MY month on Rarotonga has passed in a succession of pleasant and dreamy days — fishing, swimming, swapping yarns in the evenings. I have been staying with a friendly cocoanut planter, an Englishman, whose life is a rare story of adventure. He went out to Africa at the age of seventeen and spent many years knocking about Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa — trading, prospecting, hunting, and fighting. He is one of those types born with an insight into the character of primitive man, and a knack for acquiring savage dialects. Add to this a keen interest in natural history, botany, and geology, an insatiable curiosity regarding native customs, and an excellent memory — and you have the combination which makes a genuinely interesting man. After eighteen years of Africa, he came to the Islands seven years ago, to recover from a severe attack of fever. Now he has learned the Rarotongan dialect and acquired a taste for island life which makes it improbable that he will ever leave this part of the world.

1 It is no use my trying to live in civilization,’ he says; ‘I couldn’t stand a week of it. Africa’s all right except for two things. If you stop there long enough, you are bound to lose your health, and then you’re no good to yourself or anyone else. It’s a brutalizing place, too; the natives understand only one thing — force; so in self-preservation the white man is obliged to become more or less of a brute. The matter of gifts is typical. Here, in the Islands, when I go off on a trip, my people bring me presents, and when I return, I bring back presents for them; there is a friendly human relationship. In Africa it is different — I demanded gifts, but gave none in return. There, the weak give to the strong.’

I have been trying to persuade him to set down on paper some of his memories, but he is shy of the pen. There is a lot of unfortunate truth in the Earl of Pembroke’s remark, in his introduction to a book of stories by Louis Becke: ‘As a rule, the men who know don’t write, and the men who write don’t know.’ At any rate, it is a pleasure to listen to his yarns, as we sit here evenings, smoking our pipes, with the drowsy rumble of the reef in our ears. The night sky, for once, is cloudless, and the Southern Cross low over a black wooded point that runs out into the lagoon.

‘By Jove, what a night!’ says my host, lying luxuriously in a steamerchair, bare feet on the rail of the verandah. ‘Feel that air; look at those stars! Smell that? It’s the flower they call ariki vaine o te po — queen of the night. The stars have a friendly way of shining down here — not the hard glitter you see in Africa. Clearest air in the world over there; nothing like it even on the high deserts of your Arizona and New Mexico. I remember a trading-post I used to have on the border of Portuguese East. I stayed there three years, alone — did n’t do badly either. My place was on a knoll right in the middle of a big plateau: the sort of thing you call a mesa. There was an old male baboon who sat on a rock nearly a mile away — a sort of sentinel for his tribe, I suppose. I saw him every morning. Wonderful eyesight those brutes have. If I came out of the house without a rifle, he paid no attention to me; if I carried one, he was off like a flash.

‘There was no other trader about; the people used to come in twenty miles to get my beads and brass wire and butcher-knives. They traveled early to avoid the sun; just after daybreak I could sit on my porch with a pair of glasses and watch the long lines of niggers, traveling in single file with bundles on their heads, coming in to trade. The northern rim of my plateau was one of their ancient territorial divisions, and I used to wonder, at first, about a great pile of stones beside the trail. Then one day I saw that each fellow from the north picked up a stone and threw it on the pile as he passed — to placate the spirits of the strange country he was entering. The trading was over by noon, and they ’d file off with their stuff.

‘That was a lonely place. I usually went shooting in the afternoons. The plateau was covered with scrub and some fairly high bush — regular menagerie. At certain times of year the elephants used to come up from the low country and raise no end of a row on moonlight nights. And the lions — I liked to listen to their grunting; you could hear it for miles, so deep-toned that sometimes it was merely a vibration in the air.’

The tale wanders on till bedtime, ending with a search for an authentic treasure of diamonds, smuggled out of Kimberley and buried in the grave of a savage king, hundreds of miles to the north.

The plantation runs from the mountains to the beach, close to a pass in the reef through which, in ancient days, the long canoes set out on their voyages to New Zealand. Tiny as it is, Rarotonga is an historic place in the annals of the Polynesians. Students of their genealogies, which furnish the only means of estimating time, agree that the island must have been settled about 850 A.D., and that it was, for many years thereafter, a starting-point for the extraordinarily bold voyages of the ancients, who explored the Pacific from the Antarctic to Hawaii, and at least as far west as Easter Island.

