COOK ISLANDS

Mangaia

         

Mangaia where we next stopped, proved quite an exciting place. You cannot land upon Mangaia in the ordinary way - the reef that surrounds it is unbroken, and girdles the whole island in a fortress of its own. The only way to land is to get into one of the numberless native canoes that crowd about the ship, and let the copper-coloured owner take you over the reef in his own way, which is the determined and decisive way of a steeple-chaser at a fence. It is most excellent fun and a new thing in sensations. As the little dug-out - made of nothing more elaborate than a hollowed mango log, with an outrigger at one side - rushes shoreward on the crest of a foaming roller, you watch with rather anxious interest the movements of the dusky boatman, who poises his paddle in the air, waits, looks, and strikes the water, always at exactly the right moment - usually when you are just beginning to think of kicking off your shoes. 

There is the reef right in front, a pearly shadow in the blue, with up-springing spears of ivory, bared like the teeth of a tiger, when the wave rolls back. Are we going to jump that? We are indeed. The boatman lifts his paddle - we sweep upwards on the sloping blue satin neck of a curling wave. No no, that will not do - not this time. He backs water - we hang on the crest of the wave - but we are not going to be drowned, or snapped up by the sharks that haunt the reefs, because the boatman is a born islander, and what he does not know about canoeing over a reef neither you nor I need attempt to teach him. Another wave, a monster this time, swinging us up into the air as if we were a couple of grasshopper out paddling in a walnut shell. That will do; here she goes! The wave roars with us; the wicked white fangs gleam on either hand; our rough thick keel scrapes agonizingly on the coral and there is a smother of foam and tumbling blue and bursting green all about the cranky little craft. Bump! we have struck - we strike again, but it does not seem to matter in the least; over we go, and we are in the smooth, safe, shallow green water inside, and across the reef. And here are a dozen men of Mangaia, splashing about in the lagoon, ready to pick up the visitor in their powerful arms as soon as the canoe grounds in the shallow water, and carry her ashore.

That is how one lands on Mangaia.

This island is of a good size, being some thirty miles in circumference. Its formation is very notable, being indeed rather celebrated among geologists. It is supposed to be of volcanic origin, like most of the "high" islands. From the sea, it looks much like any other place of the same size. But going inland, one is astonished to find that a mere strip of land close round the coast terminates the ground available for walking on. A high irregular cliff wall, from fifty to  hundred feet in height, encloses the whole interior of the island, which thus resemble in shape a very large cup set on a very small saucer. Within the cup lie all fertile lands, the taro beds, the yam fields, the pineapple patches, the tangled bush, where cotton used to be grown in the days of the American war; the low green shrubberies that produce the finest coffee in the Cook Islands. To reach them, there is only one way - that furnished by a really wonderful rocky staircase, built in prehisto5ric times by the ancestors of the present natives. If one were to find such a work in any other of the Cook Islands one might regard it as proof positive of the existence of an older and more industrious race, in the days before the New Zealand Maori took possession of these lands, and grew effeminate and idle in the occupying.

But the people of Mangaia, though identical to descent with incurably indolent and sensual Aitutakians and Rarotongans, have been moulded by their environment to a degree that amounts to an actual difference in character. The barrier roof has always prevented the free communication enjoyed by other islands, so that they were able to develop along their own lines of character, without modification from outside. With an island that possessed only a limited amount of fertile land, a matchless fortress in the interior, and a complete barrier about the exterior, it was a foregone conclusion that the Mangaians should become inhospitable, reserved, and hard-working, as compared with the prodigally generous and idle folk of the open and fertile islands. They did so. In the days before the ;missions, some sixty years ago, the Mangaians were the fiercest cannibals in the group, and determinedly hostile to strangers; nor were they ever as pleasure-loving as the other Cook Islanders. To-day they are harder in character than the folk of the other islands; kindly to strangers, but hardly gushing in their reception of them, and so much more, industrious then the Aitutakians, or Rarotongans that Mangaian men are sought as servants all over the group. 

