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

Chapter VI — The Ancient Faith

page 84

Chapter VI
The Ancient Faith

The mythology of the Niuéans affords no key to the problem of their undoubtedly mixed origin, for it is purely Polynesian. As in New Zealand, Tonga, and many other Polynesian islands, Tangaloa and Mau'i were their principal deities — Tangaloa, the Creator, too august and remote to concern himself with human affairs; Mau'i, the sportive and mischievous, the Loki of Nibelung myth. Every village had its deus loci, who protected its crops in peace and its warriors in war, but, since there is no tradition of the earthly pilgrimages of these deities, there is no direct evidence to show that they were deified ancestors. One Niuéan story of the peopling of the earth is almost identical with the Maori myth as related by Sir George Grey. The Niuéan version is as follows. In the beginning of things Langi, the Heaven, lay locked in the embraces of his spouse, the Earth. page 85Offspring were born to them, but because Langi would not leave their mother, they lay in perpetual night. So they took counsel together; and some were for killing both their parents; others were for forcing them apart, yet not so far but that their father should protect them from dangers above and their mother be close to nurse and feed them. The milder counsel prevailed. Uniting all their force, the men of those days pushed upwards and rent the pair in twain, nor desisted until the Heaven was set far above them and the light and air gushed in. Ever since that day the tears of Langi, thus severed from his bride, fall gently upon her, and in summer time his deep-toned lament terrifies the ears of men.

As another version of the myth has it, the wife of the first man complained that between the Heaven and the Earth there was not room for her to till the ground. The husband thrust his digging-stick upward, and pushed and pushed until something gave way, and the Heaven went up with a run.

In those days the ocean rolled unbroken over Niué. The god Mau'i, the same that drew Tonga to the surface with his entangled fish-hook, lying in a cave at the bottom of the sea, pushed page 86up the floor of the ocean until it became a reef awash at low water. With another heave he sent it higher than the spray can reach, and birds settled upon it; seeds floated to it and germinated, and it became an island like to Tonga. Uprooting it with a last effort, he forced it to its present height, and, if you doubt the story, you have only to sail seaward and look back upon the cliff, where you will note galleries eaten into it by waves, marking its successive levels.

A third myth ascribes the creation of the island to Huanaki and Fao, two men who swam to Niué from Tonga. They found the island a mere reef awash at high water. They stamped upon it, and it rose, flinging the water from its sides. They stamped again, and up sprang the trees and grass. From a ti plant they made a man and woman, and from these sprang the race of men. At this time Mau'i lived just below the surface of the Earth. He prepared his food secretly, and his son, who had long been tantalised by the delicious smell of his father's food, lay in hiding to watch the process, and saw fire for the first time. When Mau'i was out of the way he stole a flaming brand and fled up one of the cave mouths into Niué where he page 87set an ovava tree on fire. And thence it comes that the Niuéans produce fire from ovava wood by rubbing it with a splinter of the hard kavika tree.

A similar myth is current in the Union Group. An adventurous person named Talanga, having descended into the lower regions, found an old woman named Mafuike busied with a cooking fire. Compelling her by threats of death to part with her treasure, he enclosed the fire in a certain wood, which was consequently used by his descendants for making fire by friction.

There is a vast difference in the age of these myths. The Mau'i story, being common to other Polynesian races, belongs to the period before the Niuéans arrived in their island; the story of the two Tongans is probably a fragment of traditional history corrupted by Polynesian folklore. Huanaki and Fao were the ancestors of the race who drifted hither in a canoe with their women, perhaps through a westerly wind setting in while they were making the passage from Haapai to Vavau. That it was a chance drift, and not an organised immigration, is shown by the fact that there were no domestic animals in the island. Once cut off, the first immigrants seem to have lost all wish to seek their own page 88land, which they might easily have done by building a canoe and running westward before the wind. They soon forgot how to make a sail. There is still current in Tonga a fragmentary tradition of a canoe belonging to the Tui Tonga having drifted to Niué in comparatively modern times. The Niuéans use the word "Tonga" to denote all foreign countries, and the best known of their kings bore the title of "Tui Tonga." Europeans were called Koe tau mau'i, after the Polynesian god, either from the wonders that they brought with them, or because they were supposed to come from the nether regions where Mau'i has his abode.

The oldest natives, when asked for an explanation of the name "Niué," shake their heads, and suggest that their ancestors, driven seaward from another island, and giving themselves up for lost, saw palms upon the island, and hailed them with the cry "Niu—é!" ("Palms ahoy!"); but that may be classed with a host of other native derivations of place-names, equally ingenious and equally improbable.

