The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Thirty.

The Voyage — The Island, and a Consultation in which Danger is Scouted as a Thing Unworthy of Consideration — Rats and Cats — The Native Teacher — Awful Revelations — Wonderful Effects of Christianity.

Our voyage during the next two weeks was most interesting and prosperous. The breeze continued generally fair, and at all times enabled us to lie our course; for being, as I have said before, clipper-built, the pirate schooner could lie very close to the wind and make little leeway. We had no difficulty now in managing our sails, for Jack was heavy and powerful, while Peterkin was active as a kitten. Still, however, we were a very insufficient crew for such a vessel; and if any one had proposed to us to make such a voyage in it before we had been forced to go through so many hardships from necessity, we would have turned away with pity from the individual making such proposal as from a madman. I pondered this a good deal, and at last concluded that men do not know how much they are capable of doing till they try, and that we should never give way to despair in any undertaking, however difficult it may seem — always supposing, however, that our cause is a good one, and that we can ask the Divine blessing on it.

Although, therefore, we could now manage our sails easily, we nevertheless found that my pulleys were of much service to us in some things, though Jack did laugh heartily at the uncouth arrangement of ropes and blocks, which had, to a sailor’s eye, a very lumbering and clumsy appearance. But I will not drag my reader through the details of this voyage. Suffice it to say that, after an agreeable sail of about three weeks, we arrived off the island of Mango, which I recognised at once from the description that the pirate Bill had given me of it during one of our conversations.

As soon as we came within sight of it, we hove the ship to and held a council of war.

“Now, boys,” said Jack as we seated ourselves beside him on the cabin skylight, “before we go further in this business we must go over the pros and cons of it; for although you have so generously consented to stick by me through thick and thin, it would be unfair did I not see that you thoroughly understand the danger of what we are about to attempt.”

“Oh, bother the danger!” cried Peterkin. “I wonder to hear you, Jack, talk of danger! When a fellow begins to talk about it, he’ll soon come to magnify it to such a degree that he’ll not be fit to face it when it comes — no more than a suckin’ baby.”

“Nay, Peterkin,” replied Jack gravely, “I won’t be jested out of it. I grant you that when we’ve once resolved to act, and have made up our minds what to do, we should think no more of danger. But before we have so resolved, it behoves us to look it straight in the face, and examine into it, and walk round it; for if we flinch at a distant view, we’re sure to run away when the danger is near. — Now, I understand from you, Ralph, that the island is inhabited by thorough-going, out-and-out cannibals, whose principal law is, ‘Might is right, and the weakest goes to the wall?’”

“Yes,” said I; “so Bill gave me to understand. He told me, however, that at the southern side of it the missionaries had obtained a footing amongst an insignificant tribe. A native teacher had been sent there by the Wesleyans, who had succeeded in persuading the chief at that part to embrace Christianity. But instead of that being of any advantage to our enterprise, it seems the very reverse; for the chief Tararo is a determined heathen, and persecutes the Christians — who are far too weak in numbers to offer any resistance — and looks with dislike upon all white men, whom he regards as propagators of the new faith.”

“’Tis a pity,” said Jack, “that the Christian tribe is so small, for we shall scarcely be safe under their protection, I fear. If Tararo takes it into his head to wish for our vessel, or to kill ourselves, he could take us from them by force. You say that the native missionary talks English?”

“So I believe.”

“Then, what I propose is this,” said Jack. “We will run round to the south side of the island, and cast anchor off the Christian village. We are too far away just now to have been descried by any of the savages, so we shall get there unobserved, and have time to arrange our plans before the heathen tribes know of our presence. But in doing this we run the risk of being captured by the ill-disposed tribes, and being very ill-used, if not — a —”

“Roasted alive and eaten!” cried Peterkin. “Come, out with it, Jack! According to your own showing, it’s well to look the danger straight in the face.”

