Read CHAPTER XI of Two Years with the Natives in the Western Pacific , free online book, by Felix Speiser, on ReadCentral.com.

AMBRYM

It was a miserable little boat in which I sailed from Nouméa. We were to have started on a Monday, but it was Friday before we got off. The boat was overloaded. On deck there was a quantity of timber, also cattle, pigs, sheep and calves, all very seasick and uncomfortable. The deck was almost on a level with the water, and even while still inside the reef occasional waves broke over the gunwale and flooded the ship. At nightfall we entered the open ocean. Now the waves began to pour on to the deck from all sides, and the bow of the vessel dived into the sea as if it were never going to rise again. The night was dark, shreds of cloud raced across a steel-grey sky, while a greenish patch showed the position of the moon. At the horizon glistened an uncertain light, but the sea was a black abyss, out of which the phosphorescent waves appeared suddenly, rolled swiftly nearer and broke over the ship as if poured down from above.

I looked on without another thought save that of pity for the poor sick calves, when the captain whispered in my ear that things looked bad, as the ship was much too heavily loaded. In the darkness I could see nothing but that the boat was very deep in the water, and that her bow, instead of rising on the waves, dug into them. On deck a quantity of water ran backward and forward in a wave as high as the bulwarks, and it seemed as if the ship could scarcely right herself when once she lay over on one side. The growing excitement of the captain, his nervous consultations with the engineer and the supercargo, were most uncomfortable; presently the passengers began to take part in the deliberations, and to observe the behaviour of the ship. As our course gave us a sidewise current, the captain ordered the sails to be hoisted, in order to lessen the rolling; but the sea was too heavy, and we shipped still more water and rolled alarmingly. The captain sighed, ran hither and thither, then lowered the sails and took a more westerly course, in the direction of one of the Loyalty Islands; thus we had the current from behind, which made things still worse, as the sea, rolling along the ship, filled the deck from both sides; and as the bulwarks were blocked up by the lumber, the water could not run off, thus adding an enormous weight to the already overloaded ship; the water ran forward, pressing down the bow, while the stern reared upward.

When the captain saw the state of affairs, he lost his head completely, and began to lament piteously: “We do not want to drown, no, we do not want to drown; but we are going to. Oh, my poor wife and children! Do you like to drown, doctor?” I denied this energetically, but I could not help looking at the dark sea and trying to get used to the idea of a closer acquaintance with it. The feeling of insecurity was increased by the knowledge that the boat was old and in poor repair, and might spring a leak at any moment.

Meanwhile the skipper had turned her round and was making headway against the waves, but still her bow would not lift, and the captain wept still more. His womanish behaviour disgusted me. At last a quiet passenger, an experienced sailor, gave some advice, which the skipper followed, and which helped matters a little, so that he regained his self-control to the extent of calling a general council; he announced that he dared not continue the voyage, and asked our consent to return to Nouméa. We all agreed, and about midnight we approached the reef. Now there are lights in the passage, but they are so poor as to be invisible until the traveller is already in the passage, so that they are of little use. We were trying to find the entrance, when the experienced seaman I mentioned before, who was keeping a look out, called out that we were close to the breakers and surrounded by the reef. The only thing we could do was to turn seaward again and beat about till daylight. After some hours the wind fell and the worst was over; still, the night was unpleasant enough, and frequent squalls kept us awake. We were all glad when the day broke and we were able to enter the passage. We landed at Nouméa in the finest of weather, and our unexpected return created quite a sensation. We passengers convinced ourselves that the cargo was considerably reduced before starting out again the next day.

This time we arrived safely at Port Vila, where the British and French native police forces came aboard, bound for Santo, to quell a disturbance at Hog Harbour; and so the hapless boat was overloaded again, this time with passengers.

Next day we arrived at Épi, and I landed at Ringdove Bay. The station of the Messrs. F. and H. is one of the oldest in the islands. Besides running a plantation, they trade with the natives, and their small cutters go to all the neighbouring islands for coprah and other produce. There is always plenty of life and movement at the station, as there are usually a few of the vessels lying at anchor, and natives coming in from all sides in their whale-boats to buy or sell something. From Malekula one can often see them tacking about all day, or, if there is a calm, drifting slowly along, as they are too lazy to row. When they have found the passage through the reef, they pull down the sails with much noise and laughter, and come to anchor; then the whole crowd wades through the surf to the shore, with the loads of coprah, and waits patiently for business to begin.

On these stations, where almost everyone is squeezed into decent European clothes, it is a charming sight to see the naked bodies of the genuine savages, all the more so as only young and able-bodied men take part in these cruises, under the leadership of one older and more experienced companion. Their beauty is doubly striking beside the poor station hands, wrapped in filthy calico.

