A Point of Theology on Maduro by Louis Becke
The Palestine Tom de Wolf's South Sea trading brig, of Sydney, had
just dropped anchor off a native village on Mâdurô in the North Pacific,
when Macpherson the trader came alongside in his boat and jumped on board.
He was a young but serious-faced man with a red beard, was thirty years of
age, and had achieved no little distinction for having once attempted to
convert Captain "Bully" Hayes, when that irreligious mariner was suffering
from a fractured skull, superinduced by a bullet, fired at him by a trader
whose connubial happiness he had unwarrantably upset. The natives thought
no end of Macpherson, because in his spare time he taught a class in the
Mission Church, and neither drank nor smoked. This was quite enough to
make him famous from one end of Polynesia to the other; but he bore his
honours quietly, the only signs of superiority he showed over the rest of
his fellow traders being the display on the rough table in his
sitting-room of a quantity of theological literature by the Reverend James
MacBain, of Aberdeen. Still he was not proud, and would lend any of his
books or pamphlets to any white man who visited the island.
He was a fairly prosperous man, worked hard at his trading business, and,
despite his assertions about the fearful future that awaited every one who
had not read the Reverend Mr. MacBain's religious works, was well-liked.
But few white men spent an evening in his house if they could help it. One
reason of this was that whenever a ship touched at Mâdurô, the Hawaiian
native teacher, Lilo, always haunted Mac-pherson's house, and every trader
and trading skipper detested this teacher above all others. Macpherson
liked him and said he was "earnest," the other white men called him and
believed him to be, a smug-faced and sponging hypocrite.
Well, as I said, Macpherson came on board, and Packenham and Denison, the
supercargo, at once noticed that he looked more than usually solemn.
Instead of, as on former occasions, coming into the brig's trade-room and
picking out his trade goods, he sat down facing the captain and answered
his questions as to the state of business, etc., on the island, in an
awkward, restrained manner.
"What's the matter, Macpherson?" said the captain. "Have you married a
native girl and found out that she is related to any one on the island,
and you haven't house-room enough for 'em all, or what?"
The trader stroked his bushy sandy beard, with a rough brown hand, and his
clear grey eyes looked steadily into those of the captain.
"I'm no the man to marry any native girl, Captain Packenham. When I do
marry any one it will be the girl who promised hersel' to me five years
ago in Aberdeen. But there, I'm no quick to tak' offence at a bit of fun.
And I want ye two tae help me to do a guid deed. I want ye tae come ashore
wi' me at once and try and put some sense into the head of this obstinate
"Why, what has he been doing?"
"Just pairsecuting an auld man of seventy and a wee bit of a child. And if
we canna mak' him tak' a sensible view of things, ye'll do a guid action
by taking the puir things awa' wi' ye to some ither pairt of the South
Seas, where the creatures can at least live."
Then he told his story. Six months before, a German trading vessel had
called at Mâdurô, and landed an old man of seventy and his grand-daughter—a
little girl of ten years of age. To the astonishment of the people the old
man proved to be a native of the island. His name was Rimé. He had left
Mâdurô forty years before for Tahiti as a seaman. At Tahiti he married,
and then for many years worked with other Marshall Islanders on Antimanao
Plantation, where two children were born to him. The elder of these, when
she was fifteen years of age, married a Frenchman trading in the Paumotu
The other child, a boy, was drowned at sea. For eight or nine years Rimé
and his Tahitian wife, Tiaro, lived alone on the great plantation; then
Tiaro sickened and died, and Rimé was left by himself. Then one day came
news to him from the distant Paumotus—his daughter and her white
husband had fallen victims to the small-pox, leaving behind them a little
girl. A month later Rimé worked his way in a pearling schooner to the
island where his granddaughter lived, and claimed her. His heart was empty
he said. They would go to Mâdurô, though so many long, long years had
passed since he, then a strong man of thirty, had seen its low line of
palm-clad beach sink beneath the sea-rim; for he longed to hear the sound
of his mother tongue once more. And so the one French priest on Marutea
blessed him and the child—for Rimé had become a Catholic during his
stay in the big plantation—and said that God would be good to them
both in their long journey across the wide Pacific to far-off Mâdurô.
