Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niue and Tonga
Chapter I — The Island and Its People
The Island and Its People
"To Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, the first kingdom of all the kingdoms of the world.
"We the chiefs and rulers and governors of Niué-Fekai desire to pray Your Majesty, if it be your pleasure, to stretch out towards us your mighty hand, that Niué may hide herself in it and be safe. We are afraid lest some other powerful nation should come and trouble us, and take possession of our island, as some islands in this quarter of the world have been taken by great nations. On account of this we are troubled, but we leave it with you to do as seems best to you. If you send the flag of Britain, it is well; or if you send a Commissioner to reside among us, that also will be well.page 2
"Our king, Tuitonga, died on the 13th July last, but before he died he wished to write to Your Majesty, and beg you to send the powerful flag of Britain to unfurl in this island of Niué, in order that this weak island of ours might be strong. It was from your country that men first came to this island to make known the name of the Lord, and through them this land of Niué-Fekai became enlightened; then, for the first time, this people knew that there were other lands in the world. Therefore the people of this land rejoice in you and in your kingdom. This land is enlightened by the gospel of Jesus Christ brought by the subjects of Your Majesty, and that is why we make this petition.
"That is all we have to say. May Your Majesty the Queen and your powerful kingdom be blessed, together with the kingdom of Niué, in the kingdom of Heaven.
"I, Fataäiki, write this letter."
Thus wrote Fataäiki, King of Niué, otherwise known as Savage Island, thirteen years ago.
The first request for a protectorate was made to a missionary as early as 1859, when the page 3people were in the first heat of conversion to Christianity, this seems to have gone no further. But King Fataäiki's letter reached its destination, and England, "the first kingdom of all the kingdoms of the world," England the earth-hungry and insatiable (as others see her), took thirteen years to think it over, and then, having received a second letter more precisely worded reluctantly consented. It is an object-lesson of the way in which we blunder into Empire
It was not until the Germans began to develop their plantations in Samoa that Niué was discovered to have a value. The Polynesian races, as everybody knows, axe a picturesque, easygoing, and leisure-loving people, too fond of home to travel, and too indolent to do a steady day's work, A dash of some alien blood, as yet unrecognised, has played strange freaks with the men of Niué. Alone among Polynesian races they opposed the landing of Europeans; alone they love to engage as labourers far from home, and show, both at home and abroad, a liking for hard work; no other island race has the commercial instinct so keenly developed. The number of them working in Samoa has increased so rapidly in recent years page 4that their houses form a distinct quarter of the town of Apia, and when the recent troubles broke out they went in a body to the British Vice-Consul and claimed his protection as British subjects. It was hard to turn away people who were fellow-subjects by inclination, and to put the case at its lowest, our need of plantation labourers is tenfold greater than the Germans'. And so, when we had to receive from Germany an equivalent for the surrender of our claims in Samoa, Niué was thrown into our side of the scale in what is known as the "Samoa Convention, 1899," and it became my duty when negotiating a British protectorate over the independent kingdom of Tonga in 1900, to visit the island and announce a favourable answer to the petition forwarded thirteen years before.
So little was known of the lonely island that we approached it with mixed feelings—anxiety on the part of the captain, and high curiosity in those unconcerned with the navigation of the ship. There were, indeed, other feelings among our company, for we had been plunging into a strong head sea ever since we left the shelter of a Tongan harbour, and H.M.S. Porpoise has a reputation as a sea boat on page 5which it would be charitable not to enlarge. The island has never been surveyed—indeed, the greater part of it is still indicated in the chart by a dotted line—and the brief paragraph devoted to it in the "Sailing Directions" is not encouraging to navigators. While the wind was in the east, a precarious anchorage might be found at more than one point on the western side, but let the wind shift to the west, and you were on a lee shore of precipitous cliffs.