When the coprah has been bought and paid for, they all go to the store, where they buy whatever they need or think they need. The native of the coast districts to-day goes beyond needs to luxuries; he buys costly silks, such as he may once have seen in Queensland, and he samples sewing-machines or whatever else tempts him. In consequence of competition, the prices for coprah and the wages of labour are unreasonably high, and the natives might profit greatly by this state of things if they knew the value of money or how to use it to advantage. But, as a rule, they spend it for any nonsense they may fancy, to the joy of the trader, who makes an average profit of 50 per cent. on all commodities; or else the natives economize to buy a pig (tusked pigs have brought as much as forty pounds), or they bury their money.

It is astonishing how easily a native might make a small fortune here, and how little use he makes of his opportunities, not only from laziness, but also because he has no wants. Nature supplies food in abundance without any effort on his part, so that matches, tobacco, a pipe and a knife satisfy all his needs, and he can spend all the rest of his money for pleasure. Thus the native, in spite of everything, is economically master of the situation in his own country, and many traders have been made to realize this fact to their cost, when the natives, to avenge some ill-treatment, have simply boycotted a station. Needless to say that the traders always do their best to excite the natives’ cupidity by exhibiting the most tempting objects, and, careful as the islander may be when buying necessaries, he is careless enough when luxuries are in question.

The house of the planters is a long, low building with whitewashed walls, a broad, flat roof and wide verandas. Around it is an abandoned garden, and one feels that long ago a woman’s hand must have worked here; but now no one cares about keeping the surroundings clean and pretty, and the wilderness is reclaiming its own and advancing steadily towards the house. Inside, the house is clean and neat; from the veranda there is a splendid view over the sea, in which the sun disappears at evening.

The employes are quiet people, who have but little to say; the weather and speculations as to the name and destination of some far-off sail are their chief topics. After lunch they sit in easy-chairs, enjoying the breeze and reading the papers. Soon the “Bubu” calls to work once more, and the natives come creeping out of their huts, away from their ever-burning fires.

The production of coprah varies greatly on the different islands. While on some of them there is scarcely any to be had, there are others which are practically covered with cocoa-nut trees; this is chiefly the case on islands of volcanic origin, on which springs and rivers are very scarce. It has been supposed that the natives, being dependent on the water of the cocoa-nut as a beverage, had planted these trees very extensively. This is not quite exact, although it is a fact that in these islands the natives hardly ever taste any other water than that of the cocoa-nut.

In sun and shower, the natives work in the plantations in long rows, the women together with their husbands or with other women at some lighter task. The men dislike to be separated from their wives, for they are very jealous; neither do they approve of the women discussing their husbands among themselves. For light work the women are more useful, as they are more accustomed to regular work from their youth up than the men, who are used to spending their days in easy laziness.

Towards sunset, the “Bubu” announces the end of work, and the natives stroll towards their quarters, simple huts of straw, where each man has his couch, with a trunk underneath containing his belongings. Meals are prepared by a cook, and the men go to fetch their rations, rice, yam, or taro. Sometimes there is meat, but not often, except in places where wild pig is plentiful. In that case, it is simplest for the master to send his boys shooting every Sunday, when it depends on themselves if they are to have meat during the coming week or not. After the meal, the natives sit round the fires chatting, gossiping and telling fairy-tales. They know stories of all sorts of monsters and demons, and excite each other by tales of these horrors to such a degree, that bad dreams or even a general panic are often the consequence, and the whole crowd turns out in the middle of the night, declaring that the place is haunted, and that they have seen a devil, who looked thus and so. If someone suddenly dies in a hut, it is worst of all. Death is invariably caused, so they all believe, by poison or witchcraft, and the natives will build another house of their own accord rather than go on living in one they consider haunted. If a planter loses many hands by death, his plantation gets a bad reputation, and the natives refuse to work there; so that it is to the planter’s advantage to take some care of their labourers, and they do so to a certain extent, whereas in former years the mortality on French plantations was very high, as much as 44 per cent. per annum.

Sometimes, especially on moonlight nights, the boys wish to dance, and they all go to the beach and spend the whole night singing and dancing. Another amusement is hunting for crayfish on the reef at low tide.

My boys’ term of service was over in a month. They were very much afraid of being taken to another island, which was natural in a way, as a savage is really not as safe in a strange place as a white man. Besides, they had had their desire and had seen Nouméa, so that there was no longer any inducement for them to stay with me. They accordingly became most disagreeable, slow, sulky and sleepier than ever, and as I could not be punishing them all day long, life with them became somewhat trying. It is disappointing to find so little gratitude, but the natives are quite unaccustomed to be treated better by a white man than his interest demands, so that they suspect a trap in every act of kindness. Under the circumstances, I thought it best to dismiss my boys, and, finding little of interest in Épi, the natives having nearly all died out, I boarded the Australian steamer for Ambrym.

