affable Tongan gentleman who greeted us thusly:
"I hear that you are interested in a set of commemorative stamps." The Black Market was open.
"Did you hear that from your brother-in-law the postmaster, or just overhear us talking to him?" I countered. In trade as well as in battle, the best defense is an offense.
"Oh no, sir," he said. "I am not related to the postmaster, nor do I eavesdrop. I am a deacon in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and the Church does not countenance sharp practices." This put me on my guard; I saw I was up against a smart trader. He then explained that he was only a poor man who had purchased a set of stamps for his children to cherish, but circumstances made it necessary for him to part with them at a very low price. We shed a tear for his children, and asked what he considered a "very low price".
With the prospect of a sale, our "dealer" began the age-old "buddy-buddy" tourist approach, asking us where we were from. We had the right answer to that one - we gave him the name of the English village where we live while working in England, the reason being that the asking price of everything in the South Pacific (and elsewhere, I'm afraid) to those "rich Americans" is nearly twice that quoted the English, New Zealanders or Aussies. We also adopted our best English accent - which is really not convincing, and took some care in our choice of words.
Our Tongan then explained that, while Tonga was an independent kingdom, they were under English protection and guidance. Therefore, as English people, he would make us a special price of eight pounds Tongan ($20.00) for the set. We thanked him for his consideration, but expressed the opinion that as we English had contributed so much to Tongan history, a price of three pounds ($7.50) would even things between us.
The bargaining proceeded amiably, but without a meeting of minds as to price or terms. Our man even offered us the stamp set for $12.50, plus a particularly gaudy Aloha shirt I was wearing; I to have his shirt in the deal. Of course, we would have to go behind the post office building to exchange shirts because if we were to be seen, Customs would charge him duty for the shirt, or fine me for dealing in men's wear without a license. I did not mind parting as with my shirt, but if I made the deal I would have to wear his as a nightgown, as the man weighed at least 300 pounds and was well over six feet tall.
So we regretfully broke off negotiations and proceeded on our hibiscus investigations. But it was not easy - our dealer decided to be our guide, for reasons too obvious, and it was only by pointing out another "Tofua" passenger who had told us that he wanted a set of stamps that we lost his services and his sales talk.
But as we approached the dock area on our return to the ship just before departure, our Tongan wheeler-dealer met us and followed us out on the jetty, his price coming down about a shilling a foot. At last, at the gangplank, I, being the soul of generosity, paid him three pounds, ten shillings ($8.00) and took the set.
Although the Tongan philatelic peddler seemed greatly dejected as he made the deal, once he had the money in his hands he brightened up considerably, and wished us God speed back to England. "But you sure talk like Americans", he said. "We are", I replied. "But I'm employed most of the year in England."
This was a devastating blow, and as we looked down from the rail to wave goodbye he had the look of a fisherman who had hooked a big one that got away. But if I had any qualms as to my part in the deal this feeling passed when a Tongan passenger at the rail told me that our dealer owned several hundred sets which represented the major holding of the commemorative set remaining in Tonga, and was not hurting financially in any way. After due reflection, I decided that I should have tried to wangle a landing permit, then negotiated with him for a partnership deal. By staying over a couple of boats, I might make enough to pay for this trip.
I have also
decided to line up with the school of anthropologists who
believe that the Polynesians are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. At least
would seem true of that wave of Polynesian migration which reached Tonga.
Two hours before departure time the wharf again became crowded with people and the Royal Band and uniformed police took stations on the dock. It was a hot afternoon, but the Tongan people waited patiently for their monarch. Only those with suitable ta'o valas were allowed on the dock, people of higher rank. Finally a long black Cadillac was seen emerging from the palace gates and, with a motorcycle escort as outriders, it proceeded slowly out over the wharf to ship-side, and other cars carrying the Queen's retinue followed. After a bried ceremony, the Queen boarded the "Tofua" accompanied by Prince Tungi; she was escorted to a special place at the rail in "officer's country," and the Prince left the ship. One of the Queen's retinue handed her a small walkie-talkie, and when the Prince reached the dock he went to his car and secured another piece of equipment similar to that given the Queen.
