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Return to the Islands

2 — —

page 26

Spear fishing

Rainy Day

My adoption, away back in 1918, into the Tarawa sept of the royal and priestly clan of Karongoa1 had given me the right to practice the magic of rain-making and rain-dismissing (incidentally also of eclipse-undoing) whenever the fancy took me. Furthermore, my clan fathers had most earnestly coached me in the mysteries of all these useful arts and I, for my part, had just as sedulously tried to get the knack of them, from the moment I became a sun king. But, despite our united goodwill and industry, my exercises in spellbinding had never managed to pull down even one small shower or avert a single unwanted raindrop up to the time in 1922 when Reggie McClure, our new chief arrived at Ocean Island with Dorothy, his beautiful wife. I was therefore not at all surprised when, out of season and against all hope, the day of their arrival turned out wet.

page 27

Methven did explain, as we led them up the streaming hillside past headquarters office then up again past the central prison yard, the parade ground, the police barracks, that this was the first rain we had had for over six weeks. But the thought of that did not visibly cheer them as we bored, heads down, into the teeth of the downpour, and I had to fall back on my own thoughts for solace.

It was at least sure, I reminded myself, that they would find the residency waterproof. Methven having been, as usual, grossly overloaded with station chores, I had insisted—with a solicitude which had left him strangely ungrateful—on taking personal charge of all the repairs the rickety old building needed. He fancied my ability at that sort of job a lot less than I did myself. But it was a great comfort to me now to have seen every rust-riddled corrugated-iron sheet of the root replaced before my own eyes by a new one.

A sunburst between heavy clouds cheered us as we topped the rise. The house, two hundred yards away, looked suddenly enchanted as we approached it along the sodden cricket field's eastern boundary. Set cool in the dappled shadow of palm trees and vivid against the deep dark green of the calophyllum forest, its new scarlet roof and ivory-white paintwork shout eda swift gay welcome to us in the golden-wet light.

"Why, what a beautiful bungalow!" exclaimed blue-eyed Mrs. McClure: "I didn't expect anything like this."

"You must have taken a lot of trouble to get it ready for us," added her husband, no less kind than she.

What sheer banalities to be recording after nearly thirtyfive years, you may well think! But for Methven and me they were very far from being banal. No such spontaneous graciousness had ever leapt for us, from the saturnine lips of Reggie's predecessor, E. C. Eliot, and this free and easy approach of a chief and his lady to two subordinates was something totally new in our official experience.

We threw each other a covert, half-frightened grin, as if to say, "Marvellous! But careful, now, careful! This may be page 28nothing but eyewash." Nevertheless, I think we were both already sure enough in our hearts that these two were going to be something much nearer to all of us on Ocean Island than the usual senior stuffed shirt and proconsular camisole of our imperial epoch.

House framed by palm trees

The rain came sluicing down again worse than ever as we reached the broad front steps. But the genial spell of that sunny half-minute stayed with us. The weather didn't seem to matter to anyone any longer as Reggie and his Mrs.—or Dolly, as all of us from the outset affectionately called her among ourselves—were taken round their new home.

I noticed with smugness that there wasn't a single leak anywhere in the main building, not even in that tricky corner of page 29the back verandah where the roof over the passageway to the guest-room annexe took off. My new roof had, in fact, most nobly passed the test of its first rainy day. I spoke brightly, on the strength of it, of how Mr. Eliot's orderly had been wont to rush around in wet weather scattering buckets and basins to catch the drips that trickled from the ceilings.

"Well," said Reggie with an amiable laugh, "we're certainly glad you managed to arrange things better for us than that!"

We passed into the guest-room as he was speaking. It was a fine big room with a private verandah and a bathroom of its own. Its appointments were, naturally, not as sumptuous as those which the plutocrat Phosphate Commissioners regarded as proper for occasional visitors (meaning, most probably, themselves) down at Uma, in the palace of their Ocean Island manager. But, for all that, we of the bureaucracy, with our less regal notions of the home comforts due to authority, couldn't help feeling that that extra bathroom at the residency did constitute one of the real highlights of our local civilization. I stepped into it for one last, proud look alone at its shining bronze shower fixture while the others were admiring the verandah.

