THE NEW HEBRIDES - A TRAGICOMEDY
THE PRE-WHITE PICTURE
This is not a history, but some background is quite essential to an understanding of these islands. Anyone who arrives at an understanding of the New Hebrides must come close to understanding the rest of Melanesia-which means the Black Islands and includes New Guinea-and is set fair for an understanding of Polynesia, Many Islands, and Micronesia, the northern scatteration of Small Islands.
That kind of Pacific understanding is likely to be important. Once civilization centred round the Mediterranean places, Alexandria, Athens, Rome. today it centres on Atlantic or near-Atlantic cities. I do not suggest that tomorrow it will centre round the Pacific; but California already leads America in standard-of-living, San Francisco will eventually catch up with New York, and some day Sydney will become as important as London. the Pacific upsurge has begun. Pacific Asia is on the march. Mounting world population (a million a year in just Japan) makes the food-land of the lush tropical islands quite crucial. Distance will not matter. Its "annihilation"-talked of glibly today as though that were already accomplished-will happen when the turbine-jet takes over from the internal combustion engine. the Pacific will be important. Even the New Hebrides will be.
The New Hebrides archipelago of eleven sizable islands (as Pacific islands go), eighteen smaller ones and many islets, 5700 square miles in area, is the fourth largest islands-group territory in the South Pacific. Espiritu Santo is about one-quarter of the whole. Volcanic and coraline in formation, densely covered with rain forest, the larger islands are mountainous. Much of the soil is very fertile. The people are very dark skinned, woolly haired, thick lipped, Melanesians: there is some Polynesian admixture and a few "pockets" of Polynesian-type people, such as on Aoba. Broadly speaking, the New Hebridean primitive culture is similar to what we find in New Guinea and in the arc of islands extending from New Guinea down through the Solomons. Religion centering round the spirits of ancestors, legendary and actual. prestige a matter of, mainly, wealth and wealth a matter of, mainly, pigs (which were introduced the only indigenous New Hebrides land mammals are bats and rats). Wood-and-Stone Age weapons. Fairly constant warfare, of the guerilla kind, with a-life-for-a-life as tribal law. Cannibalism. Near-nakedness, with any "dress" more a matter of adornment than body-covering. Male dominance, the women subservient and doing most of the gardening and wood-carrying and pig-tending. Polygamy, with pigs the main part of the bride-price. Agriculture, supplemented by some hunting, providing the principal foods-yams, sweet potatoes, taro, sugarcane, bananas, with sago and coconuts on the coast. Pig as a feast food, too valuable to be an everyday dish. Small smoky houses without chimneys or windows, to keep out the mosquitoes on the coast and, in the mountains, for warmth at night. the coastal people with canoes, getting more protein, from fish; and more malaria, from mosquitoes. Hookworm also an enervating endemic disease, and yaws, also tinea and other skin diseases, and conjunctivitus and, less prevalent, leprosy and elephantiasis. tuberculosis. it is listed as endemic in a New Hebrides government report" other authorities say it was introduced. to all endemic diseases the natives had a certain hereditary resistance.
Estimates of the population of the New Hebrides before the white man came run as high as "over a million". The estimated native population today is over 48,5000. Obviously there must have been drastic happenings to cause the natives to die down to one-twentieth (or, if a million seems too high a figure, say to one-tenth) of their former numbers. There were, indeed, drastic happenings.
The first white man to see any profit in this region were some South Sea whalers. They made landings for wood, water, vegetables, pork if they could get it, and carnal refreshment, if they could get it. But they had little contact with the natives, the "savages". this was in the 1830s. The first whites to see any profit in contacting the natives were those who came in smallish sailing vessels to gather sandalwood. By 1841 a trader had established himself on the southmost island, Aneiryum, and was running a number of vessels. The sandalwooders do not appear to have gone to the northern islands at all. For the sweet-smelling sandalwood burnt as joss-sticks in Asian temples there was a big market in china. Fiji was supplying most of it until, as sandalwood cut out there, vessels from Australia and Fiji, from Tonga and as far away as Tahiti, moved into the New Hebrides.
