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Six Months Among Cannibals




Perhaps as good an illustration of the purely absurd (according to civilized notions) as can be imagined is a congregation of cannibals in a missionary church weeping bitterly over the story of Calvary. Fresh from their revolting feasts upon the flesh of their conquered enemies, these gentle savages weep over the sufferings of One separated from them by race, by distance, by almost every conceivable lack of the conditions for natural sympathy, and by over eighteen hundred years of time! Surely there must be hope for people who manifest such sensibility, and we may fairly question whether cannibalism be necessarily the sign of the lowest human degradation. A good deal of light is thrown upon the subject by the writings of the young engineer, Jules Garnier, who was lately charged by the French minister of the interior with a mission of exploration in New Caledonia, the Pacific island discovered by Captain Cook just one hundred years ago, and ceded to the French in 1853.

It is about three hundred and sixty miles from Sydney to New Caledonia, a long, narrow island lying just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and completely surrounded by belts of coral reef crenellated here and there, and forming channels or passes where ships may enter. Navigation through these channels is, however, exceedingly hazardous in any but calm weather; and it was formerly thought that the island was on this account practically valueless for colonization. Once inside them, however, vessels may anchor safely anywhere, for there is in effect a continuous roadstead all around the island. The passage through the narrow pass of Dumbea, just outside of Noumea, affords a striking spectacle. On each side of the ship is a wall of foam, and the reverberating thunder of the waves dashing and breaking upon the jagged reefs keeps the mind in breathless suspense.

The site of Noumea seems to be the most unfortunate that could be chosen. It is a barren, rocky spot, divested of all luxuriance of vegetation, and the nearest water, a brook called Pont des Français, is ten miles away. The appearance of the town, which fronts the harbor in the form of an amphitheatre, the houses and gardens rising higher and higher as they recede from the sea, tended somewhat to reassure the explorer, who had been wondering that human stupidity should have been equal to selecting in a tropical country, and in one of the best-watered islands of the world, such a situation for its capital. Wells are of little account, for the water thus obtained is at the level of the sea, and always salt. The population has to depend upon the rain that falls on roofs, and as the cleanliness of these is of prime importance, domesticating pigeons is strictly forbidden. This might not be much of a deprivation in most places, but in New Caledonia, of all the world, there is a kind of giant pigeon as large as a common hen! This is the noton, (sic) the Carpophage Goliath of the naturalist.

The hotel at Noumea was a kind of barracks, with partitions so slight that every guest was forced to hear every sound in his neighbors' rooms. M. Garnier, to escape this inconvenience, purchased a garden-plot, had a cottage built in a few days, and so became a proprietor in Oceanica. Before setting out on his exploring expedition into the interior he tried to interest the government in a plan for cisterns to supply the city with water—a project easy of execution from the natural conformation of the locality. But his scheme received no encouragement from the old-fogyish authorities. They were at that moment entertaining one which for simplicity reminded Garnier of the egg problem of Columbus. This was to distill the sea-water. He made a calculation of the cost of thus supplying each of the sixteen hundred inhabitants with five quarts of water a day, which showed that the proposition was impracticable under the circumstances.

From the showing of official accounts, this French colony of New Caledonia must be one of the most absurd that exists. The military and naval force far exceeds in number the whole civil population; and this, too, when the natives are quiet and submissive, few in number, and fast dying out through the inordinate use of the worst kind of tobacco, pulmonary consumption and other concomitants of civilization not necessary to enumerate. Contrast this with the rich and populous province of Victoria, which has only three hundred and fifty soldiers; with Brisbane, which has only sixteen to a population of one hundred thousand; and finally Tasmania, which has only seven soldiers for two hundred thousand colonists!

It was believed formerly that New Caledonia was rich in gold-mines, and the principal object of the expedition of M. Garnier was to discover these. After one or two short excursions in the neighborhood of Noumea he set out on an eight months' journey through the entire eastern portion of the island. The plan which he adopted was to double the southern extremity of the island, sail up the eastern coast between the reefs and the mainland, as is the custom, stopping at the principal stations and making long excursions into the interior, accompanied by a guard of seven men. This plan he carried out, though some parts of the country to be explored were inhabited by tribes that had seldom or never seen a European. His testimony as to the almost unexceptionable kindness of the natives, cannibals though they are, must be gratifying to those who accept the doctrine of the brotherhood of man. Of the natives near Balarde he says: "The moment you land all offer to guide your steps, and in every way they can to satisfy your needs. Do you wish to hunt? A native is ever ready to show you the marsh where ducks most abound. Are you hungry or thirsty? They fly to the cocoanut plantation with the agility of monkeys. If a swamp or a brook stops your course, the shoulders of the first comer are ever ready to carry you across. If it rains, they run to bring banana-leaves or make you a shelter of bark. When night comes they light your way with resinous torches, and finally, when you leave them, you read in their faces signs of sincere regret."

