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A Pattern of Islands

Happy Old Lady and Sad Old Man

page 146

Happy Old Lady and Sad Old Man

The Gilbertese had few waterside villages before the British Protectorate. The only buildings ordinarily near the sea then were the canoe-sheds. Every household had its home-place on its own land, and the aim beyond that was to scatter the dwellings of a group settlement to the best tactical advantage across the breadth of the coconut forest from lagoon to ocean beach. The siting of each house in relation to its neighbours was as carefully planned as the siting of a pill-box in modern warfare. Every home-place was, in fact, a strong point. The whole idea was to secure defence-in-depth against the infiltration of enemy forces from up or down the length of the land. The muddy pits which were dug for the cultivation of the arum tuber known as babai (which science calls A locasia Indica) were also placed so as to impede the movements of invaders between the strong points. In the savage land-wars that forever racked the islands, every major activity of the private household had to be thus subordinated to the defence of the settlement. The darkness of the times was reflected in the family homes. The lodges were not the companionable mwenga of today, but uma-toro — literally, squatting roofs – which is to say thatches resting on the ground, closed at both gables, under whose eaves no spying eye could penetrate.

Except on the islands where dynasties of High Chiefs had managed to remain paramount, a state of faction warfare was the normal condition of Gilbertese life of old. There were wars that involved only two or three villages at a time, and wars that split whole islands into opposing camps. The feuds, on whatever scale, were deathless. In Tarawa, the struggle for supremacy between two factions that called themselves The House of page 147Teabike and the House of Auatabu kept nine generations of the people almost continually fighting or preparing to fight again to the coming of the Flag in 1892. A dramatic end was put to the conflict then by the arrival of Captain H. M. Davis, R.N. in H.M.S. Royalist, to proclaim the British Protectorate on the very morning when the forces of Auatabu, badly beaten in battle the day before, were awaiting extermination at the hands of Teabike.

Pax-Britannica was a phrase perhaps too often used by Imperialists to cover a multitude of sins, but it really did mean the dawn of a newer, richer life for the Gilbertese, as the old folk of my day were never tired of acknowledging. Exactly twenty-five years after the House of Auatabu's escape from annihilation, I was talking about the outcome to a vivid old lady of perhaps ninety-five, who had been one of the survivors.

We were in her village house. Besides myself, sitting around her on their floor-mats, were her son, hale and active still in his late seventies, a grandson of fifty-five or so, a great-grandson of twenty-four, and several great-great-grandchildren of ages up to ten. All the grown-ups were busy at some kind of handiwork as we listened to her story. Her son and grandsons were fashioning the shanks of pearl-shell hooks, as beautiful as gems, for bonito-fishing; she herself, still quick-fingered and keen-eyed for all her years, was plaiting the multitudinous strands of a new sleeping-mat across her knees. The murmur of contented talk drifted in from other houses. The peace of it all seemed to stab her with sudden happiness: 'Listen to the voices of the people in their lodges!' she broke off her tale of fighting to exclaim. 'We work in peace, we talk in peace, for the days of anger are done.'

She resumed an account of her husband's death in battle the day before h.m.s. Royalist appeared, and held soberly to that theme until one of her great-grand-daughters arrived home from a visit to the next village. The interruption loosed the floodgates of a new surge of happiness from within her: 'See that!' she cried triumphantly, 'see that! This woman arrives from walking in the north, yet no man has molested her, for we walk in peace.'

She herself, up to the coming of the Flag — when she must page 148have been about seventy — had never known what it was, maid or wife, to stray outside the village settlement of her men-folk.

'In those days,' she continued, 'death was on the right hand and on the left. If we wandered north, we were killed or raped. If we wandered south, we were killed or raped. If we returned alive from walking abroad, our husbands themselves killed us, for they said we had gone forth seeking to be raped. That was indeed just, for a woman who disobeys her husband is a woman of no account, and it matters not how she dies. Yet how beautiful is life in our villages, now that there is no killing and war is no more.'

She told me of how she had found the body of her husband eyeless after the battle. It was the Gilbertese warrior's ultimate gesture of triumph in the field to pluck out the eyes of a stricken foeman and bite them in two while straddling his corpse. As she spoke, I had a picture of generations of grieving women before her, searching the floor of the forest for the eyes of their dead, lest the departing souls go blind into the Land of Shades. But she was just to her husband's killer: "Bon te katei (It was the custom),' she said, 'and I found his eyes beside him.' And it was on her theme of triumphant serenity that she finished: 'Behold, my son and my grandson! These would have died with me that day at Nea if the warship had not arrived. And these' – she pointed to her great-and great-great-grandchildren – 'would never have been born. We live because the Government of Kuini Kabitoria (Queen Victoria) brought peace to us, and here I sit plaiting this mat to be buried in because of the kindness of that woman, with all my generations around me to wrap me in it when I die.'

It was the Christian missionaries, not the Government, who gave schools to the villages, and the schools taught rudiments that the villagers had to master if they were to survive the alien pressures which, sooner or later, were bound to drive in upon them. The Gilbert Islands owe much to Protestants and Roman Catholics alike. But the intolerance of some of the earlier teachers of both churches too often frustrated the kind work of their fellows. Their indiscriminate hate of everything pagan page 149rooted by the way much that was beautiful and useful in native custom, and in doing so destroyed agencies that could have been enlisted not only to illumine the message of Christianity, but also to ease the difficult passage of the race from unsophistication to knowledge.

