In The Strange South Seas
Landings on Pacific islands are not usually easy, but there are few approaches as bad as that of Niue, the solitary, outer of Polynesia. It is a difficult task to get within reasonable distance of the land in the first place, and when the ship has succeeded in manoeuvring safely up to the neighbourhood of the cruel cliffs, the trouble is only beginning. There are no harbours worth the name on the island, although the cliffs show an occasional crack through which a boat may be brought down to the sea, and the circling reef is broken here and there. The best that a ship can do is to lie off at a safe distance, put out a boat, and trust to the skill of the crew in effect a landing on the wharf. In anything but really calm weather, communication is impossible. However, there are very many calm days in this part of the Pacific, so chances are fairly frequent.
It was not at all as calm as one could have wished when the Duchess put out her whaleboat to bring me ashore. but the pirate trusted to his luck, and was, as usual, justified. The boat passage proved to be a mere crack in the reef, through which the sea rushed with extreme violence, dancing us up and down like a cork. It was not difficult for our smart Maori crew to fend us off the knife-edged coral walls with their oars, as we manoeuvred down towards the spider-legged little iron ladder standing up in the surf, and pretending to be a wharf. but when we got within an oar's length of the ladder, and the boat was leaping wildly on every swell, things got more exciting. The only way of landing on Niue is to watch your time at the foot of the ladder, while the men fend the boat off the coral, and jump on to the rungs at the right moment. A native standing on the platform at the top takes you by the arms as you rise, and snatches you into the air as the eagle snatched Endymion. Only, instead of going all the way to heaven, you land on the pier - or what passes for it - and find yourselves upon the soil of Niue.
Behind the pier rises a little pathway out in the face of the rock, and leading up to the main street of the capital. Once up the path, we are fairly arrived in the Savage Island. It is not a place known to the globe-trotting tourist, as yet. Much of the Pacific has been "discovered" by the tripper element of recent years, but Niue is still almost inviolate. Once here, if one seeks the true spirit of the South Seas, one still may find it. Travellers go in scores by every steamer to Samoa, to Fuji, to Honolulu, which are on the beaten track of "round-the-world." They drive up to Stevenson's villa, they make excursions to Nuuanu Pali, they see a sugar plantation here, and a kava drinking there, and a native dance, specially composed to suit tourists' tastes, somewhere else. They stay a week in a fine modern hotel, drink green cocoanuts (and other things that are stronger), take photographs of island girls wearing imported Parisian or Sydney costumes, and think they have seen the life of the islands. never was there a greater mistake. The sweet South Seas do not so easily yield up their secret and their charm. The spell that for three hundred years has drawn the wandering hearts of the world across the ocean ploughed by the heels of Drake and Hawkins and Cook, of Dampier, Bougainville, and Bligh, will not unfold itself save to him who will pay the price. And the price to-day is the same in kind, though not in degree, as that paid by those old explorers and adventurers - hard travel, scanty food, loneliness, loss of money and time, forgetting the cities and civilisation. To know the heart of the South Seas, all these things must be encountered willingly with a love of the very hardship they may bring, strong as the seabird's love of the tossing waters and thunder-waking storm.
The typical British tourist - yes, even he - hears from far off, at times, the mysterious call of the island world, and tells himself that he will listen to it a little nearer, and enjoy the siren song sung to so many long before him. Hence his visits to the great Pacific ports that can be reached by liner; hence, in most cases, his gradually acquired conviction that the islands are, after all, very much like any ohter place in the tropics - beautiful, interesting, but --- Well, writer fellows always exaggerate: every one knows that.
Hotel dinners, big liners, shops, hired carriages, guides, and picture postcards - these things are death to the spirit of the South Seas. This is the first lesson that the island wanderer must learn. where every one goes the bloom is off the peach. Leave the great ports and the steamers; disregard the advice of every one who knows anything (most people in the island towns know everything, but you must not listen to them, for the jingling of the trade dollar has long since deafened their ears to the song of the mermaids on the coral beaches); take ship on a schooner, it does not much matter where; live in a little bungalow under the palms for 3 weeks or months; ride and swim and feast with the brown people of the coral countries, as one of themselves; learn, if you do not already know, how to live on what you can get, and cook what you catch or pick or shoot, to sleep on a mat and wash in a stream, do without newspapers and posts, forget that there ever was a war anywhere, or an election, or that there will ever be a "season" anywhere again; and so perhaps the charm of the island world will whisper itself in your waiting ear. What then? What happened to the men who ate the enchanted fruit of the lotus long ago? Well, no one ever said that the sweetness of the fruit was not worth all that it cost.
There are about five thousand native inhabitants on Niue, and generally a score or so of whites - almost all traders. Aloft, the capital, possesses a few hundred of the former, and nearly all the latter. It is a winsome little spot, and I loved it the moment the wide grassy street first broke upon my view, as I climbed the narrow pathway from the shore. The houses stand down one side, as is the invariable custom of South Sea towns. They are whitewashed concrete for the most part, built by the natives out of materials furnished by the coral reef. The roofs are plaited pandanus thatch, high and steep. The floors are mostly windows, or the windows doors - it would be hard to say which. They are simply long openings filled in with wooden slats, which can be sloped to suit the wind and weather. Mats and cooking pots and the inevitable Chinese camphor-wood box, for keeping clothes in, are all the furniture. Round the doorways grow palms and gay hibiscus, and cerise-flowered poinsettia, and here and there a native will have set up an old decoration of glittering stalactites from the caves on the shore, to sparkle to the sun by his doorstep. The white men's houses have grass compounds in front for the most part, and many have iron roofs, glass windows, and other luxuries.
