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A Pattern of Islands

In No Strange Land

In No Strange Land

There are between twenty and thirty clans scattered up and down the Gilbert Islands, and most of them have members on every atoll. In the old days, a deep sense of brotherhood united and dispersed fragments. A villager of one island could set out for another a total stranger, yet sure that, once he had established kinship there with the people of his own group, he would find a home among them for as long as he cared to stay. He had only to go to the maneaba of the village where he hoped page 164to be accepted as brother, son or grandson and wait there in the bou, or sitting-piace, of his ancestors. His local kin could not ignore the challenge of that gesture. It was now theirs to come and question him.

My friend Mautake-Maeke once put me through the maneaba ceremonial as if I were a stranger claiming kinship with the clan of Royal Karongoas. So that everything should be right from the beginning, he took me out in his canoe and made me land on the beach by the village maneaba. That was the ancient way of it; all other paths to the communal clearing-house were closed to the newcomer.

We beached our canoe, passed straight into the great building from its seaward side, spread our mats by Karongoa's sun-stone, and waited there for the elders of the clan to come and question me. I was supposed for argument's sake to have arrived from the island of Beru. I had brought with me, according to usage, a stranger's gift (in this case, five pounds of stick-tobacco) to soften hearts and tongues for the encounter.

Nearly a hundred keen-eyed old men came to take part, but they were not all of Karongoa; representatives of Bakoa, the shark clan, and of Keaki, the tropic-bird people, were among them. These went to sit in their own boti as an audience; the examination of a stranger was something the whole village was entitled to hear if it liked. All were dressed in their ceremonial waist-mats of fine mesh girt about the middle with belts of their womenfolk's hair. Most had thrust ornaments of rolled wildalmond leaf, flaming with summer tints of gold and scarlet, through the pierced lobes of their ears. Some carried their pipes slung in that convenient rack. The white-headed senior of Karongoa wore the sun-clan's ceremonial fillet of coconut leaf knotted about his brows. He was the question-master.

His grandson spread a mat for him, and he took his seat facing me across the gift of tobacco, which lay before my crossed legs. There was deep silence in the maneaba save for the echoed hiss-hiss of the wind in the coconut crests outside. I was to be adopted as a member of the Karongoa clan a little later and everybody knew it. This was the real thing acted in earnest by old men to whom the history and customs of their folk were still page 165a treasured inheritance. I was their potential son. Maybe I was too fanciful, but the generations of their fathers seemed to stretch hands out of the past, to gather me back among them, as I sat waiting for the Karongoa chief to speak.

'Nao, ko ma mauri (Sir, thou shalt be blest),' he began quietly.

'And thou also, thou shalt be blest.' It was right in answering to push the gift with a gesture of offering towards his feet.

He touched the small pile with his right hand. No word was spoken, but there was a sibilance of insucked breath from among the elders grouped behind him. The gift had been kindly accepted. After a long pause he began again:

'Sir, I have a question.'

'I listen, for I am in thy hand.'

'Whence comest thou?'

'I come from the south.' Pause. 'I come from that island there in the south.' Pause. 'I come from Beru.'

The elder turned back to his companions. They had of course heard for themselves, but it was for him to speak first: 'This man says he comes from the south,' he informed them; 'he comes from Beru.'

'Ai-i-a!' they answered in chorus. 'He comes from Beru,' and the news was shouted to the clans of Bakoa and Keaki: 'This man says he comes from Beru.'

'We hear,' answered Bakoa and Keaki; 'He comes from Beru. And what then?'

The filleted elder addressed me anew: 'Thou art a man of Beru. But where sittest thou now?'

'I sit in the boti of my ancestors – my ancestors of Beru and Tarawa.'

'And what is the name of that boti?'

'It is the boti of Karongoa-n-Uea.'

The news was passed back again as before: 'He says he sits in the boti of Karongoa-n-Uea. He says it is the boti of his ancestors.'

'We hear,' replied Bakoa and Keaki, 'he sits in Karongoa-n-Uea. Yet perhaps it is not the boti of his ancestors.'

The elders of Karongoa reported to their leaders: 'The men of page 166Bakoa and Keaki have replied that perhaps it is not the boti of his ancestors.'

'How, then, shall the stranger answer?' he asked them.

'He shall establish his generations of Karongoa, so that the truth may appear.'

'Ai-i-a' echoed Keaki and Bakoa. 'Let him establish his generations.'

