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PROTECTION OF NUT-CHOP. 357
be on the isle of Kaukura, which seems to have been the centre of the cyclone, and consequently suffered most. He had passed this island a few days previously in the Marion, but the sea had been too heavy to allow of so large a vessel venturing to approach. Business compelling him to return, he did so in the May, a smaller craft . Both vessels belong to Mrs Brander, and are named after her daughters.
Like the generality of the Paumotus, Kaukura consists of a circular group of low flat islets, either detached or connected by a reef, thus forming an atoll enclosing a calm sea-lagoon; the whole being protected from the outer ocean by an encircling reef. An existence more calm and peaceful than that of the dwellers in these coral-girt isles can scarcely be conceived; and a storm such as that which has devastated the group, is of such rare occurrence as to be little dreaded in the chances of daily life. Eighty years are said to have elapsed since the last hurricane occurred in these latitudes. Considering that many of these islets are not three feet above the water-level,—that ten feet is considered high ground, and fifteen is about the maximum elevation,—you can understand how appalling is the danger caused by any eccentricity of tide.
As cocoa-nuts are the chief produce of the group, and indeed the sole property of many families, it is customary to protect the interests of each member of the community from all danger of poaching on the part of his neighbour, by laying a taboo on the whole crop until a given day. I suppose I need scarcely tell you what is meant by this ceremony, which, under slightly varied names (tabu in New Zealand, tambu in Fiji, tapu in Samoa, and kapu in Hawaii), is common throughout the Pacific, and implies that something has been reserved or rendered sacred by order of the chief. In olden days the multitudinous forms of taboo were to all these islanders a heavy burden, weighing grievously upon them in every phase of life; and the infringement of the most arbitrary rule thus imposed was generally punished by death. Even now a formerly declared taboo carries such weight, and appeals so forcibly to the superstitions of the people, that it is almost invariably respected.
Thus in the matter of the cocoa-nut crop not a nut from the reserved plantations can be touched, till, on the removal of the prohibition, all the proprietors and their families, together with all interested in the purchase of the nuts, or in securing payment of debts previously contracted, assemble at the Raliui, as it is called, and there build for themselves frail booths of palm-leaves—a sorry shelter at the best.
In such a leaf-village, on one of the detached islets, all the inhabitants of Kaukura had assembled, together with a number of traders from other places, in all numbering nearly 200 persons, when they were overtaken by the awful hurricane of the 6th February. For some hours previously the greatest anxiety had prevailed. A strong easterly breeze had for three consecutive days lashed the waters of the lagoon into fury, then gradually veered round to the west with ever increasing force. The outer ocean, now rising in tumultuous waves, swept in from the westward; and, sweeping right over the barrier-reef with a roar like thunder, broke on the shore with a force unequalled in the memory of any islander now living. Thus the usually calm lagoon within the coral ring, and the annular lagoon on its outer edge, were alike lashed to tempestuous billows, dashing with awful force on either side of the low islet; while the water from below was actually forced up through the coral foundation, till the light sandy soil was so thoroughly saturated as to have become a mere quicksand.
With danger alike imminent on land and sea, it was a difficult question which to face. The ground was apparently about to be wholly submerged, and the alarm was such that 118 persons, including one European (George Herder, agent for a large German mercantile house), decided to take refuge in their boats. All these, with the exception of one man, a native of Anaa, perished.
The others, including Mr Macgee and a few other Europeans, fled to the highest part of the land, which was about fifteen feet above the ordinary water-level. The ground is there strewn with large rocks and stumps of palm-trees. To these they clung all through the long dreary night, while the waves from both lake and sea met and dashed right over them in cataracts of foam.
Throughout the long hours of darkness they battled with the HURRICANE IN THE PAUMOTUS. 359
raging waters. Again and again they were dashed from the rocks or stumps to which they clung, and endured a moment of bewildering horror, while carried at the mercy of the swirling waters, till happily .some other object presented itself at which to clutch. Further, they were in imminent danger from sharks, which, as they well knew, might attack them at any moment,—a consciousness which formed a horrible item in that night of dread. Mingling with the roar of the waters and the shrieking of the hurricane, came the crash of falling palms, uprooted, twisted, or snapped by the fury of the gale.
When morning broke, the tempest abated; the waters receded to their accustomed bounds, leaving the island a complete wreck, and its shores strewn with the bodies of the dead.