All these houses look the one way - across the wide, empty grassy street, between the stems of the leaning palms, to the sunset and the still blue sea. It is a lonely sea, this great empty plain lying below the little town. The Dutchess calls twice a year, the mission steamer once, a trade steamer, ancient and worn out, limps across from Tonga, about three hundred miles away, every ten or twelve months. That is all. The island itself owns nothing bigger than a whaleboat, and cannot as rule communicate with any other place in case of emergency. some few months before my visit, a trader had very urgent need to send a letter to Australia. After waiting in vain for something to call, he sighted an American timber brig on her way to Sydney, far not on the horizon. Hastily launching a native canoe, and filling it with fruit, he paddled three or four miles out to sea, in the hope of being seen by the ship. His signals were perceived, and the brig hove to, when the trader paddled up to her, offered his fruit as a gift, and begged the captain to take his letter. This the sailor willingly did, and still more willingly accepted the excellent Niue bananas and oranges that went with the missive. And so the post was caught - Niue fashion.
There is no doctor on the island as a rule, and if you want to die during he intervals between ships, you may do so unopposed. I am almost afraid to state how healthy the people of Niue are as a rule, in spite of - or can it be in consequence of? - this deprivation. The "bush" overflows the town, after the charming way of bush, in this island world. Big lilies, bell-shaped, snowy petalled, and as long as your hand, spill over into the main street from the bordering scrub. The grass on the top of the cliff, the day I landed, was blazing with great drifts of fiery salvia, and starred with pink and yellow marigolds. About the houses were clumps of wild "foliage plants," claret and crimson leaved, looking like a nurseryman's bedding-out corner. The coco palm that I knew so well had a sister palm here, of a kind new to me - an exceedingly graceful tree twenty to thirty feet high, bearing small inedible berry-like fruits, and splendid fan-shaped leaves, of the shape and size once so familiar in the "artistic type of drawing-room" at home. Pinnacles of fantastic grey rock, all spiked and spired, started up unexpectedly in the midst of the riotous green, and every pinnacle was garlanded cunningly with wreaths and fronds of flowering vines. There were mammee-apples and bananas beside most of the houses: yellow oranges hung as thickly in the scrub as ornaments on a Christmas tree, and one or two verandahs were decorated with the creeping trailers of the delicious granadilla. A land of peace and plenty, it looked in the golden rays of the declining sun, that windy blue afternoon. It proved alas, to be nothing of the kind: its soil is fertile, but so thinly scraped over the coral rock for foundation, that very little in the way of nutritious food will grow - it has no water save what can be gathered from deep clefts in the rocks, the bananas are scanty, the mammee-apples unsatisfying, and the "oranges" are for the most part citrons, drinkable, as lemons are, but little use for anything else. Indeed, Niue is a useless place altogether, and nobody makes fortunes there now-a-days, though one or two did well out of the "first skim" of its trading, a generation ago. Nor does any one grow fat there, upon a diet of tinned meats, biscuit and fruit. Nor are there any marvellous "sights," like the volcanoes of Hawaii, or the tribe dancing and fire-walking of Fiji. Still I loved Niue, and love it yet.
It was so very far away, to begin with. In other islands, with regular steamers, people concerned themselves to some degree about the doings of the outer world, and used to wonder how things were getting on, beyond the still blue bar of sea. Newspapers arrived, people came and went, things were done at set times, more or less. One was still in touch with the world, though out of sight. But in Niue, the isolation was complete. There was my come and go. We were on the road to nowhere. Nobody knew when any communication with anywhere would be possible, so nobody troubled, and save for as occasional delirious day when a ship really did come in, and waked us all from our enchanted slumber for just so long as you might turn round and look about you before dropping off into dreams again, we were asleep to all that lay beyond the long horizon line below the seaward-leaning palms. Niue was the world. The rest was s cloudy dream.
I rented a little cottage in the heart of a palm-grove, when I settled down to wait for the problematic return of the Duchess, and see the life of Niue. It belonged to a native couple, Kura and Vekia, who were well-to-do, and had saved money selling copra. The Niuean, unlike every other Polynesian, is always willing and anxious to make a bargain or do a deal of any kind, and Kuru and his wife were as delighted to get the chance of a "let" as any seaside landlady. They moved their small goods out of the house most readily, and left me in full possession of the two rooms and the verandah and the innumerable doors and windows, with everything else to find for myself. A general collection of furniture, taken u by a friendly white resident, resulted in the loan of a bed and a box and a table, three chairs, some cups and cutlery, and a jug and basin. These, with a saucepan lent by my landlady (who, as I have said, was rich, and possessed many superfluities of civilisation), made up the whole of my household goods. For two months I occupied the little house among the palms, and was happy. "Can a man be more than happy?" rams the Irish proverb, and answer there is none.
There were never, in all my island wanderings, such shadows or such sunsets, as I saw in lonely Niue. The little house was far away from others, and the palms stood up round it close to the very door. In the white, white moonlight, silver-clear and still as snow, I used to stay for half a night on my verandah, sitting cross-legged in the darkness of the eaves, and watching the wonderful great stars of shadow drawn out, as if in ink, round the foot of every palm-tree. The perfect circle of tenderly curving rays lay for the most part still as some wonderful drawing about the foot of the tree; but at rare intervals, when the hour was very late, and even the whisper of the surf upon the reef seemed to have grown tired and dim and far away, the night would turn and sigh in its sleep for just a moment, and all the palm-tree fronds would begin to sway and shiver up in the sparkling moon-rays, glancing like burnished silver in the light. Then the star at the foot would dance and sway as well, and weave itself into forms of indescribable beauty, as if the spirit of Giotto of the marvellous circles were hovering unseen in the warm air of this alien country that he never knew, and pencilling forms more lovely than his mortal fingers ever drew on earth. . . . Yes, it was worth losing one's sleep for, in those magic island nights.
In the daytime, I rode and walked a good deal about the island, which is very fairly provided with roads, and tried to find out what I could about the people and their ways. There is not a more interesting island in the Pacific than Niue, from an ethnological point of view; but my scientific knowledge was too contemptibly small to enable me to make use of my opportunities. This I regretted, for the place is full of strange survivals of ancient customs and characteristics, such as are seldom to be found among Christianised natives. The people are somewhat rude and rough in character; indeed until about forty years ago, they were actually dangerous. Their island is one of the finest of natural fortresses, and they used it as such, declining to admit strangers on any pretest. Captain Cook attempted to land in 1777, but was beaten off before he had succeeded in putting his boat's crew ashore. Other travellers for the most part gave the place a wide berth.