'Sir,' the old man turned to me once more, 'we say thou shalt establish thy generations of Karongoa.'

So Mautake traced my descent, with masses of impromptu detail by the way, back to Taane-the-Hero, an old-time Karongoa Uea of Beru. Taane was born a Tarawa man, for his fathers were Beia and Tekai, the famous twins who ruled the island between twenty and thirty generations ago, sharing the throne and their wives in common. Beyond Beia and Tekai, the Tarawa line stretched back through a succession of local Uea, all named Kirata, into a fabulous haze of heroes who had come as conquerors from Samoa in the south or as immigrants from Onouna and Tebongiroro, Ruanuna and Nabanana in the west. Beyond those again were kings of the Breed of Matang in Samoa; and before these, the spirits of the Tree of Samoa; and before the Tree of Samoa, the Tree of Abatoa, which grew in primeval darkness upon the First Land: and before the First Land, the Darkness and Cleaving Together out of which earth, and sea, and sky were fashioned by Naareau the Creator.

The telling took nearly two hours. The sun had set before it ended. In the long stillness that followed, the soaring shadows of the maneaba were peopled for all of us with ghosts of the men of old. Some dividing veil between past and present had been pulled away. There was no longer any time as the dead yet living generations crowded down upon us. The old men sat mute, as if listening to voices; I felt the darkness tense with listening; I was so lost in fantasy myself that my heart missed a beat when the elder of Karongoa suddenly snapped the silence:

'It is enough.'

The old men stirred; there were coughs and murmurs. Memories hung still in the vaulted gloom, but the ghosts were gone and time was upon us again. Not much remained to be page 167said. The elder turned to his clan: 'What think ye, men of Karongoa? Do the words of this man fit well together?'

'They fit,' answered all but one, but he had a point to raise. I think he spoke only to show me how important even the smallest detail of history was to his people: 'This man has said that Beia and Tekai had a slave of old called Noubwebwe. But this was not so. Noubwebwe was the slave of the first Kirata, not Beia and Tekai.'

There were arguments about that, but the chief cut them short. 'This is a little thing,' he said, 'lay it aside. What think ye of this man's telling of the generations? Does it stand firm?'

'It stands firm,' they answered all together, and shouted their finding to Bakoa and Keaki.

'And what is the judgement of Karongoa?' the clans called back. 'Shall the stranger dwell among us?'

'He shall dwell among us as our son.'

'Sir,' the elder finished addressing me, 'thou shalt dwell among us as our son. Our children are thy brothers and sisters, our grandchildren are thy children, our possessions are thy possessions.'

'The judgement is judged,' intoned Karongoa. 'He shall dwell among us as our son,' and at their word the men of Bakoa and Keaki, with cries of approval and friendship, arose and trooped out of the maneaba, leaving the stranger, no longer strange, alone with his kinsmen.

Over the next three months, I had to learn by heart the genealogy of my prospective adopter, old Tekirei, who traced his descent down through twenty-three local generations in the male line from the sacred twin kings, Beia and Tekai. That took us back perhaps five hundred years to what he called the age of toa, or heroes.

Beia and Tekai were the last of the toa. Their dynasty had been established on Tarawa by invading hordes which, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, had swept wave after wave up the Gilberts in their great seventy-foot ocean-going canoes from Samoa, a thousand miles to southward.

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Those invaders from Samoa did not come as entire strangers to the place. They and the people whom they found in the Gilberts were descended from a single original stock. Many hundreds of years earlier – say, in the second or third century of the Christian era – the common ancestors, a vast migrating swarm, had burst into the far Western Pacific through the gates of the Molucca Straits by New Guinea. The migrants felt their way ever eastwards for two thousand miles along the Caroline Islands as far as the Marshall group. Thence, they turned southwards down the Gilbert and Ellice chain, leaving colonies behind them as they went, and their main swarm, sailing on close-hauled to the south-east trades when the Eilice group was left astern, eventually reached Samoa and settled there.

The colonists who stayed in the Gilbert Islands remained undisturbed for perhaps thirty generations. Their rustic peace would never had been broken but for a disaster that fell upon their kinsmen in distant Samoa. These, after the better part of a millennium of settlement on Savai'i and Upolu, were driven forth by the indigenous people from whom their forefathers had won a foothold. Fragments of their fleeing race found new homes in other South Pacific islands. At least one contingent reached New Zealand. Another fraction came swarming northwards, back along the original migration-track of the ancestors, to the Gilbert group.

