Savage Island/Chapter 14

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CHAPTER XIV

 

BETWEEN THE ACTS

 

ON our return to Nukualofa, we found that the hurricane had had its bearing upon the negotiations. The king had promised to assemble all his chiefs, and of the vessels at his disposal one had come to grief and the remaining two were engaged in the pressing work of carrying food for the relief of the homeless and hungry people of Vavau. There was reason in his demand that he should not be asked to take the sole responsibility of signing a momentous treaty, an act which might afterwards be used against him by any disaffected chief, and there was nothing left to do but to urge more rapid action and sit still until the chiefs came. While my native agents were employed in allaying the wild rumours that had been set abroad among the people, we were free to do some sight-seeing.

We made an expedition to Bea to inspect the English guns, said to be those abandoned by the landing party from H.M.S. Favourite, which came to grief at the siege of Bea in 1840, and often cited by the Tongans as evidence of how they beat a British man-o'-war. We found two of them half buried in the grass in the middle of the village, and a third serving as a fencing-post. They all bore the same mark:—

Niué Privy Mark
that is, 9-pounders, cast in Portsmouth in 1813, and weighing 8 cwt. 3 qrs. 14 Ibs. It seemed unlikely that frigates in 1840 would have been carrying iron guns cast in 1813, but an old man who had taken part in the defence of Bea and old Tungi cleared up the difficulty between them. The relics of the Favourite had all been removed by another ship, sent expressly from Sydney in the following year, and these guns had been bought from the captain of a whaler which was wrecked at the eastern part of the island some years after the siege. For many years whalers and trading vessels had carried guns like these, which they had probably bought cheap from the Admiralty, for purposes of trade.

One of our excursions was to the colony of flying-foxes at Hihifo, where I wished to renew my acquaintance with old Ata, the hereditary lord of the western district, who had not been on cordial terms with the king since the royal marriage. His village lies upon the shores of Maria Bay, so named by Tasman when he discovered the island in 1643, and it is close to Kanakubolu, where the temporal kings were always crowned, and from which they take their title of Tui Kanakubolu. The ancient tree under which they sat was overthrown (absit omen) in a gale a few years ago, and the present king caused pieces of the wood to be inlaid in the throne of the royal chapel. But the feature of the place is the flying-fox colony. Four or five great toa trees stand in the village square, and many thousands of these great fruit-eating bats roost there in the sunshine, hanging head downward like noisome fruit, crawling, scratching, quarrelling, killing the foliage with their droppings and poisoning the air with their reek. At nightfall they set forth in long procession for the banana plantations, levying toll on them as far as Mua, fifteen miles distant, and returning to their perch before daybreak. In no sense are they sacred, and away from the colony they may be shot, but it is inauspicious to shoot them in the village itself, because then they would go away and dire misfortune would happen. For every great family in Tonga has its death portent; with the Fatafehi it is the splitting of a great banyan tree; with the Tui Kanakubolu it is the roar of breakers on the reef in calm weather; with the Ata it is the sudden migration of the flying-foxes from the trees in Kolovai.

We had a delightful ride along the grassy road shaded with orange trees ripening to harvest. On either side of the road lay wide tracts of uncultivated bush, and I was sorry to see, mingled with the matted foliage, the ill-omened pink flowers of the Talatala hina. In the Parliament of 1891, when I sat on the Treasury bench, a panic bill had been hurried through, making it penal for any landowner to have this plant on his land after March, 1902. If the fines then provided were to be enforced now, the government would require no other source of revenue, for the plant, then confined to a small district at the back of the island, has now advanced to within a few miles of Nukualofa. It is a tough, creeping vine, armed with sharp, reflexed thorns, deep-rooted and very difficult to eradicate. Throwing its wicked arms about a young tree it thrusts them up to the light, choking its support in its tangled embrace. The story that it was introduced by a trader in the straw of a packing-case is, perhaps, mythical, but it was certainly unknown in Tonga thirty years ago. Unless strong measures are taken to check it, there will come a day when neither cocoanuts nor yams can be planted any more. Then Tonga, overrun with a tangle of thorny vines, swarming with hornets, will not be a pleasant place to live in.

