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DANGERS IN FISHING.
The men engaged in the beche-de-mer fisheries find that those hideous gelatinous slugs which appear so very helpless, are also capable of inflicting severe pain. They resemble great sausages of dark-coloured india-rubber, black, grey, red, or greenish, inflated with sea-water. When touched, they eject this water with some violence, and if it falls on any wound or scratch it produces dangerous and agonising inflammation. The smallest drop squirted into the eye causes intolerable burning pain; and many of the tripang-fishers have their sight seriously injured from this cause.
But more noxious by far is the olive-green variety, which is commonly called the leopard, from being marked with orangecoloured spots. When this creature is touched it throws up glutinous filaments like darning-cotton, which not only adhere tenaciously to whatever they touch, but if they come in contact with the human skin, they instantly raise a painful burning blister and cause serious inflammation. Such being the case, it would appear discreet to leave these ugly creatures unmolested; but as they are accounted a great delicacy in China, and fetch from £80 to £100 per ton, the risk is considered worth incurring.
Another serious danger of the reef arises from the various voracious sea-eels, which coil themselves up in the interstices of the coral and dart out to seize any prey which comes within reach. I was severely bitten myself one day while incautiously feeling for small fish; but many natives have thus been maimed for life, the loss of a few fingers being a comparative trifle. I heard of one man in the Paumotu Isles who had the whole calf of his leg bitten off by a vaaroa, or long-mouthed eel, a reptile which attains a length of eight feet or more, and roams about the reef seeking what it may devour. It was formerly an object of worship, in common with the conger-eel; and bloody vengeance has on more than one occasion been taken by the heathen on such of their Christian neighbours as have presumed to eat this incarnate god.
About fifteen years ago, a party of about eighty persons reached Samoa, after drifting over the wide seas for several weeks. They had been driven away from the isle of Fakaofa, where several of their number had been killed in consequence of having eaten congereels, which the people of that isle held in reverence. Another fishdeity was the octopus, which in heathen days it would have been sacrilege to eat, but which is now recognised as excellent food. I have never tasted one myself, but I am told that, though it looks so gelatinous, it really is tough and unpalatable.
The girls catch delicate young cuttle-fish in the shallows on the reef; but sometimes the tables are turned and they are themselves caught by overgrown monsters, which lie concealed in deep holes in the coral, and throw out long arms covered with suckers, with which they grasp whatever lies within reach and drag it inward. Some of these measure fully six feet across the arms, from tip to tip; and many horrible stories are current among the fishers of their adventures with these hideous devil-fish. So fully do they recognise the possibility of danger, that they rarely go out alone to dive for these, or for clam-shells.
The latter have been known to close suddenly, and hold the invader prisoner till he or she was drowned; and the octopii have an unpleasant knack of throwing their arms so as to enfold an enemy, who vainly struggles to extricate himself from their hateful clasp: his arms are held powerless, and sometimes the hideous creature wraps itself round his head, so that death is inevitable unless haply his comrade comes to the rescue.
These fishers know the value of pouring oil on the waters as ivell as the poachers on our own Scottish rivers, or the oysterfishers at Gibraltar and the Mediterranean generally, so they invariably carry in their canoes a measure of cocoa-nut oil . By sprinkling a few drops on the surface of the water, it becomes so perfectly smooth that they can see Tight down through its crystal depths, and detect the exact position of the creatures below. So, when a diver remains under water longer than usual, his friend in the canoe thus clears the surface, and, peering into the depths, ascertains what is going on, and, if need be, dives to the rescue.
Of course these are not the only dangers encountered by the fishers. There is the the ever-abiding dread of sharks, especially the awful white shark, which grows to about thirty feet in length, and is so fearless that it is frequently known to attack canoes and
drag its victims into the water, either by seizing some carelessly outstretched limb or by overturning the canoe. It is a hideous animal, with gigantic mouth and with broad serrated teeth. I saw an enormous Specimen hanging from the bows of a vessel which was lying at anchor in the harbour.
Even the small lagoon shark is not a pleasant fellow-swimmer, though it rarely exceeds six feet in length. It ventures into very shallow water, but makes its home in caves in the coral, in company with its kinsman. In all these isles it is considered good food; and in many of the groups (notably the New Hebrides and the Ilervey Isles) the bold fishermen actually dive into the sharkcaverns, contrive to pass a slip-knot round the tail of one of the sleepers, and instantly rise to the surface, when their companions haul the ugly monster, tail first, into the canoe, hitting him on the head with all possible speed. You can quite understand that this sort of fishing is by no means child's-play. Sometimes, when a diver has entered a cave, a shark will move so as to prevent his exit, and then his only chance of ever returning to the surface lies in the skill with which he can tickle or stroke the monster, so as to induce it to move aside. Of course he only dares to do this if the creature's tail is towards him Should it have turned the other way, his fate is almost inevitably sealed, as the slightest movement on his part would reveal his presence and consign him to the shark's maw; and on the other hand, though he is himself wellnigh amphibious, a delay of a few seconds must cost his life.
