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

Chapter XIII — Vavau

page 182

Chapter XIII

I need not detail all the moves in a game of hide-and-seek played in a South Sea capital with private agents for pieces. It lasted a full six weeks, and like other hard-fought games, it is pleasanter in the retrospect than it was in the playing. There were pauses in the game, and in one of these I steamed off to Vavau, carrying with me Fatafehi, His Majesty's father, to choose the fort and the coaling-station.

Fatafehi, Tui Belehake—"Two-belly," as the blue-jackets irreverently called him—is a lineal descendant of the gods, and too exalted a personage to sit upon an earthly throne. So while his son, inheriting through his mother Fujipala, the late king's granddaughter, wears the crown (fashioned by a Sydney jeweller out of a metal that was charged for as gold, but apt to develop verdigris in damp weather), he is content to discharge the humbler office of Minister of Lands page 183combined with that of Speaker of the Parliament. To assist in determining the boundaries of the coaling-station, he brought with him a body-servant and a young man armed with a theodolite, an instrument which proved of great value to us, though not in the way intended by its makers. By his charming manners and his hearty laugh he endeared himself to all on board, though he could not speak a word of any language but his own, and I was not always at hand to interpret. He lived nominally in the captain's cabin, but though he ate heartily and was quite at his ease, he showed the instinct of an old sailor in carrying up his blanket to the deck, where he was found in the morning asleep in a canvas chair.

Having a curiosity to visit Falcon Island, we did not take the direct route to Vavau. Early in 1896 Falcon Reef, then a patch of coral awash at low water, suddenly broke into eruption and cast up an island of pumice stone more than 100 feet high. Mr. Shirley Baker, who watched the eruption from a schooner, described it to me as a terrific spectacle, as indeed it must have been, for the sea had access to the crater, and was flung aloft in explosions of steam. As soon as the mass was cool enough to stand upon, the page 184Tongan ensign was hoisted upon it, and the new island became a portion of King George's dominions. It did not swell his revenues, for, when I passed it four years later, it had shrunk to less than half its original size, and every roller that broke upon its shores brought down a landslip of pumice which covered the surface of the sea for some distance. H.M.S. Porpoise had examined it in 1899, and had reported it as a reef barely awash, and her officers were anxious to see whether there had been any change since their last visit. We sighted it at three o'clock in the afternoon. The sea was breaking heavily, and as we drew near we were astonished to find a black hump protruding nine feet above the waves. It was impossible to make a closer examination in the boats, but the navigating lieutenant was satisfied that the restless island was emerging again from the sea.

Early next morning we steamed into Neiafu Harbour. Something unusual about the vegetation on the outer island had struck us as we came in, but we were not prepared for the scene of desolation that met us as we swung round Utulei Point to the anchorage. The centre of a terrific cyclone had struck the island on April 2nd, 1900, just a week before our arrival. Scarce a house page 185was left standing; the trees were naked; the graceful palms were mere ragged broomsticks stuck aslant in the earth. In the steamy calm the water of the harbour was like oil, and it was impossible to picture the wild fury that had beset the place but seven days past. We landed, half deafened by the reverberating echo of the saluting guns, to pay our official visit to George Finau, now promoted to be governor over the people whose hereditary lord he is. Abnormally thick-set when I knew him, he was now elephantine in girth, and if his twelve-year-old son maintains his present rate of growth, his little finger will be thicker than his father's loins.

The formal reception being over, we were free to stroll through the town. The ruin was complete; the government offices were an untidy heap of lumber; the great native church, the last work of King George of pious memory, had collapsed; its mighty roof, unshipped from the supporting posts, but still held together by its sinnet lashings, lay careened like a stranded hull—the pulpit was overturned, the flooring ripped from end to end. Never again, the king told me, would such a house be built again, for the degenerates of these days prefer corrugated iron. Already the Roman Catholics were pointing to page 186their concrete church, still standing like an island among the general wreckage, as a proof of Divine warranty, a little tempered perhaps by-reason of a gaping rent in the tower. The people were living in the open air, crawling into the cover of their ruined houses to shelter from the rain. Poor souls! they bore their misfortunes with a light heart, though the crop of orange trees, from which they get their living, were uprooted, and the cocoanuts would not recover for two years. Every boat in the island was busy bringing food from the less stricken villages, and the men were saving something from the wreck by turning the fallen cocoanuts into copra.