When men of the island wandered away to other places (the Niuean is a gipsy by nature) they received no kindly welcome on attempting to come home. The Niuean had an exceeding fear of imported diseases, and to protect himself against them, he thought out a system of sanitary precaution, all on his own account, which was surely the completest the world has ever seen. There was no weak link in the chain: no break through which measles, or cholera, or worse could creep, during the absence of an official, or owing to the carelessness of an inspector. Every person attempting land on Niue, be he sick or well, stranger or native, was promptly killed! That was Niue's rule. You might go away from the island freely, but if you did, you had better not attempt to come back again, for the "sanitary officers" would knock your brains out on the shore. It was without doubt the simplest and bet system of quarantine conceivable. Possibly as a result of the Draconian law, the people of Niue are remarkably strong and hardy to-day, though since the relaxation of the ancient rule, a certain amount of disease has crept in.
The people, though warlike and fierce, were never cannibals here at the worst. They did not even eat their enemies when slain in battle. They enjoyed a fight very much, however, when they got the chance at one, and still remembered the Waterloo victory of their history, against the fierce Tongans, about two hundred years ago. The Tongans, until within the last half-century, seem to have been the Danes of the Pacific, always hunting and harrying some other maritime people, and always a name of terror to weak races. Tonga is the nearest land to Niue, being about three hundred miles away, so it was not to be expected that the Niueans would escape invasion, and they were folly prepared for the Tongan attack when it did come. They did not attempt to meet force by force. There was one place they knew where the Tongans might succeed in landing, and near to this they laid a cunning plan for defence.
A trader took me down to see the spot one Sunday afternoon. It is one of the numerous caves of Niue, with a top open for the most part to the sky. The cave runs underneath the greenery and the creeping flowers of the bush - a long black gash just showing here and there among the leaves. The drop is forty or fifty feet, and an unwary foot might very easily stumble ever its edge, even now. On the day when the Tongan war canoes broke the level line of the sea horizon, the Niue men hastened to the shore, and prepared the cave in such a way as to set a fatal and most effective trap for their enemies. They cut down a mass of slight branches and leafy twigs, and covered the gulf completely, so that nothing was to be seen except he ordinary surface of the low-growing bush. When the enemies landed, the Niue men showed themselves on the farther side of the cave, as if fleeing into the woods. The Tongans, with yells of joy, rushed to 0pursuit, straight over the gulf - and in another moment were lying in crushed and dying heaps at the foot of the pit, while the men of Niue, dashing out of ambush on every side, ran down into the cave from its shallow end and butchered their enemies as they lay.
After this, it is said that the Tongans left Niue alone.
Because of the loneliness and inaccessibility of the place, the Savage Islanders have always been different from the rest of the Pacific. The typical "Kanaka" is straight-haired, light brown in colour, mild and gentle and generous in disposition, ready to welcome strangers and feast them hospitably. He is aristocratic to the backbone in his ideas, and almost always has a native class of nobles and princes, culminating in a hereditary king. The Savage Islander is often frizzy-haired, and generally a darkish brown in colour. His manners are rather brusque, and he gives nothing without obtaining a heavy price for it. He has no chiefs, nobles, or princes, and does not want any. There is always a head of the State, who enjoys a certain amount of mild dignity, and may be called the King for want of a better name. The office is not hereditary, however, the monarch being elected by the natives who form the island Parliament. Meetings of this Parliament are held at irregular intervals; and the King, together with the British Resident Commissioner, takes an important part in the debates.
These are very formal affairs. The brown M.P.s who live, each in his own village, in the utmost simplicity of manners and attire, dress themselves up for the day in full suits of European clothing, very heavy and hot, instead of the light and comfortable cotton kilt they generally wear. They travel into Alofi and join the local members on the green before the public hall - generally used as a school-house. King Tongia joins them, the British Resident comes also, and for hour after hour, inside the great, cool hall, with its matted floor and many open windo3w-embrassures, the talk goes on. This road is to be made, that banyan tree is to be removed, regulation pigsties are to be built in such a village, petitions are to be sent up to New Zealand about the tax on tobacco - and so on, and so on. The king is a tough old man; he has his say on most questions, and it is not considered generally good for health or business to o0ppose him too much; but of royal dignity he has, and asks for, none.
There is something quite American in the history of Tongia's elevation, some seven years ago. He had acted as Prime Minister to the late head of the State; and when the latter died he calmly assumed the reins without going through the formality of an election. This was not the usual custom, and some of the members remonstrated. Tongia told them, however, that he was in the right, and meant to stay on. When the captain of a ship died on a voyage, did not his chief mate take over command? The cases were exactly parallel to the mind. This argument pleased the members, who had most of them been to sea, and Tongia was allowed to retain his seat, the objectors calming themselves with the thought of the sovereign's age - he was well over eighty at that time. "He is only the stump of a torch," they said; "he will soon burn out." but the stump is burning yet, and shows no symptoms of extinction. Tongia married a pretty young girl soon after his "election," settled down in the royal palace - a white-washed cottage with a palm-thatch roof - and seems likely to outlast many of his former opponents.
The powers of the king, limited as they are, have lessened since 1902, when New Zealand annexed Niue - a proceding that had its humorous die, if one examines the map, for Niue is something like a thousand miles from Auckland. The Resident Commissioner who is responsible for the well-being of the island lives in a house much more like a palace than Tongia's modest hut, and is in truth the real ruler of the place. His work, however, is not overpowering. He is supposed to be judge and law-giver, among many other duties, but in Niue no one ever seems to do anything that requires punishment. There is nothing in the shape of a prison, if any one did. Innocent little crimes, such as chicken stealing with extenuating circumstances, or allowing pigs to trespass into somebody's garden, occasionally blot the fair pages of the island records, but a little weeding, or a day's work on the road is considered sufficient punishment for these. At the time of my stay, which lasted nearly two months, such a wave of goodness seemed to be passing over the island that the Resident complained he could not find enough crime in the place to keep his garden weeded, and declared that he really wished somebody would do something, and do it quick, or all his imported flowers would be spoiled!
