I soon found myself in White Grass village on the island of Tanna, in Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides), living in a three-roomed bamboo hut with four burly, bearded New Zealanders. They murmured all night and sometimes yelped, sounding as though they had hit on an idea. When Glen, the battiest one, confided to me that the impending Gulf War might be Armageddon, and that all over the world silicon chips were being inserted under people's skin - "the Mark of the Beast, see, foretold in the Book of Revelation" - I suspected that they were born-again Christians, come to save Tanna, an island with a past rich in cannibalism. I was right, they read their Bibles by the light of a kerosene lantern - we had no electricity - and when it rained the hut leaked. But there was nowhere else for me to stay. The fundamentalists loved the rain and regarded the dark clouds with dull slow smiles of approval.
"Behold!" said Douglas cheerfully one rainy morning. Douglas was nearly as batty as Glen. He had a suppurating sore on his leg that he bathed in sea-water every day, not realizing - though I told him - that he was only adding to the infection. "He's putting obstacles for us!"
Now they were all outside the bamboo hut, getting drenched, but agreeing like mad. Who's putting obstacles?" "The Devil," Douglas said. "Why would the Devil do that to you today?" I asked. "Because we're walking to north Tanna to preach," Douglas said. "It's an all-day -hike. Very tough bush. He doesn't want us to preach." Later that morning, Glen hurried back to the bamboo hut. He was soaking wet, his face was muddy, his hair was plastered against his scalp, his hands were greasy. He told me delightedly that their Jeep had broken down on their way to the path.
"Obstacles!" he cried. The rain, the breakdown, the native hostility, my indifference, the Devil's obstacles - it all seemed a testimony to the sanctity of their mission. And I was sure that Tanna's long anthropophagous history, its people-eating, was another factor - rumours of cannibalism are the catnip to missionaries, who are never happier than when bringing the Bible to savages. Missionaries and cannibals make perfect couples. Just the swiftest glance down the library shelf devoted to the New Hebrides had to be enough to convince any evangelist that these happy islanders were in need of the Christian message. A partial chronology included Missionary Life Aming the Cannibals (1882), The Cannibal Islands (1917), Cannibalism Conquered (1900), Two Cannibal Archipelagoes (1900 - the Solomons included), Cannibals Was for Christ (1920), Cannibal-land (1922(, L'Archiipel de Tabous(1926), Living Among Cannibals (1930), Backwash of Empire (1931), Backwater of the Savage South Seas (1933), The Conquest of Cannibal Tanna (1934), Savage Civilization (1936), Paton's Thirty Years With South Seas Cannibals and Evelyn Cheesman's Camping Adventures on Cannibal Islands.
I had found circumstantial evidence for cannibalism - the liking in Vanuatu (and it had been the case in the Solomons too) for Spam. It was a theory of mine that former cannibals of Oceania now feasted on Spam because Spam came the nearest to approximating he porky taste of human flesh. "Long pig," as they called a cooked human being in much of Melanesia. It was a fact that the people-eaters of the Pacific had all evolved, or perhaps degenerated, into Spam-eaters. And in the absence of Spam they settled for corned beef, which also had a corpsy flavor. But cannibalism was less interesting to me than cargo cults. Most of all I wanted to visit Tanna because I had heard that a cargo cult, the Jon Frum Movement, flourished on the island. The villagers in this movement worshiped an obscure, perhaps mythical, American named Jon Frum who was supposed to have come to Tanna in the 1930s. He appeared from nowhere and promised the people an earthly paradise. All they had to do was reject Christian missionaries and to back to their old ways. this they did with enthusiasm - booting out the Presbyterians. Jon Frum had not so far returned. The Jon Frum villages displayed a wooden red cross, trying to lure him - and his cargo of free goods - to the island. This iconography of the cross was not Christian, but rather derived from the war, from the era of free food and Red Cross vehicles. The believers sat in hot little box-like structures and prayed to Jon Frum. some had visions of the strange American. They sang Jon Frum ditties in Bislama, the local Pidgin. I mentioned this to the God-bothering New Zealanders.
"Obstacles!" they cried.