“Well, that is the worst of it, certainly. Are you prepared, then, to take your chance of that?”

“I’ve been prepared and had my mind made up long ago,” cried Peterkin, swaggering about the deck with his hands thrust into his breeches pockets. “The fact is, Jack, I don’t believe that Tararo will be so ungrateful as to eat us, and I’m quite sure that he’ll be too happy to grant us whatever we ask; so the sooner we go in and win the better.”

Peterkin was wrong, however, in his estimate of savage gratitude, as the sequel will show.

The schooner was now put before the wind, and after making a long run to the southward, we put about and beat up for the south side of Mango, where we arrived before sunset, and hove-to off the coral reef. Here we awaited the arrival of a canoe, which immediately put off on our rounding-to. When it arrived, a mild-looking native, of apparently forty years of age, came on board, and taking off his straw hat, made us a low bow. He was clad in a respectable suit of European clothes; and the first words he uttered, as he stepped up to Jack and shook hands with him, were:

“Good-day, gentlemen. We are happy to see you at Mango. You are heartily welcome.”

After returning his salutation, Jack exclaimed, “You must be the native missionary teacher of whom I have heard — are you not?”

“I am. I have the joy to be a servant of the Lord Jesus at this station.”

“You’re the very man I want to see, then,” replied Jack; “that’s lucky. Come down to the cabin, friend, and have a glass of wine. I wish particularly to speak with you. My men there”— pointing to Peterkin and me —“will look after your people.”

“Thank you,” said the teacher as he followed Jack to the cabin; “I do not drink wine or any strong drink.”

“Oh! then there’s lots of water, and you can have biscuit.”

“Now, ‘pon my word, that’s cool!” said Peterkin; “his men, forsooth! Well, since we are to be men, we may as well come it as strong over these black chaps as we can. — Hallo, there!” he cried to the half-dozen of natives who stood upon the deck, gazing in wonder at all they saw, “here’s for you;” and he handed them a tray of broken biscuit and a can of water. Then thrusting his hands into his pockets, he walked up and down the deck with an enormous swagger, whistling vociferously.

In about half-an-hour Jack and the teacher came on deck, and the latter, bidding us a cheerful good-evening, entered his canoe and paddled to the shore. When he was gone, Peterkin stepped up to Jack, and touching his cap, said:

“Well, captain, have you any communications to make to your men?”

“Yes,” cried Jack: “ready about, mind the helm, and clew up your tongue, while I con the schooner through the passage in the reef. The teacher, who seems a first-rate fellow, says it’s quite deep, and good anchorage within the lagoon close to the shore.”

While the vessel was slowly advancing to her anchorage, under a light breeze, Jack explained to us that Avatea was still on the island, living amongst the heathens; that she had expressed a strong desire to join the Christians; but Tararo would not let her, and kept her constantly in close confinement.

“Moreover,” continued Jack, “I find that she belongs to one of the Samoan Islands, where Christianity had been introduced long before her capture by the heathens of a neighbouring island; and the very day after she was taken she was to have joined the church which had been planted there by that excellent body, the London Missionary Society. The teacher tells me, too, that the poor girl has fallen in love with a Christian chief, who lives on an island some fifty miles or so to the south of this one, and that she is meditating a desperate attempt at escape. So, you see, we have come in the nick of time. — I fancy that this chief is the fellow whom you heard of, Ralph, at the island of Emo. — Besides all this, the heathen savages are at war among themselves, and there’s to be a battle fought the day after tomorrow, in which the principal leader is Tararo; so that we’ll not be able to commence our negotiations with the rascally chief till the day after.”

The village off which we anchored was beautifully situated at the head of a small bay, from the margin of which trees of every description peculiar to the tropics rose in the richest luxuriance to the summit of a hilly ridge, which was the line of demarcation between the possessions of the Christians and those of the neighbouring heathen chief.

