At Home in Puka-Puka: Life on an Atoll

JULY, 1928


I AM a South Sea trader on the atoll of Puka-Puka, or Danger Island, to give it its English name. If you search carefully on a chart of the Pacific along a line drawn from Lima, Peru, to Cape York, the most northerly point on the Australian mainland, you should find the island, a dot smaller than a flyspeck. Perhaps the dot does n’t appear to the naked eye; in that case, if you still wonder where the island may be, intersect the first line with a second running from San Francisco to the northwest cape of New Zealand, and a third t raversing that mighty waste of waters from Wenchow, on the coast of China, to Cape Horn. Very near to the spot where the three lines cross, either you will find Danger Island or you will not, depending on whether the hydrographer thought it worth while marking on his chart such an insignificant crumb of land. In any case you will agree, I think, that the place where the island should be is a sufficiently lonely one.


Danger Island comprises three small islets threaded on a reef six or seven miles in circumference, which encloses a lagoon so beautifully clear that one can sec the strange forests of coral to a depth of ten fathoms. The islets are little more than banks of sand and bleached coral where coconut palms and pandanus and puka trees break momentarily the steady sweep of the trade wind. On the outer beaches a few grotesque gale-twisted trees survive both the poverty of the soil and the depredations of the Puka-Pukans, who lop off their branches to make drums, popguns, coffins for dead babies, and poles on which to hang spirit charms.

But when a hurricane comes hundreds of trees are destroyed, and the little Puka-Pukan houses are blown away like so many card castles. Everything goes then — drums, popguns, coffins, spirit charms, and sometimes a man or two, whirled high in air with his household gods to be carried to Maroroyi, the legendary land of the departed. At such times the natives scramble up the stoutest coconut palms, hack off the fronds not already blown away, and roost among the frond butts until the storm shrieks itself out and the seas subside.

But for years on end Puka-Puka is untroubled with great storms. Then the weeks and months slip serenely by, their monotony broken only by the yearly arrival of Captain Viggo’s schooner, the Tiare, from Rarotonga, bringing me my trade goods: perfume, talcum powder, rolls of green and red ribbon, all-day suckers, lemon drops, firecrackers, paper balloons, Japanese kites, tin whistles, marbles, and suchlike necessities of life. For these the natives are glad to exchange their worthless copra, which is only good for making coconut oil.

The trading station is a two-story building made of blocks of chipped coral. There are two large rooms below for the store and two above for living quarters, opening to verandahs both front and back. The front verandah overlooks the road and the central village, with the schoolhouse directly opposite and the church a little to the right. The back verandah faces the lagoon and is so close to the water’s edge that when I sit there, cooled by the trade wind, I can easily imagine that I am living on an otherwise uninhabited island. Now and then, to be sure, the silence is broken by a sleepy voice, the crowing of a cock, or the monotonous drumming on coconut shells of the village children, but these are such familiar sounds that often I am no more aware of them than of the wind humming through the palm fronds.

At night I prefer sitting on my front verandah, where I can see the villagers passing to and fro, for on this topsyturvy little island the people sleep in the daytime and wake at sunset. Then they stumble drowsily into the lagoon for a bath and, having thus refreshed themselves, start the day’s activities. Fishermen put out in canoes, some with torches and nets for flying fish, others with spears for the lobsters and parrot fish of the reef. Fires of coconut shells cast grotesque shadows among the groves, and groups of chattering natives stroll up and down the village street as they have done from time immemorial. Now and then I will hear a ripple of laughter and, turning my head, I see eyes peeking over the floor of the verandah. The native youngsters never tire of shinning up the verandah posts for a near view of the strange white man. The moment they are detected they let go and fall — thump, thump, thump — to the ground, rushing off in the darkness with whoops of delight.

