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A Day at Tikopia

By Florence E. Coombe

From The Southern Cross Log, Vol. XIV, No. 158, Sydney, July 11, 1908, pages 22-27

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2010

[22] A Day at Tikopia.

NOVEMBER 8th, 1907. We were quite startled, on coming up on deck after breakfast, to see the Island of Tikopia, clear and green, in front of us. A small spot of land out of sight of any other, divided roughly into two parts by a dip. To the left is a hill, to the right a high table-land. Soon we could descry little dark canoes setting out towards us, and gradually their occupants became discernible.

And oh! what strange, magnificent people! So totally unlike any of our Melanesian islanders that it was like taking a sudden plunge out of the everyday world into a land of romantic imagination, a sort of Rider-Haggard realm. They shot along, paddling vigorously in their workman-like dug-outs, rather wider than the Santa Cruz canoes, with little if any ornamentation. The first to approach us was a good sample of the whole fleet. It contained seven tawny giants, all well over six feet in height, their skin a pale coppery hue, their hair--long, yellow manes--floating in the wind, their features and expression strong and striking. They were standing to their paddles, and came gaily along, laughing and shouting in rich, deep voices, clearly delighted to see us.

It was two years since the Ship had called, for on the previous occasion, when we had to withdraw our teachers on account of scarcity of food, the Bishop tried to hold a little service inside the school-house, but the people were very noisy and irreverent, and altogether behaved so disorderly that the Bishop gave notice that the Ship would not call again for two years. Moreover, they had then just cast adrift in a canoe, with two cocoanuts, a poor Ellis Islander who, with his brother Simon, had been shipwrecked off Tikopia. When the Bishop took away the teachers, he also brought off Simon, lest he should suffer similar treatment at the Tikopians' hands. We now had the pleasure of taking him back, together with five Motalava teachers and their wives, all eager to open the school afresh.

The poor Tikopians had missed the ship and their missionaries sadly, and a few weeks previously they sent five men out in two canoes to look for us, all of whom, alas! were lost. It seemed, however, that the discipline to which they had been necessarily subjected had had its effect, for everyone agreed that the natives' behaviour throughout the day was markedly softened and improved. At the outset they actually asked leave to come aboard! They looked colossal when they did come and walk among us.

The Tikopians don't go in much for ornament. It is as if they were conscious that their natural form is comely enough, and more dignified, unadorned. They seem, as a rule, to have black hair to [22/23] start with, and then to treat it with lime or something to make it yellow. In a few cases only a glitter appeared to indicate a natural colour. There is very little face-tattooing, but elaborate devices on their bodies often give a curious impression in the distance of jackets or jerseys. Columns of tiny fish, and rows of straight lines and curves reminded those who had landed at Bellona of the pattern popular there. Many methods are employed to keep the hair out of its owner's way. Some wearing a rounded sort of comb, after the fashion of long-ago childhood, were absurdly suggestive of a burlesque "Alice in Wonderland!" Others coil the mane at the back of their heads into a massive chignon. But the favourite plan is to bind a strip of calico or native cloth over the forehead and round the hair, so keeping it partially out of the way. A good many wear tortoiseshell ear-rings, and, just a few, a small, inconspicuous ring in the nose. Necklaces are not common, but we noticed some composed of black seeds. A string round the neck frequently supports a pendant in the shape of a pearl fish or a single cowrie. Armlets of pearl-shell are occasionally worn, but seldom anything else. Rather an elaborately-woven mat is sometimes wrapped over the native malo or apron. The children only are quite unclothed.

The Bishop wasthe first person to be sought out, and then Simon Patahia. For the first time I saw the ceremony of rubbing noses. It really consists, here, at any rate, of a brief contact and pressure of nose-tip with nose-tip. They all looked delighted to see Simon again, and greeted our whole party effusively,--myself with some curiosity too. It was just a merry, noisy crowd of gigantic boys, with somewhat the aspect of ancient Britons.