Then, as the band played the Tongan national anthem and the crowd sang farewell songs in their native tongue, the Queen, oblivious to this ceremony, spoke in what seemed to be the most endearing terms with her son, who was visibly affected by the departure of his mother. This conversation continued as the ship pulled away from the dock and headed out through the reef entrance.
Queen Salote is a large, handsome woman, 63 years of age. She has ruled Tonga since 1918. According to genealogical records handed down by word of mouth, she can trace her royal ancestry back 1000 years or more to the first Tui Tonga, who is said to have come to this island group from Samoa. Her greatgreat-grandfather was baptized in 1831 by missionaries of the London Missionary Society who came to Tonga in 1830. While the Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, and Catholic missions have been very successful in other island groups, over half of the Tongan people have remained in the Wesleyan Methodist church.
The attendance of Queen Salote at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in June 1953, and the visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip to Tonga the same year, brought the little kingdom and its queen world-wide publicity. During her stay in England she endeared herself to all who saw or met her. She has been given all the honors that the British Government can bestow on a woman, including Dame Grand Cross of the Victorian Order.
So far, on board, she has a friendly smile for everyone and is, we understand, quite approachable. But the large, uniformed Tongan policeman standing outside the door of her cabin, will no doubt discourage autograph hunters. Also, she will take her meals in her cabin for reasons of protocol, not clearly explained as yet to us common folk.
Aboard the "Tofua"
En route Vavau, Tonga
November 17, 1963
At this moment the "Tofua" is passing through historic waters; the mutiny of the "Bounty" occurred just three nautical miles west of where we are now cruising. If it were daylight instead of 11:15 p.m. we could see the island of Tofua (for which our ship is named), site of Captain Bligh's unsuccessful attempt to secure fresh water and supplies for his long journey west. The "Bounty", turning back to Tahiti with its mutinous crew, crossed our track close to this spot.
As you know, I have always been something of a "Bounty" buff and have a large collection "Bountiana" in my library. I knew that this cruise would take us in the general area of the mutiny, but did not realize that we would come so close to the spot in the vast Pacific where one of the greatest sagas of men against the sea began.
Even if I were not sure of my facts concerning the mutiny, I would have had an excellent reference source close at hand; when I questioned Captain Pete Bennett over after dinner coffee this evening I learned that he is a real authority on the subject. He had made a study of the exact location of the mutiny and proceeded to give us a detailed geographical account of what has become the most publicized episode in the nautical history of the Pacific. He then took us up on the bridge and, bringing out his charts of the area and the Pacific as a whole, traced for us Bligh's track on his 3700 mile voyage to the Dutch East Indies in an open boat with nineteen loyal crew members. He also pointed out the various islands in the South Pacific where the "Bounty" men tried to make their home in almost a year of indecision before they finally established themselves on Pitcairn Island, over 3000 miles west of here.
The story of the mutiny of the Bounty is well known; however, books and moving pictures have given little space or time to an explanation of the reason for the voyage of the "Bounty" into the Pacific. It was, as you know, to bring the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to the West Indies as a food crop for plantation slaves in the Carribean. It has been this part of the story that has always held my interest, for this early attempt to transport live plants in volume halfway around the world in a sailing ship was at that time a bold, new horticultural adventure.
Today, when one can put live plants in a plastic bag with a little damp moss and ship them around the world (quarantine regulations permitting) it is difficult to envisage the months of painstaking effort which went into the preparations for the "Bounty" voyage. The entire interior of the ship was rebuilt and when ready for the "Bounty" was in reality a floating greenhouse. Comforts of the crew were given little consideration and the ship was deliberately undermanned, as sleeping space for one sailor would provide room for a dozen breadfruit plants. This crowding was the real reason for the mutiny.
