Part 2 – The Reminscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield

continued from section one

This chief was one of the finest specimens of physical manhood I ever saw. Perhaps six feet tall; slender, straight as an arrow, lithe as a cat, and with a bright, pleasant face. He could speak a few words in English. I used to like very much to sit and talk with him. Poor fellow! When I was there four years later the leprosy had wrecked him. Both feet were gone; one leg nearly to the knee; and some of the fingers from one hand. But he was the same cheerful fellow as he was when at his best. The reef was a very wide one – half a mile in some places, and nearer a mile in others. Along it were scattered a number of keys (islands); some mere dots, other from one to three acres; most of them bearing cocoanuts, and most of them inhabited. Occasionally one would bear a breadfruit tree, but not often. On one of these was a remarkable structure, which clearly proved that a much more powerful race had inhabited the island in the dim, distant past. The key did not exceed a half acre. The structure was about one hundred and fifty by two hundred feet. In its center was what appeared to be an altar, some twelve feet square, about six feet high; the top formed of two flat stones, which completely covered it; the sides two feet thick, with an opening some eighteen inches wide and five feet high; and a stone which must have been used to close the entrance lying in front of it. The enclosure built of basaltic stones, laid without cement, about eight feet thick and ten feet high, with a parapet waist high around the outer edge of the top, and many of these stones weighing not less than ten tones, and the only possible place to get them not less than eight miles distant, where there was a basaltic cliff some two hundred feet high close to the water, where they must have been quarried. And the quarrying was so well done as to prove the quarrymen were fully as skillful as the quarrymen of the present day. The natives when I was there had no knowledge, not even any tradition, as to who built it, or when it was built; and they held it such dread – or reverence perhaps – that no one of them was ever known to have put foot on the key. The general appearance was that of a temple and fortification combined.

It was while we were at Asuncion that I saw what I consider a fine piece of statesmanship. A New London ship came in a short time after we arrived. Among her crew were Tahite natives: big, strong fellows, whom I presume held in contempt what they considered the inferior natives living nearer the tropics. While on shore – on liberty – they got into a dispute with the islanders. Just what the trouble was I never knew; but all at once there was a great outcry on the brow of the cliff, and those Tahitians were coming down the cliff with a crowd of the islanders chasing them with clubs and stones, which they were throwing at them. The Tahitians were putting up a good fight. All had got hold of a club, and occasionally one would turn, knock an islander over, and run again. Four or five of us jumped into a boat lying at the gangway, and started ashore to the rescue. We had not trouble in staving the islanders off. They had no quarrel with us, and they recognized our right to serve the ship’s men. Only one of the Tahitians was badly hurt. He was knocked down and laid out by a big stone which had hit him on the side of the head, and nasty hole it had made in it. We thought it had finished him; but he got over it. By that time one of the New London ships arrived, and we put him in that and the mate who was in the boat took them aboard their own ship. The pilot, only an English common sailor, but a man of brains for all that, said “This will not be the last of this affair”, and immediately started in a canoe, up the reef where the reigning chief lived. He was gone one night. The following day we saw twelve war canoes coming down the reef. In one sat a man not much past middle age, dressed in royal robes, and surrounded by six fine looking fellows, armed with muskets. The whole retinue couldn’t have consisted of less than two hundred men. Apparently they took no notice of the ships, passed under our hawsers, and landed near the boat house: took the six handsome war canoes out of the house, and put them into the water, burnt the boat house, shot at the few natives who showed themselves on the brow of the cliff, took the canoes in tow and then came alongside of the ship. In the meantime the pilot had instructed Uncle Seth as to what would be a suitable present (good will offering), and had us (the ship’s company) ranged up amidships to receive his majesty; and that native chief – King as we called him – came over the gangway, quiet, alert, complete master of himself, and complete master of the situation, and this is what he said as interpreted by the pilot: (I put it into my own language.) “You will tell the captain that I regret very much that my people have been provoked into committing this breach of hospitality. I have punished them; and I will leave two of my young men aboard each ship who will see that nothing of the kind happens again during your stay.” I consider that a very fine piece of statesmanship. He didn’t ask the captain if he was satisfied. He had adjudged the case according to his own judgment. Then he took his present, made a single gesture of acknowledgement, passed over the side, and went aboard the New London ship, where I suppose the same ceremony was gone through with. Two days after we left the place, and started for the north to battle with the snows and sea of the Artic.

While at Asunsion I became interested in the Tabu. While on shore one day with the pilot, we spent an hour or two at the house of intelligent native, and while there another native called, and asked for the loan of some implement. (I forget what it was.) that had been left in his care. The man pointed to it, and the caller immediately turned and went away without a word. I asked the pilot why he did so, and he called my attention to a spear of grass attached to the article by a peculiar knot, and told me that it was Tabu. Of course that piqued my curiosity, and between the two – the pilot interpreting – I believe I got a very correct idea of its significance. I already knew that it was universal throughout all Polynesia, but just what it meant I did not know. It was not loyalty to either chief or tribe. It had nothing to do with their religious views, and they had no superstitious dread of it. Its influence seemed to be purely moral. For instance, a native wishing to leave any article – no matter where – would attach a spear of grass to it, and it was Tabu, and no other native would ever dream of taking it from the place where the owner had left it. The spear of grass being a sign that it was neither lost or abandoned, but on the contrary that the owner intended to recover it for his own use. So far the Tabu was common to all. Chiefs according to their rank exercised it for the benefit of the community. For instance, a subordinate chief finding that some article of necessity was scarce, game, breadfruit, etc. would tabu it, and then no member of his section of the tribe would sell either to any one outside of his jurisdiction; but a superior chief might annul it. Another use was also made of it. A native rendering some extraordinary service to the tribe – or section of the tribe – might be granted Tabul and if for the tribe as a whole the reigning chief granted it, from that time his person was sacred throughout the whole tribe. It granted no privilege, and conferred no authority, but no tribesman other than the chief granting it, might so much as lay a finger on him in the way of violence. A subordinate chief might grant Tabu within his jurisdiction. I was told that this was very sparingly used; that for long periods no one was Tabu. After I understood this it was easy to understand how the population of the little isolated Ocean island was kept within limits. Every woman was Tabu after bearing two children. No man might hold intercourse with her.

We made a quick passage to the latitude of 30 deg. No. Then finding that we should get into Behring Sea too early, passed through the Korean Straits, and spent a month in Japan Sea looking for right whales. We met with little success; as my memory serves me, took two small ones; but we had lots of stormy weather when we couldn’t lower the boats. We saw many junks and numberless fishing boats; clumsy looking craft as we viewed them, but capable of keeping the sea to the full as well as we were. This you must remember was the year 1850 – three years before Commodore Perry’s expedition – when he made the famous treaty – and the policy of the Japanese at that time was absolute non-intercourse with foreigners. Consequently we did not go very near the land. Very shy the crews of the boats and junks were when near enough to be seen from the land; but not nearly so shy when farther from shore. We boarded several, got fish from boats, and tried to get sugar – of which we were short – but did not succeed in getting any sugar. Either they had none, or could not understand what we wanted, or what is just as likely, did not dare to trade with us for fear of its coming to the knowledge of the authorities: but the conclusion I reached was that if the nation as a whole were as manly a lot as those seafaring men were the Japanese were not a people to be despised: and when the war with Russia broke out I felt sure that Russia would discover it to her cost.

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