After a few days, a boat arrived in search of Mr Macgee, despatched from the island of Apataki, where he had left the Marion. He found her high and dry on the beach, but otherwise not seriously injured. Of the little May he had himself caught a last glimpse as a huge wave lifted her up and carried her right over the wharf, to disappear in the turmoil of seething waters beyond. Many other small craft have been wrecked. Amongst others the Hornet, a 42-ton schooner; the Nerine, 28-ton; and a great number of boats, which were washed out of the lagoon and carried out to sea.
The isles of Xiau, Anaa, and Rangiroa, i.e., long cloud, seem to have suffered the most severely. On the latter almost every house has been destroyed, one hideous detail being that the cemeteries have literally been washed away, and the bodies, bones, and skulls lie strewn over the isle, mingled with the corpses of the drowned, to the gratification of such hungry pigs as have survived the deluge, and who quickly scented out the loathsome festival . Among the bodies which shared this horrible fate, was recognised that of a chief, who had been buried a few days previously.
Nor was this the only isle where the sea disturbed the restingplaces of the dead. Mr Boosey told me that on his returning to the miserable wreck of what had been his home at Anaa, he therein found two skulls, which the waves had sportively deposited as grim ornaments for his dining-room. Anaa was the principal settlement in the Paumotu group. The storm did not actually break there till the 7th February, though for some hours previously the barometer had been falling steadily, marking a descent from 30.10 on the morning of the 6th to 29.24 on the afternoon of the 7 th.
This so alarmed Mr Boosey that he proceeded to move some of his goods to a large native house built on the highest point of the island, which, however, did not exceed twenty-five feet above the sea-level . His neighbours, like those of Noah of old, somewhat derided his precautions; but even he had saved comparatively little, when the sea came pouring in over the reef in mighty waves, which swept all before them, almost entirely covering the island. When, on the morning of the 8th, the waters receded, a mass of broken timbers and rubbish alone remained to mark where, but a few short hours previously, had stood about 150 buildings of one sort or another. All the boats were destroyed, and the whole land strewn with fallen palms, lying tossed about at every conceivable angle. The destruction of cocoa-palms throughout the group is reckoned at two millions; and as these are the chief wealth, indeed the principal means of subsistence, of the people, and as it takes about eight years for a young palm to attain maturity, you can in a measure realise the loss thus represented, and the time that must elapse ere the poor Paumotus recover from the effects of this terrible storm. The Segond reports that the sea for many miles around the group is so encumbered with wreckage of every sort, as seriously to endanger navigation.
Pafeete, February 26tt.
The chief interest of daily life is watching for vessels. The mail from San Francisco is late, and of the long-looked-for ship from the Sandwich Isles nothing further has been heard. Both ships belong to Mrs Brander. The former—the Paloma—is called after her little daughter; the latter—the Maramma—bears one of her own names. A hundred times a-day we look up to the semaphore to see whether the signals reveal any hint of the returning TAHITI WHEN AT REST. 361
wanderers, but no cheering sign appears. It is very trying for my kind dear hostess, who has so much at stake, and whose eldest son Aleck is expected to return from Honolulu in the missing cattleship.
Otherwise life is running on in strangely even tenor, and I begin to realise that in the South Seas, as in other places, delirious gaiety is only an occasional accident, and even music is only practised by fits and starts. Certainly it has been well for the truthfulness of my impressions of travel that I stayed here long enough to see a little of the dessous des cartes, instead of seeing everything only through the roseate glasses of the hopeful admiral, who was so sanguine that his multitudinous reforms would all flourish. I am glad that I have seen Tahiti in all its phases, especially in its quiet ordinary state, which no one travelling in a man-of-war, or in any other large ship, can ever see, as the kindly people are always glad of the smallest pretext for getting up festivities.
Amongst other wrong impressions, I should certainly have carried away an idea that himene singing was the normal condition of Tahitian life—that all the people were for ever warbling like birds, as naturally as they breathed, and that the very air was musical I now find that this is by no means the case. Since the outburst of song which everywhere greeted King Ariiaue on his accession, all the birds have been mute. I have only heard one himetie, and that was got up to order, in honour of H.M.S. Shah, and a very poor specimen it was.
But chiefly I rejoice that my prolonged stay here with this fine family of real old Tahitian chiefs (who have treated me with the same loving kindness they heap on one another), has not only shown me whatever still remains of the true Tahitian element, but has also enabled me to realise, in person, the existence of the warm-hearted unbounded hospitality which (now necessarily wellnigh a tale of the past, in over-crowded British isles) still flourishes and luxuriates beneath these balmy heavens.
But as all things must have an end, and my visit to Tahiti has already extended to five months, I now only await the arrival of