One of the most unpleasant inmates of these waters is the stingaree or sting-ray, which is a large flat fish, the spine of which is prolonged to a sharp, barbed point, serrated on both sides. The swimmer who unluckily comes in contact with this weapon receives a dangerous wound, as the point probably breaks into his flesh, and works its way inward with every breath he draws.
Even the globe-fish is an uncomfortable neighbour. It is the hedgehog of the sea, covered with sharp horny spikes. It possesses the curious faculty of filling itself with air till it becomes a perfect ball, of the consistency of oiled parchment. Verily, those denizens of the deep are strange!
This morning, after a pleasant breakfast with Mrs Brander, M. Vernier called for me in his pony-phaeton, and we drove to visit Queen Pomare's tomb, or rather the house in which the royal dead of Tahiti are laid, and left for a while, till only bones and dust remain. Then a specially appointed official goes at dead of night and secretly carries the remains to some place—probably a cave in the mountains — where they are safely buried; only a very few trusted old adherents being allowed to know where they are laid. The mausoleum is a hideous little house, standing on a bare grass lawn by the sea. Till recently it was surrounded by a fine old grove of sacred casuarina-trees; but one unlucky day Ariiaue was short of money (cruel report says of brandy !), and he actually sold the venerated trees to some Goth, who cut them for common timber.
I fancy that the jealous mystery which enshrouds the final burial of royal bones may be traced to lingering traditions of witchcraft, or some kindred superstition connected with the ancient system of taboo, which prevailed throughout Polynesia, and entailed divers diseases, and even death, on those who rashly tampered with things belonging to high chiefs. The other day a man walked past this door carrying a bunch of roses. Mrs Green was going to take one, when a half-caste Tahitian cried out, " Oh, take care! they were
gathered in the garden of ," naming some one related to the
royal family. I then learnt that to take anything belonging to royalty, or to wear a garment that has been worn by any of them, or even to lie on their bed, or rest the head on their pillow, is supposed to produce king's evil. So implicit is this belief among the older generation, that Queen Pomare always made up bundles of her old clothes and sent them to sea to be sunk outside the reef.
The cure for any person supposed to have incurred danger in this manner savours of the celebrated prescription in hydrophobia, "Swallow a hair of the dog that bit you." The old queen was greatly attached to one of Mrs Green's little boys, whom, after the curious fashion of this country, she called her adopted son, giving
him a Tahitian name, by which alone he was known to the natives. One day, after the boy had been much with the queen, a suspiciouslooking spot broke out on his cheek, and the native attendants begged Mrs Green to go at once to the queen and ask her to take the child into bed with her, and cover him up, which would avert all danger.i
This afternoon, for the first time since I landed, I have seen a centipede—not one, but many, which were lying quietly hidden beneath a mass of decaying fronds of the cocoa-palm. We put one in a bottle; but though a large specimen for the Pacific, it is barely six inches in length. These isles of the blest enjoy a perfect immunity from all venomous creatures, with this one exception; and it is a very innocent creature compared with the centipedes of other lands, especially of Africa and South America, Unfortunately the latter have lately been carried by foreign ships to some of the Leeward Isles, and in the same manner scorpions have been brought to Tahiti—a very unfortunate introduction. The centipedes, small as they are, can give an agonising bite, which, however, is not actually dangerous to human beings. They are chiefly fatal to poultry, especially turkeys, which swallow them in mistake for worms, and invariably die soon afterwards.
i Let not the nations of the West sneer at these superstitions of the East. Faith in the efficacy of the king's touch as a cure for scrofula was implicit both in France and England for many a long year. So early as A.d. 481 it was practised by Clovis. And it is recorded that on Easter Day, 1686, Louis XIV. touched 1600 persons, saying to each, "Le roy te touche, Dieu te guerisse!" This singular divine right was first claimed in England by Edward the Confessor in 1058, and his successors carried it on. Charles I. did, on St John's Day, 1633, visit Holyrood Chapel, where "he heallit 100 persons, young and old, of the crnelles or king's evil." Charles II. actually touched 92,107 such patients—being an average of 12 per diem for twenty years. His exchequer must have suffered by this kingly privilege, as he presented a broad gold piece to each sufferer. The touch of Queen Elizabeth was declared "a sure relief when all other methods have failed." Henry VIII., not content with miraculously curing all scrofula patients, also healed those afflicted with cruel cramps. Dr Johnson speaks of his earliest recollections of Queen Anne, into whose awful presence he had been ushered in his infancy, that by her royal touch she might cure him of his sore disease I The office appointed by the Church to be said on these occasions was actually retained in the English liturgy till 1719, when it was omitted by command of George L But so late as 1745 many of the Jacobite party came secretly to Charles Edward, to crave his healing touch. See 'From the Hebrides to the Himalayas' (C. F. Gordon Cumming), vol. i. p. 264.