It stirs one’s imagination to think of those brown, hardy mariners, coming from no man knows where, — without compass or chart or sextant, trusting to their knowledge of the stars and the councils of their soothsayers, — to explore the enormous expanses of the Pacific, in their frail canoes, bound together with cords of sennit, and stocked with pigs, fowls, poi, and a few drinking cocoanuts. What a sight it must have been to see a fleet of a dozen great double pahi — strung out in a crescent sixty miles from tip to tip, on the lookout for a landfall — thrash through the whitecaps, their clumsy sails of matting bellying out to the weight of the southeast trade! They are strange craft, those ancient canoes which one reconstructs in imagination: a pair of long hulls, upturned at the bows, bridged across with planking on which rests a species of house. There is a single mast amidships, guyed fore and aft with cords of braided cocoanut fibre. A crowd of people is gathered in the house of each canoe; pigs are tethered to the uprights, grunting disconsolately; fowls with bound legs and alert beady eyes lie about on deck. Sheltered from the sun and the sea-water, with their roots done up in moist earth and leaves, are young plants for the new island — taro, and breadfruit, and mountain plantain.

The sun sinks low in the west, and the men forward shade their eyes with their hands as they search the horizon for the expected land. Suddenly a signal goes up from the canoe at one point of the crescent, and five miles away, the next canoe, rising to the crest of a long sea, catches and passes on the word. The landfall is made — only a faint irregularity on the horizon; but the leader knows that to-morrow, if the wind holds, the tiny triangle will grow and take form, until a lofty mountain rises from the sea: the island of their destination.

Such must have been the migrations of old Polynesia, as early as the seventh century of the Christian Era. And there are families in the Islands now whose genealogies go back to those days without a break, recording the names and deeds of every ancestor. The thought staggers one a little. Who and where were our ancestors fourteen hundred years ago? Or four hundred? Yet it is believed that Tahiti was settled about 650 A.D.; and the descendants of those early voyagers survived with only small changes of custom, clothes, and speech until the time of Captain Cook. To us, the days of the Crusades or the Battle of Hastings seem ages past, remote, almost legendary; to the Polynesian, counting the generations of his forebears, such dates are only yesterday. This mental attitude toward time is not wholly the result of residence in one spot and a knowledge of those who have gone before; it is part of the very atmosphere of the South Pacific, of the minute particles of land scattered over a lonely ocean that makes up nearly a fourth of the surface of our earth. Time loses its proportions here, where a month is like a week, and a week is like a day. And space, too, which goes hand in hand with time, becomes a small thing, where one travels a thousand miles by sailingvessel to see a friend, and stays for many months, perhaps, before another vessel comes to take one home.

From the Island standpoint, the time to accomplish a given task is a matter of indifference. You will see a couple of men begin to build a canoe, work a day or two, leave it for a month, return for another day’s work, and finish it, perhaps, three or four months later. And yet two men can build a canoe, complete with paddle and outrigger, in seven days. They are not, in my opinion, a particularly lazy people; it is merely that they do things in snatches, between fishing, bathing, picking fruit, drying copra, and the hundred other occupations of the day. They do not believe in hurry, and who can say that they are wrong? The European visitor will find that he soon becomes imbued with the same philosophy of leisure — a philosophy neither unpleasant nor unwise in lands close to the equator.

Even the missionary acquires this indifference to time, as witness a quaint account of early days in Tahiti: ‘E Tautua no te Tupu Anga o te Ekalesia o Iesu’ (The Story of the Beginnings of the Church of Jesus), written by the Reverend William Gill, and published in the Cook Island dialect by the London Missionary Society. The persistence of the first missionaries in forcing themselves on the unfortunate natives of Tahiti, and their indifference to the passage of years, during which little or nothing was accomplished, are astonishing. I have called the Tahitians unfortunate, and I believe that no one who has read of their past and knows the race to-day can fail to agree with me. They deserved well of the white man — these friendly and intelligent people, of whom Cook remarked, one hundred and forty years ago, that a European settlement among them ‘would give the people just cause to lament that their island had ever been discovered.’ Their faults were the faults of children, but they were neither cannibals nor savages, and they had evolved, during the centuries since their ancestors first colonized the island, a form of society which seems to have been conducted with a minimum of friction, and to have permitted a large proportion of the people to enjoy happy lives. Without belittling the efforts of the missionaries among the more benighted people to the west, one cannot help wondering what the early evangelists hoped to offer to the natives of Tahiti, one half so pleasant, and even beautiful, as the ancient life they had come to destroy.