There is, therefore, no difficulty in understanding how the people of Mangaia found energy and time to construct the staircases that span the great wall of "Makatea," enclosing the inner part of the island. Being obliged day after day to climb with infinite pains the sharp rocky heights of the cliff, in order to et from the fishing grounds to the plantations, they would certainly not be long in devising some means of lessening this inconvenience. The staircases which are the result must have taken many years and much labour in constructing, and it is difficult to understand how a people unacquainted with the use of any mechanical contrivance could have placed so many large blocks of stone in the positions which they occupy. The torrid afternoon it is not exactly the walk one would choose for pure enjoyment. However, our time in Mangaia was short, so I explained to a native girl that I wanted to see the Makatea, and she at once called up half the village to join the procession.

Attended, therefore, by my young guide and the inevitable following, I went up the mighty stairs, and across the tract of level land lying at the top. It is nearly a mile before one comes upon the cup-like valley in the centre of the island, so it must be allowed that the rim of the cup is a thick one. After a pleasant walk, through groves of coconut and guava, we came upon the inner side of the wall, and stood on the edge of a great grey circular cliff, spiked, spired, and towered with falling masses of sea-green creeper. At one point, a huge split in the rock had evidently provided a foundation for the second staircase, which was rougher than the first, made of great blocks of stone irregularly laid here and there so as to fill up the split in part, and give a foothold to the climber. Still, it was a big piece of work, and must have taken a good many years - generations, perhaps - to complete. Down in the valley below, which seemed to be two or three miles across, were all the native plantations and gardens, and as we jumped down from block to block, we met hard-faced muscular women toiling upwards with heavy loads of vegetables and fruit. In the taro fields, terraced so as to let a little stream trickle through and create an artificial swamp, the workers seemed to be women only. They dug and scraped in the thick mud under the burning sun, leaving off their tasks long enough to stare and question a little, and then setting stolidly to work again. The men were probably out fishing or pigeon shooting. In spite of Christianity, the island woman always carries the heavy end of the load, where there is one to carry; the man is the hunter, the woman the labourer and beast of burden, as in the cannibal times of long ago.

There are some remarkable caves in the island, and I went into them for a mile or so, in company with the local missionary, who kindly offered to act as guide. Caves, however - as most people will allow - are much alike in all parts of the earth, and there is nothing to differentiate the long, dark, dripping passages, half-glimpsed halls, gloomy crevasses, and dimly sparkling stalactite candelabra of a South Sea Island cave, from those of a cave near Brighton on the Lane's End. There is no need, therefore, to describe the caves of Mangaia further than to say that they were quite up to the usual pattern, and that at all events, they gave a touch of "Swiss Family Robinson" to the island atmosphere that was pleasing to the imagination. It had, of course, nothing to do with Mangaia, but I wondered as we walked back from the caves towards the top of Makatea, how it was that the interesting ship-wrecked people who live in caves as described in fiction, never seem to be troubled with damp? I have personally, never seen a cave - out of a book - that was not first cousin to a shower-bath, and I should be surprised if any one else had. Who ever saw a genuine cave roof that was not covered with stalactites, large or small? and what makes stalactites but endless drip? If I were a shipwrecked person, I should certainly prefer the temporary house the "useful" character always puts up in half an hour with the aid of four growing trees and the ship's mainsail, to the cave that is invariably discovered in the second chapter, I should know for certain that the former 3was the driest - even when it rained.

I cannot leave the subject of the strange Makatea, without telling yet a little more about it, for it has not often been described or mentioned. Geologists say that it is the product of a double volcanic upheaval. The first convulsion threw up the island itself and, in the course of ages, the usual encircling reef of coral was built up round it by the busy coral insects, working under the water. Then came a second upheaval, and the island and reef together were cast up two hundred feet. The Makatea is thus the ancient reef that once surrounded the original small island which is represented by a crown of heights in the middle of the cup of the crater, and by the sunk-down valley about it. The narrow strip of land that edges the beach to-day is a later formation. One cannot mistake the character of the great coral cliff, which is quite unlike any kind of stone, or indeed anything but itself. The passing ages have turned it to rock, but to rock which is hollowed in every direction with caves, small and great, and filled with fossil shells as a pudding is filled with plums. No unprotected foot can tread the surface of these heights, which are simply a mass of serried grey spears, sharp and cruel as the top of a wall protected by broken glass. The natives, if convenience leads them to cross any part of the Makatea either than the staircases, usually protect their feet with thick sandals of woven coir fastened on with cords. One can imagine how much this peculiar protection must have added to the safety of the interior of the island, in the old predatory days.

