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Return to the Islands

Way to the World's Edge

page 49

Way to the World's Edge

The lovely farewell to his dead sweetheart that old Eri gave me is only a scrap from a mass of evidence that one branch at least of the Gilbertese ancestors migrated into the central Pacific from far western lands. The seven western Paradises named in the old man's prayer—Innang and Matang, Bouru and Mwaiku, Abaiti, Roro, Atiia (of which the last three are Maori paradises also)—are called rikia in the Gilbertese version. Though I have rendered this word broadly 'home' in the translation, the basic meaning of growth or origin contained in the root riki perhaps makes 'fatherland' the more precise interpretation.

But most of that first stream from the West which planted colonies in the equatorial islands passed on, a mighty horde, pressing southward through the sixteen Gilbert atolls, through the eight Ellices, past lonely Rotuma, across the empty vastitude beyond it, until they came to Savai'i and Upolu of Samoa. There they and their descendants won a foothold and stayed for perhaps a thousand years, too far removed from the rikia of their forefathers to be harking back to them except (in the rituals of the dead) as 'ghost lands.' But their kinsmen on the equator were nearer by a thousand miles to the ancient cradles of their race, and had no such rich new homes as Savai'i or Upolu to hold them settled within their own borders. There was constant traffic and at least some intermarriage between these and the lands back west along the old migration route.

Matairongo and Kabintongo, Baantongo and Waituru, Tanabai and Bikaara, Nabanaba and Onouna, Baree and Tabeuna, Ruanuna and Kiroro are a round dozen out of the scores of magically named places called 'the home of the Breed of Kiroro'—the 'line of ghost lands stretching westwards as far as the very homes of the dead in the sea of Manra,' as the ancient travel stories used to describe them—with which the early page 50colonists of the Gilbert atolls habitually exchanged friendship and warfare, dancing parties and wives.

The genealogies tell of marriages and feasts arranged up to about thirty generations ago between kings of Tarawa, for example, and king's daughters of Onouna, Ruanuna and Kiroro. But then came the re-invasion of the Gilberts from Samoa. Between twenty-five and thirty generations back, the islands were overwhelmed by wave upon wave of the kinsmen whose forefathers, a thousand years earlier, had passed southwards to Savai'i and Upolu.

From the time of that invasion onwards, no more tales of East-West alliances, or even visits, appear in the family histories. It is easy to see why. For the invaders, a millenium of history in Samoa had established that country instead of some remote western paradise as the Buto, or navel, or centre of the populated world and first of created lands. Since the newcomers came to the Gilberts as conquerors, it was naturally back to Samoa and not to the West that their descendants in the Gilberts counted their human generations and turned for their knowledge of human geography. Ancestors of their vanquished cousins like the old kings of Tarawa, no longer socially important, became a bu-n-anti, a 'breed of ghosts,' and the western lands with which these had trafficked so spaciously came, in the course of time, to be treated in song and story only as 'ghost lands' like the ancestral paradises themselves, never to be reached by living men except in dreams.

Once the ghost world closed down in men's minds upon the West, the thought of falling too far to leeward of his islands in the S.E. trades became loaded for every Gilbertese mariner with a double horror. If he failed in his attempts to beat to landward against the mighty winds and sweeping swells of the navigating season (March to September), he was not simply a man forced to turn and run before the gale for a last desperate chance of safety beyond unknown horizons, but one already doomed to pass through dreadful fears to a page 51yet more dreadful end in the abyss at the world's western edge.

So as not to stray outside the limits—especially the west-ward limit—of safety when they navigated beyond sight of land, generations of fishermen and voyagers built up out of their experience a system of betia, or seamarks, by which, if only a man knew enough of them, he could be sure of his position in relation to any island of the Gilbert group. These signposts in mid-ocean might be shoals of fish, flocks of birds, masses of floating weed, or merely the way certain fish, or birds, or weeds behaved. They could be shapes of waves, or their size, or direction, or frequencies; they could be lines of driftwood, or shining streaks on the face of the waters, or conditions of atmosphere, like high or low visibility, or even the smell of the air, ranging from land scents to te boi-n-anti, the 'stink-of-ghosts,' that told you how near you were drifting to the western point of no return. Impalpable for the most part to any average European, these betia were as clear and significant to the ordinary Gilbertese fisherman as a bent blade of grass or the displacement of a twig underfoot might be to a tracker of the Australian bush.

The point of no return in the western seas was a betia called the Fishtrap of Kabaki, a scattered line of leaves and driftwood, said to stretch in the navigating season from the ghost lands in the far North-West south-eastwards to the latitude of Samoa. This line was the threshold of horror where the lost mariner first smelt the stink of ghosts. Beyond, the sea began to slope down like a river, its swift stream bearing him resistlessly west-wards into a region of dead calms, where thronging voices whispered around him, "You are lost! You are lost!" and the monstrous uu-fish waited to suck him down. And if he escaped the uu-fish, the sea, ever more steeply sloping, swept him on into the zone of wildfire, where a man had two shadows —one on the sail, one on the water—and green bubbles of light burst upwards from the depths to dance about his head, while the voices of women screamed for fear of a clutching Thing he page 52knew to be very near but could not see. And if the Thing let him pass, then, for a day and a night, he was whirled through a zone called te-uabuki-te-re, 'the-capsize-the-somersault,' where the ocean gathered itself in a last enormous race towards the lip of the world, and in the dreadful silence only the thin voice of a single bird was heard, wailing, "I kaawa … I kaawa … I kaawa! (I am unhappy … unhappy … unhappy!)" until the plunging waters flung him out with his canoe, over and over, down, down, down into the black and bellowing abyss of Mone.

Ocean scene with sails in the distance