Next day we set forth in the ship's boats to survey the German coaling-station in the bight of the harbour. The shore is here a coral reef, upheaved about fifteen feet above the sea. The soil is shallow, but, like all limestone formations, very productive, and covered with plantations and cocoanut trees. On the further side was the open sea, for this part of the harbour is a mere breakwater, tapering away to a boat passage in the bight of the harbour, where the land is only two furlongs across. The Germans had done themselves handsomely, and had allowed no concern for the welfare of the page break
The Church Built by King George I.Wrecked by the cyclone

The Church Built by King George I.
Wrecked by the cyclone

The Government Offices at VavauWrecked by the cyclone. A female convict is clearing away the wreckage

The Government Offices at Vavau
Wrecked by the cyclone. A female convict is clearing away the wreckage

page 187natives to interfere with their wishes. Starting from the boat passage, they had annexed a generous strip of country for a distance of half a mile, regardless of the fact that many families, who had never been consulted, were robbed of all their planting land at a stroke of the pen. These families had continued placidly to cultivate their plantations, and they were now sitting silent in the road to hear their fate. The coal, the sole evidence of their dilemma, was now a hillock of crumbling, chocolate-coloured gravel, overgrown with creepers and long unrecognisable as fuel.

We chained the boundary with a sounding-line, the owners cheerfully pointing it out without any attempt to diminish the area, which proved to contain no less than thirty acres of good planting land. This being far more than we wanted, I saw an opportunity for securing a site for the fort as well. Calling them together in an open place, I announced that though England had succeeded to all the German concession, yet she would restore to them six-sevenths of this good land, and in return would only ask for a little plot of bad land in another part of the harbour. Then we chained out a rectangular piece, with a frontage of 200 yards, page 188100 yards deep on one side and 140 at the other, and the natives showed their delight by clearing the boundary and planting lines of cocoanuts to mark it. The ship's carpenter made huge broad arrows in cement at the corners on the sea face, and erected blocks of stone, similarly marked, at the inner corners.

Meanwhile the navigating officer was taking angles with a sextant on the sea front, and Unga, Fatafehi's secretary, was following him about with his theodolite like a faithful dog. So pathetic was his anxiety that his ancient instrument should be put to use that the lieutenant at last took pity on him, and set it up. The first glance showed him that the metal cap had rusted to the lens, and when he wrenched it off a cry of agony was wrung from Unga, as who should say, "Now you've done it!" For years he had been pretending to survey the boundaries in land disputes with the cap on, and the erection of the instrument had always sufficed to settle the dispute, and here was an Englishman, albeit possessing the occult knowledge of a naval lieutenant, ruthlessly destroying the mana of his weapon for ever. But when he was shown that he could look through the telescope, which had formerly only presented darkness to his eye, and page 189his instructor even promised to give him lessons in the science of angles, his delight knew no bounds. For days afterwards the lieutenant and his disciple were familiar spectacles in the chartroom, and the former, who came to be a little bored with his pupil's ardour, admitted that he had shown amazing aptitude, and that he could take rough angles and calculate area with approximate accuracy.

It was not easy to select the site for the protecting fort owing to the wealth of choice, but eventually we found what we wanted. Fatafehi undertook to "square" the owner, the descendant of a Portuguese deserter from a ship, who had found favour with the Finau Ulukalala of Mariner's time. So far from receiving the idea of a British fort on Tongan territory with coolness, the Tongans seemed to be pleased with it, especially when I hinted that the garrison might consist of Tongans under the command of a British officer. They are a race of warriors, condemned for the present to live upon the traditions of their ancestors' exploits, and soldiering is to them the most noble of occupations; indeed, no commander could ask for more promising material for troops, for alone among South Sea races they had evolved the idea of page 190discipline, and preferred to capture entrenched positions by direct assault.

