Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niue and Tonga
Chapter IV — A Trip Through The Island
A Trip Through The Island
On a sunny afternoon we took horse and rode to Tuapa, the royal village. The road was a grassy path vaulted with palm fronds and walled with dense undergrowth. Though it followed the trend of the coast, and was never more than a few hundred yards from the edge of the cliff, the foliage was so dense that we seldom caught sight of the sea below us. I imagined in my innocence that we should cover the seven miles at a hand gallop, the ordinary pace of horses in Tonga, but in less than a hundred yards I discovered the difference between a Niuéan and a Tongan road. The couch grass that looked so soft and springy was as specious as the thin earth which a gamekeeper sprinkles over the teeth of his gin. Taking root in little pockets of earth, it sent out a tangle of runners over the jagged projections of coral, which it just served to hide, so that the poor unshod horses could not avoid them.page 50
My beast knew his business, which was to walk daintily, like a cat on hot bricks. He had his frogs to mind, and when I forced him into a canter he obliged me for half a dozen paces, just to show me what pain I was giving him. After that we let our horses choose the pace they preferred, which was something under three miles an hour. We passed hundreds of natives dispersing from the meeting at Alofi, among them four men who were carrying the Queen's picture, shoulder high, on a sort of bier. Men and women alike, they all had a smile for us, and most of them a word of greeting to Mr. Flood, who had not only lent us the horses, but was acting as our guide. We passed through three villages of white cottages, not arranged on any plan, as in Alofi, but straggling among the trees in a most picturesque fashion. On the seaward side the way was dotted with graves, sometimes in clusters, oftener in twos and threes. They varied from an oblong cairn of stones, with a white headstone of concrete, to a neat domed tomb, carefully trowelled off, so as to leave the name of the deceased in bas-relief characters of irregular shape, six inches in length. The fashion of burying the dead was introduced by the missionaries, for in former times (and unlike page 51the Tongans, who always buried their dead in graves, even where caves abounded) the Niuéans used occasionally to lay their dead in canoes and let them drift out to sea; but more generally they laid the body on a platform of stones in the bush, under a coverlet of bark cloth (hiapo), until nothing was left but the bones, which they gathered up and deposited in a cave. During the lying-in-state a kind of wake was held on the ninth day, and repeated at intervals until the hundredth, and during the earlier stages the body was frequently washed. In the little island of Nayau, in Fiji, I once visited one of these natural catacombs. The steep and rocky path by which it was approached was polished by the feet of the generations of mourners that had passed over it. In the cave itself the dead were laid in a neat row. In the more recent cases the skeletons were entire, and fragments of the mats that had swathed the bodies still lay about them; but further in the bones had crumbled, bats' droppings had mingled with the dust, and the teeth and a few fragments of the jaws were all that was left.
