Project Canterbury

The Wake of the Southern Cross
Work and Adventures in the South Seas

By Cecil Wilson, D.D.
Bishop of Bunbury; sometime Bishop of Melanesia.

London: John Murray, [1932]

Chapter V. Tikopia

Away to the north-east, in latitude 130 south, and one hundred and forty miles from the Banks Islands--that is, to windward for sailing vessels--lie two small islands named Tikopia and Anudha. No trading ship visits them because they are small and difficult to reach. For that reason our own ship with its square sails had always passed them by. The race of men living on them was practically unknown. In 1901 we determined to break fresh ground and go to see what these islanders were like.

We started one evening from Mota at five o'clock, and at ten o'clock the next morning we sailed up to the island of Tikopia with a school of sharks alongside us. The water was too deep to anchor and a few canoes came off, but the men in them were timid. Most of the island was low-lying, but on the further side of it rose a mountain of considerable height; here on the lee side the water was calm, and we soon had a boat down and some of us went ashore. There we met two men who some years before had been to Mota, and these half-carried me across the reef and introduced us to the people.

At first sight they seemed a race of giants. Instead of being small brown people with frizzy hair, like our Melanesians, these Polynesians were tall with [97/98] long tawny hair falling down on their shoulders. They had great square jaws and their hands seemed enormous. One man appeared to be about six feet five and many were six feet. They had big frames, but from want of food, which a hurricane had destroyed, they were rather thin. The women had short hair and their large size did not strike one so much. They were more to the fore than Melanesian women are, and joined in the welcome given. Evidently they were allowed some say as to whether we should be kindly received or otherwise. The men carried no weapons, and told us it was not their custom to fight. We heard there were four "kings" in the island, but none of them came to see us.

I sent word to them that I wanted to leave two Motalava teachers with them; no definite answer came back, but the people were so friendly it was decided to leave them. These two Melanesians, Denmet and Zacchaeus, looked absurdly small among the Tikopeans; they were rather nervous, but said they were not afraid. We gave them food, and saw the village where they would live. The houses were as small as the men were big, and we had to crawl into them on hands and knees. When we had done all we could to hearten up the two men we were leaving, we found a crowd on the beach, the women with circlets of frangipani flowers on their heads and round their necks, all singing in our honour. Our boat lying by the reef was full of these Brobdingnagian men, and almost sinking with the weight of them. Those not in the boat begged insatiably for pipes, [98/99] and constantly we found their great hands in the trade-bags on our backs, or else in our pockets. They stole everything they could reach. With our boat full of them and down to the gunwale, we could not get away, until a very tall man with a black beard, who, we were told, was the son of one of the kings, came with a club and drove the men out of the boat, or pulled them out by the hair. That was our first experience of Tikopia. We stayed from half-past ten to half-past four. The noise was terrific all the time, with their shouting, singing, and laughing. We were the first white men that most of them had seen. Many followed us off to the ship in canoes which looked far too small for the men in them. They wished to see the last of us, and were timid no longer.

Three months later we picked up our teachers, and found they had been very kindly treated, but that food was so scarce the people were eating only every other day, and seventeen had died of hunger since our visit. We took away with them John, a big Ellice Islander, whom some chance ship had taken to Tikopia, and whom, being a stranger, the people would not feed. Their Motalava friends gave Denmet and Zacchaeus a great welcome home, and made no difficulty about their returning to Tikopia the following year.

But it was two years before we could go to that island again, and this time we had a tremendous reception. Canoes full of men came off to greet us. We could hear the people ashore singing a song of [99/100] welcome. We rowed in, and landing I felt myself a poor weak white man in their hands. Many came up and asked for me--"Bisope?" "Bisope?" They begged me to show them my gold tooth, of which, I suppose, some of them had spoken. The men were dancing, and throwing their tawny manes first over one shoulder and then the other. A king, an old man of good size, was leading them. When they had finished, I introduced myself to him and sat down by his side. Through John, the Ellice Islander, I could talk to him in Mota. He begged me not to let the "missionaries" leave them again. After him, I came upon a lesser "king" sitting on a log, and I sat down on the ground beside him; but a man brought me another log to sit on. It was noticeable that these kings were treated with great respect, and no one was allowed to sit in front of them. The boys from the ship were driven away if they came too close, and their own people approached them on hands and knees. The beginning of a small school had been made, and I tried to persuade the kings to let me take two of the boys to Norfolk Island. They were not quite prepared for this, and needed time to think it over.