The caves were often used for burying places in time gone by, and it is only a few years since a "find" of skulls of a type differing in several particulars from those of the present day, was made in one of the largest caves by a schooner captain. rumour says that he sold them for a good price, but the purchasers were not known. Another use of the coral caves in the old days (over fifty years ago) was a shelter for fugitives of various kinds. The Mangaians were not a pleasant people, in those times, either to strangers of each other. The outsider was cooked and eaten for the mere offence of presuming to exist. The Mangaian was never sure that some one who had a spite against him would not murder him - probably by poison' in the use of which these people were as expert as the Borgias themselves. Under these circumstances the caves were never without their occupants, living in secret, and creeping out at night to pick up a little food. Many and romantic are the stories told by the missionaries and traders of these stirring times, if I had space to relate them. Mangaia is a beautiful island, but that goes without saying, in the exquisite Cook Group. It has about half a dozen white people, and the native population is said to number something under two thousand.

Though a pleasant island and a healthy one, it cannot be recommended to planters, as there is not an inch of land available for rent. The natives themselves are keen traders and bargainers, and export much of their fruit and copra direct to Auckland. Most of what they make is spent in trade-finery, for which they have an uncontrollable passion. On Sundays the churches are a very flower-garden of frippery, the men turning out in the most brilliant of shirts, ties, and suits, the women decking themselves in long loose robes of muslin, sateen, or cheap silk, coloured in the most screaming hue - pea-green, royal blue, scarlet, and orange being all strong favourites. Their hats, made by themselves out of silky arrowroot fibre, are often trimmed with the costliest ribbons and artificial flowers, and even with ostrich plumes to the value of two or three pounds. It is somewhat puzzling, I was told, to see several entire families got up in the same extraordinary style, unless you know the reason, which is, extraordinary sty, unless you know the reason, which is, that these various households have joined together in a club, putting all the money they have made into one purse, and sending it down to Auckland on their own account for a bale of gorgeous clothing all alike. Thus you will see twenty or thirty women on a Sunday morning, dressed alike in robes of vermilion satinette, and wearing huge hats, crowned by three ostrich feathers, red, yellow, and blue, arranged after the fashion of the Prince of Wales's crest. This is one of the clubs, and there are sure to be others that vie with them in startling attire. Such are the weaknesses - after all, venial ones indeed - of the sturdy-souled Mangaian.

Atiu

Atiu was our next stop, and here the reef-jumping process had to be repeated in another form. The ship's whale-boat, steered by our captain, who was the cleverest hand at the big sixteen foot steer-oar of any white man I have ever seen, approached the edge of the reef, and danced about in front of it, until the passengers found an opportunity of leaping out on to it. Then, rather wet-footed (but no one minded that, in a temperature like the hot room of a Turkish bath) we were packed up by natives waiting on the shallow side, and carried through the lagoon, which was not more than a foot or two deep.

On landing, we found a number of the men standing on the shore ready to receive the Commissioner. They had been fishing, and were clad simply and coolly in a rag and a feather apiece - the latter worn in the hair, over one ear. Their dress, however, did not seem to embarrass them at all, and they came forward and shook hands with every one, quite politely. All the Cook islanders are supposed to be Christianised and civilised, but in some parts of the group the civilisation, at all events, seems to be wearing very thin, and this is notably the case in Atiu, an island rather larger than Rarotonga, which has no resident missionary, save a very conceited and upsetting young native teacher. The Atiuans were of old a wilder and fiercer race than 3even the Mangaians, and such determined cannibals that they used to make raids on the surrounding islands for the simple purpose of filling their cooking ovens, and enjoying a mighty feast. Great war canoes, laden with gory corpses, have many a time been drawn up on the very stretch of sand where we landed, and the grandfathers of the men who greeted us have sung and danced in fierce exultation to see the fat limbs and well-bed bodies of their enemies laid in ghastly heaps upon the snowy beach, ready for the cooking pits that since early morning had been glowing with flame in anticipation of the banquet.