I had come here from Port Vila, on the island of Efate, because I had found Port Vila too tame and touristy. It was a pretty town built against a hill, and its harbour was deep. Cruise ships from Australia anchored and then went on to Noumea, and other sunny islands, which retailed baskets and T-shirts and shiny shell necklaces and five-dollar bottles of Perrier. The shops in Vila were full of goods, the place was clean and tidy and had at least a dozen comfortable hotels, two or three of them luxurious. They held pig roasts. Their guests went snorkeling in the lagoon. Islanders serenaded them at night, strumming ukuleles and singing "Good Night, Irene" in Bislama. I was convinced that the town was profoundly civilized when I saw multiple copies of my books displayed in the Port Vila Public Library. In addition the islanders were pleasant and not at all rapacious. Tipping was discouraged in Vila, and throughout Vanuatu. This was usually the case in countries where most of the tourists were Meganesians - New Zealanders and Australians. Living far from Europe, they had had to be self-sufficient. No tipping was was the rule in Meganesia. They had learned frugality and were eager to teach it. "It's a bit of luck that you're here, Paul," a Vanuatu soldier named Vanua Bani said to me. "You will be safe from the Gulf War."
But it had been a circuitous route to independence. After a free-for-all by French and British land-grabbers in the nineteenth century, both countries agreed to joint responsibility and they turned the islands into a condominium government. The local wags called the condominium "the pandemonium." It wobbled along largely because, in the words of an English settler named Fletcher, "these poor beggars have more manners and more virtues than their masters." The settler-missionary structure was altered by the Second World War, when the New Hebrides was a base for U.S. troops fighting in the Solomons and elsewhere in the Coral Sea. but afterwards life resumed and the islands reverted to fishing, timber-cutting, and mining (manganese mostly). In the late 1960s and early 1970s decolonization began in a series of conferences, but the sides (British, French, islander) were too self-interested to find common grounds for agreement.
Two leaders emerged in the 1970s - Jimmy Stevens, a charismatic figure with a Moses beard and an Old Testament manner, who called himself Moses; and Father Walter Lini, a Presbyterian - a shrewd, English-speaking, conservative, missionary product. Lini had a broad base of support. Steven's followers were mostly on his home island, the large island of Espiritu Santo, with its French planters, opportunists, bush folk, upstairs, and eager secessionists. Stevens also had the support of a meddling right-wing American organization, dedicated to eradicating communism, called th4 Phoenix Foundation. Steven's threats to make Santo independent worried the electorate on the other islands and after several national elections Lini was elected prime minister. At Independence, Stevens led an unsuccessful armed rebellion which became world news as "the Coconut War" for a few days in 1980, until the bearded one was jailed.
After ten years, Lini was still prime minister and Jimmy Stevens was still in jail. Vanua Bani assured me that Father Walter, as he called him, was very popular and much loved. He confirmed that the Jon Frum Movement was flourishing on Tanna, and he also said that if I was going there I ought to make a point of se4eing Chief tom Namake, who knew a bit about it.
I packed my boat and left the tourists - Gloria and Bunt ("the blacks here are ever so sweet - not like ours") and their kids Darrell and Shane, from Adelaide - the cruise passengers, the snorkellers, the Women's Conference on Nuclear Policy in the Pacific (moved from New guinea because the women's safety could not be guaranteed in Port Moresby), and I took a small plane to Tanna. Chief tom happened to be elsewhere on the island, and while I waited for him I had the New Zealand born-again Christians to contend with. It so happened that camping was not allow4ed on this apart of the island, and the bamboo hut was the best I could find. whenever they were not having a prayer meeting or a preach-o-rama in a village, the born-against lay in wait for me and ambushed me. It was not hard. The driving rain made it impossible for me to go very far. At first I was more or less supine and let them preach, but I retired to a corner with the Bible and found passages that I asked them to explain. For example, Matthew 10.34-38, in which Jesus says combatively, "I will set son against father, daughter against mother ..."
The previous night Douglas had asserted that the Flood had covered the earth. They had found evidence of it in Australia, for example. He believed in Adam and Eve, and in Noah's Ark. He believed that Mrs. Lot had been turned into a pillar of salt. Why didn't he believe in the prohibitions of Leviticus? I nagged them for a while, because it was raining and I had nothing better to do. Later that day I read them parts of the Book of Daniel, which had wonderful arguments for vegetarianism. Daniel refused Nebuchadnezzar's meaty feast, and insisted on eating his usual diet of lentils, which gave him a rosy complexion and helped make him a healthy magician.