Although Ambrym is only twenty-five miles from Épi, I was five days on the way, so zigzag a route did the steamer pursue. But if one is not in a hurry, life on board is quite entertaining. The first day we anchored near the volcano of Lopevi, a lofty peak that rises from a base six kilometres in diameter to a height of 1440 metres, giving its sides an average slope of 48 deg. which offers rather an unusual sight. The whole of Lopevi is rarely to be seen, as its top is usually covered with a thick cloud of fog or volcanic steam. It is still active, and but few whites have ascended it. At periods of great activity, the natives climb to the top and bring sacrifices to appease it, by throwing cocoa-nuts and yam into the crater.

We touched at Port Sandwich, and then steamed along the coast of Malekula, calling every few miles at some plantation to discharge goods, horses, cattle and fowls, and take on maize or coprah. At last we arrived at Dip Point, Ambrym, where I was kindly received by Dr. B. of the Presbyterian Mission, who is in charge of the fine large hospital there. Its situation is not more picturesque than others, but the place has been made so attractive that one can hardly imagine a more lovely and restful sight. The buildings stand on level ground that slopes softly down to the beach. The bush has been cleared, with the exception of a number of gigantic fig trees, that overshadow a green lawn. Under their airy roof there is always a light breeze, blowing from the hills down to the sea. In the blue distance rises Aoba, and the long-drawn coast of Malekula disappears in the mist. A quieter, sweeter place for convalescents does not exist, and even the native patients, who are not, as a rule, great lovers of scenery, like to lie under the trees with their bandaged limbs and heads, staring dreamily into the green and blue and sunny world.

Dr. B. is an excellent surgeon, famous all over the group, not only among the white population, but among the natives as well, who are beginning to appreciate his work. Formerly they used to demand payment for letting him operate on them, but now many come of their own accord, so that the hospital never lacks patients. The good that Dr. B. does these people can hardly be overrated, and the Presbyterian Mission deserves great credit for having established the hospital; but it is a regrettable fact that all these efforts are not strong enough to counteract other effects of civilization, such as alcoholism, which is the curse of the native race, especially on Ambrym.

Although the sale of alcohol to natives is strictly prohibited by the laws of the Condominium, the French pay no attention to these rules, and sell it in quantities without being called to account. The sale of liquor is the simplest means of acquiring wealth, as the profit on one bottle may amount to five shillings. The natives of Ambrym spend all their money on drink, and as they are quite rich and buy wholesale, the results, in money for the trader and in death for the native, are considerable. For they drink in a senseless way, simply pouring down one bottle after the other, until they are quite overcome. Some never wake up again; others have dangerous attacks of indigestion from the poison they have consumed; still more catch colds or pneumonia from lying drunk on the ground all night. Quarrels and fights are frequent, and it is not a rare sight to see a whole village, men, women and children, rolling on the sand completely intoxicated. The degeneration which results from this is all the sadder, as originally the race on Ambrym was particularly healthy, vigorous and energetic. These conditions are well known to both governments, and might be suppressed on the French side as easily as they are on the English; but the French government seems to take more interest in the welfare of an ex-convict than in that of the native race, although the latter is one of the most important sources of wealth on the islands, setting aside all considerations of humanity. If the liquor traffic is not speedily suppressed, the population is doomed.

Ambrym offers quite a different aspect from the coral islands, as its sloping sides are seamed by streams of lava, the course of which may be traced by the breaks in the forest, as the glowing mass flows slowly down to the coast, congealing in the water to peculiarly shaped jagged rocks. Every few hundred yards we find one of these black walls on the shore in which the sea foams, and the sand that covers the beaches is black too. In dull weather all this looks extremely gloomy, monotonous and imposing the war of two elements, fire and water; and this dark, stern landscape is far more impressive than the gay, smiling coral beach with the quiet blue sea.

My stay on Ambrym was very pleasant. By the help of Dr. B., I was enabled to find four bright boys, willing and cheerful, with whom I used to start out from Dip Point in the mornings, visit the neighbouring villages, and return loaded with objects of all sorts at noon; the afternoons were devoted to work in the house. The weather was exceptionally favourable, and the walks through the dewy forest, on the soft paths of black volcanic dust, in the cool, dark ravines, with occasional short climbs and delightful glimpses of the coast, were almost too enjoyable to be regarded as a serious duty.

The culture of Ambrym is similar to that of Malekula, as is plainly shown by the natives’ dress. The men wear the bark belt and the nambas, which they buy on Malekula; the dress of the women is the same as that worn in central Malekula, and consists of an apron of pandanus or some similar fibre, wound several times round the waist; this forms a thick roll, not unlike ballet skirts, but more graceful. It is a pretty dress, though somewhat scanty, and the “skirts” flap up and down coquettishly when the wearer walks. The other parts of the body are covered with a thick layer of soot, filth, oil, fat and smoke, for the Ambrymese are not at all fond of bathing.

The villages are open, rarely surrounded by a hedge. The houses are rather close together, grouped irregularly in a clearing; a little apart, on a square by themselves, are the houses of the secret societies, surrounded by images and large drums. The dwelling-houses are rather poor-looking huts, with low walls and roofs and an exceedingly small entrance which is only to be passed through on one’s hands and knees. Decency demands that the women should always enter the houses backward, and this occasions funny sights, as they look out of their huts like so many dogs from their kennels.