The shower rose shone as bright as ever. It wasn't this, though, that held me there transfixed, but something on the wall beyond it. A trickle of water. Not a very big trickle— not heavy enough, for example, to run a straight course down the wall. And that, for me, was the meanest thing about it: a small, straight trickle in a corner might possibly have had a chance of passing unnoticed; but nobody could possibly miss this infernal, drunken, dancing dribble that zigzagged so madly across the paintwork from where the wall joined the ceiling up left of the bath's head to the concrete floor down right of its foot. And nobody seeing it could possibly fail to deduce that, somewhere over the bathroom, my egregious new roof must have a leak in it.

I like to believe that at least some of my depression in that page 30moment was due to honest shame for a job incompetently done. But I am bound to confess that the dominant thought in my mind as I stood gaping at the trickle was of the ignominy of being shown up, within an hour of our new chief's arrival, for the ass I had made of myself fiddling with work outside my province. The McClures must not enter the bathroom—they just mustn't be allowed to, I told myself firmly, as I stepped back into the bedroom shutting the door behind me.

They were still on the verandah, but Methven was in the room, looking my way. That made an excellent chance of signalling to him. I did so. Nothing could have been clearer than the way I shook my head at the bathroom, jerked my thumb at the exit doorway and mouthed at him dumbly, "Lead them out—out—out!"

But he chose to regard my desperate facial contortions as a series of ill-timed grimaces pulled at him for no reason but the idiot gaiety of my heart. Sparing nought but a single austere glance in my direction, he strode without pause to the bathroom door and flung it open. A moment later, the McClures came in from the verandah and followed him. While he stayed at the doorway, they went in.

I stood waiting for the ironic laugh that would wither me. "You silly little boy!" I heard my headmaster sneering: I wasn't on Ocean Island any longer but back at school, in the Upper Sixth classroom. For some reason or other, that day I was remembering the Lower Sixth had been there too, seated in the front row of desks while the Upper Sixth construed Juvenal from the back row; and I had just perpetrated a false quantity. It was a very silly one, I knew; true enough also, I was still undergrown at 17½; but the headmaster himself had seen fit to make a prefect of me, and the savage injustice of that 'silly little boy' of his before an audience like that had left me ever since stupidly quick to resent even the bestdeserved sarcasms of my seniors.

But no sound of laughter, no sarcasm, came from the bathroom. It wasn't conceivable that either of them could have page 31failed to see that miserable trickle. But they kept it to themselves. They knew I had seen it and chose to believe—bless them!—that I would have it put right as soon as I could. "Everything is very nice indeed," said Mrs. McClure brightly, coming back into the bedroom, and her husband, following her, added his own kind word or two of thanks. I was their grateful slave from that day on.

Methven's all-seeing eye had of course spotted the leak at once. I waited with resignation for his fatherly comments. But he withheld his fire until the next morning, after breakfast. I was about to leave for the residency when a sergeant of police, smartly saluting, appeared on the verandah and handed me a long, clumsy object of galvanized iron together with a letter. The document ran as follows:

My dear young Sir,

I have the honour to send you herewith, by the hand of Sergeant Nape, one six-foot length of galvanized iron ridge-capping.

This kind of capping, as you may possibly recollect, is used to cover the gap between the two slopes of a roof where they come together at the ridge. Serious leaks are likely to occur in wet weather wherever even only a single length has been omitted —as, for example, over the spare bathroom at the residency.

If you will be good enough to signify your assent to Sergeant Nape, I will cause the omission to be rectified while you are giving our new Chief his first instructions on how to run the Colony to your liking.

I have the honour to be,

My dear young Sir,

Your observant old friend,

(signed) S. C. Methven.

PS. Please leave the ridge-capping with Sergeant Nape in any case.

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What he didn't ask was that I should let our new chief know that the leak had been my silly fault, not his.

Fellow Exiles

In addition to a working contingent of seven or eight hundred labourers from the Gilbert group, the British Phosphate Commissioners used to employ about fifty Chinese artisans and eight hundred coolies in their mining operations on Ocean Island. The artisans were a quiet, hardworking class who thought as proudly of their social status as of their various crafts, and held themselves aloof from the coolies except to give them advice or moral support on occasion. The coolies were a varied, colourful, turbulent crowd signed on in Hong Kong, and for that reason treated locally as British subjects, but in fact largely drawn from the slums of Canton.