Where traders could induce the natives to cut sandalwood for them, they did so. For the cutting they supplied axes. When the natives saw what metal could do they wanted it. A couple of bits of hoop-iron bought a dinghy-load of sandalwood, worth fifty pounds a ton. That was the beginning of the end of the stone-axe age. It was a whip-handed business. It was also catch-a-catch can, with sandalwooder violence outweighing the ruses of the "treacherous niggers". A British Navy investigator of reported outrages, Commodore Erskine, in 1849 described what he called a precarious and almost piratical trade in which the white men had "often shown themselves in no way behind the blacks in cruelty and treachery, and indeed with the sole exception of cannibalism, in the practice of all the vies we usually ascribe to savages". A crew of Tongans killed sixty natives on fate and shot up men, women and children at Erromanga, where they also burnt villages, destroyed gardens, even cut down the coconut palms. they used guns and ammunition and axes supplied by their white master.
The New Hebridean who was was much impressed by the cutting power of white man axes and the killing power of white men guns was, at this same period much puzzled by the advent of a different kind of white man. This white man, who might be accompanied by his wife-and he was not very highly thought of for having only the one-had no pistol at his belt, he did not shout and drank from a bottle, and he seemed to want, in the free instance, only to settle down and build a house. Then he wanted to tell the people about a God who was greater than the Creator who was called by various names in three islands of fifty different languages. Tagaro was one name. they were mild men, and they proved astonishingly easy to murder, these missionaries. the first missionaries came soon after the first sandalwooders and their role was, and is, of major important. but let us look first at some other whites who began to appear on the New Hebrides stage.
Scene-Santo, 1870. A schooner approaches the shore. Aboard the schooner are three white men-skipper, recruiter, mate. The cook is a Fijian, one deckhand is a Torres Strait Islander, two others are Tannamen. Inshore from the beach the smoke of a village's cooking fires rises thin and blue above the dark green fringe of the jungle. along the beach are outrigger canoes. No natives are in sight. The mate takes a plug of dynamite, lights the fuse and lets it burn, then throws it outboard into the air, shoreward. The explosion brings some natives running to the beach. The natives look at the white-painted schooner, the first vessel bigger than a canoe they have ever seen. How wonderful it is, how big, and how marvellously it rides without any outrigger! As they watch another wonderful thing happen-a piccaninny boat, the dinghy, is slung overside and floats beside it. The natives stare, and wait for their chief to come to give them guidance. Before he comes, his bold son, Tavua, says breathlessly, "I am going out to it!" and he runs to his canoe. Others follow him. Swiftly they paddle, then they slow warily as they draw near to the schooner.
The big-bellied skipper, bearded, in shirt and duck pants, watches smoking his pipe. The mate, younger, a tough Australian, checks the revolver in his belt. the recruiter, wearing a striped pyjama-coat outside his pants, his eyes still red from last night's gin, looks at the canoemen and assesses them. He holds out a piece of hoop-iron. He beckons Tavua and the others to come. As the chief's son's canoe comes alongside, the recruiter looks in it for weapons and sees a stone club. He looks at the wide bark belts the natives wear at their middles.
"Trouble with these bark belts," he says to the skipper. "You can't bet a proper look at their bellies. That's where a kanaka shows his emotions-if he's gonna take a crack at you his belly'' signal it by the way he breath4ed an' draws it in. This mob wouldn't know about guns." Tavua, the bold one, looks at the schooner faces. He looks at the dark ones hardly at all, for his eyes are fascinated by the pale-red ones: he does not think of those faces as white. Their lips and mouths are so thin and their hair, where he can see it, is so straight. Are they god-men, spirit men? How grand they are-he admires particularly the recruiter's pyjama-coat. What is the grand one in the stripes offering? It looks like a thin piece of stone or wood. Tavua thinks. What would I do with a thing like that? The recruiter sees that iron is unknown, no use here. He dips in his pocket for beads. He holds up a string of coloured trade beads. Tavua has never seen such bright and sparkling colours. His eyes light, he smiles and a hiss of admiration comes from his lips. the recruiter motions him to come on board. but natural caution makes Tavua wary. The recruiter turns to one of the Tannamen and says in pidgin, "Talkim kanaka e come on top."