As a rule, the first event on my entering a village was that the women and children ran away shrieking and howling; those not quite so near me stared suspiciously, then retired slowly or began to giggle. Then a few men would appear, quite accidentally, of course, and some curious boys followed. My servants gave information as to my person and purpose, and huge laughter was the result: they always thought me perfectly mad. However, they admired me from all sides, and asked all sorts of questions of my boys: what was my name, where did I live, was I kind, was I rich, what did I have to eat, did I smoke or drink, how many shirts and trousers did I have, how many guns and what kinds, etc. The end of it was, that they either took me for a dangerous sorcerer, and withdrew in fear, or for a fool to be got the better of. In the latter case, they would run eagerly to their houses and bring out some old broken article to offer for sale. A few sarcastic remarks proved useful; but it was always some time before they realized what I wanted. The fine old possessions from which they did not like to part would suddenly turn out to be the property of someone else, which was a polite way of saying, “we have that, but you won’t get it.”

In this way collecting was a very tiresome and often disappointing process of bargaining, encouraging, begging and flattering; often, just as I was going away, some man or other would call me aside to say that he had decided to sell after all, and was ready to accept any price.

Horror and silent consternation were aroused when I asked for skulls. “Lots over there,” they said, pointing to an enclosed thicket, their burying-ground. Only very rarely a man would bring me a skull, at the end of a long stick. Once I started on the quest myself, armed with a shovel and spade; as my servants were too much afraid of the dead to help, I had to dig for myself. A man loafed near by, attracted by the excited chatter of some old women. He told me sadly that I was digging up his papa, although it was a woman; then he began to help with some show of interest, assuring me that his papa had two legs, whereas at first I could find but one. A stranger had given me permission to dig, so as to play a trick on the son; but the latter was quite reconciled when I paid him well. For a week all the village talked of nothing but the white madman who dug up bones; I became a celebrity, and people made excursions from a distance to come and stare at me.

Although the Suque is highly developed here, there are other secret societies whose importance, however, is decreasing, as they are being more or less absorbed by the Suque. As each of these clubs has its own house, we sometimes find quite a number of such huts in one village, where they take the place of gamals. Each Suque high caste has his own house, which the low castes may not enter. The caste of the proprietor may be seen by the material of which the hedge is made, the lower castes having hedges of wood and logs, the highest, walls of stone and coral slabs. Inside the courtyard, each man lives alone, served only by his wives, who are allowed to cook his food. The separation of the sexes is not so severe on Ambrym as on Santo. On the whole, it would seem that in the past Ambrym had a position apart, and that only lately several forms of cult have been imported from Malekula and mingled with genuinely local rites. Even to-day, it is not rare for a man from Ambrym to settle for a while on Malekula, so as to be initiated into some rites which he then imports to Ambrym; and the Ambrymese pay poets large fees to teach them poems which are to be sung at certain feasts, accompanied by dances. Unhappily, I never had occasion to attend one of these “sing-songs.”

The originality of Ambrym has been preserved in its sculpture only. The material used is tree-fern wood, which is used nowhere else but in the Banks Islands. The type of human being represented differs from that on the other islands, especially as regards the more moon-shaped form of the head. Representations of the whole body are frequent, so are female statues; these I have only found again in Gaua, where they are probably modern inventions. Sometimes a fish or a bird is carved on the statue, probably as a survival of old totemistic ideas, and meant to represent the totem animal of the ancestor or of his clan. The meaning of these carvings is quite obscure to the natives, and they answer questions in a very vague way, so that it is probable that totemistic ideas are dying out in the New Hebrides.

Most of the statues are meant to represent an ancestor. If a native is in trouble, he blows his whistle at nightfall near the statue, and if he hears a noise, he thinks the spirit of the ancestor has approached and entered the statue, and he proceeds to tell the statue his sorrows and ask the spirit for help. Occasionally sacrifices are made to the figures, as is shown by the pigs’ jaws frequently found tied to them.

The Ambrymese conceptions of the spirit world are very similar to those of other islanders. The native likes to wear on his back or chest or arm the tusks of the most valuable pigs he has sacrificed, and has them buried with him, so that in the other world he may at any time be able to prove how much he respected his ancestors.

The centre of the dancing grounds is generally occupied by the big drums, not quite so numerous but better made than those of Malekula. By the drums, too, the caste of the proprietor may be recognized: the higher his standing, the more heads are carved on them. Horizontal drums are sometimes found, but they are always small, and only serve to accompany the sound of the larger ones.