The great majority of the coolies, like the mechanics, were tremendous workers. Though they were on the average small and pathetically frail-looking, they had the mighty hearts of their race, and their output of mined phosphate per man-day was astonishingly higher than that of the husky Gilbertese. But their number was not without its natural quota of cheerful leadswingers, and the weekly magistrate's court—over which the resident commissioner presided—usually dealt with well over a thousand cases of absenteeism a year.

The contract of indenture explained in Hong Kong to every recruit before signature contained a penal clause which rendered him subject to fine or, at his own option, imprisonment for being absent from his work without leave. The law allowed the court reasonable latitude for the variation of penalties according to cases; but, if my memory serves me right, the formula that Reggie McClure generally used for first offenders was a fine of a twentieth of a month's basic pay or, alternatively, two days' imprisonment for every day of absence. page 33The same conditions applied to the Gilbertese labourers, but there was very little absenteeism among these.

A good deal of fuss was to be raised some years later about the retention of penal clauses in contracts of employment. But I never could see the force of the objection in relation to the facts at Ocean Island. In signing on to work for a wage there, the recruit, whether Gilbertese or Chinese, committed his employer to the expenses of housing, feeding and doctoring him free of charge as long as he was away from home, also of repatriating him on termination of the agreement. He knew in advance that none of these forms of payment could be withheld from him for any reason whatever, once he was on Ocean Island. His wilful refusal to work after arrival thus amounted to a fraud, against which the contract very rightly tried to protect the wretched employer with a penal clause.

In those days, the majority of habitual absentees among the Chinese welcomed a few days in prison as an alternative to allowing a fine, however small, to be deducted from their month's pay-packet. The exercise of this option gave them a happy sense of scoring all round: nobody got their money, the government had to keep them boarded and lodged, the employer lost their work for the term of the sentence.

But there was one pair of gifted professionals who had things more constructively organized. The speciality of these two was never to check in for work on Saturdays. Week after week they came up on the same charge to the small thatched courthouse under the palms, bowed pleasantly to Reggie on the bench, pleaded guilty, bowed again when sentenced, and, producing a handsome black cash-box, obviously their common property, paid on the nail for their sins. They were good enough to explain to the interpreter one day, in Reggie's private office, why a little thing like a fine meant nothing to them. They had discovered that there was money in cooked food. Their Saturdays were spent, not in unproductive idleness but in preparing delicious cakes and baked meats for sale, over the weekend, to their fellow workers. According to the interpreter, page 34who was all on their side, the loss of their day's industry to the employer was repaid a thousand times over by the happiness and strength that coolies and mechanics alike derived from their superb cooking. It looked to Reggie and me as if he might have been right when, the next Saturday night, we walked through the brightly lit hurly-burly of the Chinese location and saw the milling, eager, laughing crowd that surged around their stall, hard by the recreation hall where the mah jong and fantan schools held session. And, as Reggie said, it became a pleasure to extract the maximum fines from them after that, seeing how stuffed with £ I notes that cash-box had looked, open between them on the counter. I couldn't help feeling, though, that the B.P.C. manager had some right on his side when he got us to cancel their contracts and shipped them, still cheerfully smiling, back to Hong Kong.

Droughts and Caverns

Damaged palm trees

When the rains were regular on Baanaba, no habitation of man could have been more beautifully bowered than ours in the dark green of forests, the starry white of lilies, the flung foam of scarlet and crimson petals. But every seven or eight years there came a drought, and things were different then. There were no more flowers anywhere after two rainless months. After six, the pawpaws and guavas, the custard apples and soursops were dead, the mangoes and wild almonds page 35dying. After twelve, half of the island's coconut palms stood headless, while those that lived on, their leaves burned rusty black, had been fruitless for many weeks. Then, even the mighty, deep-rooted forest of calophyllum trees that covered the island's middle was stripped of its leaves. Our two thousand acres of phosphate and coral rock, left naked to the sunglare, lay flinging back the savage heat in a white-hot column to heaven.