Captain Cook, in his eulogies of these gentle savages, probably never dreamed that they were anthropophagi, and if he had known the fact, his kindly nature would have found some extenuation for them. Cannibals, as a rule—certainly those of New Caledonia—do not eat each other indiscriminately. For example, they dispose of their dead with tender care, though they despatch with their clubs even their best friends when dying; but this is with them a religious duty. They only eat their enemies when they have killed them in battle. This also, in their code of morals, appears to be a duty. Toussenel, in his Zoölogie Passionelle, has a kind word even for these savages: "Let us pity the cannibal, and not blame him too severely. We who boast of our refined Christian civilization murder men by tens of thousands from motives less excusable than hunger. The crime lies not in roasting our dead enemy, but in killing him when he wishes to live."

During M. Garnier's expedition he met the chief Onime, once the head of a powerful tribe, now old and dispossessed of his power through the revolt of his tribe some years previous. At that time a price had been put upon his head, and he took refuge in the mountains. There was no sign of discouragement or cruelty in his manners, but his face expressed a bitter and profound sorrow. There was not a pig or a chicken on his place—for he would have nothing imported by the papalés, or Europeans—but he gave his guests a large quantity of yams, for which he would accept no return except a little tobacco. When, however, Garnier tied a pretty crimson handkerchief about the head of Onime's child, who danced for joy at the possession of such a treasure, the old chief was visibly moved, and gave his hand to the stranger. Two years later this old man, being suspected of complicity in the assassination of a colonist, was arrested, bound in chains and thrown into a dungeon. Three times he broke his chains and escaped, and each time was recaptured. He was then transported to Noumea. M. Garnier happened to be on the same ship. The condition of the old man was pitiful. Deep wounds, exposing the bones, were worn into his wrists and ankles in his attempts to free himself from his chains. Three days later he died, and on a subsequent examination of facts M. Garnier became convinced that Onime was innocent of the crime charged against him. On the ship he recognized Garnier, and accepted from him a little tobacco. Tobacco is more coveted by these people than anything else in the world, and the stronger it is the better. The child almost as soon as he can walk will smoke in an old pipe the poisonous tobacco furnished specially for the natives, which is so strong that it makes the most inveterate European smoker ill. "Gin and brandy have been introduced successfully," but the natives as a rule make horrible grimaces in drinking them, and invariably drink two or three cups of water immediately to put out the fire, as they say.

These natives speak a kind of "pigeon English." It would be pigeon French, doubtless, had their first relations been with the French instead of the English. The government has now stopped the sale of spirituous liquors to the natives, and recommended the chiefs to forbid their subjects smoking until a certain age, but no precautions yet taken have had much influence upon their physical condition. They are rapidly dying out. The most prevalent disease is pulmonary consumption, which they declare has been given them by the Europeans. Fewer and fewer children are born every year, and in the tribes about Poöbo and some others these are almost all males. Here is a curious fact for scientists. Is not the cause to be found in the deteriorated physical condition of the women? Mary Trist, in her careful and extensive experimentation with butterfly grubs, has shown that by generous feeding these all develop into females, while by starving males only appear.

M. Garnier believes that the principal cause of the deterioration and decay of the natives in New Caledonia is the terrible tobacco that is furnished to them. "Everybody pays for any service from the natives in this poison." A missionary once asked a native convert why he had not attended mass. "Because you don't give me any tobacco," replied this hopeful Christian. To him, as to many others, says M. Garnier, going to church means working for the missionary, just as much as digging in his garden, and he therefore expects remuneration. The young girls in regions where there are missions established all wear chaplets, for they are good Catholics after a fashion, and generally refuse to marry pagans. This operates to bring the young men under the religious yoke. Self-interest is their strong motive generally. The missionary makes them understand the value of his counsel in their tribes. It means their raising cocoanuts for their oil, flocks of chickens and droves of hogs, for all of which they can obtain pipes, quantities of tobacco, a gun, and gaudy-colored cottons. When the chiefs find that their power is gradually passing from them into the hands of the missionaries, they only smoke more poisonous tobacco, expose themselves all the more to the weather through the cheap fragmentary dress they have adopted, and so the ravages of consumption are accelerated. Pious Christian women, who have always given freely of their store to missionary causes, begin to see that the results are not commensurate with their sacrifices—that their charity, even their personal work among heathens, teaching them to read and write and study the catechism, to cover their bodies with dress and to love the arts of civilization, can avail little against the rum, tobacco and nameless maladies legally or illegally introduced with Christianity.

