Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niue and Tonga
Chapter VIII — A Native Entertainment
A Native Entertainment
It was not in accordance with Niuéan custom that visitors should go away empty-handed. At three o'clock one sunny afternoon we were summoned to an entertainment on the square of grass before the Mission-house. Sitting with our backs to the gate, we faced a grassy stage, built, as it were, of palm trees—their stems for wings, their feathery, glistening fronds for flies, and for background the blue Pacific clear to the horizon, save for the Porpoise lying at anchor below.
The Admiral's troupe now advanced upon the stage, and we were again reminded that dignity is little accounted of in Niué. At its head capered the Admiral and three old ladies, and warriors with spears in poise danced awkwardly in the rear. While the song was in progress the Admiral's sister, a dame as old as himself, danced before us in a flame-coloured nightgown. No stately measure was this, but a vulgar caper of page 120the Moulin Rouge that recked not of singers or of drum-beat With her fists clenched on a level with her ears, this weird old person pranced solemnly in the background until she wore down the other dancers and was left to caper by herself. When flesh and blood would bear no more, she sat down panting beside us. Blown though she was, she had no intention of yielding the crachoir to the legitimate performers, for now she called for a wooden drum, upon which she beat vigorously for a few minutes quite out of time to the music. Then, flinging it aside, she whipped a nose-flute from the bosom of her nightgown, and blew soft notes upon it with one nostril, watching us the while out of the corner of her eye, lest our attention should stray from her. Whatever further tricks she had to show us were cut short by the close of the singing and the consequent handshaking, in which she gravely took her part, presenting me with her nose-flute. Her buffoonery did not provoke a smile from the other performers until they noticed our amusement, when some of the girls smiled indulgently upon her. It is possible that she was touched in the head, though Mr. Lawes had always known her as a staid matron and a regular attendant at church. We page 121were told that this dance of old women, which is practised, so far as I know, in no other part of Polynesia, and which Mr. Lawes had never seen, was a revival of an ancient custom.
The warriors now engaged in mimic duel. A short man brandishing a paddle-club with both hands challenged another armed with a spear. Contorting his features into the most horrible grimaces, the club man rushed upon his antagonist, and appeared to be on the point of cracking his skull, when he seemed to take alarm at the spear and retired step by step before the other's onset. Thus by alternate rushes the fight swayed to and fro, until both the duellists were out of breath and gave place to others. The feints were so cleverly done that more than once I feared for a moment that they had lost their heads in the excitement, and that one or the other would receive a dangerous wound. What they must have looked in war paint, with tangled locks over their eyes and matted beards chewed between their teeth, it was easy to imagine, and I think that the success of the performance, which was so popular that we had to interfere when we had had enough of it, was due to the fact that it was not play-acting at all, but actual warfare as it was waged in page 122the old days; for, as I shall presently explain, there is good reason to believe that hand-to-hand fighting was seldom more than a series of feints persisted in until the weaker vessel ran away, leaving his antagonist master of the field.
When the dancers had withdrawn a man rose from the ring of spectators and began an oration of welcome. He was the headman of Avatele, and it soon became evident that the headmen of each of the eleven villages intended to deliver themselves of the oratory of which I had defrauded them when the Treaty was signed. Mr. Lawes achieved the difficult feat of interpreting in a rapid undertone without interrupting the speakers, whose fluency and declamation would shame the average public speaker in England. The fact is that you will scarcely find in the Pacific a native who cannot make a fair speech in public on any subject at a moment's notice. There is none of the hesitation, the tiresome reiteration, the halting delivery, and the dependence upon the rhetorical conjunction "er-er-er" when the reservoir of thought runs dry, that distinguish the efforts of the male Briton who is called suddenly to his feet. (I say male Briton because I have been given to understand that the oratory of platform ladies, having none page 123of these defects, is a pure delight to listen to.) The Polynesian is never at a loss for a word, for a phrase, or for an illustration. He owes, perhaps, something to his language, for I am not the only Englishman who finds it easier to make a speech in a Polynesian language than in English.