Since the forties missionaries have been busy in Savage Island, and there is no doubt that they have done their work effectively. The early traders, who arrived near the same time, also helped considerably in the civilisation of the natives. Drink has never been a trouble on Niue, and at the present date, no native ever tastes it, and strict regulations govern importation by the whites, for their own use. The natives are healthy, although European diseases are by no means unknown. Skin diseases are so troublesome that many of the traders wash the money they get from the bush towns, before handling, and the new-comer's first days in the island are sure to be harassed by the difficulties of avoiding miscellaneous hand-shaking. Knowing what one knows about the prevalence of skin-trouble, one does not care to run risks; but the Niuean, like all islanders has unfortunately learned the habit of continual hand-shaking from his earliest teachers, and is never likely to unlearn it. So the visitor who does not want to encounter disappointed faces and puzzled inquiries, looks out old gloves to go a-waling with, and burns them, once he or she is settled in the place, and no longer a novelty.
There are manners in Niue - of sort. "Fanage fei!" is the greeting to any one met on the road, and it must not be left out, or the Savage Islanders will say you have no manners. It means, "Where are you going?" and it is not at all an empty inquiry, for you must mention the name of your destination in reply, and then repeat the inquiry on your own account, and listen for the answer. Riding across the island day by day, I used to pass in a perfect whirlwind of "Where0are-you-goings?" - calling out hastily, as the horse cantered over the grassy road, "Avatele," or "Mutelau," (names of villages) or "Misi Nicolasi" (Mrs. Nicholas, a trader's wife), and adding as I passed on: "Fanage fei?" to the man or woman who had greeted me. There was generally a long story in reply, but I fear I was usually out of hearing before it was ended. My manners, out riding, must have struck Niue as decidedly vulgar.
It was during the first few days of my stay that I attained a distinction that I had never hoped to see, and that I am not at all likely to see again. I was made a headline in a copybook! If that is not fame, what is?
The native school-teacher - a brown, black-eyed and bearded man of middle age and dignified presence - had called at my house shortly after my arrival, to display his English and his importance, and welcome the stranger. He wanted, among a great many other things, to know what my name was, and how it was spelt. I wrote it down for him, and he carried it away, studying it the while. Next day, the copies set in the principal school for the youth of Niue consisted of my name in full, heading the following legend: "While this lady is in Niue, we must all be very good." Evidently a case of "Apres moi le deluge.!"
Sitting on a box in my cool little shady house of a morning, writing on my knee, with the whisper of the palms about the door, and the empty changeless blue sea lying below, I used to receive visitor after visitor, calling on different errands - some to come in, squat on the floor, and discourse fluently for half an hour in a language I did not undd3rstand (they never seemed distressed by the absence of replies); some to sell curios; some to give dinners! You give dinners in Niue in a strictly literal sense. Instead of bringing he guest to the dinner, you take the dinner to the guest, and then wait to see it eaten. It generally consists of a baked fish wrapped in leaves, several lumps of yam, hot and moist, and as heavy as iron, a pudding made of mashed pumpkin and breadfruit, another made of bananas, sugarcane, and cocoanut, some arrowroot boiled to jelly, and inevitable taro to and cocoanut cream - about which I must confess I was rather greedy. The rest of the dinner I used to accept politely, as it was set out on the floor, eat a morsel or two here and there, and afterwards hand over the remainder to Kuru and his wife, who were always ready to dispose of it. At the beginning, I used to offer gifts in return, which were always refused. Then, acting on the advice of old residents, I reserved the gift for a day or two, and presented it at the first suitable opportunity. It was always readily accepted, when offered after this fashion, and thus I leaned one more lesson as to island etiquette.
"You'll see a lot of stuff in travel books," said an old resident to me, "about the wonderful generosity of the island people, all over the Pacific - how they press gifts of every kind on travellers, and won't take any return. Well, that's true, and it's not true. All the island people love strangers, and are new-fangled with every fresh face, and they do come along with presents but as to not wanting a return, why, that isn't quite the case. They won't take payment, mostly, and there's very few places where they'll even take a present, right off. But they always expect something back, some time. I know that isn't what the books say, but books are mostly wrong about anything you've got to go below the top of things to see - and the traveller likes that p9retty idea of getting presents for nothing, too much to give it up easily. Still, you may take my word for it that the natives will take a return for anything and everything they give you, here and everywhere else, unless it's a drink of cocoanut, or a bit of fruit they offer you on the road, or maybe a bit of dinner, if you'd drop in on them at meals. Set presents you've got to pay for, and more than their value too, if you take them. I don't myself, I find native presents too expensive.
"What do you want to give? Oh, well, if a woman brings you in a dinner or two, give her a trade silk handkerchief, one of those shilling ones, some day. Or if they bring you baskets of fruit, give them a couple of sticks of tobacco. They'll take payment for fruit here, in that way, at any time. You'll need to give some things when you're going away, to the people you've seen most of - a few yards of cotton, or something of that kind. White people are expected to give presents, all over the island - it needn't be dear things, but it ought to be something. If the lords and folk who have been round the Pacific in their yachts only heard what the natives say of them, because they didn't know that, they'd take care to bring a case or two of cheap stuff for presents next time. 'Not chief-like,' is what the natives say - and I ask you yourself, it isn't 'chief-lie,' is it, to take all you can get, and give not a stick of niggerhead or an inch of ribbon in return? I'd think they'd be too proud - but then, I'm not a tourist trotting round the globe. I'm only a man who works for his living.
"As for yourself, you take my advice, and say right out you don't want the dinners, when they bring them. Yes, it'll offend them, but you must either do that or pay for stuff you don't want three days out of seven, or six days, more likely, if they think you're liberal-minded. You'll get no end of presents when you're going away, pretty things enough, and those will have to be paid for in presents too. Better make it as cheap as you can, meantime.