As the grey cloud, that stretched like a bow across our course, grew in definition, the least sea-going of our party staggered to the deck. The island appeared to be what indeed it is—a coral reef upheaved from the sea-bed by some terrific convulsion—a Falcon Island of old time, only made of solid coral instead of pumice, and thirteen miles long instead of two furlongs. Not a hill nor a depression broke the monotonous line, but a fuzzy indistinctness in the drawing betokened that the place was densely wooded, as all limestone islands are. The sea was moderating; already we had begun to feel the influence of that great natural breakwater; with a strong glass we could make out a cluster of white houses nestling among the palm trees. Setting our course for them, we steamed in, until page 6the sea grew calm and the steady breeze broke into sharp puffs with still air between. On either hand, as far as the eye could reach, the sea dashed against an abrupt limestone cliff, unprotected by any reef; here breaking into smoky spray that dimmed the far horizon, there thundering into inky caverns. A hundred feet above sprang the wall of dark green timber, broken here and there by clusters of cocoanut palms that shaded trim villages, with roofs of thatch and walls of dazzling white. Neatest of all was our haven of Alofi, for there the houses were fenced, and a grass lawn sloped down to the edge of the cliffs. Before the lead touched the bottom a fleet of small canoes had put out to meet us. Something unusual about these caught the eye; it was not the canoe, which was of the out-rigged build common to these seas; it was the crew. Every man wore a hat instead of a turban, and a sober coat and trousers instead of a bronze skin and a gay waist-cloth. From one of these—the only craft that carried more than one man—a youth boarded us, and, introducing himself as Falani (Frank), the son of the late king, mounted the bridge, and offered to pilot us to an anchorage.
Some four hundred yards from the base of the page 8cliff the lead gave nineteen fathoms, and there the anchor was let go. It caught upon the extreme edge of a submarine precipice, for soundings under the counter gave sixty-three fathoms; and if a westerly wind would put us on a lee shore, it was equally manifest that a strong easterly puff might set us dragging our anchor into deep water. We might have found better holding ground closer in, but it is not good to play tricks with His Majesty's ships, and as we had decided to keep the fires banked until our departure, there was nothing to be gained by moving. The captain may have had in his mind the case of another ship-of-war that anchored in seventeen fathoms in a secure but unsurveyed harbour for three days, when the navigating officer happened to notice that a blue-jacket, casting off one of the boats from the boom, was using his boat-hook as a punt pole against some object a few feet below the surface of the water. It was then discovered that all the ship's company, except the officers, were aware that the ship was anchored a few feet from a sharp-pointed rock, upon which any veer in the wind would have impaled her, but that no one had considered it his business to mention what it was the officers' duty to find out for themselves.page 9
I lost no time in sending a boat ashore for Mr. Frank Lawes, the representative of the London Missionary Society, who, from his long residence and his kindly influence over the natives, has long been regarded by them as their adviser in all matters at issue between the Europeans and themselves, and who has so modestly and tactfully discharged the duties of his unsought office that Europeans and natives alike have cheerfully accepted his arbitration. He came on board at once, and willingly tendered his services, nominally as interpreter, but actually as a great deal more than that. He is a man of middle age, of gentle, sympathetic, and rather melancholy mien, with a vein of quiet humour, and a manner that would inspire confidence and affection in the native races of any country. He was anxious that we should move the ship to the king's village of Tuapa, for it seems that the key to native politics in Niué is the jealousy between village and village. To summon the headmen to the king's village could not be misinterpreted, but to send for the king to Alofi would be not only to put the old gentleman into ill-humour, but to imply a pre-eminence in Alofi that would in no wise be tolerated or forgiven by its fellow villages. But, since his description page 10of Tuapa disclosed the fact that the anchorage was vile, and the landing-place such that it would probably be necessary to wade ashore in fulldress uniform, we decided to brave the royal displeasure, and to send a message explaining that a Queen's ship is not as other ships, and that although, out of consideration for her safety, our bodies must be landed at Alofi, our hearts would certainly be in that capital of capitals, Tuapa. Mr. Lawes, having taken upon himself the task of despatching messages to each of the eleven villages, inviting all the inhabitants of the island to a solemn council at ten o'clock the next morning, most kindly begged us to take up our quarters on shore with him, and took his leave.
There were, meanwhile, signs of a stir on shore. Men were running down to the landing-place with planks to build a wharf, and a fluttering crowd of women and children lined the edge of the cliff. When we reached the shore we wondered no longer that the Europeans in Niué prefer canoes to boats when they have to board a ship. There is a slit in the fringing reef of coral just wide enough to admit a boat, which heaves and falls with the swell in imminent peril of being ground to splinters against its jagged page 11sides.* But there are no better boatmen in the world than the English blue-jackets, and in a few seconds we were hoisted upon the crazy pier with our baggage.
