Reo, The Fisherman
by Louis Becke
'Reo was a short, squat Malayan, with a face like a skate, barring his
eyes, which were long, narrow slits, apparently expressing nothing but
supreme indifference to the world in general. But they would light up
sometimes with a merry twinkle when the old rogue would narrate some of
his past villainies.
He came to Samoa in the old, old days—long before Treaties, and
Imperial Commissioners, and other gilded vanities were dreamt of by us
poor, hard-working traders. He seemed to have dropped from the sky when
one afternoon, as Tom Denison, the supercargo, and some of his friends sat
on Charley the Russian's verandah, drinking lager, he marched up to them,
sat down on the steps, and said, "Good evening."
"Hallo," said Schlüter, the skipper of the Anna Godeffrey. "Who are
you? Where do you come from?"
'Reo waved a short, stumpy and black clay pipe to and fro, and replied
"Oh, from somewhere."
Some one laughed, surmising correctly enough that he had run away from a
ship; then they remembered that no vessel had even touched at Apia for a
month. (Later on he told Denison that he had jumped overboard from a
Baker's Island guano-man, as she was running down the coast, and swum
ashore, landing at a point twenty miles distant from Apia. The natives in
the various villages had given him food, so when he reached the town he
was not hungry.)
"What do you want, anyway?" asked Schlüter.
"Some tobacco, please. And a dollar or two. I can pay you back."
"When?" said Hamilton the pilot incredulously.
The pipe described a semicircle. "Oh, to-morrow night—before,
They gave him some tobacco and matches, and four Bolivian "iron"
half-dollars. He got up and went across to Volkner's combined store and
grog shanty, over the way.
"He's gone to buy a bottle of square-face," said Hamilton.
"He deserves it," said Denison gloomily. "A man of his age who could jump
overboard and swim ashore to this rotten country should be presented with
a case of gin—and a knife to cut his throat with after he has
In about ten minutes the old fellow came out of Volkner's store, carrying
two or three stout fishing-lines, several packets of hooks, and half a
dozen ship biscuits. He grinned as he passed the group on the verandah,
and then squatting down on the sward near by began to uncoil the lines and
bend on the hooks.
Denison was interested, went over to him, and watched the swift, skilful
manner in which the thin brown fingers worked.
"Where are you going to fish?" he inquired.
The broad, flat face lit up. "Outside in the dam deep water—sixty,
Denison left him and went aboard the ancient, cockroach-infested craft of
which he was the heartbroken supercargo. Half an hour later 'Reo paddled
past the schooner in a wretched old canoe, whose outrigger was so
insecurely fastened that it threatened to come adrift every instant. The
old man grinned as he recognised Denison; then, pipe in mouth, he went
boldly out through the passage between the lines of roaring surf into the
tumbling blue beyond.
At ten o'clock, just as the supercargo and the skipper were taking their
last nip before turning in, the ancient slipped quietly alongside in his
canoe, and clambered on deck. In his right hand he carried a big
salmon-like fish, weighing about 20 lbs. Laying it down on the deck, he
pointed to it.
"Plenty more in canoe like that. You want some more?"
Denison went to the side and looked over. The canoe was loaded down to the
gunwale with the weight of fish—fish that the lazy, loafing Apian
natives caught but rarely. The old man passed up two or three more, took a
glass of grog, and paddled ashore.
Next morning he repaid the borrowed money and showed Denison fifteen
dollars—the result of his first night's work in Samoa. The
saloon-keepers and other white people said he was a treasure. Fish in Apia
were dear, and hard to get.
On the following Sunday a marriage procession entered the Rarotongan
chapel in Matafele, and Tetarreo (otherwise *Reo) was united to one of the
prettiest and not very disreputable native girls in the town, whose
parents recognised that 'Reo was likely to prove an eminently lucrative
and squeezable son-in-law. Denison was best man, and gave the bride a
five-dollar American gold piece (having previously made a private
arrangement with the bridegroom that he was to receive value for it in
'Reo's wife's relatives built the newly-married couple a house on Matautu
Point, and 'Reo spent thirty-five dollars in giving the bride's local
connections a feast. Then the news spread, and cousins and second cousins
and various breeds of aunts and half-uncles travelled up to Matautu Point
to partake of his hospitality. He did his best, but in a day or so
remarked sadly that he could not catch fish fast enough in a poor canoe.