When a young Puka-Pukan feels that he has grown to manhood, he simply has to let off steam, and one method of doing this is to walk with his friends through the villages, stopping before every other house to make a speech. One of these young village bucks is Tihoti (George), a youth of seventeen. He and his crowd of satellites often stop before my house. George wears a heavy British army overcoat and a bowler hat which Captain Viggo once gave him. Although the temperature at Puka-Puka never drops below seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit, George is never seen on these dress occasions without his British ‘warm.’ He addresses me thus: —

‘Noo akaleilei kotou kia akalongo i toku tara-tara! Sit down prettily, you people and listen to my speech! I, Tihoti, being a man of the village of Yato, son of t he exceptional man whose name is Abraham, and of the woman from the village of Ngake whom everybody knows to be the daughter of Ura, chief of police and deacon of the church — I, Tihoti, take it upon myself to inform you of the new talk that has come to my ears. I have heard that a white man has come to this island and that he is called Ropati (Robert), so I lose no time in warning him to keep his pigs tied up and not to steal taro from me, my father, my mother, or any of my relatives. I further warn the man, Ropati, not to steal taro, chickens, or coconuts from any of my friends; but if he is hungry and must steal from someone, let him steal from my enemies.

‘I, Tihoti, must also warn this person, Ropati, that the young women of this island are dear to the hearts of me and my friends, and if — ’ But at this point George becomes altogether too outspoken and explicit to permit of translation. At length, when he is out of breath, his friends gather round him and they all grunt an obscene but amusing chant peculiar to the island. Then they all laugh uproariously and go on to another house for further speech making.


The three settlements on Puka-Puka are called Ngake, Roto, and Yato. The first means Windward, the second Central, and the third Leeward. There are also, as I have said, three islets on the Danger Island reef, each village owning one. Central Village, being the sleepiest of the three, has contented itself with Puka-Puka Islet, from which the atoll derives its name.

Leeward Village owns Frigate Bird Islet. It is the smallest of the three, but valuable because of the thousands of sea birds that nest there. There is also a fine tract of guano, where grow limes, oranges, breadfruit, and mummy apples. Nearly every month the Leeward Villagers go to Frigate Bird, scramble up the great puka trees, and rob the nests of fat young sea birds.

At first I could not eat a frigate bird, a booby, or a shearwater, but after a few months at Puka-Puka I tried one of these birds broiled over coconutshell coals, and I have never since missed an opportunity for such a feast. In a civilized country where one has an abundance of fresh meat, the thought of a frigate-bird meal would, perhaps, be abhorrent; but on an atoll where the weekly chicken and the monthly pig make the sum total of fresh meat, an ancient man-of-war hawk seems as succulent as would a squab at home.

Windward Village owns the large islet of Ko, which produces more copra than the other two together; but there is little taro on Ko, and for some unaccountable reason the sea birds shun it.

Despite their system of village land ownership, the Puka-Pukans all share alike. Theirs is, I imagine, one of the few examples on earth of a successful communistic government. There is no private ownership of land other than the tracts upon which the houses are built, and even in this case the land really belongs to the villages, which give the residents unlimited lease to live thereon.

W hen the villagers move for a few weeks’ sojourn on their respective islets, the coconuts are gathered, stacked in their temporary village, and then equally divided among the men and women, a small share being reserved for the children. The nuts are then opened and the meat dried into copra, which is pooled and sold to my store. The money received is either divided equally among the villagers or used to purchase clothing, tobacco, tin whistles, and marbles, which are divided. Likewise, when it is found that the puka trees are full of young birds, the men catch them and the same division takes place. The fishing, too, is managed in this manner.

The general direction of the work rests with the fathers of the villages, who belong to an organization called the Company (Kamupani). They meet once a month, or oftener, to deliberate on community activities.

The Puka-Pukans all belong to the same church. They call it ‘Zion.’ Every Sunday morning Puru (Husks), the Leeward Village policeman, beats the tom-tom to announce the service, whereupon all the inhabitants don their most highly prized finery and throng forth Zionward — all of them except old William, the heathen, who has never yet been cajoled into joining the church.

King-of-the-Sky is usually the first to appear. lie is a huge, grizzle-haired old man, six feet four, and weighing two hundred and sixty pounds, all solid bone and muscle. He is dressed in a swallow-tailed coat and trousers made of a cloth of vivid green, the shade of green used for billiard-table cloth. The coat is double breasted, with two rows of large brass buttons, eight to a row. Beneath it appears the mighty hairy chest of King-of-the-Sky, for what cares he for such trifles as shirts, collars, or neckties?

Scratch-Woman wears a black lace dress which was probably discarded by the wife of some ancient trading skipper, thrown overboard, perhaps, close to Puka-Puka reef, and salvaged by an ancestor of Scratch-Woman to be forever treasured by his female descendants. She also wears a pair of men’s striped socks, and her huge feet are squeezed into a pair of ancient highheeled shoes. She walks churchward lifting her feet high and putting them down carefully, having learned through experience that gravelly ground makes precarious footing on Sundays.