The remainder of our visit was given to sightseeing. I was anxious to revisit the Hunga cave, twice-famed by Mariner and Byron. In 1890 a westerly swell had prevented me from diving into it, but this time Finau had promised to provide guides from the best divers in the island, and to put no obstacles in my way if the weather made the adventure possible. But to my disappointment a westerly swell again set in, and the guides backed his declaration by refusing to risk their own skins. I had to admit to myself that it would have been a poor ending to my trip to be sent home in bandages, after defying the advice of the guides, especially as I had been warned by Mr. H. j. Marshall, r.n., who was a midshipman on H.M.S. Calliope when Captain Aylen explored the cave in 1852, that the feat was difficult even in calm weather. Captain Sir J. Everard Home being anxious to have the cave explored in order to test William Mariner's story, selected Mr. J. F. R. Aylen, then a Master's Assistant, now a Post-Captain retired, as being the best diver in the ship. He was taken to the indicated position of the cave's mouth in the page 191galley, and furnished with a lead line and two natives as guides. There was no sea on, but the dive is a long one—one fathom down and five fathoms along the passage before it is possible to rise into the cave. Aylen was, I believe, the first white man to enter the cave since Mariner, and, being something of a draughtsman, he made a sketch of the interior, which was afterwards turned into a picture by an artist in Sydney. The return dive was not so successful. The great difficulty in diving out of these submarine caves is that, your face being downwards, you are deceived by the reflected light into coming up too soon. Captain Aylen scratched his back so severely with the stalactites that the wounds did not heal for two months.

With Finau for guide we rode out to see the famous fortress of Feletoa, at whose ramparts the most stirring of Mariner's adventures* were enacted. Those who have read this classic in the literature of travel will remember that when Toeumu revolted against her nephew, Finau Ulukalala, in 1810, the entire population of the island was entrenched at Feletoa in the largest and strongest fortress ever built in Tonga.

page 192

Finau besieged the place with an army of 5,000 men and artillery taken from the captured ship Port-au-Prince, but, after an ineffective siege of many months, was obliged to make terms with the enemy. The place lies four miles from Neiafu, on a deep bay communicating with the same harbour. Descending from the modern village which lies just outside the landward defences, we came upon the outer rampart at a spot about two furlongs from the beach and 100 feet above it. We traced the triple line of ditches and earthworks for 200 yards, to a spot near the angle, where they made a semicircular sweep to enclose a fissure in the earth before trending inland, This rift was the secret of the long resistance to Finau's army. The story runs that, a few years before the siege, a man weeding yams in the gardens above noticed that his dog disappeared and returned with a dripping coat. Fresh water is too rare in Vavau for this to be allowed to pass, and the next day the dog was followed. He vanished into a hole in the coral rock, and after several minutes, returned dripping as before.

Torches were procured and a man scrambled down. The passage gradually widened until, at a depth of forty or fifty feet, it became a page break
From a photograph by J. Martin, AucklandThe Land-Locked Harbour of VavauOn the right is the flat-topped hill of Talau; in the distance Hunga Island and Mariner's Cave; the entrance stretches away beyond it

From a photograph by J. Martin, Auckland
The Land-Locked Harbour of Vavau
On the right is the flat-topped hill of Talau; in the distance Hunga Island and Mariner's Cave; the entrance stretches away beyond it

page 193large cave full of water of unknown depth. It was this discovery that led to the choice of Feletoa as the site for the fortress that was to contain the entire population of the island. We explored the cave, and found that the water was clear, but slightly brackish. Probably it rises and falls with the tide, and the whole island, like Niué, contains similar reservoirs of fresh water beneath its crust. Mariner says that Finau had the ramparts levelled with the ground, but, to judge by the works still remaining, his commands must have been but grudgingly obeyed, for it would not take much to put the place into a state of defence again.

Surveying the fort, even in its dismantled and overgrown condition, we could well believe that it had a most imposing appearance. The landlocked inlet, with its vista of hazy islands to seaward and its brilliant reflections, broken here and there by light puffs of wind, must have been a fit setting for the lofty triple rampart alive with warriors in their war-harness. Of their Homeric deeds in the great siege you may read in the pages of Dr. Martin, who, if he wrote no epic, contrived at least to lose nothing of the romance in William Mariner's story.

* Mariner's Account of the Tonga Islands, By John Martin, M.D.