Niué, lying east of the 180th degree of longitude, keeps western time, and our Sunday was the natives' Saturday. Captain Ravenhill, in compliance with my hint that the natives should have none but pleasant recollections of our visit, allowed no one to go on shore who was below the rank of petty officer. I do not think that, if he had, the result would have been different, for after six weeks' stay in Tonga, where every man on board was allowed the usual shore leave, the king assured me that the Porpoise's was the best-behaved ship's company that had ever visited his kingdom. But the British petty officers are a class apart, and if I were set the task of winning the confidence of suspicious and hostile natives, I should ask for an escort of the first naval petty officers that came to hand and consider the work done. On returning from a walk late in the afternoon we heard sounds of merry-page 124making in the village square, and found the whole population sitting convulsed with laughter at an entertainment provided by their visitors. It appeared that the shore party, returning to their boat, had discovered a band of urchins playing catch with oranges, and seized upon the opportunity for teaching the new British subjects the British national game. With sticks for wickets and cocoanut butts for bats, they soon had the game going, and when we came up a boy of eight was bowling to a bearded engine-room artificer, who was going through the antics of clown-cricket to the huge delight of the onlookers. The little boys positively wept when the boat came to carry away their new-found friends.
As no one has yet done justice to the enormous political influence wielded by English blue-jackets in these seas, I will here set down an unwritten chapter of history, related to me by the King of Tonga, in His Majesty's own words:—
"I think that it is because the English joke with us Tongans that they are our friends. Now, when the Taulanga (H.M.S. Tauranga) was here, there was a marine who used to carry the letters to the post-office. He could not speak our language, yet he spent much time page 125with my guard-boys in the guard-room at the end of the wharf, and was beloved of them. One day another man-of-war was signalled. She was the flagship of the French admiral, and we all watched through telescopes, wondering whether the two ships would salute one another, and whether the French admiral would first call upon the English captain, or the English captain would first call upon the admiral, for we thought that the first to call would acknowledge himself to be the inferior of the other. And while we watched, a boat put off from the Taulanga to carry the captain to the French ship; therefore some said, 'See, the Englishman admits his inferiority.' But they did not speak thus on the next day. It was a Sunday, and the French sailors, to the number of about eighty, landed in boats, and marched to the Roman Catholic church at Maofanga to attend the service. The English marine was in the guardroom when they passed, and the Tongan guard-boys jested with him, saying how fine the Frenchmen looked and how terrible they must be in battle, at which the marine spat upon the ground, but said nothing, and presently he went away to walk in the town. About noon the sentry called the guard to the door, saying, page 126'Here come the Frenchmen!' and while they watched them marching proudly in lines of four, they saw also their friend, the English marine, coming down a cross-road from the town, so that he must encounter the Frenchmen at the place where the two roads met, though as yet he saw them not because of the trees. 'Now,' they said, 'we shall see an Englishman abashed, for our friend loves not the French, and when he comes upon these suddenly, he will turn and slink back into the town as white clergymen of rival churches are used to do when they encounter one another in the street.' But they were false prophets, for as soon as their friend saw the Frenchmen he threw back his head proudly and stepped high, behaving like a general about to lead his troops into battle. So waited he at the cross-road, and when they had come up to him he put himself at their head, and marched so bravely in his red coat, that the Tongans cried out, 'Lo, a king is approaching us with his bodyguard! It behoves us to salute him with all humility!' The face of the French officer was not good to look upon, for when he called upon his men to stamp the ground and let the marine go on, he also stamped the ground, and when they pressed page 127forward to pass him he quickened his steps and kept with them, as if he was indeed their leader. Nor was it better when they passed the guard-room, and saw even the Tongan sentry dissolved in laughter, for the marine behaved as if he was too exalted to know his friends, save for a secret sign that he made to them with one eyelid. So they went on together to the boat. The rumour of this thing was carried throughout Tonga, and the people thought more of this marine than of the French admiral and all his men."