George, grandson of the redoubtable Ura, wears his British army overcoat with his bowler hat set at a rakish angle. His feet are shod in brogues that would do credit to a colored minstrel. Now and then he draws a yardsquare turkey-red bandana from his pocket to mop his face and neck. A British warm is hardly necessary in latitude ten-fifty south, but what is a little discomfort to a man convinced that he is the best-dressed individual on Puka-Puka?

Ears (Taringa) has somehow assembled an almost complete golfer’s costume. He has checked knickerbockers, striped woolen stockings, a golfer’s cap, but, alas! no brogues. Therefore he must walk to Zion in his stocking feet, and many such journeys have, of course, told sadly on the stockings. His huge toes and calloused heels are indecently displayed among ragged shreds of yarn.

Dear old Mama, the wife of heathen William, never fails to wear her ancient bedgown, from which hang shreds of lace sewn there, perhaps, by some bride of fifty years ago. On her head she wears t he crown of William’s straw hat. True lovers she and William must have been years ago when William acquired the hat, giving her t he crown and reserving only the brim for himself.

Ura, chief of police and deacon of the church, comes in a commodore’s coat, decorated with epaulettes and an abundance of tarnished brass braid. It was a present to his father from the commander of one of Her Britannic Majesty’s ships which visited Puka-Puka in the eighteen-eighties.

So it goes. The Puka-Puka church parade is the most heterogeneous display of rags and tags of cast-off clothing that may be seen anywhere outside of bedlam. Once, when Captain Viggo was viewing it with me, he said: ‘ What have the missionaries not done to the natives with their eternal harping on the necessity of covering the sinful body! Here we see the result. They have organized a Sabbath-day procession of scarecrows and buffoons!’

Sometimes I too go to church. I wait until Sea Foam, the preacher, walks pompously past, wearing his bandmaster hat and celluloid collar; then I put on my Sunday coat of white drill and follow him into Zion.

The service is much as it is at home: there are prayers, hymns, and a sermon, but here the hymns are sung with Polynesian gusto, interlarded with grants from the young fry and piercing counter-melodies sung by one or another of the village virtuosos. After many hymns have been sung, Sea Foam clears his throat and begins: —

‘Members of this church of Zion, young men, old men, deacons, Christians — health to us! This is the word of God as it is written in the Tabu Book. It says that the birth of Jesus was like this: When Mary was betrothed to Joseph he did not know that she was with child, but later Mary told him of this. Of course Joseph, being only a foolish white man, was very angry and called her many bad names. But the angel of God appeared to him and said that Mary had spoken the truth when she said that she was with child and still a virgin. This child, the angel said, would be a Son of God and would bring the Church to the children of these islands and also to the white men.

‘God was right when He gave His child to a virgin to bear, for do you think that any hard woman like you women here could have borne him? Of course we children of the islands do not know how such a thing could happen; but it is so written in the Tabu Book and therefore it is the truth.’

Sea Foam rumbles and rambles on, filling an hour with his profound theological speculations. My interest occasionally wanes before he reaches the end of his sermon, and I lean back against a post, staring at the great thatched roof. It must contain at least ten thousand square feet of pandanus thatch, each sheaf being laid with mathemat ical precision and bound to coconut-wood plating with fine native sennit. The various supports, rafters, braces, and plates are made of pandanus of a rich oily brown. Gazing at this roof supported with beautifully smoothed and polished posts, one might think this a sylvan cathedral where hamadryads came to dance. I close my eyes and see Syrinx being chased by Pan, Daphne by Apollo, but such visions fade when the congregation roars ‘Saints of God, the Dawn Is Brightening,’ in the native tongue.

When we come forth we are horrified as usual to find that old Mama’s heathen husband, after sleeping all the week, has wakened just in time to chop wood of a Sunday morning. After the crowd has dispersed I beckon old William into the store and we discuss all sorts of matters over a bottle of my island-brewed ale.

I found the Puka-Pukan language easy to learn, for all the Polynesian tongues are allied, and before I came to the island I had a fair knowledge of Tahitian, Rarotongan, and two or three other dialects of the Maori speech. In three months’ time I could speak the language with considerable fluency, but for a year or more I had difficulty in following conversations between natives when they slurred their words, or expressed themselves in obscure PukaPukan metaphors.