On leaving we had the same trouble as before in getting away. The boat was full of these giants, and there was again the need of a king's son to throw them out. We found the ship also full of men, fifty of them dancing with great vigour on the deck. Others had been putting their hands through portholes and abstracting razors, and anything else their [100/101] fingers could reach, from the cabins. They filled the boat almost to sinking when we sent the two Motalava boys ashore again, but many still remained on board the ship. Happily the same king's son who had come to help us before, being as determined as we that we should not carry off a cargo of his people, with a face full of assumed or real rage, rushed at the mob of would-be passengers and threw them overboard into the sea. The swim of a mile or two was nothing to them, and the thought of sharks apparently worried them not. Brown heads with long hair dotted the open sea until they were picked up by the canoes. But still we could not get away, for there were men hiding in the boats and down below. These all had to be hunted out by our big friend, because one stowaway would have meant for us a return journey against the wind to put him back in his home. None of them minded being hunted and thrown overboard; in fact, they took it all as a great joke. Our skipper, however, did not see it in the same light, because he wanted to clear the land before dark. To the Tikopeans it was a splendid game, and the one who stayed longest on board the ship laughed louder than all as he dived into the sea, because he was the winner.

The next year, 1905, was a bad one. The two teachers fell ill, and the Tikopeans were not so sure as they had been that the school was in favour with the spirits. Accordingly, after we had removed the teachers, closed the school, and gone away, they put our friend John, the Ellice Islander, in a canoe with [101/102] two coco-nuts only for food, and set him adrift. This is their only way of dealing with anyone who has offended them; no violence is used, beyond what is needed to make him go. So John went to what seemed certain death; but he drifted down-wind to Vanikolo, about a hundred and fifty miles distant, and there, two years later, in 1907, we found him, and picked him up and brought him back with us to Tikopia.

This time they received us as long-lost friends. They soon recognised John on board, and were wild with delight. They rubbed noses and cheeks with him, and tore their faces with their nails till the blood ran down, to show their love for him. Whilst I talked to the four kings ashore, John came up and approached them on his hands and knees. Each blessed him with a hand on the back of his neck, and then raised his chin and kissed him. The prodigal had returned. The gods had not let him die. The school could not be so bad after all for the people. There was great noise, everyone chattering, singing, or dancing. They were all so glad to see the big ship again after two years. Nine men had been out to look for us. Four of them we had found at Vanikolo in a starving condition and almost demented, and as we were not going then to their island, we had carried them on with us to the Solomons, where they died. But of the other five nothing had again been heard. We promised that we would not leave them again, if they would agree to look after our teachers. It needed plenty of grit [102/103] in those young teachers to stay, and it was two other boys of Motalava, Edgar and Ellison, whom we left there this time. There was great singing at our departure. Frangipani wreaths were again the order of the day. We had promised that in future we would not pass the island by, and we had more than usual trouble in getting away, because so many of them wanted to come with us.

We felt we knew these people well by this time. Once my wife travelled round the islands with me and I took her ashore at Tikopia. She was, of course, the first white woman they had seen, and as soon as we came to the wide reef the women seized her and carried her across it to the land, some holding her head and shoulders and others her feet. They measured her long hair, and wanted to know if her body was the same colour as her stockings. The noise was stunning. "Father, give me pipe!" "No, is it no? All right!" They seized my hand, and shook it, and said "Good-bye!" and "Goodnight!" Women and children swam round the boat. There was an abundance of food and everyone was well. It was an island where no white man's sickness had as yet come. They had beautiful little models of canoes to sell to us, at a cost of two hooks each, or of a string of beads, or of two sticks of tobacco.

By 1909 there were two good schools, and many could read and had learned to talk Mota. About two hundred people attended these schools. We found ten men from the neighbouring island of [103/104] Anudha (Cherry Island) waiting for us, that they might ask us to go and make schools in their island also. This was the result of a visit we had paid to them six months previously (when Captain Sinker had measured a man and found him forty-six inches round the chest and fifty round the stomach). Plenty of boys now were ready to go with us, and still more grown men. They were much less wild than before, and did not ask so unceasingly for pipes and tobacco. I met the four old "kings," who were sitting on low stools, each at his corner of a square; they were very friendly, and when I gave them presents they, for the first time, gave me food. Magnificent old men they were, with great strong faces and long hair resting on their shoulders. They were at last quite willing that two of their boys should go to Norfolk Island.

