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

PENTECOSTE

The term of service of my Ambrym boys being over, I tried to replace them in Paama, but failed; but Mr. G. kindly took me to Épi, where I engaged four new boys. However, they proved as sulky as they were dirty, and I was disgusted with them, and quite glad they had refused to sign for more than a month. As they were all troubled with many sores, they were of very little service to me, and I gladly sent them home by steamer when their month was up.

I returned to Dip Point, and a few days later Dr. B. escorted me to Olal, where I took up my quarters with Mr. D., a young Australian who was trying to make a living by the coprah trade. In Olal, at the northern point of Ambrym, the alcohol trade is particularly flourishing, and numerous settlers along the coast earn large sums by selling liquor. Everybody knows this, and numbers of intoxicated natives are always to be seen, so that it is somewhat surprising that the authorities pretend not to have sufficient proof to punish these traders. If ever one of them is fined, the amount is so minute that the sale of half a dozen bottles makes up for it, so that they go on as before. I myself witnessed two cases of death in consequence of drinking, alone and at one sitting, a bottle of pure absinthe.

The house of Mr. D. was typical of the dwellings built by the colonists. In a circumference of about 50 metres, the bush had been cleared, on a level spot somewhat off the shore and slightly elevated. Here stood a simple grass hut, 3 metres wide and 6 long; the floor was covered with gravel, and the interior divided into a store-room and a living-room. On the roof lay a few sheets of corrugated iron, the rain from which was collected in a tank to provide water. A few paces off was another hut, where the coprah was smoked and the boys slept, and on the beach was a shed for storing the coprah.

The actual work a coprah trader has to do is very small, amounting to little besides waiting for the natives who bring the coprah or the fresh nuts, to weigh them and sell his goods. Occasionally he may visit a distant village by boat to buy coprah there; but there is plenty of unoccupied time, and it is not surprising that many of the settlers take to drink from pure boredom. Not so Mr. D., who tried to educate the neighbouring natives, but with small success.

I did not see much of interest here, or learn anything new about the natives, but I was able to obtain some interesting objects, and my collection of skulls was nicely started, until some one told the natives not to bring me any more skulls, as on the day of resurrection the former owners would not be able to find their heads. The same person created all sorts of difficulties when I attempted some excavations, and at last insinuated that I was a German spy. It is sad to see that the very people who, by virtue of their education and position, ought to help one most, work against one, while very often poor and plain people make sacrifices to help one along.

A young Ambrymese who had worked for me for some days, wanted to enlist in my service when I left, although he grew tearful at the thought of Malekula, where I intended to go next, and where he was convinced he would be killed. Lingban was a light-haired native, very nice-looking, and a favourite with the ladies; this fact had brought him into considerable trouble, and he was obliged to leave his home. He stayed with me for three months, and was not killed, but suffered much from home-sickness. He finally settled at the south end of Pentecoste, whence he could see his beloved Ambrym, count the cocoa-nut trees on the shore and see the heavy clouds over the volcano.

From Dip Point Mr. S. took me over to Aunua on Malekula, the station of the Rev. F. Paton, a son of the celebrated J. G. Paton, the founder of the Presbyterian missions in the New Hebrides. He lived there as a widower, devoting all his strength, time and thought to the spiritual and physical welfare of the natives.

Malekula has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous islands in the group. The natives in the north, the Big Nambas, are certainly not very gentle, and the others, too, are high-spirited and will not submit to ill-treatment from the settlers. Malekula is the second largest island of the group, and its interior is quite unexplored. I could not penetrate inland, as I was unable to find boys and guides for a voyage they all thought extremely dangerous. Mr. Paton, who had traversed the island at various points, consoled me by telling me that the culture inland was much the same as along the coast. So I gave up my plan, though with some regret.

Mr. Paton took me to the south end of Malekula, and left me on one of the flat coral islands, which are all connected under the surface by an extensive reef. The landscape is charming, the sea above the reef shining in all possible shades, and small flat islands enlivening the view in all directions. In these islands only Christians live, the few remaining heathen having retired to the mainland.

