A Fish Drive On A Micronesian Atoll

by Louis Becke

We were thrashing our way in a little brigantine, owned by Tom de Wolf, of Liverpool, against the strong north-east trade wind, from the Western Carolines to Milli in the Marshalls, when one day we sighted a low-lying cluster of five small palm-clad islands that lay basking, white and green, in the bright Pacific sun; and an hour before dark the Lunalilo dropped her anchor just in front of the native village. In a few minutes the resident white trader came off to us in his boat and made us welcome to his island home.

We had heard that he had quite a considerable quantity of hawkbill turtle shell and some coco-nut oil to sell, and came to ascertain the truth of the report before we were anticipated by some German or American trading vessel.

Less than a mile away from where the brigantine was anchored we saw a noble white beach, trending east and west in many curves, and backed by serried lines of palms and groves of bread-fruit trees, through whose bright verdancy peeped out the thatch-covered and saddle-backed houses of the natives. Apart from the village, and enclosed by a low fence of growing hibiscus palings, stood the trader's house, a long, rambling building with white coral-lime walls and a wide, shady verandah on all four sides. In front of the fence was a tall, white-painted flagstaff, and presently we saw a woman come out of the trader's house and walk up to it. In another minute the Stars and Stripes went slowly up, and then hung limp and motionless in the windless atmosphere.

'There,' said the trader, with a laugh, 'you see, my wife, native as she is, is more polite than I am. But the fact is that I was so excited when I saw your schooner that I never thought about hoisting the old gridiron. Now, look here, gentlemen; before we do anything else, or talk about business, I want you to promise to come ashore to night. There is to be a big fish drive, and I can assure you that that is a sight worth seeing.'

We made the promise, and half an hour later went ashore and walked up to our friend's house. Here we found the entire population of the island assembled to do us honour, and for quite ten minutes were embraced most effusively by every one, male or female, who could get near us. The men were naked to their waists—the missionaries had not then made any headway in the Caroline Islands—around which they wore either gaily-coloured girdles of bleached and then dyed strips of fine pandanus leaf, or sashes of closely-woven banana fibre. The women, however, somewhat ineffectually concealed the remarkable beauty of their figures by wearing, in addition to their grass waist girdles, a crescent-shaped garment of similar material, which was suspended from their necks, and covered their bosoms.{*} Their glossy black hair hung in wavy curls down their smooth brown backs. * Since the advent of the missionaries this costume has been suppressed.

Nearly all the young unmarried girls wore narrow head circlets of white pandanus leaf, profusely adorned and embroidered with red and yellow beads, flat pieces of polished pearl shell, and edged with green and gold and scarlet parrots' feathers. Their address and modest demeanour was engaging in the extreme, and we noticed that they showed the utmost deference and respect to an aged female who sat on a mat in the centre of the room, surrounded by a number of young children. She was, we learnt, the king's mother, and at her request the trader led us over to where she sat, and gave us a formal introduction. She received us in a pleasant but dignified manner, and the moment that she opened her lips to speak the clatter of tongues around us ceased as if by magic, and the most respectful silence prevailed.

As neither the captain nor myself were able to speak the local dialect—which is similar to that of Ponapé—we were somewhat at a loss to answer the questions she put to us, and etiquette forbade the trader to volunteer his services as an interpreter, till the old dame asked him. Presently, however, she desired him to tell us that she was very pleased to see us; that the fish drive would, she hoped, interest us greatly. Then, at a sign from her, a handsome young man who stood in the doorway came forward and laid down a bundle of mats at our feet; this was the old lady's formal present to the captain and myself. She then rose, and bidding us to come and see her in her son's house before we sailed, she walked over to the end of the room, attended by her retinue of children, and sat down again on a finely-worked mat, which was spread out before her. Then she made another and longer speech on behalf of her son, who, she said, had desired her to say that he was very pleased we had brought the ship to an anchor; that his stomach was filled with friendship for white men; and that the trader would tell us that all that he (the king) said was true; also that if any of her people stole even the most trifling article from our ship they would be severely punished, etc. Furthermore, she trusted that after we had spent one night at the white man's house and seen the fish drive, we would spend the following morning with her, when we should be feasted, and every honour and attention shown us. Then the young man attendant produced another present—from the king. This was a live sucking pig, a pair of fat Muscovy ducks, and a huge green turtle. This latter was carried in by four women, and placed in the centre of the room. We then, through the trader, made return gifts of a bolt of white calico, a lamp and a tin of kerosene. Touching these with her hand the old woman signed to her attendants to take them away, and then, with another polite speech, left the house.

The moment the king's mother retired, many more of the common people swarmed into the house, and all seemed highly delighted to learn that we intended to stay and see the great fish drive.