The attention now paid to graves in Niué is due less to the influence of the Mission than to the superstition of the people. The Mission page 52has never been able to cure them of their belief in ghosts. When a man is sick to death his friends bring him food (which he is long past eating) and say, "Grant our request; if go you must, go altogether." But his dying promise is not enough. As soon as the breath is out of him they lay a fragment of white bark cloth beside the body, and sit watching for an insect to crawl on to it. The insect is the dead man's mou'i, the soul (literally, "life"), and it is carefully wrapped up and buried with the body. The grave having been dug and the body, washed, oiled, and wrapped in bark cloth, laid in it, heavy stones are piled upon it to keep the aitu down. The dome of concrete, plastered without a crack, is generally enough to baffle the most restless ghost, but there have been cases when it has defied even this precaution. About the year 1898 a woman, who had thus buried her daughter, fell ill of a lingering malady, which could only have been caused by the malevolence of the dead girl's ghost. With infinite difficulty she collected a load of firewood, which she stacked over the grave and ignited, reducing the limestone rock to powder. From that day she steadily recovered, and in that village, at all events, superstition will die hard. page 53At a village near Alofi we left the road to examine the bathing-cave, which proved to be a rift in the limestone—a cavern whose roof had fallen in. Scrambling down its steep sides, we found the water about sixty feet below the surface. It was an oblong pool, about eighty feet long and twenty broad, green, brackish, and forbidding. Somewhere in its mantling depths there must have been communication with the sea, for the water rose and fell with the tide. It was difficult to understand how anyone, for the sake of some twenty per cent less salt in the water, could prefer this stagnant pool, striking icy cold from the grim shadow of the rock, to the sunlit sea so near at hand. In the same village there was a natural well, which Mr. Lawes had commended to me as being the one place where really fresh drinking water was to be had. It was a mere crack in the rock by the side of the footpath, eight inches by twelve, and the gear for drawing water was a little canvas bucket with a sinnet string attached. By measuring the string we found its depth to be sixty-three feet. It was a hot day, and we fell eagerly upon the clear, cool water, but a mouthful was enough. A tumblerful of spring water with a teaspoonful of salt well stirred would have tasted page 54fresh in comparison. I gently chaffed Mr. Lawes about his well afterwards, and he then admitted that it was an acquired taste, but that for his part he found the water of other countries a little insipid.
We found Tuapa almost deserted, for we had overtaken the greater part of its population on the road. It is as large as Alofi, but more irregular, and, if the truth be told, the palace of His Majesty is the meanest and ugliest building in it. I was constrained to drop my voice when I said so, for it seems that his palace is not the least of King Tongia's claims to fame, seeing that it shares with the dwelling of the late king the distinction of being the only native house in the island roofed with corrugated iron. If I had told him that there were many dogs in England lodged in houses of more pretentious size, he would (if I understand the old gentleman's character) not have put an end to his existence; on the contrary, he would have asked me for the ground plan of Buckingham Palace, and have worried his council until they had got to work upon an edifice a size larger.
A few miles beyond Tuapa the road breaks away from the sea so as to cut off the north end of the island. The bush is denser, the way more page 55wild and lonely, and, night coming on, we were obliged to turn back to Tuapa to sleep. And yet, though none but the European traders own carts, the natives have made all these roads, with the exception of a bad bit between Alofi and Avatele, available for wheel traffic. The Pacific Islands Company is doing its best to persuade the people to buy and use carts, but a people who cheerfully carry to market on their backs a sack of copra weighing close upon a hundred-weight for a distance of nine miles do not see any point in labour-saving contrivances.
Mr. Flood was good enough to show me the contents of his store. The products of civilisation that tempt natives are much the same throughout the Pacific. Axes and knives come first, of course; looking-glasses and umbrellas run them hard for second place; prints, and sewing-machines to make them up with, and (alas!) slop clothing have now become necessities. For luxuries there are pipes and plug tobacco and cheap scents and a hundred other things, but there are certain articles that you will not find in a native store. The Niuéans want no hats; they make them for themselves and for others, the export of straw hats to New Zealand having been a few years ago three thousand page 56dozen. These hats are plaited very cleverly by the women from the leaves of the pandanus and a similar leaf imported from Anuia in the New Hebrides. The manufacturer got a shilling, and the middleman only tenpence, which sounds curious until you learn that the manufacturer was paid in trade, and then you understand where the middleman came in. Unfortunately the market was overstocked, and the export fell away to nothing, but this year it is reviving. You will find neither combs nor spades, for the native makes his own comb, and finds a digging-stick the more handy tool in his garden.
The traders make no fortunes in Niué. In normal years the whole export of the island is about three hundred and fifty tons of copra, a few hats, and eight tons of fungus, which finds its way to China to be food for mandarins. Arrowroot might be grown in any quantity if there were any demand for it. The export of fungus is now decreasing, owing to the fall in price. At the liberal valuation of £9 a ton for the copra, and allowing for the money brought back by the returned emigrants, the entire income of the island is under £3,500 a year, and upon this modest sum the natives have to satisfy their new wants, the Mission teachers and several page 57independent traders have to live, and a fair margin of profit has to be found for the shareholders of two trading companies, after paying the salaries of their local employés. In 1899, however, the export of copra reached the unusual figure of seven hundred tons, and the island was passing rich.
