LIFE AMONG CANNIBALS
The island trader landed Theo and his belongings at Village Tavio and took off. Theo’s initiation to the island and the people was not gradual. It was as sudden as a bolt of lightning and his sudden appearance came as a shock to the natives. Who was this white man who came from nowhere. They looked at him skeptically and with uncertainty. Theo knew not to hesitate, not to act bewildered. He remembered being told that every village has a center where there is certain to be a nakamal or clubhouse which served as a meeting point for men and a place where they drink kava. Sure enough Tavio had a nakamal. The village was not large and Theo found the nakamal with ease. Looking about he sat on the ground directly in front of the clubhouse. He began unwrapping his easel and paints. The islanders were completely puzzled now. Theo deliberately took his time and slowly set up his easel, He then took a canvas, one in which he had sketched a landscape, and placed it on the easel. Now everyone scrambled to see what it was but Theo didn’t linger long. He took out his palette and squeezed a dab of black and a touch of zinc white in the center. He took out a brush, felt the bristles with the fingers and then held the brush up to the sky and studied it for a minute, while all heads turned to the sky to see what he was looking at. An old man with a terribly wrinkled face had found a place to sit on the ground to the right of Theo. Theo immediately began to sketch him. Satisfied with the outline he then mixed reds and greens on the pallet and before long a painting began to take shape. The islanders looked on in amazement. They had never seen anything like it, the man with the magic brush. Theo soon won his place among the villagers. He was some sort of novelty. Now they all wanted to be painted. He painted until darkness fell and he could no longer see the canvas.
When darkness fell upon them, the men spread out mats upon the ground. A special mat was prepared for Theo and the headman joined him at his side. While this was going on firewood was stacked in a pile in the center of the yard ready to be lit. Then musicians appeared and Theo, who had always been fascinated with primitive music, took notice quickly. They brought out drums of various shapes and sizes, some which they beat like tom-toms with the palms of their open hands. Upon other drums they pounded out rhythms, if they could be called that, with sticks. There were men who made strange sounds on split gongs. Of all the instruments that fascinated Theo the most were idiophones made from bamboo and shaped like fans. These produced the weirdest sounds.
The headman ordered that the fire be lit, and soon the assembly was sparked by flickering, dancing shadows that mystified the surroundings even more.
Theo who should have been frightened sitting among these savages, perhaps cannibals, but he was beyond reproach. It was all too bewildering to him and he sat immobile, transfixed by his surroundings. To the right and to the left of him sat the men, naked men with painted bodies, some with deep self-inflicted scars, and with their penis gourds sticking upwards. They were the guardians, the warriors of the tribe.
Presently women appeared, they too naked, with breasts that hung down to their waists, and they carried large wooden bowls along with roots of some sort wrapped in banana leaves. They placed themselves on the ground, with the bowls between their legs. Once settled, they picked up the roots and began chewing them. Theo watched in awe, wondering what their next move would be.
When they had chewed the roots sufficiently, and saliva began to run from the sides of their mouths, they then spat out the contents into the bowls. This they continued doing, over and over, and when the bowls were half filled they stopped. Now other women appeared with gourds of water which they poured into the bowls. Theo now realized what they were doing. He heard about the drink when he was in Vila but they didn’t tell him how it was prepared. It was kava. The women were preparing kava for the men to drink. Kava and its magical power to tranquilize the body. He had been anxious to try it when he first heard about it; but he would do it only with caution. Now, with caution thrown to the wind, he didn’t have much of a choice.
Young maidens now appeared carrying half coconut shells which they hastily passed around to the men. This accomplished, the girls, taking the shells from the men, dipped them into the bowls and handed them back. The men had to drink, bottoms up, and then hold the shells upside down. Those standing around clapped their hands and cheered. Round followed round until bowls were empty.
Theo found the drink not altogether disagreeable and rather naively thought it had no effect. Wrong. His tongue became numb, and soon his lips felt like pieces of wood. His mind, however, remained dear and the drink did not disrupt his mental clarity.
The night dragged on. Theo began to feel drowsy. The headman nodded and two men helped Theo to his feet and led him to one of the huts that had been emptied for him. Mats were upon the ground and his belongings were inside the opening. A tapa doth draped over the opening served as the door. Theo was taken aback by their hospitality. Were these natives as savage as he heard they were? Could all the tales about cannibalism be fiction, made up stories, or merely rumors? He didn’t have to ponder the thought very long. As he was about to enter the hut, his eyes fell upon an open area. He stopped dead in his tracks. Heaped up in a pile on the earthen floor were bones. They were polished bones that shined, even in the dull light. At first glance the bones didn’t mean much, and then he noticed one was a human bone, a fibula. He recognized others. He couldn’t believe it. They were unmistakably human bones, dear signs of human butchery. The natives of Namuka were cannibals.
Theo lay on the mats for the longest of time, staring out through the opening. He watched figures silhouetted against the sky stroll listlessly about. Not one, it seemed, ever slept. What were they doing? Were they preparing a cooking fire? He tried to amuse himself by asking would they invite him to dinner, to dine with them or to be eaten. The voice of the wilderness beyond the village grew louder and more intense. Theo fought sleep, fearing, almost, that if he slept he might never awaken again. Finally, against his will, he fell fast asleep only to awaken with a sudden start. Someone was laying next him on the mat. It was a woman, for when he reached out to touch her he felt her breasts. They were small and firm, those of a young maiden and not like those of old women he saw earlier that day, women with their breasts that hung down to their waists.
Now he remembered. He had thought it odd when the headman had pointed to the young girls, as though asking him to make a choice. Uncertain what the headman meant, and not wanting to offend him, he could only smile. What else was he to do? Theo now realized what the headman had in mind. He sent a girl of his choice into the hut to spend the night with Theo.