When I read the narratives of Captain Cook and John Williams, the missionary, I believed the Niuéans to be the most ferocious warriors that the world has ever seen. Now I have my doubts. The sham duel performed in our honour at Alofi was no doubt a very terrifying performance, and to witness, as Williams did, an old gentleman of sixty in a state of nature, smeared with charcoal, with a long grey beard plaited into rats'-tails, poising and quivering his spear, distorting his features most horribly by distending his mouth, gnashing his teeth, and forcing his eyeballs almost out of their sockets, "thrusting his long grey beard into his mouth, and gnawing it with the most savage vengeance," and main-page 128taining throughout the performance a loud and hideous howl, must have made a lasting impression. And King Tongia, it is true, could talk of little less than the warlike exploits of himself and his fathers. But one of His Majesty's anecdotes has left me to wonder whether Niuéan warfare often overstepped the limits of beard-chewing. He was relating how an ancestor of his, the greatest warrior the world has known, met the second greatest warrior in single combat. The battle-light glowed in Tongia's left eye as he described the weapons, the strength, the courage, and the ferocious aspect of the warriors. At his recital the stoutest heart must have quailed. But noticing that the battlefield of this historic duel was no larger than the dining-room of a suburban villa, and knowing that only one of them could have come alive from a combat in so confined a space, Mr. Lawes inquired which of them was killed. "Oh, neither!" said the king, and passed lightly to other battle stories. I believe that in Niué the battle was not to the strong, but to the ugly. Your object in battle was not so much to crack your opponent's skull as to frighten him off the field, and if your grimaces and howls failed to make him run, you knew that he meant business, and you ran away yourself. If you page 129could make up well, you became a toa (brave), and the ball was at your feet, for the toa ruled their rulers, made and unmade kings, and lived on the fat of the land. We have no photographs of the famous men of old, but I suspect that they were blessed from birth with a natural uncomeliness which they fostered with art, by plaiting their beards into rats'-tails, and by assiduous practice of the battle-howl. That a whole people should devote itself to the cult of ugliness is, I think, uncommon even among the most primitive races. Nearly every warlike people do something to "make-up" for the part of a warrior, but their object is to strike fear into their enemies by an effect of noble and awful dignity. The Samoans don a lofty headdress; the Fijians disguise themselves with black and white paint; the people of New Britain wear masks. The Aztecs and the Mallicolo Islanders, it is true, compress their skulls to a point, and the Maories disfigure their faces with tattooing, but' only because what we regard as disfigurements minister to their ideas of beauty. With the sole exception of the Niuéans the Polynesian races never forget their dignity so far as to make themselves either ludicrous or grotesque. In the whole island of Niué I saw but one man with page 130a trace of dignity about him, and he was a Samoan teacher. As for the rest, from the grey-bearded elder to the smallest child, they all behaved like schoolboys. Some alien strain in the blood has debased a race of Polynesian aristocrats into Melanesian republicans.
The loss of life from warfare can never have been great. I imagine that in place of desperate assaults upon fortified strongholds, as in Tonga and New Zealand, the Niuéan warrior contented himself with cutting off defenceless stragglers and slaying individuals by ambush. Naturally timorous, the Niuéans did not even dare to execute their criminals honestly.
Their arms did not lend themselves to precision. The paddle-club was almost as ineffective a weapon as an oar, for, being flimsy and light, the blade caught the air, and the force of the stroke was diminished. The spear was a mere stick sharpened at one end, and, as we have seen, the warrior who launched one at Cook at five yards range failed to hit him. If the slings and the hand-grenades fashioned from the cave-stalactites, rounded and polished, had been accurate in aim, scarce a man of Cook's party would have escaped. But the club and the spear were excellent weapons for brandishing, page 131and scaring the enemy was all that the Niuéan warrior aimed at. The Fijians, who are often quoted as types of ferocity, expended their heroism in the preliminary mbole, or "boasting," before they encountered the enemy. Striking the earth with his club before his chief, one cries, "I cause the earth to tremble; it is I who meet the enemy to-morrow!" Another, swinging his club, shouts, "This club is a defence, a shade from the heat of the sun and the cold of the rain; you may come under it!" But in the face of an enemy who will not run away the performance fell short of the promise, and the frontal attack was unknown unless a contingent of Tongans happened to be of the party. I have never myself witnessed a fight between two war parties of natives armed with nothing but their own weapons, but a European, the late Mr. English, who saw one in Cloudy Bay, British New Guinea, thus described it to me. One party having been pursued on to the open beach made a stand, whereupon the pursuers halted, uncertain what to do. The pursued, taking heart, shouted their battle-cry and made a move towards them; the others ran back for fifty yards or so, and rallied in their turn. This bloodless see-saw having continued for three page 132or four rounds, accompanied by much abusive language, the battle ended by the invaders taking to flight. Never once did either side get within spear-throw of the other, though spears enough flew harmlessly into the sand.
This dislike of hard knocks is a provision of Nature for perpetuating island races. Were it otherwise, how could an island thirteen miles by four continue to be populated? With pigs, women, and land to quarrel about, a race of warriors cooped up within such narrow limits would be reduced to a single survivor in less than a century.