From George Brown   2 November 1874


November 2 1874

Baron Ferd von Mueller1

Dear Sir

In acceding to your request for a detailed description of the Islands of Samoa and of other places where I resided or visited during the past fourteen years I am sorry to state that I have not now with me any Journals or Accounts of Journeys to which I can refer and I am therefore compelled to trust entirely to my memory and to my knowledge of these Islands gained during several years of active labour there as well as by some journeys into the Interior made solely for the purpose of exploration. Samoa was visited by Commodore Wilkes and the general features of the Group have been fully described by him in the published accounts of the Expedition.2 The Island of Upolu also has been often described by Gentlemen who have resided there or who have merely called at the Port of Apia which is situated on that Island. I therefore purpose confining myself in the present letter to a short account of the large Island of Savaii3 on which I have resided for many years, which I have circumnavigated many times in Boats and the interior of which I have several times explored.

Savaii differs in many respects from the smaller and more fertile Island of Upolo. The latter Island is almost entirely surrounded by Barrier or Shore Reefs whilst the greater part of the Coast of Savaii is comprised of Volcanic Rocks or Lava Streams which have formed a rough iron bound and in many cases a precipitous shore. I think however that it is extremely probable that at some distant period the Island of Savaii was also entirely surrounded by Coral Reefs and that the Lagoon which then existed has in many places been filled up by Streams of Lava which have flowed down from the interior and now constitute the iron bound Coast. This is I think alluded to in some of the oldest traditions and songs of the Natives. A song sung at a Village called Tufu on the South Coast gives an account of a mythical personage in former ages who went on a voyage to Tonga leaving a beautiful Lagoon at this place (Tufu) but returning again in the course of years found an iron-bound Coast where the Lagoon formerly existed & recorded his disappointment in words which had now passed into a Proverb amongst the Samoans. In building a Church at this place some years ago the Natives dug up immense pieces of the large Brain Coral some distance inland and elevated many feet above the present level of the shore. This Coral they used to burn for the Lime which they required for the Building. This seems in some measure to confirm the truth of their old tradition.

Beginning at Matautu on the North Coast (See Wilkes Charts) and proceeding East for about five miles we find a low sandy piece of Coast fringed by a good shore Reef. For some little distance inland here the Land is very low, wet & sandy, is evidently of comparatively recent formation and shews marks of having been formed in a great measure by the action of several powerful springs or steams of Water the currents of which have been met on the Beach by the Ocean Surf and have so produced a kind of Bar which has been gradually added to and now constitutes the present Beach. This has been very noticeable even in the course of the last twelve years. The mouth of the Stream which now issues about half way between Matuatu and Saleaula was evidently at one time very much further West or nearer Matuatu than it now is. As the former Mouths were blocked up by the action of the Surf the river has altered its course to the eastward washing away the inland bank year by year whilst the Surf was continually heaping up the Sand on the side nearest to the Sea so that the Stream now runs for some distance almost parallel with the Coast and it is very easy indeed to trace the newly made Land by the smaller size of the Cocoa Nut Trees planted thereon, or as in the case of many recent formations by their entire absence. Near Saleaula are some very large Caves of Volcanic formation one of them is nearly three quarters of a mile in length but presents no very peculiar features. These Caves I think were formed by the Lava underneath running out whilst the upper crust was partially cooled and hard or by the stream of Lava flowing over or along the course of some stream of Water.

A little to the Eastward of Saleaula the reef terminates abruptly and as before stated the Reef & Lagoon which probably existed here formerly seems to have been overflowed and filled up by a large stream of Lava from the interior. For almost 10 or 12 miles of Coast the shore is composed of steep volcanic rocks with comparatively deep water up to the base of the Cliffs. After this begins the largest Reef of the Island extending from this point along the whole District of Lefaasaleleaga a distance of about sixteen miles of a direct shore line but much longer of course of measured on the Reef which is of a very irregular form and in some places nearly two miles in distance from the Beach. The Coast inside this Reef is low and sandy near the shore but, as in nearly every part of Savaii is very broken and stony in the interior. Several small streams find their way to the Sea along this part of the Coast. From Salelologa where the Reef terminates to Palauli Bay (see Wilkes Charts) the Coast presents exactly the same features as that previously described as existing between Saleaula and Lefaasaleleaga with this difference that the Coast terminates here in an abrupt headland forming the Eastern point of the only large regular Bay on this Island. This headland is caused by the volcanic Mountain called Tafua round the base of which the Coast trends inland forming the Bay at the head of which a small stream issues onto the Beach. The Land near the Shore in this place is comparatively level and free from Stones which is attributable I think in some measure to the river deposits. At Tufu about six miles further West there is a considerable stream of water the largest indeed which exists on the Island. Commodore Wilkes is in error when he states that there are no permanent streams of water on the Island.

From the western headland of Palauli Bay round to Sasina on the North about ten miles west of Matuatu our starting point the Coast presents an almost unvaried character. With the exception of a few small patches of Reef the whole Coast is formed of volcanic Rocks or Lava Streams terminating abruptly at the sea and varying in height from Ten to about Two hundred & fifty feet or more as at Samata and Liuvas. The Land is very fertile though in most places near the sea it is very stony and broken. The soil consists of decomposed volcanic rock and vegetable deposits. The Natives however assure us that after proceeding inland some distance at Salailua no stones at all are found in fact they have to bring any wild Pigs they may catch in the interior some distance nearer the Coast before they can find Stones enough to make the Oven in which they cook them.