This plant is not the only pest for which packing-straw is said to be accountable. Between 1890 and last year hornets were introduced. They have multiplied so rapidly that it is now unsafe to brush through the thick undergrowth in which they build their nests. We had lived on shore in Nukualofa for three weeks before we saw any, but on a never-to-be-forgotten day in May, they made up for their neglect. About ten the air began to vibrate with an angry hum, and we noticed a few hornets cruising about the eaves of the verandah. An hour later they were knocking against the window panes and crawling about the walls, seeking entrance to the house. At lunch-time the dining-room was full of them, and their angry hum almost drowned conversation. They were making for the darker places, the shade of the shuttered bedrooms, the backs of pictures and the folds of curtains. They took no notice of us, but every now and then a couple would meet in the upper air, fall pat upon the floor, and take to crawling. As there seemed no reason why they should not choose to fall between the collar and the neck, or crawl up the legs, we thought it time to seek sanctuary. But there was none. Every corner of the house was theirs, and in the pitiless sun outside the air was black with them. A hot argument arose about this phenomenon, some of us maintaining that they were swarming, and, like bees, would gather about their queen; others, who knew them better, that they were male and female, and that this was their pairing time. To that emotional hour I owe all my learning about hornets. The brute so heavily barred with black stripes that he looks a wicked brown, is the male, who has no sting, and may be trodden on with impunity; the bright yellow beasts are females, with a barbed sting nearly as long as their bodies. We disturbed the economy of Nature that day. Our host had a five-gallon jar of some American insect powder, and we lighted censers of the acrid stuff in every room until we had to dash into the air to breathe. Would that I could remember the name of that powder, to give its inventor a gratuitous advertisement! In half an hour our enemies were all upon the floor at the mercy of a soft broom and a dust-pan. We filled two buckets with their kicking bodies, and fed the kitchen fire with them. We heard next day that every house in Nukualofa, from the king's palace to the pigsties, had been made uninhabitable, but that at sunset they had disappeared, to be seen no more till next year.

Our escort of policemen were most obliging fellows. One was a Wesleyan, the other a Free Churchman, and the friendly theological discussions in which they indulged from time to time showed that the bitter sectarian hatred, so sedulously nurtured by Mr. Baker, had quite died away. Ten years before a Wesleyan could not have hoped for the humblest government appointment.

I was bursting with the showman's pride as we rode into Kolovai, having wrought the expectations of my companions to the highest pitch. I begged them not to look up until we halted under the trees. When I gave the word they looked up, and then they looked at me. Surely these were not the trees! But the state of the foliage left no doubt upon that point. We called an old woman out of a neighbouring house, and there was no mistaking the concern in her tone as she was telling her tale. Four days before, she said, at an hour before sunset, an albino flying-fox had circled over the village, settling at last on the branches of a tree over against the door of Ata's house. Early in the morning it had flown over the trees, and the entire colony, which was just settling down to sleep after its nocturnal excursion in search of food, took to wing and followed it. Not a flying-fox had visited the town since.

Our escort were very grave over the news. 'You know our belief," said Salesi; "when the beka flies away, it is a sign to Ata's family. Twice have I known it so; the last time when Ata's son, who was a tutor in the Wesleyan college, died without warning, and it was always so in the time of our fathers." I found old Ata and his wife in excellent health and spirits to all outward seeming, though naturally the flying-foxes were not mentioned in our conversation. Next day Nukualofa was buzzing with the news of Ata's approaching dissolution. Ridicule of the superstition was always met with the remark, "Well, wait and see; it may not be this week, or this month, but none the less Ata has not long to live"—a statement which, as the old gentleman's age verged upon seventy, we were not in a position to gainsay. The king, who is as enlightened as anyone in his kingdom, was scarcely less positive. "It is one of those things," he said, "that one would fain laugh at, but it has come true so often that one is compelled, against his will, to believe it true." Well, ten days passed, and Ata attended the great council of chiefs assembled to consider the treaty, the halest and liveliest of the old gentlemen present. I noticed that while he was chaffing two members of the cabinet, the bystanders regarded him with the tender, melancholy interest which is supposed to be bestowed upon the man in the condemned cell, and this may have told upon his spirits; for certain it is that a few weeks after my departure from the islands I received the news that he was dead. That superstition will die hard, and if I were Ata's successor I would see to it that a few of the flying-foxes were caught and tied to their perches by a string.

