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New Zealand 1826-1827: From the French of Dumont D'Urville

From the Diary of M. de Sainson

From the Diary of M. de Sainson.

21st January—Now that the natives drawn by our presence had set up a sort of village on the nearest long sandy beach, our dealings with them were very active, but they always came to an end with the last rays of the sun. Shut up on board every evening, we could see a lot of activity on shore. As darkness gathered, several big fires blazed. A great many circles were formed round the fires, and no doubt these evening gatherings were very lively, for borne by the wind, the laughter, shouting, and singing from the beach often reached us on board. M. Gaimard confided to me the desire he felt to know more exactly the nocturnal habits of our neighbours; I felt the same eager curiosity. M. Faraguet joined us, and the Commander having put the small whaleboat at our disposal, we were taken ashore on the 20th of January at nightfall. We took no weapons with us, nothing that might rouse the fear or excite the greed of the natives; except that funnily enough M. Gaimard happened to have with him a fancy candle, and we had already laughed at the idea of lighting in the open air on this faraway beach a candle made in Paris as a drawing-room luxury. As we landed on the sandy beach, we were greeted by shouts of joy and the most extraordinary caresses, especially when the savages saw the boat put out to sea again and leave us to our fate in their midst. They struggled with one another to shake us by the hand, saying kapai, and we had to undergo a great deal of nose pressing which nearly crushed our own noses; for this is the way people kiss in New Zealand. More than a hundred natives swarmed round us and after a few minutes we were separated. They gradually drew us away from the village and the groups surrounding us carried us towards the edge of the forest, to the spot where a pretty stream, flowing from the heart of the woods, page 210crossed the sand to enter the sea. I could no longer see those who had got hold of M. Gaimard: M. Faraguet, too, had disappeared. For my part, pushed along by my noisy escort, I was already a little way in under the trees, where it was perceptibly darker, when a venerable looking man raised his hand to my neck and calmly removed the silk tie that was round it. In my position I had no thought of protesting against the old man's free ways; I was even resolved to let every article of my clothing pass into his possession, one thing after another, if such was his fancy; but how I regretted having judged an honest savage too hastily! Far from intending to rob me, as I might have expected, he immediately offered me in exchange for the tie an object of some value to him, I suppose, for that object was his daughter.

His daughter was very young; black curly hair fell over her forehead and hid her big eyes dancing with vivacity. Her still childish grace owed nothing to any art; her only garment consisted of a few leaves of flax, taken from the plant on the shore; not a very effective covering. Her father insisted and my position became really serious; but as I took the girl's hand, I saw that she was crying. The Graces, it is said, are made more beautiful by tears; this was not at all the case with this young savage. From that moment all I thought of was the abominable misuse of his power that the father was guilty of; I even tried to scold him, but I saw no sign that my admonition had much effect on his mind, for he redoubled his requests to me, and, I must admit, his threats to his daughter. Seeing, however, that I would not yield, he then offered to give me back the precious tie for which he had been willing to pay such a price. This proof of his honesty secured the tie for him: I gave it to him as a token of esteem and he accepted it with delight. Thereupon his daughter began to laugh and they both made off through the wood. Then I found myself alone, for during my discussion with the old man, all the other natives had been so discreet as to withdraw.

They were not always so discreet, for not far from the stream that I mentioned, a big crowd of natives indulged in much noisy gaiety, with laughter and approving gestures. It was like the joyful noise that once rose on Olympus, when Vulcan's jealous nets caught two lovers and exposed them to the laughter of the assembled gods. Apart from the nets and the angry husband, the strange scene that was being enacted recalled in every detail page 211the scandal so famous in mythology. The candle from the Astrolabe, held by a solemn warrior, lit up twenty expressive heads with its flickering flame and produced fantastic figures in a picture worthy of Callot or our own Charlet. But suddenly everything was once again lost in darkness. The man who was holding the candle, delighted by such a charming invention, could not resist his desire to keep it for himself: so, blowing on it, he had rushed off into the forest leaving the curious in a state of extraordinary disappointment. Meanwhile, on the beach, fires were lighted and preparations for supper were being made on every hand. All three of us went up to one circle of natives where they made room for us and soon our presence attracted most of the others who wanted to have a good look at us. The natives sat crouched on the sand; some were eating raw fish dried in the sun, others were crushing bracken roots in little wooden troughs. When they have broken this root up into a lot of shreds, they make them into balls, which they keep in their mouths until they have extracted all the juice. Our hosts did not fail to offer to us our share of this frugal meal, and on seeing that we were none too eager to accept, several of them carried their thoughtful-ness so far as to chew bits of fish first and then offer them to us in the hollow of their hands.

After supper came the natives' solemn monotonous songs; we responded by a few French airs and the chorus of Robin of the Forest. They appeared to be very pleased with us. We also tested their organs of speech in making them pronounce a great many proper nouns in French; most were terribly mutilated, but a few were repeated correctly. It gave us a thrill of delight to hear repeated to the echoes of New Zealand, illustrious names which are the glory of the army, the law courts, or the theatre at home. No one can have any idea of the charm that men in our position find in the slightest memory that recalls our fatherland.

The evening went gaily by. When it was time for sleep, the savages invited us to go into their huts, but we were careful not to accept their invitation. New Zealand huts are not more than three or four feet high; you have to crawl in and there is nearly always an extremely foul smell in them. We page 212preferred to lie down on the sand at the foot of a small tree on the edge of the beach, but we could get very little rest. To our great regret, a certain number of natives came to keep us company and we had the pleasure of serving as pillows to these gentlemen, who found it very convenient to rest their heads on our outstretched limbs. How could we sleep amid the snores and restless movements of such neighbours? Nor must I forget to add that tormented by the insects with which they are plentifully provided, they scratched themselves in a most disgusting manner. A sybarite would have died from grief in our position.

About two o'clock heavy rain made us leave the spot and we took shelter under the sides of a canoe that had been dragged up on shore. The sea was rough and the wind was blowing fairly hard; we waited for daylight a little more peacefully, for the savages had left us to seek a better shelter than ours. At five o'clock a boat was sent for us; as it drew near to the shore, a wave filled it, the sailors were knocked over and fell into the water. We had some difficulty in emptying the boat and getting it ashore; the savages helped us most willingly to do this, in spite of the torrents of rain that were falling. Finally we got back on board ship at six o'clock and our appearance caused much amusement among our comrades. Drenched with rain, covered in sand and mud, we needed a few hours' rest to recover from the fatigue of a night spent in a way which we did not, however, regret in the least.

Having stationed a youth, Alectryon, at his door to warn him of the approach of the sun, Mars indulged in illicit amours with Venus. Alectryon, however, fell asleep, and the sun (Apollo) discovered the lovers, whom Vulcan caught in that cage of his which he had long had waiting for them and exposed them before all the other gods. For the whole incident, see Lucian, The Cock, A Dialogue on the Vanity of Riches and Power.

Callot, 1592-1635; Charlet, 1792-1845.