The site of the settlement was an extensive plot of flat land, stretching in a gentle slope from the sea to the mountain. The cottages stood several hundred yards from the beach, and were protected from the glare of the sea by the rich foliage of rows of large Barringtonia and other trees which girt the shore. The village was about a mile in length, and perfectly straight, with a wide road down the middle, on either side of which were rows of the tufted-topped ti-tree, whose delicate and beautiful blossoms, hanging beneath their plume-crested tops, added richness to the scene. The cottages of the natives were built beneath these trees, and were kept in the most excellent order, each having a little garden in front, tastefully laid out and planted, while the walks were covered with black and white pebbles.

Every house had doors and Venetian windows, painted partly with lamp-black made from the candle-nut, and partly with red ochre, which contrasted powerfully with the dazzling coral lime that covered the walls. On a prominent position stood a handsome church, which was quite a curiosity in its way. It was a hundred feet long by fifty broad, and was seated throughout to accommodate upwards of two thousand persons. It had six large folding-doors, and twelve windows with Venetian blinds; and although a large and substantial edifice, it had been built, we were told by the teacher: in the space of two months! There was not a single iron nail in the fabric, and the natives had constructed it chiefly with their stone and bone axes and other tools, having only one or two axes or tools of European manufacture. Everything around this beautiful spot wore an aspect of peace and plenty; and as we dropped our anchor within a stone’s-cast of the substantial coral wharf, I could not avoid contrasting it with the wretched village of Emo, where I had witnessed so many frightful scenes. When the teacher afterwards told me that the people of this tribe had become converts only a year previous to our arrival, and that they had been living before that in the practice of the most bloody system of idolatry, I could not refrain from exclaiming, “What a convincing proof that Christianity is of God!”

On landing from our little boat we were received with a warm welcome by the teacher and his wife, the latter being also a native, clothed in a simple European gown and a straw bonnet. The shore was lined with hundreds of natives, whose persons were all more or less clothed with native cloth. Some of the men had on a kind of poncho formed of this cloth, their legs being uncovered; others wore clumsily fashioned trousers, and no upper garment except hats made of straw and cloth. Many of the dresses, both of women and men, were grotesque enough, being very bad imitations of the European garb; but all wore a dress of some sort or other. They seemed very glad to see us, and crowded round us as the teacher led the way to his dwelling, where we were entertained, in the most sumptuous manner, on baked pig and all the varieties of fruits and vegetables that the island produced. We were much annoyed, however, by the rats: they seemed to run about the house like domestic animals. As we sat at table, one of them peeped up at us over the edge of the cloth, close to Peterkin’s elbow, who floored it with a blow on the snout from his knife, exclaiming as he did so:

“I say, Mister Teacher, why don’t you set traps for these brutes? Surely you are not fond of them!”

“No,” replied the teacher with a smile. “We would be glad to get rid of them if we could; but if we were to trap all the rats on the island, it would occupy our whole time.”

“Are they, then, so numerous?” inquired Jack.

“They swarm everywhere. The poor heathens on the north side eat them, and think them very sweet. So did my people formerly; but they do not eat so many now, because the missionary who was last here expressed disgust at it. The poor people asked if it was wrong to eat rats; and he told them that it was certainly not wrong, but that the people of England would be much disgusted were they asked to eat rats.”

We had not been an hour in the house of this kind-hearted man when we were convinced of the truth of his statement as to their numbers; for the rats ran about the floors in dozens, and during our meal two men were stationed at the table to keep them off!

“What a pity you have no cats!” said Peterkin; and he aimed a blow at another reckless intruder, and missed it.

“We would indeed be glad to have a few,” rejoined the teacher, “but they are difficult to be got. The hogs, we find, are very good rat-killers; but they do not seem to be able to keep the numbers down. I have heard that they are better than cats.”

