Basil Thomson.

Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niué and Tonga online

. (page 1 of 12)
Online LibraryBasil ThomsonSavage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niué and Tonga → online text (page 1 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Adrian Mastronardi, Chris Whitehead, Linda
Cantoni, Karen Lofstrum and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at (This file was
produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive/American Libraries.)












Niué, more commonly known as Savage Island, lies 1,000 miles N.N.E. of
New Zealand, and 300 miles S.S.E. of Samoa, in the loneliest spot in
that part of the Pacific. Its iron-bound coasts tempt no vessels to
call for supplies. At rare intervals great four-masted timber-ships
pass in the offing; more rarely still schooners call to replenish the
stock of the traders and to carry away their copra.

I went to the Niuéans in the name of the Queen and Empress whom the
world is still lamenting, and I do not like to think of what our loss
means to the people in these remote outposts of her Empire. The oldest
native in the South Seas remembers no sovereign's name but hers. She
was a real person to them all; a lady who had made them her especial
care, had sent the gospel to them, and had bade them lay aside their
clubs, and live in peace, order, and equity. Vika, as they called her
affectionately - Vika, after whom they named their girl-children - was
the benign, all-powerful chief, whose house was built upon the coral
strand of Lonitoni (London), opposite the landing-place, where her
men-o'-war were moored stem and stern in rows before her door. She read
their letters with her own eyes, and had her captains to sit before her
on the floor-mats while she gave them messages for the brown folk in
far islands. And now Vika, the well-beloved, has left them, mourned by
the empire of which they were but the tiniest part. It was hers, and
she never saw it; but we, who have seen it - who have, in the humblest
way, helped in the making of it - think with heavy hearts of how much
hangs upon a name, and of how hard it will be to reassure them, when,
as they say of their own dead kings, "kuo hala 'ae langi" - "the heaven
has fallen."

















_The Tribunals of Arcadia_ 103


_A Native Entertainment_ 117




















"Ship Ahoy!" 6

The Church at Alofi 14

A Street in Alofi 14

The Royal Procession 26

King Tongia 38

Hoisting the Union Jack over Savage Island 40

The Queen of Niué 46

"Decently clothed from head to foot" 78

The King and Queen take their Seats 118

A Grave in Tonga 134

Uiliame Tungi, the blind Chief of Hahake 164

George Tubou II., King of Tonga 170

A Tongan Girl 178

The Church built by King George I. and the
Government Offices wrecked by the Cyclone 186

The Land-locked Harbour of Vavau 192

The Colony of Flying Foxes at Kolovai 202

J. Mateialona, Cousin of the King and
Governor of Haapai 212

The Otuhaka 222

Map of Niué _At the end_




"To Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, the first
kingdom of all the kingdoms of the world.

"We the chiefs and rulers and governors of Niué-Fekai desire to
pray Your Majesty, if it be your pleasure, to stretch out towards
us your mighty hand, that Niué may hide herself in it and be safe.
We are afraid lest some other powerful nation should come and
trouble us, and take possession of our island, as some islands in
this quarter of the world have been taken by great nations. On
account of this we are troubled, but we leave it with you to do as
seems best to you. If you send the flag of Britain, it is well; or
if you send a Commissioner to reside among us, that also will be

"Our king, Tuitonga, died on the 13th July last, but before he
died he wished to write to Your Majesty, and beg you to send the
powerful flag of Britain to unfurl in this island of Niué, in
order that this weak island of ours might be strong. It was from
your country that men first came to this island to make known the
name of the Lord, and through them this land of Niué-Fekai became
enlightened; then, for the first time, this people knew that
there were other lands in the world. Therefore the people of this
land rejoice in you and in your kingdom. This land is enlightened
by the gospel of Jesus Christ brought by the subjects of Your
Majesty, and that is why we make this petition.

"That is all we have to say. May Your Majesty the Queen and your
powerful kingdom be blessed, together with the kingdom of Niué, in
the kingdom of Heaven.

"I, Fataäiki, write this letter."

Thus wrote Fataäiki, King of Niué, otherwise known as Savage Island,
thirteen years ago.

The first request for a protectorate was made to a missionary as early
as 1859, when the people were in the first heat of conversion to
Christianity; this seems to have gone no further. But King Fataäiki's
letter reached its destination, and England, "the first kingdom of all
the kingdoms of the world," England the earth-hungry and insatiable (as
others see her), took thirteen years to think it over, and then, having
received a second letter more precisely worded, reluctantly consented.
It is an object-lesson of the way in which we blunder into Empire.