An island custom. Theo did what he had to do. He couldn’t insult the headman.
When Theo awoke in the morning she was gone. He put on his clothes as quickly as he could and stepped out into the open. The whole village was waiting for him to appear. They were all smiling, even the youngest of them. He glanced about. Which one was the girl who had been with him in the night? He looked from one to the other, and each one in turn smiled back at him. He was unable to determine which one it had been.
For the next two days Theo was able to observe the villagers. They fed him baked taro roots and jungle fruit to eat. There was no meat in their diet. There were pigs, strange looking pigs with low-slung bellies that touched the ground when they walked. Through pidgin English he determined those pigs with rounded tusks were considered a symbol of wealth throughout the islands.
A woman’s worth, he discovered, was determined by the number of pigs a suitor was prepared to pay for her. A four-pig girl was quite valuable; a six-pig woman was extraordinary.
There was so much that Theo wanted to capture on canvas, something more than just paint portraits of their mutilated bodies. There were the expressions in their eyes, beady and red. Even the whites were red. Their bodies were covered with coarse skin, very much like the toughened soles of one’s feet who goes habitually barefoot. Their thighs, their flanks, their arms, all were as calloused and as tanned as animal hide. Their skin had never known creams or lotions. They mutilated their own bodies to make them, in their eyes, becoming. They lacked cleanliness. They lived on an island, surrounded by water, but they kept far away from the sea, away from evil demons of the deep. They went unwashed. They beautified their bodies with the ash from fires.
When Theo went down to the sea to wash the second day, they were aghast. They called the clothes he took off laleo-khal, “ghost-demon skin.” They believed his shirt and pants to be a magical epidermis that he could don or remove at will.
Their lack of meat as a food had some bearing on their cannibalism. Other than birds and lizards, the jungles provided no fur bearing animals, not another living creature. Nature, the Ice Age, had bypassed the Oriental jungles of Melanesia. The forests were lush in flora and growth but they lacked animal life. Man turned to eating fellow man for his protein. Theo felt at least partly secure; he heard that cannibals like dark meat over white.
The natives looked at Theo as some kind of oddity and he was free to roam about the island. He wandered from one village to another, from Manday to Burumba and back. The cultures he saw inland were still intact, but alas very primitive. What paintings the natives did make occupied a strictly functional position in their tribal rituals, adorning faces and bodies, shields, poles and skulls. Theo painted wildly and when he ran out of canvas he painted on burlap sacks that the natives used for harvesting dried copra. But all Theo’s work, all his labor, in the end proved to be folly. The natives didn’t mind having their portraits painted, but the paintings were not to be taken away. They belonged to the person painted. In their belief, a painting captured their souls making the paintings part of them. Theo, they believed, was painting them only to give them, in the end, their finished paintings. They looked upon him as a soothsayer, a kind of witch doctor. The dozens of paintings that Theo created were not his to keep. They belonged to those whom he had painted and not to him. When it came time for Theo to leave, and they saw him rolling up the canvas, they became agitated. It took only a moment for Theo to realize what was happening. They were at the brink of violence. For the first time since he arrived on the island he felt threatened. His life was suddenly in danger. Reluctantly he had to surrender his paintings to the people he had painted.
Dancing around Theo in tight circles, the half-crazed men in sweating bodies and bones in their noses lifted him to his feet, handed him his kit and easel and led him down to the ferry landing. Jeering and taunting him with wild gestures they shoved him aboard the ferry. The part-kanaka skipper knew there was no time to waste before the crowd turned violent and quickly threw the engine into reverse and backed away from the island. Theo lost no tears, not even for the loss of his paintings.
They were hardly a few dozen yards from the shore when Theo saw a huge fire spring to life in the center of the village. “Those are your paintings they are burning,” the skipper said. Then after a moment he added, “Better them than you.” Theo had to agree.
Theo sat amid ship, staring at the endless wall of heavy foliage along the shore, knowing now what the jungles hid. The launch moved all too slowly for his satisfaction; and as he looked upon the shore with its continuous sameness, it appeared they were not moving at all. The shore was moving. If he could only have saved a few paintings, hidden them away, he thought. But then he knew he was fortunate that he hadn’t tried. He laughed aloud at the thought. One can only be brave when it’s all over.
In Vila their ship to Sydney was waiting. At last, to Lucas’ delight, the two intrepid travellers were on their way, but Lucas’ delight didn’t last long. New Caledonia, the capital island of the Loyalties, was a port-of-call with a two days stopover. When Theo and Lucas went ashore, Lucas again became concerned. He knew what was going through Theo’s mind. Theo would want to stay and paint the people they saw. Nowhere could there be such a mixed population-European, Polynesians, Vietnamese, and, of course, the many Melanesians as well. There was no visible slave trade like they had witnessed in Vila but they heard that an underground black birding still existed. Workers were needed for the copra plantations in Samoa.
Theo was unhappy to find Noumea was a French Settlement with a colonial governor, very much like Papeete. James Cook was the first European on the scene when he sighted what the chart called the “Grande Terre” in 1774 and named it New Caledonia, after the Scottish highlands, which the Romans had called Caledonia. Then in the next hundred years the French settled in using the island first as a penal colony. Theo thought Amedee Lighthouse that they saw when they entered the port might make a good painting but it was on a barrier reef fifteen miles away and getting there was a problem. He gave up the idea and settled his disappointment by getting drunk in the bars along the waterfront.
After two days they sailed away. They impatiently awaited their arrival in Sydney where changes in the wind were certain.