Among the first to speak to me was a lad whose hair had not yet developed into the conventional mane. He had attended the school when it was first started, and had acquired a little Mota. He began by addressing me as veve (mother), and shaking my hand for several minutes to my great discomfort. Then he told me he had a prayer-book and hymn-book at home, and, "I am already enlightened! Soon I shall be baptized!" hastily signing the Cross on his forehead. Later on came the inevitable, "Mother! See!" in the most wheedling tones imaginable, "I want some--some--some kaliki (calico).

Our visitors were mostly armed with articles for trade,--beautiful mats, fans, which they use constantly, and carry stuck in their loin-cloth behind, and shells,--no great variety of goods. I was interested in watching one man who had an article to dispose of which was clearly of peculiar value, for it was wrapped first in about three yards of native cloth, then in a second wrapping, and it took a long, long time to unfold. However, he was patient, and so was I, and at last we came to the kernel, and behold! an English [23/24] sixpence! Poor fellow, I fear he was dreadfully disappointed to find the bidding for his treasure did not run very high.

Soon we set off in boats for the shore, and on the way some men in a neighbouring canoe entertained us with one of their peculiar, plaintive songs, sung with absolute precision, and accompanied by curious actions, swaying of the body, shaking of the mane, etc., and punctuated with most hearty laughter.

There was a long wade necessary to get to land. I was scarcely clear of the ocean before the women were upon me, and truly they bestowed a right royal welcome. The glamour of rarity was about me, for I was but the second white woman to go ashore here, Mrs. Wilson having been the first, about three years previously. The native women wear their hair cropped very short, and it was dark in every instance that I could see. There is a curious custom that in the case of a death, the chief male mourner cuts off his hair, which is then twisted into a rope, and coiled round the head of the deceased's nearest female relation. We saw several of these tokens of mourning.

I was speedily appropriated by the four or five girls who had attended the school, and who still retained a few scraps of Mota.

The women's dress, if certainly scanty, was sufficient, and they had made themselves gay and festal, as also had the men, with wreaths of orange flowers on their heads, fragrant white lotus blossoms stuck here and there in the hair, necklaces of fringy grass, and bunches of scented leaves sticking out of their armlets, girdles, etc. I shook hands with a multitude of these, my sisters, and many presented me with their flower garlands, to be hung round my neck and twined about my hat, while others handed me lotos-flowers to stick behind my ears.

So with their arms embracing me with a torrid fervour (oh, but it was warm!) they led me to the village just above the beach. Here great forest trees cast welcome shade upon the hot, white, soft sand. The women spread a palm-frond as a mat, andbade me sit down. Then it seemed to me I was surrounded by the whole female population of Tikopia, who subjected me to a prolonged examination, verbal and physical. I was pinched, and stroked and patted; my blouse-sleeves were turned up above the elbow to see if the white really went on, and Iwas asked many searching questions. And howthey laughed and ejaculated! Everything dark was bad; we white people alone were good, and everything belonging to us! And I, meanwhile, was lost, in silent admiration of the children. Such beautiful little creatures, with brilliant, intelligent eyes, and clear, soft skin!

Suddenly, in the midst of all the clatter, as if by a simultaneous impulse (so unanimous that it reminded me of nothing so much as the chorus of a comic opera!) they began to sing in their mellow [24/25] tuneful voices, and dance around me, clapping their hands in strict time, but between the words in such a way as to give the effect of syncopation. And as it is, I believe, with most native races, all the music of these merry-hearted folk is in a minor key. Again and again the performance was repeated, till at last they made me take part. I stood up, and my hands were lifted up and down on either side, and waved about by a couple of supporters. In the middle of the fun and laughter, I felt my arm seized and jerked by a young women who rushed into the group. Abruptly the song and dance ceased, and the whole tribe turned upon the new-comer with glaring eyes and furious faces. She fled precipitately, and, immediately, all wasas it had been. The girl on my left told me she came from another village with which they are not friendly, and added that she was a fool.

I fancied I heard singing in the distance, and said so. But my companions corrected me. "Not so! The women are weeping because their sons have died," and later on this was corroborated by those who went inland, and had come upon the women "keening" for their dead.