"Meek-faced Atiuans" was the nickname bestowed upon these islanders, in derision, by those who knew their wiliness and treachery. There is not much that is meek-faced about them to-day. They certainly look rougher and less amiable than any others of the Cook Islanders, and they are by no means so amiable and easy-=going as the Rarotongans, Aitutakians, and people of Mitiaro and Mauke. However, it cannot be said that they are in any way dangerous, and the stray white people who have lived in the island (there was only one at the time of my visit) have always got on well with them. Rough, as I said before, they certainly are. A ring I wore on my hand attracted the attention of one or two of the men, and they crowded round, fingered it, and actually tried to snatch - on attempt very shortly put an end to by the Commissioner, who ordered them off peremptorily. The incident, although small, illustrates a standard of manners that one would certainly not encounter in any other part of the group, or indeed in any one of the Southern or Eastern Pacific groups that I afterwards saw.

There was a good deal of native-manufactured lime-juice to be got away here, and the people (most of them more completely dressed than the party that had received us on the shore) were busy rolling down the casks into the water, where the out-going tide took them, and floated them across the reef to the schooner. It seemed a strange way of taking on cargo, but I learned, afterwards, that it is not uncommon in islands surrounded by a dangerous reef. The walk up to the settlement proved to be a good three miles. Atiu being one of the very few islands whose natives do not live down on the shore. The scenery was fine-wide rich plains covered with low scrub, or clothed with thick herbage, alternating with heavy forest. There is no better soil in the islands than that of Atiu.  Guavas are a common wood; pumpkins run wild, trailing their long green vines and heavy fruit right across the track, mangoes, chestnuts, Pacific cherries, and other fruits, grow without care or cultivation. Any tropical product can be raised, and land is exceedingly cheap. The reef has always been a handicap to the island; but I heard that a part had been blown up to admit of a boat passage, some time after my visit, also that the Union steamers had begun to call for cargoes - an important event in the history of any island, and one likely to do much for the future.

The people are few in number - only nine hundred - and do not attempt to see more than a very small portion of the thirty-two square miles of their territory. Much is available for letting, and every inch of the island is worth cultivating, although to a stranger's eye it is hardly as fertile in appearance as other portions of the Cook Group that are much less valuable. Coffee, copra, oranges, bananas, sweet potatoes, could be profitably grown for export. The climate is good and healthy. The people have not dwindled down to their present small numbers through natural decay. Like another more famous island, Atiu is "swarming with absentees." In the Society Islands, and here and there in other groups, while villages full of Atiuans are to-day to be seen, who emigrated from their native country twenty or thirty years ago, owing to difficulties with the missionaries, and went to seek an asylum in lands where strings were drawn somewhat less tightly than they were at home. They never ventured, though the island, when I saw it, had no resident while missionary at all, and in consequence their lands have lain idle every since. The ill wind has blown good to planters and settlers, however, so one need not quarrel with it. 

Like Mangaia, Atiu has a cave - only a much larger one, and it has a mystery connected with the cave, which no one has yet attempted to solve. Sixty years ago or more (I was told - I do not swear to the truth of this or any other island story that I have not had the opportunity of investigating in person), an invading tribe came to Atiu, and in the course of several battles, defeated and put to rout one of the lesser tribes of the island. The vanquished ones, fearing that they would be killed and eaten, plucked up courage to try a desperate expedient, and hid themselves in the cave, into whose dark recesses no native had ever before venture, for fear of offending the evil spirits that were said to live therein. After waiting for a day or two, the enemies gave up the contest, and went away again. It was now safe for the hunted tribe to come forth, and the other inhabitants of the island looked to see them return - for after all, it did not seem likely that the evil spirits would destroy so many. They waited in vain. From the unknown depths of the cave - unknown in its innermost recesses, to the present day - no sign, no message reached them; no living soul ever came forth of the many men, women, and children who had braved the dangers of that dark portal. Lost they were, lost they remained. 

