Pago Pago, American Samoa

On the soggy trail of Somerset Maugham.

Rainy day at Pago Pago Harbor – appropriate, considering Maugham's work here.
  • Rainy day at Pago Pago Harbor – appropriate, considering Maugham's work here.

A thick drizzle soaked me one Saturday afternoon in Pago Pago, American Samoa. (Pronounced something like “Pango Pango.) But the drizzle was a welcome relief from the Deluge of Heaven that had just raced across the harbor, driving even the most hardened denizens of the Yacht Club from their beachfront perches to the shelter of the bar.

I waited with them for the rain to slacken, but when happy hour ended and the price of Vailima Samoa beer surged, I went out to find one of the pickup-truck taxis that ply the road to town.

My truck only went as far as the main market. I was still about a mile from my hotel. But at least I was able to secure a sack of cheaper Vailimas to store against Sunday. Sunday, most drinks sellers in Pago – deferring to generations of missionaries' efforts – shut down.

Approaching the island's Sadie Thompson Inn.

Approaching the island's Sadie Thompson Inn.

Between the market and my hotel, I splashed past a colonial-style building called the Sadie Thompson Inn. I don’t know whether it was the horrific weather, or the obvious pervasiveness of the missionaries’ presence here, or whether I was just missing the seamier side of Honolulu. But I suddenly recalled the story of the missionary-prostitute conflict Somerset Maugham told in the short story "Rain."

Pago Pago and Maugham: a literary history

"Rain" was set in Pago Pago and recounted the moral struggle between an American missionary, Rev. Davidson, and a Hawaiian prostitute named Sadie Thompson. Maugham wrote "Rain" after a measles quarantine detained him and fellow steamship passengers for two weeks in Pago Pago.

Another view.

Another view.

The Sadie Thompson Inn is supposedly the site of the boarding house where Maugham and other stranded passengers, including Rev. Davidson, his wife and Sadie sheltered. Maugham and other reluctant and miserable boarders cowered against a rain that “that rattled on the roof of corrugated iron with a steady persistence that was maddening, that seemed to have a fury of its own.”

But Sadie, undeterred, set up shop. Sailors, gramophone music, dancing, liquor, right under the horrified noses of Pago Pago's polite but sodden society. The missionary, with time on his hands, and sensing a God-sent chance to dispense divine justice, took on the cause of Sadie. At first she was outgunned. The missionary convinced the colony’s American governor to deport her to San Francisco to face a prison term arising from her prior indiscretions there.

But just as life was looking darkest for a suddenly surprisingly repentant Sadie, with the ‘Frisco bound steamer’s departure imminent, the missionary scored an own goal in the eternal game of Good against Evil by sleeping with Sadie. Maugham quickly tidied up the loose ends of the plot with the missionary’s suicide and Sadie’s reprieve.

The Reverend’s body was scarcely cold when she cranked up the gramophone, summoned the sailors and pronounced the benediction: “You men! You filthy dirty pigs! You’re all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!”

Whether the missionary versus hooker story is fact or myth is still debated in this town that has little else of historical consequence to debate. I variously heard that Sadie went on to establish a brothel. Or she took in laundry by day and turned solo tricks by night. Or local police loaded her unconscious onto a Sydney-bound steamer. Or she fell into a taboo love affair with a Samoan noble and had to return to Honolulu.

You pick. But I think Maugham would be surprised that his representative of a victory of vice over salvation became the namesake of one of this devoutly Christian community’s finest restaurants. And, poetically, one of the only bars open on Sunday.

Modern times

Sadie’s Inn is a culinary oasis in this land of eggs, hamburgers, spam, pancakes and Bud Lite served in cups of crushed ice. One day Maugham complained that at the old boarding house they were “eating hamburger steaks again. It seems to be the only dish the cook knew how to make.” Well, you can still eat hamburger steak at Sadie’s, if you prefer it to salmon sushi or imported lobster, but now you can wash your burger down with a fine New Zealand Pinot Noir.

A few things have changed since Maugham’s visit. From the Inn’s veranda you no longer look across the harbour at sailing schooners, steamships and Navy rowing launches, but at container ships and luxury cruise liners. On the far shore, the coconut plantations and taro patches Somerset or Sadie might have seen through the mist and rain have yielded to the massive tuna canning plants of StarKist and Chicken of the Sea.

Many more things, however, remain remarkably the same. Sadie’s indictment of Pago Pago as a “one horse burg” may seem a little harsh today. But the two-lane tarmac running between the edge of the ancient caldera that forms Pago’s harbour and the impenetrable wall of jungle that juts vertically from the back of the shore is essentially the “American-built high road’ that Maugham described.

On shopping, he reported that the “natives came to barter pineapples and huge bunches of bananas, tapa cloth, necklaces of shells or sharks teeth, kava bowls and model boats.” If you add T-shirts and postcards to that list, and put those barterers’ progeny into shop houses instead of quayside canoes, the scene would be current.

His descriptions of the heat and the rain are timeless: “On land the heat, though early in the morning is already oppressive. Closed in by the hills, not a breath of air came into Pago Pago. The rain was unmerciful and somehow terrible. You felt the primitive powers of nature. And sometimes you felt that you must scream if it did not stop, and then suddenly you felt powerless, as though your bones had suddenly become soft, and you were miserable and hopeless.”

Writing this, I sit, miserable and hopeless, on Sadie’s veranda, barely sheltered from a lashing rain that seems more like the falls of some vast equatorial river than anything the sky could send. Comforted only by a cup of iced Bud Lite, I struggle to breathe the still air. Great drops of sweat splotch these pages as I wonder about Maugham’s story.

Did Sadie Thompson really exist? Did a fallen missionary really die here by his own hand? Does this building really have any place in history?

I don’t know. But, in the face of those and of life’s other many vagaries, I am consoled that I do know at least one immutable crystalline Truth: Somerset Maugham saw the rains of Pago Pago.

No one could make this up!

(I have not provided directions to Sadie’s Inn. You can only fly to Pago Pago from Honolulu, Apia or Nuku’alofa. Anyone who is able to overcome the obstacles of getting here can surely find the best restaurant in this "one horse burg" without my help.)

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