The Tannaman gabbles. Tavua listens, and he gabbles back. They do not understand a word the other says. But the recruiter is right. Talk, of itself, is expression, is reassurance; it does something. Tavua comes aboard the schooner. Others follow. One of the Tannamen takes the vinerope line of each canoe and holds it. the recruiter gives them each a few loose beads. The white men watch them handle the beads and admire them.
He prepares to up-anchor and hoist sail. He turns to the mate. "Take that Fiji slo with ye in the dinghy." He says to one of the Tannamen, unconsciously lowering his voice. "Catchim dewai." A dewai in this case is a billet of wood. He says to the recruiter, "You get 'em squatted down." A dozen natives are now on board. They get down on their hundreds round the squatted white man, who keeps his back against the hatch as he hands out the beads, one by one. The recruiter hears the anchor coming up, hears the skipper's "Canoes away" as the Tannamen casts them loose, hears the mainsail going up. He sees the legs of the skipper, the mate, the Fijian, the two Tannamen, moving in close behind the entranced natives as he brings a bigger string of beads from his pocket. Then he stands up and leaps back on to the hatch. The billers of wood thud on the skulls of four natives. Another gets a broken jaw as he turns and lunges at the skipper. Two leap clear across the rail and into the water. Another who shows fight is struck down and falls half-stunned overboard. Four are paralysed with fear. The Fijian has jumped in the dinghy and grabbed the oars, the mate after him. they gain on two swimmers. The mate knocks one out and the Fijian drags him into the boat. the other dives and they row after him, but the mate sees other canoes coming out from the shore, and he turns back. The half-stunned man who fell overboard has come-to and is swimming weakly sinking. the mate grabs him by the hair and rows him with them to the schooner's side. The deck is bloody. Those natives who are not sprawled on it senseless are struggling in handcuffs and being bundled, with kicks and blows, down into the hold. Now the canoes are approaching from the shore, with armed men. An arrow falls short off the stern.
"Better drop a couple," the skipper says to the mate.
The mate fires his revolver at the bowman in the leading canoe. He misses, but the recruiter's rifle cracks and the man falls back in the canoe on to a paddler and rolls overboard and threshes there, his face contorted with amazement as well as agony while the water stains red from his belly's blood. the mate fires his heavy-calibre revolver again and smashes a man's right arm. the natives in the canoes turn and paddle, panic-stricken, back to the shore. On the schooner the recruiter says, "We got eleven. Might lose two-that's over a hundred quid in fiji, and more in Mackay."
"One turned too quick. I couldn't help it, breaking his jaw," the skipper says, shaking his head. "Chuck some buckets of water over 'em, the ones that are out," the recruiter says. "The mate can put on a few bandages. And I got some white-wash down below," the skipper says. "tomorrow the boys can whitewash the hold. never know when we might run into them Navy bastards." Ashore, the natives are in a ferment of equal parts of dread, anger, wonder. the man with the bullet-broken arm has his wound examind with as much fearful curiosity as sympathy. How could such a thing happen without spear or club being used? What manner of men are these who can do such things? And the chief is non-pleased at the kidnapping. "Sometimes we eat man-meat," he says wonderingly, "but when we eat meat we mostly eat pig. They did not ask for pigs or try to take them. they must only eat man."
The women are wailing. "Aaaeee! They have taken away our sons and brothers. They have taken them away to eat them. We shall never see them again. Aaaeee!" The men look askance at their chief. "There is nothing we can do," he says. "Oh my son, Tavua, my son! what can we do now against such as they who can break our bodies in a way we do not see, only hearing a noise like small thunder?" His hands clench and his belly under his bark belt as he says, "But if their kind come again we will know what to do..."
Scene-Same place, 1871. Another recruiter comes in to this Santo bay. He is not a kidnapper, a blackbirder. Telling the natives simple lies in order to induce them to recruit-that's different. "How ye going to explain to a nigger, even when ye got an interpreter, at a place that ain't been recruited before, that ye want 'em to come to Queensland and work on the canefields for money? What's Queensland? What's canefields. What's money?" the schooner anchors. the recruiter fires his dynamite. No natives appear on the beach. H could have sworn he saw village smoke as they came in, but there is none now. But there are canoes on the beach, so there must be people. "Maybe we better go in and find the village. Leave a present and then hang round for a while," this recruiter says to his skipper and the mate. Two dinghies go in. One dinghy lands the recruiter and a deckhand. The second dinghy stays offshore, the skipper, the mate and two deckhands in it, each with a gun, covering. The recruiter walks, armed and wary, up the path to the village. It is deserted. He leaves some beads and a knife in a large stone in the middle of the village. H goes back to the beach and calls to the skipper. "They've all cleared out."