There are usually a few men sitting round the drums, playing games. One game is played by two men sitting opposite to each other; one sticks a small shell into the ground, and his opponent tries to hit it with another. There does not seem to be any winning or losing, as in our games, but they keep it up for hours and even days. Another favourite game borders on the marvellous. One man has six shells and the other five. Each in turn puts a shell on the ground, and when they have all been dealt, each in turn picks up one at a time, when the one who had six before has five, and the one who had only five has six. They stare at each other, wonder, and try it again; behold, the one who had six at the beginning has five now and the other six. They try again and again, and each time the shell changes hands, and nobody can explain how on earth it could have jumped from one man to the other. It seems too strange to be natural, and while a cold shiver creeps up their backs, they play on and on, with ever new delight and wonder. At such enviable pastimes these people spend their days and kill time, which would otherwise hang heavy on their hands. Tops, nicely made from nuts, are a popular toy; and there are other games, more sportsmanlike, such as throwing reeds to a distance, and throwing wooden shells, at which two villages often compete against each other.

After I had exhausted the surroundings of Dip Point, I marched along the coast to Port Vato, where I lived in an abandoned mission house, in the midst of a thickly populated district. At present, the people are quiet, and go about as they please; but not long ago, the villages lived in a constant state of feud among themselves, so that no man dared go beyond his district alone, and the men had to watch the women while they were at work in the fields, for fear of attack. The sense of insecurity was such that many people who lived in villages only twenty minutes’ walk from the coast had never seen the ocean. The population as a whole enjoys the state of peace, which the missionaries have brought about, though there are always mischief-makers who try to create new feuds, and there is no doubt that the old wars would break out anew, if the natives were left to themselves.

These disturbances were not very destructive in the days of the old weapons; it is only since the introduction of firearms that they have become a real danger to the race as a whole. They even had their advantages, in forcing the men to keep themselves in condition, and in providing them with a regular occupation, such as preparing their weapons, or training, or guarding the village and the women. With the end of the feuds, the chief occupation of the men disappeared, and but few of them have found any serious work to take up their time. Thus civilization, even in its rôle of peace-maker, has replaced one evil by another.

In this district, I could go about with my servants wherever I pleased; only one Santo boy I had with me did not feel safe, and suddenly developed great interest in cooking, which allowed him to stay at home while the rest of us went on expeditions. His cooking was not above reproach; he would calmly clean a dirty cup with his fingers, the kitchen towels occasionally served as his head-dress, and one day he tried to make curry with some iodoform I had left in a bottle on the table. However, I had learned long ago not to be too particular, and not to take too much interest in the details of the kitchen.

An exceptionally bright man had offered me his services as guide, and with his help I obtained many objects I would never have found alone. He had a real understanding of what I wanted, and plenty of initiative. He made the women bring their modest possessions, and they approached, crawling on their hands and knees, for they are not allowed to walk before the men. Later on the men appeared with better things. It is an odd fact that all over the archipelago the owner rarely brings things himself, but generally gives them to a friend. This may be due to the desire to avoid the ridicule they would surely be exposed to if their possessions were to be refused. The extreme sensitiveness and pride with which the natives feel every refusal and are deeply hurt by any rebuke, may surprise those who look on them as savages, incapable of any finer sentiment; but whoever learns to know them a little better will find that they have great delicacy of feeling, and will be struck by the politeness they show a stranger, and by the kind and obliging way in which they treat each other. It must be admitted that this is often enough only a veneer, under which all sorts of hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness are hidden, just as among civilized people; still, the manners of the crudest savages are far superior to those of most of the whites they meet.

One sign of this sensitiveness is their reluctance to express any desire, for fear of a refusal. I saw a daily illustration of this, when my boys wanted the tin of meat for dinner which was their due. Although they might have taken it themselves, a different boy came each day to the room where I was writing, and waited patiently for some time, then began coughing with increasing violence, until I asked what he wanted. Then he would shyly stammer out his request. Never would they accost me or otherwise disturb me while I was writing or reading; yet at other times they could be positively impertinent, especially if excited. The islander is very nervous; when he is quiet, he is shy and reticent, but once he is aroused, all his bad instincts run riot, and incredible savageness and cruelty appear. The secret of successful treatment of the natives seems to be to keep them very quiet, and never to let any excitement arise, a point in which so many whites fail.

They are very critical and observant, and let no weakness pass without sarcastic comment; yet their jokes are rarely offensive, and in the end the victim usually joins in the general laughter. On the whole, the best policy is one of politeness, justice and consistency; and after many years, one may possibly obtain their confidence, although one always has to be careful and circumspect in every little detail.

In general, the Ambrymese are more agreeable than the Santo people. They seem more manly, less servile, more faithful and reliable, more capable of open enmity, more clever and industrious, and not so sleepy.

Assisted by my excellent guide, I set about collecting, which was not always a simple matter. I was very anxious to procure a “bull-roarer,” and made my man ask for one, to the intense surprise of the others; how could I have known of the existence of these secret and sacred utensils? The men called me aside, and begged me never to speak of this to the women, as these objects are used, like many others, to frighten away the women and the uninitiated from the assemblies of the secret societies. The noise they make is supposed to be the voice of a mighty and dangerous demon, who attends these assemblies.

