Chapter 4: Pearl-Fishing in the South Seas

MY year at pearl-fishing through the Society Group and Marquesas was a most pleasurable interlude. Robert Louis Stevenson had filled my imagination with fascinating pictures of the South Sea Islands and the life of beauty and languor in these pin-points of Paradise. I was now seventeen, and too restless for a lazy existence in the tropics. Since then, however, I have promised myself that some day I will go back there to stay.

The landfall of a Pacific island has a lure for the eye. First, a row of palms growing out of a blue sea, lined with a fine, thin streak of snowy white where the sea breaks on the coral reef surrounding the island, or else a verdure-clad cone in all the shades of wonderful blues and purples, changing, as approached, to a rich verdant green delicately underlined with the same faint white pencil mark. So the picture takes on new aspects of color and shadow. There is nothing so alluring to youth as the silhouette of a tall palm against the purple; a faint tinkle of music and soft undulations of natives singing.

It is regrettable that civilization is rapidly spoiling the South Sea Islanders. They are more adept in absorbing the white man’s vices than his virtues. Perhaps we have better teachers in the beachcombers and traders than in the missionaries. Even the religious visitors bring them only the veneer of Christianity, and leave them our conceits and hypocrisies. I except the Orders which specialize in medical missions and sanitation. The white traders’ venereal diseases have afflicted thousands of these children of nature, and they haven’t the white man’s resistance or knowledge to combat the ravages of a social plague.

Some romancers of the South Seas have pictured all the women as being highly seductive in face and figure. In reality a few might qualify as dusky chorines, but they are not encountered with any frequency. If Venuses are few, however, most of the women are at least comely, with contagious smiles revealing perfect dental equipment. They are always singing or humming, and their hard, shapely bodies sway to the slow rhythm of their own music. Their reign of beauty is, of course, brief, but, like all tropic blossoms, their flowering is radiant. From a continental viewpoint, the most beautiful of them is the half-caste, who inherits the charm of the native and the wiles of the white woman. These women are nearly all the daughters of French traders, and many of them receive a convent training in Paris. Through much intermarriage with Chinese, the Tahitians will soon disappear as a distinct race. Chinese half-castes are singularly fascinating, with their almond eyes and svelte bodies.

It is a challenge to the white race that the marauding trader and the missionary should do the native equal harm by the vices and by the virtues they bring him. And, to add insult to injury, the missionary teaches him a false modesty, making him wear clothes, herding him and his family indoors in a home-life utterly foreign to his ancestors, and softening him for the thrust of any disease that the boats may carry from port to port. A generation ago half of Fiji died from an epidemic of measles brought by a man of the cloth.

Most missionaries from Europe have marched in the van of the trader and soldier. It has been an unhealthy triumvirate, and it brought only degradation to the brown races of the South Seas. Samoa, for instance, is a pitiable example of white interference. New Zealand took the island on mandate and the natives detest their sovereignty. They sometimes respected the German who ruled them, but it takes a gunboat in the harbor to instill the fear of Britain in their peaceful hearts. Most of the New Zealanders I have met are ashamed of the occupation, and pray to be relieved of the odium that it brings.

It was midsummer in Papeete when I joined the lugger Annette, which had just been fitted out for a pearling cruise in the Marquesas. The captain was a Frenchman who spoke splendid English, and had served many years in the British merchant marine. He was a sociable man who got loyalty and support without effort at discipline. A word from him in a kindly fashion was better than a bull whip from the skipper of the Pilgrim.

For many months we cruised through the Marquesas and part of the Society Group. I became fascinated by the skill and daring of our staff of pearl-divers, and made a few attempts myself at this difficult art. I am a fair swimmer, but I was no match for the boys, who dropped into fifty or seventy feet of water to gather shells in the pearling beds. Most of our boys were from Puka-Puka, an island famous for its divers. They plunged into the water without diving-helmets or suits, and appeared minutes later, often as quickly as their precious catch, which we pulled to the surface in baskets. Occasionally one is attacked by an octopus, shark, or ray, and loses an arm or leg, but the shark’s white belly is a fine target for a sheath-knife, and the odds are sometimes in favor of the diver.

The divers spoke a French jargon, and served as interpreters in our frequent excursions to the island ports and villages. Since then I have become a sort of polyglot, and through a knowledge of the idiom of French, German, and Italian have crossed many borders without difficulty. The skipper knew all the island dialects, which was not a difficult feat of memory, for the dictionaries of each tribe could be written on a child’s slate. Their words were limited to necessities of life and the trappings of death.
I had many friends in the village of Hakapo, on Nukuhiva Island, where the balmy evenings were spent in dancing, feasting, and drinking. White visitors were not seen so frequently then, and the native was still honest as a child in his expression of a mood or emotion.

As our lugger entered the lagoon the whole village would rush down to the beach to greet us. At the pleasant rattle of the anchor into the sapphire water the crowd on the shore would echo their chant of welcome. In a moment it would seem that the whole island was in the water heading for our ship, swimming or paddling furiously in tiny canoes, all anxious to be the first on board with a present of fowl, fruit, or sucking-pig. Invitations to come on shore fell thick and fast. Lola, the chief’s prettiest daughter, would be one of the first on board with my ceremonial lava-lava ready to hand. I usually gave her some choice trinket from our stock in trade-a pair of brass bangles, or anklets studded with colored glass, and these were her delight. When she danced at the banquet in my honor, these trinkets were, apart from the flowers in her hair, the only clothes she wore, and they became her nicely.

