Frederick O'Brien.

White Shadows in the South Seas online

. (page 7 of 29)
Online LibraryFrederick O'BrienWhite Shadows in the South Seas → online text (page 7 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

lady's veil, ribbed satin, rose and purple, pink and scarlet, the
filmy edges curled delicately, they hinted the elegance and luxury
of a pretty woman's boudoir. And, like all such dainty trifles, the
charming flower that hangs like a colored lamp in the green chapel
of the banana-grove it is useless after it has served its brief
purpose. The fruit grows better when it is cut off.

Opposite the spacious mission grounds the worshippers were gathering
beneath two gnarled banian-trees, giant-like in height and spread.
Behind them a long hedge of bananas bordered the cocoanut plantation
of the church, and across the narrow road rose the chapel, the
priests' residence and the nuns' house, with several school
buildings now empty because of the French anti-clerical law.

Exploding Eggs in his new finery and the visiting chief from
Vait-hua found welcome among the waiting natives, while Titihuti of
the tattooed legs took her seat beside me. She had combed her Titian
tresses and anointed them with oil till they shone like the kelp beds
of Monterey. Her tunic was of scarlet calico, and she carried in her
hand a straw hat with a red ribbon, to put on when she entered the
church. "_Kaoha!_" I said to her, and she smiled, displaying her even,
white teeth.

Suddenly, looking past her at the church, my eye caught a sight that
transfixed me. In the misty light I saw the Christ upon the cross as
on Calvary. The sublime figure was in the agony of expiration, and at
the foot of the cross stood the ever faithful mother and the loving
John in attitudes of amazement and grief. The reality was startling;
for the moment I forgot all about me.

But Titihuti coughed, and I saw her tattooed legs and felt the rough
roots of the banian under me, and I was back in the courtyard. The
spectacle of the Crucifixion was raised on a basalt platform fully
twenty feet long. The figures were of golden bronze, and the cross
was painted white. Over it hung the branches of a lofty
breadfruit-tree, a congruous canopy for such a group. The Bread of
Life, in truth.

A tablet on the cross bore the inscription:

Le Christ Dieu Homme
Christo Redemptori
Jubilé 1901

"The _tiki_ of the true god," said Titihuti, observing my gaze, and
crossed herself with the fervor of the believer in a new charm.

On the roof a score of doves were cooing as we filed into the church.
There were bas-reliefs of cherubim and seraphim over the doorway, fat,
distorted bodies with wings a-wry, yet with a celestial vision
showing through the crude workmanship. A loop-holed buttress on
either side of the facade spoke of the days when the forethought of
the builders planned for defence in case a reaction of paganism
caused the congregation to attack the Christian fathers.

Inside the doorway a French nun in blue robes tugged at a rope
depending from the belfry, and above us the bells rang out from two
tiny towers. She looked curiously at me and my savage companion, her
pale peasant's face hard, homely, unhealthy; then she kicked at a
big dog who was trying to drink the holy water from the clam-shell
beside the door. "_Allez_, Satan!" she said.

The _benetier_, large enough to immerse an infant, was fixed to a
board, a fascinating, blackened old bracket, carved with the
instruments of torture, the nails, the spear, the scourge, and thorns.
Ivory and pearl, stained by a century or more, were inlaid. As I
dipped my hand in the shell a huge lizard that made his nest in the
hollow of the bracket ran across my knuckles.

Within, there were seats with kneeling-planks, hewed out of hard
wood and still bearing the marks of the adze. Upon them the
congregation soon assembled, the women on one side, the men on the
other. The women wore hats, native weaves in semi-sailor style,
decorated with Chinese silk shawls or bright-colored handkerchiefs.
All were barefooted except the pale and sickly daughters of Baufré,
who wore clumsy and painful shoes. Many Daughters, the little,
lovely leper, came with Flower, of the red-gold hair, the Weaver of
Mats, who had her names tattooed on her arm. They dipped in the font
and genuflected, then bowed in prayer.

Many familiar faces I recognized. Ah Yu, the Chinaman who owned the
little store beyond the banian-tree and had murder upon his soul;
Lam Kai Oo, my erstwhile landlord; Flag, the gendarme; Water, in all
the glory of European trousers; Kake, with my small namesake on her
arm. The old women were tattooed on the ears and neck in scrolls,
and their lips were marked in faint stripes. The old men, their eyes
ringed with tattooing, wore earrings and necklaces of whale's teeth.

