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These the priests deposited inside the hollow idols, distributing among the worshippers those which had lain there since the previous year, thereby imbibing such essence of sanctity as to convey the very presence of the god wherever they were carried.
Not that these were the only visible symbols of the gods. Some appeared to their worshippers in the form of sharks; others, less terrible, took the form of divers birds. Hence, as I described to you in one of my letters from Samoa, so here in Tahiti and Moorea, the herons, king-fishers, and woodpeckers which frequented the old trees round the temples, were reverenced as incarnations of the deities, and their cries were interpreted as oracles.
So strong was the hold of these superstitions, that for several years the mission seemed to make little or no progress beyond the establishment of gardens in which various imported fruits and vegetables were successfully raised, and the people were taught to cultivate them systematically for their own use. Orange-trees, limes, shaddocks, citrons, tamarinds, guavas, custard-apples, peaches, figs and vines, pine-apples and water-melons, pumpkins and cucumbers, cabbages and other vegetables, were thus first introduced to the island, where they are now so thoroughly acclimatised.
But in an evil hour a great intertribal war broke out for the bodily possession of Oro, the national idol, and this first civilising influence was swept away—the mission premises were laid waste, the garden entirely destroyed, and the work of twelve years scattered to the winds.
King Pomare, Otu his son, and all the chiefs and warriors of the isle, had assembled at the great marae at Atehuru, where many fatted pigs were offered on the altar, while the surrounding trees were adorned with the ghastly corpses of human victims, all of whom had been sacrificed to Oro. The ark containing the symbolic feather was then placed on the sacred canoe belonging to the royal fleet .
But on the following day Otu pretended to have had a revelation that the idol itself wished to be removed to Tautira; and on the chiefs of Atehuru refusing to allow this, his followers rushed to the temple, seized the idol, carried it off to the sea, and immediately set sail . As soon as they reached land a human sacrifice was
ordered, lest Oro should resent this very cavalier treatment; and as no captive was at hand, one of the king's own servants was slain, and offered as an atonement. Of course the despoiled chiefs flew to arms, and prepared to revenge themselves, and recapture their god. About 300 warriors came from the isle of Eimeo, now called Moorea, to the aid of the king, and bloody battles were fought, in which the chiefs' army was almost invariably successful.
There does not appear to have been any trace of cannibalism on either side, but the bodies of the slain were offered in sacrifice to Oro by the victors; while, on the other hand, the king's party did not cease offering human sacrifices, and propitiating the idol by every means in their power. It was recaptured by the chiefs of Atehuru, who, however, with singular religious chivalry, allowed the king to land and deposit his offerings near the temple, though they naturally would not admit him within its precincts.
Happily for the mission party, it so happened that just at this crisis a trading vessel came into harbour and landed some men; and about the same time another small vessel was driven ashore, with a crew of seventeen Englishmen. Thus they mustered a force of twenty-three Europeans, who no? only put the mission-house into a state of defence, but lending their aid to the king, rendered him material aid—a service which they must have regretted on seeing that all prisoners of war were immediately put to death, and their bodies savagely mutilated. Finally, the chiefs agreed to resign the custody of the idol to the king; and so, for a while, ended one of the many bloody struggles by which the various nations of the earth have drained their heart's blood for the possession of some bit of so-called sacred wood or bone.
Thenceforward the young King Otu carried the precious god with him, whenever he sailed from one isle to another; and the sacred canoe on which its ark was borne, was always deposited at some marae shaded by sombre trees, from whose boughs human victims offered sacrificially were immediately suspended.
While such scenes as these were the incidents of daily life, the mission party had hardships enough to contend with. Five whole years elapsed without either letters or supplies reaching them from England. Their ciothes were worn out, boots or shoes were wellnigh forgotten superfluities; tea and sugar were among the luxuries of the past. At last a small vessel arrived, specially chartered to bring the letters and supplies which had for so long been accumulating at Port Jackson. Imagine the rapture of seeing that little vessel arrive; and then the dismay of discovering that almost everything she had brought was either useless Irom having lain so long at Port Jackson, or saturated with salt water owing to the wretched condition of the ship. You who live in luxury at home, with everything of the best, and plenty of it, and with so many daily posts as to be a positive nuisance, cannot possibly realise the weariness of that long waiting, or the depth of that disappointment.
Nor was there anything cheering in daily life. The mission work seemed to make no progress at all; the people openly mocked the white men, and despised their teaching.
