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Niuē-fekai (or Savage) Island and its People

Origin of the Coco-nut on Niuē

Origin of the Coco-nut on Niuē

The Niu, or coco-nut, is not indigenous to Niuē—I mean indigenous in the sense one may use it of many other islands, i.e., that it has been growing there a long time; of course it is not truly indigenous in any part of Polynesia, though it has been so long in most of the islands that the natives have no traditions of its being brought to them. De Candole, the great authority on cultivated plants, states (apparently with some doubt) that its native habitat is Central America. What page 19 an interesting history lies behind that statement, could it be unravelled! Whatever may be its true origin, however, does not affect the question so far as Niuē is concerned, for the coco-nut has been introduced there within historical (Polynesian) times. There are several accounts of its introduction, and if we may believe the story told to Mr. Lawes, it cannot have been on the island more than 200 years, if we allow that to be a fair estimate of the life of a coco-nut tree. It is said by the natives that the first coco-nut brought there only died since Mr. Lawes has resided on the island, or during the last 30 years. Taken in connection with the tradition to be related directly, I would suggest that the above statement may refer to one species of the coco-nut only, not to the original introduction of the first tree. Taki-ula, a well-informed man of Tuapa, told me that the first coco-nut drifted ashore, and was planted at Mutalau. The Avatele people have a tradition that a coco-nut was found on the shore, having been washed up by the sea. The man who found it, not knowing what it was, took it to his house and placed it in a corner under a floor-mat (potu). He then went away to help in one of the wars at that time constant, and was absent some time. On his return he discovered that the unknown article had put forth leaves and roots. He planted this, and their coco-nuts are derived from that source. Now as to these two stories: It would seem probable from the prevalence of the trade wind, that these nuts must have come from the East—the variable winds would scarce allow of the drift from Tonga or Samoa. If so they must have drifted at least 500 miles, if not more. Dana, in his work on the Coral Islands, makes the statement that the coco-nut will not germinate if it is very long in salt water, though it seems probable nevertheless that some of the smaller atolls have received their coco-nuts in this manner—that is a very popular belief, especially of those who are quite ignorant of, or ignore, the extent of the Pacific covered by the explorations of the old Polynesian voyagers. It is known that they invariably carried coco-nuts in their canoes, and naturally planted them wherever they landed. In this manner I believe many an island now uninhabited has obtained its coco-nuts, rather than by accidental drifting. I hold that there are extremely few islands in the Pacific within the temperate zone that have not been visited by the Polynesians during the high-day of their nautical enterprise, which practically ceased some 500 years ago, through causes which I have detailed in “Hawaiki.”* It is with this strong belief that I think the following tradition assigns the true origin of the coco-nuts on Niuē, the original story in the native language will be found later on. After describing two places in Niuē

* Journal Polynesian Society, vol. VII.

page 20 named after the two heroes to be mentioned, the story says:—

“Vai-matagi and Vai-fualoto dwelt at Kulanahau and Kaupa. Kaupa is near where the first chapel was built by Paulo (in 1849) the teacher from Samoa that came to Mutalau. Now Vai-matagi and Vai-fualoto went on a journey to visit various different islands. Their expedition brought them to an island named Tutuila, the king of which island was named Moa. This chief never lifted up his eyes, for fear if he did so and looked on the trees, they would die. It was the same with all things on the face of the earth, the same with all animals that crawl, the same with all mankind. He ever kept his gaze directed to the earth, never turning from it, lest the land and all things on it he cursed.

“So the expedition of Levei-matangi and Levei-fualolo arrived at this island of Tutuila. (Note the change in the names of the two men). Then the chief of the island asked of them, ‘You two men, whence do you come? Make me acquainted with the name of the island of you two, what it may be, and what have you to eat and to drink there?’ Then they spoke and related their story unto the chief Moa: ‘Our expedition has come from Nuku-tu-taha, from Motu-tēfua, from Fakahoa-motu, from Nuku-tuluea. We drink of the waters which are good, and eat of certain fruits of small trees from the earth. Kuenaia!’ (That is ended.)

“The chief now made a feast unto the expedition, and they tasted of many luscious and sweet things with their lips, and then they praised these things, and felt their lips and their hands for they were greasy with the oil of the coco-nut, and then they said, ‘We do not possess anything like this in our island.’

“After the feast was over they proceeded to gossip, and then after a time the chief gave to them two coco-nuts; the first one was a Niu-kula, which he gave to Levei-matagi, but afterwards gave another to Levei-fualoto, a Niu-hina. And the chief said, ‘Ko e niu ē ma mua,’ ‘these coco-nuts are for you two; take them with you, and dig the ground at your island and plant them; but guard them carefully as they grow—take great heed of them until they fruit. From them will come fruit, first in quality, and very useful to your bodies and those of your relatives. Let there grow from them plenty for all succeeding generations.’

“It was these two men, Levei-matagi and Levei-fualoto—which are the same as Vai-matagi and Vai-fualoto—who called this island Niuē-fekai. Huanaki and Fāo gave the first four names, and these men the present name.”

In this tradition we see the origin of the name Niuē. In the dialect of the island “e” is almost equivalent to nei; hence Niuē may page 21 be translated as “this Niu” in the same manner that Hawaii is frequently called Hawaii-nei, “this Hawaii.”

On my asking the natives how the two Niuē men reached Tutuila, seeing that their canoes as at present constructed would be incapable of such a voyage (unless under very exceptional circumstances), they told me that in former times they used much larger canoes, which were double. Vaka-hai-ua is their name for a double canoe. To the Polynesians in the high-day of their powers as navigators such a voyage—270 miles—would present no difficulty whatever. It is unfortunate that no date can be assigned for this voyage through the genealogical descent from either of the voyagers. Nor does the name of the ruling chief of Tutuila (Moa) help us, for that is the family name of the Tui-Manu'a, or king of Manu'a Island, situated some 70 miles east of Tutuila, a family which has held the chief position in rank in Samoa from time immemorial, and whose mana extended over the whole group, though the kingship of Samoa has been held by the Malietoa family since about the year 1200–1250. The statement in the foregoing tradition as to the power of the “evil eye” of the Samoan chief is borne out by Samoan tradition. Tangaloa-a-ui, a semi-divine ancestor of the Manu'a kings, evidently possessed this power, according to the Samoan traditions,* as did his descendants, the Moa family of Manu'a.

Although we cannot assign a date for the expedition of these two men to Samoa, it is clear from other things that it occurred in the “long ago,” and probably not long after Niuē was first settled; but still long enough to have allowed a generation to have grown up that knew not the taste and appearance of the coco-nut, except probably by tradition.

It has already been stated that the coco-nut, in the shape of cobra, is the principal article of export. Another vegetable also forms an export to a small extent; this is the pakapaka-atua (or pakapaka-aitu), or fungus, which goes to the China market, just as the hakekakeka (fungus) of New Zealand does.

* See “Some Folk-songs and Myths from Samoa.” Translated by Rev. G. Pratt, with introduction and notes by John Fraser, LL.D. (Transactions Royal Society, N.S.W., volume for 1891.) I cannot just now lay my hands on another authority, which gives an account very similar to that of the Niuē traditions as to the power of “blasting” by looking at, possessed by the Moa family.