species pollinate the red flowers of forest vines and disperse seeds from
fruits too big for birds to carry. These megabats once had no predators
to fear, but in the 1970s, hunters with semiautomatic rifles began killing
them and shipping them to Guam to be sold as delicacies. Despite resistance from bat profiteers, it’s now illegal to kill and sell any of the seven
species of Pacific island flying foxes.
Sunlight ripples the cloud-banked Pacific. Restless flying foxes twitter communally in treetops. White-tailed tropicbirds, stately white with
tails like kite streamers, rise from the green valley between the roost
and the small coastal city of Apia, Samoa’s capital. The Samoan islands
were isolated until the eighteenth century, when French explorer Louis
Antoine de Bougainville determined their precise location and named
them “the Navigator Islands” for their inhabitants’ skilled seamanship.
Later, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States vied for control of
trade and support from rival royal families. An 1899 agreement gave the
eastern islands to the United States, the western islands to Germany.
New Zealand troops drove out the Germans during World War I, and in
1962, after a period as a trust territory of New Zealand, Western Samoa
became an independent nation, dropping “Western” in 1997. American
Samoa remains a US territory, its residents “nationals,” not citizens, with
the highest rate of military enlistment in any state or territory. Some
Samoans I met mocked their American counterparts as spoiled by dependency, grown less self-reliant, more money-grubbing, getting fat on
fast food, dreaming flabby American dreams.
The romance of the South Seas has called to many Westerners. In Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson listened to a New Zealander tell tales
of lovely, languorous Polynesia until he felt “sick with desire” to go there.
Drawn by the islands’ potential as unexploited literary material, he eventually chartered a yacht for a voyage around the South Pacific, financed
by a syndicated column for the New York World. When Stevenson and
his family embarked in 1889, the Honolulu Pacific Adventurer played on
his notoriously poor health and legends of South Seas cannibals: “It is to
be hoped that Mr. Stevenson will not fall victim to native spears; but in
his present state of bodily health, perhaps the temptation to kill him may
not be very strong.” Stevenson hoped to find lands unsullied by the “
hollow fraud” of modern civilization. On the Gilbert Islands he watched a
half-naked woman dance with “incomparable liberty and grace.” “
Bundle her in a gown,” he wrote, “the charm is fled, and she wriggles like an
English woman.” He was appalled by the decadence he found in Apia: