Tales of the South Seas by one who lived it
How I Found Adventure by Beatrice Grimshaw (1871-1953)
I am a Victorian.
I was born in the ‘Seventies, in a big lonely country house five miles—a whole hour's journey—from Belfast.
I was governessed and schooled and colleged. I was taught to ride and play games. I was taught to behave. To write notes for Mamma. To do the flowers. To be polite but not too polite, to Young Gentlemen. To accept flowers, sweets and books from them, but no more. To rise swiftly with the rest of the six daughters and sons when Papa came into the breakfast-room, to kiss him ceremoniously, and rush to wait upon him. He liked it, and we liked it.
I went to dances, and waltzed to "The Blue Danube," "Sweethearts," and "Estudiantina." I went to afternoon parties. I was chaperoned. My three sisters were good girls, and content.
But I was the Revolting Daughter—as they called them then. I bought a bicycle, with difficulty. I rode it unchaperoned, mile and miles beyond the limits possible to the soberly trotting horses. The world opened before me. And as soon as my twenty-first birthday dawned, I went away from home, to see what the world might to give to daughters who revolted. What it gave me first was the offer of a journalistic post.
There were maps of far-away places, maps with tantalizing blanks in them; maps of the huge Pacific, colored an entrancing blue. I swore that I would go there.
I made a London newspaper commission me; I went. Long ago, when travel was travel, and the South Sea unknown to tourists; when the charm of the island world was still unbroken. I went to all the chief island groups, and lived in most; I saw the inner New Hebrides, Solomons and New Guinea, at their rawest and fiercest; I roamed all over the East beyond the East, before anyone had begun to think of Java, or the Bali kings had prophetically committed suicide on their coral reefs.
I had so many adventures that they cease to seem adventures. In the New Hebrides, I was caught in a forest fire, and barely escaped into a valley where bones of a recent cannibal feast lay blackening in the smoke. I stood on the shores of Tanna, and watched a recruiting schooner creep cautiously in, afraid to land her boats, while the men of the mountains, fighters and cannibals all, waited with loaded guns beside me, ready to attack the blackbirding crew who had taken away their best. I was present at a dance of murderers and man-eaters, up in the Tanna hills, where no man went. There and elsewhere, I managed to make friends with the wild men of the woods.
In the Solomons, of recent years, I cam in contact with the amazing native magic of the sorcerer, and lived in a house that was haunted by ghostly birds.
I saw—still in the Solomons—men who declared they had solved the secret of a happy life; they said they knew how to project themselves into another man's personality, provided he were agreed, and that such mutual changes often took place—wives, houses, names, habits, even faces, being transferred from one to another. They said they did this through their magic. Certainly the practice was fairly common, however it was brought about, and it seemed to please everybody.
I was given, by a chief, a charm as a safe-pass for a day and night among the wildest tribes. It was carved from a beautiful orange shell, and represented the circle of the sun caught in the curve of the crescent moon, I don't know how much or little it had to do with the fact that I never got into any trouble, although I was told by the men of one tribe (Malaita, of course) that they might killed me or any white any day, just for fun, if they happened to feel like it.
I went to New Caledonia, famous, infamous French penal island, slept in one of a row of former convict cells, and saw the church where the celebrated mass marriages took place, a couple of hundred male convicts being married all at once to as many female convicts specially imported.
I was received by the natives of Dutch New Guinea with a curious ceremony, staged as well as Hollywood could have done it—knives and spears threateningly held up by some of the younger men, while older men raised high above them a burning brand and a branch of palms, signifying homes and hearths and peace. They did not allow women to see the interior of men's temples; but I had bought my way in—with a gift of bread and butter!—and the ceremony that was afterward stages outside the men's sacred house was meant to be interpreted as follows: "You have deserved death for entering the sacred house. But you have been forgiven. You may enter our homes, and it is peace between us."