There was a smile of welcome on every native face, and we had a good opportunity for noting the characteristics of this interesting people. The men are generally shorter than the Samoans and Tongans, and their well-knit muscular bodies are less inclined to accumulate fat. Their features are smaller, and they often have a pinched appearance, as if they had originally been cast in a larger mould and compressed, like toy faces of india-rubber. Their colour is darker than the Samoan, and their bright eyes and vivacious gestures show that they have far greater energy and activity. Their hair is now cropped short, and very few wear beards, but this is a mark of civilisation, for the warriors of old depended upon hair and beard, plaited and ornamented with shells, and long enough to chew between their teeth, for striking terror into the hearts of their enemies. They all wore suits of European page 12slop clothing, complete except for boots, and wide-brimmed hats plaited at home. The women wear the flowing sacque—a kind of nightgown of coloured print not taken in at the waist—like the women of Tahiti and Rarotonga. They had the same facial characteristics as the men, but they were fleshier in youth and more disposed to corpulence in age. They had long and rather coarse black hair, sometimes knotted on the back of the head, but more often hanging loose down the back. It is a pity that they do not follow the cleanly custom of Tonga and Fiji of smearing the hair with lime once a week, which, besides dyeing it a becoming auburn, serves other more practical purposes. That Niué is destitute of running water might be seen in a glance at their clothing, which has always to be washed with water in which soap will not lather. In a large assemblage such as this it was easy to recognise two distinct racial types—the one clearly Polynesian, the other doubtful. This admixture is an ethnological puzzle which I shall discuss later.
The Mission-house is a vast thatched building with walls of concrete, partitioned off into a number of large rooms, and standing in its own small compound. Most cool and spacious it page 13seemed after the confined quarters in a third-class cruiser. The space before the verandah is planted with the flowering shrubs of which you may see dwarfed specimens in the tropical houses at Kew. I was surprised to find that this little compound was the only land on the island which Mr. Lawes could call his own. He could not even have milk, because when he kept a cow he was always having to meet claims by his parishioners for the damage it was alleged to have done. Judging by the ways of Missions in other parts of the Pacific, I may safely say that if any other than the London Missionary Society had taken Niué, it would have made the island a "Mission field" in the more literal sense. For itself it would have taken the eyes of the land; the pastor would have had a horse and a boat and a company of white-robed student servants to wait upon him; as in Hawaii and New Zealand, he would have acquired a handsome little landed property of his own, and for the natives there would have been left what the Mission had no use for. Here the missionary must pay for everything except the very rare presents of produce that are made him, and though four-fifths of the island are overgrown with bush, he has not land enough to keep a page 14cow. I do not say which I think is the better system; I only contrast the two.
It is curious to note how the native clings to the form, however he may vary the material, of his architecture. The Savage Island hut of Cook's time, with its rounded ends, took the shape of an elongated oval, and the concrete walls of the modern cottage are moulded to the same form. In Tonga, where corrugated iron, alas! is gradually usurping the place of thatch, page 16the roof was rounded in the form of a scow turned bottom upwards, and the sheets of iron, with infinite skill and labour, have been tortured into the same form. The King of Tonga told me that it was hopeless to attempt to rebuild the fine native church built in 1893 by his great-grandfather in Vavau, and destroyed in the hurricane of April 2nd, 1900, because, although the posts and rafters were all intact, and had only to be cut loose from their lashings to be fit for use again, there was not a builder left in the group who understood the art of so lashing them in place as to produce the bellying curve which appeals to the Tongan eye for beauty in architecture. The new edifice, he said, must be built of weatherboard and iron.
The church in Niué, being simply a glorified native house, was an excellent object-lesson in the Polynesian system of building. The South Sea Island architect, whether Polynesian or Melanesian, thinks in fathoms, which he measures with the span of his outstretched arms, but whereas the Fijian is obliged to regulate the size of his house by the length of the vesi trunk he can find for his king posts, the Samoan and Tongan, by a more elaborate arrangement of his interior supports, may build a roof as page 17lofty as he pleases. The ridge pole of the Fijian rests upon two uprights, buried for two-sevenths of their length in the ground if the house is to withstand hurricanes; and, since it is impossible to find straight vest trunks more than fifty-four feet long, the ridge pole can never be more than forty-two feet above the ground. And since the sense of proportion would be wounded by a house being too long for its height, there is no public building in Fiji more than sixty-six feet long—the length of the great bure at Bau and the court house at Natuatuathoko (Fort Carnarvon). The system of supports for the Tongan roof-tree is best shown by a sectional diagram.
By elongating the side and centre supports, such a building may be seventy or eighty feet high and of a proportionate length and breadth. If page 18it succumbs to a hurricane, the roof merely slips from the supporting posts and subsides in a single piece, held firmly together by its sinnet lashings, as was the case with the great church at Vavau, shown in the illustration. Far otherwise is it with a weatherboard building overtaken by the same fate. The Government offices in Vavau were reduced to a mere heap of kindling wood, for lashings, by reason of their greater elasticity, have a great advantage over nails for building in the hurricane belt.