But changes had come to Mâdurô in forty years. When Rimé had sailed away
to seek his fortune in Tahiti he and his people were heathens; when he
returned he found them rigid Protestants of the Boston New England
Cotton-Mather type, to whom the name of "Papist" was an abomination and a
horror. And when Rimé said that he too was a Christian—a Katoliko—they
promptly told him to clear out. He was not an American Christian anyway,
they said, and had no business to come back to Mâdurô.
"And," said Macpherson, "I'll no suffer this—the poor creature an'
the wee lit child canna git a bit to eat but what I gie them. And because
I do gie them something to eat Lilo has turned against me, an' says
I'm no a Christian. So I want ye to come ashore and reason wi' the man.
He's but a bigot, I fear; though his wife is no so hard on the poor man
and the child as he is; but a woman aye has a tender heart for a child.
And yet, ye see, this foolish Rimé will no give in, and says he will die
before he changes his faith at Lilo's bidding. They took awa' his silly
brass cruceefix, and slung it into the lagoon. Then the auld ass made
anither out of a broken canoe paddle, and stickit the thing up in my
cook-shed! And I have no the heart to tell him to put it in the fire and
warm his naked shin bones wi' it. But I think if we all tackle the native
teacher together we may knock some sense into his conceited head, and make
him treat the poor man better. 'Tis verra hard, too, on the poor auld
fellow that these people will not give him back even a bit of his own
Then he went on to say that ever since Rimé had landed he and the child
had been sleeping every night in his (Macpherson's) cooking-shed. The
trader had given him a bundle of mats and free access to a pile of Fiji
yams and a bag of rice, and sometime Louisa, Lilo's Hawaiian wife, would
visit them at night, ostensibly to convert Rimé from the errors of Rome,
but really to leave him a cooked fish or a piece of pork. Most of the day,
however, Rimé was absent, wandering about the beaches with his
grand-daughter. They were afraid to even pass near the village, for the
children threw stones at them, and the men and women cursed them as
Katolikos. Matters had gone on like this till two weeks before the Palestine
arrived, when Lilo and some of his deacons had formed themselves into a
deputation, and visited the trader. It was very wrong of him, they said,
to encourage this wicked old man and his child. And they wanted him to
cease giving them food or shelter—then when the "Katolikos" found
themselves starving they would be glad to give up the "evil" religion
which they had learnt in Tahiti. Then would they be baptized and food
given them by the people of Mâdurô.
Macpherson tried to reason with Lilo. But neither he nor the
white-shirted, but trouserless, deacons would listen to him. And
furthermore, they gave him a warning—if Rimé continued obstinate,
they would hold him (Macpherson) responsible and tapu his store.
Rimé did continue obstinate, and next morning the trader found himself tabooed,
which is a mere euphemism for boycotted.
"That's pretty rough on you, Mac," said Packenham.
"'Twill just ruin me, I fear. Ye see there's four other traders on this
island besides me, and all my business has gone to them. But what can I
do? The silly auld fule of a Rimé won't give in, and I canna see him
starve—the damned auld Papist."
At noon, as Packenham, with his supercargo and Macpherson, stepped out of
the trader's dwelling, and walked together to the Mission House, a native
went through the village blowing a conch. Lilo had agreed to meet the
white men and discuss matters with them. Already the big room in the
teacher's house was filled with people, who sat around the walls three or
four deep, talking in whispered tones, and wondering why the white men
troubled so much over a miserable old man and a wretched child, who were
both accursed "Katolikos."
As the captain and his friends entered, Lilo, the teacher, advanced to
meet them. He was a small, slenderly built man, with a skin scarcely
darker than that of an Italian, and very handsome features. After a few
words of effusive welcome, and a particularly sweet smile to Macpherson,
he escorted the white men to their seats—three chairs placed
together at the head of the room.