A banquet in Hakapo was something to be remembered. It was usually given in the communal guest-hut, and lasted two or three days, being only curtailed by our captain’s insistence on leaving. Each male guest would have the girl of his choice to be his handmaiden during the feast, the older women and men acting as servers. We were decked with garlands of flowers, the girls having extra red hibiscus blossoms in their glossy black hair. Huge gourds of palm wine were convenient, and there was much ceremony for the initial drinks: this eased off as the liquor started working. The hors-d’oeuvre consisted of live goldfish, which Lola adroitly grabbed out of the fish-bowl and dropped down my throat alive. They taste just like an oyster, but when they dive headlong into a pint or so of palm wine they give a convulsive flutter and petrify. This was usually followed by “poi,” the favorite island food, but the piece de resistance was a pig roasted whole, flanked by baked yams, breadfruit and other toothsome roots. This was where the novel part of the feast began. The girl would transfer a hunk of the pig on to a palm-leaf, then, after thoroughly chewing a portion, would feed this to her boy friend. It is the custom on most of the islands, and one does not easily grow used to it.

With Lola it was not difficult, and as she was the chief’s daughter, it was a mark of signal esteem. She would carefully taste a piece of each end of the pig, looking for a flavor worthy of McGuinness. When she found this she would gravely chew half and pass it on to my platter. I would thank her profusely, take a good hooker of wine, and eat the prepared morsel. Luckily soup was seldom on the menu. When we had eaten and drunk to repletion there would be a slight rest pause; then the amusements would start.

Practically all the natives play a stringed instrument, mandolin or ukulele. They have sweet, mellow voices and harmonize beautifully. Hira Tau Ata, the chief, would act as master of ceremonies, directing the music. This was usually held on the clearing outside the guest-house and directly facing the village, all set in an amphitheatre surrounded by coconut palms. I can still picture the scene-a velvety South Sea night, laden with the perfume of tropical blooms, the perpetual drone of the surf breaking on the coral reef, flickering torches throwing dancing shadows, flashing white teeth, and the graceful, lithe figures of boys and girls moving to and fro.

The dancing was skillful, each dance interpreting some island custom or emotion: “The Dance of the Flowers,” “The Dance of Life,” and, the masterpiece of all, “The Dance of Creation.” All danced with an abandon and rhythm of body, which, as one followed the theme, was fascinating. By midnight there would be signs of sleep, many of the younger folk already having surrendered to Morpheus.

We would then adjourn, Lola often falling asleep on the way to her father’s hut, so that I had to pick her up and carry her in my arms-no great feat of endurance for a youth drunk with palm-wine and island love.

In the morning we would awake, rush down to the lagoon, swim out to the reef and back again, and run up to the hut to greet Hira Tau Ata and all the family as they sauntered down for the morning dip. A breakfast would follow of breadfruit, bananas, and milk, after which we would take a walk along the beach or through forest paths, the beauty of which, as a sailor, I am not gifted enough to describe. Back home again, for the remainder of the day we would 1’e swinging in grass hammocks, talking animatedly in pidgin French about nothing and laughing at the simplest things. But often, lying there dreaming, building castles in Spain, I would hear a stifled sob, and gently turning would see Lola’s large, dark eyes raining tears. Seeing pretence futile, and incapable of further restraint, she would abandon herself to a paroxysm of weeping, sobbing in a choked murmur: “Charles, Charles, je vous aime.” My turn would then come. I would break down and cry a little too. We usually felt better for this. The last occasion was particularly poignant; it was as if we both had a premonition that this was the parting of our ways.
After dark the banquet was again resumed. That night with much meaning Lola danced the Dance of Creation.

Hira Tau Ata approved of me as a son-in-law to be. We talked of many things. He was extremely intelligent and handled the affairs of the island in a manner I should like to introduce elsewhere. There were fairness, justice, and strength in his decisions. He gave a strict accountancy to the French, whom he served loyally. One episode of his I shall never forget. He told me a missionary once converted him by explaining that the Christian God made all men in His own image. This sign of democracy pleased the chief, so he was duly converted with adequate ceremony. On the same night, however, Hira Tau Ata took his favorites along to the mission hut. All went well till the missionary heard voices and soft laughter emerging from the small church. Fetching a torch he went to investigate.

“Who’s in there?” he called loudly, advancing to where Hira was ensconced with his wives. The missionary must have been nonplussed when the chief calmly stated:

“Oh, everything first class. I makem baby fellah: ‘four,’ ” pointing to his giggling brides, “all same Christian fellah God. God’s house proper place. Me give you plenty work. Baptizem, baby fellah. Good night!”

Hira Tau Ata won his case that time, but I heard that on a subsequent changing round of his household-when he brought along a new batch-the missionary promptly disowned him and caught the next schooner out, bound for islands where they would not interpret his gospel so literally.

But the day for sailing would come. We would go on board loaded with island generosity, sorrowfully heave anchor, and, escorted by swimmers and canoes, slowly sail out through the opening in the reef. Lola would be on board, and as the Annette began to curtsy to the long Pacific swell beating on the coral reef, we would tearfully embrace; a long passionate kiss, with promises of undying love. Then, like a bird, she would leap on the rail, dive overboard, scarcely making a ripple in the water, and with long, powerful strokes make for the shore more than a mile away.

It was such a scene as I have just depicted that rang down the curtain on my first real love-affair.

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