LIFE AMONG CANNIBALS
Getting Bored, On to another Adventure
It was August 1933 and time came for Theo and Lucas to leave. “The sadness of our departure was offset by a sumptuous farewell feast provided by Mr. Wongue,” Theo wrote in his journal. “Before we left Tahiti, the banker gave us an introduction to his brother in Canton, since we had mentioned to him that our travels might take us to China.” Theo tucked the letter away in his valise never thinking he would use it. It was merely a polite gesture that he accepted the letter, knowing it would please the banker. Theo left with the farewell promise that if he visited China he would look up his brother.
Their goal now was Sydney, Australia, and from there it was touch and go. But now Theo came up with another idea. It was the wildest and most insane idea that he had ever had. He wanted to visit the cannibal islands of the New Hebrides. When Theo mentioned it to Lucas, Lucas concluded that all the hours that Theo had spent under a tropical sun was beginning to have an effect on him. “But you were fascinated too,” Theo said to him reminding him of the young French doctor, Dr. Pierre Bollard, they had met in the Marquesas.
“Yes, I was fascinated with his tales about savage islands but I don’t need to live those tales,” Lucas said. “I read Dante’s Inferno but that doesn’t mean I want to experience burning in hell.”
Both Theo and Lucas had met the doctor on an inner inland ferry and became fascinated with his stories about the New Hebrides. It wasn’t a long sea journey, only a few hours, but it was long enough to keep them both spellbound. The doctor was returning to his government post after a three-month’s home leave in France. With him was his young bride, going to a place she knew little about, a land she feared with much trepidation. She seemed more terrified with what Dr. Bollard had to say, horror stories which he found amusing. Nevertheless, Dr. Bollard did explain quite well how the island operated. He told how both the British and French had colonized the New Hebrides, or attempted to colonize it, in the late 18th century shortly after Captain James Cook visited the islands. Theo detested the word colonizing. To him it meant taking away from those whose complexion was of a different color. But he listened with keen interest, keeping his thoughts below. Now it was two countries, Britain and France, battling over a blank spot on a map, refusing to relinquish authority to the other, the two governments eventually signing an agreement making the islands a muddled up Anglo-French condominium. “There are two of everything,” the doctor bragged. “Two flags, two languages, two schools. Two police forces, two monies, two legal systems and even two prisons.” Theo found it all amusing but that wasn’t really what fascinated him. He listened to the doctor’s tales about earthquakes, almost weekly affairs, and volcanic eruptions that shake the islands constantly, and that occurred without notice. But there was something else that set Theo’s imagination on fire. “In the jungles live the black savages,” the doctor said. “They are rated as the most fearsome and ferocious cannibals known to man. They are more than willing to dine on stray or shipwrecked sailors who land on their shores. Trespassers who manage to escape the malaria, the dysentery and the fever might well end up in their cooking fires. And would you believe”-he threw up his hands over his head, with a look of revulsion from his wife-“right in the center of Vila is a slave market.” Theo fell silent but an idea began to simmer in his mind: if he could paint these savages he would have what no other artist ever had. He began to make plans, plans that he kept to himself, plans he couldn’t shake off, and when the Japanese tramp steamer, Maru Java, tied up at the quay in Papeete, with the notice that its next port-of-call was Port Vila in the New Hebrides, Theo let his plan be known.
“You want to what!” Lucas shouted.
“I am not asking you to experience Dante’s Inferno,” Theo said, laughing loudly.
“Then what are you doing?” he asked with disdain.
“Look, we don’t have to remain if we don’t like it,” Theo calmly said in an empty attempt to assuage Lucas and his newfound fear-about living with cannibals. Lucas concluded that there was no doubt Theo had snapped. “Look at it this way. Port Vila connects with Sydney,” Theo continued, and then he added, “Think of your studies. You will knock them right out at the academy in Basel.”
Lucas finally agreed. They didn’t have much of a choice, anyway. There wasn’t another ship due for a month.
Theo and Lucas said good-bye to the banker and their friends and shipped out aboard the tramp steamer bound for Port Vila. Hardly had they been out of port than they begin to wonder if they had not made a mistake. The steamer was a derelict of a ship if there ever was one; rusted and badly in need of paint, it should have been consigned to a wrecker’s hammer many a voyage before. She chugged along at a painfully slow speed, five to eight knots, depending on the current. The heat below deck, with the sun beating down unrelentingly on steel decks, was as hot as the inside of an oven. Passengers and crew had to either endure the crushing heat below deck or suffer the belching black smoke topside that rose from the single smoke stack amidships.
The ship’s cook, in his soiled apron and with a face sweltering in sweat, was no cordon bleu chef There was no smoked wild goose and Bouchee Forestier; no braised leg of lamb. Robespierre or pheasant en casserole. Theo dared not even think of the food back in Basel. He was tempted to take over the cooking but when he entered the galley he became so nauseated it was all he could do to make it topside and reach the rail before throwing up. Theo and Lucas were able to endure with the help of two bottles of Tahitian rum their friends in Papeete had given them. The rum gave out after a few days but they survived and two weeks after leaving Papeete they steamed into the harbor at Port Vila. In his journal Theo wrote that their arrival was like reading the opening pages of a Joseph Conrad novel.