Early voyages in the Pacific usually emphasized how easily two of the
most essential needs were to be met in the South Pacific - the generous
welcome of well-endowed, warm blooded young women and the fact that
Captain James Cook had much to say about the value of breadfruit in the report of his first voyage. He stressed the fact that it was not only cheaply produced, but also a nutritious and healthful food crop. Obviously his comments did not interest residents of the temperate zones, but it did "ring a bell" for the sugar planters of Jamaica and Dominica in the West Indies. Not that they wanted to add breadfruit to their own diet - far from it. But they saw in the breadfruit a source of cheap food for their negro slaves. These slaves subsisted mostly on bananas, but when there was a heavy gale - and these were frequent - banana trees were blown over and then the plantation owners had to supply their slaves with purchased foodstuffs. The possibility of eliminating all food costs by the introduction of the breadfruit from the South Seas thus appealed to them greatly, and soon after Captain Cook's report was out, the planters made representations to their London bankers, who used their influence to bring about the voyage of the "Bounty". The cost of the expedition was thus borne by the English taxpayer - evidently such wheelerdealer lobbying tactics, which we now know so well, are not new.
It was estimated that the return voyage of the "Bounty" would take six months, thus provisions had to be made to keep the small breadfruit cuttings alive for this period of time. The directions for the selection, care and transportation of the plants were prepared by John Ellis, English botanist, and a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. I have the copy of his instructions, illustrated with drawings by the author, in my library at home and would like to have it here for reference. It gives a detailed description of the breadfruit tree and its growing habits, and shows a sketch of a transportable growing box with an ingenious watering system. It was not until fifty years later that Dr. Nathaniel Ward developed the Wardian case which made the transportation of plants less susceptible to transit losses.
With Captain Bligh were a botanist and a gardener, and when the "Bounty" reached Tahiti, Bligh immediately put these men ashore with several helpers to set up a plant collection station and a greenhouse for establishing the breadfruit plants. Each cutting or shoot was put in a tub in which it would eventually - it was thought - be transported to its planting place in the West Indies.
It took Captain Bligh's horticulturists five months to collect and establish 744 breadfruit plants; some historians have been very unkind in their comments on this delay, inferring that the "Bounty" men were principally engaged in propagation of a quite different nature. But somewhere near where the "Tofua" is now cruising the smooth tropical seas, the "bounty" mutineers heaved the 744 tubbed plants overside and five months' work went to the bottom of the sea. Captain Bligh was spared the sight as he and loyal crew members had been cast adrift several hours before.
When travelling in foreign lands, one expects to have some language difficulties. It was a great surprise to me, however, to experience some very distressing ones in New Zealand and Australia where they speak their own version of English. Such was the case tonight:
When discussion of Captain Bligh's treatment of his crew came up, I tried to get in my shilling's worth.
"Captain Bligh was a stickler-" I began, and would have completed the sentence, "for discipline." However, Captain Bennett caught me up before I could finish.
"Captain Bligh was not a stinker," he said sharply. And before I could explain myself, he gave me a long lecture on Captain Bligh's character and ability, and defended his actions in every respect. When he had finished, I did not even try to explain that I had said "stickler" - apparently a word unknown to the captain - rather than "stinker", for although he is a quiet spoken gentleman, one could easily see that he was used to command without question.
It is well known, of course, that Captain Bligh was eventually placed in command of a second breadfruit expedition and successfully established this food crop in the West Indies. It is not so well known, however, that in spite of two costly voyages and the loss of many lives, the West Indian negro slaves steadfastly refused to eat breadfruit, baked, boiled, or otherwise!
Thus they were unsung mutineers of Captain Bligh's "Bounty".
After threading her way through the Haapai Group during the night, the "Tofua" entered Vavau Passage at six, and in the freshness of a glorious tropical morning we came topside to view a scene of incredible beauty. These are high islands, many of them rising sheer out of the sea, their shorelines lost in the shadow picture reflected on the calm waters of this island paradise. All were clothed in myriad greens so diverse in shading as to give clear definition to their rugged topography, and all were coming awake with the golden touch of the morning sun. At seven we rounded the island of Vavau to dock at this grubby little port, and the spell of beauty which had held us enthralled was rudely broken. But we were greeted by another scene, just as beautiful in its way.