In 1808 war broke out again more savagely than before. The altars of Oro reeked with human blood; villages were burnt, plantations destroyed, and the whole country reduced to desolation and ruin. The mission settlement was ransacked, the houses burnt, the books distributed among the warriors to be used as cartridge-paper, the printing-types melted to make musket-balls, and every implement of iron found on the place was converted into a destructive weapon. The gardens were again demolished, and the students, finding the din of war more congenial than the arts of peace, joined their brethren in arms.
Finally, feeling that their lives were in imminent danger, and that there was apparently nothing to be gained by remaining, the mission party resolved to abandon Tahiti; and taking advantage of a vessel which happily arrived in harbour, they embarked for Port Jackson, two only, Mr Hayward and Mr Nott, resolving to remain at their several posts and face the worst—the former at Huahine, the latter at Eimeo, to which King Pomare had fled from his enemies. Various attempts were made on their lives, happily without fatal result; and they continued to work as best they could till the year 1812, when, at the invitation of King
Pomare, those who had been driven away from Tahiti returned, and made a fresh effort to establish the mission on Eimeo.
They were cordially welcomed by the king, and by a small number of chiefs, who, by Pomare's words and example, had been brought to look with contempt on their idols, and to incline towards the new faith; and though greatly distracted by intertribal wars, this little company resolved to build a substantial house which should be set apart for the worship of the true God. Thus in the summer of 1813 was the first Christian church in the group erected in Papetoai, the very place whence I now write.
Thirty persons came forward to make public profession of their faith, desiring to have their names enrolled as having rejected idolworship. Among those who did so was Patii, the high priest of the district, who came to Mr Nott, and announced his intention of publicly burning all the idols in his care. It was a promise heard with thankfulness not unmingled with dread, for there was every probability that such an act would lead to wild excitement among the heathen, and might possibly result in a massacre of the Christians. However, Patii had made up his mind, and at the appointed hour he and his friends collected a heap of fuel on the seashore, near the huge marae where he had so often offered human sacrifices to these dumb idols, which he now brought forth, and tearing off the sacred cloth in which they had hitherto been draped, he exhibited them in their hideous nakedness, to the vast multitudes who had hitherto assembled at his bidding to do them homage, and who had now come to witness this act of impious sacrilege.
Some of these ugly little gods were rudely carved human figures, and some had tiny figures carved in relief all over one large image; others were shapeless logs of wood, covered with finely braided cocoa-nut fibre and scarlet feathers; while some were angular columns of basalt, quite rough, just as they had been found. One by one were these once dreaded idols cast into the flames by their former priest, who called on the people to behold their helplessness, and bewailed his own folly in having hitherto worshipped such monstrous objects.
Whatever may have been the feelings of the spectators, the dreaded tumult was averted, and the people dispersed quietly; indeed the example thus given was followed by many, both on Eimeo (it is now called Moorea) and also on Tahiti, to which two members of the mission—Messrs Scott and Hayward—now again ventured to cross. Great was their joy when they found that several of the natives had renounced idolatry and were earnest worshippers of Christ, having been awakened by some words of King Pomare to an exceeding longing for a better faith and purer life than that of their fathers. Glimmerings of light had also found their way to the Paumotu and other neighbouring isles, and by the close of 1814 there was reason to believe that a total of nearly 600 persons had renounced idol-worship and were feeling their way towards the Light.
Naturally, such a movement was not viewed with satisfaction by the great mass of the people. Everywhere the Christians were persecuted by their heathen neighbours, who burnt their houses, destroyed their gardens, spoiled their goods, and even hunted them down, that they might offer them in sacrifice to the insulted gods. At all times it was customary to tell off certain families or tribes, from which the appointed victim-hunters were to select fit subjects for sacrifice; and so numerous were those thus eligible, that on some isles about one-third of the population lived in terror for their lives, not knowing at what moment their doom might be sealed. In many cases whole families forsook their homes secretly, and started in their frail canoe to seek a new home on some unknown isle, preferring to risk the dangers of the sea, and the chance of being eaten by strangers, to the certainty that sooner or later their turn must come to be offered in sacrifice to their cruel gods.
How this terrible doom first came to be attached to any family I cannot say, but, once decided, there was no escape. From generation to generation the black shadow hung, like the sword of Damocles, over each member, from the grey grandfather to the mere stripling. As he went about his daily work, chatting with his most trusted neighbours, one of the latter might open his hand and reveal the small sacred stone which was his death-warrant.