The doctor they had met a few months earlier on the Marquesas ferry had not lied. Here was Melanesia, so unlike Polynesia, so completely opposite. Indeed, this was the untamed New Hebrides. The gazetteer may have listed them- Espiritu Santo, Malakula, Efate, Erromango, Ambrym, Tanna, Pentecost, Epi, Ambae, Vanua Lava, Gaua, Maewo, Malo and Anatom-but on the chart they were so small they were merely dots marked with names only. The harbor was what the doctor described, a port replete with gambling halls, opium dens and, yes, even a thriving slave market. The port was pulsating with drama. Theo loved it the moment he stepped ashore. This was what he set out to see, the reason he wanted to travel. But even this was beyond his belief, beyond his wildest thoughts. The two travellers, clinging tightly to their bags, and Theo with his easel over his shoulder and a roll of canvases under one arm, entered the city. They stopped dead in their tracks to see the slave market in business. “I can’t believe it!” Lucas cried. Ahead of them on a raised platform, men, women, children-human beings all, stripped down to their naked flesh and bound in chains-were being offered for sale. Theo immediately scrambled for his sketchpad but when the mob saw what he intended to do, they threatened him with clenched fists and angry looks. He tucked his pad away and with Lucas pulling at his arm they departed, daring not even to look back.
At the government hospital in the French quarter they found Dr. Bollard who was delighted to see them. They detected immediately he was not the same exuberant, happy-go-lucky man, filled with promise, they had met before. He had lost his enthusiasm. Theo surmised what it was, and he was right. At first the doctor was reluctant to say what was troubling him, but finally, after a bit of probing, he admitted what had gone wrong-his wife had left him, gone back to France. She had left after only one month in the colony. She couldn’t stand the heat, the disease and the lot of the natives. She found it all too detestable.
It didn’t take a psychologist to understand what her reason was for leaving. All one had to do was look around the hospital waiting room. Medicine could do little for the mob of people bunched together in the stuffy airless room that reeked with the odors of human depravation. They sat in corners and lay upon a hard concrete floor; they hung out in doorways and peered in the windows; they coughed and they spat and vomited and they moaned mournfully. They looked upon the white man in his white rob to be their savior. It was abhorrent and depressing. By western standards they weren’t very handsome people, especially when they opened their mouth to speak. Their teeth, their gums, even their tongues, were stained from beetle nut they chewed constantly.
They came to the hospital suffering from every sort of tropical malady known to man. Some with yaws and others with scabies and skin ulcers. Others with swollen legs from elephantiasis. They were plagued with all kinds of dreadful infectious diseases. Some patients were too grotesque to look upon, like those with elephantiasis. Theo had seen the effect of elephantiasis before in Polynesia. There was hardly a house on any of the islands that didn’t have a member of the family sequestered in a back room. They were hopeless cases, so sad. Some of the men with scrotums so large they had to carry them around in wheel barrels. No medicine could save them.
Surprisingly, Theo was not that appalled by what he saw, but he was sympathetic to their suffering. He took a keen interest in their sicknesses, the causes and the cures, and he felt like a frustrated doctor. At one time, when he was young, he thought about becoming a doctor, and now he wished he had. He enjoyed discussing medicine with Dr. Ballard who suggested that rather than check into a hotel in town he and Lucas stay in the hospital. He had special quarters for such occasions. He had himself, in fact, given up his house when his wife left him and moved into the hospital. Theo and Lucas found their new quarters both comfortable and commodious but they didn’t have the option to remain very long. The hospital sleeping quarters burned down three days after they moved in. A kerosene lamp had been filled by a kanaka and not with kerosene but with gasoline. It exploded when it was lit. The flames leaped up and devoured the wooden building in one roaring blaze, an instant it seemed, and only embers remained. Theo, Lucas and Dr. Ballard were fortunate they were at the hospital when the fire broke out and the kanakas were able save most of their possessions, Theo’s roll of paintings too. Theo thought hard about losing his canvasses and made up his mind he would ship them all back home once he reached Sydney.
The French governor, Paul Cruyal, seeing the predicament Theo and Lucas were in, invited them to stay with him and his wife in their villa. The governor, like the British governor, the judges and ranking government officials of the condominium administration, lived in lofty villas far above the harbor. They were grand villas, as grand if not superior to those you might find in southern France along the Riviera.
On the governor’s wind-up victrola Lucas whiled away the afternoons playing the governor’s huge collection of records with everything from Handel to Stravinsky. Theo in the meantime picked up a smattering of pidgin English from the “box speaky no fiti-fiti.” But Theo was becoming restless. The villa reminded him very much of Papeete with it colonial government bureaucracy and mentality. The French, however, were more liberal than the British and certainly more than the Dutch.
But still, the whites in New Hebrides lived their lives in strict segregation from the native population. Even those of mixed blood were isolated from the others, which disturbed Theo greatly. After a few weeks at the governor’s villa, and since there wouldn’t be another ship to Sydney in months, Theo decided to visit some of the other islands.
The French governor was not pleased when Theo announced he wanted to travel to the outer islands. “They are savage islands; you will be eaten,” the governor ranted. Theo merely smiled and joked he would be careful if he were invited to dinner. Would he be invited to dine or to be dined upon? The governor didn’t think his remark was very humorous bur there was little he could do to stop Theo. He had Theo sign an agreement stating the government was not responsible and that he would be traveling at his own risk. Theo signed the paper.
Theo had been helping Dr. Ballard at the hospital and he regretted telling him he would be leaving for a while. The doctor gave him medicine that he might need and wished him well. Lucas was contented remaining behind at the villa with the governor’s victrola. They had three months before the next ship was scheduled to sail to Sydney.
Theo was thrilled. He packed a medicine kit provided by the doctor and bundled up his easel and paints. At the waterfront he found an inter-island ferry that sailed to Namuka the next day.
When the governor heard of Theo’s destination he admonished him against the evil of the island. “You couldn’t have made a worse choice,” he said. “They ate the last Protestant missionary who attempted to settle there.” The governor related how nearly all the island populations suffered at the hands of infamous blackbirders, who captured the natives for work on the Australian and Fijian sugar plantations, but they stayed clear of Namuka due to the savagery of the natives. Theo laughed. “They were Protestants, you say. I’m not Protestant,” he said and sailed early the next morning.