On August 10, 1796, the first mission ship arrived from England, after a passage of eight months. On board (the Reverend Gill tells us) were thirty male missionaries, and one female. From August until March of the following year, the ship lay in Matavai Bay, without one member of her company being permitted to land. After six months at anchor, within a few hundred feet of shore, the ship was visited by a powerful chief named Tu, the heir apparent, son of old Pomaré. The chief agreed to permit the foreigners to land, and on March 19 there was a great assembly of the people at Papeete, where they gathered to listen to the discourse of the missionaries. We are not told what language was used, or how the exchange of ideas was brought about — perhaps some incorrigible member of the ship’s crew had been in the habit of slipping overboard on a calm night for a swim and a surreptitious run ashore. Such men often make the best of interpreters. In any case, the missionaries were now permitted to establish themselves on shore, although their preaching had been heard with no great signs of enthusiasm. At the end of the first year, not a single convert had been made, and all but seven of the missionaries sailed away in despair to Tongatapu. During the next two years one of the remaining enthusiasts was killed, one returned to England on a passing vessel, and one ‘stopped being a missionary.’ As the last words were translated to me, I could not suppress a chuckle; a vision flitted before my eyes: the man who decided to stop being a missionary casting aside his black clothes in a frenzy, wrapping his loins in a pareu of tapa cloth, and departing toward the bush in long bounds.

The year 1800 found the few remaining evangelists pursuing their task with indomitable persistence, though still without the encouragement of a convert. They had learned the language in spite of the natives, who did everything in their power to make it difficult. In the following year a ship arrived from England with nine missionaries for Tahiti; but in spite of these reinforcements, the outlook was becoming gloomy. In 1802, their condition was really pitiful — clothes worn out, axes and tools stolen, and not a single convert to help them. In this year a great disturbance arose over the native god Oro, ending in the violent death of several of the missionaries. The survivors were forbidden to continue their work. The end of the next year (1803), during which old Pomaré died and was succeeded by Tu, found them still without a convert, and in 1809, when all the missionaries, except a man named Nott, returned to England, the first convert had yet to declare himself.

The Reverend Nott, of whom we are told very little, must have been a powerful exhorter, for he accomplished, with the aid of a few newcomers from England, the task his predecessors had given up in despair. In 1815, one Patii, keeper of the idols on the neighboring island of Murea, was prevailed upon to build a great oven, strip the garments from the ancient gods of wood, and consign them, one by one, to the flames. The people stood by in awe, thinking that Patii’s sacrilege would cause his death on the spot — ‘but nothing happened, so they knew that the rule of the idols had come to an end. ’ The knell of heathendom was sounding, and had James Cook, the discoverer and friend of the Society Island people, been present on that day, he might have heard another and more mournful sound — the death-knell of the native race. To say that Christianity was their undoing would be absurd; they died and are dying under the encroachments of the European civilization of which Christianity was the forerunner. Everywhere in the South Seas the story has been the same, whether told by Stevenson, or Melville, or Louis Becke. We brought them disease; we brought them cotton clothing (almost as great a curse); we suppressed the sports and merriment and petty wars which enabled the old islanders to maintain their interest in life. And lastly, we brought them an alien code of morals, which succeeded chiefly in making hypocrites of the men whose souls it was designed to save. To-day there is nothing to be said, nothing to be done — the Polynesian race will soon be only a memory.

From Tahiti, native converts took the new faith to distant parts of the Pacific. The heroic John Williams, who carried on the work of Nott in the Society Islands, and died a martyr’s death among the Melanesian savages to the west, was recognized as the discoverer of Rarotonga, though the island had been visited, two or three years before, by a Captain Goodenough. There is a tradition, recorded by Mr. S. Percy Smith in his book, Hawaiki, that many years before the visit of Goodenough a great ship appeared in the offing. One of the natives, plucking up courage to paddle out to her in his canoe, found that groves of breadfruit were growing on her decks, and that the name of one of her headmen was Makore (McCoy). She was the Bounty — without a doubt — laden with young breadfruit trees for the West Indies, and in the hands of the mutineers. Let me remark parenthetically that there is to-day in Rarotonga a Miss McCoy, from Pitcairn Island — a descendant of the mutineer Makore. Although it covers so large a portion of the world, the Pacific is small.


Early in 1823 Williams set out from Raiatea for Aitutaki, where he met a woman left there by Goodenough, and learned from her of the existence of Rarotonga. As she desired to return, he took her aboard and started on a search for the new island. For six days they beat back and forth on the lookout for land, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that the captain of the schooner was persuaded to continue the search. At dawn of the seventh day there was a shout — the high ridges of Rarotonga were in sight, faint and blue on the southern horizon. That night they came to anchor off Avarua and landed the woman Tapairu, related to the reigning family of Makea. Though the Rarotongans of those days were a wild lot, quite unlike the gentler Tahitians, the foreigners were not badly received, and before his departure Williams obtained permission to leave on the island a Raiatean missionary named Papehia, who had accompanied him on the voyage.

