#11 The Love-Sick of Vavau
     (Basil Thomson, 1886-91, 1894)

Another, Tuabaji, after resisting for years the teachings of the missionaries, brought about that dramatic conversion of the whole island to Christianity that seemed to the missionaries so striking an instance of divine interposition. The line was not extinct. Though Manase was governor under the king, a Finau Ulukalala lived in the person of an unwieldy man of thirty, a nobele of the House of Lords, it is true, and the king’s aide-de-camp, but in all other respects ignored by the Government. He was not a man of high moral elevation, nor could the missionaries point to him as a cheering instance of the efficacy of their work. He swore fluently in both German and English, and had a cultivated taste for strong waters. Finau was a ne’er-do-weel, but perhaps a scapegrace of the kind that is not past reform if intrusted with responsibility. There was no doubt about his being the hereditary ruler of the place: one might see that from the manner of the old men as he rode through the country. Surrounded by rowdy young boon-companions, holding no post that gave him a vestige of authority, he yet could not enter a village without holding an informal leree of all the inhabitants, while Manase the Governor might pass unnoticed. Possessed of such inherent influence, he was certainly worthy of trial as Manase’s successor if the king could be induced to dismiss so ardent a Free Churchman, and to appoint in his place the descendant of the chiefs whom he had dispossessed. Perhaps guessing my sentiments, Finau attached himself to me throughout this visit. He offered to escort me to the Liku, and as I could best enjoy the scenery of this weird place alone, I was at some pains to give him the slip. But though I rod fast Finau rode faster, and caught me up at that strange white burying-ground, hung between sky and sea at the precipice’s edge. He led me along the cliff to the open plain, whence, looking backward, one may see the hundred isles of Haafulu Hao spread out like a map. Leaving our horses, we crept together along the razor-edge that still connected a rocky pinnacle with the cliff from which it jutted. Clinging to the roots of a starving screw-pine, we knelt and felt the shaft twang as the great seas boomed into the caverns at the cliff’s base. We tried to shout against the roar of the trade-wind sweeping along the face of the rock-wall, but could not distinguish a word.

This place has been a favourite point of departure for the love-sick of Vavau who would escape their misery. Finau said that the body of a girl of Halaufuli, Who leapt hence into eternity a few months before, never reached the water, but was sucked inwards by the cliff, and so dashed to pieces on the sharp rocks at its foot. Whether the attraction of the cliff would always do this or not, death would be certain in falling from such a height, even if the body struck the water only.

And here let me digress on the subject of suicide. The rough average rate of suicide in the Pacific—the figures dealt with are too insignificant for unvarying accuracy—is about equal to the rate for the United Kingdom, viz., .006 per mille of the population; but since most of the suicides in Europe are committed under the influence of mania or extreme misery,—conditions that are generally absent in these favoured isles,—we may assume that the Pacific islanders have a predisposition towards self-destruction. The usual causes are lovers’ quarrels, and the fear of being neglected in incurable illness. In the latter case suicide is a mere survival of the old custom that constrained a sick man to importune his relations to strangle or bury him alive,—itself an evolution from an earlier time when the existence of a family depended upon its having no disabled members to protect. The lovers’ quarrels that result in suicide are quite as trivial as those of civilized communities. On the sudden impulse of some slight misunderstanding the distressed lover resorts to the picturesque but inadequate method of climbing to the top of a cocoa-nut-palm and jumping off, with the usual result of a broken limb, a reconciliation with the beloved object, and permanent lameness. Of late years the cocoa-nut-tree has became less fashionable for men who are in earnest. These generally prefer a precipice, or if their despair be of the more deliberate kind, poison, which, being a mere infusion of bark or leaves, must be drunk in such large quantity that it more often produces vomiting than death. The ancient mode of execution in Tonga—putting the condemned adrift in leaky canoes—still occasionally survives as a method of suicide. In February a schooner, bound from Niuatoburabn to Nukualofa, picked up a derelict canoe floating unharmed, with her paddles and baler in her, and a crumpled letter which ran as follows:—

162 78982

     810 6126 74 m2 127216 m2 892 162 9812 74 m2 m274 b4 810 m2 892 16274
16m807850 892 270

1820 2m454 m8 232

The schooner’s crew connected their discovery with the disappearance of two girls from Niua a few days before; but, not knowing the cipher, tbey brought the letter to the capital and handed it to Kubu. Takuaho at once declared it to be written in a cipher known to most of the younger generation of Tongans, and called the Kandi Teja cipher. He made a table thus—

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

and the letter then read—

162 78982
Kia Tofoa
810 6126 74 m2 127216 m2 892 162 9812 74 m2 m274
oku ikai   te ma kataki   ma ofa kia   Foka te ma mate

b4 810 m2 892 16274 16m807850 892 270
be oka ma ofa   kiate   kimoutolu   ofa atu

1820 2m454 m8 232
koau   amele mo ana.