Brian worried me. He had a loud shouting laugh that was like a warning. He could be rather sulky, too. Brian was the hairiest one, the most bearded, the leader. I was wary of him most of all because whenever he told me how he had found Jesus it was accompanied by stories of how he had been a violent and wicked sinner. I did terrible things, he said, and gave me a hard look, and I took this as a warning that he would do terrible things to me if I didn't listen to him. I had a feeling terrible things had happened to Mrs. Brian, back in Auckland. I defied the name of Jesus - I wouldn't even tell you half the things I did. I was horrible. And he sometimes still looked horrible when we sat at the wobbly table, with his enormous Bible between us. In the margins were his notes, written in ballpoint. Handwriting - just its contours - can look violent. I found his blue scribble alarmingly slow-witted and threatening. Still the rain come down. Brian insisted (and the others closed ranks behind him) that nothing on earth was older than four thousand years. Not dinosaurs, trilobites, Chinese tombs.
I did not push these paranoiacs too far. The trouble with such Christians was not their faith in God but their hearty, adversarial belief in the Devil. It seemed to me that it could be a fatal mistake for me to dispute too strenuously with them. There were no doors on this bamboo hut. I heard the men murmuring at night. I did terrible things. They were completely convinced that the Devil himself was at large, roaming to and fro, around White Grass village, perhaps in their very hut, trying to confound them. They might get it into their heads that I was the incarnation of the Anti-Christ and drive a bamboo stake through my heart.
They were "God-swankers" - one of the paradigmatic types that Elias Canetti describes in his strange book Earwitness: "The God-swanker never has to ask himself what a correct, he looks it up in the Book of Books. There he finds everything he needs. . . Whatever he plans to do, God will endorse it." Because of the storms we had each night, the villagers were spared our night-time disputations. In times of high wind and rain everyone in the village ran into a specially constructed hut - rounded and very tightly woven - and there they huddled, one on top of the other, until the storm passed. There was no room in their emergency hut for the shouting, praying New Zealanders.
The Melanesian people of Tanna were small scowling knob-headed blacks with short legs and big dusty feet, and some of them were the nakedest I saw in the whole Pacific, the women in tattered grass skirts, the men and boys in "penis purses" (in the words of a Tanna man). These little pubic bunches of grass were about the size and shape of whisk brooms and were worn over their dicks. This bunch of grass, secured by a vine, a belt or a piece of string, was a male's entire wardrobe. The Bislama word for this item was namba, literally "number." In Vanuatu one group of people were known as the Big Nambas and another as the Small Nambas. Most of these grass-skirted and namba-wearing folks were happy heathens living in kastom villages in the muddy interior of the island. Whether or not they were cultists in the Jon Frum Movement was something I hoped to establish, and so I went by Jeep to one of the kastom villages to find out. It was raining in Yakel village, and it looked as though it had been raining for two thousand years - the huts were soaked, the thatch was soggy, the sky was black, the air was chilly, the ground was a quagmire, and the naked people were huddled - men under one tree, women under another - hugging themselves to keep warm. Rain ran down their backs and dripped from their bums. The women had hoisted their grass skirts around their necks, wearing them for warmth, like cloaks, the men squatted so close to the ground, their nambas drooped into puddles. It was a village of runny noses. In the persistent drizzle it was a gloomy little glimpse of the Neolithic Age, complete with muddy buttocks. The men smoked bitter-smelling tobacco and passed coconut shells of kava back and forth, and when they smiled at me - which they did often: they were extremely friendly - they showed me black stumps of teeth.
It was strictly a kastom village - no Christians, no politics, no John Frum - and there were many such villages on the island, though this was the only one which allowed contact with outsiders. The other kastom villages, deeper in the interior, were fierce and xenophbic, and - I had the impression - nakeder, though a namba made you nearly as naked as it was possible to be. In Yakel, a namba was called a kawhirr in their language, which was Nahwai. The language had never been written down and was one of the few languages in the entire world into which the Bible had never been translated. At the center of the crouching group was the chief, a tiny skinny man which a bushy grizzled beard and clouded eyes and tufts of yellow-white hair over his ears. he was entirely toothless. I took him to be about seventy. I asked him a Pidgin how many Christmases he had had - which was the standard way of asking someone's age - but he said he had no idea, and added that his Pidgin was none too good. His name was Chief Johnson Kahuwya. He hadn't a clue as to where the Johnson came from. He was spokesman and leader. He led the dances. He directed the planting of the gardens. He gave advice. He was the father of the village. Using a man from a nearby village as my interpreter, I asked the chief how long he had allowed outsiders to come to his village.