The chief difficulty was in distinguishing between homonymous words, which usually have a subtle analogy, such as the word ara, for example. It was Peni, my store boy, who first pointed out to me that the word means both ‘to sin’ and ‘to waken’; ‘for,’ he explained, ‘is it not a sin to waken someone who is deep in slumber and very likely in the midst of pleasant dreams?’

Once Puka-Pukan was acquired, there was little for me to do in my leisure hours, — and they are many, — so I devoted myself to reading. Often I read all day long, day after day, with scarcely an interruption. Here, at last, I have read the books I have long promised myself to read: Pepys, Casanova, Swinburne, Borrow, Mungo Park, John Stow, Sterne, Conrad, Pierre Loti, many others. I had a regular Swinburnian orgy, and for weeks my head swam with his ‘Hendecasyllabics.’

In the month of the long decline of roses
I, beholding the summer dead before me,
Set my face to the sea and journeyed silent.

I have a library of a thousand volumes at Puka-Puka, and the natives, knowing no other book than the Bible, take it for granted that all my books are Bibles of a sort. A few of the more intelligent ones realize that some of these Bibles are different, containing, perhaps, stories of Noah and Abraham not thought proper for Puka-Puka readers.

I occasionally relate to them the Hellenic myths, the traditions of King Arthur, stories from the Arabian Nights, or one of Grimm’s fairy tales. They listen with deep interest, and some old man is sure to ask why this story was left out of the Puka-Puka Bible.


As I have said, Puka-Puka is a drowsy little island. The greater part of the inhabitants reverse the usual order of things by going to bed at dawn and rising at sunset. For this reason it was necessary for the Reverend Mr. Johns, the missionary who occasionally visits the island, to insist that no child of school age should sleep between the hours of 8 and 10 A.M. During these hours Sea Foam teaches the children to read the Bible, while his assistant, Tamata (Try-It), vainly attempts to initiate them into some of the mysteries of arithmetic.

School opens with one hundred and twenty-odd children lined up before the schoolhouse. Sea Foam and Try-It, a tall, gloomy-faced individual reminding one of the immortal Ichabod, march down the line examining hair and faces, and when, as usually happens, there are evidences of uncleanliness the culprits are sent down to the lagoon to wash. When they reach the lagoon, the children of course wade in, not having any clothes to get wet, and they have such a happy time splashing and ducking one another that they forget all about school. Sea Foam sees no more of them that day.

Following inspection comes a quarter of an hour of calisthenics, an innovation of the Reverend Mr. Johns. Parents look perplexedly on while their children go through the motions with grunts and sighs. ‘ Vuni — tooi — treei! ’ cries Sea Foam, giving them the time for the movements.

Sometimes Sea Foam takes a nap in the schoolhouse, — in fact, he frequently does, — whereupon all the children go home, and when the parson wakes he finds that the sun is setting. He tucks his Bible under his arm and strolls down the village street, stopping at the store to have a chat with me. School-teaching, he informs me solemnly, is a great burden. Often his whole day is taken up with the business of searching out suitable texts and stories for the children to learn.

Try-It’s classes are held in a small thatched hut adjoining the more pretentious coral-lime schoolhouse. It is open at the sides; the children sit crosslegged on the floor, and coconut logs are used for benches. Here Try-It instructs the youngsters in their ABC’s, and attempts to hammer the science of numbers into their heads by singsong repetitions of ‘One times one is one, one times two is two,’ and so forth.

One morning I looked on secretly at one of Try-It’s sessions. It was a very warm day; the faintest possible breeze fanned the cheeks of his charges and caressed his own stubbly jowls. Try-It, with his back to the children, stared vacantly across the lagoon. Perhaps he was thinking; possibly not. The singsong of the children died away to silence. Several youngsters stole quietly out; others curled up on the ground and fell asleep.

Try-It dug his hand into his overalls pocket and drew forth a mouth organ. Putting it to his lips, he breathed out sleepy strains. A little tot in the back row stood up to do a dance in time to the music, while others clapped their hands, but in a few moments everyone was asleep but the schoolmaster. He played on. I could see his long bony legs doing a sort of dance beneath the table. Presently his head began to nod, his arms dropped to his side.