One morning two of Kubu's nieces, accompanied by an aged duenna, brought presents from their uncle, who perhaps felt that, since his dual role as my friend and the king's father-in-law had been beyond his powers, some pledge of our old

Flying Foxes
From a photograph by THE COLONY OF FLYING FOXES AT KOLOVAI J. Martin, Auckland
They were seen on the same trees by Vason, the renegade missionary, in 1799 To face page 202
intimacy would not be out of place. Among the things was a set of stamps for printing the native cloth,, and when I hastened to appropriate these, the younger sister, who has kittenish manners, broke in with "Oh, but I made these; they are not for you, they are for this gentleman!"

Webber did his best to rise to this embryonic flirtation, but it died stillborn in nods and smiles for want of an interpreter. As the conversation .dragged and the ladies showed no consciousness of having discharged their mission, it was suggested that they should face the camera by way of complimentary dismissal. They were nothing loath, but the elder sister stipulated for the loan of a silk handkerchief to hide her neck. As she had the ordinary English neck of not ungraceful outline, and her sister, who had no neck to speak of, showed none of this bashfulness, our curiosity was aroused. It was thus that we discovered the Tongan ideal of female loveliness. The perfect woman must be fat—that is most imperative—her neck must be short (like the younger sister's); she must have no waist, and if Nature has cursed her with that defect she must disguise it with draperies, or submit to be "miscalled" in the streets of Nukualofa ; her bust and hips and thighs must be colossal. The woman who posesses all these perfections will be esteemed chief-like and elegant, and her nose will not matter, though, if she have that organ flat to the face, she will be painting the lily. There chanced to be an illustrated paper on the table, and when we showed them the wasp-waisted ladies in the fashion plates they chuckled with amusement and derision. The king, whom I afterwards asked for a definition of female beauty, confirmed all they said, and added a philosophical explanation of his own. He said that the human eye demanded a sufficiency in the things presented to it; if they were insufficient, it found them ugly. The Tongan dress did not conceal the form as does the European; consequently Tongan ladies were expected to be satisfying in respect of the portions of their anatomy that are exposed to view. We may be content with a simpler explanation. In days gone by the chief women got more to eat than their inferiors, and embonpoint became a chiefly attribute. This mark of high birth being once stereotyped, men chose their wives accordingly, and the Tongan dames will grow stouter with every generation. It is not a pleasing prospect.

At one stage in our negotiations the king began to develop a remarkable capacity for digression. At any other time his excursions would have been interesting, for, untrained as he is, he possesses the historical and literary instinct, and he can tell a good story. I think that it was while we were discussing the relative merits of the Tongan synonyms for the word Protectorate that he suddenly inquired my opinion upon the close connection between the Tongan and Hebrew tongues. I hastened to turn the subject, assuring him that I had never thought about the matter, for that hoary folly of the Ten Lost Tribes was in the air; but he said that it was his own discovery. Someone had given him a Hebrew book to look at, and in one page he had found no less than six Tongan words. He quoted the conjunction kaeuma’a, which, he said, occurred in both languages with the same meaning. On another occasion he brought out the piece of hand-made red cloth which I was to take home as a present to the Queen. This had been given by Captain Cook to the Tamahá, the noblest lady in the land, and had been preserved by the family of the Tui Haatéiho. It was a large piece of hand-made woollen cloth, rather loosely woven and of a rusty red colour, with a black selvedge edge, and it smelt strongly of sandalwood oil, having been worn on great occasions by chiefs anointed with that precious essence. It is now, I believe, among the curiosities in the royal collection at Windsor Castle. He then told me some native traditions of Cook's visit. When the vessels were seen approaching Hihifo in 1773 there was a heated discussion among the Tongans as to whence they came. The king mimicked the querulous intonation of the old Tongans very funnily. "Whence come they?" said one. "Seuke!" exclaimed the old chief, Eikinaba, a noted wit in his day, "why, from the land of riches—from Babalangi!" (or, as we might say, from Brobdignag), and the nickname Babalangi has stuck to Europeans ever since. Ba-ki-langi ("shooting up to heaven") is the derivation which Fatafehi favours, meaning that the ships' masts reached to the sky. When the Tongans boarded the Resolution, the same chief, Eikinaba, noticed a strange yam on the deck and picked it up. "I give you that," said Tute (Cook), and from A that day this kind of yam was called the Kivi. Favoured perhaps by the cooler climate and the new soil, this yam has grown to colossal dimensions. Cook had probably brought it from Rarotonga, or from Tahiti.