"Then I reckon I'll search my legs, too," says the mate and he is rowed in to the beach. The covering dinghy goes back and the skipper waits in it. On shore, the recruiter tells the Erromangan deckboy to shout. The boy does so in a high yodelling call. No natives appear, nothing happens. Then an answering call comes from the village. "Somebody's there- but too scared to come," the recruiter says. "WE better go up." "I don't like it much" the mate says, but he goes with the recruiter. They go up the path to the village, the recruiter leading, their shotguns at the ready. they do not see the natives hidden in the bush on either side, the ones who have been waiting a year for this chance of vengeance. suddenly the recruiter gets an arrow in his groin and the deckboy, firing blindly to the left, is clubbed from behind. the mate gets clear back to the beach and the covering dinghy is coming in for him when he falls with an arrow between the shoulder-blades.
In the battle for his writhing body on the beach, dozens of arrows hiss out of the green screen of jungle, two natives are shot, a deckboy in the covering dinghy gets an arrow through his cheek, other arrows plug into the mate until he lies quite still at the water's edge. The natives shooting from cover are now here, now over there and the skipper and his boys are almost out of ammunition when they see several canoes put off from farther up the beach and make for the schooner. the skipper sees that he will be cut off and his vessel looted unless he gets back to it quickly. He lies in the dinghy thwarts firing over the stern as he is rowed back. He kills a native in the leading canoe of those making for the ship, and the others sheer off. there is nothing the recruiter can do but sail for Havannah Harbour, Efate, and, if there is no Navy vessel there, go back to Brisbane and lay information before the Government about this cold-blooded, unprovoked, treacherous massacre. "Those niggers have got to be taught a lesson they won't forget!" he rages.
Meanwhile the bodies of the recruiter and the mate have been carried into the village. They are disembowelled and then hung up on great wooden slit-gongs made from tree-trunks, pointed at the tops and carved and coloured with faces we would regard as being barbaric and evil. That night there is a great dance. After the bones of the bodies are broken with clubs the flesh is cut up. Portions, wrapped in leaves, are cooked in the earth ovens of hot stones. Other portions are sent to friends, allies and relatives in other villages. The white flesh is eaten. All who partake of it agree that its taste is sickly. But all eat at least some of it because, apart from the etiquette involved, these pale-skinned ones are undoubtedly powerful and some of their potency can be absorbed by partaking of their flesh. the horrible feasting has its sacramental side.
Scene-Scene place, two years later. The first recruiting vessel returns to this Santo bay. Aboard are nine of the eleven kidnapped natives, who have long been mourned as dead. One man died on the voyage to Queensland, and another died in Queensland of pneumonia. The others are being repatriated after three years of labouring on the sugar plantations. These nine are not only alive and fairly well-one has influenza-they are quite pleased with themselves. They are sent ashore in the two dinghies. they call out to their people, who come running to the beach. "Look, my father," says Tavua the chief's son, when the shrieks of joy and amazement at their return have subsided. "I have a gun like the white men have!" He holds up the Snider musket he has bought with part of his three years labour's wages. "And here is red cloth for you, my father- ain't it beautiful! And now you watch the---"
With his shiny axe Tavua fells six small trees at the beach edge, in less time than it would take a man with a stone axe to fell one. His father examines the axe and there are cries of wonder and delight on all sides as the trade goods brought back by the returned ones are handled. "O the wonderful things we have seen in Quee'slan', the land of the white men!" Tavua says. His father is running a finger up and down the barrel of the musket. "I want a gun!" the chief says, thinking of what he could do to the enemy chif of the village over the mountain if he had one. "These are good men, really," Tavua goes on. "They hurt us, but we did not understand. they are frightened to come ashore." "Tell them they can come". the chief says. "We have had our vengeance."