By that time I too had become so drowsy that it was all I could do to stumble across the road into the store. Peni, my store boy, was snoring on the counter. In the corner old William and his crony, Bones, had fallen asleep over a game of checkers. The village street was blazing in the sunlight, and not a soul to be seen the length of it. I went upstairs and stretched out in my steamer chair, intending to read for a few moments, but the book fell from my hands before I had reached the end of the first paragraph. It’s a busy life we PukaPukans lead.

One evening, after his hard day’s work at the schoolhouse, Sea Foam called at the store. I could see that he had some request to make, for his bearing was both dignified and obsequious. It was like this, he explained: The Reverend Mr. Johns was expected to visit the island by return of Captain Viggo’s schooner, and Sea Foam wished to make a fine showing in the school. He remembered that on Rarotonga the school children often sang certain patriotic songs in English, which greatly pleased the missionaries. Now if I would consent to teach the PukaPuka children some such song, Sea Foam would esteem it a great favor.

I readily agreed, and entered the schoolhouse the next morning just as lessons were beginning. I wrote the verses of ‘God Save the King’ on the blackboard and then had the children repeat the lines of the first stanza after me. They quickly memorized it, although they were ignorant of the import. In three days’ time they had memorized the three stanzas.

Then I began to teach them the air. I played it over and over on my accordion, singing to my own accompaniment. When I thought I had it well impressed upon their minds I rose, swung my hands bandmaster fashion, and said: ‘One, two, three, sing!’

Good Lord! I soon realized that I might as well try to teach them Parsifal. However, for a month I persevered and for a month completely failed to din the melody into their heads. They simply could not grasp it, but must chant the words in their own guttural manner, with grunts and weird arpeggios. I then tried various other songs: ‘The Wearing of the Green,’ ‘Hail Columbia,’ ‘Marching through Georgia,’ but the result was the same.

After two months of intermittent effort I decided to give up the business. But one evening I chanced to pick up my accordion and finger the keys idly, singing to myself. My friends paid little attention, for American or European music nearly always bores the Puka-Pukans unless it be a song they themselves have adopted and completely transformed for their own use. I went on from one song to another as they happened to come to me, and presently found myself singing the rollicking old slavers’ chantey, ‘It’s Time for Us to Go.’

‘A quick run to the south we had, and when we made the bight,
We kept the offing all day long and crossed the bar at night.
Six hundred niggers in the hold and seventy we did stow,
And when we’d clapped the hatches on ’t was time for us to go.
‘Time for us to go,
Time for us to go,
And when we’d clapped the hatches on
’T was time for us to go.’

Old William pricked up his ears and Peni leaned forward to mumble something vaguely like ‘Time for us to go. And to my astonishment Little Sea hummed the air without a mistake.

Instantly the thought came to me that this was the song to teach the school children. It had a line swing to it and the air was one they could master. The next morning I returned to the school ho use, and a day or two later I had one hundred and twenty children lustily singing: —

‘Time for us to go,
Time for us to go,
When the money’s out and the liquor’s done,
Why, it’s time for us to go.'

I have since had certain prickings of conscience because of this affair, for when the Reverend Mr. Johns came and Sea Foam had the children rise to greet him with this old slavers’ chantey, the missionary was very much upset. I have a warm spot in my heart for the Reverend: he is a truly good man, though somewhat narrow-minded. He knew, of course, that I had taught the children this sinful song, but he never once reproached me. He merely told Sea Foam, later, that he was pleased to find the children learning English so rapidly, but on the whole he believed it would be better for them to learn no more secular songs. Perhaps it was preferable for them to continue with their hymns, ‘Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow!' and ‘Bringing in the Sheaves,’ in the native tongue.


When I first came to Puka-Puka, the house on the west side of the trading station was occupied by Old Man Breadfruit, his wife, and family. One of his children was a tall thin lad named Wail-of-Woe, who was given this name because at the time of his birth neighbors were wailing over the body of a dead baby. Thus most native names are acquired. A man may be called Sickness, because of some illness in the family at the time of his birth, or Many Fish, in honor of a record catch of albacore.

As I have said, Wail-of-Woe was thin. He coughed frequently, and I soon realized that he was consumptive — in other words, doomed, for I have never known a Puka-Pukan to survive tuberculosis. Two thirds of the deaths on the island are caused by this disease.

