Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Chapter V — Some Historical Records

page 69

Chapter V
Some Historical Records

It would have astonished the first visitors to Niué not a little if they could have lived to see the island now. The first foreigner to land on the island after the Tongan invasion under Kau-ulu-fonua in the sixteenth century was Captain Cook, and his experience would have led no one to suppose that the natives would take kindly to strangers. They were, in fact, the only Polynesians who would have nothing to say to him. On Monday, June 20th, 1774, he landed on the north-west side of the island, at a spot probably not far from Tuapa, and, seeing no natives, rowed southward in his boat to a rift in the cliff, which, to judge from his description, must have been none other than Alofi. Here two canoes, hauled up upon the sand, tempted him to land, after his men had been posted on a rocky point to guard against surprise. He had not long to wait. Voices page 70were heard in the thick undergrowth, and in a few minutes a band of men, naked save for a waistband, smeared from head to foot with black paint, and armed with throwing spears and slings, ran out into the open. His friendly gestures met with no response. They came at him "with the ferocity of wild boars and threw their darts." One of them struck Lieutenant Spearman on the arm with a stone from his sling, and another threw a spear at Cook at five yards that went near to ending the great navigator's career before ever he saw Hawaii. The spear missed his shoulder by a hair's-breadth, and the musket with which he tried to shoot the man missed fire, though when he afterwards fired it in the air, the powder exploded. The marines immediately opened fire, and at the report the natives took to their heels without suffering any loss. Cook wisely refrained from making further attempts to open relations with them, for the island was wooded to the edge of the cliff, and, the villages at that time being little fortresses in the interior, he saw no houses. Naming the place "Savage Island," a title which the natives now resent, he bore away to the north.

The first white man to land upon the island after Cook's visit did so under dramatic circum-page 71stances. It appears from the account of an aged native, who described the occurrence to Mr. W. G. Lawes as an eye-witness, that a whaler was lying off the island bartering with the natives, who were as wild and savage in appearance as Cook described them. As the ship got under weigh the master savagely threw one of his men overboard among the supposed cannibals, who took him ashore in their canoes. The natives were in great perplexity what should be done under such unprecedented circumstances. Many took their stand upon the ancient law. Salt water was in the stranger's eyes—he must die! On the other hand, it was evident that the man had not landed of his own free will. The matter was settled by giving him a canoe victualled with bananas and cocoanuts and sending him out to sea. Returning to an unfrequented part of the coast under cover of night, he lay hid in a cave for several days, and succeeded in getting on board another whaler cruising in the neighbourhood.

In 1830 the pioneer missionary, John Williams, visited Niué in the Messenger of Peace,* on his

* The Messenger of Peace was the most remarkable vessel that ever plied among the islands. She was built in Rarotonga, for the most part by natives who had never handled tools before. Williams killed his goats to make bellows for welding the bolts, and, when his iron ran out, he fastened his planking with wooden trenails. Cocoanut fibre stood for oakum, but there was not an ounce of pitch or paint for caulking. She was of about sixty tons burden. When she put to sea with her landsman captain, her crew of natives, who had never been to sea, and her cargo of pigs, cocoanuts, and cats, she must have been a sight to make a seaman weep.

page 72way from Aitutaki to Samoa, where he intended to found a mission. Perceiving some natives on a sandy beach, which must have been the present landing-place at Avatele, he made signals of peace by waving a white flag, and, as soon as these were returned, he despatched a boat manned by natives only. They found the islanders drawn up in battle array, each having three or four spears, a sling, and a belt filled with large stones. They laid aside their arms as soon as they were satisfied that there were no Europeans in the boat, and presented the utu, or peace-offering, receiving small presents in return. This ceremony performed, they ventured out to the ship in their canoes, but Mr. Williams could prevail upon only one of them—the old man who endeavoured, with some success, to make the white men's flesh creep with the war dance—to come on board the ship. While he was retained as a hostage the boat party was permitted to land, but, night coming on, the page 73hostage was landed, and the vessel stood out to sea. The old man had received with indifference an axe, a knife, and a looking-glass, but he broke into transports of joy when he was presented with a pearl shell.

On the following day Williams landed the two Aitutaki teachers and their wives, whom he intended to leave as pioneers of Christianity. They were "handled, smelt, and all but tasted," and, perceiving a vast multitude of natives gathering thoroughly equipped for war, they took alarm, and rowed off to the ship with one native, whom they persuaded to embark with them. This man wore the handle of an old clasp knife attached to his girdle, thus giving colour to the report that a few months earlier the natives had cut off a boat belonging to a passing vessel, and had murdered all the crew. The Aitutaki teachers, not unnaturally, objected to be left unprotected among these inhospitable people, and begged to be taken on to Samoa. To this Williams assented, not out of fear for their lives, which he thought would be in no danger, but because he thought it probable that they would be despoiled of everything they possessed.