The church was painted white inside, with frescoes and dados of
gaudy hues, and windows of brilliantly colored glass. The altar, as
also the statues of Joseph and Mary, had a reredos handsomely carved.
Outside the railing was a charming Child in the Manger, lying on
real straw, surrounded by the Virgin, Joseph, the Magi, the shepherds,
and the kings, all in bright-hued robes, and pleasant-looking cows
and asses with red eyes and green tails.

The singing began before the priest came from the sacristy. The men
sang alone and the women followed, in an alternating chant that at
times rose into a wail and again had the nasal sound of a bag-pipe.
The Catholic chants sung thus in Marquesan took on a wild, barbaric
rhythm that thrilled the blood and made the hair tingle on the scalp.

Bishop David le Cadre appeared in elegant vestments, his eyes grave
above a foot-long beard, and the mass began. The acolyte was very
agile in a short red cassock, below which his naked legs, and bare
feet showed. The people responded often through the mass, rising,
sitting down, and kneeling obediently. Baufré sat on a chair in the
vestibule and added accounts.

Ah Kee Au was the sole communicant at the rail. No cloth was spread,
but the bell announced the mystery of transubstantiation, and all
bowed their heads while Ah Kee Au reverently offered his communion to
the welfare of Napoleon, his grandson who had accidentally shot

The service over, the people poured from the church into the
brilliant sunshine of the road, and Ah Kee Au said to me, "You savee
thlat communio' blead b'long my place. My son makee for pliest." Lam
Kai Oo, pressing forward, offered the communicant a draught of fiery
rum he had obtained by the governor's permission. He had been told
that to give a glass of water to a communicant, who must of course
have fasted and abstained from any liquid since midnight according to
the law of the Church, was a holy act which brought the giver a
blessing, and so the subtle Chinese thought to make his blessing
greater by offering a drink better than water.

Ah Kee Au drank with fervor. "My makee holee thliss morn'," he said
gladly. "Makee Napoleon more happy." Sincerity is not a matter of
broken English or a drink of rum; the poor old grandfather of the
Little Corporal's namesake believed earnestly that Napoleon would
improve by his sacramental offering. He, like most Marquesans, took
the white man's religion with little understanding. It is new magic
to them, a comfort, an occupation, and an entertainment. But who
knows the human heart, or understands the soul?

That afternoon while Neo and I lay on my _paepae_ awaiting the
favoring wind which should carry him back to his own isle, my
neighbors gathered from far and near to lounge the sunny hours away
in conversation. Squatted on the mats, they engaged in serious
discussion of the puzzles of religion, appealing to me often to
settle vexing questions which they had long wearied of asking their
better-informed instructors in religious mysteries.

Their native tongue has no word for religion. Bishop Dordillon had
been obliged to translate it, "_Te mea e hakatika me te mea e hana
mea koaha toitoi i te Etua_" which might be rendered, "Belief in the
works and love of a just God." Etua, often spelled Atua, was the
name of divinity among all Maori peoples, but religion was so
associated with natural things, the phenomena of nature, of living
things, and of the heavens and sea, that it was part of daily life
and needed no word to distinguish it.

Never were people less able to comprehend the creeds and formulas in
which the religious beliefs of the white men are clothed. Marquesans
are not deep thinkers. In fact, they have a word, _tahoa_, which
means, "a headache from thinking." Ten years of ardent and nobly
self-sacrificing work by missionaries left the islands still without
a single soul converted. It was not until the chiefs began to set
the seal of their approval on the new outlandish faiths that the
people flocked to the standard of the cross. And when they did begin
to meditate the doctrines preached to them as necessary beliefs in
order to win salvation, their heads ached indeed.

Even after years of faithful church-going many of my friends still
struggled with their doubts, and when these were propounded to me I
was fain to wrinkle my own brow and ponder deeply.

The burning question as to the color of Adam and Eve had long been
settled. Adam and Eve were brown, like themselves. But if, as the
priests said was most probable, Adam and Eve had received pardon and
were in heaven, why had their guilt stained all mankind?

Also, would Satan have been able to tempt Eve if God had not made
the tree of knowledge _tapu_? Was not knowledge a good thing? What
motive had led the Maker and Knower of all things to do this deed?