The Melanesians did not have any organization larger than a village, nor did they have any conception of themselves as branches of a major race, Austin Coats writes in Islands of the South, a book about the attitudes and movements of Pacific populations. When a Melanesian encountered someone not of his group, though he denoted a likeness, he did not think, "It is a man." The word "man" applied solely to his own group, or tribe. Between his own tribe and others he made an enlarged distinction, much as he would between a pig, a bird or a fish, or between himself and any of their animals. The concept of mankind was absent.
This was also an explanation for the Trobrianders' belief that they were human and that dim-dims were not. A non-Trobriander was of a different species.
All this time the snotty-nosed boys laughed among themselves and the dripping men murmured and passed the kava. And I crouched with them, making notes. I was wetter than they, and more uncomfortable, because I was wearing clothes and I was soaked. Their nakedness made complete sense.
In Melanesia, creation stories were always intensely local. The tribal name usually means "man." The people of the tribe had either always been there or else had emerged from the land - from live creatures or from trees. Melanesians never said they had arrived from another island, and they never made reference to boats or the sea-journeys when telling creation stories. The rain with its crackling drops swept through the towering trees and dense bush around us and coursed through the sodden hillside. The grass huts were so wet they looked as though they were in a sate of collapse - heavy and toppling.
A wedding was a straightforward feast, the said, but a circumcision was rather more complicated. He told me about it. It took place when a boy was four or five, and it began first as a great feast - many pigs being killed. There would be a dozen or so boys involved. After the snipping - a sharp knife was used - the boys were sent into the bush for two months. They could not be se4en by any woman. They could not touch food with their hands - they used a certain designated leaf, scrunched up, to eat with, scooping the food. They were not allowed to touch their hair, or pick out lice, and if they wanted to scratch their head they had to use a twig. Men were appointed to cook for them. After the two months were up, when the cut had healed, they went back to the village wearing a namba they had made.
I asked the chief, "What food do you like to eat?"
It was now called Bauer Field, named after the valiant Lt-Col. Harold Bauer, a fighter pilot in the US Marine Corps who, in 1942, battling against great odds, downed eleven Japanese planes and was eventually killed in Guadalcnal. Posthumously, Bauer was awarded the Medal of Honour, and a brass plaque at the airport recorded his courage and his deeds. Bauer Field was presently being enlarged and improved by a Japanese - Vanuatu joint venture, to accommodate Japanese planes and tourists, and I was very curious to know what the Japanese construction company would do with the plaque when the airport was complete. would they hide it, would they lose it; or would they hang it in the new terminal to enlighten future generations - and the visiting Japanese - of Bauer's war effort? Time would tell.
Although the rain had not let up, they took me - the chief leading the way - on tour of the village, which was nestled against the hillside in tall grass that was shoulder height. Cross-faced men squatted under the drooping caves. Naked women knelt in smoky huts. The children shrieked at me, their faces smeared with snot. Everyone in the village had filthy muddy legs. They showed me the large round hut they hid in when the weather was very bad: they had spent the previous night in it, all of them piled in, nearly eighty of them. Later, under a dripping banyan, they did a loud stamping dance, pounding their big flat feet hard into the mud, slowly at first, then quickening their pace, and each time they brought their feet down they yelped and their nambas flopped up and down. The mud dried on their buttocks, giving them brighter smears on their bum cheeks, like perverse war-paint. They skipped in a circle, and shouted hoarsely - egged on by the chief - and clapped, and stamped again, heavily, a thumping that seemed to make the forest tremble and shook droplets from the boughs. They were not much bigger than pygmies, and they were blacker and more naked. They had terrible teeth - stumps and canines broken into fangs. They looked like cannibals. Indeed, they had been, although on Tanna cannibalism was a privilege usually reserved for chiefs, nobles, and dignitaries.
