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Return to the Islands

Rum Revenge

Rum Revenge

There was another story I got at that time from George Murdoch: for I took every opportunity of getting him to tell me about his early days in the islands. It was not a ghost story this time—for, from what George told me, there was nothing intangible about Tem Binoka. He recounted the incident with what seemed to me considerable relish, perhaps because page 145in a way, he felt it showed with what respect the Gilbertese first received the white man's law.

Tem Binoka, High Chief of Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka, had a weakness for revenge. It expressed itself in his approach to the biting of eyeballs. An ordinary Gilbert Islander of those days would merely kill his man in battle, pluck out an eyeball on the spot, bite it in two, and go his way content. It was a public gesture—the right thing to do—and that was the end of it. But Binoka was different. He did not seek the publicity of battles; he had executioners enough to see that men lost their heads secretly whenever he whispered; he craved nothing but to revel ritually and alone in the ignominy of the dead. Their heads were rolled at his feet on a dais. Sometimes he was not in the mood to attend to the eyeballs at once. In that event, the heads were preserved until he was. He knew how to preserve them.

Terror and death reigned with him over Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka until 1892. But then Captain H. M. Davies, R.N., appeared in H.M.S. Royalist to declare a British Protectorate over the Gilbert Islands. The first man the captain looked for on Abemama was George McGhee Murdoch. George was trading there at the time for copra and shark-fins.

A code of native laws, which George himself had helped to frame, was set up by Captain Davies. All that matters about it here is that it was quite inelastic about homicide. It made no allowance at all for the customary right of a High Chief to destroy his subjects at discretion. Binoka was told that he could henceforward count with confidence upon being hanged for the murder of even the meanest of his underlings.

Binoka did not argue: there was a shrewd brain in that gorged mountain of fat. He asked instead, with realism, what price he would now be required to pay for his past errors. No price, he was told. The new law was not retroactive. It would begin to run the next morning, from the hour of hoisting the Flag and reading the Queen's Proclamation. His jowl began page 146to shake with silent laughter as he waddled out. George always reproached himself for disregarding that strange mirth.

A year or two later, Captain Davies was back again in Abemama. He came this tune as a hydrographer, to chart the approaches to the lagoon. He found George now officially presiding as Government Agent and Tax-Collector, and Binoka behaving himself as High Chief with almost piteous constitutionality. With George's help, a naval survey party was based on an islet by the lagoon entrance; and there Binoka provided, for the especial comfort of officers, an exquisitely thatched dwelling-house near the beach. His little speech of presentation was touching, George said. And he capped everything by asking the captain to accept as a further gift a small keg of rum which he had brought along with him.

Binoka's rum was, of course, a byword in the Pacific. The New Bedford whalers had taught him the trick of maturing it with raw meat and charcoal. It was his personal discovery that chunks of red porpoise-flesh did every bit as well as the white man's beef. So it was very natural, after all, for Captain Davies to jump at the offer.

It was one of those brass-bound, two-gallon kegs complete with tap. The tap gave some difficulty, but they managed to draw off a bottleful there and then. According to George, it was a triumphant liquor. It rolled around his gums, he said, as soft as mother's milk. I dare say it did. Binoka's gross body shook with mirth as he drank with them. He had a high falsetto giggle, like a girl's. The captain did not like it until George explained it was his native courtesy. They finished the bottle between them.

George returned to the camp a few evenings later. The navigating lieutenant had joined the captain there. Opinion about the quality of the rum still ran heavens high, but the tap had been giving more and more trouble. The thing merely dripped when they turned it on. George tried it: "Well," he said at last, "why not unship and clean it? There might be page 147a bit of porpoise meat stuck in it." They did so. But it was not meat they found. It was human hair. And that, as George put it to me, looked rather queer to everyone. So they investigated further, and found inside the keg the thing that accounted for the rum's rare bouquet. It was a pickled human head.

Binoka proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the man had been decapitated before the hoisting of the Flag—the evening before: just after Captain Davies had so kindly promised that the law would not be retroactive. That point being clear, what about the head? His habit from of old had been to preserve all these heads of enemies together in a single barrel. They were withdrawn as needed for the ceremonial biting of eyeballs. This one had somehow got itself isolated. Must he suffer for that? There was surely nothing in the new law to forbid the peaceful ritual. Would the captain therefore, please, restore the valued relic at once? Had not the gift of the rum in itself been generous enough?

But at that point he broke down. The fullness of his revenge suddenly overwhelmed him. A high ripple of giggles burst from his monstrous flesh. He staggered round the floor before them, racked and sobbing, and drunk with laughter. It was ghastly beyond words, George said. They sat mutely waiting for him to recover himself. When at last he did, he wiped his streaming eyes, spat on the floor, and lurched from the room without another word.