What happened to them? No one knows. It is not easy to destroy a whole tribe, and leave no sign. But the one white man who partly explored the cave some years ago, found nothing to hint at the nature of the tragedy. It is true that his candles gave out, and the cord that served him for a guide back among the endless windings of the place came to an end, so that he never knew quite how far the place went, or how many ramifications it had. Still, it is strange enough that not so much as a single human bone was to be seen. If the tribe had lost their way, and perished of hunger, some traces would certainly have been visible - a spear, a shell ornament, perhaps a skeleton. If they had fallen in a body over some treacherous inner precipice, the dangerous place would have been discoverable. Perhaps some new explorer will unravel the mystery, one of these days. It will not be a steamer passenger, however, for the Union boats on their rare calls do not stay long enough for any one to land, and the cave requires two clear days to reach and see.

As we were not even stopping overnight ourselves, I had no opportunity of making an exploration on my own account.

thus the mystery rests unsolved - unless some one may have come to the island in a stray trading schooner since my visit, and found time enough to explore the unknown parts of the haunted cavern. The natives of Atiu, needless to say, put down the whole thing simply and solely to the revenge of the "local demons." The people of the settlement, when we reached it, greeted our party with boisterous cheerfulness. The officials went to hold their court, as usual, and I, being as usual quite uninterested in the details of native boundary disputes conducted in an unknown tongue, amused myself with the women of the village. It might be more correct to say that they amused themselves with me. I do not think any white women had been up to the settlement before I visited it, and the curiosity of the girls was uncontrollable. They crowded round me, they shyly felt my hair to see if the coils were attached to my head in Nature's own way (by which I conclude that the wearing of false hair is not unknown to themselves, they rubbed my dress material in their fingers, they poked me all over to see if I was real, and conducted such searching investigations into the quantity and style of my clothing, that I was obliged to speak to one or two as sharply as I knew how (the tongue was alien, but the tone was understood) and make them desist. Withal, they were not ill-natured though certainly a little ill-mannered. They did not forget the duties of hospitality, but passed fruit and coconut water on me, and one woman insisted on giving me a bottle full of honey to take away - a gift that was much appreciated by my fellow-passengers on the schooner, later on.

I gratified them extremely by loosening the hair of one or two, and putting it up in the latest fashionable style, which proved so popular that the whole feminine half of the island set to hair-dressing at once, and before I left the island that day, a general and complete revolution in culture had taken place. We had a good deal of feminine talk among ourselves, before the men came out again: the fact that I did not know anything of the language, save perhaps half a dozen words, was no bar to a certain amount of thought-interchange. How was it done? Signs, for the most part; scraps, guesses, hints, stray native words made to do double and treble duty. Gould I have talked to the husbands and brothers of the women in the same way? No, certainly not. All through my wanderings among the uncivilised folk of the island world, I was constantly interested and amused to see how quick the women were in the language of signs and makeshifts, how very uncomprehending the men. If I wanted to make a request of any kind, on an island where I did not know any of the language, I instinctively sought for a woman to interpret my signs for a boat, a guide, a trader's or missionary's house, and so forth; and found that the women understood, almost as surely as the men, under the same circumstances, did not. Psychologists may make what they like of the fact. Women, who have talked the "sign-language" to each other, many and many a time, over the innocent thick heads of their unsuspecting better-haves, friends, or brothers, will never doubt it. We are not as clever as men - let the equality brigade shriek if they like, "it's as true as turnips is, as true as taxes" - but neither are we as stupid. God forbid!  

I had practically the whole day to put in somehow, so, after the delights of hair-dressing had palled, and the afternoon was passing on, I accepted the invitation of a cheerful, though rather rough-looking pair of girls, whom I found crushing limes for lime juice in a very primitive sort of hand press, and followed them in to dinner in one of the native houses. There was a distinguished guest to be entertained - a woman of Atiu who had been away from the island with her husband for many months, and had now returned in the Duchess, quite civilised and chic and modern, with the up-to-dateness of far-away Auckland. This celebrity, regarded as a very Isabella Bird among the island women, scarce any of whom had ever seen the other side of their own reef, was seated on the mats when I entered, her legs folded under her, native fashion; not without evident discomfort for the heels of very high-heeled, pointed boots are painful under such circumstances, and corsets laced to bursting point are absolutely deadly. Ritia's dark face was ominously empurpled, and perspiration due as much to agony as to the heat (which was undeniable) streamed over her forehead and down her nose, from under the brim of her incredible picture hat. But pride upheld her, for who among the other women of the island owned such magnificent clothes?

