Read CHAPTER XXIV  -  A NIGHT RUN ACROSS FAGALOA BAY of The Call Of The South 1908 , free online book, by Louis Becke, on

When I was supercargo of the brig Palestine, we were one day beating along the eastern shore of the great island of Tombara (New Ireland) or, as it is now called by its German possessors, Neu Mecklenburg, when an accident happened to one of our hands ­a smart young A.B. named Rogers.  The brig was “going about” in a stiff squall, when the jib-sheet block caught poor Rogers in the side, and broke three of his ribs.

There were then no white men living on the east coast of New Ireland, or we should have landed him there to recover, and picked him up again on our return from the Caroline Islands, so we decided to run down to Gerrit Denys Island, where we had heard there was a German doctor living.  He was a naturalist, and had been established there for over a year, although the natives were as savage and warlike a lot as could be found anywhere in Melanesia.

We reached the island, anchored, and the naturalist came on board.  He was not a professional-looking man.  Here is my description, of him, written fifteen years ago: ­

“He was bootless, and his pants and many-pocketed jumper of coarse dungaree were exceedingly dirty, and looked as if they had been cut out with a knife and fork instead of scissors, they were so marvellously ill-fitting.  His head-gear was an ancient Panama hat, which flopped about, and almost concealed his red-bearded face, as if trying to apologise for the rest of his apparel; and the thin gold-rimmed spectacles he wore made a curious contrast to his bare and sun-burnt feet, which were as brown as those of a native.  His manner, however, was that of a man perfectly at ease with himself and his clear, steely blue eyes, showed an infinite courage and resolution.”

At first he was very reluctant to have Rogers brought on shore, but finally yielded, being at heart a good-natured man.  So we bade Rogers good-bye, made the doctor a present of some provisions, and a few cases of beer, and told him we should be back in six weeks.

When we returned, Rogers came on board with the German.  He was quite recovered, and he and his host were evidently on very friendly terms, and bade farewell to each other with some show of feeling.

After we had left the island, Rogers came aft, and told us his experiences with the German doctor.

“He’s a right good sort of a chap, and treated me well, and did all he could for me, sirs ­but although he is a nice cove, I’m glad to get away from him, and be aboard the brig again.  For I can hardly believe that I haven’t had a horrid, blarsted nightmare for the past six weeks.”

And then he shuddered.

“What was wrong with him, Rogers?” asked the skipper.

“Why, he ain’t no naturalist ­I mean like them butterfly-hunting coves like you see in the East Indies.  He’s a head-hunter ­buys heads ­fresh ‘uns by preference, an’ smokes an’ cures ’em hisself, and sells ’em to the museums in Europe.  So help me God, sirs, I’ve seen him put fresh human heads into a barrel of pickle, then he takes ’em out after a week or so, and cleans out the brains, and smokes the heads, and sorter varnishes and embalms ’em like.  An’ when he wasn’t a picklin’ or embalmin’ or varnishin’, he was a-writing in half a dozen log books.  I never knew what he was a-doin’ until one day I went into his workshop ­as he called it ­and saw him bargaining with some niggers for a fresh cut-off head, which he said was not worth much because the skull was badly fractured, and would not set up well.

“He was pretty mad with me at first for comin’ in upon him, and surprisin’ him like, but after a while he took me into his confidence, and said as how he was engaged in a perfeckly legitimate business, and as the heads was dead he was not hurtin’ ’em by preparing ’em for museums and scientific purposes.  And he says to me, ’You English peoples have got many peautiful preserved heads of the New Zealand Maories in your museums, but ach, Gott, there is not in England such peautiful heads as I haf mineself brebared here on dis islandt And already I haf send me away fifty-seven, and in two months I shall haf brebared sixteen more, for which I shall get me five hundred marks each.’”

Rogers told us that when he one day expressed his horror at his host’s “business,” the German retorted that it was only forty or fifty years since that many English officials in the Australian colonies did a remarkably good business in buying smoked Maori heads, and selling them to the Continental museums. (This was true enough.) Rogers furthermore told us that the doctor “cured” his heads in a smoke-box, and had “a regular chemist’s shop” in which were a number of large bottles of pyroligneous acid, prepared by a London firm.