Here on the south coast the strange fashion obtains of deforming the head. This habit is very rare in the Pacific, and restricted to two small districts. It is now purely a matter of fashion or vanity, the longer the head, the handsomer the individual is thought to be, but probably there was originally some religious or hygienic notion at the bottom of the peculiar custom. The operation is begun about a month after birth, by rubbing the child’s head with grease and soot, and then putting on a small cap of braided pandanus fibre, which is very tight and allows the head to develop only in the direction of the crown. When the cap becomes too tight, it is cut off, and another, a little larger, put on, until the parents are satisfied with the shape of the child’s head. These baby skulls have an extreme shape which is very ugly, and the whole process can hardly be agreeable to the patient; but the operation does not seem to have any prejudicial effect on the intellect, and in later years the shape of the head becomes somewhat less marked, although a man from the south of Malekula is always unmistakable.

This region is remarkable, too, for its highly developed ancestor-worship. Although the general ideas on the subject are the same here as elsewhere in the archipelago, there is a special veneration here for the head or skull of deceased ancestors. The bones are generally used in making arrow-heads and lance-points, and the head, which is useless, is thrown away in most islands, or buried again; but in the south of Malekula, the heads are kept, and the face is reproduced in a plastic material of fibres, clay and sticky juice. The work is very cleverly done, and the face looks quite natural, with fine, slightly Semitic features. The surface is varnished and painted with patterns corresponding to the caste of the dead. Often the face has eyes made of bits of shell, the real hair is stuck on, and the plumes and nose-stick are not forgotten, so that the whole becomes an exact portrait of the deceased. Whether this head is to have a body or not is a question of caste. The higher the caste of the dead, the more completely is his body modelled. The heads of low castes are simply stuck on poles, higher ones have bodies of carved wood, often branches to indicate arms; but the bodies of the highest castes are composed of bamboo, fibres and straw, and modelled throughout in the same way as the head. They are covered with varnish, and every detail reproduced, including dress, ornaments and caste signs. In their right hands these statues carry a “bubu” or shell horn, and in their left, a pig’s jaw. The shoulders are modelled in the shape of faces, and from these, occasionally, sticks protrude, bearing the heads of dead sons, so that such a statue often has three or four heads. These figures stand along the walls of the gamal, smiling with expressionless faces on their descendants round the fires, and are given sacrifices of food.

Side by side with this ancestor-worship there goes a simpler skull-cult, by which a man carries about the head of a beloved son or wife, as a dear remembrance of the departed. Among a flourishing population it would naturally be impossible to obtain such objects, but here, where the people are rapidly decreasing in number, a statue often enough loses its descendants, whereupon others have no objection to sell it.

The taste for plastic art shows in other things as well. I found several grotesque dancing-masks and sticks, made for some special dance. The feeling for caricature expressed in these articles is extraordinary and amusing even, from a European point of view. Here, too, the Semitic type appears, and the natives seem to delight in the hooked noses, thick lips and small chins. I gathered a rich harvest of these curios near the little island of Hambi; unfortunately Mr. Paton came to take me home before I had time to pack the objects carefully, and I had to leave them in charge of natives until the arrival of the steamer; when I found them again, after six months, they had suffered a good deal.

Towards evening, while rounding the south-east corner of Malekula, our motor broke down, and we had neither oars nor sail. Fortunately the tide was in our favour, and we improvised a sail from a blanket, so that we drifted slowly along and reached the anchorage late at night.

Mr. Paton then took me to Malo, where a Frenchman, Mr. I., was expecting me. On the east coast there was but little to be done, as the natives had nearly all disappeared; but I was able to pick up some skulls near a number of abandoned villages. I found very considerable architectural remains, walls, mounds and altars, all of masonry; buildings of this importance are to be found nowhere else except in Aore and the Banks Islands, and it seems probable that the populations of these three districts are related.

