Friday, April 26, 2013

Book 122, Niue: "Savage Island" by Basil Thomson

Every now and then, I'm intensely grateful for good writing. It doesn't need to be transcendent: something engaging in some way, something fun, is quite sufficient.

This week, I'd thought I was plum out of luck as I was flipping through an epub version of W.G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea, a miserable hagiography of an early missionary in the Pacific, published in 1909 by the Reverend Joseph King. The title had sounded like a swashbuckler's story - how was I to know it'd be so long and dull? 

I was halfway through when I decided to ditch the bugger and turn over to this other virtual archived text, dating even earlier, to the year 1902:


And boy oh boy, I'm glad I did. Basil Thomson was a civil servant with the Colonial Office - in fact, this book describes an official visit to Niue to arrange for its formal annexation as part of the British Empire, as well as a stop at Tonga to formalise its status as a British Protectorate. But he was also a professional writer, and consequently he knew how to render his descriptions of exotic realms so amusing that even an ardent postcolonialist like myself is delighted at his words.

You see, unlike Rev. Joseph King, Thomson actually accords individual personalities to the people of the Pacific. Of course, he's laughing when he describes the fashion for fatness among the women, and King Tongia's pompous folly in dressing himself in hoop skirts and military hats - a flavour of that half devil and half child colonial mindset of the time. Yet he also acknowledges that these guys have a culture, and real motivations for what they do - e.g. the king had no small talent for being able to convince the elders that they needed a king at all after no-one had occupied the role for 80 years...

Of course, one of the reasons Thomson can afford to make light of the situation is that everything's peaceful. I hadn't known much about this side of colonial history: how some countries would, of their own accord, join the British Empire for the sake of protection, to avoid more destructive invasion and exploitation by the Germans or the French. This is why Tonga, for instance, has been able to hold on to its royal family, one of the few surviving systems of monarchy in the realm.

And then the whole matter of being modern - how these Pacific people, who had been part of a freaking Stone Age civilisation just a couple of generations ago, were now aware of the greater world around them, were consuming its cultural artefacts (Christianity, icons of Queen Victoria, whom they called Vika) and even building themselves Western-style houses. And then their participation in world trade - the Niueans are characterised as the most hardworking of Polynesian races, being actually eager to work overseas, to the detriment of their local industries of growing coconuts and weaving hats out of pandanus leaves. (Seems they've done pretty well for themselves since then - ten years ago, they became the world's first nation to be completely covered by free Internet wifi.)

Add to this the usual staples of colonial travel memoirs: documentation of the flora and fauna (they had crazy plagues of flies and hornets), some notes on national custom and myth (oral history for Niue only goes back 500 years, suggesting that they split off from some other island civilisation before then). Some notation of the music and dance of the islands, too, before a rather abrupt ending.

But once again, I'm bloody glad that this peripatetic journey is bringing me to books that are actually worth digging up and reading. It's not just about going around the world: it's about not having a miserable time doing it.


View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

P.S. Why "Savage Island", you ask? Seems that when Captain Cook visited in 1774, the Niueans were one of the few Pacific peoples to refuse to engage in dialogue with him, answering him instead with spears and darts. Smart folks!

Representative quote: "The procession was headed by a dozen men in slop clothes and villainous, billycock hats set at a rakish angle. They all carried spears and paddle-shaped clubs in either hand, and a similar rabble brought up the rear. In the middle of this grotesque bodyguard walked the king and queen, both in petticoats, as befits the sex to which they belonged, for if the queen was a young woman, the king was assuredly an old one. To their united ages of ninety-four His Majesty contributed seventy-six, but what he lacked in youthful elasticity he made up in con- descension, for she had been but a beggar-maid or what corresponds therewith in Niue, where beggary is unknown when he had played Cophetua to her a few months before our visit. She wore a wreath of roses, he the soldier's helmet with the cock's plume, which was all that the officious Samoan teacher would leave him of his military uniform, and from which he refused to be divided, although it assorted ill with his petticoat. To tell the brutal truth, His Majesty was unsexed by the garments that had been chosen for him, and his appearance justified the remark of a friend who, holding the photo- graphs of Their Majesties in his hand and con- fusing them, exclaimed, "Why, the queen's got a beard!"

Next book: Arthur Grimble's A Pattern of Islands, from Kiribati.

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