Nevertheless Wail-of-Woe began to think of marriage and soon found the girl of his heart, Sun-Eater, the unwieldy daughter of Rock Grouper. My first intimation of the match was when Rock Grouper came into my store to spend a carefully hoarded bag of money on trousers, shirt, arm bands, red necktie, green hat-ribbon, a bottle of perfume, and a pair of Boston garters for his prospective son-in-law. It is the island custom for the bride’s relatives to clothe the groom for the marriage, while the groom’s relatives deck out the bride. Later in the day Breadfruit and his kin came to purchase a great quantity of finery for Sun-Eater: ribbons, calico, Jap lace, Swiss embroidery, and yards and yards of white muslin.

On the day of the wedding all the villagers gathered in the road to see the bride and groom pass churchward. Wail-of-Woe walked ahead, very stiff and self-conscious in all his new clothes and some borrowed ones as well. His red necktie and the green ribbon wound many times around Tihoti’s bowler hat were very conspicuous, almost as much so as his Boston garters, which had been attached outside the legs of his trousers. As there were no socks to support, the ends flapped against his bony legs. He had also borrowed Abel’s wonderful squeaking shoes.

Sun-Eater walked a modest distance behind, her comfortable girth increased by ten yards of muslin dress and a dozen chemises and petticoats borrowed from her friends. The skirts of her dress dragged on the ground, and so many ruffles had been attached here and there that only her chubby face and the tips of her fingers were visible. Perched on top of her head was a pandanus-leaf hat of native manufacture, decorated with innumerable ribbons and streamers, including two old red-and-black typewriter ribbons I had contributed.

All of us then followed to the church, and after Sea Foam had married them Wail-of-Woe and his wife repaired to Breadfruit’s house, where they sat stiffly on a mat placed before the door.

Then began the most important part of the wedding-day ceremonies. With a loud whoop, Rock Grouper, the bride’s father, rushed from his house across the street with an old patched singlet in one hand and two yards of dungaree in the other. Stopping before the married pair, he did an extemporaneous dance to the accompaniment of a weird song. Then, holding the singlet and the dungaree aloft, he shouted: ‘ This is a day of great sadness! Gaze at these, O people of Puka-Puka! A new singlet which cost me twelve shillings [I had sold it to him six months before for three], and all thrown away on this good-for-nothing, ugly imbecile, Wailof-Woe!’

Here Wail-of-Woe nodded his head sympathetically as though in full agreement with his father-in-law. With another whoop Rock Grouper continued:

‘This marriage is none of my doing! I have been against it from the first! For years I have refused to let my fine fat daughter marry this ne’er-do-well. Look at her, people of Puka-Puka! She has the royal blood of Peru Island in her stomach: a finer, fatter woman is not to be found — and all, all thrown away on the worthless idiot, Wail-ofWoe! Curse him, the bag of bones! Not only does he steal my beautiful daughter, but he robs me of my substance as well! See! The very clothes on his back—it was I who bought them, for I was ashamed, knowing that w ithout my help he would come naked to the wedding! And now he takes my beautiful singlet, too! Aué! My beautiful new twelve-shilling singlet! Aué! I am now a pauper!5

With that he furiously threw the ragged singlet at Wail-of-Woe, and hurled after it the two yards of dungaree. He had worked himself into an almost frenzied state, and tears of self-pity were actually flowing down his cheeks.

Then came Breadfruit, as speedily as his elephantiac legs would permit. Six yards of cheap print cloth streamed from one hand, and in the other was a pair of old white cotton stockings.

‘This is a day of great sorrow!’ he yelled, waving the stockings. ‘Weep with me, people of Puka-Puka, for today a penniless woman, old enough to be his mother, has robbed me of my son! For years I forbade the match, but at last the tears of Sun-Eater’s family softened my heart and I foolishly consented to this marriage. I was ashamed, so I threw away all my wealth to clothe the hussy! Look at her great mouth that would frighten a shark! Her hair is falling out with old age, and she has hardly a tooth in her head! And gaze upon my fine son, the flower of the young men, thrown away upon this hideous cannibal!’

Here Sun-Eater nodded her head in agreement, as did the rest of the throng.

With many a despairing grunt, Breadfruit moved clumsily through the steps of a dance; then, flinging the print cloth and stockings at the bride, he moaned: ‘Now I am a pauper! Everything is taken from me — my son, these beautiful stockings, six yards of the finest cloth, which cost me five shillings a yard [I had sold it to him at ninepence] — all is gone, thrown away on this loose woman!'

