The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Thirty One.

A Strange and Bloody Battle — The Lion Bearded in His Den — Frightful Scenes of Cruelty, and Fears for the Future.

We had ascertained from the teacher the direction to the spot on which the battle was to be fought, and after a walk of two hours, reached it. The summit of a bare hill was the place chosen; for, unlike most of the other islanders, who are addicted to bush-fighting, those of Mango are in the habit of meeting on open ground. We arrived before the two parties had commenced the deadly struggle, and creeping as close up as we dared among the rocks, we lay and watched them.

The combatants were drawn up face to face, each side ranged in rank four deep. Those in the first row were armed with long spears; the second with clubs to defend the spearmen; the third row was composed of young men with slings; and the fourth consisted of women, who carried baskets of stones for the slingers, and clubs and spears with which to supply the warriors. Soon after we arrived, the attack was made with great fury. There was no science displayed. The two bodies of savages rushed headlong upon each other and engaged in a general melee, and a more dreadful set of men I have never seen. They wore grotesque war-caps, made of various substances and decorated with feathers. Their faces and bodies were painted so as to make them look as frightful as possible; and as they brandished their massive clubs, leaped, shouted, yelled, and dashed each other to the ground, I thought I had never seen men look so like demons before.

We were much surprised at the conduct of the women, who seemed to be perfect furies, and hung about the heels of their husbands in order to defend them. One stout young woman we saw, whose husband was hard pressed and about to be overcome: she lifted a large stone, and throwing it at his opponent’s head, felled him to the earth. But the battle did not last long. The band most distant from us gave way and were routed, leaving eighteen of their comrades dead upon the field. These the victors brained as they lay; and putting some of their brains on leaves, went off with them, we were afterwards informed, to their temples to present them to their gods as an earnest of the human victims who were soon to be brought there.

We hastened back to the Christian village with feelings of the deepest sadness at the sanguinary conflict which we had just witnessed.

Next day, after breakfasting with our friend the teacher, we made preparations for carrying out our plan. At first the teacher endeavoured to dissuade us.

“You do not know,” said he, turning to Jack, “the danger you run in venturing amongst these ferocious savages. I feel much pity for poor Avatea; but you are not likely to succeed in saving her, and you may die in the attempt.”

“Well,” said Jack quietly, “I am not afraid to die in a good cause.”

The teacher smiled approvingly at him as he said this, and after a little further conversation, agreed to accompany us as interpreter — saying that although Tararo was unfriendly to him, he had hitherto treated him with respect.

We now went on board the schooner, having resolved to sail round the island and drop anchor opposite the heathen village. We manned her with natives, and hoped to overawe the savages by displaying our brass gun to advantage. The teacher soon after came on board, and setting our sails, we put to sea. In two hours more we made the cliffs reverberate with the crash of the big gun, which we fired by way of salute, while we ran the British ensign up to the peak and cast anchor. The commotion on shore showed us that we had struck terror into the hearts of the natives; but seeing that we did not offer to molest them, a canoe at length put off and paddled cautiously towards us. The teacher showed himself, and explaining that we were friends and wished to palaver with the chief, desired the native to go and tell him to come on board.

We waited long and with much impatience for an answer. During this time the native teacher conversed with us again, and told us many things concerning the success of the Gospel among those islands; and perceiving that we were by no means so much gratified as we ought to have been at the hearing of such good news, he pressed us more closely in regard to our personal interest in religion, and exhorted us to consider that our souls were certainly in as great danger as those of the wretched heathen whom we pitied so much if we had not already found salvation in Jesus Christ. “Nay, further,” he added, “if such be your unhappy case, you are, in the sight of God, much worse than these savages — forgive me, my young friends, for saying so — for they have no knowledge, no light, and do not profess to believe; while you, on the contrary, have been brought up in the light of the blessed Gospel and call yourselves Christians. These poor savages are indeed the enemies of our Lord; but you, if ye be not true believers, are traitors!”

I must confess that my heart condemned me while the teacher spoke in this earnest manner, and I knew not what to reply. Peterkin, too, did not seem to like it, and, I thought, would willingly have escaped. But Jack seemed deeply impressed, and wore an anxious expression on his naturally grave countenance, while he assented to the teacher’s remarks, and put to him many earnest questions. Meanwhile the natives who composed our crew, having nothing particular to do, had squatted down on the deck and taken out their little books containing the translated portions of the New Testament, along with hymns and spelling-books, and were now busily engaged — some vociferating the alphabet, others learning prayers off by heart, while a few sang hymns — all of them being utterly unmindful of our presence. The teacher soon joined them, and soon afterwards they all engaged in a prayer, which was afterwards translated to us, and proved to be a petition for the success of our undertaking and for the conversion of the heathen.

While we were thus engaged a canoe put off from shore, and several savages leaped on deck, one of whom advanced to the teacher and informed him that Tararo could not come on board that day, being busy with some religious ceremonies before the gods, which could on no account be postponed. He was also engaged with a friendly chief, who was about to take his departure from the island, and therefore begged that the teacher and his friends would land and pay a visit to him. To this the teacher returned answer that we would land immediately.

“Now, lads,” said Jack as we were about to step into our little boat, “I’m not going to take any weapons with me, and I recommend you to take none either. We are altogether in the power of these savages; and the utmost we could do, if they were to attack us, would be to kill a few of them before we were ourselves overpowered. I think that our only chance of success lies in mild measures. Don’t you think so?”

To this I assented gladly; and Peterkin replied by laying down a huge bell-mouthed blunderbuss, and divesting himself of a pair of enormous horse-pistols, with which he had purposed to overawe the natives! We then jumped into our boat and rowed ashore.