The Niuéan style of house-building so closely resembles the Tongan that it is difficult to believe that the one has not been copied from the other. Alofi Church, a fine native building with concrete walls, is almost as imposing as the best of King George's churches. Into one of the wall-plates the builder has worked a bifurcated tree-trunk, skilfully trimming it so that each prong shall bear an equal share of the weight of the beam.
When we reached the path to the Tongan cave at the southern end of the village our train had swelled to half a dozen voluble young men and a shy little girl. The cave was a rent in the limestone rock overgrown with creeping vines. A steep slope led down into an irregular gallery about twenty feet wide on the floor and page 19narrowing to barely six feet at the narrowest part of the roof. The floor was very uneven, but in the lowest part, where there was a pool much encumbered with boulders, the cave must have been from thirty to forty feet high. Near the walls there was some depth of vegetable mould washed down from above, and I noticed that buckets were placed at intervals to catch the drip from the stalactites. This water, heavily charged with lime, was the drinking water of the village.
One of the men related the tradition of the cave, Mr. Lawes interpreting. In the days of the ancestors of old time a fleet of war-canoes was seen approaching from the west, and the warriors of Alofi made hasty preparations to receive what they knew to be an invading army. The women and children were sent into the thicket behind the rift, across which slender boughs were thrown, covered with soft earth to conceal the pitfall below. In the cave a chosen band of warriors was posted, armed with clubs. A war party of Tongans, leaping from the canoes, rushed up into the village, and was drawn towards the treacherous bridge by the retreating Niuéans, who knew where it was safe to cross. Dashing hot-foot in pursuit, the Tongans crashed through page 20the false covering into the cave beneath, where they lay with broken limbs at the mercy of a clubbing party which knew no mercy. Only a remnant of stragglers stopped short of the pitfall and regained the canoes. And if we doubted the truth of the tradition, here in the soft earth were bones—the bones of those invaders of old time; and our escort fell to upon the proof, using their naked hands for spades. Bones there were certainly, but since the Niuéans laid the bones of their own dead in caves until the missionaries introduced the fashion of European burial, he would be a bold man who would swear to their nationality.
Now, mark how history is written by the savage as well as by the civilised man. I had heard a Tongan tradition of the invasion of Niué, and when I returned to Tonga I induced old Lavinia, the highest chief lady in the group and the guardian of ancient lore, to relate it again.
Fifteen generations ago, that is to say about 1535, Takalaua, King of Tonga, was assassinated by two old men, Tamajia and Malofafa, who had taken upon themselves the duty of avenging the miseries of their country. Pursued by his eldest son, Kau-ulu-fonua, they put to sea, and fled page 21from island to island until they came to Futuna, where, because it was the end of the world and they could flee no further, they made a stand, and, being captured, were forced by their conqueror to chew his kava with their toothless and bleeding gums. From this horrible draught, swallowed in the ecstasy of triumph, Kau-ulu-fonua earned his surname of Fekai (the Cannibal). Among the islands visited by Kau-ulu-fonua in his pursuit of his father's murderers was Niué, and here, as the Tongan tradition has it, he landed on a small outlying islet, divided from the main island by a narrow chasm, into which the Niuéans, not knowing the stuff of which Tongan warriors are made, confidently expected that they would fall, if they essayed to cross. In this false security the defenders of the island assembled on the landward side of the chasm, and strove to terrify the invaders into retreating to their ships. But they fell into their own trap, for the Tongans, taking the chasm at a leap, slew hundreds of them, and cast the bodies of the slain into the depths below. And just as there are English and German and Belgian, if not French, historians to claim the victory at Waterloo, so Tongans and Niuéans tell the story each in their own fashion, and are happy.page 22
That the tradition is history cannot be doubted. The Tongans relate that in the assault upon the walled fortress of Futuna, in which the murderers had taken refuge, a man, marvelling at the prowess of Kau-ulu-fonua, cried, "Thou art not brave of thyself, but by favour of the gods!" and that the chief retorted, "Then let the gods defend my back, and leave my front to me"; that as he was rushing through a breach in the wall he was wounded in the back, and cried, "The gods are fools!" An old man of Futuna, whom I asked whether there were any traditions of a foreign invasion, replied that the Tongans once assaulted his island, led by a chief who cried, "The gods are fools!" and that as a punishment for his impiety so many of his warriors were slain that stacks were made of the dead bodies. It is scarcely possible that by mere coincidence such an incident could be common to the history of two peoples who have had no intercourse for generations.