Thus went the Puka-Puka ceremony of ‘making big.’ No wedding would be complete without it.

Wildly waving his arms, George, the Leeward Village dandy, sprang before the couple, flourishing a bottle of hair oil and yelling that it had cost him eighteen shillings. Everyone knew that the price was one and sixpence, but that mattered nothing. He, the generous George, cared nothing for expense. He was more than willing to buy costly gifts for Sun-Eater; for, he admitted, she had been his sweetheart in the past, but he had generously given her her freedom when he learned that poor old Wail-of-Woe wanted to marry her. Then he took from Wail-ofWoe’s head the bowler hat he had lent him for the wedding, threw the bottle of hair oil into Sun-Eater’s lap, and strode off at a manly gait.

Old Mama, the wife of William the heathen, came next. She was dressed in her mildewed bedgown and flourished a handkerchief in her hand. I had sold her the handkerchief that morning for ninepence. Mama screamed that this was no ordinary handkerchief, but a particularly fine one that her friend the trader had brought with him from his own land and had reluctantly sold to her for nine shillings. Such a splendid gift was quite thrown away on such a skeleton as Wail-of-Woe; however, since he was her nephew, she would give it to him merely as a matter of family pride. She then put her withered limbs through a dance movement.

Many others, friends and relatives, brought gifts, each of them trying to outdo the others in praising his gift and disparaging the bride or groom. I presented a bag of flour, and when I turned away without ‘making big,’ Peni, my store boy, jumped up and spoke in my stead, bouncing the price of the flour to as many pounds as it was shillings. Then my old friend William joined him, and together they heaped insults on Sun-Eater and Wail-of-Woe, telling them how utterly unworthy they were to receive this priceless gift from the white trader, a man known as far away as Apia and Tahiti and Rarotonga for his great deeds and his unheard-of generosity.

‘There!' said Peni, coming up to me. ‘If I had not spoken, people would have thought that was only an ordinary fifteen-shilling bag of flour.'

‘So it was,’I replied. Peni gave me an astonished glance.

‘But it isn’t now!' he said, and I think he believed it.

Some brought presents of roast chickens and pigs; others brought drinking nuts, fish, and taro cooked into puddings. When evening had set in the food was so divided that all those who had taken part in the gift-giving should have a share. The other gifts were kept by Wail-of-Woe and his wife, although at some marriages even the offerings of clothing, perfume, and so forth are divided. In that case a man who has given the groom a pair of trousers may very well take them home with him again, or perhaps a shirt or a pair of secondhand shoes in place of them. At this particular kind of ‘making big’ George invariably presents the groom with his British army overcoat and Scratch-Woman’s offering to the bride is the black lace dress handed down from mother to daughter in her family for many years. The understanding is, of course, that these articles shall be returned to the donors when the division of spoils takes place.


A year after his marriage Wail-ofWoe was in the last stages of consumption, Bosun-Woman and Jeffrey, her husband, visited him daily, for one is the island undertaker and the other the island doctor.

This loud-mouthed Bosun-Woman! None of Walter Scott’s old women who hobble to wakes could surpass her in ghoulishness. She takes a morbid pleasure in visiting the dangerously ill and is never so happy as when laying out a corpse. Although she is not far past forty she appears to be much older, except for her hair, which is black. It hangs loosely down her back in tangled hanks, damp with fish oil. Her cheeks are withered and flabby, her eyes are like buttons of black jade, and her mouth is large and pale.

Jeffrey is much older. He is tall, bony, and walks with a wriggling motion as though his hips were out of joint. He shaves every Christmas with the Central Village razor. He wears a grass skirt, nothing else, and his legs are as hairy and almost as thin as a spider’s. He is the only doctor on Puka-Puka and mixes noxious things like fish intestines, chicken droppings, coconut bark, sea urchins, and the like, for all diseases, external or internal. These he administers in large doses, and if the patient is not cured by the power of suggestion he dies from the effect of the medicine.

Jeffrey has three other methods of treatment. One is massage, which is often helpful. The second is by invocations to the spirits of the dead, who cause the patient’s illness by possessing his body. In some cases Jeffrey’s invocations cure, for they create a hopeful state of mind in the sick person, who believes that the malignant spirit is being driven out.

