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Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niue and Tonga

Chapter X — Westward Ho!

page 141

Chapter X
Westward Ho!

The following day was the Niué Sunday. It had been my intention to sail soon after daybreak, but Mr. Lawes seemed to be so anxious that we should attend the morning service that I agreed. It seems that the influence of the Mission is waning from a variety of causes. Chief among these is the passion for foreign travel, which, having been the cause of the peopling these remote spots, still possesses all the natives of the smaller Polynesian islands. Every year numbers of young men return from abroad and disturb the still waters of the island with fascinating tales of the emancipation of foreign lands, where men get drunk and swear and break the Sabbath with impunity. They play upon the mercantile instinct of the old men with garbled stories, told them by beachcombers, of the money that the missionaries make out of the natives. Every year Mr. Lawes, page 142who has devoted thirty years' unremitting labour to these people, finds arrayed against him a growing opposition composed of all the "bad hats" in the island.

The church was crowded. We were placed with the other Europeans within a sort of chancel rail, facing the congregation, who sat on the matted floor. Seven-eighths at least were women, whose enormous straw hats, heavily trimmed with artificial flowers, resembled a vast flower bed. Here and there a dusky face and a pair of bright eyes peeped out, but behind the first two rows stretched an unbroken area of hat brim, like a light-coloured soil in which the flowers were growing. From the roots of the bed proceeded a whimpering chorus of babies, and every now and then, when a louder burst threatened to drown the voice of the preacher, officials stationed at intervals round the walls stirred the flowers at the noisiest spot with a long pole. Then a woman would rise, producing from among her petticoats a jolly fat baby, who instinctively threw his legs apart in the proper position for straddling his mother's back, while she threw a folded cloth over her shoulders as a sling for him to sit in. He would then smile complacently at us as he was carried page 143out, as who should say, "I have won my point; I advise you to howl too." Babies flowed out all through the sermon, but there was little cessation of the overtone of whimper. At the end of the sermon Mr. Lawes announced that the ship was leaving, and that it was not improbable that a salute might be fired. This, he explained, must not be accounted to us for unrighteousness; a ship belonging to the Queen was no Sabbath-breaker. It was simply a matter of the calendar, because the ship, coming from a far land, reckoned its days differently, and counted the Niuéan Sabbath a Monday. If anyone in that great congregation remembered the petty officers' clown cricket on what was the ship's Sabbath, they did not show it.

Shaking hands is better than rubbing noses, but that is all that can be said for it, for, where two Niuéans of the old time rubbed noses, one hundred insist upon shaking hands. Every male of the congregation approached us in unending file at the church door to indulge in this friendly exercise, and, thinking that this was to pass for our farewell, we had not the heart to escape. Were I made Resident of the island, the first bill that I would introduce to the Fono would be a "Bill for Abolishing the Pernicious Custom of page 144Hand-shaking" (short title, "The Salutations Act, 1901"). It would contain a single clause substituting for contact with the hands a vulgar nod, with the optional addition of the word "Alofa!" on pain of being sentenced to shake the handle of the village pump until the village reservoir was full. But legislation in such matters is not invariably successful even in Tonga, the most overgoverned community in the world. The ancient form of salutation to superiors in Tonga was to drop everything that you were carrying and to crouch at the roadside with the head sunk between the knees. When the country, under the guiding hand of its Wesleyan pastors, set out to seek fakasivilaise (which is "civilisation"), and decreed it "to be the will of God that man should be free, as He has made all men of one blood," some modification was felt to be necessary. King George Tubou I. himself settled the point in his fine autocratic manner. His subjects, high and low alike, were to exchange greetings by raising the hand perpendicularly from the elbow about six inches from the right ear—an invention of His Majesty's own, suggesting a compromise between a friendly wave of the hand and a military salute. And, having noticed that the natural cheek of the page 145Tongan swelled mountainously when he could look down upon his fellows from the saddle, he further decreed that men should dismount from their horses when they encountered the person or passed the house of any member of his House of Lords. Ten years ago, while he lived, you might have seen his decree in daily practice in the streets of Nukualofa; now Jack has grown so much better than his master that all outward marks of deference have passed away, men jostle their chiefs openly in the road, good manners and respect for authority have perished with their outward symbols, and the only person in whose presence a Tongan lays aside his jaunty swagger is a mounted policeman. A fine of one dollar or four days' imprisonment still frowns upon the disrespectful from the pages of the statute book, but the noble loses dignity by prosecuting, while the policeman gains promotion.

At the Mission House the last box was being packed, and, despite our entreaties, Mrs. Lawes was generously stripping her house of all her curiosities as parting gifts—shells, rare mats, barbaric ornaments and specimens of ingenuity in plaiting. If the boat had not been lying in jeopardy among the rocks below, there would page 146have been nothing left on her walls or in her cabinets. This lavish bounty was to be the impression we were to carry away from this delightful island, wherein we had been overwhelmed with a hospitality that we can never repay, and with a kindness that we shall never forget. The path to the landing-place was lined with our native friends pressing forward for a parting hand-clasp. Down we scrambled to the boat, which rose and fell with the swell between two walls of jagged coral; we were afloat again, the features of our friends waving to us from the landing-place grew blurred and indistinct, the three-pounders banged, we were off. In a few minutes H.M.S. Porpoise was dipping her nose into the swell, the island was fading into a grey haze on the horizon, and it was difficult to believe that we had not dreamed the whole adventure.

