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A Pattern of Islands

11 — Priest and Pagan

Priest and Pagan

When a man is dying, the main concern of Christians is that he should be at peace with his Maker before he goes. In pagan rituals, the emphasis is not usually upon what happens before death: the rightness of the ceremonies performed immediately after death is what matters most for the safe passage of the departing ghost to paradise. The two kinds of belief are poles apart, but either can raise problems for the living.

Father Choblet, a French priest of the Sacred Heart Mission in the Southern Gilberts, approached his particular dilemma from the Christian angle; Tabanaora, a simple villager of Tarawa, tackled his from the pagan one. But both acted out of love for a fellow human soul, and each brought to his solution a courage which, as I think, will tolerate no distinguishing tabs of race or religion.

Father Choblet's parish was Beru Island, a hundred miles south of Abemama. He was 5ft. 1 in. high and a human dynamo; page 223also, he didn't like bureaucracy. The debonair way he had of interpreting rules and regulations used to raise the hair off my scalp sometimes. But yet, there was a kind of reasonableness and integrity in most of his illegalities that somehow managed to illumine the real intent of the law instead of undermining it. His defiance of the inter-island travelling regulations was a case in point.

The regulations, as they stood then, prohibited canoe-voyages between the islands from the end of September to the end of March every year. That period, in the Central Pacific, is the season of unpredictable westerly gales. The Gilbertese are adventurous sailors; the islands lie anything from twenty to one hundred and twenty miles apart; a frail outrigger canoe caught midway between two of them in a roaring fifty-miler has about as much chance of survival as a snowflake in a blast-furnace. Hundreds of fatalities stood behind those regulations, and nobody knew more about them than Father Choblet. But he had to make a choice.

One morning, a westerly gale was working up to full fury around Beru Island when a small trading steamer slipped under the lee of the land and sent a boat ashore. The huge surf smashed the boat on the reef, but the crew struggled safe to land. One of them brought a letter to Father Choblet from the island of Nukunau, thirty miles to eastward. I saw the letter myself some years later; it had been scrawled in Gilbertese by a native mission-teacher: 'Father Franchiteau is dying here,' it ran, 'there is no other priest; he implores you to bring him the Last Sacrament.' That was all.

It was Father Choblet's canoe-boys who told me what happened next. 'When he came and ordered us to launch the canoe,' they said, 'we thought he had gone mad. So we spoke to him softly of the Government's laws about travelling. That made him laugh, laugh; and then he did not laugh any more, but told us about Father Franchiteau. Yet still we thought he was mad, for there was death in the sea for all of us that day. When we told him of our fear he turned away, saying, "All of us? Who spoke of all? I am going alone," and he put his little bag on the canoe. Then suddenly he looked to us like a spirit. He is a very small page 224man, but he grew big, and we were not afraid any more. We told him that. Then he confessed us, and gave us absolution, and put his arms around us, saying, "Come with me." So we all put out to sea, singing songs with him.'

Only a Gilbertese canoe-man could tell you just how they fought through the terrible surf, but they did. None of the crew could ever remember clearly how they got within sight of Nukunau before dusk, but they did. They weathered over twenty miles of that raging sea before the canoe broke in half. And after that, as Father Choblet explained to me, it was mere child's play. They only had eight more miles of boiling Pacific between themselves and Father Franchiteau. All they had to do was to cling together to one half of the wrecked canoe, sing more songs, and trust Providence to lend a hand – which it did. It sent them a six-knot current that swept them straight into a bay of Nukunau a little before sunset. It took care that none of them was battered quite senseless in the frightful maelstrom of the weather reef. It provided that their torn bodies should win to shore on that twelve-mile coastline, less than half a mile from the mission house where Father Franchiteau lay dying. He was conscious when they staggered in. He died with good cheer a few minutes after receiving the Viaticum. It was only after the burial service the next morning that Father Choblet's tiny frame could take no more and collapsed.

The bureaucratic sequel is worth recording. Officialdom, of course, simply had to take notice of the affair. The Father had incited three Gilbertese boys to break the law and risk almost certain death in doing so. He was not himself subject to the native regulations. Only the boys could be prosecuted, and, legally speaking, the religious motive of their errand gave them not a leg to stand on in defence. I was not the District Officer who saw that they were brought to court. It was George McGhee Murdoch who had the honour. He made Father Choblet the chief witness against them and insisted that the Native Magistrate should fine them £I each on his evidence. It was a serious sum for them. The Father made a scene in court about it, and I don't blame him. But George made up for it when the court rose, for he called the boys back and publicly presented them with a page 225reward of £2 each, 'Just for their guts,' as he explained to the Father. The fines went into Caesar's pocket, which is to say, Public Revenue; the rewards came out of his own slender purse.

It was George who first told me the story of Tabanaora's duel with the tiger-shark, but I had most of the intimate details from an old mission-teacher of Tarawa. He told me that Tabanaora – a cousin of his – was a baptized convert of the Boston Missionary Society's at the time. Other eye-witnesses of the fight denied it. The internal evidence might mean one thing or the other. But, whichever way it was, the thing he did was nothing if not typical of the spirit of his own people. Family love lives as deep in the Gilbert Islander as his courage.

