Boddam-Whetham, J.W., Pearls of the Pacific. Hurst and Blackett, London, 1876. Pp. 261-273.
Two or three months before our arrival the island had been visited by a tremendous hurricane, which had laid it completely waste. Every house and every church had been blown down, and the beach was strewn with fallen trees, and the beach road blocked up with teem. In many places there was no palm tree to be seen with its head on--nothing but the long bare stem. The bread fruit trees had nearly all been destroyed, and the natives were afraid that starvation would be their lot. The way they boarded us reminded me of the scene in "L'Africaine," but fortunately they only came to get biscuit and gin. They are very like the Samoans, and wear the same dress, tattoo; but they/have a disagreeable practice of lubricating their bodies with a yellow powder made from the root of the turmeric mixed with oil. The colour comes off on everything it touches and impregnates it with a peculiar scent.
Formerly the island was under the rule of two chiefs who divided it between them. War ensued, and the losing party was made to dwell in the centre of the island, whilst the conquerors occupied the two extremities. As the centre was the most fertile portion of the island, the losers had to cultivate it and the produce was at the disposal of the victors. Later on the island came under the sway of one chief called the Emperor, subordinate to whom were kings who were annually elected, but for what purpose nobody ever knew. It would be difficult to say who rules in the present day, but probably the Wesleyans and the Roman Catholics have the chief authority. Just before we arrived war had been raging between those two sects, and it was feared that hostilities might break out anew at any moment. The Wesleyans attributed the cause of the war to the malignity of the Roman Catholics, urged on by their spiritual advisers, and they in their turn asserted that the animosity was caused by the overbearance and jealousy of the professors of the cocoa-nut oil religion, a favourite appellation with the natives of the South Seas, who allude to the trade carried on by the Wesleyan missionary schooner "John Wesley."
The natives everywhere have their own opinion as to the value of the religion and civilization imparted to their island homes. They say the missionary came first, and told them of one God and of one religion, both of which they must obey. By and by another missionary, a Roman Catholic, came and informed them that the former missionary was a heretic and they must renounce his religion and adopt another. Next comes a Wesleyan, who tells the natives that both are wrong, and so it goes on. From such conflict of religious ideas war has frequently been produced, and the natives have become consummate hypocrites, and change their religion as often as their girdles. In Samoa a chief will change his religion to spite another chief, and if that produces no result he will return again to the old one. The natives are very quick in perceiving that practice does not always follow preaching. They say, "Mickonaree no go to each other's house, and no love one another; he all time preach he right, and other mickonaree all wrong, that no good." And so it will ever be until the different persuasions regard themselves as brotherhoods, differing perhaps in minor points and ceremonies, but united in aim and end, and all forming part of one great Christian communion; and even then it would be very doubtful whether a stronger motive for religion than self indulgence could ever be implanted in the savage mind. The results of missionary labours have been great, but another power has aided in producing them; that power strengthens its hold surely and swiftly, and against it Christian charity and teaching/can avail little. The power to which I allude is a poison, which is represented by the horrible tobacco and still more infamous gin bartered to the natives by white traders.
At Rotumah I was struck by the ingenious method the Roman Catholic priests have adopted for paying the natives for their labour. They, the priests, are all poor men, having as a rule barely sufficient means to support themselves except in native fashion, and consequently they have no money to expend in wages. They have therefore adopted a system of fines, which when enforced are usually found to exceed in amount the sum due for service. Absence from church is fined; smoking on Sunday, or even walking out, is against the law. Women are fined for not wearing bonnets when attending mass, kava drinking ensures a heavy penalty, and fishing on holy days in strictly forbidden. The chief source of revenue comes from absence from church, as service goes on two or three times a day, and most probably just when the poor people are fishing or cultivating the ground. The fines go on increasing in geometrical progression until the patience of the debtor gives way, when he either changes his religion or passes through the bankruptcy court and begins anew.