I had an interesting experience here. Mr. I. and his neighbour did not enjoy the best of reputations as regarded their treatment of natives. One day Mr. I. took me over to N.’s place. N. was just returning from a recruiting trip to Malekula. We saw him come ashore, staggering and moaning; on being questioned, he told us that he had been attacked by the natives, and his crew eaten up. He was in a frightful state, completely broken, weeping like a child, and cursing the savages, to whom, he said, he had never done any wrong. His grief was so real that I began to pity the man, and thought he had probably been paying the penalty for the misdeeds of another recruiter. Mr. I. was just as emphatic in cursing the bloodthirstiness of the natives, but while we were going home, he told me that Mr. N. had kidnapped thirty-four natives at that very place a year before, so that the behaviour of the others was quite comprehensible. From that moment I gave up trying to form an opinion on any occurrence of the kind without having carefully examined the accounts of both parties. One can hardly imagine how facts are distorted here, and what innocent airs people can put on who are really criminals. I have heard men deplore, in the most pathetic language, acts of cruelty to natives, who themselves had killed natives in cold blood for the sake of a few pounds. It requires long and intimate acquaintance with the people to see at all clearly in these matters, and for a Resident it is quite impossible not to be deceived unless he has been on the spot for a year at least.

While waiting at Dip Point for an opportunity to cross to Pentecoste, I saw the volcano in full activity, and one day it rained ashes, so that the whole country was black as if strewn with soot, and the eruptions shook the house till the windows rattled. I made a second ascent of the mountain, but had such bad weather that I saw nothing at all. We came back, black as chimney-sweeps from the volcanic dust we had brushed off the bushes. I heard later that the extinct eastern crater had unexpectedly broken out again, and that several lava streams were flowing towards the coast.

Pentecoste, a long, narrow island running north and south, resembles Maevo in shape. My host here was a missionary who seemed to connect Christianity with trousers and other details of civilization. It was sad to see how many quaint customs, harmless enough in themselves, were needlessly destroyed. The wearing of clothes constitutes a positive danger to health, as in this rainy climate the natives are almost constantly soaked, do not trouble to change their wet clothes, sleep all night in the same things and invariably catch cold. Another source of infection is their habit of exchanging clothes, thus spreading all sorts of diseases. That morals are not improved by the wearing of clothes is a fact; for they are rather better in the heathen communities than in the so-called Christian ones. It is to be hoped that the time is not far off when people will realize how very little these externals have to do with Christianity and morality; but there is reason to fear that it will then be too late to save the race.

We undertook an excursion into the interior, to a district whose inhabitants had only recently been pacified by Mr. F., my host; the tribes we visited were very primitive, especially on the east coast, where there is little contact with whites. The people were still cannibals, and I had no difficulty in obtaining some remnants of a cannibal meal.

We frequently tried to obtain information about the organization of the family among these natives, but, being dependent on biche la mar, we made small progress. My observations were supplemented later by the Rev. Mr. Drummond, for which I am very much indebted to him; some of these observations may be of interest.

The population is divided into two clans the Bule and the Tabi. The former is supposed to have originated from the tridacna shell, the latter from the taro. Every individual knows exactly to which clan he belongs, although there are no external signs. There is a strict rule forbidding marriage within the clan, and an offence against this law was formerly punished by death; to this day, even in Christian districts, marriage within the clan is extremely rare. No one can change his clan. Children do not belong to the clan of the father, but to that of the mother, and property cannot be alienated from the clan. The father has no rights over his children, and the head of the family is not the father, but the eldest brother of the mother, who educates the boys and helps them along in the Suque. Land belongs to the clan, which is like a large family, and indeed seems a stronger organization than the family itself; but the clans live together in the villages, and as such they form a whole with regard to the outside world. Quarrels between two clans are not so rare as those inside a clan, and the vendetta does not act inside the clan, whereas a murder outside the clan must be avenged. Uncles and aunts within the clan are called father and mother, and the cousins are called sister and brother.

However, this exogamic system could not prevent inbreeding, as there was always the possibility that uncles and nieces might marry, so that a “horizontal” system was superimposed across this “vertical” one, forbidding all marriages between different generations. Thus, all marriages between near relations being impossible, the chances to marry at all are considerably diminished, so that nowadays, with the decreased population, a man very often cannot find a wife, even though surrounded by any number of girls. I do not mean to imply by this that the whole clan-system was organized simply to prevent inbreeding.

