Bobaran by Louis Becke
When our boat touched the beach in front of the trader's house just as the
dawn was breaking, I thought Kabaira Bay one of the loveliest places in
the Pacific, and said so to the man I had been sent to relieve. He quite
concurred in my opinion of the beauties of the scenery, but said that he
was very glad to get away. Then, being a cheerful man, though given to
unnecessary blasphemy, like most South Sea Island traders, he took me out
to the rich garden at the back of the station and showed me the grave of
his predecessor, who had died of fever a year before. Further on, but
outside the enclosing fence, were some more graves, he said.
'Whose?' I asked.
'Captain Murray's, his mate's, and two of his cutter's crew.'
'No,' he replied, with some slight surprise at my ignorance; 'the natives
killed 'em a couple o' years ago. An', see, just over there by Point Luen,
is the Hon. Mr Willington's house. He was a nephew of Lord L———.
I goes there sometimes and rips a board out o' the floor when I wants
'Mr Wellington gone away?' My friend was surprised this time. 'Why,
you must be a new chum in New Britain. Why, Willington ain't dead
six months.' 'Fev—'
'Fever be ———-. No, he got speared when he was lying in
his bunk readin' a book one night. I told him that the niggers
would pay him out for a-playin' crooked with em'; but he was too
cock-a-hoopy to listen to a feller like me.'
'Any more white men buried in Kabaira? 'I asked after a while, as we
walked back to the house to take stock of my host's trade goods.
'No, that's all that's planted here—at least, all I know of, and
I've been here, in New Britain, five years. There's been a good many
Dutchmen killed on the coast here, and over in New Ireland, but I didn't
know any of 'em. An' they're such a silly lot o' duffers, that they
reg'lar tempts these New Britain niggers to kill 'em; and then the
beggars, not knowing an Englishman from a Dutchman, are ready to murder
anyone with a white skin. So you look out, young feller. These niggers
here are a rotten bad lot. But I'll interdooce yer to Bobaran. He's the
biggest cut-throat of em' all; but he an' me is good pals, and onct you've
squared him you're pretty safe. Got plenty fever medicine?' 'Lots.'
'Liquor?' 'Case of gin.'
'That'll keep you clear o' fever as much as anything, as long as the case
lasts. Always drink some when it's raining.' (It usually rained nine days
out of ten in New Britain). 'Now we'll take stock. I can tell you I'm
mighty glad to clear out o' this place—an' so will you be in a
couple o' months, if—you're alive.'
Having thus, in cheerful converse, somewhat enlightened me as to the
peculiar characteristics of Kabaira Bay and its inhabitants, my friend had
breakfast cooked, and whilst we were eating it, sent a messenger for his
friend Bobaran to come and make the acquaintance of the new white man.
During breakfast the trader gave me much further information, all of
which, as a man new to the ropes, I was very glad to obtain. Kabaira, I
already knew (I had but just arrived in New Britain from Eastern
Polynesia), was the 'furthest out' trading station on the great island,
which, at that time, had barely thirty white men living on it; most of
these were settled on Gazelle Peninsula, and a few on the Duke of York
Island, midway between the northern point of New Britain and mountainous
New Ireland. My nearest neighbour lived at Kabakadà, a populous native
town ten miles away. My host told me that this man was 'a noisy, drunken
little swine,' the which assertion I subsequently found to be absolutely
correct. Further on, five miles from Kabakadà, was another trader named
Bruno Ran, a hard-working Swiss; then, after rounding Cape Stephens, was
the large German trading station of Matupi in Blanche Bay, where you could
buy anything from a needle to a chain cable. On the Duke of York Island
was another trading station, and also the Wesleyan Mission, which as yet
had made but few converts in New Britain; and over in New Ireland were a
few scattered English traders, who sometimes sailed over on a visit to
their dangerously-situated fellow-countrymen in the big island.
For dangerous indeed was the daily existence of traders in those then
little-known islands. But money was to be made, and men will dare much to
make money quickly, even though at the risk of their lives. As for the
natives of New Britain, a few words will suffice. They were the most
unmitigated savages, cowardly and treacherous, and with the exception of
the people of the villages in the vicinity of Blanche Bay, whose women
wore a scanty girdle of leaves of the plant Cordyline terminalis,
they passed their lives in a state of stark nudity. Their dwellings and
canoes were of the poorest description, but their plantations and gardens
were highly cultivated, and marvels of incessant and intelligent labour.
For human life they had no regard; in fact, a pig was worth more than a
man, except among those tribes where a man who weighed more than a pig
would be more valuable as food. At the present time things have improved
on the Gazelle Peninsula, but along the coast-line, which to the westward
stretches for over two hundred miles towards New Guinea, matters have not
changed. As for their personal appearance, it is simply hideous. Take the
biggest anthropoid ape, stain his teeth black and his lips scarlet, stick
a wig of matted greasy curls on his head, and put half a dozen slender
spears in his right paw, and you have an idea of a New Britain nigger—a
'brand,' according to missionary ethics, who should be plucked from the
burning, but whom the Christian of ordinary intelligence would cheerfully
watch burning until he was reduced to a cinder.