It has been a year of high emotion for Niué-Fekai. Six weeks later—on June 1st—the Tutunekai, a steam yacht belonging to the New Zealand Government, brought Mr. Seddon, the Premier of New Zealand, who, while cruising for the sake of his health, was occupied with his scheme of federating the Pacific Islands under New Zealand.

page 147

On October 19th—six months to a day from the date of our landing—H.M.S. Mildura arrived with Lord Ranfurly, Governor of New Zealand, to proclaim the formal annexation of the island.

The natives must be sorely puzzled by the solemn pageant of flag-hoisting, for the Protectorate Jack was hauled down, and a counterpart of it run up in its stead with the usual salutes. The deed of cession was signed, like the treaty, in the school-house, two villages, Alofi and Avatele, dissenting, until they saw that they were to be outvoted by the other nine. There are, it seems, even in Niué a few professional grumblers, who accused King Tongia and his chiefs of having sold the country to a foreign power, and even went so far as to attack Mr. Lawes for having acted as interpreter at the proclamation of the Protectorate. The ring-leader had come to my meeting primed with a hostile speech, but, having been denied an opportunity for unburdening himself, he discharged it upon the next meeting of the Fono. He was busy organising opposition to Lord Ranfurly, when, in an unlucky moment for his cause, he was called up to sign the deed of cession as the representative of Avatele. Thus was he impaled on the horns of a dilemma. If page 148he refused, another would have gone down to posterity as a greater than he in his own village; if he accepted, he stultified his own words. Staggered by the compliment, or reflecting, perhaps, that it is the written word that endures, he cast his principles to the winds and signed the deed. That is the last that we shall hear of the Home Rulers of Niué.

My readers will rejoice to hear that King Tongia is not to suffer the mortification of parting with the title for which he worked so hard. Filtered through His Majesty's peculiar cast of mind this part of the agreement may not be without embarrassment to the new Resident. So far from suffering any eclipse, Tongia emerges from the late events with an added dignity, according to his rendering of the clause that refers to him in the agreement, "It has pleased the two of us, Me and Victoria…" (Kua metaki ko e tokoua a maua, Ko au mo Vitoria). To do him justice, I think that if he had been offered the alternative between abdicating unconditionally with a life pension, or continuing to enjoy his high title without emolument, he would have taken the pension; but, since that temptation was never put in his way, he is quite right to cling to what he has. And who page 149shall grudge him this modest satisfaction? As Mr. Gladstone once said of Peel, "I should not say that he was egotistical, but I should say that his own personality occupied no inconsiderable area in his mental vision." There are worse men and weaker kings than Tongia of Niué-Fekai.

The future of this interesting little people depends upon the man chosen by the New Zealand Government to be the first Resident. A wise, sympathetic, and patient man, endowed with a sense of humour, not over-sensitive about his dignity, and content to gain his point by suasion rather than pressure, will be able to do what he pleases with the people; a pompous or choleric person will have the island about his ears before he has been there a month. New Zealand has not always been wise in her choice of residents for her dependencies, though no colony has better material to choose from. During the next few years she will be on her trial: if she governs her new dependencies wisely, keeping out the liquor traffic, and fostering the prosperity and contentment of her native fellow-subjects, she may prove herself fit to be entrusted with the government of a great South Sea confederation; but if she uses her new dependencies merely as a means of rehabilitating her declining page 150South Sea trade, and is cynically indifferent to the interests of the natives, she will find herself with a new and more difficult Native Question on her hands, and her great scheme will be rudely shattered. In her own interest, therefore, besides that of the sturdy, energetic little people that she has taken under her wing, she will pray for a wisdom in her second experiment of governing natives that was sadly wanting in her first.

As I began this account of the island with a letter from one king of Niué, I will end it with that of another. I wanted to bring back with me autograph letters from the native sovereigns for the wonderful collection of Her Majesty, the late Queen. Probably the last presents that she received from abroad were those that we brought back from the newest and most distant parts of the great empire. From the King of Tonga we brought a piece of red hand-woven cloth, which had been thrown about the shoulders of his ancestor by Captain Cook in 1772, and had been religiously preserved as an heirloom in the royal family out of reverence for the memory of the great "Tute"; from the King of Niué came the letter of which this is a translation:— page 151
"Niué, 23 May, 1900.

"To Her Majesty

"Queen Victoria,

"Queen of Great Britain.

"Thanks to the Lord of Heaven, for through Him we have peace upon Earth. I, the King of Niué, send greeting to Your Majesty, the great Queen of Britain, and to your chiefs and governors. We, the King and Chiefs of Niué, send our thanks for the portrait of the Queen of Great Britain that has reached Niué. We, the chiefs and people of Niué, men, women, and children, gaze at the portrait.

"Thanks! Thanks! Great Thanks!

"Thanks for your great thought of us! Thanks for stretching out your arm to protect Niué-Fekai, Nukututaha (the land that stands alone), and Faka-hua-motu (the dependent).

"Tulou! Tulou! Tulou! (the form used in thanking a chief for help in war, implying a request for help in any future emergency).

"May the Lord of Heaven, of His grace, bless the treaty now made!

"That is all.

"I, Tongia,

"King of Niué-Fekai."