They had to fight for a landing on many islands. But according to Tekirei, there was no fighting at Tarawa, because the newcomers were led by the sacred clan – our clan – Karongoa of the Kings. The reigning dynasty of the day on Tarawa was also of Karongoa. It was not meet that king-priests of the sun should be fighting each other: 'For behold!' explained Tekirei, 'Karongoa ruled by love, not war. Its word was always "Blessings and Peace" to those who came as brother.' The immigrants were welcomed as long-lost kinsmen. And so, round about the time when Edward III became King of England, the Tarawan and Samoan branches of that far-voyaging race, after a thousand years of separation by a thousand miles of ocean, were re-united under Karongoa's peace on that small speck of sand in the central recesses of the Pacific.

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There ensued a line of hero-kings named Kirata, which culminated in the twins Beia and Takai. All of these married wives from places far away in the west – from Nabanaba, the land of skulls and bones; from Onouna, the land of bird-men; from Ruanuna, which might have been Liueniua by the Solomons; from Kiroro and Mwaiku, which were possibly Gilolo and Waigeu, 2,500 miles off in the Moluccas.

I was deemed ready for adoption only when I could not be caught out in the details of those marriages or the travel-stories and collateral pedigrees that belonged to them, or about the doings of what Tekirei called his twenty-three 'human' generations and their marriages and adoption outside the Karongoa clan to the third degree of cousinship.

Tekirei said that, by rights, he should confirm his adoption of me by a gift of land, which custom called 'the land of the adopted'. I had a hard time convincing him that he could not do so, He did not see why the law which forbade every European from holding land in the Gilberts, except under short leases, should apply to my particular case. 'We have made thee our son,' he protested; 'we wish thee and thy children and their children and all their generations for ever to inherit a piece of our soil. It shall be written in the Book of the Government. So shall the name of Kurimbo (Grimble) never die among us.'

I managed to persuade him at last that King George would never dream of allowing it, because, in any case, it was more fitting that I should always remember him, ray adoptive father, than that he and his family should load themselves with permanent obligations to me and mine. 'Have you not in your gift,' I asked him, 'some token of yourself that I can carry with me and look upon wherever I be, saying, "This thing Tekirei gave me"?'

He looked at me doubtfully. 'I have indeed a token … a mark … but would the Man of Matang accept it?'

'What mark is this that a Man of Matang might not accept, Tekirei?'

'It is the mark of the serpent … this mark, Kurimbo,' he replied, thrusting both arms forward, palms up, to display on each two straight lines of tattooing, a quarter of an inch apart, page 170drawn from where the palm joined the wrist, through the crook of the elbow, to a point above the bulge of the biceps. The lines were crossed at the top to form a fork that he called the tongue of the serpent. 'This is a secret Karongoa that I disclose to you,' he said impressively.

I knew he meant that I must not repeat what he said except in whispers and among members of our clan.

'N'gkoa-ngkoa-ngkoa (long, long ago),' he went on, 'perhaps in the Land of Matang before the children were driven forth, the sun loved a serpent. Others will tell you that the sun is a woman, but we of Karongoa know that he is a man, and that he begot children upon the serpent, even the burning twins, Bue and Rirongo.

'And the sun appeared to the kings of Karongoa in their maneaba, a great light up against the sun-stone. He said to them, "I love the serpent and I have made her my wife."

'They answered, "We hear. What shall we do?"

'He said, "You shall make the mark of the serpent on your arms, so that, when you lift your arms sitting before my stone, I shall see there the body of my wife."

'They answered, "We hear. What else shall we do?"

'He said, "You shall teach your children to dance sitting before my stone, thus and thus, so that their arms move this way and that. And to those who are most skilled in the sitting dance, you shall give the mark of the serpent, so that, when their arms move, the body of my wife may move before my eyes."

'And the kings of Karongoa did even as the sun said. They have carried the mark of the serpent on their arms ever since. And they taught the people how to lift their arms thus and thus in the sitting dance before the sun-stone; and to those who were most skilled they gave the mark of the serpent, so that the sun might behold the body of his wife and be happy.'