The first trader to settle in the island was the late Mr. H. W. Patterson, who came from Samoa in 1866 as agent for Messrs. Godefroy and Son, of Hamburg. For some years this famous firm had almost a monopoly of the trade of the Pacific. In 1866, owing to the American civil war, kidney cotton fetched 20 cents a pound. The export from Niué increased year by year until 1880, when it fell to 7 cents. For a brief period it advanced to 10 cents, and then it fell so low that it is not worth growing. Mr. R. H. Head, who landed in January, 1867, began to trade as agent for the notorious Bully Hayes, pirate and blackbirder. He was the first to buy fungus, which reached its highest export about 1880. Copra, which was not manufactured until 1877, is now almost the only export.
At present the cocoanuts planted on Niué consist of a strip along the western coast that widens into patches on the sites of the villages. page 58The trees were in rude health, and I do not doubt that every acre on the island would grow nuts with a trifling expenditure of labour in clearing and planting. The cocoanut palm must have been specially designed by Providence for South Sea Islanders, for after the first five years it takes care of itself, and will continue to bear nuts though its roots are choked by undergrowth. All that its owner has to do is to collect and split the fallen nuts, exposing their kernels to the sun, which shrivels the pulp until a shake will free it from the shell. A sack and a sturdy pair of shoulders will carry the dried kernel—now converted into copra—to the nearest store, where it is worth a shilling for every ten pounds. The traders are able to give this high retail price, because they pay in "trade," and not in money. Their profit is made out of the calico, etc., accepted by the native as the equivalent for the shilling. To even the laziest native an occasional short spurt of energy is pleasant, and his copra having provided him with a change of clothes, a tin of biscuits, and a gallon of lamp oil, he can lie on his back for the rest of the year. Copra, it must be remembered, has nothing to do with his daily subsistence, for which nature has provided in other ways. In page 59the bread-fruit islands of the east he has only to bury the ripe fruit in a pit, and dig it up as it is wanted; in the west he has to plant his yams and taro, or set his wives to do it, as his fathers did before him. But the Niuéans are not lazy, and I could not help contrasting their neglect of so obvious a source of wealth with the greater energy in copra-making of the Tongan. It is here that the Mission comes in. But for the missionary collection it may be doubted whether some of the Polynesian races would plant cocoanuts at all, and I do not think that justice has been done to the value of the Wesleyan missionaries, who always run their missions on a good business basis, as fosterers of commerce. When the Tongan has bought his small luxuries and paid his taxes, the native ladies who are to have basins at the missionary collection (as Englishwomen hold stalls at a bazaar) begin to tout for constituents. The chain of emulation is most skilfully forged. Each basin-holder vies with her neighbour; each of her constituents vies with his fellows who shall attain the glory of making the largest contribution. The missionary has simply to set the delicately balanced machine in motion, and wait until it showers dollars into his lap. The basin-holders page 60do the rest. "Paul has promised to give five dollars: you beat Paul last year!" and Peter sets forth next morning with his splitting-hatchet to split nuts enough to make six dollars. Out of this copra the trader sucks his profit. From the mercantile point of view this is to be put to the credit side of the account: with its other side I have dealt with elsewhere.*
The London Missionary Society appears to care more for the work of its churches and schools than for its balance-sheet, and to practise no method for swelling its collections. And as the Niuéans have as yet few wants, and are subject to no sudden calls for money, they leave tree-planting alone, and expend their energy in road-making, in house-building, and in working for white men in other islands. If they were to spend but one day a month in planting cocoanuts for the next five years, they might double their export of copra. But their needs are growing, and with instincts so keenly commercial they are unlikely long to leave the potential wealth of their island unexploited.
