Bobaran by Louis Becke
When our boat touched the beach in front of the trader's house just as the dawn was breaking, I thought Kabaira Bay one of the loveliest places in the Pacific, and said so to the man I had been sent to relieve. He quite concurred in my opinion of the beauties of the scenery, but said that he was very glad to get away. Then, being a cheerful man, though given to unnecessary blasphemy, like most South Sea Island traders, he took me out to the rich garden at the back of the station and showed me the grave of his predecessor, who had died of fever a year before. Further on, but outside the enclosing fence, were some more graves, he said.
'Whose?' I asked.
'Captain Murray's, his mate's, and two of his cutter's crew.'
'No,' he replied, with some slight surprise at my ignorance; 'the natives killed 'em a couple o' years ago. An', see, just over there by Point Luen, is the Hon. Mr Willington's house. He was a nephew of Lord L------. I goes there sometimes and rips a board out o' the floor when I wants one.' ^
'Mr Wellington gone away?' My friend was surprised this time. 'Why, you must be a new chum in New Britain. Why, Willington ain't dead six months.' 'Fev--'
'Fever be -------. No, he got speared when he was lying in his bunk readin' a book one night. I told him that the niggers would pay him out for a-playin' crooked with em'; but he was too cock-a-hoopy to listen to a feller like me.'
'Any more white men buried in Kabaira? 'I asked after a while, as we walked back to the house to take stock of my host's trade goods.
'No, that's all that's planted here--at least, all I know of, and I've been here, in New Britain, five years. There's been a good many Dutchmen killed on the coast here, and over in New Ireland, but I didn't know any of 'em. An' they're such a silly lot o' duffers, that they reg'lar tempts these New Britain niggers to kill 'em; and then the beggars, not knowing an Englishman from a Dutchman, are ready to murder anyone with a white skin. So you look out, young feller. These niggers here are a rotten bad lot. But I'll interdooce yer to Bobaran. He's the biggest cut-throat of em' all; but he an' me is good pals, and onct you've squared him you're pretty safe. Got plenty fever medicine?' 'Lots.' 'Liquor?' 'Case of gin.'
'That'll keep you clear o' fever as much as anything, as long as the case lasts. Always drink some when it's raining.' (It usually rained nine days out of ten in New Britain). 'Now we'll take stock. I can tell you I'm mighty glad to clear out o' this place--an' so will you be in a couple o' months, if--you're alive.'
Having thus, in cheerful converse, somewhat enlightened me as to the peculiar characteristics of Kabaira Bay and its inhabitants, my friend had breakfast cooked, and whilst we were eating it, sent a messenger for his friend Bobaran to come and make the acquaintance of the new white man. During breakfast the trader gave me much further information, all of which, as a man new to the ropes, I was very glad to obtain. Kabaira, I already knew (I had but just arrived in New Britain from Eastern Polynesia), was the 'furthest out' trading station on the great island, which, at that time, had barely thirty white men living on it; most of these were settled on Gazelle Peninsula, and a few on the Duke of York Island, midway between the northern point of New Britain and mountainous New Ireland. My nearest neighbour lived at Kabakadą, a populous native town ten miles away. My host told me that this man was 'a noisy, drunken little swine,' the which assertion I subsequently found to be absolutely correct. Further on, five miles from Kabakadą, was another trader named Bruno Ran, a hard-working Swiss; then, after rounding Cape Stephens, was the large German trading station of Matupi in Blanche Bay, where you could buy anything from a needle to a chain cable. On the Duke of York Island was another trading station, and also the Wesleyan Mission, which as yet had made but few converts in New Britain; and over in New Ireland were a few scattered English traders, who sometimes sailed over on a visit to their dangerously-situated fellow-countrymen in the big island.
For dangerous indeed was the daily existence of traders in those then little-known islands. But money was to be made, and men will dare much to make money quickly, even though at the risk of their lives. As for the natives of New Britain, a few words will suffice. They were the most unmitigated savages, cowardly and treacherous, and with the exception of the people of the villages in the vicinity of Blanche Bay, whose women wore a scanty girdle of leaves of the plant Cordyline terminalis, they passed their lives in a state of stark nudity. Their dwellings and canoes were of the poorest description, but their plantations and gardens were highly cultivated, and marvels of incessant and intelligent labour. For human life they had no regard; in fact, a pig was worth more than a man, except among those tribes where a man who weighed more than a pig would be more valuable as food. At the present time things have improved on the Gazelle Peninsula, but along the coast-line, which to the westward stretches for over two hundred miles towards New Guinea, matters have not changed. As for their personal appearance, it is simply hideous. Take the biggest anthropoid ape, stain his teeth black and his lips scarlet, stick a wig of matted greasy curls on his head, and put half a dozen slender spears in his right paw, and you have an idea of a New Britain nigger--a 'brand,' according to missionary ethics, who should be plucked from the burning, but whom the Christian of ordinary intelligence would cheerfully watch burning until he was reduced to a cinder.