He now set about inducing two natives to page 74sail with him to the Society Islands, with the idea of restoring them to Niué after a course of instruction in the Mission school. With the greatest difficulty he persuaded two lads to embark, but no sooner did they see their island vanishing in the offing than they became frantic with grief, tearing their hair, "and howling in the most affecting manner." Nor would they eat, drink, or sleep for three days. They turned with disgust from meat and howled piteously, for, having never seen meat before, they took it for human flesh, and concluded that they had been taken on board as sea-stock for the voyage. On the third day, however, their fears were allayed by seeing a pig killed and cooked, and gradually they became reconciled to their new companions and pleased at the prospect of seeing new countries. They stayed some months with Williams in Samoa, and re-embarked with him in August, 1830, to return to their island. "Very favourable impressions had been made on one of them, but the other had resisted every effort to instruct him." Baffled by calms and light head winds, the ship ran out of provisions, and was compelled to bear away for Rarotonga without landing the boys, at which they showed much disappointment, until they were comforted page 75by the assurance that by going first to Raiatea, they would be able to return home with more valuable presents. A few months later they were landed at Niué by Mr. Crook, one of the original missionaries who came out in the Duff in 1797, and Williams saw no more of them.

Perhaps it was as well. Dr. Turner, who visited Niué in 1848, says that shortly after the two lads' return influenza broke out, and they were accused of bringing the disease from Tahiti, which was not unlikely, seeing that Williams speaks more than once of its prevalence among the Mission families. 'One of the lads was killed, together with his father; the other contrived to escape in a whaler in company with a boy named Peniamina Nukai, who entered the Mission school in Samoa. In 1842 this boy returned to Niué in the Mission ship Camden, but so threatening was the attitude of his countrymen that he had to leave again by the same vessel. After another spell of four years in the school he returned to his island in October, 1846, in the John Williams. On his landing an armed crowd assembled to kill him. They wanted him to send his canoe, his chest, and all his property back to the ship, saying that the foreign wood would cause disease among page 76them. He told them to examine the wood—it was the same that grew on their own island—and as for himself, how should he, a Niuéan like themselves, have more control over disease than they? Thereupon they broke up into two parties, the one for sparing his life, the other for giving him the shortest shrift. "Let us do it now," they said; "let us do it now while he is alone, and before the disease comes; presently others will join him, and it will be difficult." Night came on, but the people, fearing the infection, refused him shelter, and sent him to a deserted fortress, where he wandered about in the rain, until one man, moved either by compassion or scepticism, ventured to give him asylum for the night. Next day he began to display the treasures of his chest, purchasing many friends at the cost of his whole outfit.

The heathen priests, seeing their occupation in jeopardy, now set to work to compass his death by witchcraft, and perhaps much of the success of the Mission was due to the fact that he was too tough for their spells. Other villages began to wish that they had Mission teachers with the attendant blessings of hatchets and fish-hooks.

On August 29th, 1848, Dr. Turner, having page 77obtained permission to send Samoan teachers to the island, sailed for Samoa with two more Niué boys to be trained in the Mission school. In October, 1849, a Samoan teacher named Paulo was landed at Avatele, and he was followed afterwards by four others, Amosa, Samuela, Sakaio, and Paula.

Captain Erskine touched at Niué in H.M.S. Havannah on July 6th, 1849, but did not land owing to the heavy swell from the westward. Numbers of the natives boarded the ship from their canoes, prepossessing Erskine favourably with their fearlessness and their honesty. One of them puzzled him by repeating the Samoan salutation of "Alofa!" and going through the pantomime of prayer, intending, doubtless, to inform him of the presence of Samoan teachers on the island.

Long before Dr. Turner's next visit in 1859 the whole population, with the exception of ten irreconcilables, was nominally Christian. The five Samoans had, indeed, changed the face of the country. The natives, formerly scattered about in little strongholds in the bush, were now congregating in settled villages round the school-houses; they had caught the garment-epidemic in its most aggravated form, and, as page 78the missionary records complacently, they were all decently clothed from head to foot (we only, who have seen it, can realise the appalling nature of this reform); they had completed a six-foot road round the coast, which would "enable a missionary to take a horse all round the island, a distance of forty or fifty miles, perhaps"; they had abandoned war and infanticide; they no longer cut down the fruit-trees of the dead; they had even changed their manner of house-building. All this is an extraordinary result for five Samoans to have achieved unaided in half a dozen years.

The breaking down of the old system of exclusiveness was not an unmixed blessing to the islanders. Hitherto the whalers, knowing the reputation of the place, had given it a wide berth. As early as 1830 John Williams had found evidence in support of the story that they had cut off and murdered the boat's crew of a passing vessel, and in 1847 an American whaler lying off the island had not ventured to land to cut firewood until Peniamina showed the captain his paper of credentials as a Mission teacher. With the establishment of free intercourse the visits of ships became frequent Whalers introduced a terrible disease; Bully page break
"Decently Clothed From Head To Foot!"