The third method of treatment is disastrous in most cases, particularly in cases of tuberculosis, for it consists in putting the patient on a strict diet of a very coarse kind of taro, land crabs, and coconut crabs. Jeffrey claims that by eating good taro, fish, eggs, fowls, and the like, the effect of his medicine is neutralized. This tabu doubtless comes from ancient times when the witch doctors shrewdly killed off the weaklings in an effort to combat overpopulation. The tabu also saved the fish and taro for the warriors and the witch doctors themselves.

Wail-of-Woe sank fast on his diet of puraka and crabs, as well as from his daily doses of nauseous medicine. Bosun-Woman called at his house every day, where she amused herself by composing the death chant to be wailed over his body. Wail-of-Woe did not in the least resent her visits. On the contrary, he seemed to look forward to them and would make suggestions for improvements in the verses she was composing. And he would discuss with her the arrangements for his burial — how many yards of white calico would suffice for the winding sheet, and so forth. He seemed to have no fear whatever of the approaching end.

One evening old Mama came to tell me that Wail-of-Woe was to die that night. Jeffrey had said so.

I went to Wail-of-Woe’s house and looked in. He was sitting in Sea Foam’s steamer chair, propped up by pillows, while close by squatted a dozen people staring at him. His eyes were hollow and his body frightfully emaciated.

‘I am going to die to-night, Ropati,’ he muttered hoarsely, and then broke down with a racking fit of coughing. Bosun-Woman was not there; it was not proper for her to appear on the last day until after the first death wail — she was at home, wide-awake, waiting.

I returned to the trading station and put a lively record on my phonograph, but it did little to cheer me up. I retired early and was awakened about two in the morning by a piercing scream. Hurrying footsteps sounded in the road below. I went to the verandah and looked down. Bosun-Woman passed, going to the wake, her flabby face with its ghastly smile looking even more horrible by moonlight. She walked with a light mincing step and her hair slapped back and forth across her back like a wet rag.

Others followed: children, old men, old women, all on their way to hear the new dirge Bosun-Woman would wail over the body.

Screech after screech cut through the still night air, but at length these subsided and the death chant burst forth. How is one to describe such a song with nothing of the sort from civilized lands to be used as a comparison? Puka-Puka death chants are peculiar to this island, and there seems to be nothing human about them. The sounds range from eerie guttural moans rising slowly to ear-splitting screams when the wife throws her body across that of her dead husband, tearing her hair with outcries that chill the blood; then there are almost whispered chantings and sobbings that seem to come from another world. When I first heard one of these songs I was fascinated by its unearthly quality, and foundmyself unconsciously swaying my body in unison with BosunWoman, uttering meaningless syllables in her unvarying cadence. I had to tear myself away from the spot and dash my hands against my head to break the spell I was under.

All that night, all the next day, and all the following night Bosun-Woman led the death chant over the body of Wail-of-Woe. Thus all the relatives exhausted themselves emotionally, abandoning themselves to grief until an inevitable reaction set in. As a result, when Wail-of-Woe was buried, even Sun-Eater could greet the world with a smile.


At night the coconut groves of PukaPuka are filled with moving shadows — lacelike shadows of fronds, shadows of stiff-limbed pandanus t rees, of ground bush, of fleecy trade-wind clouds skimming low overhead. And there are the shadows of the kaki, the young unmarried, stealing from the villages to their meetings on the lonely outer beaches, where great breakers thunder on the reef and long stretches of pure coral sand glimmer faintly under the light of moon or stars.

If some Paul Pry were to follow them to these nightly rendezvous, he would doubtless be greatly shocked. He would see naked youthful figures dancing joyously in the ghostly light. He would hear snatches of weird heathen song, provocative rhythms drummed out on coconut shells; and faintly above the roar of the surf he would hear, far offshore, exultant shouts where groups of young Puka-Pukans disport themselves like schools of porpoises in the deep sea, riding the great swells just rising to break on the reef.

The young unmarried of Puka-Puka correspond to ‘these wild young people’ that parents of our day — of all times, in fact — are forever shaking their heads about. But the parents of this island are by no means concerned about their sons and daughters just emerging into manhood and womanhood. They themselves were once young, they remember, and did precisely as their children are doing now. Their parents before them did the same, and so it has gone through countless generations. If there is any place on earth where men and women live naturally, surely it is Puka-Puka.