Apparently most of the population of Vavau and surrounding islands had been gathering in Neiafu during the night, for when we arrived the dock was crowded with natives in their colorful Tongan costumes and a double line of uniformed school children formed the borders of the road leading up over the hill to the Governor's residence. For Queen Salote was to leave the ship for the day and her loyal subjects were at hand to pay homage.
When the word was passed that the Queen was ready to disembark, huge Tongan gendarmes cleared the dock area around the gangplank. The Queen first came to the port rail and native dancers and singers performed their ancient ceremonial welcome for their monarch. Then, as she left the ship, she was presented with a bouquet of flowers (no hibiscus) and, passing through an honor guard of uniformed Girl Scouts, she entered a vintage Hillman sedan - quite a come-down from her own great black Cadillac - and was driven slowly up the road to the Governor's palace through cheering lines of school children waving coconut fronds.
The beauty of the Vavau Passage and the unusual greeting ceremony for the Queen were certainly no indication of what we were to experience the remainder of our day. As a matter of fact, I should have gone back to bed.
We have not as yet learned to fully evaluate what people of the Pacific offer as their prime tourist attractions. So when the purser's office advised us that a launch would take all who wished to visit some of Vavau's unique swallow caves, we signed up and were soon on our way.
The prospect of visiting a swallow cave alone would not have been sufficient incentive for me to take a launch ride, particularly as our time here is short. However, I am an incurable romantic and I remembered that it was here in the Vavau group that William Mariner, an Englishman, was cast away in 1806 and resided for many years. On his return to England, his published adventures included a description of beautiful caves on some of these islands, and a recital of the poignant tale of young lovers who hid from an irate royal parent in the Cavern of Hoonga, a story on which Byron based his poem, "The Island". For this reason I did not want to pass up the opportunity to visit a spot with such a well known literary background.
Much to our dismay, we found ourselves retracing "Tofua's" morning track, and the views which had entranced us in the morning light were now just water and islands. After 14 miles in the small launch, we reached an island with a large cave opening which the boat entered at slow speed. We expected that we would be taken some distance through an underground wonderland, but the cave proved to be only about 100 feet long; after disturbing some thousands of swallows the boat turned back and out, and we were again underway on a 14 mile return trip to Neiafu. With apologies to Winston Churchill, I can say that never have I travelled so far to see so little.
Because so much of our day was taken up by the swallow cave tour, we did not see all of the island of Vavau; in fact, we were able to cover only the immediate port area of Neiafu. However, this offered nothing of interest insofar as hibiscus is concerned. Only a few plants of what we have been calling H. archeri, some very nice plants of Kona, and a few Pink Dainty were in evidence. Ornamental plantings as a whole were not particularly attractive, but we were told of several very beautiful gardens on some of the islands of the Vavau group.
Early tomorrow morning we stand off the little island of Niue, and will go ashore by launch. This island is known for the excellence of its plaited ware, particularly hats. I plan to purchase a wide-brimmed one to protect my peeling nose. My wife says that I do not really need such protection - that if I would keep my nose out of native back yards and other odd private spots where hibiscus appear, I would not be so badly burned. She swears that when I see a hibiscus bush my nose actually lengthens and that I make like a pointer dog.
Furthermore, each time I come back aboard the "Tofua" after an island stop, I am reminded that I smell like the pigs and chickens with which I often mingle when I see something I want to examine closely. However, I promised you complete and intimate coverage of the Pacific hibiscus situation and I am willing to go to any length to do my job properly - even if I do not smell so nice at times
Aboard the "Tofua"
En route Niue to Pago Pago
November 19, 1963
To the lonely island of Niue which is just now dropping below the horizon, the arrival of the "Tofua" once each month is an event of both social and economic importance as this ship is its only contact with the outside world. There is talk of the start of plane service by Fiji Airlines which now serves Tonga, and no doubt when the Tonga-Samoa copra run is fully established Prince Tungi's ships will call at Alofi, its port town where we spent several hours today. But until then "Tofua Day" will continue to be a holiday on this remote island, the day when "new money" comes in.