Near Sasina are some large Caves containing fresh water and some very powerful springs find vent in the sea some considerable distance below low water mark. These springs at low water bubble up most furiously in the salt water although at high water they are in some measure pressed down by the weight of the salt water yet the Natives can at any time get fresh water by pressing a long piece of Bamboo into the sand at the bottom when the fresh Water at once rises up inside the Bamboo above the sea level and they are thus enabled to fill their Water Bottles. One peculiarity with regard to all the Springs on this side of the Island may be noticed here which is that the Water is always brackish during those months when the prevailing winds blow on the opposite side of the Island. I do not know how to account for this except on the supposition that these Springs are supplied from large underground Cavities or Reservoirs which communicate by apertures or fissures with the Coast in the opposite side and into which the Surf is driven during the heavy gales which often blow at that season of the year. Or it may simply be owing to the fact that the prevailing winds on the South side deposit so much saline matter on the vegetation and on the Rocks that it affects the Springs on the North side but even on this supposition we must I think also assume that the Reservoirs from which these Springs are supplied must be in the South side of the Watershed as the Mountains all along this part of the Coast are from 3000 to 4000 feet in height. An old Native Tradition states that a Club which was thrown into some Spring or Pool at Salailua on the South Coast was ejected at Safune on the North Coast but on going inland some years ago on purpose to examine the place where it is said this Club was thrown in I saw nothing which would give the slightest appearance of probability to any such account. It is however possible that the tradition has survived the knowledge of the said locality and that a different Spring or Pool has now been substituted for the one where the incident is said to have occurred. It was from this place also (Sasina ten miles west of Matauta see Wilkes Chart) that a small party of Europeans consisting of Revn G. Pratt J. C. Williams Esq H. B. M4 Consul G. Reid Esq & myself started for the purpose of exploring the interior of the Island with a view of ascertaining whether the Native Reports of the existence of a comparatively recent Crater existing there was correct or not. For the first ten miles our road was principally over a large stream or streams of lava about 10 to 15 miles in width at the widest part stretching along the Coast towards Asau. We then slept at a Native Village called Aopo placed just on the skirts of the Lava in a very fertile spot but entirely destitute of water. Leaving there early in the morning we travelled over a rough stony volcanic country for about 10 miles by the road. The ascent was very abrupt in many places with some tracts of level land in the valleys. We passed a few small streams or watercourses on the way but none of them ever reach the Beach. We found Mountain name Tutumau reported to us by the Natives to consist of a large Ash Cone very steep and almost entirely destitute of vegetation except around the base. It is composed of light volcanic ashes resembling or constituting a species of pumice stone. This yielded to the weight of our bodies and so made the ascent one of some little difficulty. This is the only instance I know of any such mass of light ashes; all the other Mountains being composed of volcanic rocks or lava. On attaining the summit we found a large crater with very precipitous sides except on one side where the descent was more gradual. Some large Trees were growing in the basin which we were not able to descend but the general opinion of the Members of our party was that this is the most recent of all the Craters in the Group.

On this journey and also on one which I took some time since for the purpose of exploring the interior when I crossed from Palauli Bay on the South side to Saleaula three miles east of Matautu on the North Coast I found the Country to consist generally of rough volcanic densely wooded land. The interior is in many places studded with small volcanic mounds around the bases of which the land is often comparatively flat and very fertile. In the interior we visited on the second journey from Palauli to Saleaula a Lake called by the Natives Matau Lano. We had heard the most marvellous accounts of the depth and size of this Lake from the Natives but we were of course very much disappointed when we saw it ourselves. It is nearly circular and is evidently an extinct crater which receives the drainage of the surrounding Mountains. I do not think that it is more than a mile across at its widest part. I had great difficulty in getting any soundings as the Natives were very shy of going into it as they are much afraid of some tremendous eel which tradition asserts to be living there. After making a small raft however we got bottom at 30 feet and I do not think it is much deeper than that in any part. It has no visible outlet. From Sasina to Matautu (our starting point) there is no particular feature to notice here. At Matautu a small stream finds its way to the sea. It is I suppose the second in size in Savaii.

There is much good land in Savaii though the most of it is very stony. The Climate I believe is very favourable indeed for the growth of Cotton Sugar and other tropical productions but absence of good Harbours, the difficulty of transit and the scarcity of regular labour will I think prevent any considerable attempts at regular systematic cultivation. The Population of Savaii is about 12000. The average temperature is about 80° .

With this short and imperfect sketch I must for the present conclude. I hope to call at Samoa in the course of a few months on our way to the Islands of New Britain and New Ireland to the North of New Guinea. We may also visit the North Coast of the latter Island. I may at some future time furnish you with an account of our voyage but for the present with many thanks

I have the honour to remain Sir

Yours sincerely

Geo Brown. 5

This letter was forwarded by M to the Royal Geographical Society, see M to H. Rawlinson, 3 November 1874 (in this edition as 74-11-03a).
United States Exploring Expedition. See Wilkes (1845).
Now also spelled Savai’i.
Her Britannic Majesty’s.
On 12 January 1875 Sir Charles Nicholson was asked for his opinion. He reported on 19 January that ‘The accompanying paper on the Samoan Islands appears to me to be devoid of any new Geographical facts that would entitle it to be placed either in the Journal or the Proceedings of the R. G. Society’. On 25 January it was decided that the paper was ‘Not to be printed’.

Please cite as “FVM-74-11-02b,” in Correspondence of Ferdinand von Mueller, edited by R.W. Home, Thomas A. Darragh, A.M. Lucas, Sara Maroske, D.M. Sinkora, J.H. Voigt and Monika Wells accessed on 25 September 2022,