Tavua tells the dinghy boys to tell the white men to come ashore. He goes back to his father. "I want a gun," the chief says. you give me this." Tavua hesitates. "I worked long for that in the hot sun where there is no tree of shade, cutting the cane," he says. "The cloth is yours. All my kinsmen will share what else I have. The gun is yours and mine, my father." "I want a gun for myself," the old man says. "Then let my brother go to Quee'slan' and get you one," Tavua says.
The upshot is that more recruits are offered than the schooner can carry. the recruiter pays axes to the relatives of the two men who died, as compensation. All want guns and axes now, and the beautiful red cloth. At a feast that night the young men who went away are feted as heroes. The girls' smiles are all for them, and they tell the most astonishing stories of houses as tall as trees, of ships that go along by smoke and are as high as those houses and long as the beach, of great pig-animals called horsey that pull things called cart and sow-animals with horns on their heads, called cow, and places called shop which are full of wonderful things you can get for the round stuff and the paper stuff called money, of gardens that stretch as far as the eye can see and great tracks called road; of enormous villages called town where the white people live, all with clothes on, all having these wonderful things, in these great villages that, strangely, do not fight one with another at all because killing is reckoned a bad thing, a very bad thing, in the land of the white man.
"The black man, my father," says Tavua, "h does not know much at all." So the big batch of recruits goes aboard, the strong young men. A few go eagerly for the adventure, some go to earn the things that will buyh thm wives, some are forced or shamed by their relatives into going with the others (the recruiter has "greased" some of the leading old men with presents_, some go because they want guns and axes more than anything in the world, one goes because he is in deep disgrace in the village for stealing a pig and is likely to be killed if he stays.
Alternative Scene. The first recruiter returns to the Santo bay with the repatriated labour, and finds the village a deserted shambles. it has been shelled by a British warship, perhaps H.M.S. Curacoa, which has been ordered by the Admiralty, acting on one of those bothersome requests from the Colonies, to take punitive action against the natives who committed the "treacherous and unprovoked murders of two white British nationals". The recruiter lands his bewildered returnees on his silent shore and goes off to find other labour elsewhere.
The foregoing scenes may sound a little far-fetched. they are based, about eighty per cent, on a most circumstantial native account of the first recruiter in the Bay of St Phillip and St James, Santo, and the murders and eating of the bodies of the next recruiters to come there. Another ten per cent of the basis was provided by other factual records. the remaining two per cent is from my own knowledge of Melanesian natives and white contact. Recorded actual cases of kidnappings, with detailed names of vessels and of persons involved, are worse. one concerned the crew of the recruiting vessel Young Australian cutting off natives from the shore, hauling a chief aboard with boathook through his cheek, shooting into the hold to quieten the fear-crazy cargo. I would not attempt to put into a novel the case of the Carl. No one would believe that a vessel could kidnap ninety natives. The Carl did. the natives tried to break out of the hold. that night, says a report of evidence at the trial of the Carl crew: "I think everyone on board was more or less engaged in the firing into the hold. by daylight it was practically quiet. A Mr Scott was wounded ruing the day. By night firing had started again. Mr Wilson threw lights into the hold to direct the aim. Next day all was quiet and the slaves were invited to come out. Five came out unaided, nine wounded to to be assisted, sixteen were severely wounded, and sixty were dead. The dead were at once thrown overboard. The sixteen severely wounded men were also thrown overboard."
The ship was cleaned, the hold whitewashed. H.M.S. Rosario hailed the Carl, which did not stop for inspection until its topsail was shot away. The naval boarding officer found everything in order. Dr Murray, owner of the Carl, turned Queen's evidence and, therefore could not be tried, though Wilson said that the crew only acted on Murray's orders. Evidence was given that Murray read prayers before telling the crew to smash native canoes on the beach and that he sang "Marching Through Georgia" during the firing into the hold. Two men were tried in Sydney. they wee acquitted. The Hopeful was not much better. Two of its crew, McNeil and Williams, were sentenced to death for murdering natives. On the grounds that where to many offended it was wrong to penalize two, a petition of 28,000 Queensland signatures got the murderers free pardons from the Government: the case was a big election issue in 1890.