Geographically, Niue is a part of no other group; it is 300 miles east of Tonga, 350 miles southeast of Samoa, and about 500 miles west of the Cook Island group. Unlike Tongapatu, on which Nukualofa is situated, Niue is a high island, although almost entirely upheaved coral. Only a comparatively small part of its 100 square miles is cultivated. Although one of the first Pacific islands to accept Christianity, Niue was called "Savage Island" by Captain Cook after he met a decidedly hostile reception when he attempted a landing there in 1774. It was annexed to New Zealand in 1901 and became a part of the Cook Island Administration. Of the 5000 residents, only about fifty are Caucasian, mostly government and school officials and mercantile house managers.
The soil is sparse, but Niue produces coconuts, bananas and sweet potatoes for the New Zealand market, their transport being the primary reason for the once-a-month visit of the "Tofua." There is no wharf, and all day long the whale boats came alongside the ship with loads or produce and returned with supplies of all kinds. Today, however, was a special day: the "Tofua" brought in a two-ton Bedford truck, fire-engine red, and it was loaded on a platform mounted on a half dozen whale boats. I have seen this sort of thing done in Hawaii many years ago; in fact, I have had some personal experience with odd-ball lightering, so I could appreciate the way the "Tofua" crew put the truck ashore. As we took the launch at the Alofi landing to return to the ship, the new truck was still drawing great crowds from all parts of the island.
My own plans for our visit to Niue called for, first, a check on hibiscus plantings; second, a lot of pictures of this off-the-tourist-run island; and, third, as I mentioned before, the purchase of a hat. So when we landed and were told that the local school principal would drive us around the island in the afternoon, we decided to cover the immediate environs of Alofi on foot. This was not difficult, for there was only one street, a dusty road, with residences, stores and schools all grouped within several hundred yards of its length.
I saw very few hibiscus on my rounds, but more than at either Vavau or Nukuaoia, in the Tongas. According to one old-timer with whom I talked, the big double red H. flora plena is the oldest variety on the island, no doubt brought by the Polynesians when they made first landfall there. However, what we call Kona, the double pink, was very much in evidence. While we have no specific proof, this one appears to be a hybrid with native Hawaiian white as one parent; in fact, it is sometimes called Double Agnes Galt because the foliage and plant habit are similar, and the color is much the same. Pink Versicolor and H. archerii - if that is the correct name for the fringed single red that seems to be the most popular variety in the Pacific islands that I have visited - was also grown widely on Niue. I also saw the little buff double that is so popular in Fiji, and picked up a cutting of a single yellow which looked very much like an Hawaiian kokio hybrid. These Hawaiians seem to get around.
Dooryard plants seemed to be pretty much torn up, and many of the houses were in bad shape. This, I was told, was due to a severe hurricane which occurred two years ago when several hundred houses were destroyed and all of the crops lost. The coconut crop is only now coming back. For many "Tofuas" after the big blow, the ship had little return cargo, but it did bring in cement and, under government supervision, a large number of cement block homes have been built. These are sold at cost on long-term contracts.
But weeds and unwanted grass come back fast in the tropics, and must be cleared away frequently from road margins, playing fields, and other public areas. I knew that this must be done, but I was a bit shook, for a moment at least, when I read the following bloodthirsty notice in the mimeographed Niue Daily News:
"Would the Alofi basketball girls please come to the green at 4:30 P.M. today? Please bring your bush knives with you."
The sight of a group of buxom young basketball players with long knives swinging from their belts would be rather disconcerting if it were not known that they were en route to a grass cutting session.
Even before the first launch was in from the ship, natives from all parts of the island were setting up their "market place" above the landing. Their wares were spread out on huge tapa cloth mats which in turn were laid out on the dusty margins of the road. The plaited ware was excellent in workmanship, but I was in the market for a hat - a special kind of hat. What I wanted was a wide-brimmed job of interwoven black and natural color pandanus strips, or lauhala, as we would say in Hawaii. I had seen one in Tonga, and as the lauhala hat I had bought in Hawaii thirty years ago was getting a bit ratty, eliciting sarcastic remarks from certain members of the family, I wanted to replace it. However, this two-color type was in great favor with the "Tofua" passengers, and by the time I completed my hibiscus tour of the village, the natives were about sold out. I did get one, however, but the price had gone up to three shillings, New Zealand, or nearly fifty cents. I hope it will last as long as my Hawaiian hat which, by the way, cost only twenty-five cents, indicating the alarming degree which the cost of living in the South Pacific has increased in the past three decades.