In view of the enormous tracts of land throughout the tropic zone that have lately been planted with cocoanuts, it is remarkable that copra has page 61maintained its price. In Ceylon I saw hundreds of acres planted with trees in full bearing, where scarce a tree was to be seen twelve years ago. From both coasts of Africa and from the West Indies the export has been steadily increasing, and yet, though the world seems to be easily sated with every other kind of tropical product, of copra it never seems to have enough. Handicapped by a sea-carriage of twelve thousand miles, the South Sea Island copra has always commanded a local price of from £8 to £11 a ton, and now that a soap and candle factory has been established in Australia, it is more likely to rise than fall. Ten years ago most of the copra went direct to Europe on German sailing ships, which came out to Australia with a general cargo and loaded copra in the islands. In the long homeward voyage of from four to six months the rats and the little bronze copra-beetles tunnel through the cargo, destroying large quantities. On arrival at the oil mills it is crushed by rollers, and the refuse, after every drop of oil has been squeezed out of it, is pressed into oil-cake for fattening cattle. The oil is then resolved into glycerine and stearine, from which more than half the candles and soap used in the world are made. At first sight it page 62would seem more economical to press the oil on the spot, and so save the freight upon the waste material; but the explanation is that oil must be shipped in tanks or in casks. Ships fitted with tanks would have to make the outward voyage empty, and casks, if shipped in "shooks," require expert coopers, and when soaked in oil become a prey to borers. It is possible that a new use may be found for copra as fuel for warships. Every ton of copra contains over one hundred gallons of oil besides other combustible matters, and it burns with a fierce heat. It is very easily stored and handled, and it is only one-third more bulky than coal, its disadvantage in this respect being more than compensated by its superior heating qualities and its freedom from ash. It is expensive, but as Welsh coal costs in distant stations such as China as much as £2 10s. a ton, it is only four times as dear, and in naval warfare, where quick steam is everything, the dearest fuel may often be the cheapest. It would be peculiarly suited to torpedo craft and destroyers, which are required to get up steam in a hurry, and to go short distances at enormous speed. I offer this suggestion to the Admiralty as a matter for experiment.page 63
I have wandered far from the village of King Tongia, which was a curious peg on which to hang a digression on the markets of the world. Whatever the fates may have in store for Tuapa, it will never hum with the business of a trade centre. Our reluctance to anchor one of Her Majesty's ships at the seat of government was amply justified when I came to look at its so-called harbour. At this point the coast breaks away to the eastward, and even with the light easterly breeze that was blowing, there was a very respectable sea. With the wind inshore no ship could anchor and live. The cliff was so sheer that shoots had been built by which the bags of copra could be dropped to its base, and the little schooners that ship the copra have to watch the weather before they venture from the safer anchorage of Alofi. Mr. Head, the oldest trader on the island, told me that one morning several years ago his attention was attracted by seeing the natives running to the steep path that leads to the base of the cliff. Looking over, he saw them crowding about some object on the beach, and a mile to the northward a similar group was forming. Their gestures were so excited that he ran down the path to see what it was. Shouldering page 64the natives aside, he was astonished to find a white girl of about eighteen, barefooted, half-laughing and half-crying at the perplexity of her case. For the natives were touching her to see whether she was real, and satisfied on that score, but baffled by her voluminous draperies, were proceeding in all innocence to more searching investigation, when Mr. Head fortunately intervened. While she was recovering from her hysterical laughter Mr. Head had time to remember that visitants from another world do not appear to mortals dressed in white flannel, albeit neither vessel nor boat was in sight. Yet her account of how she came to be one of the first white women to land on Niué was simple enough. She was not alone: farther up the beach he would find her father (Mr. Head remembered the second group of excited natives a mile away). He was the captain and owner of a little yacht a month out from Honolulu, and in the early morning they had landed to stretch their legs while the yacht lay off and on seeking anchorage. They thought the island uninhabited, and when her father wandered off and left her paddling in the warm sea, this crowd of wild savages had surrounded her, and she had made up her mind page 65that she was to be eaten. While she was speaking, a trim little yacht, flying American colours, glided out from behind the point, towing her dinghy behind her.