As the teacher said this, his good-natured black face was wrinkled with a smile of merriment. Observing that I had noticed it, he said:

“I smiled just now when I remembered the fate of the first cat that was taken to Rarotonga. This is one of the stations of the London Missionary Society. It, like our own, is infested with rats, and a cat was brought at last to the island. It was a large black one. On being turned loose, instead of being content to stay among men, the cat took to the mountains and lived in a wild state, sometimes paying visits during the night to the houses of the natives; some of whom, living at a distance from the settlement, had not heard of the cat’s arrival, and were dreadfully frightened in consequence, calling it a ‘monster of the deep,’ and flying in terror away from it. One night the cat — feeling a desire for company, I suppose — took its way to the house of a chief who had recently been converted to Christianity, and had begun to learn to read and pray. The chief’s wife, who was sitting awake at his side while he slept, beheld with horror two fires glistening in the doorway, and heard with surprise a mysterious voice. Almost petrified with fear, she awoke her husband, and began to upbraid him for forsaking his old religion and burning his god, who, she declared, was now come to be avenged of them. ‘Get up and pray! get up and pray!’ she cried. The chief arose, and on opening his eyes, beheld the same glaring lights and heard the same ominous sound. Impelled by the extreme urgency of the case, he commenced, with all possible vehemence, to vociferate the alphabet, as a prayer to God to deliver them from the vengeance of Satan! On hearing this, the cat, as much alarmed as themselves, fled precipitately away, leaving the chief and his wife congratulating themselves on the efficacy of their prayer.”

We were much diverted with this anecdote, which the teacher related in English so good that we certainly could not have supposed him a native but for the colour of his face and the foreign accent in his tone. Next day we walked out with this interesting man, and were much entertained and instructed by his conversation as we rambled through the cool, shady groves of bananas, citrons, limes, and other trees, or sauntered among the cottages of the natives, and watched them while they laboured diligently in the taro-beds or manufactured the tapa, or native cloth. To some of these Jack put questions, through the medium of the missionary; and the replies were such as to surprise us at the extent of their knowledge. Indeed, Peterkin very truly remarked that “they seemed to know a considerable deal more than Jack himself!”

Among other pieces of interesting information that we obtained was the following, in regard to coral formations:

“The islands of the Pacific,” said our friend, “are of three different kinds or classes. Those of the first class are volcanic, mountainous, and wild — some shooting their jagged peaks into the clouds at an elevation of ten and fifteen thousand feet. Those of the second class are of crystallised limestone, and vary in height from one hundred to five hundred feet. The hills on these are not so wild or broken as those of the first class, but are richly clothed with vegetation, and very beautiful. I have no doubt that the Coral Island on which you were wrecked was one of this class. They are supposed to have been upheaved from the bottom of the sea by volcanic agency; but they are not themselves volcanic in their nature, neither are they of coral formation. Those of the third class are the low coralline islands, usually having lagoons of water in their midst. They are very numerous.

“As to the manner in which coral islands and reefs are formed, there are various opinions on this point. I will give you what seems to me the most probable theory — a theory, I may add, which is held by some of the good and scientific missionaries. It is well known that there is much lime in salt water; it is also known that coral is composed of lime. It is supposed that the polypes, or coral insects, have the power of attracting this lime to their bodies, and with this material they build their little cells or habitations. They choose the summit of a volcano, or the top of a submarine mountain, as a foundation on which to build, for it is found that they never work at any great depth below the surface. On this they work. The polypes on the mountain-top, of course, reach the surface first; then those at the outer edges reach the top sooner than the others between them and the centre, thus forming the coral reef surrounding the lagoon of water and the central island. After that, the insects within the lagoon cease working. When the surface of the water is reached, these myriads of wonderful creatures die. Then birds visit the spot, and seeds are thus conveyed thither, which take root and spring up and flourish. Thus are commenced those coralline islets of which you have seen so many in these seas. The reefs round the large islands are formed in a similar manner. When we consider,” added the missionary, “the smallness of the architects used by our heavenly Father in order to form those lovely and innumerable islands, we are filled with much of that feeling which induced the ancient king to exclaim, ‘How manifold, O Lord, are Thy works! in wisdom hast Thou made them all.’”