So when you visit me on my return, do not be surprised if you find me in a gaudy hibiscus-patterned Tongan lava lava instead of trousers, a brightcolored Fijian bula shirt, and my new, raffish, checkerboard lauhala hat. This costume should prove quite interesting for the Arboretum, too; even the peacocks will envy me.
During the morning I was able to get a large number of what I thought were unusual photographs, scenes that could not be secured elsewhere. For instance, I took a great many shots of a group of boys and girls, ages ranging from five to about fifteen, who were surfing in the bay. However, none had surfboards, but were manipulating all sorts of "gear" from wash tubs to crate tops. The lack of proper equipment did not spoil their fun, or their ability to ride the breakers, either. Nor were they inhibited by the fact that none wore a stitch of clothing.
As I said above, Niue is geographically isolated, a once-a-month stop on the inter-island run of the "Tofua". But already an American firm has set up an interesting operation there. Knowing that most unsolicited circulars posted in the States find their way into the wastebasket unread, this firm ships its mailings in bulk to Niue, already in envelopes addressed to its States-side "sucker-list". Then the Niue Weavers Association, a local handicraft cooperative, contracts to mail them after affixing colorful Niue stamps. You can bet that these circulars are seen by all who receive them!
Unfortunately, we did not get out of the Alofi area. The promised trip around the island did not materialize because not enough cars were available It was just as well, however, for the "Tofua" completed her cargo handling early, and began to signal her departure. Niue is a beautiful island, but a month's stay could be a bit sticky, as our English friends would say.
The tragic news of President Kennedy's assassination reached here at 9:30 yesterday morning as a bare flash picked up by the Samoan Government radio station. Additional news came in during the day, but even now we have few details as to what actually occurred.
We heard the first news under rather dramatic circumstances. I had a 9:30 appointment with Bayard Parham, Samoan Director of Agriculture. His second floor office is located close to the wireless station on the waterfront, and from the window we could look over the town and down on the shore to see the steel raft, "Age Unlimited", on which the 70-year-old American, William Willis, had arrived a few days before after drifting 6700 miles from South America. Mr. Parham was delayed a few minutes, and while we were waiting (and photographing the "Age Unlimited" from the window) his secretary, who had just ushered us in, came back greatly excited and gave us the news. She was a German woman and had language difficulties and, I am afraid, strong feelings against Americans, for in a torrent of words she seemed to be accusing us of the murder, at the same time giving us the bare facts from the wireless message.
Within fifteen minutes flags on all of the government buildings and ships in the harbor were at half mast. And as I sat talking to Mr. Parham, who came in during our first few moments of shock, I looked down on the waterfront to see the grey-headed "ocean tramp" Willis slowly lower the stars and striped on his Rube Goldberg catamaran. Last evening all social functions having to do with our people on the "Tofua", as well as strictly local affairs, were cancelled, and Apia was a quiet town, a sincere tribute to the passing of our young President.
Later, we visited the Parham home for morning tea and I was given the range of their garden, which is located on the Experiment Station grounds. I found quite a few hibiscus, most of them "oldies" which Mr. Parham had brought over from Fiji where he had previously served in an agricultural capacity. The Parhams' son John is the Government Botanist in Fiji whom I mentioned in previous correspondence. Mrs. Parham's mother was the author of the book on Fijian plants which we use as reference.
On the Parham grounds I found an old single yellow that I have been looking for. I have never had it in our collections, but remember seeing it years ago in Hawaii, a very simple flower on a strong plant. The leaves are fivelobed and deeply cut, and I believe it to be a very primitive type. And to make the find of greater importance, the plant was covered with seed pods. This was the first seed I have seen on the trip so far.