"But those people who go travelling, like princes, and load their cabins up with spears and clubs and tappa-cloths and shells the natives have given them everywhere they went - and not a farthing, or a farthing's worth, do they let it cost them from end to end - I tell you, they're a disgrace to England," concluded my informant hotly.
"I am quite sure it is simply because they do not know - how should they?" I asked, trying to defend the absent globe-trotters.
"Decent feeling ought to teach them!" declared the critic of manners, who was evidently not to be pacified. I had my dinner to cook, so I went away, and left him still revolving the iniquities of travelling milords in his memory. But I did not forget the conversation, for it seemed to me that the facts about this mater of presents-giving and taking ought to be known as widely as possible. In nearly two years of island travel that followed after those days, I had full opportunity of proving the truth of the statements made by my Niue acquaintance, and every experience only served to confirm them. Travellers who visit the islands should note this fact, and lay in a stock of suitable goods at Sydney, which is the starting point for most Pacific travel. There are various firms who make a specialty of island trade, and these will usually sell any reasonable quantity at wholesale prices. The natives of the Pacific, in general, are not to be put off with worthless tribes as presents, nor do they care for beads, unless in the few groups still remaining uncivilised. They like best the sort of goods with which they are already familiar, and do not care for "imported" novelties. Silk handkerchiefs are liked everywhere, and they are easy to carry. Cotton or silk stuff is much valued. Imitation jewellery - brooches, pins, etc. - is valued quite as much as real, except in Niue, where the natives seem to have a natural craving and liking for precious metals. Tinned foods of all kinds, and swords, are perhaps better appreciated than anything else. Tinned salmon in especial, is the safest kind of "tip" than can be given to any native, from a lordly Samoan chief, down to a wild "bushie" from the Solomons.
Withal, one must not take away the character of the island world for hospitality, because of its childlike fancy for presents. Many and many a destitute white man ran for presents. Many and many a destitute white man can tell of the true generosity and ungrudging kindness he has met with at the hands of the gentle brown men and women, when luck was hard and the whites would have none of him. They are not fair-weather friends, in the European sense of the word. True, when the weather is sunny with you, they will come round and bask in the warmth, and share your good luck. But when the rainy days come, they will share all they have with you, just as freely, and they will not look for presents then.
The industries of the island filled up many a pleasant morning. Niue is supposed to be the most hard-working of all the Pacific islands, and certainly its people do not seem to eat the bread of idleness. Here, there is no lounging and dreaming and lotus-eating on the sounding coral shore - perhaps there isn't much shore anyway; perhaps because the Savage Islander is not made that way. The food of the people consists largely of yams, and in a country which has hardly any depth of soil, these are hard to grow, and need care. The bananas are grown in the most wonderful way in the clefts of the coral rocks, so that they actually appear to be springing out of ht eh stone. Copra is made in fair quantity, and many of the people spend the greater part of their time collecting a certain kind of fungus which is exported to Sydney, and used (or so report declares) for making an imitation of birds' nest soup in China.
The proportion of women on the island is very large, because there are always at least a thousand men, out of a total population of five thousand souls, away working elsewhere. The Niuean is a bit of a miser, and will do anything for money. He engages, therefore, as a labourer in the plantations of Samoa, where the natives will not do any work they can avoid, or goes up to Malden Island to the guano pits, or takes a year or two at sea on island schooner, or goes away as fireman on the missionary steamer - anything to make money. Meantime his women-kind stay at home and keep themselves. They work about the white people's houses, they act as stevedores to the ships, they fetch and carry all over the island. When I wanted two heavy trunks conveyed a distance of six miles one day, four sturdy Niue girls came to do the work' slung the trunks on two poles, trotted away with them, and reached the end of the journey before my lazy horse had managed to carry me to my destination. They do an immense amount of plaiting work - mats, fans, baskets, and above all, hats, of which the annual export runs into thousands of dozens. These hats are made of fine strips of dried and split pandanus leaf; they much resemble the coarser kind of Panama, and give excellent shade and wear. They are worn over the whole Pacific, and a great part of New Zealand, and, I strongly suspect, are exported to England under the name, and at the price of second-grade Panamas. A clever worker will finish one in a day. Much of the plaiting is done in caves in the hot season, as the material must be kept fairly cool and moist.
When the Niue folks are not working, they idle a little at times, but not very much. They sing in chorus occasionally, but it is not an absorbing occupation with them, and they do not dance a great deal either, since the advent of missionary role. Their chief amusement is an odd one - walking round the island. You can scarcely take a long ride without encountering a stray picnic party of natives, mostly women, striding along at a good round pace, and heavily laden with fruit, food, and mats. They always complete the journey - forty miles - in a day, picnicking on the roadside for meals, and seem to enjoy themselves thoroughly. The strenuous life, exemplified after this fashion, is certainly the last thing one would expect to find in the Pacific. But then, the great fascination of the island world lies in the fact that here, as nowhere else, "only the unexpected happens."
* * * * * *
It is a day of molten gold, with a sea coloured like a sheet of sapphire glass in a cathedral window. I am busy washing u my breakfast things at the door (there is no false shame about the performance of domestic duties in the capital city of Niue) when a couple of native girls appear on the grass pathway, their wavy hair loose and flowing, their white muslin dresses kilted up high over strong brown limbs. Each carries a clean "pareo" in her hand. They are going for a swim, one of them informs me in broken English: will I come too? Of course I will. I get out my own bathing dress, and follow the pair down the cliff, scrambling perilously from crag to crag, until we reach a point where it is possible to get down on to the narrow rocky ledge at the verge of the sea. Within the reef there there is a splendid stretch of protected water, peacock-blue in colour, immensely deep, and almost cold. There are no sharks about here, the girls tell me, and it is an excellent place to swim.