We all heartily agreed with the missionary in this sentiment, and felt not a little gratified to find that the opinions which Jack and I had been led to form, from personal observation on our Coral Island, were thus to a great extent corroborated.

The missionary also gave us an account of the manner in which Christianity had been introduced among them. He said: “When missionaries were first sent here, three years ago, a small vessel brought them; and the chief, who is now dead, promised to treat well the two native teachers who were left with their wives on the island. But scarcely had the boat which landed them returned to the ship than the natives began to maltreat their guests, taking away all they possessed, and offering them further violence, so that when the boat was sent in haste to fetch them away, the clothes of both men and women were torn nearly off their backs.

“Two years after this the vessel visited them again, and I, being in her, volunteered to land alone, without any goods whatever, begging that my wife might be brought to me the following year — that is, this year; and, as you see, she is with me. But the surf was so high that the boat could not land me; so with nothing on but my trousers and shirt, and with a few catechisms and a Bible, besides some portions of the Scripture translated into the Mango tongue, I sprang into the sea, and swam ashore on the crest of a breaker. I was instantly dragged up the beach by the natives; who, on finding I had nothing worth having upon me, let me alone. I then made signs to my friends in the ship to leave me, which they did. At first the natives listened to me in silence, but laughed at what I said while I preached the Gospel of our blessed Saviour Jesus Christ to them. Afterwards they treated me ill, sometimes; but I persevered, and continued to dwell among them, and dispute, and exhort them to give up their sinful ways of life, burn their idols, and come to Jesus.

“About a month after I landed, I heard that the chief was dead. He was the father of the present chief, who is now a most consistent member of the Church. It is a custom here that when a chief dies his wives are strangled and buried with him. Knowing this, I hastened to his house to endeavour to prevent such cruelty if possible. When I arrived, I found two of the wives had already been killed, while another was in the act of being strangled. I pleaded hard for her, but it was too late; she was already dead. I then entreated the son to spare the fourth wife, and after much hesitation, my prayer was granted; but in half-an-hour afterwards this poor woman repented of being unfaithful, as she termed it, to her husband, and insisted on being strangled, which was accordingly done.

“All this time the chief’s son was walking up and down before his father’s house with a brow black as thunder. When he entered I went in with him, and found, to my surprise, that his father was not dead! The old man was sitting on a mat in a corner, with an expression of placid resignation on his face.

“‘Why,’ said I, ‘have you strangled your father’s wives before he is dead?’

“To this the son replied, ‘He is dead. That is no longer my father. He is as good as dead now. He is to be buried alive.’

“I now remembered having heard that it is a custom among the Feejee Islanders that when the reigning chief grows old and infirm, the heir to the chieftainship has a right to depose his father, in which case he is considered as dead, and is buried alive. The young chief was now about to follow this custom, and despite my earnest entreaties and pleadings, the old chief was buried that day before my eyes in the same grave with his four strangled wives! Oh, my heart groaned when I saw this! and I prayed to God to open the hearts of these poor creatures, as He had already opened mine, and pour into them the light and the love of the Gospel of Jesus. My prayer was answered very soon. A week afterwards the son, who was now chief of the tribe, came to me, bearing his god on his shoulders, and groaning beneath its weight. Flinging it down at my feet, he desired me to burn it!

“You may conceive how overjoyed I was at this. I sprang up and embraced him, while I shed tears of joy. Then we made a fire and burned the god to ashes, amid an immense concourse of the people, who seemed terrified at what was being done, and shrank back when we burned the god, expecting some signal vengeance to be taken upon us; but seeing that nothing happened, they changed their minds, and thought that our God must be the true one after all. From that time the mission prospered steadily; and now, while there is not a single man in the tribe who has not burned his household gods and become a convert to Christianity, there are not a few, I hope, who are true followers of the Lamb, having been plucked as brands from the burning by Him who can save unto the uttermost. I will not tell you more of our progress at this time; but you see,” he said, waving his hand around him, “the village, and the church did not exist a year ago!”