What made the angels fall? Pride, said the priests. Then how did it
get into heaven? demanded the perplexed.

The resurrection of the body at the last judgment horrified them.
This fact, said the husband of Kake, had led to the abandonment of
the old manner of burying corpses in a sitting posture, with the
face between the knees and the hands under the thighs, the whole
bound round with cords. Obviously, a man buried in such a position
would rise deformed. Their dead in the cemetery on the heights slept
now in long coffins of wood, their limbs at ease. But other and less
premeditated interments still befell the unwary islander.

What would God do in cases where sharks had eaten a Marquesan? And
what, when the same shark had been killed and eaten by other
Marquesans? And in the case of the early Christian forefathers, who
were eaten by men of other tribes, and afterward the cannibals eaten
in retaliation, and then the last feaster eaten by sharks? _Aue!_
There was a headache query!

At this point in the discussion an aged stranger from the valley of
Taaoa, a withered man whose whole naked chest was covered with
intricate tattooing, laid down his pipe and artlessly revealed his
idea of the communion service. It was, he thought, a religious
cannibalism, no more. And he was puzzled that his people should be
told that it was wrong to feed on the flesh of a fellow human
creature when they were urged to "eat the body and drink the blood"
of _Ietu Kirito_ himself.

It was long afterward, in that far-away America so incomprehensible
to my simple savage friends, that I read beneath the light of an
electric lamp a paragraph in "Folkways," by William Graham Summer,
of Yale:

"Language used in communion about eating the body and
drinking the blood of Christ refers to nothing in our _mores_ and
appeals to nothing in our experience. It comes down from
very remote ages; very probably from cannibalism."

The printed page vanished, and before my eyes rose a vision of my
_paepae_ among the breadfruit- and cocoanut-trees, the ring of
squatting dusky figures in flickering sunlit leaf-shade, Kake in her
red tunic with the babe at her breast, Exploding Eggs standing by
with a half-eaten cocoanut, and the many dark eyes in their circles
of ink fixed upon the shriveled face of the reformed cannibal whose
head ached with the mysteries of the white man's religion.

None too soon for me, the talk turned about history, the tales of
which were confused in my guests' minds with those of the saints.
Great Fern insisted that if the English roasted Joan of Arc they ate
her, because no man would apply live coals, which pain exceedingly,
to any living person, and fire was never placed upon a human body
save to cook it for consumption. This theory seemed reasonable to
most of the listeners, for since such cruelty as the Marquesans
practiced in their native state was thoughtless and never intentional,
the idea of torture was incomprehensible to their simple minds.

Malicious Gossip, a comely savage of twenty-five with false-coffee
leaves in her hair, declared, however, that the governor had told
her the English roasted Joan alive because she was a heretic. The
statement was received with startled protests by those present who
had themselves incurred that charge when they deserted Catholicism
for Protestantism some time earlier.

"Exploding Eggs," said I hastily, "make tea for all." Every shade
vanished from shining eyes when I produced the bottle of rum and
added a spoonful of flavor to each brimming shellful. All perplexing
questions were forgotten, and simple social pleasure reigned again
on my _paepae_, while Great Fern explained to all his idea of the
Christian devil.

The Marquesan deity of darkness was Po, a vague and elemental spirit.
But the _kuhane anera maaa_ of the new religion had definite and
fearful attributes explained by the priests. So Great Fern conceived
him as a kind of cross between a man and a boar, with a tail like
that of a shark, running through the forests with a bunch of lighted
candlenuts and setting fire to the houses of the wicked.

And the wicked? Morals as we know them had nothing to do with their
sin in his mind. The wicked were the unkind, those who were cruel to
children, wives who made bad _popoi_, and whites with rum privileges
who forgot hospitality.

Non-Christians may grin at the efforts of missionaries among heathens.
But the missionaries are the only influence for good in the islands,
the only white men seeking to mitigate the misery and ruin brought
by the white man's system of trade. The extension of civilized
commerce has crushed every natural impulse of brotherliness, kindness,
and generosity, destroyed every good and clean custom of these
children of nature. Traders and sailors, whalers and soldiers, have
been their enemies.