On reaching the beach we were received by a crowd of naked savages, who shouted a rude welcome, and conducted us to a house or shed where a baked pig and a variety of vegetables were prepared for us. Having partaken of these, the teacher begged to be conducted to the chief; but there seemed some hesitation, and after some consultation among themselves, one of the men stood forward and spoke to the teacher.

“What says he?” inquired Jack when the savage had concluded.

“He says that the chief is just going to the temple of his god, and cannot see us yet; so we must be patient, my friend.”

“Well,” cried Jack, rising, “if he won’t come to see me, I’ll e’en go and see him. Besides, I have a great desire to witness their proceedings at this temple of theirs. Will you go with me, friend?”

“I cannot,” said the teacher, shaking his head. “I must not go to the heathen temples and witness their inhuman rites, except for the purpose of condemning their wickedness and folly.”

“Very good,” returned Jack; “then I’ll go alone, for I cannot condemn their doings till I have seen them.”

Jack arose, and we, having determined to go also, followed him through the banana-groves to a rising ground immediately behind the village, on the top of which stood the Bure, or temple, under the dark shade of a group of iron-wood trees. As we went through the village I was again led to contrast the rude huts and sheds, and their almost naked, savage-looking inhabitants, with the natives of the Christian village, who, to use the teacher’s scriptural expression, were now “clothed and in their right mind.”

As we turned into a broad path leading towards the hill, we were arrested by the shouts of an approaching multitude in the rear. Drawing aside into the bushes, we awaited their coming up; and as they drew near, we observed that it was a procession of the natives, many of whom were dancing and gesticulating in the most frantic manner. They had an exceedingly hideous aspect, owing to the black, red, and yellow paints with which their faces and naked bodies were bedaubed. In the midst of these came a band of men carrying three or four planks, on which were seated, in rows, upwards of a dozen men. I shuddered involuntarily as I recollected the sacrifice of human victims at the island of Emo, and turned with a look of fear to Jack as I said:

“Oh Jack! I have a terrible dread that they are going to commit some of their cruel practices on these wretched men. We had better not go to the temple. We shall only be horrified without being able to do any good, for I fear they are going to kill them.”

Jack’s face wore an expression of deep compassion as he said in a low voice, “No fear, Ralph; the sufferings of these poor fellows are over long ago.”

I turned with a start as he spoke, and glancing at the men, who were now quite near to the spot where we stood, saw that they were all dead. They were tied firmly with ropes in a sitting posture on the planks, and seemed, as they bent their sightless eyeballs and grinning mouths over the dancing crew below, as if they were laughing in ghastly mockery at the utter inability of their enemies to hurt them now. These, we discovered afterwards, were the men who had been slain in the battle of the previous day, and were now on their way to be first presented to the gods and then eaten. Behind these came two men leading between them a third, whose hands were pinioned behind his back. He walked with a firm step, and wore a look of utter indifference on his face as they led him along, so that we concluded he must be a criminal who was about to receive some slight punishment for his faults. The rear of the procession was brought up by a shouting crowd of women and children, with whom we mingled and followed to the temple.

Here we arrived in a few minutes. The temple was a tall, circular building, open at one side. Around it were strewn heaps of human bones and skulls. At a table inside sat the priest, an elderly man with a long grey beard. He was seated on a stool, and before him lay several knives, made of wood, bone, and splinters of bamboo, with which he performed his office of dissecting dead bodies. Farther in lay a variety of articles that had been dedicated to the god, and among them were many spears and clubs. I observed among the latter some with human teeth sticking in them, where the victims had been clubbed in their mouths.

Before this temple the bodies, which were painted with vermilion and soot, were arranged in a sitting posture; and a man called a “dan-vosa” (orator) advanced, and laying his hands on their heads, began to chide them, apparently, in a low, bantering tone. What he said we knew not, but as he went on he waxed warm, and at last shouted to them at the top of his lungs, and finally finished by kicking the bodies over and running away, amid the shouts and laughter of the people, who now rushed forward. Seizing the bodies by a leg or an arm, or by the hair of the head, they dragged them over stumps and stones and through sloughs until they were exhausted. The bodies were then brought back to the temple and dissected by the priest, after which they were taken out to be baked.

Close to the temple a large fire was kindled, in which stones were heated red hot. When ready these were spread out on the ground, and a thick coating of leaves strewn over them to slack the heat. On this “lovo,” or oven, the bodies were then placed, covered over, and left to bake.

The crowd now ran with terrible yells towards a neighbouring hill or mound, on which we observed the framework of a house lying ready to be erected. Sick with horror, yet fascinated by curiosity, we staggered after them mechanically, scarce knowing where we were going or what we did, and feeling a sort of impression that all we saw was a dreadful dream.

Arrived at the place, we saw the multitude crowding round a certain spot. We pressed forward, and obtained a sight of what they were doing. A large wooden beam or post lay on the ground, beside the other parts of the framework of the house, and close to the end of it was a hole about seven feet deep and upwards of two feet wide. While we looked, the man whom we had before observed with his hands pinioned was carried into the circle. His hands were now free, but his legs were tightly strapped together. The post of the house was then placed in the hole, and the man put in beside it. His head was a good way below the surface of the hole, and his arms were clasped round the post. Earth was now thrown in until all was covered over and stamped down; and this, we were afterwards told, was a ceremony usually performed at the dedication of a new temple or the erection of a chief’s house!

“Come, come,” cried Jack on beholding this horrible tragedy; “we have seen enough, enough — far more than enough! Let us go.”

Jack’s face looked ghastly pale and haggard as we hurried back to rejoin the teacher; and I have no doubt that he felt terrible anxiety when he considered the number and ferocity of the savages, and the weakness of the few arms which were ready indeed to essay, but impotent to effect, Avatea’s deliverance from these ruthless men.

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