Which being interpreted, ran—

To Tofoa.

We two cannot endure our love for Foka; we would rather die. We send our love to you all. Farewell.

Amele and Ana.

It was a suicide. The poor girls had stolen the canoe, and had paddled themselves out of sight of land, and then having scribbled their letter to their friend in cipher; they folded it, wrote the address on the back, and jumped overboard. I never heard what part Foka had played in the tragedy.

Persons intending suicide have also learned a lesson from the method of executions in Europe. Strangling with a cord of ngalu was common among the Polynesians of the olden time, but they seem never to have thought of hanging, and the idea at once struck them as picturesque. Moreover, a man cannot very well strangle himself without help. A pretence of hanging is much resorted to by people who imagine themselves to be misunderstood, or who wish to frighten their friends into making some concession, because a dramatic effect can be produced with the least possible personal inconvenience.

Yet whenever confederates can be found to help, the South Sea Islander appears to prefer strangling to hanging. In Fiji a few years ago, when Australia was ringing with the achievements of the Kelly gang of bushrangers, a trader in Vanualevn, with the aid of a Sydney newspaper, was entertaining a gaping circle of Fijians by trying to make their flesh creep. In the minds of two of his listeners, youth from the neighbouring village, the seed fell upon a rich soil. Why should they be condemned to this life of spiritless toil in subjection to their chiefs and the Government, compelled to drudge in the fields and the tax-plantations, while the free, glorious bush lay behind them? If these foreigners, who could not exist without tinned meats, could live in the bush, how much more they who only wanted a wild yam or kaile roasted on the embers of an open fire? They could rob all the foreigners’ stores, and with the plunder tempt the girls of the village to come and join them, and they would eat tinned meats and turkeys and fowls every day without having to pay for them or work to make money. They discreetly opened their project to one of their friends, but when he understood the full daring of the scheme he modestly withdrew, in words that were translated by the magistrate who afterwards held the inquest as, “Pardon me, but this thing is beyond my capacity.” So the three went out into the bush alone. During the first week they robbed two stores, and stabbed an elderly German in the back escaping after each exploit into the impenetrable bush. They succeeded in establishing a real panic, so that none dared to leave the village alone; and the native police nightly thanked providence that they had not stumbled across them. When the magistrate reached the place a week or two later with a force of police, he found that the outrages had ceased, and that nothing had been heard of the daring bushrangers for more than ten days. Weeks passed, and the confidence of the villagers was so far restored that they ventured armed into their gardens believing that the bushrangers had gone to another part of the island. At last an old man, whose garden lay far afield, was drawn by the evidences of corruption to look into his yam-shed. Two bodies were there, decayed almost beyond recognition. One had a masi cord tied tightly round the neck, with both the ends free; the other had been strangled by a cord tied by one end to the upright post. Further search led to the discovery of a third body hanging by the neck from a tree. It was the poor trio, who had also found bushranging beyond their capacity. They got lonely, and longed for companionship to prop their failing courage; and when they could bear it no longer, and they had to choose between giving themselves up or suicide, they chose death by their own hands rather than by the unknown terrors of the law or the foreigners. So A and B put a noose round C’s neck in the old style, and pulled at the ends till he was dead. Then B tied the end of his malo to the post, wound it round his neck,

Tutawi The Hermit.

and gave the end to A to pull. And when A was left alone with none to help him, he climbed the nearest tree, tied his neck to a branch, and died like a foreigner. Their deaths were better planned than their lives.

To return to Vavau, from which I have strayed many degrees of longitude. Our ride now lay through the wild rocks, buried in flowering creepers that in 1810 were the home of Tutawi the hermit. At the beginning of the disturbances that followed the revolution of 1799, this man, weary of the violence of men and the perfidy of women, left his home secretly to live a solitary life communing with Nature and the spirits of the hauted Liku. The great war and the siege of Feletoa had raged within a few miles of his hiding-place unheeded by him.

[#11] Basil Thomson, Diversions of a Prime Minister (Edinburgh, Blackwood, 1894).

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