Legislation in Australia to prevent such outrages began with what was called the kidnapping Act of 1872. An amendment to the subsequent Pacific Islands Labour Act in 1884 abolished "head money" which, at fifteen pounds or so a head for each recruit, was an incentive to recruiters to get labour by fair means or foul. the trade was so scandalous it had to be investigated by a Royal Commission in 1885. It is important to know how many New Hebrideans were brought into Queensland, but, while we know that 46,387 kanakas had been brought in by 1891, the records do not specify which South Sea Islands they came from. In the eighties recruiters had begun to move north into the Solomons and New Guinea. However, the trade remained strong in the Hebrides. Obviously, the many thousands of natives taken from these could not have all been kidnapped. Indeed, kidnapping would not have accounted for more than ten per cent of those taken, and by 1880 it was nearly over. However, many were induced to go by lies and false pretenses. more natives were forced to go by their chiefs and relatives in return for guns than were taken by force or by lies. As the trade became more regularized, some took their wives with them. At first the sugar labourer got three pounds a year, then six pounds a year, plus keep and issues. The money did not buy them much in goods to bring home.
As the kanaka was paid and repatriated, it is an overstatement to speak of the labour traffic, as it has often been spoken of, as a "slave" trade. The English novelist Anthony Trollope, when he was in Australia, saw nothing wrong with it at all. "The islanders who are brought to "Queensland all return (untrue: about one-in-fifteen died) and not a man of them returns without taking with him lessons of civilization (and new diseases). On the planters' ground in Queensland they learn each other's language (hardly: but they did learn pidgin, which is valuable for communication), they have to cook, to sew, to dig, to plant, to hoe canes, to clothe themselves and to be proud of their clothes." (It was their pride that suffered most of all.) Trollope thought the islander fortunate to be allowed "to escape from the savage slavery of his island to the plenty and protected piecework of a Queensland sugar plantation". Every coin has two sides: it is easy to see one as too black and the other as too shiny.
Guns were a great inducement to recruit because of the war pattern of island life. At first they were muzzle-loaders; Tower muskets and Sniders, and then "Brown Besses" and cheap German shotguns, some as dangerous to fire as to stand in front of. The Queensland Government forbade Australians to traffic in firearms in 1884. Islanders who had recruited to get the guns and were now denied them were mightily indignant. Howling mobs of natives fired from the shore at recruiting vessels that had landed their kinsmen with axes, calico, powder, hair-oil, but no muskits. However, the native soon got round that one, by bringing his money home and taking it along to the nearest man-oui-oui. A man-oui-oui or man-we-we is a Frenchman, in this case a French trader. The French continued to sell the natives all the guns they wanted.
So Wood and Stone Age warfare was superseded. the native could never afford ammunition for shooting birds or pigs. He husbanded his scanty ammunitions for use against his enemies, at close range, using traditional sneak-hit-run tactics. The black musketeers crammed their muzzle-loaders with ball shot and any metal fragments they could get, even with pieces of glass. At first they held the guns loosely and the recoil kick destroyed aim. Some closed both eyes to fire. Some rammed the charge in so hard the barrel exploded. but the islander accustomed himself to the use of firearms. guns w4re a potent factor in promoting white contact. The native had to seek out the white man to get them, trade with him to get ammunition. the coastal tribes got them first and played havoc with their traditional enemies, the bushmen. Humanitarian sentiment in Australia had, from the outset, regarded the recruiting traffic as nefarious. Another sentiment, which grew as labour became politically articulate and influential was based on the need to protect living standards by a policy aiming at a "White Australia".
Queensland stopped recruiters' licences at the end of 1890. The rage of the North Queensland planters, who declared the sugar industry would be ruined, forced Samuel Griffith, the Premier, to allow the traffic to start again. it was doomed by the rising tide of public opinion against it in other States, and Federation sounded its knell in 1901. In 1903 recruiting for the sugar industry ended. Repatriation went on until only a thousand or two intermarried kanakas and their progeny remained in Australia. Most of these were transferred to a Torres Strait island, Moa, where their descendants live today. the humanitarian sentiment in Australia, and to an extent in Britain-there was precious little of it evident in France-was no Topsy growth. It had been vigorously fanned and fostered by those good, zealous, sanctimonious men, the missionaries. Had the matter been left to vested interests, Australia would still have black labour-and would now have a colour problem comparable to America's. So let us being in stage, briefly and somewhat bloodily, those who sought no profit from the New Hebrides except the souls of the heathen.