In 1910 we brought back these two boys, Bakiraki and Arikamua, safe and sound. Our idea now was that since the Tikopeans were Polynesian, not Melanesian, we ought to bring Maori teachers from New Zealand to carry on, both here and at Anudha, the schools which the Motalava boys had started. We therefore tentatively brought Kaini Puata, a Maori, and put him ashore with Mr. Durrad. The latter was the first white man ever to stay on Tikopia, and the people were rather afraid of him. I saw Taumako, the biggest king, and explained what I wished to do. I hoped, having his own boys back, he would care for the white man and the Maori. The old man was not enthusiastic, but agreed. Our Motalava [104/105] teachers were preparing a number of their hearers for baptism, and they told us that their goods were now safe.

Stealing, however, was one of the customs of the island--one man planted food, and as soon as it was ready to eat another would steal it. It was also the custom for a man who wanted to marry to have the girl of his choice brought to his sister's house (whether she might refuse to come, I am not sure). She would stay for one or two nights, and he would offer her food and betel-nut. If she accepted the food, then she also accepted him as her husband. If, on the other hand, she declined it, she also declined him, but must then drown, or lose herself in the mountain. A girl might ask a man to marry her, but if he refused to do so, again she should either hang or drown herself.

Two months later, in June, we came back to the island. This time no canoes came off to meet us. We went ashore, without any demonstrations of joy, and found the people frightened of us. A sailor on our ship had had a heavy cold when we put down Durrad and the Maori, and the germs carried ashore with them had attacked everyone in the island, and forty natives had died. The people therefore stood aloof from us until we assured them that we had now no sickness on board the ship. After that they were as friendly as ever, but much quieter. They sat around their old "kings," and I told them how grieved we were at having brought a white man's sickness which had never come to them before and [105/106] which caused so much trouble. I said that, in future, if we had any illness of any kind on board, we would pass them by without calling. The teachers and their wives saw plainly what this would mean for them--isolation from their friends for a year or two at a time; but they agreed to stay on. I noticed that all the Tikopean men's hair was now short, as a sign of mourning.

In November of this same year, 1910, we had a clean bill of health, and, remembering our promise to them, as large a crowd of natives as ever boarded the ship on our arrival. They danced on the deck to show their pleasure at our return. They flung their growing hair from side to side, and stamped their feet in time, making the ship shake. The sickness had passed away with our departure in June, and now there was great doubt in the island if it was really the ship that had brought it. The spirits might have caused it, but most thought that it was the whistle of the ship which had done it.

We were asked not to whistle in future when we came. We got the teachers from the shore and rowed off in a boat, deep in the water as usual through the weight of natives in her. When we reached the ship all those on the starboard side of the boat tried to climb up the ship's ladder at the same time, and the boat capsized through the weight of those on the port-side. We were all in the water, but happily we had no baggage or goods with us.

When shortly afterwards we went ashore again, we took the same king's son with us to pull passengers out by their hair. Being a very important person, none of his people ever resented this rough treatment.

The following year, 1911, more canoes came off to us than ever. The ship was crowded as soon as the anchor was down. Every door was kept shut to prevent stealing, but one man was caught making off with the second engineer's overalls. On going ashore we heard the startling news that Ellison, one of the Motalava teachers, had married a Tikopean girl. We had not expected this, neither had he. His story was that a married woman had come to him and proposed marriage, and when he declined her, because she was already married, an unmarried girl had presented herself for the same purpose. If he had refused this one she must, according to custom, have drowned herself. Rather than that, he had asked the advice of the other teacher, Edgar, and of her chief. Edgar's story was that the girl asked Ellison many times to marry her, and said she would kill herself if he did not. Her sister came and scolded her, on which the girl threw her arms round Ellison's neck and would not let go. Her sister then gave her a slap on the back, and said, "Very well, then, now you are married!" and that, according to Edgar, married them in the eyes of the people. Edgar therefore himself married them--the big chief, Taumako, having given his consent--and so the brown Melanesian was married to a fair Polynesian of about twice his size. I gave him goods to pay for her, and more to buy some land with. [107/108] As a bachelor he had been fed, but as a married man he must grow his own food. The girl now affected great shyness. She had risked her life for the man of her choice and had won; but the custom of the island, which permitted this, forbade her to leave her father for a year. Apparently, even in Tikopia, there is a feeling that overtures of marriage from the woman to the man are not altogether desirable.

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