If he had a boat he could make fifty dollars a week, he said; and with
fifty dollars a week he could entertain his wife's honoured friends
continuously and in a befitting manner. The relatives consulted, and,
thinking they had "a good thing," subscribed, and bought a boat (on
credit) from the German firm, giving a mortgage on a piece of land as
security. Then they presented 'Reo with the boat, with many complimentary
speeches, and sat down to chuckle at the way they would "make the old fool
work," and the "old fool" went straight away to the American Consul and
declared himself to be a citizen of the United States and demanded his
country's protection, as he feared his wife's relatives wanted to jew him
out of the boat they had given him.
The Consul wrote out something terrifying on a big sheet of paper, and
tacked it on to the boat, and warned the surprised relatives that an
American man-of-war would protect 'Reo with her guns, and then 'Reo went
inside his house and beat his wife with a canoe paddle, and chased her
violently out of the place, and threatened her male relatives with a large
knife and fearful language.
Then he took the boat round the other side of the island and sold it for
two hundred dollars to a trader, and came back to Apia to Denison and
asked for a passage to Tutuila, and the German firm entered into and took
possession of the mortgaged land, whilst the infuriated relatives tore up
and down the beach demanding 'Reo's blood in a loud voice. 'Reo, with his
two hundred dollars in his trousers' pocket, sat on the schooner's rail
and looked at them stolidly and without ill-feeling.
Denison landed the ancient at Leone Bay on Tutuila, for he had taken
kindly to the old scoundrel, who had many virtues, and could give points
to any one, white or brown, in the noble art of deep-sea fishing. This
latter qualification endeared him greatly to young Tom, who, when he was
not employed in keeping the captain sober, or bringing him round after an
attack of "D.T.'s," spent all his spare time in fishing, either at sea or
'Reo settled at Leone, and made a good deal of money buying copra from the
natives. The natives got to like him—he was such a conscientious old
fellow. When he hung the baskets of copra on the iron hook of the
steelyard, which was marked to weigh up to 150 lbs., he would call their
attention to the marks as he moved the heavy "pea" along the yard. Then,
one day, some interfering Tongan visitor examined the pea and declared
that it had been taken from a steelyard designed to weigh up to 400 lbs.
'Reo was so hurt at the insinuation that he immediately took the whole
apparatus out beyond the reef in his boat and indignantly sunk it in fifty
fathoms of water. Then he returned to his house, and he and his wife (he
had married again) bade a sorrowful farewell to his friends, and said his
heart was broken by the slanders of a vile Tongan pig from a mission
school. He would, he said, go back to Apia, where he was respected by all
who knew him. Then he began to pack up. Some of the natives sided with the
Tongan, some with 'Reo, and in a few minutes a free fight took place on
the village green, and 'Reo stood in his doorway and watched it from his
narrow, pig-like eyes; then, being of a magnanimous nature, he walked over
and asked three stout youths, who had beaten the Tongan into a state of
unconsciousness, and were jumping on his body, not to hurt him too much.
About midnight 'Reo's house was seen to be in flames, and the owner,
uttering wild, weird screams of "Fia ola! Fia ola!" ("Mercy!
Mercy!") fled down the beach to his boat, followed by his wife, a large,
fat woman, named appropriately enough Taumafa (Abundance). They dashed
into the water, clambered into the boat, and began pulling seaward for
their lives. The villagers, thinking they had both gone mad, gazed at them
in astonishment, and then went back and helped themselves to the few goods
saved from the burning house.
As soon as 'Reo and the good wife were out of sight of the village they
put about, ran the boat into a little bay further down the coast, planted
a bag containing seven hundred dollars, with the best of the trade goods
(salved before the fire was discovered), and then set sail for Apia
to "get justice from the Consul."
The Consul said it was a shocking outrage, the captain of U.S.S.
Adirondack concurred, and so the cruiser, with the injured, stolid-faced
'Reo on board, steamed off to Leone Bay and gave the astounded natives
twelve hours to make up their minds as to which they would do—pay
'Reo one thousand dollars in cash or have their town burnt. They paid six
hundred, all they could raise, and then, in a dazed sort of way, sat down
to meditate as they saw the Adirondack steam off again.
'Reo gave his wife a small share of the plunder and sent her home to her
parents. When Tom Denison next saw him he was keeping a boarding house at
Levuka, in Fiji. He told Denison he was welcome to free board and lodging
for a year. 'Reo had his good points, as I have said.