They whispered to me that the instruments were in the men’s house, and I entered it, amid cries of dismay, for I had intruded into their holy of holies, and was now standing in the midst of all the secret treasures which form the essential part of their whole cult. However, there I was, and very glad of my intrusion, for I found myself in a regular museum. In the smoky beams of the roof there hung half-finished masks, all of the same pattern, to be used at a festival in the near future; there was a set of old masks, some with nothing left but the wooden faces, while the grass and feather ornaments were gone; old idols; a face on a triangular frame, which was held particularly sacred; two perfectly marvellous masks with long noses with thorns, carefully covered with spider-web cloth. This textile is a speciality of Ambrym, and serves especially for the preparation and wrapping of masks and amulets. Its manufacture is simple: a man walks through the woods with a split bamboo, and catches all the innumerable spider-webs hanging on the trees. As the spider-web is sticky, the threads cling together, and after a while a thick fabric is formed, in the shape of a conical tube, which is very solid and defies mould and rot. At the back of the house, there stood five hollow trunks, with bamboos leading into them. Through these, the men howl into the trunk, which reverberates and produces a most infernal noise, well calculated to frighten others besides women. For the same purpose cocoa-nut shells were used, which were half filled with water, and into which a man gurgled through a bamboo. All this was before my greedy eyes, but I could obtain only a very few articles. Among them was a bull-roarer, which a man sold me for a large sum, trembling violently with fear, and beseeching me not to show it to anybody. He wrapped it up so carefully, that the small object made an immense parcel. Some of the masks are now used for fun; the men put them on and run through the forest, and have the right to whip anybody they meet. This, however, is a remnant of a very serious matter, as formerly the secret societies used these masks to terrorize all the country round, especially people who were hostile to the society, or who were rich or friendless.

These societies are still of great importance on New Guinea, but here they have evidently degenerated. It is not improbable that the Suque has developed from one of these organizations. Their decay is another symptom of the decline of the entire culture of the natives; and other facts seem to point to the probability that this decadence may have set in even before the beginning of colonization by the whites.

My visit to the men’s house ended, and seeing no prospects of acquiring any more curiosities, I went to the dancing-ground, where most of the men were assembled at a death-feast, it being the hundredth day after the funeral of one of their friends. In the centre of the square, near the drums, stood the chief, violently gesticulating. The crowd did not seem pleased at my coming, and criticized me in undertones. A terrible smell of decomposed meat filled the air; evidently they had all partaken of a half-rotten pig, and the odour did not seem to trouble them at all.

The chief was a tall man, bald-headed, wearing the nambas, of larger size than those of the others, and with both arms covered with pigs’ tusks to show his rank. He looked at me angrily, came up to me, and sat down, not without having first swept the ground with his foot, evidently in order not to come into contact with any charm that an enemy might have thrown there. One of the men wanted me to buy a flute, asking just double what I was willing to give; seeing that I did not intend to pay so much, he made me a present of the flute, and seemed just as well pleased. Still, the others stared at me silently and suspiciously, until I offered some tobacco to the chief, which he accepted with a joke, whereat everybody laughed and the ice was broken. The men forgot their reserve, and talked about me in loud tones, looking at me as we might at a hopelessly mad person, half pitying, half amused at his vagaries. The chief now wished to shake hands with me, though he did not trouble to get up for the ceremony. We smiled pleasantly at each other, and then he took me to his house, which, according to his high rank, was surrounded by a stone wall. He rummaged about inside for a long time, and finally brought out a few paltry objects; I thought best to pay well for them, telling him that as he was a “big fellow-master,” I was ready to pay extra for the honour of having a souvenir of him. This flattered him so much that he consented to have his photograph taken; and he posed quite cleverly, while the others walked uneasily around us, looking at the camera as if it were likely to explode at any moment; and as none of them dared have his picture taken, I left.

Rounding a bend of the path on my way home, I suddenly came upon a young woman. First she looked at me in deadly fright, then, with a terrified cry, she jumped over the fence, and burst into hysterical laughter, while a dozen invisible women shrieked; then they all ran away, and as I went on, I could hear that the flight had ceased and the shrieks changed to hearty laughter. They had taken me for a kidnapper, or feared some other harm, as was natural enough with their experience of certain kinds of white men.

Walking along, I heard the explosions of the volcano like a far-away cannonade. The dull shocks gave my walk a peculiar solemnity, but the bush prevented any outlook, and only from the coast I occasionally saw the volcanic clouds mounting into the sky.

From the old mission-house the view on a clear day is splendid. On the slope stand a few large trees, whose cleft leaves frame the indescribably blue sea, which breaks in snowy lines in the lava-boulders below. Far off, I can see Malekula, with its forest-covered mountains, and summer clouds hanging above it. It is a dreamlike summer day, so beautiful, bright and mild as to be hardly real. One feels a certain regret at being unable to absorb all the beauty, at having to stand apart as an outsider, a patch on the brightness rather than a part of it.