Presently there was a shuffling of naked feet outside, and five or six
young men entered the house, pushing before them an old man and a girl—Rimé
and his grand-child. In the centre of the room was a small square mat of
coconut leaf—the Marshall Island prisoners' dock. With limbs
trembling with age, Rimé seated himself cross-legged; the child, kneeling
at his back, placed her bony arms around his wrinkled body, and clasped
him tightly; her eyes, big, black, and mournful, filled with the
indifference born of despair. Then, as she saw Macpherson, a faint
semblance of a smile flitted across her sallow face.
Lilo struck his hand upon a little table before which he sat, and at once
the assembly was silent. Then he turned to Packenham and, in perfect
English, pointing to the two figures in the centre of the room, said—
"That is Rimé and his child. They have given us much trouble, and I and
the deacons of this island do not want trouble. We are Christians, and
will not have any 'Katolikos' here. Mr. Macpherson says we are cruel. He
is wrong. We are just, and this man and this child must give up their
false faith. But because you and Mr. Denison have written me a letter
about this matter I have called the people together so that we may talk.
So, if you please, captain, will you speak, and I will interpret whatever
you say to the people."
"Will he, the damned little sweep?" muttered the supercargo to Packenham;
"tell him that we can talk Mâdurô as well as he can—and better."
So, much to the teacher's disgust, Packenham answered in the Mâdurô
dialect. "'Twas better," he said, "that they should all talk Mâdurô." Lilo
smiled unpleasantly, and said, "Very well."
Then Packenham, turning to the people, spoke to the point.
"Look into my face, people of Mâdurô, and listen to my words. Long before
the missionaries came to this island I lived among ye for three years with
my wife Nerida. And is there here one man or one woman who can say that I
ever lied to him or her? So this do I say to ye all; and to thee, Lilo,
the teacher of the Word of God, that ye do wrong to persecute this old man
and this child. For is it not true that he hath land, which ye have denied
to him? Is it not true that he is old and feeble, and his limbs tremble as
he walks? Yet ye neither give him food nor drink, nor yet a mat whereon to
lie his head. He is a 'Katoliko,' ye say? Are there not many thousands of
'Katolikos' in Hawaii, the land from whence comes Lilo? And I ask of thee,
Lilo, do they suffer wrong from the King and the chiefs of Hawaii because
of their faith? So to thee, Lilo, do I say 'beware.' Thou art but a young
and ignorant man, and were I to tell the white missionaries in Honolulu
(who are thy masters) that this old man and this little child would have
died of hunger but that the heart of one man alone was tender to them,
then wouldst thou hang thy head in shame when the mission ship comes here
next year. For hath not Christ said, 'Blessed are the merciful, for they
shall obtain mercy?' And so I say to ye all, let this old man dwell among
ye in peace, for death is near to him, and shame will be thine if ye deny
to him his right to die on his own land, of which ye have robbed him."
The teacher sprang to his feet, his dark eyes blazing with passion.
"There shall be no mercy shown to Katolikos; for they are of hell and the
devil and his works!" and from the people there came a deep growl of
approval, which changed into a savage hissing as Macpherson rose and
stretched out his hand.
"Let me speak," he said.
"No," shouted the teacher. "Who are you? You are a bad man, you are——"
Packenham made two strides over to Lilo and placed his heavy hand on his
shoulder—"Sit down, you damned little psalm-singing kanaka hog, or
I'll knock your eye out. He shall speak."
"Get thee hence, thou shielder of the devil's children," said a young, fat
deacon, walking up to the trader and spitting contemptuously at his feet.
"We want no such white men as thee among us here in Mâdurô." In an instant
Macpherson struck him between the eyes and sent him flying backwards among
his fellow-deacons. Then came an angry roar from the people.
The trader turned to Packenham with a groan, "I'm a ruined man now,
Captain Packenham, and all through this auld fule of a Papist." Then he
again tried to speak amidst the uproar.