It was not until the Germans began to develop their plantations in
Samoa that Niué was discovered to have a value. The Polynesian races,
as everybody knows, are a picturesque, easy-going, and leisure-loving
people, too fond of home to travel, and too indolent to do a steady
day's work. A dash of some alien blood, as yet unrecognised, has played
strange freaks with the men of Niué. Alone among Polynesian races
they opposed the landing of Europeans; alone they love to engage as
labourers far from home, and show, both at home and abroad, a liking
for hard work; no other island race has the commercial instinct so
keenly developed. The number of them working in Samoa has increased so
rapidly in recent years that their houses form a distinct quarter of
the town of Apia, and when the recent troubles broke out they went in a
body to the British Vice-Consul and claimed his protection as British
subjects. It was hard to turn away people who were fellow-subjects by
inclination, and to put the case at its lowest, our need of plantation
labourers is tenfold greater than the Germans'. And so, when we had to
receive from Germany an equivalent for the surrender of our claims in
Samoa, Niué was thrown into our side of the scale in what is known as
the "Samoa Convention, 1899," and it became my duty when negotiating
a British protectorate over the independent kingdom of Tonga in 1900,
to visit the island and announce a favourable answer to the petition
forwarded thirteen years before.

So little was known of the lonely island that we approached it with
mixed feelings - anxiety on the part of the captain, and high curiosity
in those unconcerned with the navigation of the ship. There were,
indeed, other feelings among our company, for we had been plunging
into a strong head sea ever since we left the shelter of a Tongan
harbour, and H.M.S. _Porpoise_ has a reputation as a sea boat on
which it would be charitable not to enlarge. The island has never been
surveyed - indeed, the greater part of it is still indicated in the
chart by a dotted line - and the brief paragraph devoted to it in the
"Sailing Directions" is not encouraging to navigators. While the wind
was in the east, a precarious anchorage might be found at more than one
point on the western side, but let the wind shift to the west, and you
were on a lee shore of precipitous cliffs.

As the grey cloud, that stretched like a bow across our course, grew in
definition, the least sea-going of our party staggered to the deck. The
island appeared to be what indeed it is - a coral reef upheaved from the
sea-bed by some terrific convulsion - a Falcon Island of old time, only
made of solid coral instead of pumice, and thirteen miles long instead
of two furlongs. Not a hill nor a depression broke the monotonous
line, but a fuzzy indistinctness in the drawing betokened that the
place was densely wooded, as all limestone islands are. The sea was
moderating; already we had begun to feel the influence of that great
natural breakwater; with a strong glass we could make out a cluster
of white houses nestling among the palm trees. Setting our course for
them, we steamed in, until the sea grew calm and the steady breeze
broke into sharp puffs with still air between. On either hand, as far
as the eye could reach, the sea dashed against an abrupt limestone
cliff, unprotected by any reef; here breaking into smoky spray that
dimmed the far horizon, there thundering into inky caverns. A hundred
feet above sprang the wall of dark green timber, broken here and there
by clusters of cocoanut palms that shaded trim villages, with roofs of
thatch and walls of dazzling white. Neatest of all was our haven of
Alofi, for there the houses were fenced, and a grass lawn sloped down
to the edge of the cliffs. Before the lead touched the bottom a fleet
of small canoes had put out to meet us. Something unusual about these
caught the eye; it was not the canoe, which was of the out-rigged build
common to these seas; it was the crew. Every man wore a hat instead of
a turban, and a sober coat and trousers instead of a bronze skin and a
gay waist-cloth. From one of these - the only craft that carried more
than one man - a youth boarded us, and, introducing himself as Falani
(Frank), the son of the late king, mounted the bridge, and offered to
pilot us to an anchorage.

"What you come here for?" he inquired, with an easy unconsciousness
of his responsibilities towards the ship. "You come to hoist flag?"
But his thoughts were elsewhere, for presently, espying the captain's
black steward, he descended to the deck, and began to seek occasion
for bringing himself under the notice of a functionary who, he had a
right to assume, would have control of the proper perquisites of a pilot.
Thereafter we saw little more of him. That a person of such exalted rank
should volunteer his services as pilot to even the humblest ship
proceeded, as we afterwards learned, from no public spirit; the only
spirit that drew him forth from the shore was that which is kept in the
steward's pantry. But for this frailty he might have succeeded his royal
father, but he had now forfeited all his chances of succession by
refusing to vacate the tin-roofed palace, built by public subscription as
an official residence for future monarchs, on a site which, owing to an
unfortunate oversight, was still the private property of the royal family.
The reputation of the rightful heir requires no comment from me, if so
commercially-minded a people could prefer the building of a second
palace at Tuapa to being ruled over by the occupant of the original.
Some four hundred yards from the base of the cliff the lead gave
nineteen fathoms, and there the anchor was let go. It caught upon the
extreme edge of a submarine precipice, for soundings under the counter
gave sixty-three fathoms; and if a westerly wind would put us on a lee
shore, it was equally manifest that a strong easterly puff might set
us dragging our anchor into deep water. We might have found better
holding ground closer in, but it is not good to play tricks with His
Majesty's ships, and as we had decided to keep the fires banked until
our departure, there was nothing to be gained by moving. The captain
may have had in his mind the case of another ship-of-war that anchored
in seventeen fathoms in a secure but unsurveyed harbour for three days,
when the navigating officer happened to notice that a blue-jacket,
casting off one of the boats from the boom, was using his boat-hook
as a punt pole against some object a few feet below the surface of
the water. It was then discovered that all the ship's company, except
the officers, were aware that the ship was anchored a few feet from a
sharp-pointed rock, upon which any veer in the wind would have impaled
her, but that no one had considered it his business to mention what it
was the officers' duty to find out for themselves.

