Butaritari: Part II

Trading Schooner Equator

“It was a serious question that night if we should sleep ashore. But we were travellers, folk that had come far in quest of the adventurous: on the first sign of an adventure it would have been a singular inconsistency to have withdrawn and we sent on board instead for our revolvers.”

“In the South Seas,” Robert Louis Stevenson, Monday, July 15th, 1889

Robert Louis Stevenson and his fellow voyagers aboard the trading schooner Equator had been in the village of Butaritari on the Gilbert Island called Great Makin, less than two days before deciding on the above started course of action.

After 19 days at sea, sailing from Hawaii, they had soon discovered that the timing of their arrival at these still barbaric atolls could not have been worse. When they came ashore on July 13, they found the whole population of the island engaging in day number nine of a seemingly interminable binge on alcohol. It was being sold to the people by the two competing trading posts owned by San Francisco-based firms. They were named The Land We Live In and the Sans Souci. The excuse for this party was to celebrate the Fourth of July, the significance of which was a complete unknown to the people of Great Makin.

To enhance festivities, the white traders had persuaded the local monarch, King Tebureimoa, to lift the taboo on intoxicating spirits while failing to plan for its reimposition which accounted for the surprising circumstances into which the Stevenson expedition had wandered. In his book, Stevenson says that “for 10 days the town had been passing the bottle or lying (as we had seen in the afternoon before) in hoggish sleep” and the king he says, “joined in and led the debauch.”

Butaritari was the commercial center of the Gilberts and as such was already “Europeanized” by virtue of the two trading posts and 12 white residents not including the Stevenson party. Even before the latter had arrived on the scene aboard the Equator, the former had come to regret their success in persuading the king to lift the booze taboo, since he had sole authority to restore it but he wasn’t ready yet. In the meantime, Great Makin was a dangerous place to be. Each day became a testament to the power of suspense to overwhelm the mind and the senses. On Monday, Aug. 15, RLS writes in his book:

“The day had begun ill; eleven hours divided us from sunset; and at any moment, on the most trifling chance, the trouble might begin. The Wightman compound was in a military sense untenable, commanded on three sides by houses and thick bush; the town was computed to contain over a thousand stand of excellent new arms; and retreat to the ships, in the case of an alert, was a recourse not to be thought of. Our talk that morning must have closely reproduced the talk in English garrisons before the Sepoy mutiny; the sturdy doubt that any mischief was in prospect and with the sure belief that should any come there was nothing left but to go down fighting, the half-amused, half-anxious attitude of mind in which we were awaiting fresh developments.”

Fans of movie and TV series that feature the “Walking Dead,” which seem to be more popular than ever, might sense an affinity between Stevenson’s actual experience and the drama of cinematic fiction: “You could never say the town was quiet; all morning there was a ferment in the air, an aimless movement and congregation of natives in the street. But it was not before half-past one that a sudden hubbub of voices called us from the house, to find the whole white colony already gathered on the spot as by concerted signal. The Sans Souci was overrun with rabble, the stair and veranda thronged. From all these throats an inarticulate babbling cry went up incessantly…”

In the ensuing chaos, one bloodied man was dragged out by four others after biting off a piece of a peer’s ear. Like in western saloons, everybody seemed to have a gun. RLS continues: “Indeed the event had hung on a hair. A man had sought to draw a revolver–on what quarrel I could never learn, and perhaps he himself could not have told; one shot, when the room was so crowded, could scarce have failed to take effect; where many were armed and all tipsy, it could scarce have failed to draw them; and the woman who spied the weapon and the man who seized it may very well have saved the white community.”

The whole scene as Stevenson describes it could probably have been put to good use by Joseph Conrad in one of his stories as fiction but if you were white and sober and inside the Wightman compound on Great Makin on July 15, 1889, it was all too real. The mob next wandered throughout the property of Wightman Brothers (the firm that owned the Sans Souci and the schooner Equator). Stevenson and his family were using a house within the compound and it too, was targeted by the walking drunk. “Our house was periodically filled with tipsy natives, twenty or thirty at a time, begging drink, fingering our goods, hard to be dislodged, awkward to quarrel with.”

It was at this point that RLS sent a messenger to Captain Reid aboard the Equator to bring their guns and ammunition ashore where he would remain to assist while Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson and her son, Lloyd Osbourne, along with Adolf Rick, the manager of the Sans Souci trading post, went out into the street with pistols and a rifle to make a demonstration of their marksmanship by executing several glass bottles, doubtless to give the mob something to think about.

Early in the next morning a small deputation could be seen leaving the Wightman compound and heading toward the king’s ‘palace.’ King Tebureimoa was “probably with a headache” when he rose to the occasion. This king was the last of the four sons of King Tetimararoa to rule over the islands of Great and Little Makin with about two thousand subjects and two semi-independent chieftains. The eldest brother, Nakaeia, was the first and the meanest and most competent and successful of the four. During his reign his youngest brother, Tebureimoa, was the king’s ‘fixer’ and earned the nickname ‘Nantemat’ meaning ‘Mr. Corpse’ because he led the death squad that cleansed the islands of unworthy subjects. “Again and again,” writes Stevenson, “he had surrounded houses in the dead of night, cut down the mosquito bars and butchered families.”

To this man came that deputation from the Wightman compound, led by Mrs. Rick, the manager’s wife. She had diplomatic skills plus the best grip on the native language and she used both to tell the king a big lie. She said that the thin man (RLS) staying in the compound was the son of Queen Victoria and if his house is again invaded by the king’s subjects that “a man-of-war will be dispatched to make reprisals.” That got the king’s attention who said that he had a notion that Stevenson was a man of some importance “but not dreamed it was as bad as this.”

To be continued.


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