Tabanaora was the eldest of eight brothers who lived in a northern village of Tarawa. He was a man of thirty or more when Tebina, the youngest, came up for initiation into manhood. He himself had schooled Tebina, through twelve long months of ritual segregation, to face the stern ordeal. The boy went through the terrible test by fire without the flicker of an eyelid. Tabanaora's love soared (in the words of my old friend) as proud as the frigate-bird up against the noon-day sun. But his joy was short-lived, for Tebina was killed by a tiger-shark the very day after he had been pronounced cured of his burns.

The shark took him after sunrise, as he stood fishing with rod and line, breast-deep on a sandbank by his home village. He was seen from the shore to fling up his arms of a sudden and go under. That was the last of him. A dozen canoes went to search the bank, but no trace of his body remained.

It was not only grief for his personal loss that weighed on Tabanaora, but fear for the boy's after-life too. Baptized Christian or not, he still believed in Nakaa, the guardian of the gate between earth and paradise. There at the gate he sat forever, waiting to strangle in his net the ghosts of those unhappy dead whose way into the life beyond had not been ritually straightened. The straightening of Tebina's way was impossible – and he was doomed to everlasting extinction – unless at least page 226one limb of his body could be recovered for the death rituals.

But Tabanaora had a hope to buoy him. The shark would probably return at the same hour next day to the bank where it had made its kill. Such is the habit of the brutes, and he built upon it. He prepared himself for what he had to do next by fasting all day alone in his screened hut by the lagoonside.

At sunset he emerged and crossed the narrow breadth of the land to the ocean beach, carrying with him his ten-foot spear of fire-hardened wood. He laboured all night by torchlight, to the thunder of the surf, arming the spear's edges from hilt to tip with the razor-sharp teeth of tiger-sharks that he himself had slain. Shark eats shark, as everybody knows. At dawn he stood on the beach naked, to call a blessing on his finished handiwork. My old mission-teacher gave me the exact words of his prayer: this is the literal translation of them—

Rise, Sun, rise with fortunate face.
Rise, Sun, the Ancestor.
Rise, Ancestors, Auriaria and Tabuariki.
Rise, God and Jesus-o-o!
O, Sun and God and Jesus, bless my spear.

So fortified in the strength of all the powers he believed benign, he turned and strode through the morning stillness of the coconut grove back to the quiet lagoonside. He walked without speech or pause into the shallows. The villagers crowded to stare in silence from the beach-head as he waded and swam with his spear to meet his brother's killer.

The shark gave him no time to wait and think. It was already on the prowl nearby. His feet were hardly planted on the sandbank when its dorsal fin was seen racing straight in at him from behind. The watchers roared a warning. He whipped round, saw, side-stepped, and thrust. The point of the spear glanced off its leather hide. But he was safe for a few moments: tiger-sharks cannot turn quickly; the monster surged past, to reverse direction thirty yards off.

Its approach was more cautious this time; it began to circle him slowly, and that was just what Tabanaora wanted. It gave him the chance to measure his distances as the circles gradually page 227narrowed. When the charge came, he was so sure of himself that he did not even trouble to side-step. He stood stock-still in the path of that rising, rolling lunge. As the vast jaws opened, he hurled his whole weight forward, stiff-armed, to plunge the spear's point between them. That and the shark's own rush carried the saw-edged shaft tearing eight feet deep into its vitals. The impact heaved him high; he clung on. The spear snapped by the hilt; he went under – but only to come up unhurt and stand with folded arms while the shark thrashed itself to death over the sand-bank.

He hauled it ashore by the tail, triumphantly intoning the Boston Mission's rendering of Onward Christian Soldiers. It was dragged to his house-place under the arching palms, where he cut it open with incantations to Nakaa and the ancestral shades. The remains of Tebina his brother were in its maw. There was enough of them, by his reckoning, to ensure the straightening of the boy's path past Nakaa's strangling net, through the gate, and so into Bouru, and Mwaiku, and Neineaba, those lands of ancient desire beyond the western horizon. The pious rites began at once. Both the divination by leaves and the divination by stones on the third day showed them to have been wholly successful.

Tabanaora's fight happened before the Flag came to the islands. Of course, if it had happened under British rule, this story, like Father Choblet's, would have had its bureaucratic sequel. Not that anyone ever invented a law to prohibit duels with tiger-sharks; but Tabanaora's night-session on the ocean beach would have constituted an infringement of the curfew regulations. Very serious. Nevertheless, I conjecture that his District Officer would have managed to square the law with justice, as George Murdoch did in the Choblet case. That is why District Officers were invented, bless their hearts – to see (at their own expense, naturally) that Heaven gets its dues no less than Caesar.

But what I like best of all to remember about Father Choblet's act and Tabanaora's is the common denominator of their courage. It is an exact one. The priest knew that he himself would die unshriven if he failed to reach Nukunau; the pagan knew page 228there could be no saving his ghost alive if the shark devoured his body. Each of them risked suffering the very horror from which he was trying to protect his brother man. Each trusted the god or gods of his choosing to see him through. When that kind of love and kind of faith are wedded in action, I think they make their own special passport at the bar of whatever heaven.