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The Tănifa of Samoa by Louis Becke


Many years ago, at the close of an intensely hot day, I set out from Apia, the principal port of Samoa, to walk to a village named Laulii, a few miles along the coast. Passing through the semi-Europeanised town of Matautu, I emerged out upon the open beach. I was bound on a pigeon-shooting trip to the mountains, but intended sleeping that night at Laulii with some native friends who were to accompany me. With me was a young Manhiki half-caste named Allan Strickland; he was about twenty-two years of age and one of the most perfect specimens of athletic manhood in the South Pacific. For six months we had been business partners and comrades in a small cutter in which we traded between Apia and Sava'ii—the largest island of the Samoan group; and now after some months of toil we were taking a week's holiday together, and enjoying ourselves greatly, although at the time (1873) the country was in the throes of an internecine war.

A walk of a mile brought us to the mouth of the Vaivasa River, a small stream flowing into the sea from the littoral on our right. The tide was high and we therefore hailed a picket who were stationed in the trenches on the opposite bank and asked them in a jocular manner not to fire at us while we were wading across. To our surprise, for we were both well known to and on very friendly terms with the contending parties, half a dozen of them sprang up and excitedly bade us not to attempt to cross.

"Go further up the bank and cross to our olo (lines) in a canoe," added a young Manono chief whose family I knew well, "there is a tănifa about. We saw it last night."

That was quite enough for us—for the name Tănifa sent a cold chill down our backs. We turned to the right, and after walking a quarter of a mile came to a hut on the bank at a spot regarded as neutral ground. Here we found some women and children and a canoe, and in less than five minutes we were landed on the other side, the women chorusing the dreadful fate that would have befallen us had we attempted to cross at the mouth of the river.

" E lima gafa le umi! " ("'Tis five fathoms long!") cried one old dame.

"And a fathom wide at the shoulders," said another bare-bosomed lady, with a shudder. "It hath come to the mouth of the Vaivasa because it hath smelt the blood of the three men who were killed in the river here two days ago."

"We'll hear the true yarn presently," said my companion as we walked down the left-hand bank of the river. "There must be a tănifa cruising about, or else those Manono fellows wouldn't have been so scared at us wanting to cross."

As soon as we reached the young chief's quarters, we were made very welcome, and were obliged to accept his invitation to remain and share supper with himself and his men—all stalwart young natives from the little island of Manono—a lovely spot situated in the straits separating Upolo from Savaii. Placing our guns and bags in the care of one of the warriors, we took our seats on the matted floor, filled our pipes anew, and, whilst a bowl of kava was being prepared, Li'o, the young chief told us about the advent of the tănifa .

Let me first of all, however, explain that the tănifa is a somewhat rare and greatly-dreaded member of the old-established shark family. By many white residents in Samoa it was believed to occasionally reach a length of from twenty to twenty-five feet; as a matter of fact it seldom exceeds ten feet, but its great girth, and its solitary, nocturnal habit of haunting the mouths of shallow streams has invested it even to the native mind with fictional powers of voracity and destruction. Yet, despite the exaggerated accounts of the creature, it is really a dreadful monster, rendered the more dangerous to human life by the persistency with which it frequents muddied and shallow water, particularly after a freshet caused by heavy rain, when its presence cannot be discerned.

Into the port of Apia there fall two small streams—called "rivers" by the local people—the Mulivai and the Vaisigago, and I was fortunate to see specimens of the tănifa on three occasions, twice at the Vaisigago, and once at the mouth of the Mulivai, but I had never seen one caught, or even sufficiently exposed to give me an idea of its proportions. Many natives, however—particularly an old Rarotongan named Hapai, who lived in Apia, and was the proud capturer of several tănifa —gave me a reliable description, which I afterwards verified.

A tăifa ten feet long, they assured me, was an enormously bulky and powerful creature with jaws and teeth much larger than an ocean-haunting shark of double that length; the width across the shoulders was very great, and although it generally swam slowly, it would, when it had once sighted its prey, dart along under the water with great rapidity without causing a ripple. At a village in Savaii, a powerfully built woman who was incautiously bathing at the mouth of a stream was seized by one of these sharks almost before she could utter a cry, so swiftly and suddenly was she attacked. Several attempts were made to capture the brute, which continued to haunt the scene of the tragedy for several days, but it was too cunning to take a hook and was never caught.

This particular tănifa , which had been seen by the young Manono chief and his men on the preceding evening had made its appearance soon after darkness had fallen and had cruised to and fro across the mouth of the Vaivasa till the tide began to fall, when it made its way seaward through a passage in the reef. It was, so Li'o assured me, quite eight feet in length and very wide across the head and shoulders. The water was clear and by the bright starlight they had discerned its movements very easily; once it came well into the river and remained stationary for some minutes, lying under about two feet of water. Some of the Manono men, hailing a picket of the enemy on the opposite bank of the river, asked for a ten minutes' truce to try and shoot it; this was granted, and standing on top of the sandy trench, half a dozen young fellows fired a volley at the shark from their Sniders. None of the bullets took effect and the tănifa sailed slowly off again to cruise to and fro for another hour, watching for any hapless person who might cross the river.