The people of Rarotonga took kindly to Christianity from the first. In 1827 John Williams returned, caused a large church to be built, and formulated a code of laws which was in force until the establishment of the British Protectorate, in 1888. I have a book of the old laws beside me as I write — a criminal and civil code so quaint that I am tempted to quote entire pages. Many of the regulations are just and well calculated to fit the needs of a primitive community; others are bigoted to the point of absurdity. The penalties incurred by transgressors varied from death and long periods in the stocks to the payment of twenty Chilean dollars or the building of so many fathoms of road. If you speared a neighbor’s pig to give a feast, you were obliged to ‘Pay four pigs like the one stolen, one to the chief, one to the police, and two to the owner of the stolen pig.’ It was unlawful for a man to have tattooed upon his body the name of a woman, or to weep at the funeral of a woman to whom he was not related. Best of all, — a priceless ordinance, which, to date, our own virtuous law-makers have overlooked, — it was unlawful for a man to walk in the evening with his arm about a girl’s waist, unless he carried in the other hand a lighted torch!

The year after the making of the laws, the Reverend Mr. Buzacott arrived in Rarotonga. He must have been a remarkable man. It is said that no European, before his time or since, has succeeded in mastering the language of the Cook Islands as did this patient and talented missionary, who devoted his life to the translation of the Bible into the native tongue. The task was a colossal one, — just how colossal, only a student of the Polynesian dialects can realize, — but he accomplished it at last, and the work stands as a monument to his memory: so idiomatic, so simple, and so nobly phrased, that it challenges comparison with our own King James Version.

Fond of reading, and possessing practically no other books in their language, the Rarotongans have become remarkable students of the Bible — many of them can recite chapter after chapter, or turn instantly to any text. In this manner the Bible has come into daily use where worldly matters are concerned. There is an English planter on the island who has been here many years and has a native wife, a woman with only one fault — she likes to sleep late in the morning. This habit was apt to delay the men in getting to work, for the cook did not always have breakfast ready on time unless aroused and urged on by her mistress. The planter was somewhat put out — the kitchen was not a man’s province. Then, one evening, as he was reading the Rarotongan Bible, his eye fell on the thirty-first chapter of Proverbs, fifteenth verse. With an inward chuckle, he handed the book to his wife, suggesting that she read the chapter carefully. This is what she read, amid an enumeration of the qualities of a good woman: ‘She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.’ Since that day, the men have gone to work on time.

In the days of mission rule, the native judges, in their administration of justice, often consulted the Scriptures. One old fellow, in particular, was famous as a Bible-student, and for the practical ends to which he turned his knowledge. His name meant ‘ Blower of the Conch-Shell.’ One Sunday a vessel dropped anchor in Avarua harbor, and all hands, except the captain and one sailor, came ashore. There was a horse on deck, brought from a nearby island, and as it was suffering from hunger, the captain tried to prevail upon the remaining sailor to get a canoe and swim the poor brute ashore. The boy (a native) refused, on the ground that it was Sunday. Going ashore himself, the captain ran across old Blower and mentioned his trouble with the horse. The judge thought for a moment and then asked how much pay was due the sailor. Informed that it amounted to eleven Chile dollars, he told the captain that the horse would be ashore within an hour or two, and sent a boy to tell the sailor to appear before him at once. When the man presented himself, Blower had his Bible in hand, open at the twelfth chapter of Matthew.

‘ “What man shall there be among you,” he read, “that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath Day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” Now go, and bring the poor horse to shore, and be thankful that I fine you only eleven Chile dollars for such inhumanity.’

On another occasion — a Sunday also — a native had rented a horse to take his family for a drive. The horse developed a maddening streak of balkiness, until at last, in a frenzy of rage, the promenader seized a spear and killed the animal with a single thrust. When he had cooled down, he began to shake a little in his boots; he could not pay for the horse, and a chilling vista of endless fathoms of road — built by himself — seemed to stretch ahead. With strong misgivings, he consulted old Blower of the Conch-Shell.

‘Ah, this is serious, my son,’ said the judge; ‘you say you have no horse to give in return for the one you have killed. What have you, then?’

‘A fine pig.’

‘That may do,’ said the old man, musingly; ‘if the pig is really a fine one. Yes, I think I can get you off. Bring the pig to-night — to my house, mind!’

Next day, when the owner of the horse appeared, much incensed and demanding retribution, Blower shook his head. ‘You have rented a horse on the Sabbath Day, and for that reason your claim for damage is denied. And do not forget to be thankful that you have escaped so lightly.’