While I was gathering the seed, I was joined by a handsome Samoan woman, also a guest of the Parhams. I did not hear or, rather, could not understand her last name when we were introduced - her hostess just called her "Lifli". She had returned day before yesterday from Los Angeles where her daughter lives, and she gave me the latest news from Southern California. She seemed very much at home in the Parham garden and showed me around the grounds. Later, I learned that she was Lilli Mata'afa, recently divorced wife of the present head of the Samoan government, and the highest ranking chief in Samoa.
Generally speaking, however, I found Samoa very disappointing hibiscuswise, perhaps because I had heard that the flower was at its best in these islands and that there were distinctive varieties to be seen. However,[ saw only two, one of which was the yellow mentioned above, that had any exceptional characteristics.
Of all the varieties in evidence here, the pink and white Dainty is perhaps the most common in street and dooryard plantings. Seldom did I see a plant which did not have both pink and white flowers - this sporting habit is accepted as commonplace by residents of Samoa. As I wrote you previously, the White Dainty is supposed to be a sport which appeared on a Pink Dainty in Florida several years ago, but apparently this sporting is general with this little H. schizopetalus hybrid which seems to be quite unstable, thus sports wherever grown.
I could find nothing in print on hibiscus in Samoa, even in the extensive botanical library in Mr. Parham's office. Few people know their varieties by name, but this seems to be generally true throughout the Pacific area. I was told that some hybridization has been done on this island, but that the man who was interested in this was in England on leave, so I have not tried to see his garden. As I understand it, his seedlings are quite simple in form.
Although I did not write you from there, we also stopped at Pago Pago in Eastern Samoa. Eastern Samoa comprises the large island of Tutila on which Pago Pago is situated, together with all islands of the Samoan group lying east of the 171 parallel of west longitude. It is administered by the United States Department of Interior, with the executive officer a governor appointed by the President.
At this time Eastern Samoa has a population of only 25,000, but it is growing rapidly, mostly because of the fact that high wages and the promise of the start of TV broadcasting later this year has drawn large numbers of Western Samoan immigrants. As usual, the United States government is quite prodigal with its spending in this area, and has assisted in bringing in a number of industries which provide employment. Tuna fishing and canning is the most important activity, but this, strange to say, is Japanese controlled.
We took a drive around Pago Pago and environs and walked around the town, but saw very few hibiscus. However, we did see a plant of Mrs. Hassinger for the first time in the Pacific, and also of that pinkish white single which Vavra collected, brought to California, and named President Masaryk.
Western Samoa, of which this little port town is the capitol, comprises two large islands, Upolu and Savaii, and many more smaller ones. It has a population of close to 100,000 people, of which about 700 are European, and 12,500 are "Euronesian," a term used to classify persons of European and Polynesian blood. Until two years ago, Western Samoa was a Trust Territory administered by New Zealand, but it became a sovereign state on June 1, 1962, outside the British Commonwealth. New Zealand still maintains a resident commissioner who functions primarily as a diplomatic representative.
This island is very rich and productive, and the land laws are such that native Samoans can live in plenty from their land and by fishing. But under German developed; there are now 30,000 acres in cocoa, and the 1962 production was 5260 tons.
This will be another very quiet night in Apia. News of the assassination of President Kennedy still filters through, but it must be transcribed and placed on the ship's bulletin board before we can know additional facts. It goes without saying that the deck area around the bulletin board is the most popular spot on the ship. There is but one other American couple aboard the "Tofua", but if the entire passenger list were American, I am sure they would have reacted more deeply to this tragedy.
Aboard the "Tofua"
En route Samoa to Suva
November 23, 1963
This is the last leg of our Island Tour - we are due to arrive in Suva tomorrow morning, then go on to Auckland, New Zealand, where the "Tofua" cruise officially ends.
In going over my Samoan notes, I find that I neglected to tell you of our visit to Vailima, the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, at the foot of Mount Vaea. Stevenson came to Samoa in 1890, in poor health, but it was here that he turned out some of his best work. He died in 1894, and is buried on the top of Mount Vaea above Vailima, a forty-minute walk over a steep, slippery trail. We did not go up for we were told that since the Samoan people have been given their independence and thus the responsibility for taking care of Vailima and the Stevenson burial site, the trail and even the tomb are deteriorating.