As I have said before, young men, as a rule, either cannot marry, being too poor to buy a wife, or, at best, can only afford to pay for an old widow, a low-priced article. The young, pretty girls are generally bought by old men, who often buy them when children, paying half the price down, and waiting till the girl is of marriageable age. As soon as she is old enough, she has to work for her future husband, and is under the care of one of his wives. Later on, the husband pays the rest of the money, builds a house for the girl, and the marriage takes place without any ceremony beyond a dinner to the nearest relatives of the couple. In most islands the girl cannot object to a match otherwise than by running away from a disagreeable husband. Generally, when she has run away several times, and repeated beatings have not changed her mind, her parents pay back the money and the husband gives up his wife. What is valued highest in a woman is her capacity for work; but the young men have a marked taste for beauty, and there are girls that are courted by all the young fellows of the village, and who, although married to an old man, accept the addresses of a young one. The husband does not seem to mind much, provided the woman continues to work well for him.

There is such a thing as love even here, and it has been known to grow so powerful as to lead, if unrequited, to suicide or to rapid pining away and to death.

On the whole, the women are treated fairly well by their husbands, but for an occasional beating, which is often provoked by foolish behaviour; and they are taken care of, as they represent a great value. There are old ruffians, however, who take a perverse pleasure in torturing their wives, and these unhappy women are quite helpless, as they are entirely in the power of their husbands. Otherwise, the fate of the women is not as bad as many people think, and the severest rules have never yet prevented Eve from finding and taking her pleasure.

During babyhood the children stay with their mothers; but from the age of four on the boys spend most of their time in the gamal, while the girls remain under their mother’s care. Clothes are not worn by the boys till they have joined the Suque, which, in some cases, takes place long after puberty. The girls seem to begin to wear something whenever the mother thinks fit, generally between the ages of four and seven. From that moment every connection between brother and sister ceases; they may not speak to each other, not meet on the road, in some regions not even see each other, and to mention the sister’s name before the brother is, if not an actual insult, certainly very tactless. Similar rules regulate the relations between parents-and children-in-law.

The parents are very lenient to their children, and pass over every impertinence; they get small thanks for their kindness, and the boys, especially, often treat their mothers very badly. The natives’ fondness for children makes them very good nurses, and it is a source of the greatest pride to a native boy to take care of a white child.

The father’s death is of little importance to the children, and not much to their mother, who, as a rule, goes over to her husband’s oldest brother. If the mother dies, the children are adopted by a maternal aunt or some other woman of the clan. One reason why all this is of no great importance is the far-reaching communism which is a feature of native life, every one sleeping and eating wherever he pleases.

Mr. F. took me up north, where I wished to study the population. I must not omit to mention that the population of Pentecoste is divided into two distinct types: the people in the south are like those of Ambrym, those in the north resemble the inhabitants of Aoba. This is evident not only in the dress, but also quite distinctly in the exterior of the people. Yet in spite of the close relations with Ambrym, the art of sculpture, so highly developed in the other island, is entirely lacking in the south of Pentecoste.

In the north we find a dress similar to that of Aoba: the men do not wear the nambas, while the women have a small mat around the waist. The art of braiding is brought to great perfection here, and the mats from Pentecoste are surpassed only by those from Maevo. The material is pandanus, whose leaves are split into narrow strips, bleached and then braided. Some of the mats are dyed with the root of a plant, by boiling in a dyeing vat of bark. Besides the small mats, chiefly used for the women’s dress, there are larger ones which serve as money and represent a great amount. They are as much as 1 metre wide and 4 long, and are always dyed. The manufacture of these mats is very laborious, and only high-caste men with many wives can afford to have them made. The patterns for dyeing are cut out of banana-sheath, which is then tied tightly on the mat, and the whole rolled round a thick stick. The dyeing takes almost an entire day. These mats are used, for example, to buy the valuable tusked pigs.