Just as we had finished breakfast, Bobaran came in and squatted on the
flour. Being a man of rank and influence, he was privileged, and allowed
to carry his arms with him inside the trader's house. These consisted of
five spears, one long-handled ebony-wood club, with a huge jade head, and
a horse-pistol, which was fastened to a leather belt around his naked
waist. His fuzzy wool was dyed a bright brick red colour and twisted into
countless little curls which, hanging over his beetling and excessively
dirty black forehead, almost concealed his savage eyes, and harmonised
with his thick, betel-stained lips and cavernous, grip-sack mouth. Around
his arms were two white circlets of shell, and depending from his
bull-like neck a little basket containing betel-nut and lime. He certainly
was a most truculent-looking scoundrel. Nevertheless, I shook hands with
him cordially, and he agreed, for certain considerations, to look after
me, find me in food, warn me of any danger that might impend, and also to
murder anyone with whom I might feel annoyed, for a fixed but very small
remuneration. In proof whereof of this alliance, and as a token of amity
and goodwill, Parker (the trader) presented him with a small tin of ship
biscuit, four dynamite cartridges, a dozen boxes of matches and a bottle
of a villainous German liquor called 'Corn Schnapps.' Then the atrocity
stood up and embraced me, and asked me to show him my firearms. His fierce
eyes gleamed with pleasure as he turned them about in his filthy paws, and
he was especially pleased with the size of a Sharp's rifle cartridge and
bullet which would, he grinned, 'make big fellow hole in man.' Then, with
further expressions of goodwill on both sides, we parted.
At dusk Parker bade me good-bye, and urging me to put the utmost
confidence in Bobaran and drink plenty of gin whenever it rained—to
keep the fever from 'gettin' holt' of my system—he walked down to
the beach and stepped into the boat. For a few minutes I stood watching
till he was hidden from view by a point of land, and then, feeling
somewhat depressed at my future loneliness, I walked back to the house.
Bobaran, the Mesdames Bobaran (three), and the Masters and Misses Bobaran
were sitting on the verandah awaiting me. None of them were as much
dressed as their father, who had, as I have said, a leather belt around
his loins, and all were chewing betel-nut and expectorating the scarlet
juice thereof vigorously about the premises. Being aware of the fact that
a New Britain woman is never abroad at night, and a man but seldom, I was
surprised at such a family gathering, for the village was some distance
away. Bobaran, however, explained that as he and two of his sons intended
keeping guard for me that night, the rest of the family had come with them—and
that they should like some tobacco.
Leaving his wives and children outside to smoke, my protector came into
the sitting-room, and as he had acquired a considerable amount of
unpolished sailor man's English, I found him very entertaining and also
instructive. First he told me that the Kabaira people were perfectly safe;
it was a very peaceful village, and the people liked white men, and he
hoped I would not carry arms whenever I went out—it made them
frightened, and when people were frightened of a man they naturally tried
to kill him. Agreed to. Secondly, they were not cannibals—all their
neighbours were, however. (I said I was pleased to hear it, no doubt
someone had maligned them.) But they were all thieves, and I must take
prompt action to prevent myself from being robbed—(here one of his
wives crept to the door on all fours and asked her lord and master for a
match, but was struck with great violence in the mouth with an empty
salmon tin instead, for interrupting). To-morrow I should do as 'Parka'
did the day he came to Kabaira. I must go down to the beach with a
dynamite cartridge in my hand and seek for a place where there was plenty
of fish. And I must have another cartridge ready in my pocket. As soon as
the first shot went off hundreds of natives would jump in the water and
try to steal all the best fish. Then I was to light the fuse of the second
cartridge and throw it in. And it would be sure to hurt some of the
people, and they would not follow me next time I went fishing. But, of
course, if I should happen to kill anyone, I would pay for it?
'Of course I would,' I said. 'How much?'
'Big feller man, one good musket; boy, one axix' (axe); 'old woman, old
feller, musket; young girl, one good musket.'
Then he approached me on a delicate subject, i.e., the taking over of my
predecessor's harem of three native women. I explained that I was
expecting my wife down soon from Samoa and couldn't do it. He said it was
a great pity, as one of 'Parka's' wives could make tea and cook meat.
Also, that I need be under no fear of her making any unpleasantness when
my wife turned up. Would I like to see the girl? 'Parka' had taught her a
lot of things. She did not oil her hair with pigeon fat, and cleaned her
teeth every day just like a Samoan girl. Also, she had ten coils of dewarra
(cowrie shells threaded on the midribs of the coco-nut leaf, and used as
the native currency). I said I was very much tempted, but thought I had
better not. He looked at me steadily for a few seconds, as he thrust a
fresh 'chaw' of betel-nut and lime into his hideous mouth, and said that I
was missing a great chance—there were plenty of white men along the
coast who would be glad to get anyone of 'Parka's' wives, especially she
who could make tea and cook meat.
He seemed pleased that I was disposed to be as liberal-handed as Parker,
for whom he seemed to have a high regard; and then proceeded to tell me of
some of his own exploits among the inhabitants of Mutavât, a village
across the bay, which was at enmity with Kabaira. The infinite gusto with
which he related a series of atrocious murders gave me a chill, and he
looked like an evil spirit when his great red lips parted in a grin and
revealed his black teeth. Presently he asked me if I had shot any people;
and when I said I had not, he became regretful, but soon brightened up
again and said I would have plenty of chances yet.
There were some bush villages, to which he would take me some day, and if
we were careful we could knock over two or three people easily; they were
a bad lot these 'man-a-bush' (bush-men).
At ten o'clock I turned in, and Bobaran, after an animated conversation
with his family, lay down at my door with a Snider rifle and his
horse-pistol by his side.
And for many long, weary months, in the beautiful but fever-ridden Kabaira
Bay, he was the only person to whom I could talk; and in time I began to
take a liking to him, for I found him, as Parker had told me, 'a
thunderin' old cut-throat, but as straight as a die to a white man who
acts straight to him.'