The natives have a tradition concerning the origin of Rotumah. Many ages ago they say it was only a rock, but a man and woman swam across the sea with baskets of earth upon their shoulders and there deposited it. From the earth thus amassed sprang the fertility with which the island is now clothed, a result due to the providence of the original couple--Adam and Eve. The houses are built on terraces made of earth and stone, and levelled off with fine sand, so that in wet weather the inmates always have a dry floor. Every village has its peculiar burial ground, which is constructed by building a stone wall four or five feet high, and filling it on the inner side with sand. The bodies are only just deposited beneath the sand, and after a few months a large stone is placed on the top, the size of the stone being regulated by the importance of the dead. Some stones that I saw could not have weighed less than five or six tons, and the violence of the late hurricane may be imagined from the fact that these huge blocks of stone had been lifted from their positions by the waves, the burial ground not being far from the sea shore, and lay piled up in heaps at some distance from their original locality. The loss of the bones of their ancestors which were swept off by the sea was a great grief to the natives, who regarded it as a greater calamity than the impending famine. The placing of the large stones is the occasion for a grand festival, which is provided by the relative of the deceased, and the bigger the stone the grander is the feast. The size of the block is also a criterion by which the intensity of the grief of the bereaved may be judged, just as in their imagination the louder their lamentations for the departed, and the more painful the injuries they inflict on themselves, the greater is the affection they display toward the friends and relatives they have lost.
They have several modes of expressing grief, such as burning rows of spots about the size of a wafer on the body, an operation so painful that the sufferer is unable to lie flown for many days after. Cutting off the first joint of the little finger is a very favourite sign of grief, and in Samoa I have seen women minus the first joint of both little fingers. Beating the head, pommelling the face, and rubbing the skin off it are other expressions of intense sorrow; but as these modes are not so painful as the others, they are chiefly adopted by the men who thoughtfully give up to the women the higher tokens of suffering.
Like all Polynesians the natives of Rotumah are very superstitious. Amongst other peculiarities they have a great reverence for snakes, and will never allow one of their large black ones to be killed. They make pets of them, feed them, and distinguish them by proper names. It is amusing to see a snake glide up a tree with its whole body extended in a straightline, ascending as easily as a native climbs a palm. They are very fond of basking in the sun, and might be seen continually stretched out on the branches of trees enjoying a siesta. These black snakes are not poisonous, but they have an unpleasant habit of tying themselves in a bow round chickens and other poultry. Whilst on the island I saw a curious instance of snake reverence. An old lady was standing outside her house rubbing a black snake, which lay stretched out on the low eaves, with cocoa nut oil and talking to it in a most earnest manner. I asked what she was saying, and found out that she was telling the snake that she had no food for it, all the chickens having been eaten, and that there were no eggs, but if it would go up to the chief's house it would find plenty to eat. The reptile did not, however, seem inclined to move, but the next day I met it actually going along the path which led to the chief's house, and the old lady walking behind, conversing with it with the greatest animation.
Amongst the numerous methods employed for catching fish at Rotumah, that of poisoning is frequently adopted. The natives are acquainted with the properties of most trees and shrubs, and from the nut of a very deadly plant they prepare a paste which they drop into the hollows of the rocks where the fish lie. Almost immediately the fish become intoxicated, and rise to the surface of the water. Sometimes they make a powder of the poison, and throw it into the streams at whose mouths the fish congregate, and great numbers are taken in this way.
There are several extinct craters on the island, the abode of the spirit chiefs, and trees grow to the very edge of the largest whose depths are said to be unfathomable. Some years ago a party of New Zealanders landed on the island, and one of their number dying, his body was carried to the mouth of this crater and launched into its depths, thereby ensuring, as they thought, a speedy voyage to heaven. I suppose if they had wished him to proceed to the other place, they would have sent him up in a balloon.
Having had enough of volcanoes at the Sandwich Islands, I did not visit this one and was told afterwards, as is invariably the case, that I ought to have done so as it was worth seeing. One of the most interesting excursions to be made from Rotumah is to Split Island, about nine or ten miles distant. The name of this island is derived from its singular formation, which seems as if it had been the result of a convulsion which had rent the island asunder; and when the abyss yawned, an enormous block of rock must have fallen from the top and become firmly wedged about one third of the distance down, forming a natural bridge connecting the two sides. The passage underneath the bridge is only just wide enough to admit of a canoe being paddled through, and is about seventy or eighty yards long. The island is a wall of rock, and between five and six hundred feet in height. When viewed from the sea, this remarkable passage bears a stiking (sic) resemblance to the "Grey Man's Path," at Fairhead on the North Eastern shore of Antrim. The natives have a saying the "he who does not visit Auth Luna, will die a fool." Auth Luna is the native name of Split Island, and means the "hollow stone." First visits to the island are made the occasion of great feasting and dancing, and days are often passed on the narrow summit, on which there are a few cocoa nut trees, and coarse grass and shrubs.