As you know, Stevenson wrote his own epitaph, and these lines are carved on his tombstone:
"under a wide and starry sky,
Stevenson's tomb on Mount Vaea looks down on the sea, for Stevenson was never happy far away from the sea and the sea is the background for some of his best writing. From my boyhood days I've been a Stevenson reader. In Hawaii many years ago I sat under the great banyan tree on the site of the former Cleghorn mansion at Waikiki: the tree that lives in literary history as the favorite rendezvous of Stevenson and Princess Kaiulani, child-daughter of the Scotsman, Captain Archibald Cleghorn and Princess Likelike, sister of Hawaii's Queen Lilipukalani. She died quite young. Cleghorn was made governor of Oahu and was a leading citizen of Hawaii for many years.
Much against Stevenson's advice, this motherless young girl was sent to Scotland for her education:
"Forth from her land to mine
Stevenson wrote in her autograph album as she prepared to leave Hawaii. The young princess returned to Hawaii with her health greatly impaired by the rigorous winters of Scotland, and "the island flower, the island rose" died in the April of her life.
When I visited the banyan tree thirty years ago, the Cleghorn gardens were already covered with run-down, shoddy bungalows; today a great hotel, named for the princess, stands close by. Cleghorn is credited with being the first to hybridize hibiscus in Hawaii (1872) and my visit to the site of his garden was motivated both by my interest in Stevenson and the hope that I might find some plants of his earliest crosses. None were in evidence.
One of the best books on Stevenson's life in the South Seas is "This Life I've Loved", by Isobel Field, and I suggest that you read it. Mrs. Field was Stevenson's stepdaughter and, during his Samoan years, his amanuensis. Hers was truly a fabulous life, with close literary associations. Her brother, Lloyd Osbourne, under the tutelage of Stevenson became a well known author; her son, Austin Strong, was a famous playwright as was her second husband, Salisbury Field. At one time both her son and her husband had successful plays on Broadway.
But back to Samoa. I was very much interested in seeing the Vailima garden as I thought there might be plantings of hibiscus not found elsewhere in Samoa, because Vailima, after Stevenson's death, became the home of the Resident Commissioner for Western Samoa and is presently used for formal government functions. However, I found that there were very few hibiscus there, but among these was one old plant - a tree, to be exact - a Mrs. Lillian Wilder. This was the only true Hawaiian that I have seen in Samoa. Also, there were several plants of a little buff-colored H. schizopetalus cross much like the one that I brought back from Hope Gardens in Jamaica many years ago.
As I sit here in the "Tofua" library writing this letter, Queen Salote's grandson has slipped quietly into a chair across the large table, and is watching me closely. As you know - and suffer the consequences - I write very rapidly and this seems to intrigue the youngster. Each day he spends a few moments at my table as I do my daily stint with ballpoint.
However, he is not always the quiet, serious boy that I see now; mostly he's a bit of a rowdy. He and his tutor (who is also the Queen's secretary and aide) have the cabin almost adjoining ours, and nearly every morning the young prince greets me with a "Stick 'em up!" I must then leave the cabin and advance to the stairway with a gun at my back. His arsenal is quite formidable - it ranges from a pair of very ornate plastic Colt 45's to a life-sized, wickedlooking, pot metal burp gun.
The young man's name is Amiialiwahami - Ammie for short, and he is the second son of Prince Tungi. The oldest son, in line to become the King of Tonga, will be graduated from high school in New Zealand this year and Prince Tungi told us that he will then be sent to Switzerland to study languages.
I will perhaps not write you from Suva, for we only spend one night there. However, we will be enjoying one hibiscus related event. This be a cocktail party given for the business men of Suva and their wives, by the Union Steamship Company, to introduce their new General Manager. Today we received an elaborately engraved invitation, the only passengers aboard who received one. Certainly the aura of Harvey Turner's interest is responsible!