Once, in Christie's auction rooms in London, I had seen a large and horrific painting titled "Cannibal Feast on the Island of Tanna, New Hebrides," by Charles Gordon Frazer, a widely travelled English landscape artist. It had been worked up in 1891 from a sketch he had made of a jungle scene he had actually stumbled upon on Tanna in the 1880s. It has been claimed that Fraser was the only whole man ever to witness a cannibal ceremony. He recorded the scene faithfully in the celebrated painting, which showed two victims being brought into a shadowy jungle clearing - just like this - on poles, the glowing villagers (there are almost a hundred figures in this enormous canvas), the muscled, tufty-haired warriors, the women preparing the cooking fires.
"The bodies of the two victims, slung on poles are painted in a masterly style," an English critic wrote when it was first exhibited, "the one being evidently dead, the other in stupor approaching death in its growing muscular relaxation." Another critic, Australian, described Frazer's painting as a "walkabout by a load of washed-out niggers." Put on the defensive by alarmed and nit-picking gallery-goers, Frazer explained in an essay why he had chosen to paint the cannibal feast. "It was not from any desire for sensation," he wrote, "but from the fact of having by accident witnessed a scene of superstition so ancient, a custom that must soon become extinct all over the world before the great march of civilization, that I considered it my duty to illustrate this dark and terrible phase in the history of man..."
He was certainly telling the truth about having been an eye-witness - it was obvious in the painting's shocking details, and now, on Tanna, I knew that Frazer had been on the island, sketching in the gloomy light of this dense forest. It seems that Frazer's jungle clearing was father east, at Yanekahi, near Tanna's volcano - and near Port Resolution, where Captain Cook landed in 1774. Frazer also wrote, "If it were not for their superstitious rites (by which he meant cannibalism), these black people are no more cruel than the white men. If a boat lands and treats the natives brutally it is not unnatural that the next white man who lands will be revenged upon." And he went on, "There is much that is beautiful in these black savages ..."
I left Yakel and went a hundred years on so across the island, to White Grass. Chief Tom Namake had returned from his trip to the bush. He had a fat sweaty face and a big belly. He spoke quickly - so quickly he sounded as though he was being evasive. He wore a dirty T-shirt that said Holy Commando, with the motif of an archer, and motto from Isaiah 49.2, He made me into a polished arrow. He was not only a Christian, he said he also believed in the spirit world, and Jon Frum and kastom. He believed in magic stones and magic dances. He believed that all the people on Tanna Island had sprung from the twigs of two bewitched trees. His strongest belief was to traditional magic. But the T-shirt seemed the appropriate thing to wear around the New Zealanders. "Everyone must be allowed to do as he wishes, even them," he said of the Kiwis. As that moment they were preaching nearby. And they were planning some late-night prayer-meetings in the village. It struck me that they held their services at very odd times of day, favoring night-time.
Chief Tom's son Peter was reading the Australian weekly magazine which had a lurid cover showing a grinning young woman in a bikini. She had freckles on her shoulders and she looked deeply unreliable. Peter suddenly snatched up a sharp knife and slashed out a page and stuffed it into his pocket. Later, I asked him why he had cut the page out of the magazine, and he shyly shoed it to me. It was a full-page advertisement, which AI read closely:
His expression was untrusting. We were sitting on a bluff above the chop of the wind-blown sea. It was a rocky coast, with rough ledges instead of beaches. There was nowhere here that I had found where I could launch or beach my kayak, and yet I remained hopeful. Chief Tom squinted into the wind and then stole a glance back at me, as though he expected to find me sneaking out my notebook. He had become suspicious of my writing. Out of boredom I had been doing a great deal of writing at White Grass, describing the New Zealanders, making notes on the Bible for future disputations, noting down the conversation I had had at Yakel village. Chief Tom regarded all writing with alarm, because it was a way of stealing someone's magic. I understood exactly what he meant, and I agreed with him. It was a fact, not a savage superstition. If he told a story, and I wrote it down, the story became mine. I did not have the guts to tell Chief tom that writing was my business.
Wiping his hands on his Holy Commando shirt, he began.
I interrupted at this point and said. "I don't understand why they threw the body away."