That soaring shaft of refraction stood like a pitiless sentinel on guard over the land. It was the barrier against which the rainclouds beat and were divided. When the westerly monsoon was due to begin, you could stand on the south-west point of the land and watch the black battalions riding up the sky towards you, trailing an unbroken curtain of rain across the sea's face below them. "At last!" you would say to yourself, "It's coming. It must be coming this time," and, as if to mock your hope, it would come so near you could hear the swish and whisper of it on the water. If you looked up then you could see the cloud's edge sweep almost to the zenith. Almost, yet not near enough: in the last moment, you saw it waver, halt in the middle, torn apart there by the uprushing column of furnace-hot air. You watched its sundered halves pass by, spilling their torrents into the sea a few hundred yards from the coast on either hand, while, between them, under a sullen grey but rainless sky, the stricken land thirsted on.

The Gilbert Islands to eastwards had their droughts as well— still have them, doubtless—but they are atolls, not upthrust rocks like Baanaba, and in an atoll one can always have water drinkable enough, for all its brackish taste, from any seepage well. That same water also, held twelve feet under the sand in pans of the coral table on which every atoll stands, is nearly always fresh enough to keep most of the coconut trees bearing some few nuts, even through the worst of droughts.

The Baanabans of old had no such help from sea and soil for their food trees; nevertheless, they did command certain underground reserves of drinking water, for the coral core of page 36their island was as riddled with hidden grottoes and galleries as a Stilton cheese with the burrowings of animalculae.

Aeons ago, the coral had grown plateau-wise on a submarine mountain-top very near the surface of the sea. When it broke surface, countless seabirds, for countless centuries, made it their home and its three square miles were piled high with a bed of guano sixty feet deep in the middle. Then the mountain sank into the depths until, millions of years later, another convulsion of the sea's bed flung its top towering again, this time three hundred feet clear above the waves. In the throes of that upheaval, the coral plateau under its load of guano (now seachanged into phosphate of lime) was twisted, flawed, splintered, rent asunder a thousand ways. So were born the wonderful bangabanga, or caverns, of Baanaba.

The bangabanga stretched mile-long, an uncounted series of chambers and corridors, chimneys and passages, through the eastern half of the island, here rising to the light of day, there twisting amid festooned tree-roots through the middle depths, and again plunging deep through the bowels of the rock to the edge of echoing abysses. Wherever the rain, soaking through topsoil and phosphate into this dark labyrinth, could find a pan or a pocket to lie in, there it accumulated trickle by trickle through seasons of plenty, untouched until the hour of need. The entrances to the scores of branching passages where no pools could collect had been blocked in the course of generations with heavy boulders, so that no one living had ever explored the endless ramifications of the system beyond the three or four quarter-mile chains of grottoes where the women went water-gathering.

Grim stories were told of girls who had ventured off the beaten track into the black unknown, never to be seen again. Some said that these were only inventions, meant to warn the young against too much curiosity. I always thought myself that the known passageways were daunting enough in themselves to forbid wandering, the roofs of their principal chambers, sooted with the torches of sixty dead generations, less page 37than head-high, the tunnels between them no more than burrows through which the only way for a woman of ordinary size to squirm was on her back, clawing at the rock above her face. Yet, such is the sanifying force of usage backed by the pressure of a genuine need that women who, for fear of a thousand clutching ghosts, would never have ventured, even in twos or threes, through the quiet glimmer of a starlit night, would plunge alone as a matter of course into the murk of those sinister abysses without even a match to guide their groping hands and feet.

But no such solo performances were allowed when a drought had lasted for more than four quarters of the moon. Then, in olden times, it was death for anyone to be found loitering alone anywhere near a bangabanga: the women did their water-getting all together, at dictated times, each with her strict allowance of coconut shells to fill and carrying a lighted torch, so that her companions could observe her every movement. Precautions of this kind, rigidly enforced before the days of British rule by councils of old men representing all the four Baanaban villages, might suffice to eke out the cave supply for as long as two years. But that was the limit. If the drought lasted longer, the only possible source of supply left was in the rainfall at sea.

Men would go out every day in their canoes hunting for showers, with catchments of sun-shrivelled coconut fronds set up so that their butt ends rested in wooden bowls, into which they were intended to conduct the rain. Their wives and children would go with them to revel in the divine wetness and drink it in through every pore. In that way, they could do without the precious collected drops and store these up in coconut shells for the aged or infirm who stayed ashore.