Near Tuapa there is a cave which is dark at high noon. In its murkiest recess you may see a relic of the first civilised institution that took root in Niué—a set of stocks. The only punishments the Niuéans then knew were fines and the death penalty, and the stocks, which they appear to have seen in use on a whale ship, or more likely in Tahiti whither some of them were carried as slaves, were a notable discovery. The poor wretches thus imprisoned in the black hole of Tuapa were at least spared the dead cats and rotten eggs that were a recognised part of this punishment in England. When Hood visited Niué in 1862, a boy was lashed hand and foot to a bamboo for several days with just sufficient food to keep the life in him, as a punishment for tattooing himself after the Samoan fashion, to the scandal of the Niuéans who were never tattooed. Hood describes this as one of the ancient punishments.
Most fortunately for me the schooner Isabel, owned by Captain Ross, one of the most daring and successful navigators of these seas, arrived page 66that day from New Zealand, bringing Mr. Head, who had been commended to me as the most suitable person to act as registrar to the Consul in Tonga, in whose province, as it was then intended, the new Protectorate was temporarily to be placed. I was a little bashful in approaching him with the offer, for twenty-three years ago Lord Stanmore, the High Commissioner, had offered him a similar post, and the letter of appointment was still to come. But finding that, despite his seventy years, he was still ready to accept the unpaid office, and that he was a persona grata to Europeans and natives alike, my hesitation vanished. I was particularly anxious to see him for another reason. He had lived more than forty years among the natives, and quite early in life he had married a Niué woman, with whom he still lived: consequently his knowledge of Niué customs was absolute and complete. To my great satisfaction a messenger arrived to announce that he had walked over to Tuapa in the dark, and that he invited me to spend the night with him. What he must have thought of me I dare not think, for blind to the fact that he had just landed from a rough voyage, and had tramped fourteen miles, I plied him with questions till past midnight. To me it page 67was one of the most interesting evenings I have ever spent, but I blush now when I think of my inhumanity. To him and to Mr. Lawes I am indebted for all the ethnological information in this book. They agreed in every particular, and as Mr. Bell, a gentleman who had spent seven years in the island in the service of the Pacific Islands Company, to whom I showed my notes in Sydney, added his testimony, they may be accepted as accurate.
Mr. Head was the best specimen of an English trader that it has been my fortune to meet. He had had more than ten children by his native wife, and he was sufficiently educated to know the value of a good education. Nothing daunted by the gloomy forebodings of his friends, he determined to bring them up as European children. One after another, as they grew old enough, they were sent to school in New Zealand. All the sons that have stayed there are in good positions. Three have returned to Niué, where two help their father in his business, and a third has set up a store on his own account.
"'It's all very well with the boys, but what about the girls?' they used to say, but I think I have proved that half-caste girls are as good as any other if you give them a start," he said with page 68quiet pride. One of his girls is married and prosperous in Auckland, another is a teacher in the public schools, and a third whom I met at Aloft would pass for a handsome, well-educated Italian. It was interesting to observe the manners of the boys towards their native mother when we met at breakfast. Mrs. Head wears the native dress and speaks English with hesitation, but she is an intelligent woman, and she plays the hostess at the head of her table admirably. She seemed a little shy of her English sons, but they spoke to her with courtesy and respect, and obliged her to take her fair share in the conversation. They have preserved the old fashion of addressing their father as "Sir." Thus has Mr. Head solved the problem that has baffled most fathers of half-caste children the world over.
* The Diversions of a Prime Minister.