"Sit down, damn you," said Denison, the supercargo, "and don't excite them
any more. They're ready for any mischief now. Oh, you she-devil," and he
darted into the middle of the room towards Rimé and his grand-daughter. A
stout muscular girl had torn the child's arms from the old man's waist,
and was beating her savagely in the face with clenched fists. Denison gave
her an under-clip on the jaw and sent her down, and in a few seconds the
old man and child were the centre of a struggling group—the white
men hitting out right and left to save them from being murdered. The
teacher's wife, a tall, graceful young woman—with whom Denison had
been exchanging surreptitious glances a few minutes before—weeping
copiously the while, aided them by belabouring the backs of the women who
were endeavouring to get at the prostrate figure of the little girl. But
Packenham, Macpherson, and the supercargo were too much for the natives,
and soon cleared a space around them.
"Take them to the ship, Captain Packenham," said the teacher's wife
pantingly, in English. "These people are mad now. Go—go at once."
Picking up the frail figure of the old man, the captain, followed by
Macpherson and the supercargo, soon gained the boat through a shower of
stones and other missiles. Ten minutes later they were on board the
"What a devil of a row!" said Packenham, as he clinked his glass against
that of Macpherson, who, after the exciting events of the past hour, had
been induced to take a nip to steady his nerves; "you ought to be d———d
well ashamed of yourself, Mac, to be mixed up in a fight over a Papist.
What would Mr. MacBain say, eh?"
"It's a verra bad business for me," said Macpherson ruefully. "Ye'll have
to come back for me next month and tak' me awa' from Mâdurô. I'll do no
more business here, I can see."
"Right you are, Mac," and Packenham grasped his hand. "I will come
back for you, if it takes me a month of Sundays to beat against the
trades. And you're a white man, Mac; and I'll never laugh at MacBain nor
Aberdeen theology any more."
That night, as the captain of the Palestine slept upon the
skylight, old Rimé, who, with the child, lay upon the deck just beneath
Packenham, rose softly to his knees and peered into the white man's face.
He was sleeping soundly. Rimé touched his grandchild with his foot. She
awoke, and together they pressed their lips to the skipper's hand. Then,
without a sound, they stole along the deck, clambered over the brig's low
side, dropped into the water and swam ashore.
When daylight came the Palestine was rolling heavily to a sweeping
westerly swell, with the wind piping hard through her cordage as she
strained at her cable. The absence of old Rimé and the child was not
discovered till coffee time; the mate thought they had gone to sleep in
"They've swum ashore in the night, Pack," said the supercargo to
Packenham. "I believe the old fellow will be content to die of starvation—hallo,
here's Mac coming off in his boat!"
In less than ten minutes the trader's boat was close to the ship, and
Macpherson, bringing her up to the wind close under the brig's stern,
"Hae ye seen anything of the old man Rimé?"
"No," answered the captain; "the old fool cleared out last night. Isn't he
"No. And there's a canoe missing from the beach, and I believe the auld
Papist fule has taken the wee bit lassie wi' him, and thinks he can get to
Ponape, whaur there's 'Katolikos' in plenty. And Ponape is sax hundred
"Well, come aboard and get some breakfast."
"Man, I'm going after the old fule! He's got no sail and canna be twenty
mile awa'. I'll pick him up before he gets to Milli Lagoon, which is only
saxty miles from here."
Packenham swore. "You infernal ass! Are you going to sea in a breeze like
this by yourself? Where's your crew?"
"The deevils wadna' come wi' me to look for a Papist. And I'm not going to
let the auld fule perish."
"Then come alongside and take a couple of our Savage Island boys. I can
"No, no, captain. I'm not going tae delay ye when ye're bound to the
eastward and I'm going the ither way. Ye'll find me here safe enough when
ye come back in anither month. And I'll pick up the auld deevil and the
wee bit lassie before mid-day."
And then, with his red beard spreading out across his shoulders,
Macpherson let his boat pay off before the wind. In an hour he was out of
Three weeks afterwards the Sadie Perkins sperm whaler of New
Bedford, came across a boat, five hundred miles west of Mâdurô. In the
stern sheets lay that which had once been Macpherson, the "auld fule
Papist, and the wee bit lassie."