The Rangers Of The Tia Kau by Louis Becke
BETWEEN Nanomea and Nanomaga -- two of the Ellice Group -- but within a few
miles of the latter, is an extensive submerged shoal, on the charts called the
Grand Cocal Reef, but by the people of the two islands known as Tia Kau (The
Reef). On the shallowest part there are from four to ten fathoms of water, and
here in heavy weather the sea breaks. The British cruiser Basilisk, about 1870,
sought for the reef, but reported it as non-existent. Yet the Tia Kati is well
known to many a Yankee whaler and trading schooner, and is a favourite
fishing-ground of the people of Nanomaga -- when the sharks give them a chance.
One night Atupa, Chief of Nanomaga, caused a huge fire to be lit on the beach as a
signal to the people of Nanomea that a malaga, or party of voyagers, was coming
over. Both islands are low -- not more than fifteen feet above sea-level -- and are
distant from one another about thirty-eight miles. The following night the
reflection of the answering fire on Nanomea was seen, and Atupa prepared to
send away his people in seven canoes. They would start at sundown, so as to avoid
paddling in the heat (the Nanomagans have no sailing canoes), and be guided to
Nanomea, which they expected to reach early in the morning, by the far distant
glare of the great fires of coconut and pandanus leaves kindled at intervals of a
few hours. About seventy people were to go, and all that day the little village
busied itself in preparing for the Nanomeans gifts of foods -- cooked puraka,
fowls, pigs, and flying-fish.
Atupa, the heathen chief, was troubled in his mind in those days of August 1872.
The John Williams had touched at the island and landed a Samoan missionary, who
had pressed him to accept Christianity. Atupa, dreading a disturbing
element in his little community, had, at first, declined; but the ship had come
again, and the chief having consented to try the new religion, a teacher landed.
But since then he and his sub-chiefs had consulted the oracle, and had been told
that the shades of Maumau Tahori and Foilagi, their deified ancestors, had
answered that the new religion was unacceptable to them, and that the Samoan
teacher must be killed or sent away. And for this was Atupa sending off some of
his people to Nanomea with gifts of goodwill to the chiefs to beseech them to
consult their oracles also, so that the two islands might take concerted action
against this new foreign god, whose priests said that all men were equal, that all
were bad, and He and His Son alone good.
The night was calm when the seven canoes set out. Forty men and thirty women
and children were in the party, and the craft were too deeply laden for any but the
smoothest sea. On the ama (outrigger) of each canoe were the baskets of food
and bundles of mats for their hosts, and seated on these were the children, while
the women sat with the men and helped them to paddle. Two hours' quick paddling
brought them to the shoal-water of Tia Kau, and at the same moment they saw to
the N.W. the sky-glare of the first guiding fire.
It was then that the people in the first canoe, wherein was Palu, the
daughter of Atupa, called out to those behind to prepare their asu (balers), as a
heavy squall was coming down from the eastward. Then Laheu, an old warrior in
another canoe, cried out that they should return on their track a little and get
into deep water; "for," said he, "if we swamp, away from Tia Kau, it is but a little
thing, but here -- " and he clasped his hands rapidly together and then tore them
apart. They knew what he meant -- the sharks that, at night-time forsaking the
deep waters, patrolled in droves of thousands the shallow waters of the reef to
devour the turtle and the schools of tafau uli and other fish. In quick, alarmed
silence the people headed back, but even then the first fierce squall struck them,
and some of the frail canoes began to fill at once. "I matagi! i matagi! (head to
the wind)" a man called out; "head to the wind, or we perish! 'Tis but a puff and it
But it was more than a puff. The seven canoes, all abreast, were still in shallow
water, and the paddlers kept them dead in the teeth of the whistling wind and
stinging rain, and called out words of encouragement to one another and to the
women and children, as another black squall burst upon them and the curling seas
began to break. The canoe in which was Atupa's daughter was the largest and best
of all the seven, but was much overladen, and on the outrigger grating were
four children. These the chief's daughter was endeavouring to shield from the rain
by covering them with a mat, when one of them, a little girl, endeavoured to
steady herself by holding to one of the thin pieces of grating; it broke, and her
arm fell through and struck the water, and in an instant she gave a dull,
smothered wail. Palu, the woman, seized her by her hair and pulled the child up to a
sitting posture, and then shrieked with terror -- the girl's arm was gone.
And then in the blackness of night, lightened now by the white, seething, boiling
surge, the people saw in the phosphorescent water countless hundreds of the
savage terrors of the Tia Kau darting hither and thither amongst the canoes --
for the smell of blood had brought them together instantly. Presently a great grey
monster tore the paddle from out the hands of the steersman of the canoe
wherein were the terrified Palu and the four children, and then, before the man
for'ard could bring her head to the wind, she broached to and filled. Like ravening
wolves the sharks dashed upon their prey, and ere the people had time to give
more than a despairing cry, those hideous jaws and gleaming cruel teeth had
sealed their fate. Maddened with fear, the rest of the people threw everything out
of the six other canoes to lighten them, and as the bundles of mats and baskets
of food touched the water the sharks seized and bit, tore and swallowed.
Then, one by one, every paddle was grabbed from the hands of the paddlers, and
the canoes broached to and filled in that sea of death -- all save one, which was
carried by the force of the wind away from the rest. In this were the only
survivors -- two men.
The agony could not have lasted long. "Were I to live as long as he whom the
faifeau (missionary) tells us lived to be nine hundred and sixty and nine, I shall
hear the groans and cries and shrieks of that po malaia, that night of evil luck,"
said one of the two who lived, to Denison, the white trader at Nanomea. "Once did I
have my paddle fast in the mouth of a little devil, and it drew me backwards,
backwards, over the stern till my head touched the water. Tah! but I was strong
with fear, and held on, for to lose it meant death by the teeth. And Tulua -- he
who came out alive with me, seized my feet and held on, else had I gone. But look
thou at this" -- and he pointed to his scarred neck and back and shoulders "ere I
could free my foe (paddle) and raise my head, I was bitten thus by others. Ah,
Papalagi, some men are born to wisdom, but most are fools. Had not Atupa been
filled with vain fears, he had killed the man who caused him to lose so many of our
"So," said the white man, "and wouldst thou have killed the man who
brought thee the new faith? Fie!"
"Aye, that would I -- in those days when I was po uli uli. But not now, for I am
Christian. Yet had Atupa killed and buried the stranger, we could have lied and said
he died of a sickness when they of his people came to seek him. And then had I
now my son Tagipo with me, he who went into the bellies of the sharks at Tia Kau."