This distinguished savant left Gerrit Denys Island about a year later in a schooner bound for Singapore.  She was found floating bottom up off the Admiralty Group, and a Hong-Kong newspaper, in recording the event, mentioned that “the unfortunate gentleman (Dr. Ludwig S------) had with him an interesting and extremely valuable ethnographical collection “.

Rogers’s horrible story had a great interest for me; for it had been my lot to see many human heads just severed from the body, and I was always fascinated by the peculiar expression of the features of those unfortunates who had been decapitated suddenly by one swift blow.  “Death,” “Peace,” “Immortality,” say the closed eyelids and the calm, quiet lips to the beholder.

I little imagined that within two years I should have a rather similar experience to that of Rogers, though in my case it was a very brief one.  Yet it was all too long for me, and I shall always remember it as the weirdest experience of my life.

I have elsewhere in this volume spoken of the affectionate regard I have always had for the Samoan people, with whom I passed some of the happiest years of my life.  I have lived among them in peace and in war, have witnessed many chivalrous and heroic deeds, and yet have seen acts of the most terrible cruelty to the living, the mutilation and dishonouring of the dead killed in combat, and other deeds that filled me with horror and repulsion.  And yet the perpetrators were all professing Christians ­either Protestant or Roman Catholic ­and would no more think of omitting daily morning and evening prayer, and attending service in church or chapel every Sunday, than they would their daily bathe in sea or river.

Always shall I remember one incident that occurred during the civil war between King Malietoa and his rebel subjects at the town of Saluafata.  The olo or trenches, of the king’s troops had been carried by the rebels, among whom was a young warrior who had often distinguished himself by his reckless bravery.  At the time of the assault I was in the rebel lines, for I was on very friendly terms with both sides, and each knew that I would not betray the secrets of the other, and that my only object was to render aid to the wounded.

This young man, Tolu, told me, before joining in the assault, that he had a brother, a cousin, and an uncle in the enemy’s trenches, and that he trusted he should not meet any one of them, for he feared that he might turn pala’ai (coward) and not “do his duty”.  He was a Roman Catholic, and had been educated by the Marist Brothers, but all his relatives, with the exception of one sister, were Protestants ­members of the Church established by the London Missionary Society.

An American trader named Parter and I watched the assault, and saw the place carried by the rebels, and went in after them.  Among the dead was Tolu, and we were told that he had shot himself in grief at having cut down his brother, whom he did not recognise.

Now as to my own weird experience.

There had been severe fighting in the Fagaloa district of the Island of Upolu, and many villages were in flames when I left the Port of Tiavea in my boat for Fagaloa Bay, a few miles along the shore.  I was then engaged in making a trip along the north coast, visiting almost every village, and making arrangements for the purchase of the coming crop of copra (dried coco-nut).  I was everywhere well received by both Malietoa’s people and the rebels, but did but little business.  The natives were too occupied in fighting to devote much time to husking and drying coco-nuts, except when they wanted to get money to buy arms and ammunition.

My boat’s crew consisted of four natives of Savage Island (Niue), many of whom are settled in Samoa, where they have ample employment as boatmen and seamen.  They did not at all relish the sound of bullets whizzing over the boat, as we sometimes could not help crossing the line of fire, and they had a horror of travelling at night-time, imploring me not to run the risk of being slaughtered by a volley from the shore ­as how could the natives know in the darkness that we were not enemies.

Fagaloa Bay is deep, narrow and very beautiful.  Small villages a few miles apart may be seen standing in the midst of groves of coco-nut palms, and orange, banana and bread-fruit trees, and everywhere bright mountain streams of crystal water debouch into the lovely bay.

On Sunday afternoon I sailed into the bay and landed at the village of Samamea on the east side, intending to remain for the night We found the people plunged in grief ­a party of rebels had surprised a village two miles inland, and ruthlessly slaughtered all the inhabitants as well as a party of nearly a score of visitors from the town of Salimu, on the west side of the bay.  So sudden was the onslaught of the rebels that no one in the doomed village escaped except a boy of ten years of age.  After being decapitated, the bodies of the victims were thrown into the houses, and the village set on fire.

The people of Samamea hurriedly set out to pursue the raiding rebels, and an engagement ensued, in which the latter were badly beaten, and fled so hurriedly that they had to abandon all the heads they had taken the previous day in order to save their own.