I was friends with the old Queen of the Cook Islands, the late Makea Takau, a real monarch, six feet three in height, who ruled her islands with an iron scepter. He Prince Consort, Ngamaru, was less civilized than she; it was his way to threaten people who offended him, by making the "cannibal sign" at them—rapidly drawing his clenched fist across his teeth; the significance being: "I will tear you with my teeth!" As for Makea Takau, she used most courteously to tell an enemy, "I do not expect to see you after Wednesday;" and she enemy walked away, and obediently died on Wednesday, of nothing at all.
The beautiful Princess Tuera (of whom I afterward wrote many stories entitled "Queen Vaiti") was a friend of mine in the old days. She was Raratongan, extremely lovely, and fiery as a female dragon. She had captained her father's recruiting schooner, often, and ran it like a bucko mate of whaling days. I never knew her to be beaten by anything or anybody, male or female, alive or dead. Thirty years later, I found that she had defeated even Time, and was beautiful still. She lives in Raratonga, today.
In those days I roamed the South Seas in a schooner long since sunk among the corals—the Countess of Ranfurly, captained by a little white daredevil who afterward became famous in another quarter of the world as an Antarctic explorer. Any passenger he took had to work passage as well as pay; I learned to go aloft, to "hand, reef and steer," and to use the sixteen-foot oar in the whaleboat. We found a pearl lagoon on one occasion, and when we reached the nearest island port, anarchy almost broke out among its few white inhabitants' they all wanted to secure the chart that marked off the lagoon, and I had to convey it across the island in the dead of night, to place it in safe hands.
When I found New Guinea,-rather, the New Guineas, there being three divisions,—I knew that I had found my home. Adventure, after that, became a matter of course.
I was the first white woman to ascend the Fly and Sepik, those wonderful and mysterious rivers, still little known; and only two or three white men had been before me. On the Sepik, I had my narrowest escape when a body of headhunters urged me to come and see their village, all by myself, because their women wanted to look at me. I ventured to leave the men of my party—two only, but well armed—as I wanted greatly to see something that no one else had seen. It came rather than was pleasant to my seeing nothing any more; because the headhunters, when they had brought out two or three old and terrified women as a bait, began to bar me into the house, while the women, hurriedly, disappeared—and unmistakable sign of trouble.
I got away by backing down the track and making signals to invisible (and non-existent) friends. Headhunters are nervy folk, jumpy and undecided until the moment when they strike. Before they had made up their minds, I was round the corner; going slowly, afterwards I ran. They had never seen a long-haired head before, and there was little doubt they intended to secure that choice specimen for their head house.
Adventures and Adventures! The time when a little Government exploring party of less than a dozen, myself included, faced a dancing howling army of seven hundred savages, who had only twice men with white men; once when they killed a famous missionary, and once when a punitive expedition came to shoot up their town. They had of course been saving their revenge. They might have wiped us out, but our leader walked right among them, talked to them and gave them tobacco, and offered to show them a white woman-if they would be good. It was like offering a circus ticket to a country boy. They quieted down at once and produced an old woman or two, (as "collateral"). I was assisted to land; the whole army came to stare, and spent a happy afternoon following me about and yelling in astonishment at the amazing sight. And there was peace . . .
I built a house on a coral island, a beautiful house made of sago palm, and decorated with pearl shell; I lived there for several years, and loved it. I had a house built on three huge war-canoes, moored in the sea; I loved that house until it became a meeting-ground for crocodiles who lived in the surrounding shallows and bellowed like bulls at night. I had another house, big and cool, overhanging the harbor; I loved it too, until twenty-seven years of malaria began to take a heavy toll, and I had to move to New South Wales, Australia, where I bought a delightful cottage a hundred and ten years old, and am living in it still.
Romance? Yes, such I have never written, and never will write. Sorrow, and death; a spot in an island graveyard where "the mossy marbles rest" upon the bravest heart that Papua ever knew.
One adventure remains: the last, an adventure and a meeting. (reprinted from Blue Book April 1939)
Black Dog Books has available one book by Beatrice Grimshaw: The Sorcerer's Stone.