I thought as I listened to the old man's story, that there was as much of history in it as of myth. I have believed ever since that the bino, as the Gilbertese sitting dance is called, had its origin long ago in a series of ritual gestures performed with sacred song before an altar of the sun in a temple dedicated, perhaps, to the union of the sun-god with his spouse, a serpent. My infer-page 171ence may be impertinent. It rests upon no more evidence than this one tale. But I like it, because it fits well with so many things about the bino that hinted at a religious origin – with the grandiose dignity of its whole-tone chants; with the statuesque and solemn movements of the dancers; with the mask-like gravity of their faces throughout; with the austere, the overwhelming restraint that held the sweep and surge of swaying arms and torsos, hundreds together, to a rhythmic unison that was somehow almost terrible in its perfection. But this is a digression …

I went to Tekirei's mwenga on a day appointed, just before noon. Only he and Mautake-Maeke with two girls of fifteen or sixteen, dressed in minute kilts of leaf, were there to receive me. The girls ranged themselves on either side of me as soon as Tekirei brought them forward, and stood silent, holding my arms against their small bosoms.

'Thus it is right,' said Tekirei; 'these are Sea-Wind and King's-Bundle-of-Mats, granddaughters of mine, therefore daughters now of thine, chosen because they are virgins. They are called the companions of thy pain, for their duty is to comfort thy arms against the sore stab of the tattooing comb. No woman who has known a man has power to do this thing, for the comfort is gone out of her. Nor would any not a virgin dare to offer herself for the task. If she did, the sun would pierce her navel with all the pain of the tattooing, and she would die.

He addressed the children sternly: 'Women, you have heard my warning. What say you now? Are you safe from the sun's anger?'

'We are safe,' they said together, 'we are not afraid,' and smiled serenely back at him.

As we stood so, Tekirei showed me the tattooing comb. It was a flat splinter of bone a quarter of an inch broad and an inch and a half long, beautifully fashioned at one end into a row of five needle-sharp teeth. 'I made this,' he said, 'from the shin-bone of my grandfather. How happy he will be to feel his bone entering the flesh of my adopted son!'

He went on to explain how the comb was to be mounted for use, in the position of an adze-blade, at the end of a little wooden page 172handle: 'First I dip it in the dye, then I set it in this handle. I can hold it firmly so, down upon the flesh that is to be tattooed. And then, so that the teeth may be driven quickly into the flesh, I say, "Strike!" and Mautake strikes down upon the back of the handle with this thing.'

'This thing' was the ivory-like, eighteen-inch spear of a spearfish, the thick end of which was to serve as a mallet-head. All the courage of the dead brute was concentrated in the thick end, and would pass into my blood with every stroke.

Big Sea-Wind and small King's Bundle-of-Mats took my shirt from me and drew me by the hands into the coconut grove behind the mwenga, to where a flat block of coral between two higher ones stood hidden from public view by a great uri-tree, myriad-starred with tiny wax-white blossoms. It was in that shady and perfumed seclusion that I received the sign of the serpent. The low, middle block was my seat, the outside ones were for my comforters. As we three sat, my outstretched arms lay comfortably across the girls' knees, palms up, in the proper position for tattooing.

Tekirei and Mautake first drew guide-lines on my arms with stretched strings, which they dipped in their tattooing dye and pressed down on the skin to leave transfer marks. The dye was made of soot mixed with a bright yellow juice wrung from the roots of a Malay custard-apple bush (morinda citrifolia).

They began on my right arm. It was high noon, the sun's strong hour for protection, when Tekirei laid the charged comb at its starting-point on my wrist, saying, 'Strike!'

Mautake struck. The teeth bit deep. Tekirei pulled them out, dipped them afresh in the dye, laid them in place again immediately above their first five punctures, called, 'Strike!' and Mautake struck once more.

So it went on – dip, strike, dip, strike – creeping up my arm quarter-inch by quarter-inch, in sets of five punctures at a time, until they reached the top. They worked quickly and deftly. Half an hour saw the first line finished. Then they returned to the bottom and began on the second line. As soon as that was done, they went over to the left arm and dealt with that. The once-over for both arms took rather less than two hours to complete.

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Custom dictated that it was my duty to Tekirei to show no shameful sign of suffering under this treatment. If there were groans to be groaned, the tender companions of my pain were there to emit them on my behalf, which they did at exactly the right moments. They had been told in advance that I should hardly feel the stab of the comb during the first pricking-in except at certain points – the wrist, the elbow crook, the shoulder – and it was only around those soft spots that their voices were raised in piteous whimpers. But, as the two men returned to my right arm for the second round, Mautake whispered to Sea-Wind, who was in charge of it, 'Woman, it is fitting that thou shouldst wail all the time now.'