Immense quantities of sea birds congregate there, and the natives, who are splendid cragsmen, go to catch them for the sake of their eggs. As we approached the passage, we found a smooth swell sweeping through it in long glassy undulations. The water looked of unknown depth, and the rocky walls rose up perpendicularly from the edge. After paddling through, we found ourselves in a crescent shaped bay (the Hollow), where the water seethed and foamed in a wild and furious manner, not very pleasant, considering we had to land there. The skilful natives, however, take advantage of the crest of a wave, and springing into the foam drag the canoe on to a small bit of shelving beach where we can land without getting very wet. The ascent to the summit is rather dangerous on account of its steepness, and the projecting rocks round which you have to creep, their slippery sides affording a very insecure grip, and consequently little protection against a sheer fall below of about two hundred feet. Having arrived at the top, the bird catcher uncoils the rope he has brought with him, and to which are attached a number of thin cords, and fastens one end round a projection over the precipice, allowing the other to dangle in the air. Then seizing the rope he cooly walks over the edge of the rocky wall and steps down its precipitous sides.
When he reaches the bridge he commences his pursuit of the young birds, whose parents whirl about in thousands over the intruder's head, making his position to all appearance one of extreme peril. He heeds, however, neither the noise nor the flapping, but catching as many birds as he wants, ties them by their necks to the/cords. Then leaving the bridge he descends still farther, and in the caves and recesses of the cliff finds eggs in sufficient numbers to fill the little grass baskets which are also attached to some of the cords, and finally he returns up the precipitous side of the cliff as easily as he had descended. The natives catch great numbers of birds at night also by means of bag nets, which resemble butterfly nets, and are used in the same way. I was told that it was an extraordinary sight to see these cragsmen creeping along paths that no goat would attempt, scaring the wild fowl from their roosting places, and dexterously catching them in the nets as they fly about.
It must be a very entertaining spectacle to see the landing on the occasion of a feast, as very often the only means of reaching the shore is by swimming through the surf. As pigs constitute the principal portion of the food, they have to be landed as well; and so the legs of the poor animals being tied, they are pitched over board. The men, women and children immediately jump in after them, and tucking them under their arms swim off with them, diving with the great dexterity under the heavy rolling waves before they can break, and carrying the little grunters with them.
A small island called Attan, about eight miles off, is another favourite resort of the natives for feasting, but it is even more difficult of access than Auth Luna owing to the reef which entirely surrounds it. When a party does go there, care is always taken to provide sufficient provisions for a long stay, as owing to atmospherical transitions peculiar to these islands, the heavy surf on the reef may prevent a return for weeks. There is a story that once over a hundred natives who had gone there on a pleasure excursion were reduced to eating grass. For two weeks they were surrounded by such a foaming sea of breakers that no canoe could face them; and in one attempt three were dashed to pieces on the rocks, and their occupants killed. The captives on the rock were at last rescued by the Wea islanders, who are the boldest sailors and swimmers, and the most dexterous cragsmen of all the islanders in those parts. These men loaded their canoes with provisions, and approached the reef as near as they could with safety. Then they plunged into the surf, carrying the provisions with them. Had it not been for this timely aid all would have perished. When the Wea islanders returned to their canoes no one attempted to follow them, as it was a feat of boldness and dexterity peculiar to themselves.
The natives of Rotumah will probably be employed in large numbers in Fiji, as they are splendid sailors and inclined to industry. Their mats are considered superior to most in the Pacific, and I saw some straw hats of native workmanship that might almost have passed for Manila or Panama work. We remained some days off the island, taking in cocoa nut oil, which was floated off to the ship in casks, and when no more was to be obtained we left for Fiji. Floating the casks gave a good proof of the lasting powers of the natives in the water. The casks were always tied one to another, and towed from the beach at high tide by boats; but in order to prevent their breaking away, a native swam behind them keeping them in position, and after arrival at the vessel remained in the water to fasten the ropes by which the casks were hoisted on board. This was invariably a long, tedious proceeding, and now and then a couple of natives would remain in the water for nine or ten hours at a stretch, working hard all the time with their hands and paddling with their feet to keep themselves afloat. They seemed regardless of sharks, several of which I frequently saw gliding stealthily around the ship.