[Illustration: "SHIP AHOY!"

Our first visitors from Savage Island

To face page 6

I lost no time in sending a boat ashore for Mr. Frank Lawes, the
representative of the London Missionary Society, who, from his long
residence and his kindly influence over the natives, has long been
regarded by them as their adviser in all matters at issue between
the Europeans and themselves, and who has so modestly and tactfully
discharged the duties of his unsought office that Europeans and natives
alike have cheerfully accepted his arbitration. He came on board at
once, and willingly tendered his services, nominally as interpreter,
but actually as a great deal more than that. He is a man of middle age,
of gentle, sympathetic, and rather melancholy mien, with a vein of
quiet humour, and a manner that would inspire confidence and affection
in the native races of any country. He was anxious that we should move
the ship to the king's village of Tuapa, for it seems that the key to
native politics in Niué is the jealousy between village and village. To
summon the headmen to the king's village could not be misinterpreted,
but to send for the king to Alofi would be not only to put the old
gentleman into ill-humour, but to imply a pre-eminence in Alofi that
would in no wise be tolerated or forgiven by its fellow villages.
But, since his description of Tuapa disclosed the fact that the
anchorage was vile, and the landing-place such that it would probably
be necessary to wade ashore in full-dress uniform, we decided to brave
the royal displeasure, and to send a message explaining that a Queen's
ship is not as other ships, and that although, out of consideration
for her safety, our bodies must be landed at Alofi, our hearts would
certainly be in that capital of capitals, Tuapa. Mr. Lawes, having
taken upon himself the task of despatching messages to each of the
eleven villages, inviting all the inhabitants of the island to a solemn
council at ten o'clock the next morning, most kindly begged us to take
up our quarters on shore with him, and took his leave.

There were, meanwhile, signs of a stir on shore. Men were running down
to the landing-place with planks to build a wharf, and a fluttering
crowd of women and children lined the edge of the cliff. When we
reached the shore we wondered no longer that the Europeans in Niué
prefer canoes to boats when they have to board a ship. There is a slit
in the fringing reef of coral just wide enough to admit a boat, which
heaves and falls with the swell in imminent peril of being ground to
splinters against its jagged sides.[1] But there are no better boatmen
in the world than the English blue-jackets, and in a few seconds we
were hoisted upon the crazy pier with our baggage.

There was a smile of welcome on every native face, and we had a good
opportunity for noting the characteristics of this interesting people.
The men are generally shorter than the Samoans and Tongans, and their
well-knit muscular bodies are less inclined to accumulate fat. Their
features are smaller, and they often have a pinched appearance, as if
they had originally been cast in a larger mould and compressed, like
toy faces of india-rubber. Their colour is darker than the Samoan,
and their bright eyes and vivacious gestures show that they have far
greater energy and activity. Their hair is now cropped short, and
very few wear beards, but this is a mark of civilisation, for the
warriors of old depended upon hair and beard, plaited and ornamented
with shells, and long enough to chew between their teeth, for striking
terror into the hearts of their enemies. They all wore suits of
European slop clothing, complete except for boots, and wide-brimmed
hats plaited at home. The women wear the flowing _sacque_ - a kind of
nightgown of coloured print not taken in at the waist - like the women
of Tahiti and Rarotonga. They had the same facial characteristics
as the men, but they were fleshier in youth and more disposed to
corpulence in age. They had long and rather coarse black hair,
sometimes knotted on the back of the head, but more often hanging
loose down the back. It is a pity that they do not follow the cleanly
custom of Tonga and Fiji of smearing the hair with lime once a week,
which, besides dyeing it a becoming auburn, serves other more practical
purposes. That Niué is destitute of running water might be seen in a
glance at their clothing, which has always to be washed with water
in which soap will not lather. In a large assemblage such as this
it was easy to recognise two distinct racial types - the one clearly
Polynesian, the other doubtful. This admixture is an ethnological
puzzle which I shall discuss later.