Whatever the errors of the men of God, they have given their lives
day by day in unremitting, self-sacrificing toil, suffering much to
share with these despoiled people the light of their own faith in a
better world hereafter. In so far as they have failed, they have
failed because they have lacked what proselytizing religion has
always lacked - a joy in life that seeks to make this mundane
existence more endurable, a grace of humor, and a broad simplicity.

Polynesians have always been respecters of authority. Under their
own rule, where priest and king equally rose to rank because of
admired deeds, the _tapus_ of the priests had the same force as
those of chiefs, and life was conducted by few and simple rules. Now,
when sect fights sect; when priests assure the people that France is
a Catholic nation and the Governor says the statement is false;
where the Protestant pastor teaches that Sunday is a day of
solemnity and prayer, and the Frenchmen make it a day of merriment
as in France; where salvation depends on many beliefs bewildering
and incompatible, the puzzled Marquesan scratches his head and
swings from creed to creed, while his secret heart clings to the old

The Marquesan had a joyful religion, full of humor and abandon,
dances and chants, and exaltation of nature, of the greatness of
their tribe or race, a worship that was, despite its ghastly rites
of human sacrifice, a stimulus to life.

The efforts of missionaries have killed the joy of living as they
have crushed out the old barbarities, uprooting together everything,
good and bad, that religion meant to the native. They have given him
instead rites that mystify him, dogmas he can only dimly understand,
and a little comfort in the miseries brought upon him by trade.

I have seen a leper alone on his _paepae_, deep in the Scriptures,
and when I asked him if he got comfort from them I was answered,
"They are strong words for a weak man, and better than pig." But
only a St. Francis Xavier or a Livingstone, a great moral force,
could lift the people now from the slough of despond in which they

Upon this people, sparkingly alive, spirited as wild horses, not
depressed as were their conquerors by a heritage of thousands of
years of metes and bounds, religion as forced upon them has been not
only a narcotic, but a death potion.


The marriage of Malicious Gossip; matrimonial customs of the simple
natives; the domestic difficulties of Haabuani.

Mouth of God and his wife, Malicious Gossip, soon became intimates
of my _paepae_. Coming first to see the marvelous Golden Bed and to
listen to the click-click of the Iron Fingers That Make Words, they
remained to talk, and I found them both charming.

Both were in their early twenties, ingenuous, generous, clever, and
devoted to each other and to their friends. Malicious Gossip was
beautiful, with soft dark eyes, clear-cut features, and a grace and
lovely line of figure that in New York would make all heads whirl.
She was all Marquesan, but her husband, Mouth of God, had white
blood in him. Whose it was, he did not know, for his mother's
consort had been an islander. His mother, a large, stern, and
Calvinistic cannibal, believed in predestination, and spent her days
in fear that she would be among the lost. Her Bible was ever near,
and often, passing their house, I saw her climb with it into a
breadfruit-tree and read a chapter in the high branches where she
could avoid distraction.

They lived in a spacious house set in three acres of breadfruit and
cocoanuts, an ancient grove long in their family. Often I squatted
on their mats, dipping a gingerly finger in their _popoi_ bowl and
drinking the sweet wine of the half-ripe cocoanut, the while Mouth
of God's mother spoke long and earnestly on the abode of the damned
and the necessity for seeking salvation. In return, Malicious Gossip
spent hours on my _paepae_ telling me of the customs of her people
new and old.

"When I was thirteen," she said, "the whalers still came to Vait-hua,
my valley. There came a young _Menike_ man, straight and bright-eyed,
a passenger on a whaling-ship seeking adventure. I sighed the first
time in my life when I looked on him. He was handsome, and not like
other men on your ships.

"The kiss you white men give he taught me to like. He was generous
and gentle and good. Months we dwelt together in a house by the
stream in the valley. When he sailed away at last, as all white men
do who are worth wanting to stay, he tore out my heart. My milk
turned to poison and killed our little child.

"I met long after with Mouth of God. He took me to his house in the
breadfruit-grove. He was good and gentle, but I was long in learning
to love him. It was the governor who made me know that I was his
woman. It came about in this manner:

"That governor was one whom all hated for his coldness and cruelty.
Mouth of God worked for him in the house where medicines are made,
having learned to mix the medicines in a bowl and to wrap cloths
about the wounds of those who were sick. One day, according to the
custom of white men who rule, the governor said to Mouth of God that
he must send me to the palace that night.