Oh, for a Royal Academician to paint the picture made by the younger girl, as she stands on the edge of the rocks ready to leap in, dressed in a bright blue scarf that is wound round and round her graceful bronze body from shoulder to knee, and parting her full wavy hair aside with slender dark fingers! Beauty of form aid not die out with the ancient Greeks: the Diana of the Louvre and the Medici Venus may be seen any day of any year, on the shores of the far-away islands, by those who know lovely line when they see it, and have not given over their senses, bound and blinded, to the traditions of the schools. If there is any man in the world to-day who can handle a hammer and chisel as Phidias did, let him come to the South Sea Islands and look there for the models that made the ancient Greek immortal. The sculptor who can mould a young island girl, Tahitian for the Venus type, Samoan for the Diana, or a young island chief like Mercury, in bronze will give the world something as exquisite and as immortal as any marvel from the hand of Phidias or Praxiteles.
My beautiful Niue girl was an exception, so far as her own island went. Niue women are strong and well made, but not lovely as a rule. Her companion was sturdy as a cart-horse, hut as plain as a pig. She smoked a huge pipe, chewed plug tobacco, and laughed like a hyena. They were truly a well-contrasted pair. The reef was a good way off, so we all struck out for that, when we came up panting and blowing from our dive. The girls gave me a fine exhibition of under-water swimming now and then, slipping easily underneath the gleaming surface, and disappearing from view below, for so long a time that one became quite nervous. My pretty little friend persuaded me to accompany her once, and though I did not like it among the ugly-looking coral caves, I dived for a short time, and endeavoured to follow her flying heels. Under water among the coral reefs! It sounds romantic but it was not pleasant. Five feet beneath the surface, the light was as clear as day, and one could see all about one, far too much, for the things that were visible were disquieting. I knew extremely well that coral reefs are the haunt of every kind of unpleasant sea-beast, and I fancied Victor Hugo's "ieuvre" at the very least, within the gloomy arch of every cave. There were far too many fish also, and they were much too impertinent, and a fish in one's hair, even if harmless, is not nice. I had not gone down much over a fathom, when I turned, and began to beat upwards again looking eagerly at the light. And then I saw thing that as nearly as possible made me open my mouth and drown myself.
It was merely a bunch of black waving trailers, coming out of the dark of the rocks, and spreading between me and the pale-green light of day. I did not know what it was, and I do not know, to this day. And, like the run-away soldier in the poem, "I don't know where I went to, for I didn't stop to see." I was on the top of the water, twenty yards away, and swimming at racing speed, when I realised the fact that I was still alive, some moments later. And on the surface I stayed, for the rest of the swim. The native girls w3ere exceedingly amused, for the islander fears nothing that in the water or under it; but I did not mind their laughing. One of them then, as she swam along, began laying her mouth to the surface of the water, and blowing bubbles, laughing all the time. She insisted that I should do it too, and I imitate her, at which she seemed delighted. "That what we doing, suppose some shark come," she explained, "shark he plenty frighten, no like that."
We practised this useful accomplishment for some time, and then went ashore again. I regret to say that I roused the amusement of my companions yet again, before landed, by making hasty exclamations, and dodging rapidly away from the embraces of a black-and-white banded snake, about four feet long, that suddenly appeared from nowhere in particular, moving very swiftly, and seemed disposed to argue the right of way. The lagoon at Rarotonga had not prepared me for the Zoological Garden in which one had to bathe at Niue.
"Snake he no harm," said my Venus Anadykomene, as she stood on the rock, with her bathing scarf in her hand, wringing it out in the calmest manner in the world. "Plenty-plenty snake stop there." There were indeed plenty of snakes. One could see them any fine day from the top of the cliffs, gliding through the water below, or dying on the rocks in family parties of a score or two, conspicuous at a great distance, because of their handsome black-and-white banded skins. As to there being no harm - well, I never heard of any one in Niue being injured. But a boy in Fiji trod on one of these checker-boarded creatures, about that time, and died in half an hour from its bit. I am strongly inclined to think that the Niue snake is poisonous, like almost all sea-snakes, though it does not seem at all ready to attack.
What was it I saw under water? I never knew, but I guessed as much as I wanted a day or two later, when I saw a native, fishing on the reef near my bathing-place, draw u a big devil-fish, with eight limp dangling arms over six feet long, and carry it away. A trader told me that he had once pulled up one himself, while out fishing in a light canoe, and that it seized hold of the little boat, and made such a fight that he barely escaped with his life. It is the pleasant habit of this fish, when attacked by a human being, to fling its hideous tentacles over his head and face, and force them up into eyes, nostrils, and mouths, so as to suffocate him, if he cannot master the creature.
"Do you think there were any sharks about the day I bathed?" I inquired.
"Well, if the girls were blowing, I should say there must have been. They wouldn't do it for fun altogether," he replied.
"Surely they wouldn't bathe, if they knew these were any about?"
"Oh, wouldn't they, though! They don't mind them. No native is afraid of anything in the sea."
I believed this with reservations, until a day came in another island, when I nearly furnished a dinner for a shark myself, and thenceforth gave up bathing in unprotected tropical waters, for good. It was in Rakahanga, many hundreds of miles nearer the Line, and I had left the schooner to enjoy a walk and a bathe. A native Rakahangan girl, who had never seen a white women before, and was wildly excited at the thought of going bathing 3ith this unknown wonder, found a boat for me, and allowed me to pick my own place in the inner lagoon of he island. I chose a spot where the lagoon narrowed into a bottle-neck communicating with the sea, and we started our swim. The girl, however, much to my surprise, would not go more than a few yards from the boat, and declined to follow me when I struck out for the open water. I had been assured by her, so far a my scanty knowledge of Maori allowed me to understand, that there were no sharks, so her conduct seemed incomprehensible until a stealthy black fin, shaped like a mainsail of a schooner, rose out of the water a few score yards away, and began making for me!
The native girl was first into the boat, but I was assuredly not long after her. The black fin did not follow, once I was out of the water. but the heat of that burning day far up towards the Line, was hardly enough to warm me, for half an hour afterwards. I found, on asking the question that I should have asked first of all, that the bottle-neck entrance of the lagoon was a perfect death-trap of sharks, and that more than one native had been eaten there.