The chief of Samamea, in whose house I had my supper, gave me many details of the fighting, and then afterwards asked me if I would come and look at the heads that had been recovered from the enemy.  They were in the “town house” and were covered over with sheets of navy blue cloth, or matting.  A number of natives were seated round the house, conversing in whispers, or weeping silently.

“These,” said the chief to me, pointing to a number of heads placed apart from the others, “are the heads of the Salimu people ­seventeen in all, men, women and three children.  We have sent word to Salimu to the relatives to come for them.  I cannot send them myself, for no men can be spared, and we have our own dead to attend to as well, and may ourselves be attacked at any time."’

A few hours later messengers arrived from Salimu.  They had walked along the shore, for the bay was very rough ­it had been blowing hard for two days ­and, the wind being right ahead, they would not launch a canoe ­it would only have been swamped.

Taken to see the heads of their relatives and friends, the messengers gave way to most uncontrollable grief, and their cries were so distressing that I went for a walk on the beach ­to be out of hearing.

When I returned to the village I found the visitors from Salimu and the chief of Samamea awaiting to interview me.  The chief, acting as their spokeman, asked me if I would lend them my boat to take the heads of their people to Salimu.  He had not a single canoe he could spare, except very small ones, which would be useless in such weather, whereas my whaleboat would make nothing of it.

I could not refuse their request ­it would have been ungracious of me, and it only meant a half-hour’s run across the bay, for Salimu was exactly abreast of Samamea.  So I said I would gladly sail them over in my boat at sunset, when I should be ready.

The heads were placed in baskets, and reverently carried down to the beach, and placed in the boat, and with our lug-sail close reefed we pushed off just after dark.

There were nine persons in the boat ­the four Salimu people, my crew of four and myself.  The night was starlight and rather cold, for every now and then a chilly rain squall would sweep down from the mountains.

As we spun along before the breeze no one spoke, except in low tones.  Our dreadful cargo was amidships, each basket being covered from view, but every now and then the boat would ship some water, and when I told one of my men to bale out, he did so with shuddering horror, for the water was much blood-stained.

When we were more than half-way across, and could see the lights and fires of Salimu, a rain squall overtook us, and at the same moment the boat struck some floating object with a crash, and then slid over it, and as it passed astern I saw what was either a log or plank about twenty feet long.

“Boat is stove in, for’ard!” cried one of my men, and indeed that was very evident, for the water was pouring in ­she had carried away her stem, and started all the forward timber ends.

To have attempted to stop the inrush of water effectually would have been waste, of time, but I called to my men to come aft as far as they could, so as to let the boat’s head lift; and whilst two of them kept on baling, the others shook out the reef in our lug, and the boat went along at a great speed, half full of water as she was, and down by the stern.  The water still rushed in, and I told the Samoans to move the baskets of heads farther aft, so that the men could bale out quicker.

“We’ll be all right in ten minutes, boys,” I cried to my men, as I steered; “I’ll run her slap up on the beach by the church.”

Presently one of the Samoans touched my arm, and said in a whisper that we were surrounded by a swarm of sharks.  He had noticed them, he said, before the boat struck.

“They smell the bloodied water,” he muttered.

A glance over the side filled me with terror.  There were literally scores of sharks, racing along on both sides of the boat, some almost on the surface, others some feet down, and the phosphorescence of the water added to the horror of the scene.  At first I was in hopes that they were harmless porpoises, but they were so close that some of them could have been touched with one’s hand.  Most fortunately I was steering with a rudder, and not a steer oar.  The latter would have been torn out of my hands by the brutes ­the boat have broached-to and we all have met with a horrible death.  Presently one of the weeping women noticed them, and uttered a scream of terror.

Le malie, lé malic!” ("The sharks, the sharks!”) she cried.

My crew then became terribly frightened, and urged me to let them throw the baskets of heads overboard, but the Samoans became frantic at the suggestion, all of them weeping.

So we kept on, the boat making good progress, although we could only keep her afloat by continuous baling of the ensanguined water.  In five minutes more my heart leapt with joy ­we were in shallow water, only a cable length from Salimu beach, and then in another blinding rain squall we ran on shore, and our broken bows ploughed into the sand, amid the cries of some hundreds of natives, many of whom held lighted torches.

All of us in the boat were so overwrought that for some minutes we were unable to speak, and it took a full bottle of brandy to steady the nerves of my crew and myself.  I shall never forget that night run across Fagaloa Bay.