In the crowd at Alofi I noticed two distinct types of physiognomy, the one with wavy Polynesian hair and the large features of the Cook Islanders, and the other with lank, coarse hair page 89and the Malayan features and rather oblique eyes of the Micronesians. These latter were comparatively rare—not more than ten per cent.

The exact origin of the people, now that the old men are fast dying off, can never be ascertained; but a clue may be found in the people of Avatele, the village at the south-west corner of the island. Even now they show traces of a distinct physical type, and in the last generation the short and thick-set frame, the large mouth and thick lips were very marked. They have, moreover, a higher reputation for bravery. They have several words not used in the other villages, and they speak with a peculiar sing-song, so that, as soon as an Avatele man opens his mouth, his speech bewrays him. In olden times the whole island was against them, and they would certainly have been exterminated but for their fortress, which was taue uka—impregnable. It is situated at a place called Tepa, a little south of Avatele. The only entrance to it is a hole in the rock about three feet high and three feet six inches wide. The warriors and their families lived inside, where they cultivated bananas, sugar-cane, taro, and kape (giant taro). Thence they made frequent sorties against their enemies. To this day they dislike being united page 90with the rest of the island, wishing only to be left alone to go their own way.

It may be that the Avatele people are the remnant of the aboriginal inhabitants, driven southward by Tongan immigrants, who have succeeded in impressing their language upon them. What they were, it is too late to speculate upon.' The type is not Melanesian, though it has some Melanesian characteristics. There must have been other immigrants besides the Tongans. Drifts from the Gilbert Islands may have left a Micronesian trace in the blood, and from time to time there must have been arrivals from Aitutaki and other islands of the Cook Group, which lies to windward. Indeed, there is still a tradition of the wreck on the east side of the island of a canoe containing several men and one woman. The men were all killed, but the woman was kept as a wife. It may be that one of these arrivals was followed by an epidemic, and that the people took fright, and thereafter adopted their murderous system of quarantine.

There is more than one reason for believing that the island has been inhabited for five hundred years at least. Mr. Gill found the oldest historical tradition in Mangaia (I do not include mythological story) to be no older than four page 91hundred and fifty years: the earliest tradition in Tonga is of about the same age; and, though Fornander professes to date Hawaiian history from far earlier, his methods seem to be too free to be convincing. Five centuries seem to be the limit which the memory of a people, unacquainted with writing, can attain, and the fact that the Niuéans have preserved no certain tradition of their origin seems to show that they were established as a race before that limit. Again, in Pylstaart Island, a known colony of Tongan castaways, a complete aristocracy on the complicated Tongan model was found in miniature, although the island is scarce a mile across. That the institutions of the Niuéans were republican suggests that they left Tonga before society in that group had crystallised into its present form. Moreover, so far from regarding the Tongans as brothers sprung from the same ancestors, the Niuéans had a traditional horror of them as "man-eaters," which by the way they were not. The tie must have been remote that allowed Polynesians to speak thus of their kinsmen, whatever injuries they had suffered at their hands. And lastly, though the Tongans, even as early as Tasman's visit in 1642, tattooed their thighs from the buttocks page 92to the knees, tattooing was unknown in Niué until the arrival of the Samoan teachers.

Custom, of course, is more durable than tradition, and there was until lately a custom in Niué that is, I believe, unique in the history of the human race. When a boy was a few weeks old the old men assembled, and a feast was made. On the village square an awning of native cloth was rigged, and the child was laid upon the ground under it. An old man then approached it, mumbling an incantation, and performed the operation of circumcision in dumb-show with his forefinger. No child was regarded as a full-born member of the tribe until he had been subjected to this rite of Matapulega. Now, circumcision was pretty generally practised in Fiji, in Tonga, and in Samoa, but the Niuéans assert that the rite was never performed in their island except in this modified form. They even express disgust at the idea of such a mutilation, but they are quite unable to assign any reason for their own purposeless mummery. If what they say is true—and Mr. Lawes has no reason to doubt it—we have in this a perfect example of the survival of a meaningless form five centuries after the death of the custom that gave rise to it. In page 93their old home the ancestors of the race practised circumcision, but, the operation being the prerogative of a skilled caste to which none of the band of castaways belonged, they did not dare to tamper with their children's bodies, nor yet to abandon a rite which their gods demanded.