We were indeed much interested in this account, and I could not help again in my heart praying to God to prosper those missionary societies that send such inestimable blessings to these islands of dark and bloody idolatry. The teacher also added that the other tribes were very indignant at this one for having burned its gods, and threatened to destroy it altogether; but they had done nothing yet. “And if they should,” said the teacher, “the Lord is on our side; of whom shall we be afraid?”

“Have the missionaries many stations in these seas?” inquired Jack.

“Oh yes. The London Missionary Society have a great many in the Tahiti group, and other islands in that quarter. Then the Wesleyans have the Feejee Islands all to themselves, and the Americans have many stations in other groups. But still, my friend, there are hundreds of islands here, the natives of which have never heard of Jesus, or the good word of God, or the Holy Spirit; and thousands are living and dying in the practice of those terrible sins and bloody murders of which you have already heard. — I trust, my friends,” he added, looking earnestly into our faces —“I trust that if you ever return to England, you will tell your Christian friends that the horrors which they hear of in regard to these islands are literally true, and that when they have heard the worst, the ‘half has not been told them;’ for there are perpetrated here foul deeds of darkness of which man may not speak. You may also tell them,” he said, looking around with a smile, while a tear of gratitude trembled in his eye and rolled down his coal-black cheek —“tell them of the blessings that the Gospel has wrought here!”

We assured our friend that we would certainly not forget his request. On returning towards the village, about noon, we remarked on the beautiful whiteness of the cottages.

“That is owing to the lime with which they are plastered,” said the teacher. “When the natives were converted, as I have described, I set them to work to build cottages for themselves, and also this handsome church which you see. When the framework and other parts of the house were up, I sent the people to fetch coral from the sea. They brought immense quantities. Then I made them cut wood, and piling the coral above it, set it on fire.

“‘Look! look!’ cried the poor people in amazement; ‘what wonderful people the Christians are! He is roasting stones! We shall not need taro or bread-fruit any more; we may eat stones!’

“But their surprise was still greater when the coral was reduced to a fine, soft, white powder. They immediately set up a great shout, and mingling the lime with water, rubbed their faces and their bodies all over with it, and ran through the village screaming with delight. They were also much surprised at another thing they saw me do. I wished to make some household furniture, and constructed a turning-lathe to assist me. The first thing that I turned was the leg of a sofa, which was no sooner finished than the chief seized it with wonder and delight, and ran through the village exhibiting it to the people, who looked upon it with great admiration. The chief then, tying a string to it, hung it round his neck as an ornament! He afterwards told me that if he had seen it before he became a Christian, he would have made it his god!”

As the teacher concluded this anecdote we reached his door. Saying that he had business to attend to, he left us to amuse ourselves as we best could.

“Now, lads,” said Jack, turning abruptly towards us, and buttoning up his jacket as he spoke, “I’m off to see the battle. I’ve no particular fondness for seein’ bloodshed; but I must find out the nature o’ these fellows and see their customs with my own eyes, so that I may be able to speak of it again, if need be, authoritatively. It’s only six miles off, and we don’t run much more risk than that of getting a rap with a stray stone or an overshot arrow. Will you go?”

“To be sure we will,” said Peterkin.

“If they chance to see us, we’ll cut and run for it,” added Jack.

“Dear me!” cried Peterkin; “you run! I thought you would scorn to run from any one.”

“So I would, if it were my duty to fight,” returned Jack coolly; “but as I don’t want to fight, and don’t intend to fight, if they offer to attack us I’ll run away, like the veriest coward that ever went by the name of Peterkin. So come along.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31