Every coconut palm over ten years old on Ocean Island carried the record of at least one drought upon it. A dry spell of no more than four or five months would start a constriction of the trunk at the neck where the first fronds sprouted. After that, you could see the tree being slowly strangled as it page 38 Boy climbing palm treepage 39stood. But up to the very last moment before the head was utterly withered away, its life could be saved by rain. If that happened, no matter how far it was gone on the way to death, it would be bearing nuts once more within the next nine months, its wind-tossed head as richly green as ever, its stem grown full and sappy again up where the new fronds sprang. Only, just below the new growth, that constriction of the trunk would remain to show where the drought had clutched it.

You could count six such corsettings in the stems of the oldest trees. That carried you back forty years or so—about two-thirds of a coconut's natural span. The record could go no further than that into the past, because the seventh drought back from 1924, which happened in the middle eighteen-seventies, wiped out every palm in the island. Indeed, it destroyed every plant of any kind except the salt bush and ironwood scrub by the sea and the deep forest of calophyllum trees on the crest of the island. The forest survived because it had its roots far down in hidden caves and galleries where the Baanabans, had they but known the way, would have found water in plenty for their need. But that source of supply was discovered only half a century later when there was no longer any use for it. By then, the mining operations which revealed the caves were paying the islanders royalties enough to build fine village reservoirs and, in addition, accumulate a fund that, in the years to come, would enable them to buy a greener, kinder home of their own choosing, far from the droughts of the doldrums.

The Curse of Nakaa

An uneasy silence would fall upon the older villagers whenever one mentioned the great drought of the eighteen-seventies. I often got the impression that some shared dread constrained them never to talk of it. It was not until 1930, page 40when I had known them for sixteen years, that anyone told me of the horrors it had meant for them. It was old Eri, the native magistrate of Baanaba, who spoke of it then. Not that he had visited me expressly to do so, but his story sprang naturally from a pathetic request he had been deputed to make on behalf of the older villagers.

The British Phosphate Commissioners had recently asked for a hundred-acre extension of their diggings, and a party of young men was heckling the council of elders about the price to be demanded for the concession. Eri came to me deeply disturbed. "Nobody will want to pay the young men's price for our dust," he put it, "and that will be the end of our hope of buying a better home than this for our grandchildren to inherit. So, in the end, the curse of Nakaa will rest upon their heads also."

"The curse of Nakaa?" I echoed blankly—"What are you talking about, Eri?"

"About the great drought," he said, and that launched him on his story.

"I was a young man then, and my parents, who lived in Uma village, had arranged for me to take a wife from Buakonikai. She was a girl named Marawa, very beautiful in my eyes, and we were to be married at the full of the fourth moon at the season of the Pleiades. But when the third moon went out, and for three months no rain had fallen, her father said to mine, 'You will need your son to fish for you and we shall need Marawa to fetch water for us now that a drought has set in.' And my father answered, 'Even so. Let there be no marriage until the rains return.'

"Our hearts were sore at that and my mother tried to comfort us, saying, 'Patience. The drought will soon end.' But it did not end; and even when the sun showed a full year gone we knew that it would not break yet, for the rainclouds at sea, from which we had contrived to collect water up to then, ceased to come near us. Then our council of elders issued an edict:

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'From now on, let no household take more than one coconut shell of water a day from the bangabanga.'

"So the water was made to last for another whole year. But long before the next solstice in the south our food trees were gone; not one stood living in the land. We had nothing but fish to eat, and the fish often stayed so far from our shores, that for many days together there was none to be caught anywhere. We were already half starved when the drought sickness came, that white men call beriberi.

"People's gums rotted in their mouths; their teeth fell out; their bodies were covered in ulcers. They fell in the pathways and died there; and where they died their bodies remained, for who was strong enough to carry corpses home for burial rites? So the curse of Nakaa rested on the land."

It was strange to hear a man like Eri, stern old pillar of the Protestant Mission that he was, talk of the curse of a pagan god as if he believed in it. Nakaa, so the ancient myth had it, was the all-seeing guardian of the gate between the worlds of the living and the dead, who, in the beginning of time, had decreed eternal torture by impalement in his pit for those who neglected the funeral rites of their own kin.