As I expressed the wish to visit some house, one of the girls offered to take me to hers, which was quite near to, and I was not sorry to get quietly away for a little while. The houses are close together, with the usual thatch roof, but as far asI could judge the walls were mostly constructed of plaited palm-leaves. A few little holes here and there let in some light, but instead of the large entrance at one or both ends, there are five little low, rounded apertures at the corner of the house, to pass through which one has to drop onto hands and knees. As our small procession crawled in it was for all the world as if we were playing at bears! Inside there were matson the floor, and the usual oven, or hole in the ground, in the centre. Fishing nets, clubs, dried and canoe paddles formed the furniture. The atmosphere wasnot bad, and I sat there for a good while.

The mistress of the house pulled off one of her armlets, and put it on my arm, over my sleeve, as a token of friendship. Of course, according to the strict rule of etiquette, in return for each present I offered another. Matches greatly delighted and excited them. But one man insisted on me giving him a tortoiseshell ring from Santa Cruz that I did not want to hand over. I yielded without demur, however, having no wish to displease anyone while I was alone in their midst. Their gifts were mostly in food-shape, refreshing green cocoanuts and sugar cane.

Every now and then I would feel a squeeze of my hand or arm, and hear a sweet voice at my side, pulsala! (friend), and then would be sung very slowly and carefully some remembered fragment of a Mota hymn: "Jesus was born in Bethlehem," or, "Let us [25/26] sing joyfully!" and another time it was the Lord's Prayer. I was glad and surprised to find that so much stuck in the memories of these volatile creatures after a lapse of two years, and when they had schooled but for so short a time.

On returning to the ship we found it fairly in the hands, of our giant visitors, who were swarming everywhere, and doing a very brisk trade in mats. It must be especially recorded that on this visit, so far as we know, nothing was stolen, a practical evidence that the Tikopians are improving.

One man attracted my attention above the rest. He is a chief's son, and just a born tragedian, or comedian, I could not finally decide which. Every gesture and expression was dramatic, and he was never for an instant at a loss. Watching him, it was hard to believe he had never seen or heard of a stage. But they are surely a dramatic people. To watch the children dancing and singing with an unconsciousness and careless grace no white youngster could possibly rival, strengthens this opinion. And here on the ship, in the middle of the barter and jabber, a little troop came together, and began to dance and sing with a sort of mad exuberance of excitement.

The Bishop and his companions had a very interesting expedition, though it was a long, hot walk. They saw the great lake, which must be beautiful, covered with white water-lilies. Wild duck abound here, so unused to sportsman that they are easy to kill. Twenty-five were shot, and we were thankful for the fresh food as they are excellent eating.

The old king, chief of the lesser chiefs, is quite patriarchal-looking, they say. He was seated in state outside his house, his subjects keeping a respectful distance, only one, whom the men described as a sort of prime minister, venturing close beside him. The white visitors approached him with great respect, but standing upright, and the Bishop sat beside him for some little time. All Tikopia was rejoicing to see the teachers return, and the Bishop sounded the chief on the subject of letting some boys go as far as Motalava to Ben Qorig's care. I suppose this would be a stepping-stone to the Vureas school. The chief said they would think about it, but gave no definite answer.

What I should like best of all to have seen was the reception of Simon Patahia, the Ellis islander. He approached the old king on hands and knees, as is the custom with all the people, his face to the ground. Then he placed his head between the feet of the chief, who lifted it in his hands, and brought it to knee-level; he then laid his hands upon it, and muttered some words that we suppose must have been a kind of benediction; and finally he turned up the man's face and pressed his nose to that of Simon. They said it was wonderfully like the picture of a returned prodigal.

[27] We exhibited our gramophone to the Tikopians, who marvelled for amoment, then decided it was first rate to dance to, and so danced afresh.

At about 4 p.m. we dismissed our visitors. They were not at all anxious to go, but one of their number armed himself with a menacing spear, and went to and fro as a sort of policeman, speeding the parting guests, who at his approach lingered no longer, but toppled abruptly over the ship's side, careless whether into a canoe or into the sea, shouting with laughter either way. Last of all the old policeman dived in, and the last we saw was his head bobbing above the water, nearly three-quarters of a mile from the shore, his right hand grasping the spear above his head.

And thus we bade farewell to Tikopia, and our plucky little band of missionary teachers. F.E.C.

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