As every one of our native crew was very anxious to join in the sport, the captain had asked the king's mother to 'tapu' the ship till daylight, and shortly afterwards we were told by a messenger from the king that this had been done, and that no native would attempt to board the ship till we had returned. Although these people were honest enough, our captain thought it hardly safe enough to leave the ship without a white man on board, for all natives are very careless with the use of fire, and, being great smokers, he felt nervous on that score.

At five o'clock we were taken to the king's house, where we found the whole population assembled. A great feast was spread out, and King Ralok, who advanced to meet us, took us by our hands and sat us down in the midst of a vast collection of baked fish, bread fruit, turtle meat and eggs, and roast fowls, pigeons and pork. Of course we had to eat; but at the earliest opportunity the trader told the king that we were anxious to see the preparations made for the drive before it got too dark. Ralok at once agreed, and after drinking the milk of a young coco-nut to wash down the repast, we made a start for the scene of operations.

This was along the shore of the lagoon. At high water, for nearly two or three miles, the white, sandy bottom would be covered by a depth of about four feet of water; at low water, as it was now, it was dry. Here and there were clumps of coral boulders, generally circular in shape, and these, at high water, would be just flush with the surface. These boulders were some two or three hundred yards apart, and as we came out upon the lagoon beach we saw that they were connected by a vast number of nets lying upon the sand, in readiness to rise, by means of their light wooden floats of puka wood, as soon as the incoming tide swept in from the ocean. Upon the top of each of these connecting boulders were piled bundles or long torches made of dried coco-nut branches, which were to be lighted when the drive began. The total length of the netting was about two miles, but at one end, that facing the deep water of the lagoon, there was a wide, unenclosed space. Here, however, were lying half a dozen canoes, whose outrigger platforms were piled up with strong nets, which were to be stretched across the opening at the proper moment.

After looking at the preparations, we returned to the village, and as we had no time to lose, and the tide was coming in at a great rate over the reef, we began to dress, or rather undress, for the sport. To each of us was given a spear, and a number of young women and children were told off to accompany us with baskets, with half-a-dozen boys as torch-bearers.

As soon as darkness had fallen the whole village was astir. From every house men, women and very young children swarmed, these latter without even the traditional leaf to hide their nakedness, while the grown girls and women, possibly with the view of not shocking us too much, wore short—very short—girdles around their loins.

The grown men and youths now launched a number of canoes, and, crowding into them, paddled out into the lagoon, keeping well away, however, from the line of nets, the floats of which were now appearing upon the surface of the water. In each canoe was a large basket filled with a nasty-looking mass. This was the crushed shells and bodies of uga, or small land crabs, and was to be used as 'burley' to attract the fish to the wake of the canoes.

Before going further I must mention that at a particular season of the year—May—many of the Micronesian Islands are visited by vast shoals of fish much resembling an English salmon. These enter the lagoons from the ocean in pursuit of smaller fish. These smaller fish, which are a species of sprat, assemble in incredible quantities, and at night-time are wont to crowd together in prodigious numbers about the coral boulders before mentioned, in the same manner that ocean-living fish will sometimes attach themselves to a ship or other moving substance, as some protection from pursuit by bonito, albicore, and the fish called tautau. The latter are of nocturnal habit when seeking food, and during the daytime lie almost motionless near the bottom, where they can often be seen in serried masses. As soon as night falls they rise to the surface and give chase to flying-fish and other surface-swimming ocean fish. In shape they are very similar to a salmon, but do not possess the same deepness of body and general fulness. Their heads consist of a series of long plates, and their jaws are armed with rows of serrated bone plates. In colour they are a very beautiful iridescent silver along the sides and belly, the back and head being a deep, glossy blue. When full grown their length is slightly over four feet, and weight about twenty-five pounds. They are as voracious as the pike, swim with extraordinary swiftness at night-time, and will take the hook eagerly if baited with a whole flying-fish; their flesh is somewhat delicate in flavour and greatly relished by the natives of Micronesia, who regard it as second only to the universally esteemed flying-fish.

Two or three days before we made the little group of islands, immense droves of these tautau, as the natives of Eastern Polynesia call them, had been hovering about the reefs, and the people were now to endeavour to tempt them into the trap set for them with such care and labour.

For about a quarter of an hour not a sound broke the silence of the night. We were in the midst of some three or four hundred natives, who only spoke in whispers for fear of alarming the fish. All round the deeper portion of the chain of nets was a line of canoes, filled with women and girls, who held torches in their hands ready to light up the moment the signal was given. Further in towards the shore, where the water was not too deep to prevent them keeping on their feet, were numbers of girls and children standing close together, their bodies almost touching, and the floats of the nets touching their bosoms; we white men, with the trader, were standing together, with our torch-bearers, upon a flat-topped coral boulder.