There is a trace of totemism in certain animals being sacred to the people of certain villages; but these animals, at any rate in late heathen times, were not regarded as incarnations of the tutelary god. Thus, though Langa'iki was the god of Alofi, the owl (lulu), which was tabu to the same village, was not his incarnation. A small lizard, the moko (Lawesti), which is peculiar to the island, is sacred throughout Niué, and this must be the totem of the original castaways. I have already described how the soul of a dead man is supposed to have entered into the body of the first insect that crawls upon the cloth spread by the body: possibly the soul of some ancestor may have entered into the moko lizard in the same way, but it is more likely that the moko was a totem, and, if only Polynesian folklore were being systematically collected in all the Polynesian islands, we might, by comparing the Niuéans with other peoples to whom the moko is sacred, arrive at a clue to the origin of the page 94people. In Fiji the bond known as tauvu—that is, the worship of the same god—has always been found to be a sign of a common origin, for the cult of the common ancestor is remembered long after the historical tradition of the division of the tribe has perished.

The Niuéans had a belief in a future state, albeit shadowy and ill-defined. The virtuous passed into Aho-noa (everlasting day), the vicious into Po (darkness), but there was none so bold as to conjecture what they did there. The virtues were kindness, courage in battle, chastity, theft from another tribe, the slaughter of an enemy; the vices, cowardice, the breaking of an agreement or a tabu, theft from a member of the tribe, homicide in the time of peace. Ardent Christians though they are, no effort of the missionary can avail to break them of their belief in the malevolence of ghosts, even of those who loved them best in life; the spirits of the dead seem compelled to work ill to the living without their own volition. And yet their malevolence may be directed into a seemly channel, for, though they cannot be summoned to answer the questions of the living, widows often go to the graves of their dead husbands and cry to them for help when they are oppressed, in the hope page 95that they will afflict their oppressor with sickness. Even so did the Christian natives of a village in the Mathuata Province in Fiji when they rebelled against the government in 1895. To make their secession patent to the world they first killed and ate a village policeman, and then carried kava to the grave of their dead chief, imploring his assistance. The office of the priesthood (Taula' atua) was hereditary. And here is another curious survival of the customs of the original home. The kava plant (piper methysticum) abounds in Niué as in most other Polynesian islands; kava, as everybody knows, is the national drink of Polynesia; it was also the drink under which the priests went into their inspired frenzy. The Niuéans alone, of all the Polynesian races who know the use of kava, do not drink it as a beverage, reserving it for the inspiration of their priests. The Niuéan priests behaved much as priests do all the world over, that is to say, they took the offerings made to the gods as their perquisites. While they were in the frenzy of inspiration their voices were the voices of the god; at other times, though they had great influence, no special reverence was due to their persons. There were no built temples; the gods were approached under the open sky, as gods page 96should be—upon consecrated mounds, or in sacred clearings in the forest. There was a perfect understanding between the priests and the petty chiefs, to their mutual advantage, for the chiefs could not afford to ignore the political influence of the priests, and the priests, knowing that a chief could invoke the god without their aid, realised that they were not indispensable.

The gods to whom offerings were made were the spirits of dead ancestors, for the gods of Polynesian myth were too remote to concern themselves with human affairs. Turner was informed in 1848 that a long time before they were wont to make offerings to an idol which had legs like a man, but that in the time of a great epidemic, believing that the sickness was caused by the idol, they broke it in pieces and threw it away.

Christianity has failed to eradicate the belief in witchcraft; indeed, in one curious particular, it has even strengthened it. As in Tonga and Fiji, when the perpetrator of a crime is undiscovered, it is common to summon the inhabitants of a village, and to require them each to swear upon the Book that he is not the guilty person. Sometimes the evildoer is discovered by the trembling of his hand; sometimes after page 97taking the oath he falls sick from sheer fright and makes confession. In 1887 when I was in Lomaloma (Fiji) several cases of arson had occurred among the Tongans settled there. Mafi, the old native magistrate, caused every man and woman in the village to take the oath, and a week later he was summoned to a woman to receive her dying confession. As soon as she had relieved her conscience she began to mend, and she lived to take her trial for the crime. A very exalted personage in Tonga, in his anxiety to prove to me that he had had no relations with the French, a matter of which I had indubitable proof, called for a Bible, and would have imperilled his health in the same way had I not interfered. The custom, which probably originated with the early missionaries, has been disseminated far and wide throughout the Christianised Pacific by native teachers. So deeply rooted is it that all Mr. Lawes' efforts have failed to discourage it. A common form of witchcraft was to take up the soil on which an enemy had set his footprint and carry it to a sacred place, where it was solemnly cursed in order that he might be afflicted with lameness. When preparing for war a piece of green kava was bound on either side of the spear-point to strike the enemy with page 98blindness. Nowadays no spell can be more fatal than to imprison one of the sacred moko lizards in a bottle and bury it at the foot of a cocoanut tree with an appropriate curse, to destroy any person who may drink the water of the nuts. To ensure the working of this spell it was, of course, essential that the victim should come to know of his impending doom; a hint was enough to lay him on his bed from pure fright. There was one slender hope for him. Curses can be neutralised by counterspells and the voluntary imposition of tabus, such as abstaining from certain acts, or certain kinds of food, much as the ancient Hebrews laid themselves under vows. When other means fail, a knife is run into the nape of the patient's neck. It is not uncommon for medical officers in Fiji, when prescribing medicine for a patient, to be asked what tabu is to be observed, for most native medicine-men of repute insist upon certain prohibitions, such as abstention from all "red food" (i.e. shell fish, red kaile, roots, etc.), or from all food grown under the earth, as essential to the cure. If the victim of the spell believes in his own antidote he does not fall ill; if he is sceptical he sickens from fright; in either case the belief in witchcraft receives a gentle impetus.