Just as the kava was being handed round, some children who were on watch cried out that the tănifa had come. Springing to his feet, Li'o again hailed the enemy's picket on the other side, and a truce was agreed to, so that "the white men could have a look at the mālie "—shark.

Thirty or forty yards away was what seemed to be a huge, irregular and waving mass of phosphorus which, as it drew nearer, revealed the outlines of the dreaded fish. It came in straight for the mouth of the creek, passed over the pebbly bar, and then swam leisurely about in the brackish water, moving from bank to bank at less than a dozen feet from the shore. The stream of bright phosphorescent light which had surrounded its body when it first appeared had now, owing to there being but a minor degree of phos phorus in the brackish water, given place to a dulled, sickly, greenish reflection, accentuated however by thin, vivid streaks, caused by the exudation from the gills of a streaming, viscid matter, common to some species of sharks, and giving it a truly terrifying and horrible appearance. Presently a couple of natives, taking careful aim, fired at the creature's head; in an instant it darted off with extraordinary velocity, rushing through the water like a submerged comet—if I may use the illustration. Both of the men who had fired were confident their bullets had struck and badly wounded the shark, but were greatly disgusted when, ten minutes later, it again appeared, swimming leisurely about, at ten fathoms from the beach.

Three days later, as we were returning to Apia, we were told by our native friends that the shark still haunted the mouth of the Vaivasa; and I determined to capture it. I sent Allan on board the cutter for our one shark hook—a hook which had done much execution among the sea prowlers. Although not of the largest size, being only ten inches in the shank, it was made of splendid steel, and we had frequently caught fifteen-feet sharks with it at sea. It was a cherished possession with us and we always kept it—and the four feet of chain to which it was attached—bright and clean.

In the evening Allan returned, accompanied by the local pilot (a Captain Hamilton) and the fat, puffing, master of a German barque. They wanted "to see the fun." We soon had everything in readiness; the hook, baited with the belly-portion of a freshly-killed pig (which the Manono people had commandeered from a bush village) was buoyed to piece of light pua wood to keep it from sinking, and then with twenty fathoms of brand-new whale line attached, we let it drift out into the centre of the passage. Then making our end of the line fast to the trunk of a coconut tree, we set some children to watch, and went into the trenches to drink some kava, smoke, and gossip.

We had not long to wait—barely half an hour—when we heard a warning yell from the watchers. The tănifa was in sight.

Jumping up and tumbling over each other in our eagerness we rushed out; but alas! too late for the shark; for instead of approaching in its usual leisurely manner, it made a straight dart at the bait, and before we could free our end of the line it was as taut as an iron bar, and the creature, with the hook firmly fastened in his jaw, was ploughing the water into foam, amid yells of excitement from the natives. Then suddenly the line fell slack, and the half-a-dozen men who were holding it went over on their backs, heels up.

In mournful silence we hauled it in, and then, oh woe! the hook, our prized, our beautiful hook, was gone! and with it two feet of the chain, which had parted at the centre swivel. That particular tănifa was seen no more.

Nearly two months later, two tănifa of a much larger size, appeared at the mouth of the Vaivasa. Several of the white residents tried, night after night, to hook them, but the monsters refused to look at the baits. Then appeared on the scene an old one-eyed Malay named 'Reo, who asserted he could kill them easily. The way in which he set to work was described to me by the natives who witnessed the operations. Taking a piece of green bamboo, about four feet in length, he split from it two strips each an inch wide. The ends of these he then, after charring the points, sharpened carefully; then by great pressure he coiled them up into as small a compass as possible, keeping the whole in position by sewing the coil up in the fresh skin of a fish known as the isuumu moana —a species of the "leather-jacket." Then he asked to be provided with two dogs. A couple of curs were soon provided, killed, and the viscera removed. The coils of bamboo were then placed in the vacancy and the skin of the bellies stitched up with small wooden skewers. That completed the preparation of the baits.

As soon as the two sharks made their appearance, one of the dead dogs was thrown into the water. It was quickly swallowed. Then the second followed, and was also seized by the other tănifa . The creatures cruised about for some hours, then went off, as the tide began to fall.

On the following evening they did not turn up, nor on the next; but the Malay insisted that within four or five days both would be dead. As soon as the dogs were digested, he said, the thin fish-skin would follow, the bamboo coil would fly apart, and the sharpened ends penetrate not only the sharks' intestines, but protrude through the outer skin as well.

Quite a week afterwards, during which time neither of the tănifa had been seen alive, the smaller of the two was found dead on the beach at Vailele Plantation, about four miles from the Vaivasa. It was examined by numbers of people, and presented an extremely interesting sight; one end of the bamboo spring was protruding over a foot from the belly, which was so cut and lacerated by the agonised efforts of the monster to free itself from the instrument of torture, that much of the intestines was gone.

That the larger of these dreaded fish had died in the same manner there was no reason to doubt; but probably it had sunk in the deep water outside the barrier reef.