The only form of wood-carving in this region are clubs, and those made here are the most elegant of the whole group, and so much in demand in all the islands that they are quite largely exported. At present they are mostly used as ceremonial clubs at dances. All those of modern make are inferior to the old ones in regard to hardness, elegance of shape, polish and strength. Here, in Pentecoste, I found the first basket-plates I had ever seen. They are frequent farther north, in the Banks Islands, but do not exist in the south. These plates had no centre, and had to be lined with leaves to make them serviceable, being mere rings. They are used to carry cooked food about. In the Banks Islands the natives have learned to braid the centre too.

Up in these northern mountains I spent a most unpleasant week in wet, cold weather, in a wretched house; but I had the satisfaction of finding two boys to take the place of Lingban, who had, by this time, become semi-idiotic with home-sickness.

I returned to the coast and waited for an opportunity to cross to Aoba, but the weather was so bad that even Mr. G., an old sea-dog, would not risk the voyage; so we tried to get to Ambrym instead, where I could meet the steamer for Aoba. We waited for a calm day, and started out in the tiny whale-boat. Soon we were caught by one after another of the ill-famed Pentecoste squalls, and though my skipper was known as one of the best sailors in the islands, one squall struck us so suddenly that the boat heeled over, and only a very quick turn of the wheel saved us from capsizing. The escape was such a narrow one that even Mr. G. turned pale, and decided to go back, especially as the boys sat on deck, quite useless, green with fear and incapable of helping us in any way.

It took us a long time to beat back, and we were all glad to feel solid ground under our feet once more. After a few days we started again, but luck was against me on this occasion, and inside of twelve hours I missed the steamer no less than three times, which, in the New Hebrides, implies a delay of four weeks.

So, in a heavy whale-boat, I rowed along the coast toward Olal with some natives. A dull rain drenched us, followed by glaring sunshine that stewed us in heavy dampness. Like the ruins of a giant wall, black lava blocks lay here and there along the coast. The surf foamed white in the crevasses, and the forest rose, sallow and greenish-yellow, above the high bank. Here and there naked natives squatted on the rocks, motionless, or looking lazily for crabs; among the huge boulders they looked tiny, and their colouring scarcely distinguished them from their surroundings; so that they seemed rather like animals, or the shyest of cave-dwellers. Floating slowly on the grey sea, in the sad broken light, I thought I had never seen a more inhospitable coast.

Owing to the heavy swell, we had difficulty in passing through the narrow channel inside the reef. The great rollers pounded against the coral banks, and poured back in a thousand white streamlets, like a wonderful cascade, to be swallowed by the next wave.

I found my friend, Mr. D., in a sad state with fever, cold and loneliness; wrapped up in woollen caps, blankets and heavy clothes, he looked more like an Arctic explorer than a dweller near the Equator. He spoke of leaving the islands, and, indeed, did so some months later.

On my way to Aoba I had to spend a few days off Pentecoste, in such rainy weather that I went ashore but once in all that time. The day was fine, and I shall never forget the beauty of that woodland scene. A lovely creek winds through reeds, reflecting the bright sand and the bushes on its banks. Dark iron-woods rise in stiff, broken lines, and their greyish needles quiver like a light plume against the blue sky, where white clouds float serenely. Inland the forest swells in a green wall, and farther off it lies in rounded cupolas and domes of soft green, fading into a light around the distant hills. Under overhanging branches I lie, sheltered from the sun; at my feet the ripples caress the bank; delicate lianas hang from the branches and trail lazily in the water. Swallows dart across the stream, and sometimes the low call of a wood-dove sounds from far away. A cricket shrieks, and stops suddenly, as if shocked at the discordant sound of its own voice. Far off in the hills I can hear the rushing of the wind, like a deep chord that unites in a sacred symphony with the golden sun and the glittering water to voice the infinite joy of living that penetrates all creation to-day.

Down-stream I can see the heavy coast banks, with a narrow strip of brilliant blue sea shining above them, and now and then a glint of snowy foam. Two pandanuses frame the view, their long leaves waving softly in the breeze that comes floating down the valley. Half asleep, I know the delights of the lotus-eaters’ blessed isle.