During one of M. Garnier's excursions into the interior he came across one of the sacred groves where the natives bury their dead, if hanging them up in trees can be so designated. His guides all refused to accompany him, fearing to excite the anger of the manes of their ancestors. He therefore entered the high grove alone. Numerous corpses, enveloped in carefully-woven mats and then bound in a kind of basket, were suspended from the branches of the trees. Some of these were falling in pieces, and the ground was strewn with whitened bones. It seems strange that this form of burial should be chosen in a country where at least once a year there occurs a terrible cyclone that destroys crops, unroofs houses, uproots trees, and often sends these basket-caskets flying with the cocoanuts through the air.

In New Caledonia there are no ferocious beasts, and the largest animal is a very rare bird which the natives call the kagon. When, therefore, they saw the English eating the meat from beef bones they inferred that these were the bones of giants, and naïvely inquired how they were captured and what weapons of war they used. The confidence and admiration of these children of Nature are easily gained, and under such circumstances they talk freely and delight in imparting all the information they possess. Among one of the tribes near Balarde, M. Garnier noticed a young woman of superior beauty, and made inquiries about her. This was Iarat, daughter of the chief Oundo. The hornlike protuberances on her head were two "scarlet flowers, which were very becoming in her dark hair."



This poor little woman had a history. It is told in a few words: her father sold her to the captain of a trading-vessel for a cask of brandy. The "extenuating circumstances" in this case are that Oundo had been invited on board the captain's ship, plied with brandy, and when nearly drunk assented to the shameless bargain. When Oundo became sober he repented of his act, and the more bitterly because the young girl was betrothed to the young chief of a neighboring tribe. But he had given his word, and was as great a moral coward as many of his betters are, who think that honor may be preserved by dishonor. Nearly every coaster has a native woman on board—some poor girl of low extraction, or some orphan left to the mercy of her chief and sold for a hatchet or a few yards of tawdry calico; but the daughters of chiefs are not thus delivered over to the lusts of Europeans. The case of Iarat was an exception. These coasters' wives, if such they may be called, are said to be very devoted mothers and faithful servants. All day long they may be seen managing the rudder or cooking in the narrow kitchen on deck.

The vessel in the service of M. Garnier left him at Balarde, near the north-eastern extremity of the island, but, having determined to explore farther north, he applied to Oundo, who furnished him with a native boat or canoe and two men for the expedition. In this boat were stowed the camping and exploring apparatus and cooking utensils, and three of his men, who were too fatigued by late excursions to follow Garnier on foot. The canoe was not very large, and this freight sunk it very low in the water; yet as the sea was perfectly calm, no danger was apprehended until, a slight breeze springing up, a sail was hoisted. The shore-party continued their course, exploring, digging, breaking minerals, etc., generally in sight of the canoe, which M. Garnier watched with some anxiety. Suddenly, Poulone, his faithful native guide, exclaimed, "Captain, the pirogue sinks!" There was no time to be lost, for one of the men could not swim at all, and the other two but indifferently. Fortunately, the trunk of a tree was found near the water, some paddles were improvised, and this primitive kind of boat was quickly afloat, with the captain and Poulone on board. The canoe was some rods from the shore, but the three men were picked up, having been supported meanwhile by their dark companions. The latter did not swim ashore, but the moment they were relieved from their charges, and without a word, set about getting the canoe afloat. As to the cargo, it was all in plain sight, but more than twenty feet under the limpid water. This was a great misfortune. Some of the instruments were valuable, and could not be replaced. If not recovered, the expedition to the north of the island must be abandoned. In this strait Garnier despatched a messenger back to Oundo, asking the old chief to come to the rescue with all his tribe. "I did not count in vain," says he, "upon the generosity of this man, for very soon I saw him approach, followed by the young people of his tribe." He listened to the recital of the misfortune with every sign of sympathy.

"Oundo," said M. Garnier, "I expect that you will once more show your well-tried friendship for the French people by rendering me a great service. Do you think you can recover these things for me?"

"Oundo will try," replied the chief simply. He then addressed his people and gave his commands. In a moment, and with a loud cry of approbation and good-will, they dashed into the water and swam out to the scene of disaster.