Of the number of curious petitions to which I had to listen, the strangest came from a singularly ill-favoured private in the king's guards. He waylaid me in the road with a letter in an official envelope, which I took to be a message from the palace. It contained, however, a long and confused recital of the love troubles of one Josefa, who, being enamoured of Ana, the daughter of an Englishman and the most beautiful taahine in all the world, had eloped with her into the bush. At this, as it appeared, Ana's father, the Englishman, had been much incensed (as was not unnatural), and had haled Josefa before the British Consul, who had fulminated threats, scaring Josefa out of his wits. Would I therefore order the Consul to marry the pair out of hand, for, loving each other with so consuming a passion, how were they to wait five years?

When I asked who had written this mysterious letter in the envelope superscribed "On His Tongan Majesty's Service," the bearer's sheepish look betrayed the fact that he had written it himself. In fact, he himself was Josefa, and, looking at his countenance, I could only wonder at the lady's taste. It then transpired that she was barely sixteen (love's arrows strike early in these latitudes), and he had been guilty of nothing less than the abduction of a British subject under age, for her father was an English carpenter legally married to a Tongan wife. I could only counsel the love-sick guardsman to win consent from the father, or in the alternative to contain his soul in patience till she was twenty-one. It seemed to be cold comfort, for the father had terminated their last interview by chasing him with a carpenter's adze, and I suspect that by this time the friendly forest has again swallowed up the pair, and the carpenter is abroad with his chopper.

The eaves-dropping nuisance at the palace was little less tiresome than it had been ten years before, when one had to bawl state secrets into the deaf ears of old King George. One morning, while I was explaining the treaty to the king's ministers, I chanced to see in a mirror the reflection of a girl on her hands and knees, with eyes and ears wide open at a chink of the door, which she had pushed ajar. Our eyes met in the glass, and she scurried away like a frightened rabbit, but I was not surprised to hear afterwards that many of my remarks were being quoted verbatim in the town. Accordingly when the king asked me one morning to come into his private chapel to hear an important communication, I understood his reasons. As we crossed the compound he remarked in a loud voice for the benefit of the sentry, "Yes, all that remains of the sacred tree has been inlaid in the state chair like your coronation stone in England. Come and see." Sitting on the two thrones on the dais we were at last secure from eaves-droppers, and could talk freely. He told me that there were two Tongan words that expressed the feeling of his country towards England—falala and faha'a. Rising and leaning against one of the pillars of the aisle, he said, "This is faha’a: then I spring away from it so, and cry, 'Oh! but it won't bear my weight!' and you say, 'Don't be afraid; falala be ki at' ('Lean upon it without fear')" As his mighty bulk thrust against the wooden post, it cracked ominously. It was fortunate that the king is not superstitious, for the post represented England in his metaphor.

The European merchants had a well-founded grievance in their complaints against the premier, my old colleague Sateki. It was not that he was obstinate, or that he was ignorant, though I was assured that the most stubborn Carolina mule might resent being mentioned in the same breath with the Prime Minister; it was that he was no longer incorruptible. There were slanderous stories of cases of merchandise delivered at his door that had never been paid for over the counter, but, putting these aside, there was the fact that a certain Semitic firm, not long established in the group, had the ear of the Cabinet, imported most of the stores required by the government, and could oblige its friends and harass its enemies with an ease that would have been impossible if the Cabinet had been impartial. When I brought these matters to the notice of the king he said, "Without doubt Sateki is very unpopular; you see, he is like Mr. Joseph Chamberlain." Perhaps my face betrayed surprise, for he hastened to add, "Of course, I do not mean that he is as able as Mr. Chamberlain, or as eloquent; what I mean is that, like Mr. Chamberlain, Sateki says just what is in his mind without thinking, and seldom opens his lips to speak without hurting somebody's feelings." Perhaps I should add that His Majesty's only English journal is the Review of Reviews.