"But Eri," I protested, "a Christian like you can't fear Nakaa or his curses any longer."

"Nakaa is a spirit of darkness," he answered earnestly. "Shall any man do away with him by becoming a Christian? And how shall we forget our unburied dead? These walk like ghosts in our hearts for ever." And then, after a long silence: "In the middle of the third year, when the waterholes were nearly dry, word came from Buakonikai that Marawa's parents had died. Things were a little better for us in Uma than in Buakonikai; Uma is by the sea; we had found seaweed to suck, and some said that this protected us against the sickness. But we were very weak. I was the only one of our house who could walk a hundred paces. So my mother said to me, 'Go now to Buakonikai. Speak to the brother of page 42Marawa's father and, if he will let her go, bring her to us here. So, from this drought you shall have a wife and I a daughter.'

"At her words, the strength came back to my legs. I made nothing of the long walk to Buakonikai. I came to the house of Marawa's father's brother. My heart said to me, 'Now you will see her.' But alas! when I lifted the screen to enter, she was not there. Only her father's brother was within, and he was dead. And the stink of corruption was everywhere around me as I walked through the village to her father's house.

"I found her with her parents. She had laid their bodies side by side and herself at their feet. The sickness was heavy upon her. Her lips were black and her body eaten with ulcers. But she was still beautiful for me. I think she had been asleep before I entered; but when I lifted the screen she awoke and smiled at me, saying, 'I knew I should see you again,' and tried to sit up, but fell back looking into my eyes as I sat down beside her. Lying there, she smiled again and sighed very slow and deep. The smile stayed on her lips. She was dead.

"I laid her beside her mother, her feet towards the west. I lifted her head from behind between my hands and looked down into her eyes. So, bending over her, I whispered the spell called The Lifting of the Head, to make her way straight into the land of our ancestors."

He paused a long while, remembering. I did not presume to ask him then what magic words he had whispered over his dead love; but, months later, he gave them to me of his own accord, and this is how they ran:

  • I lift your head, I straighten your way, for you are going home, Marawa, Marawa,
  • Home to Innang and Mwaiku, Roro and Bouru,
  • You will pass over the sea of Manra in your canoe with pandanus fruit for food;
  • You will find harbour under the lee of Matang and Atiia and Abaiti in the West,page 43
  • Even the homes of your ancestors.
  • Return not to your body; leave it never to return, for you are going home, Marawa, Marawa.
  • And so, Farewell for a moon or two, a season or two.
  • Farewell! your way is straight; you shall not be led astray.
  • Blessings and peace go with you. Blessings and peace.

"So I brought no daughter to my mother," the old man said, suddenly coming out of his silence. "Time went on. The waterholes were dry, but the rainclouds at sea had returned. Also, we of Uma village went down to the reef at low tide and lay covered with mats in shallow pools, so that our skins drank in the wetness.

"And on a day, I took my mother with me to a pool under the lee of certain rocks. We lay there, our heads resting on wooden pillows which I had brought, and soon we fell asleep.

"I did not wake until the rising tide floated the pillow from under me, so that my head was spilled into the water. That nearly drowned me, but at last I was able to kneel, and then I remembered my mother. She was not beside me. I looked out to sea; she was not there. I turned my eyes to the beach; she was floating there, on the edge of the tide. She had drowned beside me as I slept. How many times had she called me, and I deaf to her cries?

"A ship arrived not long after … a trading ship from New Zealand. The captain took my father and me, with most of the others who remained alive, to the island of Oahu, near Honolulu. There we lived until my father died, six years later, and then I returned to this place, because I owned no land anywhere else. Others returned with me, but none of us had ever been happy here. And since the Kambana [Company] came and began to pay us for our dust, we have hoped that, one day, it may buy all the rest together for a great price. With that money, the government could buy a happier page 44home for our children's children to dwell in. Help us in this, we beg you."

He sat in silence a full minute staring over my shoulder into the past. Then he rose. "A home for our children's children not haunted by the ghosts of our unburied dead," he whispered, more to himself than to me, and left without another word.

1 A Pattern of Islands.