Volume 2 1893 > Volume 2, No.1, March 1893 > Niue: or Savage Island, by Edward Tregear, p 11-16
                                                                                             Previous | Next   

- 11

THE vocabulary1 of Niue which is presented with this number of the Society's Journal, and for which we are indebted to the industry of Mr. Harold Williams of Timaru, may be supplemented by a description of the island and its inhabitants.

Niue2 is a small island in Lat. 19° 0 S. and Long. 169° 21 W. It does not belong to any well-known group—its nearest neighbours being Tonga, about 200 miles to the West, and Samoa, nearly 300 miles to the North. It is about 40 miles in circumference, and is nearly of an oval shape.

It was first seen by European eyes on the 20th of June, 1774, when Captain Cook sighted the island about five in the afternoon. Fearing too close proximity to unknown shores in the dark, he bore away and returned next morning. Landing appeared practicable, and, seeing people ashore, Cook sent two of his boats towards the beach; on seeing these the natives retreated into the woods. The boats were beached, and the party ascending a high rock, displayed their flag, and waited; Mr. Forster and others wandering in the near vicinity to collect plants as botanical specimens. The coast was so overgrown with bushes, and so cumbered with large stones that it was impossible to see for forty yards around. Cook took two men and entered a kind of chasm in the rock which appeared to open into the forest, but, hearing natives approaching, he called out to Forster and the others to rejoin the main body. Just then some islanders ap- - 12 peared, and the Europeans tried, by making signs and speaking in a friendly way, to make the natives understand that their mission was one of peace. Their overtures were answered with menaces, and a stone was thrown which struck Mr. Sparrman on the arm. Cook's party then fired two muskets in the air, which had the effect of intimidating the islanders, who turned and fled to the woods. Finding that it was hopeless to attempt to follow them among the thick brushwood and stones, the visitors, after waiting some time, returned to their boats, and coasted along the shore for some miles without seeing anyone. At last they came to a little beach on which four canoes were drawn up. Cook landed in a little creek close by, and left some nails, medals, &c., in the canoes as a peace-offering. The situation was a bad one in which to be surprised by an enemy, so the commander led his men to the top of a neighbouring rock. The beach at this place was composed of flat rock with a narrow strip covered with stones behind it, and thence rose a perpendicular cliff, the top of which was covered with trees and shrubs.

Cook, accompanied by four gentlemen of his party went up to the canoes, upon which a party of natives rushed out of a chasm, and charged “ferocious as wild boars” upon the Europeans, hurling their darts as they came. Two or three muskets were discharged, but did not stop the rush, till the war party had advanced so near that one of their spears passed close over Cook's shoulder. The intrepid explorer thereupon raised his musket, and directing it upon his enemy attempted to discharge it, but it missed fire. At this moment, the main-party, stationed on the rock, perceived the enemy in force upon the heights and opened fire upon them. The attacking natives and their friends at once retreated and disappeared. Cook describes the islanders as being tall, well-made men; naked, except for the waist-cloth; some had their faces, breasts, and thighs painted black. The canoes were decorated with carved work. Cook sailed away, so impressed with the ferocity of the inhabitants that he called their abode “Savage Island.”

The next visitor from whom we have a detailed account was the missionary John Williams, who, in 1831, arrived at the island for the purpose of leaving there two Christian teachers from Aitutaki. The island seemed to him neither beautiful nor romantic, and he noticed the iron-bound coast and “the rocks in most places perpendicular, with here and there a recess, by which the natives had intercourse with the sea,” as Cook had done. The natives would not launch their canoes but formed themselves into array upon the shore. When the boat approached, each of the islanders was seen to be armed with three or four spears, a sling, and a belt full of large stones. On perceiving, however, that no Europeans were in the boat, (the mission boat when pioneering was manned by Polynesians only), they came down to the extreme point of the reef and, presenting the utu or peace- - 13 offering, bade their visitors welcome. The custom of offering the utu consists in presenting a bread-fruit, a piece of cloth, or some other article, to which is attached the sacred coco-nut leaf called Tapaau.

When this ceremony was over a bond of peace was supposed to be established, and some of the natives, launching their canoes, went off to look at the ship, preserving however a respectful distance. One old chief was induced to enter the boat and visit the ship. The following is a description of the pleasant old gentleman's aspect and demeanour. “His appearance was truly terrific. He was about sixty years of age, his person tall, his cheek-bones raised and prominent, and his countenance forbidding; his whole body was smeared with charcoal, his hair and beard were both long and grey, and the latter, plaited and twisted together, hung from his mouth like so many rat's tails. He wore no clothing, except a narrow strip of cloth around his loins, for the purpose of passing a spear through, or any other article he might wish to carry. On reaching the deck the old man was most frantic in his gesticulations, leaping about from place to place, and using the most vociferous exclamations at everything he saw. All attempts at conversation with him were entirely useless, as we could not persuade him to stand still for a single second. Our natives attempted to clothe him by fastening around his person a piece of native cloth; but, tearing it off in a rage, he threw it upon deck, and stamping upon it, exclaimed: ‘Am I a woman, that I should be encumbered with that stuff?’ He then proceeded to give us a specimen of a war-dance, which he commenced by poising and quivering his spear, running to and fro, leaping and vociferating as though inspired by the spirit of wildness. Then he distorted his features most horribly by extending his mouth, gnashing his teeth, and forcing his eyes almost out their sockets. At length he concluded this exhibition by thrusting the whole of his long grey beard into his mouth, and gnawing it with the most savage vengeance. During the whole of the performance he kept up a loud and hideous howl.”