Just as we had finished breakfast, Bobaran came in and squatted on the flour. Being a man of rank and influence, he was privileged, and allowed to carry his arms with him inside the trader's house. These consisted of five spears, one long-handled ebony-wood club, with a huge jade head, and a horse-pistol, which was fastened to a leather belt around his naked waist. His fuzzy wool was dyed a bright brick red colour and twisted into countless little curls which, hanging over his beetling and excessively dirty black forehead, almost concealed his savage eyes, and harmonised with his thick, betel-stained lips and cavernous, grip-sack mouth. Around his arms were two white circlets of shell, and depending from his bull-like neck a little basket containing betel-nut and lime. He certainly was a most truculent-looking scoundrel. Nevertheless, I shook hands with him cordially, and he agreed, for certain considerations, to look after me, find me in food, warn me of any danger that might impend, and also to murder anyone with whom I might feel annoyed, for a fixed but very small remuneration. In proof whereof of this alliance, and as a token of amity and goodwill, Parker (the trader) presented him with a small tin of ship biscuit, four dynamite cartridges, a dozen boxes of matches and a bottle of a villainous German liquor called 'Corn Schnapps.' Then the atrocity stood up and embraced me, and asked me to show him my firearms. His fierce eyes gleamed with pleasure as he turned them about in his filthy paws, and he was especially pleased with the size of a Sharp's rifle cartridge and bullet which would, he grinned, 'make big fellow hole in man.' Then, with further expressions of goodwill on both sides, we parted.
At dusk Parker bade me good-bye, and urging me to put the utmost confidence in Bobaran and drink plenty of gin whenever it rained--to keep the fever from 'gettin' holt' of my system--he walked down to the beach and stepped into the boat. For a few minutes I stood watching till he was hidden from view by a point of land, and then, feeling somewhat depressed at my future loneliness, I walked back to the house.
Bobaran, the Mesdames Bobaran (three), and the Masters and Misses Bobaran were sitting on the verandah awaiting me. None of them were as much dressed as their father, who had, as I have said, a leather belt around his loins, and all were chewing betel-nut and expectorating the scarlet juice thereof vigorously about the premises. Being aware of the fact that a New Britain woman is never abroad at night, and a man but seldom, I was surprised at such a family gathering, for the village was some distance away. Bobaran, however, explained that as he and two of his sons intended keeping guard for me that night, the rest of the family had come with them--and that they should like some tobacco.
Leaving his wives and children outside to smoke, my protector came into the sitting-room, and as he had acquired a considerable amount of unpolished sailor man's English, I found him very entertaining and also instructive. First he told me that the Kabaira people were perfectly safe; it was a very peaceful village, and the people liked white men, and he hoped I would not carry arms whenever I went out--it made them frightened, and when people were frightened of a man they naturally tried to kill him. Agreed to. Secondly, they were not cannibals--all their neighbours were, however. (I said I was pleased to hear it, no doubt someone had maligned them.) But they were all thieves, and I must take prompt action to prevent myself from being robbed--(here one of his wives crept to the door on all fours and asked her lord and master for a match, but was struck with great violence in the mouth with an empty salmon tin instead, for interrupting). To-morrow I should do as 'Parka' did the day he came to Kabaira. I must go down to the beach with a dynamite cartridge in my hand and seek for a place where there was plenty of fish. And I must have another cartridge ready in my pocket. As soon as the first shot went off hundreds of natives would jump in the water and try to steal all the best fish. Then I was to light the fuse of the second cartridge and throw it in. And it would be sure to hurt some of the people, and they would not follow me next time I went fishing. But, of course, if I should happen to kill anyone, I would pay for it?
'Of course I would,' I said. 'How much?'
'Big feller man, one good musket; boy, one axix' (axe); 'old woman, old feller, musket; young girl, one good musket.'
Then he approached me on a delicate subject, i.e., the taking over of my predecessor's harem of three native women. I explained that I was expecting my wife down soon from Samoa and couldn't do it. He said it was a great pity, as one of 'Parka's' wives could make tea and cook meat. Also, that I need be under no fear of her making any unpleasantness when my wife turned up. Would I like to see the girl? 'Parka' had taught her a lot of things. She did not oil her hair with pigeon fat, and cleaned her teeth every day just like a Samoan girl. Also, she had ten coils of dewarra (cowrie shells threaded on the midribs of the coco-nut leaf, and used as the native currency). I said I was very much tempted, but thought I had better not. He looked at me steadily for a few seconds, as he thrust a fresh 'chaw' of betel-nut and lime into his hideous mouth, and said that I was missing a great chance--there were plenty of white men along the coast who would be glad to get anyone of 'Parka's' wives, especially she who could make tea and cook meat.
He seemed pleased that I was disposed to be as liberal-handed as Parker, for whom he seemed to have a high regard; and then proceeded to tell me of some of his own exploits among the inhabitants of Mutavāt, a village across the bay, which was at enmity with Kabaira. The infinite gusto with which he related a series of atrocious murders gave me a chill, and he looked like an evil spirit when his great red lips parted in a grin and revealed his black teeth. Presently he asked me if I had shot any people; and when I said I had not, he became regretful, but soon brightened up again and said I would have plenty of chances yet.
There were some bush villages, to which he would take me some day, and if we were careful we could knock over two or three people easily; they were a bad lot these 'man-a-bush' (bush-men).
At ten o'clock I turned in, and Bobaran, after an animated conversation with his family, lay down at my door with a Snider rifle and his horse-pistol by his side.
And for many long, weary months, in the beautiful but fever-ridden Kabaira Bay, he was the only person to whom I could talk; and in time I began to take a liking to him, for I found him, as Parker had told me, 'a thunderin' old cut-throat, but as straight as a die to a white man who acts straight to him.'