At night the view is different, but just as enchanting. A fine dust from the volcano floats in the air and the pale moonlight plays softly on the smooth surface of the bay, filling the atmosphere with silver, so that everything shines in the white light, the long, flat point, the forest; even the bread-fruit tree on the slope, whose outline cuts sharply into the brightness, is not black, but a darker silver. In the greenish sky the stars glitter, not sharply as they do elsewhere, but like fine dots, softly, quietly, as if a negligent hand had sprinkled them lightly about. And down by the water the breakers roll, crickets cry, a flying-fox chatters and changes from one tree to the other with tired wings, passing in a shapeless silhouette in front of the moon. It is the peace of paradise, dreamlike, wishless; one never tires of listening to the holy tropical night, for there is secret life everywhere. In the quiet air the trees shiver, the moonlight trembles in the bushes and stirs imperceptibly in the lawn; and from the indistinct sounds of which the mind is hardly conscious the fancy weaves strange stories. We see all those creatures that frighten the natives under the roof of the forest, giants with crabs’ claws, men with fiery eyes, women that turn into deadly serpents, vague, misty souls of ancestors, that pass through the branches and appear to their descendants; all that we dream of in our northern midsummer night wakes in tenfold strength here.

Suddenly, violent shocks shake the house, explosions follow, like distant shots, and the thin, misty silver is changed to a red glow. The volcano is in action, a dull, reddish-yellow light mounts slowly up behind the black trees, thick smoke rises and rises, until it stands, a dark monster, nearly touching the zenith, its foot still in the red glare. Slowly the fire dies out, the cloud parts, and it is dark night again, with the silver of the moon brooding everywhere.

But the charm is broken by this warning from the primitive powers that counterbalance each other behind the peace of the tropic night. By and by, one grows accustomed to the uncanny neighbourhood of the volcano, and only the more formidable eruptions attract notice. Sometimes, while at work, I hear one of the boys exclaim, “Huh, huh!” to call my attention to the fact that a particularly violent outbreak has taken place; and, indeed, half the sky is a dirty red, the smoke rises behind the trees as if from a gigantic bonfire, and the dull détonations resound. The glowing lava flies high in the air, and comes down in a great curve. One of these performances lasted several hours, presaging a wonderful spectacle for my visit to the volcano, which was set for the next day.

Several natives joined my party, evidently thinking it safer to go to see the “fire” in my company than alone. Yet the Ambrymese in general show remarkably little fear of the volcano, and regard it as a powerful but somewhat clumsy and rather harmless neighbour, whereas on other islands legend places the entrance to hell in the craters.

Quite a company of us marched through the forest, accompanied by the cannonading of the volcano; we felt as if we were going to battle. We traversed the plain and mounted the foot-hills; halfway up, we observed an eruption, but we could see only the cloud, as the crater itself was hidden by hills. Through thick bush, we came to a watercourse, a narrow gully, formed by lava-streams. The rocks in the river-bed had been polished smooth by the water, and though the natives walked over them with ease, my nailed boots gave me great trouble, and I had to cross many slippery spots on my hands and knees, which greatly amused my companions. We passed many tree-ferns, whose dainty crowns seemed to float on the surface of the forest like stars, and often covered the whole bush, so that the slopes looked like a charming carpet of the loveliest pattern. This tree, the most beautiful of the tropical forest, far surpasses the palm in elegance, whose crown too often looks yellowish and unkempt.

For a few hours we followed the river, which led nearly to the edge of the plateau. When the path branched off, I called a halt for lunch, as we were not likely to find any water later on. We were now quite near the craters, and while we ate our rice, we heard the roaring, so that the boys grew nervous, till the joker of the company made them laugh, and then the meal absorbed their attention. Still, they occasionally sent furtive glances skyward, to see if any lava was coming down upon us.

Having filled all our vessels with water, we marched on, and after a short ascent, found ourselves on the great plain, 650 metres above sea-level, about 12 kilometres in diameter, and shaped like a huge dinner-plate, a chain of hills forming the rim. It would seem that the whole plain was formerly one gigantic crater; now only two openings are left, two craters 500 and 700 metres high, in the north-west of the plain.

The ground consists of black, coarse-grained slag, which creaks when walked on, and forms a fine black dust. Naturally the vegetation in this poor soil is very scanty, only bushes and reed-grass, irregularly scattered in the valleys between little hillocks ranged in rows. This arid desert-scene is doubly surprising to the eye, owing to the sudden change from the forest to the bare plain.

In this seemingly endless plain, the two craters rise in a bold silhouette, grimly black. One of them stands in lifeless rigidity, from the top of the other curl a few light, white clouds of steam. It is a depressingly dismal sight, without any organic life whatever on the steep, furrowed slopes.

We camped on a hillock surrounded by shrubs; on all sides spread the plain, with low hills, rounded by rain and storm, radiating from the craters, and where these touched, a confused wilderness of hills, like a black, agitated sea, had formed. The hilltops were bare, on the slopes there clung some yellowish moss. The farther away from the craters, the lower the hills became, disappearing at the edge of the plain in a bluish-green belt of woods.