The old mission rule — at once harsh and kindly, just, and bigoted to the point of quaintness — is gone forever now. Rarotonga is a dependency of New Zealand, administered by a British Resident, under a system of laws which gives the native, if anything, a better chance than the European planter or trader. But the island is the same, and the people have changed very little, I fancy, since the British took possession.

Geologically, Rarotonga is a typical high island of the South Pacific — a maze of basaltic dykes, intersecting a region of volcanic breccia. The dykes — composed of very hard and close-grained rock — have withstood the wear of the centuries, while the surrounding material, more easily eroded and decomposed, has weathered away to form the alluvial plain which encircles the heights. The island is roughly six miles by four. The flat land averages half a mile in width — a tangled garden of fruits and flowers and palms. The interior — a jumble of wooded precipices, breakneck ridges, and sharp peaks, rising to three thousand feet above the sea — is little known to-day; and a glance convinces one that it is likely to remain so. Water flows everywhere, cooled in inaccessible gorges, and wonderfully soft. Early in the morning, one can hear the shrill crowing of junglecocks, far off in the hills; and at sunset, when the first plapet begins to glimmer in the west, the flying-foxes sail down from their mountain roosting-places, where they hang all day on dead trees, head down. How did the jungle-fowl come here, or the flying-fox? Old natives say that the former is not the descendant of domestic birds, but has always been on the island, as far back as the traditions of men extend. As for the flying-fox, is it conceivable that he has migrated from the westward to establish himself on this isolated dot of land? These islands are not new; like the race inhabiting them, they bear evidences of a remote antiquity, and yet, if they are (as one is tempted to believe) the mountain-tops of a vanished continent, why are they so poor in fauna?

A barrier reef of coral encircles the island, enclosing a shallow lagoon nowhere more than half a mile in breadth. Opposite the mouth of nearly every stream, the reef is broken by a pass — deep grooves in the coral, some of them large enough to permit the entrance of a schooner. The life of Rarotonga centres about the lagoon; the people like to live on its shores, from which their plantations run back toward the mountains; and its waters furnish them with many kinds of fish. When the tide is low, the lagoon is dotted with the canoes of fishermen, narrow, cranky, and picturesque craft, with rakish lines and outriggers of hibiscus wood. Here is a man anchored at the edge of the pass, angling for the silvery Titiara which comes in with the flood-tide. Yonder is another, moored to a coral mushroom in shallow water, and casting — with tackle as delicate as that of a fly-fisherman at home — for the small striped Manini. Hear him shout; he is playing one, his long rod of bamboo bending like a whip. If the fishing is good, the lagoon is a noisy place, for each fish is signaled with a joyous yell; and when one is lost, there is a volley of longrange banter.

There are other fishermen, too: men who prefer the spear to the hook, and are visible only when they raise their heads above the water to take breath. Here is one not far off — his body naked except for a breech-clout of scarlet print, a string of dead fish trailing from his belt, a twelve-foot spear in his right hand. See how he swims, with his head under water, peering at the bottom through his water-goggles. He stops; something moved in a crevice of the coral below. The haft of the spear comes to a vertical position, and plunges violently out of sight; next moment, with a spluttering shout, the fisherman raises his head and holds aloft the spear — a ten-pound octopus writhing on the point.

A large octopus is not often found in the lagoon, but now and then there is a casualty. Not long ago one of the brutes succeeded in drowning a boy in three feet of water — a ghastly way to die. On the whole the lagoon is a safe place, for sharks seem to dislike the shoal water, and do not leave the passes. The natives say that each pass contains its tonu — a horrible creature which lurks in the luminous caverns of the coral to rush out upon its prey with the ferocity of a tiger. They dread it far more than either shark or octopus, and take care never to swim in the vicinity of its reputed haunts. I caught a couple of young tonu the other day (the young are called patuki) — an ugly fish, shaped something like a sculpin, covered with gaudy spots, and having an enormous mouth, full of sharp teeth, and powerful as the jaws of a small hyena.

Fishing furnishes both food and sport, and plays a large part in one’s life here. In the day, whenever the tide serves, one is on the lagoon, with spear or line; in the evening there are hermit crabs to catch for bait, grayfish on the reef at new moon, and fresh-water shrimps to be had by torchlight in the streams.

One settles easily into this pleasant round of life: breakfast at dawn, a morning of swimming and fishing and lolling at the water’s edge, lunch and a siesta, an afternoon at one’s own work, and an evening with torches on the reef. What is work and what is play ? It is difficult to draw the line, and perhaps that is why it is good to be alive in the Islands. Best of all — to a refugee from the complexities of civilization — are the nights of wonderful sleep, when vagrant night-breezes rustle among the palm fronds, and the Pacific murmurs soothingly on the reef.