Suddenly a whisper ran along the line of watchers—the canoes were coming. One by one we made them out, the paddlers dipping their paddles into the water in silence, as one of their number in each canoe threw out double handfuls of the crushed crab 'burley.' As they approached nearer to us we became aware of a peculiar lapping, splashing noise, as of hundreds of bare feet walking in water a few inches deep.

'That's the fish,' whispered the trader. 'Look at them—they are coming in in thousands.'

And then even our unaccustomed eyes could see that the water behind the canoes was churned into a white froth by the jumping, splashing fish, which x were following the canoes in a solid wall, snapping up the food so industriously thrown to them. In a few minutes the canoes had entered the open end of the trap, and were paddling noiselessly past the inner lines of nets, not a hundred yards from where we stood. At last, when the whole inclosure was literally swarming with fish, the outside canoes quickly closed up the gap by stretching the nets across it, and almost at the same moment there was a tremendous splashing and churning up of the water around each knoll and boulder of coral. The tautau had left off eating the bait thrown them from the canoes, and were attacking the myriads of small fish that clustered round the boulders. And then, at a signal given by one of the outside canoes, the torches sprang into flame, and by the bright light that flooded the scene the most extraordinary sight was revealed, for from one side to the other the great inclosure was full of magnificent tautau about three feet six in length. They were all swimming on the surface; and as soon as the blaze of the torches illumined the water they at once became almost stationary; or, after the manner of flying-fish, when subjected to a strong light, swam slowly about in a dazed, hesitating manner.

The work of capturing some very large turtle, that had come into the fatal circle of nets, was now at once begun, lest in their endeavours to escape the nets might be broken and the fish escape. There were six of these creatures speared before they could do any damage; as well as two or three small sharks, which, having gorged themselves to repletion, were killed as they lazily swam along the circle of nets.

So well had the natives judged of the time it would take to carry out their scheme, that within half an hour of the inclosure of the fish the tide began to fall, and the imprisoned swarms showed signs of anxiety to escape, but as fresh supplies of torches were brought from the village, and kept continuously alight, their alarm seemed to disappear. Had a heavy shower of rain fallen—so the trader told us—and extinguished the torches, the fish would have rushed at the nets and carried them away by sheer weight.

Meanwhile, as the tide continued to fall, many of the women and girls amused themselves by stunning all the fish that came within reach of them, and loading the canoes with them. Once some fifty or sixty tautau came right up to the boulder on which we stood, and were so dazed by the glare of light that poured down on them, that some permitted themselves to be captured by the hand.

Lower and lower fell the water, and as the shore end of the trap became dry, the fish were gradually forced to come closer and closer together as their swimming space diminished. By-and-by, as the receding tide left the chain of coral rocks dry on their summits, women waded out with firewood, and built fires on them; not that there was now any danger of the fish breaking away, but to give a still better light. At last, however, the word was passed along the line that the sea end of the drive had been strengthened by additional nets in case a sudden rush might occur; but, by this time, so rapidly was the water running out, that even at the deepest end there was not perhaps two feet available for the now terrified and struggling swarms of tautau. In another twenty minutes there was heard a most extraordinary sound, caused by thousands upon thousands of fish thrashing and jumping about on the sand; while at the sea end of the drive, where the great body of all were massed together, the scene was simply indescribable. What little water was left was beaten into froth and foam by their violent struggles, and the light from the torches showed that a space of about five acres in extent was covered with a shining, silvery mass of splendid tautau, intermixed with a small number of gorgeous-hued rock-fish, cray-fish, and some hawk-bill turtle.

The work of picking up the prizes went on for at least two hours. Three or four of the tautau placed in a basket was as much as a woman could carry, and, although everyone present worked hard, some thousands of fish were not taken. Many of these, however, were not dead, and, with the incoming tide, swam off again. All the young turtle, however, were secured, the natives taking them up carefully and putting them in walled-in pools where they would remain prisoners.

We tried to ascertain the number of fish taken, but gave it up. Every house and canoe-shed appeared to have the floor covered with them, and for the next day or two there were great fish dinners on the island.

Some thousands of tautau were split open and dried upon platforms in the same manner as the natives of Eastern Polynesia dry flying-fish, and the Fraser River Indians their salmon.

We succeeded in buying a fine lot of turtle shell from the trader, as well as some from the king and his mother. The old lady treated us right royally, and, a few hours before we sailed, a canoe-load of fruit and drinking coco-nuts were sent off to the ship, with her compliments.