"Why on earth did the girl tell me there were none, and why did she venture into such a place herself?" I asked.
"Well," said the only white man on the island. "I should think she knew that any shark will take a white person, and leave a native, if there's a choice. And if you had that red bathing-dress on that you're carrying, why, you were simply making bait of yourself!"
"But why should she want to see me killed?"
"Oh, she didn't. She only wanted to have the fun of a bathe with a white woman, and just took the chances!"
So much about bathing in the "sunny isles of Eden." One is sorry to be obliged to say that it is one of the disappointments of the Pacific. Warm, brilliant water, snowy coral sands, and glancing fish of rainbow hues, are charming accompaniments to a bath, no doubt, but they are too dearly paid for when snakes, sharks, sting-rays, and devil-fish have to be counted into the party
* * * * * *
Nothing in curious Niue is quite so curious as the native fancies about ghosts and devils. In spite of their Christianity, they still hold fast to all their ancient superstitions about the powers of evil. Every Save Islander believes, quite as a matter of course, that ghosts walk the roads and patrol the lonely bush, all night long. Some are harmless spirits, many are malignant devils. After dark has fallen, about six o'clock, no one dares to leave his house except for some very important errand; and if it is necessary to go out so late as nine or ten o'clock, a large party will go together - this even in the town itself. Every native has a dog or two, of a good barking watchdog breed, not to protect the property, for theft is unknown, but to drive away ghosts at night! Devil possession is believed in firmly. When a man takes sick, his neighbours try, in a friendly manner, to "drive the devil out of him." Perhaps they hang him up by his thumbs; possibly they put his feet in boiling water, causing fearful scalds; or they may drive sharks' teeth into him here and there. But the most popular method of plain and simple squeezing, to squeeze the devil out! This often results in broken ribs, and occasionally in death. It is a curious fact, in connection with this "squeezing," that the natives are remarkably expert "masseurs," and can "drive the devil" out of a sprain, or a headache, or an attack of neuralgia, by what seems to be a clever combination of the "petrissage" and "screw" movement of massage. This, they say, annoys the devil so much that he goes away. Applied to the trunk, however, and carried out with the utmost strength of two or three powerful men, Savage Islander massage is (as above stated) often fatal - and small wonder!
When a man has died, from natural or unnatural causes, a great feast is held of baked ig and fowl, yams, taro, man's relatives, as at a wedding, another presents are returned by them to the men who dig the grave. The corpse is placed in a shallow hole, wrapped in costly mats; and then begins the ghostly life of the once-loved husband or father, who now becomes a haunting terror to those of his own household. Over his grave they erect a massive tomb of concrete and lime, meant to discourage him, so far as possible, from coming out to revisit the upper world. They gather together roots of the splendid scarlet poinsettia, gorgeous hibiscus, and graceful wine-coloured foliage plants, and place them about his tomb, to make it attractive to him. They collect his most cherished possessions - his "papalangi" (white man's) bowler hat, which he used to wear on Sundays at the five long services in the native church; his best trousers; his orange-coloured singlet with pink bindings; his tin mug and plate - and lace them on the grave. Savage Island folk are very avaricious and greedy; yet not a soul will dare to touch these valuable goods; they lie on the grave, in sun and storm, until rotted or broken. If it is a woman's grave, you may even see her little hand sewing-machine (almost every island in the Pacific possesses scores of these) placed on the tomb, to amuse the ghost in its leisure hours. There will be a bottle of cocoanut hair-oil, too, scented with "tiere" (tiare) flowers, and perhaps a little looking-glass or comb - so that we can picture the spirit of the dark-eyed island girls, like mermaids, coming forth at night to sit in the moonlight and dress their glossy hair - if ghosts indeed have hair like mortal girls!
Mosquito-curtain, somewhat tattered by the wind, can be seen on many graves, carefully stretched over the tomb on the regulation uprights and cross-pi8eces, as over a bed. This is, no doubt, intended to help the ghost to lie quiet, lest the mosquitoes should annoy it so much that it be driven to get up and walk about. Certainly if a Save Island ghost does walk, it is not because every care is not taken to make it (as the Americans would say) "stay put." there are no graveyards on the island. Every man is buried on his own land, very often alongside the road, or close to his house. The thrifty islanders plant onions and pumpkins on the earth close about the tomb, and enjoy the excellent flavour imparted to these vegetables by the essence of dead ancestor which they suck up through the soil. In odd contradiction to this economical plan, a "tapu" is placed upon all the cocoanut trees owned by the deceased; and for a year or more valuable nuts are allowed to be where they fall, sprouting into young plants, and losing many tons of copra annually to the island. Groups of palms unhealthily crowded together, bear witness everywhere to the antiquity of this strange practice. The main and indeed the only good road, across the island, owns a spot of fearsome reputation. On a solitary tableland, swept by salt sea-winds, stand certain groups of clustered cocoa-palms, sprung from tapu's nuts on dead men's lands. Here the natives say, the ghosts and devils have great power, and it is dangerous to walk there at night alone, even for white men, who take little account of native spirits. Many of the white traders of the island are shy of the spot; and some say that when riding in parties across the island at night, their horses shy and bolt passing the place, and exhibit unaccountable fear. Only year or two ago, a terrible thing happened in this desolate spot, as it to prove the truth of local traditions. There was one native of the island, a "witch-doctor," learned in charms and spells, who professed not be afraid of the devils. He could manage them he said; and to prove it, he used sometimes to walk alone across the island at night. One morning, he did not return from an excursion of this nature. The villagers set out in a body to look for him in the broad light of the tropical sun. They found him, at the haunted spot, lying on the ground dead. His face was black and his body horribly contorted. The devils had fought him, and conquered him - so the natives said. And now no gold would induce a Savage Islander to pass the fatal spot after dark.