The people of the house received me with exultation. Now, the feast was indeed a gorgeous one, and the sea-green envy sure to be the lot of every housewife in settlement with whom I had not dined, shed additional lustre on the triumph. The food was just coming in as I entered and folded myself up on the mats - roast sucking-pig, smelling very good; a fat boiled fowl; some fish from the lagoon, baked like the pig in a ground oven, and done to a turn; arrowroot jelly; young green coconuts, with the meat still unset, clinging to the thin shell like transparent blanc-mange; breadfruit, smoking and floury; baked pumpkins; bananas, roasted in their skins; sweet potatoes; chestnuts. A large coconut, picked at the right stage for drinking stood at each guest's right hand, and in the middle was a big bowl of milky coconut cream, into which each guest was supposed to dip his food as he ate.

Plates there were none, but I have never thought clean, fresh, green leaves, a foot or two across, unpleasant substitutes for delf or china, which is handled and used by hundreds of eaters, and must be washed in greasy hot water at the end of every meal. There is a good deal to water at the end of every meal. There is a good deal to be said for the native custom, whether the point of view be that of convenience, cleanliness or simple beauty. I, as the principal guest, was offered everything first, which obviated any unpleasantness that might have arisen from the entire absence of knives and forks. There is no hardship in eating with your fingers, if yours are the first to plunge into every dish, and your have your nice fresh leaf to yourself. The little pig I did not touch, because no one who has lived as much as a week in the islands will venture on native pork, good as it looks and smells. When an unfortunate beast is killed by strangulation, and never bled, and when you know that it has lived at its gipsy will, and fed more abominably than a land-crab, you are apt to find you are "not hungry" when its crackling little carcase comes to table in cerements of green leaves, and you ask for the breadfruit and the fish instead.

The feast seemed likely to go on all afternoon, since no native thinks he has eaten enough on such an occasion, until he is as gorged and as comatose as a stuffed anaconda. There is no obligation to stay longer than one likes, however, so I washed my hands and withdraw, as soon as it seemed good to me to do so. And by the way, if we of the civilised countries think that we invented fingerbowls, other in form, or in use, we are mistaken. The south Seas invented them, a few hundred years before we found out they were necessary to our own delicate refinement. A bowl full of water is handed round to every diner in a South Sea house. The water is from the river, pure and fresh; the bowl is of a mould more perfect than the most exquisite models at ancient Greece, delicately hued with pale brown in the inner part, and deep sienna brown outside. It is half a coconut shell - beautiful, useful, practically unbreakable, yet not of sufficient worth to prevent its being thrown away to-morrow and replaced by a fresh one from the nearest palm. Fresh plates and cups for men's food are a refinement that our refined civilisation has not attained to yet. You must go to savages to look for them.

I thanked my hosts for their entertainment, in good English, when I left. They understood the words and tone almost as clearly as if I had spoken in their own language, and gave me a ringing salutation that followed me down the road. That a number of Atiuan men, coming up from the shore, burst out laughing when they saw me, and held on to each other in convulsions of merriment at the sight of my absurd white face and ridiculous clothes, did not detract from the real kindliness of the reception the island had given me. The manners of the Atiuan would certainly throw a Tahitian or a courtly Samoan into a fit; but for all that, he is not at bottom a bad sort, and could certainly be made something of with training.

One of the Arikas of Atiu - a woman again; there seemed to be very few male chefs in the islands - was pointed out to me as I went down to the shore, and I photographed her sitting in her chair. She looked dignified, and her long descent was visible in the pose of her small head, and the delicacy of her hands, but she did not possess much claim to beauty.

The Duchess was standing off and on outside the reef when I came out on the beach again, and the barrels were merrily floating out, rolled down into the water by the hands of busy brown men and women. It was a pretty scene in the low yellow sunlight of the waning afternoon, and I carried it away with me, long after we had sailed, as a pleasant recollection of Atiu.   

An extract from IN THE STRANGE SOUTH SEAS by BEATRICE GRIMSHAW, published in London by Hutchinson & Co., 1908. 

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