The sky was cloudy, a sallow light glimmered over the plain, and the craters lay in forbidding gloom and lifelessness, like hostile monsters. Hardly had I set up my camera, when the western giant began his performance. The clouds of steam thickened, détonations followed, and at each one a brownish-grey cloud rose out of the mountain, whirled slowly upwards, and joined the grey clouds in the sky. The mountain-top glowed red, and red lumps of lava came flying out of the smoke and dropped behind a hill. Then all became quiet again, the mountain relapsed into lifelessness, the clouds dissolved to a thick mist, and only the steam curled upward like a white plume.

I had taken care to observe how far the lava flew, so as to know how near it would be safe to approach. The path towards the craters was the continuation of the one we had followed, and led to the north shore of the island, passing between the craters. It is remarkable that the natives should dare to use this road, and indeed it is not much travelled; but it speaks for the courage of the first man who had the courage to cross the plain and pass between the craters. The sharp points of the lava caused great suffering to the bare-footed natives, and here I had the advantage of them for once, thanks to my nailed boots.

The clouds had disappeared, the sky shone deeply blue, everything reminded me of former trips in other deserts. The same dry air cooled the heat that radiated from the ground, the same silence and solemnity brooded over the earth, there was the same colouring and the same breadth of view. After the painful march through the forest, where every step had to be measured and watched, it was a joy to step out freely and take great breaths of clear, sweet air.

After a short, steep climb, I reached the ridge, sharp as a knife, that joins the two craters, and following it, I suddenly found myself on the brink of the crater, from which I could overlook the great bowl, 800 metres wide. The inside walls fell vertically to the bottom, an uncanny, spongy-looking mass of brownish lava, torn, and foaming, and smoking in white or yellowish clouds. The opposite side rose much higher, and the white cloud I had seen from below floated on top. There was a smaller crater, the real opening, and through a gap in it I had a glimpse inside, but failed to see much because of the smoke. The general view was most imposing, the steep, naked walls, the wild confusion in the crater, the red and yellow precipitates here and there, the vicious-looking smoke from the slits, the steam that floated over the opening, swayed mysteriously by an invisible force, the compactness of the whole picture, in the gigantic frame of the outer walls. There was no need of the oppressive odour, the dull roaring and thundering and hissing, to call up a degree of reverent admiration, even fear, and it required an effort of will to stay and grow used to the tremendous sight. The first sensation on seeing the crater is certainly terror, then curiosity awakens, and one looks and wonders; yet the sight never becomes familiar, and never loses its threatening aspect. Still, the inner crater may be a disappointment. From a distance, we see the great manifestations, the volcano in action, when its giant forces are in play and it looks grand and monumental. From near by, we see it in repose, and the crater looks quite insignificant. Instead of the fire we expected to see, we find lava blocks and ashes, and instead of the clash of elemental forces, we see a dark mass, that glows dully. We can hardly believe that here is the origin of the explosions that shake the island, and are inclined to consider the demon of the volcano rather as a mischievous clown than a thundering, furious giant.

I went to the slope of the eastern crater to find a spot from which I might be able to photograph an eruption, and returned to camp just as the sun sank down in red fire, and the evening mists formed a white belt around the two black mountains. The tops of the craters shone red against a cool evening sky.

Suddenly an immense cloud shot up, white and sky-high. One side of it shone orange in the last sunbeams, the other was dull and grey, and the top mingled with the evening clouds. It was a wildly beautiful sight, gone too soon. A hawk circled afar in the green sky, night crept across the plain, and soon the moon poured her silver over the tranquil scene. I hoped in vain to see an eruption equal to that of the last nights. Everything was quiet, the volcano seemed extinct, the fog thickened, covering the mountains and the moon. It became disagreeably cool, and there was a heavy dew. The natives shivered in their blankets, and I was most uncomfortable under a light canvas. We were all up long before daylight, when the volcano sent out a large cloud. The sun and the fog had a long struggle, when suddenly the clouds tore apart, and the welcome sunbeams came to warm us.

I went to the spot chosen the day before and dug my camera into the lava and waited. My impatience was quieted by the splendid view I enjoyed, embracing nearly all the islands of the group: Épi, Malekula, Aoba, Pentecoste, and higher than all, the cone of Lopevi. All these floated in a soft, blue haze, and even the two craters shone in a violet hue.

We waited for several hours, freezing in spite of the bright sun, between the damp, mossy walls of the gully where we sat, and the volcano remained quiet, merely hissing and roaring and emitting steam, but a real eruption did not occur then, nor for several weeks later. We returned to camp, packed up our things, and hurried down the slippery gullies and lava banks, diving back into the thick, heavy atmosphere of the sea-level; and at nightfall I washed off the heat and dust of the day in the warm waves of the ocean.