As soon as the crack of the mallet drove the ancestor's shinbone down into the raw holes left by the first round, I saw what he meant. The synchronized stings of five hornets could not have improved upon the smart of it. Fortunately, I managed to stifle a yelp of surprised anguish and produce a sick smile instead. Happily too, custom allowed me to indicate my true emotions to Sea-Wind by way of contrary statements. 'There is no pain whatever in this thing,' I said: 'How delicate is the bone of the ancestor!'

Sea-Wind, knowing perfectly well that what I meant was 'It hurts like hell,' responded with a scream of mortal agony. King's-Bundle-of-Mats, who was holding my left hand in hers, followed suit rendingly, her right arm around my neck her cheek pressed down upon the crown of my head. They kept it up so in the manner of a fugue, shriek for shriek and comfort for comfort, right-left, left-right, for every remorseless crack of the mallet up either arm, throughout the whole two hours of the second round.

It was even more so for all parties in the third and last round. The twice-harrowed traces up my arms had become continuous lines of raging rawness. 'How delicate is the bone of the ancestor!' I repeated explosively, as no longer five but fifty hornets at a time now began to stab me, 'How delicate, how persuasive!' and burst into a hooting giggle to conceal a craven grunt. This way of transposing an exclamation of pain into the wild key of a banshee's laugh was another of the personal reliefs allowed by page 174custom. My sally excited the girls to newer and louder efforts. Their screams for me were syncopated by gusts of delirious sobbing as the fiery comb crawled its merciless way to a finish. My ear-drums were racked with the clamour of their grief, my neck half-wrung with the consolation of their strong young arms. The hair on the crown of my head was wet at the end with the tears that their beautiful, innocent eyes had flooded down upon it.

No further ritual attended my adoption. Tekirei simply asked me one evening to go alone with him to the maneaba. Seated there by the sun-stone at the fall of night he asked me to recite in a whisper, close to his ear, the whole tale of his generations, but not backwards into the past as Mautake-Maeke had recited mine three months before – forwards instead, from the creation of the First Land and the First Men down to himself and his scores of collaterals.

When it was done, he took my hands in his. 'Thou hast made no mistake,' he said.

We sat silent, secluded together in the velvet darkness. But the busy village life lapped close around the shores of our aloneness. Cooking-fires made globes of misty-golden light up and down the lines of mwenga outside. Bronze arms and faces glowed happy and kind where people bent over the flames. Friendly voices and scents of food came wafting in under the eaves in rising, falling waves, as if moved by the winnowing of fans in the night to ebb and flow within the confines of our silence and draw us, for all our absorption in the bygone generations, close back again to the warm, the living present.

I think the old man must have divined the hidden urges of my thought – my upwelling gratitude to him and the way I was longing to use the things he had taught me, if only I could, as stepping-stones deeper into the heart of his people – for the first words he threw into the pool of our silence were, 'Yes … our roots are the generations of old. Know the roots and thou shalt know the tree. Know the tree and behold! it shall answer to thy cultivation.'

There was another long pause until he said, rising as he spoke, 'Enough! The judgement is judged. I give thee my page 175generations. My forefathers are thy forefathers. Thou art a son of Karongoa., and this shall be the token of it for all men to see: thy table of justice in the maneaba shall be set always up against the sun-stone of our clan, and the sun shall not smite thee for it, for thou art become a child of the sun.'

That was a rare privilege. The customary place for the magistracy, whether Native or European, was in the boti of Strangers at the north end of the Karongoa maneaba. It had always struck me that, thus segregated in the sitting-place of aliens, the table of justice was made to appear, in the last analysis, rather as the symbol of an imported authority never to be wholly admitted to the freedom of the land than as the emblem of a working partnership sealed with the people's own domestic seal. It was not I, but the decay of custom, that eventually made nothing of the discrimination. Within the next fifteen or twenty years, most people had forgotten the entire system of sitting-places in the maneaba. But I dare say my promotion to Karongoa's boti was useful in its day. It certainly is a fact that the villagers who had business with the court began to reveal their intimate griefs and happiness to me more freely than they had ever ventured to do before, as soon as I moved my table into the shadow of the sun-stone.