I asked the white missionary doctor resident at the time of my visit on the island, if he could account for the death. He said that he had not held a post-mortem and therefore could not say what the cause might be; but the appearance of the corpse was undoubtedly as described by the natives. Being anxious to investigate the truth of these stories, I determined to spend a night on the spot, and see what happened. The natives were horrified beyond measure at the idea; and when an accident on a coral reef laid me up from walking exercise until just before the schooner called again at the island to take me away - thus preventing me from carrying out the plan - they were one and all convinced that the fall was the work of devils, anxious to prevent me from meddling with their doings! The problem, then, remained unsolved, and rests open to any other traveller to investigate. But as Savage Island lies far off the track of the wandering tourist, its ghosts are likely to remain undisturbed in their happy hunting-grounds for the present.
Mrs. Joe Gargery would certainly have liked Niue for it is a place where there is none of the "pampeying" so obnoxious to her Spartan soul. And yet, if you stay there long, you will find out that Savage Island practises certain of the early Christian virtues, if it has dropped a few of its luxuries manufactured by civilisation. If you want a horse to ride across the island - a gentle, native creature that goes off at both ends, like a fire-cracker, when you try to mount, biting and kicking simultaneously, and, when mounted, converts your ride into a sandwich of jibbing and bolting, you will call in at the nearest trader's, and tell him you want his horse and his neighbour's saddle and whip. All these will appear at your door, with a couple of kindly messages, in half an hour. You will time your arrival at the different villages so as to hit off some one's meal-hours, walk in, ask for a help of the inevitable curried tin, and carry off a loaf of bread or a lump of cake, if your host happens to have baked that morning and you have not. When a ship comes in - perhaps the bi-yearly steamer from Samoa, with real mutton and beef in her ice-chest - and the capital gorges for two days, you, the stranger within their gates, will meet hot chops walking up to your verandah between two hot plates, and find confectioners' paper bags full of priceless New Zealand potatoes, sitting on your doorstep. You will learn to shed tears of genuine emotion at the sight of a rasher of bacon, and to accept with modest reluctance the almost too valuable gift of one real onion. Hospitality among the white folk of Savage Island is hospitality, and no mistake, and its real generosity can only be appreciated by those who know the supreme importance assumed by "daily bread," when the latter is dependent upon the rare and irregular calls of passing ships.
For, like a good many Pacific Islands, this coral land is more beautiful than fertile. Its wild fantastic rocks, which make up the whole surface of the island, produce in their clefts and hollows enough yam, taro, banana, and pawpaw to feed the natives; but the white man wants more. Tins are his only resource - tins and biscuits, for flour does not keep long, and bread is often unattainable. Fowls or eggs can seldom be bought, for the reason that some one imported a number of cats many years ago; these were allowed to run wild in the bush, and have now become wild in earnest, devouring fowls, and even attacking dogs and young pigs at times. Why, then, if the island is valueless to Europeans, and the life hard, do white men live in Savage Island and many similar places? For the reason that fortunes have been piled up, in past years, by trading in such isolated spots, and that there is still money to be made, though not so much as of old. Trading in the Pacific is double-barrelled sort of business. You settle down on an island where there is a good supply of copra (dried cocoa-nut kernel, manufactured by the natives). You buy the copra from the islanders at about eight pounds a ton, store it away in your copra-house until the schooner or the steamer calls, and then ship it off to Sydney, where it sells at thirteen to fourteen pounds a ton. Freight and labour in storing and getting on board, eat into the profits. But, in addition to buying, the trader sells. He has a store, where cheap prints, violent perfumes, gaudy jewellery, tapes and buttons and pins and needles, tins of beef, shoes, etc., are sold to the natives at a price which leaves a very good profit on their cost down in Auckland.
The laws of all the Pacific Colonies forbid the white trader to buy from the natives, except with cash; but, as the cash comes back to him before long over the counter of the store, it comes to much the same in the end as the old barter system of the early days, out of which money used to be quickly and easily made. Sometimes the trader, if in a small way of business, sells his copra to captains of calling ships at a smaller price than the Auckland value. But nowadays so many stores are owned by big Auckland and Sydney firms that most of the stuff is shipped off for sale in New Zealand or Australia. "Panama" hats, already mentioned, are a very important article of commerce here. Every island has some specialty of its own besides the inevitable copra; and the trader deals in all he can get. The trader's life is, as a rule, a pleasant one enough. Savage Island is one of the worst places where he could find himself; and yet the days pass happily enough in that solitary outlier of civilisation. There is not much worked to do, the climate is never inconveniently hot; the scenery, especially among the up-country primeval forests, is very lovely. There is a good deal of riding and bathing, a little shooting, and a myriad of wild and fantastic caves to explore when the spirit moves one. The native canoes are cosy to manage and excellent to fish from.
It is traditional in Savage Island for the few white people - almost all rival traders - to hang together, and live in as friendly a manner as a greet family party. If the great world is shut out, its cares are shut away, and life sits lightly on all. No one can be extravagant; no one can "keep up appearances" at the cost of comfort; no one is over-anxious, or worried, or excited over anything - except when the rare, the long-expected ship comes in, and the natives rend the air with yells of joy, and the girls cocoanut-oil their hair, and the white men rush for clean duck suits and fresh hats, and the mails come in, and the news is distributed, and cargoes go out, and every one feasts from dawn till dusk, and all the island is in a state of frantic ebullition for at least three days. Then, indeed, Niue is alive.
We were all getting hungry when the Duchess came in again, after nearly two months' absence, for provisions were short, and most of us had come down to eating little green parrots out of the bush, and enjoying them, for want of anything better. It was certainly tantalising to see the ship off the island beating about for three days and more, before she was able to approach, but that is an usual incident in Niue. She came up at last, and I got my traps on board, and paid my bills, and carried away the model canoes and shell necklaces, and plaited hats and baskets, that were brought me as parting presents, and gave a number of yards of cotton cloth, and a good many silk handkerchiefs in return. And so the big sails were hoisted once more with a merry rattling and flapping, and away we went, northward a thousand miles, to desolate, burning Penrhyn and Malden Island.
An extract from IN THE STRANGE SOUTH SEAS by BEATRICE GRIMSHAW, published in London by Hutchinson & Co., 1908.
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