It is a fine sight to see these natives of Oceanica, the best swimmers in the world, darting under the water like bronze tritons. They generally swim beneath the surface, coming up from time to time to breathe, and shaking the water from their thick curly hair. M. Garnier followed the natives on the log that had served as a lifeboat, and to encourage them by example undressed and threw himself into the water. The work commenced. Twenty or thirty feet is not much of a dive for a South Sea Islander. Every minute the divers brought up some object with a shout of triumph. They were in their element, and so spiritedly did they undertake the task that women, and even the children, dived to the bottom and constantly brought up some small object. The three guns of the men, their trappings, the heavy box of zoological specimens, all the instruments, were brought up in succession. Even the sole cooking-pot of the expedition and the tin plates were recovered. The work occupied some six hours. M. Garnier thanked the chief and his brave people, who when the work was finished returned to their huts as quietly as they came. And this chief was the man who had sold his daughter for a keg of brandy!

Another chief, named Bourarte, the head of a great tribe near Hienguène, deserves a few words. He was a chief of very superior experience and intelligence. He had studied civilization diligently, enjoyed the society of Europeans and knew that his people were barbarians. His story is a most touching one. He said: "I always loved the English. They treated me as a chief, and paid me honestly for all they received. One day I consented to go with them to their great city of Sydney. It was there that I learned the weakness of my people. I was well received everywhere, but I longed to return. It was with pleasure that I saw again our mountains and heard the joyful cries of welcome from my tribe. About that time your people came. I paid little attention to them at first, but because one of my men killed a Kanacka who was a protégé of the missionaries there came a great ship (the Styx) into my port. The captain sent for me. I went on board without fear, but my confidence was betrayed. I was made a prisoner and transported to Tahiti. It was six years before I saw my tribe again: they had already mourned me as dead. I will tell you what happened in my absence. My people prepared for vengeance: the French were apprised of the fact. They came again. And as my people, filled with curiosity, flocked to the shore, the French fired their cannon into the crowd. My people were frightened and fled into the woods. Your soldiers landed, and for three days they burned our huts, destroyed our plantations and cut down our cocoa trees. And all this time," added the old chief with a heavy sigh, "I was a prisoner at Tahiti, braiding baskets to gain a little food, and the grief that I suffered whitened my head before the time."

After a long pause, during which the old Bourarte seemed lost in thought, he said, "It is true that my people revenged themselves. They killed a good many, and among them one of your chiefs. What is most strange about this war is, that three English colonists, who lived peacefully among us by their commerce and fishing, were taken by the French and shot. Another Englishman, Captain Paddon, to whom I had sold many a cargo of sandal-wood, on learning the fate of his compatriots, fled on board a little boat with one Kanacka and a few provisions, got out to sea, and, as I have been told, actually gained the port of Sydney." This, it seems, is a historical fact. It was a boat without a deck, and the distance is three hundred and sixty marine miles!



The result of the exploring mission of M. Garnier was not a discovery of gold-mines, as so many had hoped. He is of the opinion that gold deposits are scarce in the island. His report of the natives is on the whole favorable, and confirms the testimony of missionaries and others, that they are superior savages, easily civilized and Christianized, but from some cause or combination of causes fast dying out before the advance of civilization. In some respects they are less rude than other South Sea Islanders, but they treat their women in much the same way. M. Garnier gives us a photograph of a New Caledonia family on the road, the head of the family, a big, stolid brute apparently, burdened only with his club, while his wife staggers along under the combined load of sugar-canes, yams, dried fishes and other provisions.

A more revolting, but also, happily, a far rarer sight, was that of a cannibal banquet, of which M. Garnier was a concealed witness. The scene was a thicket in the wildest portion of the country, and only the chiefs of the tribe, which had just gained a victory over its enemies, took part in the feast. A blazing fire threw its bright glare on a dozen figures seated around huge banana-leaves, on which were spread the smoking viands of the diabolical repast. A disgusting odor was wafted toward the spot where our Frenchman and his companions lay perdu, enchained by a horrible fascination which produced the sensation of nightmare. Directly in front of them was an old chief with long white beard and wrinkled skin, who gnawed a head still covered with the singed hair. Thrusting a pointed stick into the eye-sockets, he contrived to extract a portion of the brain, afterward placing the skull in the hottest part of the fire, and thus separating the bones to obtain a wider aperture. The click of a trigger close to his ear recalled M. Garnier to his senses, and arresting the arm of his sergeant, who, excited to indignation, had brought his musket to his shoulder, he hurried from a scene calculated, beyond all others, to thrill the nerves and curdle the blood of a civilized spectator.