"When he came home to the house where we lived together, Mouth of
God gave me his word. He said: 'Go to the river and bathe. Put on
your crimson tunic and flowers in your hair and go to the palace. The
governor gives a feast to-night, and you are to dance and to sleep
in the governor's bed.'"

Malicious Gossip shuddered, and rocked herself to and fro upon the
mats. "Then I would have killed him! I cried out to him and said: 'I
will not go to the governor! He is a devil. My heart hates him. I am
a Marquesan. What have I to do with a man I hate?'"

"'Go!' said Mouth of God, and his eyes were hard as the black stones
of the High Place. 'The governor asks for you. He is the government.
Since when have Marquesan women said no to the command of the

"I wept, but I took my brightest _kahu ropa_ from the sandalwood
chest my _Menike_ man had given me, and I went down the path to the
stream. As I went I wept, but my heart was black, and I thought to
take a keen-edged knife beneath my tunic when I went to the palace.
But my feet were not yet wet in the edge of the water when Mouth of
God called to me.

"'Do not go,' he said.

"I answered: 'I will go. You told me to go. I am on my way.' My
tears were salt in my mouth.

"'No!' said Mouth of God. He ran, and he came to me in the pool
where I had flung myself. There in the water he held me, and his
arms crushed the breath from my ribs. 'You will not go!' he said. 'I
spoke those words to know if you would go to the governor. If you
had gone quickly, if you had not wept, I would kill you. You are my
woman. No other shall have you.'

"Then I knew that I was his woman, and I forgot my _Menike_ lover.

"You see," she said to me after a pause, "I would have gone to the
palace. But I would never have come back to the house of Mouth of God.
That was the beginning of our love. He would yield me to nobody. He
told the governor that I would not come, and he waited to kill the
governor if he must. But the governor laughed, and said there were
many others. Mouth of God and I were married then by Monsieur Vernier,
in the church of his mother.

"That was the manner of my marriage. The same as that of the girls
in your own island, is it not?"

It was much the same, I said. It differed only in some slight
matters of custom. She listened fascinated while I described to her
our complicated conventions of courtship, our calling upon young
ladies for months and even years, our gifts, our entertainments, our
giving of rings, our setting of the marriage months far in the future,
our orange wreaths and veils and bridesmaids. She found these things
almost incredible.

"Marriage here," she said, "may come to a young man when he does not
seek or even expect it. No Marquesan can marry without the consent
of his mother, and often she marries him to a girl without his even
thinking of such a thing.

"A young man may bring home a girl he does not know, perhaps a girl
he has seen on the beach in the moonlight, to stay with him that
night in his mother's house. It may be that her beauty and charm
will so please his mother that she will call a family council after
the two have gone to bed. If the family thinks as the mother does,
they determine to marry the young man to that girl, and they do so
after this fashion:

"Early in the morning, just at dawn, before the young couple awake,
all the women of the household arouse them with shrieks. They beat
their breasts, cut themselves with shells, crying loudly, _Aue! Aue!_
Neighbors rush in to see who has died. The youth and the girl run
forth in terror. Then the mother, the grandmother and all other
women of the house chant the praises of the girl, singing her beauty,
and wailing that they cannot let her go. They demand with anger that
the son shall not let her go. All the neighbors cry with them,
_Aue! Aue!_ and beat their breasts, until the son, covered with
shame, asks the girl to stay.

"Then her parents are sent the word, and if they do not object, the
girl remains in his house. That is often the manner of Marquesan

Yet often, of course, she explained, marriage was not the outcome of
a night's wooing. The young Marquesan frequently brought home a girl
who did not instantly win his mother's affection. In that case she
went her way next morning after breakfast, and that was all. Our
regard for chastity was incomprehensible to Malicious Gossip,
instructed though she was in all the codes of the church. It was to
her a creed preached to others by the whites, like wearing shoes or
making the Sabbath a day of gloom, and though she had been told that
violation of this code meant roasting forever as in a cannibal pit
whose fires were never extinguished, her mind could perceive no
reason for it. She could attach no blame to an act that seemed to
her an innocent, natural, and harmless amusement.

The truth is that no value was, or is, attached to maidenhood in all
Polynesia, the young woman being left to her own whims without blame

Online LibraryFrederick O'BrienWhite Shadows in the South Seas → online text (page 7 of 29)