How did a Confederate flag find its way to Samoa shortly after the Civil War?
|Apia as it appeared in 1899|
President Grover Cleveland appointed an Alabama attorney named William L. Chambers to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Samoan Islands in 1898. It was a cushy gig, paying $6000 a year plus an additional $2500 for travel expenses-- a tidy sum for a job that required little more than attending numerous galas and feasts on sun-drenched tropical beaches. In his later years, Judge Chambers loved to talk about his days in Samoa, and he particularly loved to tell a strange tale about the improbable journey of a Confederate flag.
Soon after Judge Chambers arrived on the islands he attended one of the numerous feasts given by the native chiefs in the capital city of Apia. This particular feast attracted natives from every island in the Samoas; five hundred boats made the journey to Apia in order to attend the celebration, which featured boat races and athletic competitions in the harbor of Apia. At the time, the island nation was ruled by three foreign governments-- the Germans, the British and the Americans-- and the natives considered it a great honor when any representative of these nations attended one of their feasts. Judge Chambers was the guest of honor.
At the conclusion of these celebrations it is customary to divide the leftover food among the guests according to position. The more important a man was, the more food he was allowed to take home. For this purpose, guests brought large pieces of cloth in order to wrap up the leftovers.
Samoans, according to Judge Chambers, had a fondness for flags and these flags were used for the purpose of containing the uneaten fish and fowl and exotic fruits from the feast. All the native chiefs bring flags to the feasts, and they take great pride in caring for these flags. He is a poor man, an unimportant and impotent chief, who doesn't have a flag.
While looking out over the scenic harbor that day Judge Chambers noticed a boat flying a flag that he did not recognize. He obtained a spyglass and, upon further inspection, the judge was amazed to see that the Samoan chief's personal flag was the flag of the Confederacy. This perplexed the judge, who himself was a Southerner, and he waited until the strange boat sailed into the harbor at Apia. He then sent one of his servants to fetch the Samoan chief who owned the boat and its curious flag.
When the chief met the judge, Chambers questioned him at length about how he had come into possession of the Confederate flag, but the chief wouldn't give him any information. This just made Judge Chambers want the flag even more, and he was determined to get it. He knew that Samoans were fond of exchanging flags and it was the American flag they coveted most, followed by the British flag and then the flag of Germany.
Judge Chambers offered to trade an American flag for the chief's Confederate flag, but he said quietly that he could not make the exchange. "What about a new flag of England or Germany?" offered the judge. Again the chief refused. Chambers offered the chief a bolt of colorful cloth worth a considerable sum of money. No deal. Finally, the judge offered the chief the most expensive thing in the mind of a Samoan native, a barrel of meat.
When the chief once again refused to make a deal, the judge demanded to know why. Who would turn down hundreds of pounds of meat-- enough meat for a chief to feed every man and child in his village?
The chief explained that many years earlier a white man had come to his hut. Though the chief had no idea from where the white man had come, he suspected he had come from Apia because he had several bundles in his possession, which he guarded with the utmost care and reverence. The stranger, explained the chief to Judge Chambers, was a man of great dignity with an almost regal bearing. The natives took a liking to him and they soon took pleasure in treating the newcomer like royalty, providing the white man with every delicacy the island had to offer.
Over time the white man's health began to suffer. He was old by this time, and both he and the natives knew that his end was near. As the white stranger lay close to death, he called for the chief. When the chief arrived to the white man's hut, he was instructed to open one of the bundles the stranger had guarded with loyalty for so many years. It was a beautiful silk flag. A bit worn around the edges, but beautiful nonetheless.
"See that flag?" said the stranger. "It was the flag of my nation. It belonged to a great people, but it went down in defeat-- and I decided that it should never be surrendered. So I left home, and left my kinsmen and friends, and came here with it. I am going to give it to you-- but under one condition. You must never let a white man have it in his hands."
The chief swore that he would honor the dying man's request. He made the other members of his tribe swear that, after his own death, the sacred flag would be buried in a place where no human being would ever find it.
Judge Chambers was moved by the story he had been told by the native chief, and at the end of the day he watched the chief sail away on his boat, taking the Confederate flag with him. As months and years passed, Chambers could not stop thinking about the flag, and the mystery of how it arrived in the islands. He sent his servants to make inquiries about the chief, but he could not be located-- for there were thousands of islands in Polynesia, and each inhabited island had dozens of chiefs.
When Judge Chambers returned to the United States he told his remarkable story to friends, and for years these men scoured the Samoas in search of the missing Confederate flag, but it has never been found, leaving its final resting place-- as well as the identity of the Southerner who brought it-- an eternal mystery.
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