The Mission-house is a vast thatched building with walls of concrete,
partitioned off into a number of large rooms, and standing in its own
small compound. Most cool and spacious it seemed after the confined
quarters in a third-class cruiser. The space before the verandah
is planted with the flowering shrubs of which you may see dwarfed
specimens in the tropical houses at Kew. I was surprised to find that
this little compound was the only land on the island which Mr. Lawes
could call his own. He could not even have milk, because when he kept
a cow he was always having to meet claims by his parishioners for the
damage it was alleged to have done. Judging by the ways of Missions in
other parts of the Pacific, I may safely say that if any other than
the London Missionary Society had taken Niué, it would have made the
island a "Mission field" in the more literal sense. For itself it would
have taken the eyes of the land; the pastor would have had a horse and
a boat and a company of white-robed student servants to wait upon him;
as in Hawaii and New Zealand, he would have acquired a handsome little
landed property of his own, and for the natives there would have been
left what the Mission had no use for. Here the missionary must pay
for everything except the very rare presents of produce that are made
him, and though four-fifths of the island are overgrown with bush, he
has not land enough to keep a cow. I do not say which I think is the
better system; I only contrast the two.

In the afternoon we were taken to see the cave of the Tongans. Public
curiosity having now subsided, the village had resumed its normal
appearance. It is cleaner and tidier even than it looked from the sea.
The grass that stretches like a lawn to the cliff's edge, laced with
the delicate shadow of the palm leaves, is bounded on the landward
side by a stiff row of cottages, all built as exactly to plan as if a
surveyor to a county council had had a hand in it, with lime-washed
walls so dazzling that the eye lifts instinctively to the cool brown
thatch to find rest. Every doorway is closed with a rough-hewn door;
every window with broad, unpainted slats pivoted on the centre, so as
to form a kind of fixed Venetian blind that admits the air and excludes
the sun and rain - a device learned, it seems, from the Samoan teachers,
who must in their turn have adapted it from the Venetian blinds of some
European house in their own islands. These cottages are divided into
rooms by thin partitions of wood or reeds that reach to the eaves,
leaving the roof space open. Most of them are floored with palm-leaf
matting, and a few boxes and wooden pillows are the only furniture.
The cooking is done in little thatched huts in the rear. Mr. Lawes
confessed that the older natives keep these cottages for show,
preferring to live on week-days in the thatched hovels that contented
their ancestors. You may see one of these behind each cottage, rickety
when new, and growing year by year more ruinous until the crumbling
rafters and rotten thatch are ripe for the firebrand that puts an end
to their existence. Besides his town house, every householder has a
building on his plantation in which he passes the nights during the
planting and copra-making season with such of his family and friends
as care to work with him. A thatched roof and frail wicker-work walls,
with a mat or two to sleep on, and an iron pot for cooking, are all
that he needs when the days from dawn to sunset are spent in hard
work upon the land.

[Illustration: THE CHURCH AT ALOFI

(See page 16)]

[Illustration: A STREET IN ALOFI

To face page 14

It is curious to note how the native clings to the form, however he may
vary the material, of his architecture. The Savage Island hut of Cook's
time, with its rounded ends, took the shape of an elongated oval, and
the concrete walls of the modern cottage are moulded to the same form.
In Tonga, where corrugated iron, alas! is gradually usurping the place
of thatch, the roof was rounded in the form of a scow turned bottom
upwards, and the sheets of iron, with infinite skill and labour, have
been tortured into the same form. The King of Tonga told me that it was
hopeless to attempt to rebuild the fine native church built in 1893 by
his great-grandfather in Vavau, and destroyed in the hurricane of April
2nd, 1900, because, although the posts and rafters were all intact, and
had only to be cut loose from their lashings to be fit for use again,
there was not a builder left in the group who understood the art of so
lashing them in place as to produce the bellying curve which appeals to
the Tongan eye for beauty in architecture. The new edifice, he said,
must be built of weatherboard and iron.

The church in Niué, being simply a glorified native house, was an
excellent object-lesson in the Polynesian system of building. The South
Sea Island architect, whether Polynesian or Melanesian, thinks in
fathoms, which he measures with the span of his outstretched arms, but
whereas the Fijian is obliged to regulate the size of his house by the
length of the _vesi_ trunk he can find for his king posts, the Samoan

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryBasil ThomsonSavage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niué and Tonga → online text (page 1 of 12)