The islanders seemed hospitable and proffered food, but did not appear to understand the uses of the return-presents. On a hatchet, a looking-glass, and a pair of scissors being given to them, they evidently did not comprehend to what purposes these articles could be applied, but one of the chiefs possessed himself of a large mother-o'-pearl shell with outrageous expressions of joy. The men were all entirely naked, and appeared perfectly innocent of the need of covering. The women had betaken themselves to the woods. The Aitutaki native-teachers, with their wives, were so frightened at the idea of being left among these savages that they begged to be taken on to Tonga or elsewhere, and their request was granted. The missionaries, however, “induced” two of the Niue youths to accompany them, in the hope that they might possibly be tamed and return to convert - 14 their relatives. On finding that they were getting out of sight of their beloved island, the poor lads became almost frantic, tearing their hair and howling in a piteous manner. This noisy grief was kept up for three or four days, the howlings being incessant and heart-rending. They refused to eat animal food, thinking (as there were no quadrupeds on their island) that it was human flesh, and that they too would soon be sacrificed. On seeing a pig killed they lost their fears, became tranquil, and, at last, satisfied with their lots.

Other visitors who have had more opportunity to learn, have since described the Savage Islanders at greater length. The natives are of the fair-Polynesian type, and greatly resemble the Samoans. Before the introduction of Christianity they were constantly at war with each other. Their weapons were clubs, spears, and round balls of stalactite stone; these stones being thrown either by hand or by means of a sling. They had no knowledge of Kava, the intoxicating beverage so widely partaken of in the South Seas. They did not eat human flesh, and regarded the Tongans (of whom they had traditional knowledge) with horror as “man-eaters.”

Their food consisted of yams, bananas, taro, coco-nuts and fish. Their houses were low and of a circular shape. The men wore the maro, the Polynesian waist-belt, but the women had decent girdles of leaves. Marriage was polygamous, but the women were kindly treated, and great care was taken of the children. This care did not extend to bastard children, who were either thrown into the sea or abandoned in the forest, as such offspring were looked upon as disgraceful. These natives had a singular dread of the introduction of disease; this was carried to such an extent that if any shipwrecked person succeeded in gaining a landing on their coasts he was slain at once, and even one of themselves who had been absent in other islands was killed on his return. Suicide was common, and an islander would destroy himself by jumping over the cliffs into the sea in a mere fit of anger. They did not dread death very greatly, and before going into battle would say to one another: “Well, if we die, we only meet the death we should have to meet some day, and we shall not have it to do over again.”

They formerly had priest-kings, but these were supposed to promote and protect the food-crops, and when the days of dearth fell upon the land, the kings were killed for not doing their duty. So many were sacrificed in this manner that the appointment became looked upon as a dangerously unprofitable one, and no aspirant could be found to fill the regal position. A council of the heads of families was then formed to direct events, especially in times of war. Their religious sentiments seem to have been tinctured with the same impatience and intolerance as their loyalty, for in ancient times they possessed a carved image of a deity to which they paid their reverential homage, but, - 15 as the god did not prevent a certain epidemic from spreading, they broke up the idol and threw the pieces away. Evidently there was much common-sense philosophy and grim humour in this simple people.

General worship was paid to the spirits of ancestors. It was believed that the souls of the dead went to a subterranean abode named Maui, but the bright land of Sina in the sky, a land where darkness and gloom was not known, was their paradise. Their cosmogony relates that their island was discovered as a rock a-wash in the ocean by two men of Tonga, named Fao and Huanaki. These men got upon the rock and stamped upon it, whereupon it rose from out the sea, the water ran off, and the land appeared. The visitors stamped again, and then trees and grasses sprung up. The Tongans now moulded the first man and woman from the root of the Ti tree (Dracæna) and from this pair the world (Niue) was peopled.

On the occasion of a man's death, his wives singed off their hair as a sign of mourning. The corpse was either set adrift in a canoe, or left in the forest on a pile of stones, a covering of coco-nut leaves being placed on the body. When the flesh had fallen off, the bones were gathered and placed in a tomb. As a means of imparting consequence and nurture to the spirit of a deceased person, his cultivations, coco-nut trees, &c., were destroyed, and cast into the sea.

At the present time the character of both Niue and its people differs much from that of the past. The population numbers 5,070, with 503 married men temporarily absent in other islands. At least half of this population are children. There are two fine churches of coral-stone; that at Alofi being particularly handsome; it is ninety feet in length by twenty-five feet in width. At Avalele a still larger church has been erected. The natives are under the care of the Rev. Frank Lawes, whose whole time, with that of Mrs. Lawes is devoted to teaching the islanders, not only on religious subjects, but on every matter which tends to their physical and industrial development. The result is to be seen in the pretty verandahed cottages of the natives, which, whitened with burnt lime, gleam among the groves of coco-nut palms and orange trees. Coffee, cotton, sugar-cane, arrow-root, and yams are all produced in encouraging quantity and of the finest quality, the soil being very fertile.

The people of Niue still cling to some of their ancient and innocent customs. Thus, the tombs in which the dead are buried stand prominently forth among the foliage along the roadways; they are of plastered coral-rock, and are always built on the land of the deceased person. So, too, the form of representative assembly (instead of kingship) remains, and they now have a council of delegates elected every two months by the heads of families. They are still teetotallers, rejecting ardent spirits as their fathers rejected Kava. Still, too, they - 16 sometimes give way to demonstrations of excitement, and rush about with rolling eyes, shouting, and chewing their beards, as did the old chief on John Williams' ship.

There can be little doubt but that the people of Niue are a lovable race. The improvement they have effected in rising in a few years from savagery to the comparative civilization and culture of their present state, marks them as being quick to appreciate those habits of mind and body which “make for righteousness.”

1  In reading the vocabulary it should be remembered that g is pronounced ng. The words were obtained from the New Testament translated into Niue by the Rev. Frank Lawes.
2  Sometimes printed on maps as Inui.