"Decently Clothed From Head To Foot!"

page 79Hayes, as will be presently related, found it a virgin field for "blackbirding."
The first European missionary who settled on the island was the Rev. G. Pratt, who was followed a few months later by the Rev. W. G. Lawes, now the head of the London Mission in New Guinea, the elder brother of our kind host. He came out direct from England with his wife in August, 1861, and found himself priest, prime minister, lawgiver, and physician all in one. He must have suffered terribly from the strain of isolation. Occasionally he obtained American papers from passing whalers—in one case a ship calling in 1862 supplied him with a Boston journal of 1834—but oftener he had the mortification of seeing ships pass in the offing without communicating with the shore. More than once English men-of-war actually had communication with the natives, but left again without knowing that there were white people on the island, or that there was a practicable landing-place.* Mr.

* The vile anchorages of Niué are responsible for the loneliness of the Europeans. Even in these days of more or less regular steam communication among the islands the visits of ships are so rare that the Europeans have come to believe in omens foretelling their arrival. An insect settling on the dining-table is one of these, and the Mission party laughingly recalled the fact that this portent had raised their hopes two days before our arrival. Never were people so easy to entertain. It happened that the captain had some new carbons of French make to test in his searchlight, and the people took his experiments to be a display of fireworks for their amusement. The brilliant flashes, which, in the more sophisticated islands would not have drawn an European to his door, were watched with rapture, and every native who was entangled in the dazzling beam went frantic with delight.

page 80Lawes' first intercourse with Englishmen took place in June, 1862, when H.M.S. Fawn (Captain Cator), the first steam vessel to visit Niué, put in, expecting to find the natives as Cook and Williams described them. Lieutenant Hood has left us an interesting account of this visit.* The natives were then in the first blush of their conversion. Less sophisticated than they are now, and as warm-hearted, they overwhelmed their visitors with the heartiness of their welcome. "Pleasant surprises," wrote Mr. Hood, "are amongst the most agreeable things in life. I don't remember ever being better pleased than with our reception at Savage Island." But the fever of foreign travel had already seized upon them. They importuned the captain to give them a passage in the ship; and it was then common, some days after whalers had left the coast, for two or three half-starved wretches to make their appearance from

* The Cruise of H.M.S. "Fawn," by T. H. Hood, London, 1862.

page 81the hold. Force had generally to be used to drive the would-be emigrants into their canoes when a vessel was leaving, and it was reported that among the unhappy wretches labouring in slavery in the guano pits of the Chincha Islands were a few Savage Islanders.

The great enemy to the prosperity of the island is the labour trade. It began in 1865, when the Germans took a number of young men to work on their plantations in Samoa. In 1871 Messrs. Grice Sumner carried a number of men to Malden Island at a wage of ten dollars a month, half in trade and half in English money, with one month's wages paid in advance. This has been the regulation wage since that date, and it is not surprising that the island has been depopulated of its young men, for it is double the profit that can be made by tillage of the land in its present state, with the attractions of foreign travel thrown in. Nevertheless, if they only knew it, the Niuéans might become passing rich if they would stay at home and bestow their labour on the planting of cocoanuts.

In early life Mr. Head had been in the employment of Bully Hayes, the pirate. In the intervals of piracy Mr. Hayes had passed as a law-abiding trader, and it was only when he page 82wearied of the slow returns accruing from the sale of calico that he turned to means of quicker profit. One day, in 1868, he put in unexpectedly at Alofi, and made himself so agreeable to the natives that sixty of them came off to his vessel to gloat over the wonder of a foreign ship. With that he slipped his cable and stood out to sea. The indignation of the islanders at this outrage knew no bounds. It was at its height when one morning, a week later, the joyful news spread that the ship was returning. Mr. Hayes landed alone, and met Mr. Head on the village green before all the natives. He was in high spirits, and had a ready answer to Mr. Head's reproaches. "I told the beggars that I was going to sail," he said, "but they wouldn't leave the ship. I couldn't stay here a month. What could I do?" The men, he told the natives, were all right. Finding that he had not provisions enough for so large a company, he had landed them at a nice little island to the northward, and had returned for food and water for the return voyage. If he had meant to kidnap them, would he have returned like this? The story was thin, but the natives were in no mood to test it. Provisions were shipped in quantities, and the crew of Aitutaki men landed and made friends with the page 83people. That night word was brought to Mr. Head that these gentry had made plans to elope with a number of girls, whose heads they had turned with stories of foreign travel. He went at once to the chiefs, and a guard was despatched hotfoot to the beach, only to make out the schooner's lights in the offing. When they called the roll they found that more than thirty girls were missing. This was the last time Bully Hayes visited Niué. It was not till long afterwards that Mr. Head heard the sequel to the story. Re-embarking the men, whom he found half-starving, Hayes set sail for Tahiti, where he disposed of the whole of his cargo to the highest bidder, or, as he chose to put it, to the planter who paid the highest sum for their passage money. He had promised to bring them back in two years, but they heard no more of him. Many died in Tahiti; a few found their way to Samoa and Queensland; a remnant, in which was King Tongia's daughter, now a middle-aged woman, returned to Niué; the rest had scattered, who knows whither?