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No less active is the belief in the possession by evil spirits. Not long ago a middle-aged woman-was hag-ridden. She rushed in frenzy about the country to the consternation and terror of the people, and for several days she neither ate nor slept. To one question only would she give a connected answer: she knew the name of the spirit that had entered into her. Knowing no means of exorcising him, the people let her alone, and she eventually recovered, having apparently no recollection of her seizure. Close beneath the phlegmatic surface of the Polynesian there runs a strong current of neurotic hysteria, often unsuspected by the Europeans that know them best. The early missionaries were startled at the frequent disturbance of their services by an outburst of frenzy on the part of their most promising converts, who professed to be possessed by the Holy Spirit as at Pentecost. They gabbled in an unknown tongue, while their neighbours patted them soothingly on the back to bring them back to their senses. It was nothing else than the inspired frenzy of the heathen priests, who shivered and foamed at the mouth, and squeaked in shrill falsetto when possessed by their god. To the same neurotic quality are to be ascribed that curious seizure page 100described by Mr. Rathbone* among the Malays, known as Lâtë, where at the utterance of some simple word such as "cut" a man will spring to his feet and leap about in a frenzy, shouting "Cut! Cut! Cut!" in endless reiteration; and the curious affection known in Fiji as "Dongai," whereby two young people of a race not naturally amorous, being separated after a first cohabitation, will pine away and die from purely physical debility, or, as we should say, of a broken heart; and that strange surrender whereby a man who thinks himself bewitched will give up all hope of life, and will take to his mat and foretell correctly the hour of his death. In the early part of 1888 a young native private of the garrison stationed at Fort Carnarvon in Fiji fell sick on returning from furlough on the coast. His comrades soon discovered the cause: he had had one brief hour of happiness with the girl of his choice, her parents had discovered the liaison and had driven him from the village; they were both "dongai" and would surely die. Every means was taken to distract him, and I had just completed arrangements to send him down to the coast for change of air, when the camp blackguard, one Motulevote, had a seizure page 101in the night, and woke up every man in the barrack-room. When asked whose spirit possessed him, he replied in a squeaky voice, "I am Avisai (the sick man). I am about to die. I shall die on Thursday." In the morning, it is scarcely necessary to say, Avisai, who had heard this cheering announcement, was too ill to move. When Motulevote appeared next morning among the defaulters in the orderly room, he treated himself as an interesting case, and was proceeding to give the fullest details of his symptoms when the remedy of the cane was prescribed. It was gravely explained to him that he personally was entitled to the greatest sympathy; it was imperative that his carcass should be made an uncomfortable lodging for wandering spirits, and that the strokes of the cane were intended to extend below the surface of his innocent skin to that of Avisai's truant spirit that lay within. It is said that the corporal who wielded the cane entered into the spirit of the cure, and when Motulevote howled, addressed himself to Avisai's spirit, who was reported to me as having fled at the tenth stroke. By adopting the same air of tender solicitude that nurses use towards a child after it has been made to take a dose of nauseous medicine, I believe that we ended by impressing page 102Motulevote with a sense of obligation. At any rate the spirit took the hint and visited him no more, and Avisai ultimately recovered.

Cannibalism was unknown in Niué, which is remarkable in a Polynesian race destitute of animal food. This does not in itself entitle the people to rank high among Polynesian nations, for, as is well known, cannibalism is not inconsistent with considerable advance towards civilisation, and the absence of it may be found accompanied with a very low state of barbarism. The Hawaiians and the Maories, whose polity and art and ornate manners entitled them to be called semicivilised, were cannibals; the South African bushmen were not. Nor did the Niuéans make human sacrifice, though infanticide used to be common in the cases of illegtimate children, or of children born in war time. In the latter case the child was disposed of by fakafolau; that is to say, the babies were laid in an ornamental basket cradle, and, with many tears, were set adrift upon the sea when the wind was off shore. Then, as now, mothers were very affectionate towards their children, and when stern necessity commanded this sacrifice, they had to be restrained by force.

* Camping and Tramping in Malaya, by H. Rathbone, 1898.