When I had been only a few months on Tarawa, I heard from an aged pagan why he had always resisted conversion to Christianity. It would be purposeless to reveal the denomination of the missionary responsible for the stand the old man took, for both Protestants and Roman Catholics had their iconoclasts – not many, but some, and the hate of a few may often betray the love of many. The pagan was a gentle old fellow, recognized in his village for te akoi, which means, broadly, loving-kindness, and I was curious to know his reasons for remaining pagan.

He pointed to a rectangle of coral slabs planted edgewise beside his dwelling. 'See there!' he said. 'That was the baangota (shrine) of my ancestors. My father's skull was buried there, and his father's, and his father's fathers' to five generations. I buried them so that their crowns stood forth above the sand. I saw them near me as I lay down to sleep; every evening I went down and anointed them with oil; and I spoke to them, and they answered me, and I was happy with them. Thus it was until those men came and took them away from me.'

'Those men' were a white missionary and a rabble of native teachers whom he had trained to his ways.

'It began in this manner,' the old man went on. 'The white missionary sent a teacher to me one day, and the teacher said to me, "Thou shalt root up the skulls of thy baangota and throw them away."

'And this was my word to the teacher: "These are the skulls of my fathers. They hurt no man and I love them. Why should I root them up and throw them away?"

'The teacher answered, "Thy baangota is an offence to the Christians who dwell in this village, for it is a sin in the eyes of our God, the only true God."

'But I said to him, "I beg thee, let each man turn away content with his own spirits. I am content with mine. Leave me alone with them."

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'He answered, "Other men have obeyed the voice of the white missionary and thrown away their skulls. Thou alone in this village hast refused."

'I said, "The voices of my fathers are more precious to me than the voice of the white missionary. They are my roots and my trunk. I die without them. I beg thee, leave me alone with them."

'But he arose in anger, saying, "If thou art stiff-necked, our God will come to this village and destroy it because of thee."

'And the people of the village heard him and were afraid. They said to me, "We beg thee to throw away the skulls, lest we be destroyed because of thee."

'But I answered, "Fear not. My spirits will protect all of us from the anger of that cruel God. What kind of God is he who will not let me love my fathers? Is he a slave without ancestry?"

'They said, "He is the God of Wrath. We do not know his origins, only we fear to offend him." But none laid hand upon my baangota, for they feared to offend my spirits also.

'And the teacher himself was afraid, so he said, "We will all return with the white man tomorrow, and he will destroy thy baangota." And all the people answered him, "Yes, return, we beg thee, and destroy it."

'So that night, I anointed the heads of my fathers and spoke to them, and I knew in my heart that it was the last time.

'And on the morrow, the white man, and his teachers, and his company — a great crowd — came with shouting and singing into the village. They gathered by my baangota here. All the village came to behold. I sat in my house. My heart was dead within me. There was nothing I could do save only sit.

'Then the white man told them to be silent. And when they were silent, he walked to the side of the baangota, saying, "Where are now the spirits of this place? Ho there, you spirits! Come and strike me dead if you can! You answer not? Fie! Are you afraid?"

'And alas! he trampled upon the heads of my fathers, and they were crushed under his feet. And he danced upon them.

'And when he was tired of dancing, he took the broken bones in his hands, and made as if to spit upon them, and scattered page 151them among the trees, shouting "Here I am, you spirits of the shrine! Strike me dead if you can." He was not struck dead. He laughed, and all who were there laughed with him.

'So no one was any more afraid of my spirits. They all fell together upon my baangota. They laughed, they danced, they pelted the trees with the bones of my fathers, shouting. "See here! Another piece of dung. Throw it away!" And the white man danced with them, as if he were a madman or a slave. And when the bones were all gone, they spat upon my baangota and left.'

I wish I could have added that that day's wickedness did not go unpunished. But it did, and the noble game of shrine-ragging in the name of Christianity flourished well into the time of the Protectorate. There was, to be sure, a clause in the Pacific Order-in-Council of 1892 which forbade such sacrilege under pain of deportation. But the villagers feared the malice of those white savages and their atrocious deity too much to go reporting them to the Government. Not a single criminal was ever brought to book, and that was Christianity's great loss.

But a few skull shrines still survived in and around the villages of the Central and Northern Gilberts as late as 1916. I found them, though not exactly approved by mission authorties, at least humanely respected for what they meant to the few old pagans left. 'The baangota represents ancient family love,' said a young missionary to me twelve years later. 'We do not wish to destroy that spiritual foundation, but to build upon it, so that our converts may not come as strangers into the new house we give them.' He was speaking in terms of religious teaching, but I thought his phrase summed up the whole of anthropological and administrative wisdom too. A simple folk is strengthened to abide the ferment of alien ideas not by the destruction but by the affectionate husbanding of its age-old loyalties. A tree without roots dies, but new grafts thrive on a trunk that stands deep-rooted in the soil of its homeland.