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Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLV, No. 4 (Apr 1877)
pp. 364-369.

364 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      In the tropical latitudes of the Pacific, about midway between Rotumah and the equator, lies an island of coral formation, and of no great extent in size, which is laid down on most of the charts as "Achilles Island," but is commonly known among whalemen who have cruised in these seas as White Hog Island. The name originated from the fact of the abundant supply of white hogs to be obtained there in barter with the natives, and the entire absence of swine of any other color, so far as known to the visitors.

      I happened in the course of my wanderings to meet with and make the acquaintance of the old English captain who had left at the island the original stock of pigs from which so many had been raised. This was some forty years ago, dating back from the present writing, he being then in command of a brig from Sydney, and he had never since visited the place. But he had heard of many others having bought their supply of pork there, and felt rather proud of the circumstance of having sown the first seed.

      He was as much puzzled as any of us about the immaculate whiteness of the pigs, for there was nothing peculiar about the breed, and he knew that some of the original stock were black, and some spotted, or mixed.

      I had myself made several visits, on different voyages, to Achilles Island, always getting as many pigs as we wanted at that time, and always wondering at the strange fact that they were all white, not one being found with the least spot of any darker color. The natives always seemed to be friendly and well-disposed toward their visitors, and there was no difficulty in making a peaceable trade with them. But they never gave any intelligent answer to our inquiries for black or piebald pigs, either being or pretending to be exceedingly stupid when this subject was touched upon.

      The circumstance was all the more strange, because at most of the islands in the Pacific, which had been stocked in like manner by passing ships, there were hogs to be found of every variety of hue that is to be met with in England or America; and indeed black pigs and red pigs appeared to be rather plenty, as if the savages had perhaps preferred the white ones for their own eating. But it fell to my lot to work out a full solution of the mystery, when second mate in the old Gratitude, and how this came about forms the subject of my story.

      I had been sent ashore with a quantity of hatchets, knives and hoop-iron, to barter for live pork and cocoanuts, and had two whaleboats fully manned, one being in charge of a Kanaka boatsteerer, and native of Tahiti, but the whole expedition acting under my orders. We landed among these people without fear, though we did not fall to take some precaution against surprise, and to look well to our arms, not venturing far from the landing-place at any time.

      Some delay occurred in getting the hogs brought down, and meanwhile squally weather came up and obscured our ship from view. But the barter continued favorably after the trade fairly opened, and I suffered myself to grow careless, until a report from the small carriage-gun startled me, and I noticed that she had greatly increased her distance from the land, seeming to be influenced by a strong current. I was about to give the order to gather up everything and push off the boats, but another squall, more threatening in appearance than any before, induced me to hesitate again, and the wind soon after increased to a hurricane, while the Gratitude was entirely lost sight of in the gloom.

      It now became evident that I must remain all night among these people, and probably it might be several days before the ship could return to take us off. So we set te work to haul the boats high up on the beach, and secure everything for a permanent stay on shore. In this the natives were glad to assist us, and seemed pleased at the chance to offer us every hospitality within their means. We made ourselves comfortable for the night; but as I felt the importance of keeping my men together and not allowing them to quarter round singly in different houses, a place was assigned to us in a sort of public building or

White Hog Island. 365

council house, where we ate and lodged, receiving visitors through the evening, as they called upon us, but keeping well together, and sleeping on our arms, with a guard posted and regularly relieved.

      The storm lasted thirty-six hours, when it blew all out, having done no material damage on shore, and the usual fine weather of that latitude set in again, but no ship was to be seen, and we were compelled to make out our log for a further stay. But it must be confessed that after two days had passed, as our relations with our hosts were perfectly harmonious and pleasant, our precautions were much relaxed, and our discipline much less rigorous. We ventured to separate more from each other, and to stroll about in various directions, making observations, until nearly the whole extent of the island had been explored by some one or more of our party. Still no ship came, and the length of our imprisonment became uncertain. We had discussed the subject of the whiteness of the pigs that were very numerous about the island, and on comparing notes it appeared that no one of our number had ever met with one who had the smallest spot of any darker color on the whole surface of its skin. We came to the conclusion that the islanders must kill all but the white ones at birth, but in this view of the case, the great number of swine running everywhere at large seemed sufficiently marvellous.

      On the fifth day of our sojourn, I was sitting in the house, resting after having taken rather a long tramp in the heat of the day, when the Kanaka boatsteerer, Aleck, as he was called, put his head in at the door, and beckoned to me.

      "What's up now?" I asked, as I followed his call, for there was a peculiar expression of fun in the Kanaka's eyes, and his nostrils were snapping as only a South Sea Islander's can do.

      "Come, take walk with me," said he. "Got something to show you."

      He struck into a path which led away toward the centre of the island, where the land was considerably higher than near the sea margin, and the cocoanut trees grew nearer together, making a deep and cool shade.

      I had until now supposed this grove to occupy the whole middle of the island, and thought there was nothing worth exploring in it or beyond it. Aleck led the way into the grove, and we wound our way between the trees for a considerable distance, when the grove became more open and scattered, and we emerged into a clearing of such extent as to prove that the island was larger than I had believed it to be. Aleck still led me on till we came to the brink of a jumping-off place, while the mystery of the lost tribes of swine was explained at a glance.

      We looked down in a depression or basin covering an extent of perhaps a couple of acres, and nearly circular in form.

      The coral builders appeared in this case, as in many others, to have done their work so as to make a ring, leaving a large hole in the centre, which in process of time had become filled up so as to form a surface of dry ground, with some luxuriant vegetation growing upon it, and having its level only a few feet below that of the surrounding elevation. And at the bottom of this natural basin, running at will over its extent, were many hundreds of hogs and pigs of all sizes – black pigs, red pigs, spotted pigs, in short, everything but white ones.

      The sides of the basin were precipitous, preventing all chance of escape, except at one point where the laud formed a shelving incline, and here the natural pigpen was made perfect by art; a wall composed of logs and coral boulders having been rudely built to close the gap.

      There were but few trees of any great size rooted down in the basin, though there were many smaller ones in various stages of growth, and it did not appear that the spontaneous production of the place could be sufficient to feed all its inhabitants. But even while we stood thinking of this, several men appeared, approaching the verge on the side opposite to where we stood, and bearing large bunches of cocoanuts, which they proceeded to break up and throw down among the pigs.

      "It must cost something to feed this herd," said I. "I should suppose the island would produce none too much for its human stock and the white pigs. But what does it all mean, Aleck?"

      "Taboo," answered the Kanaka, reverentially.

      "Taboo! Yes, I suppose so, especially as the people seem to keep away from the place generally. But who are those fellows feeding the pigs?"

      "Oronoo," said Aleck, in the same impressive tone.

366 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      I understood that Oronoo meant the priests or religious men, who were vested with certain powers and duties under the taboo, such as were entirely forbidden to ordinary mortals.

      "But what do they keep and feed all these hogs for? Do they sell the white ones to ships, and raise these for their own eating?"

      "No." said Aleck, with a forcible shake of the head. "No eat; kill all for Silkaty."

      "And who is Silkaty, that wants so much pork?'

      "What you call God," said the Tahitian.

      "Ah! I see! they kill them all for sacrifice, eh? And when do they do this?"

      "By'm-by; time near now. Two or three days more. Make big hula-hula."

      Thus I made out, little by little, from Aleck, who had that morning met one of the Oronoos, with whom he could talk intelligently. This man had been away in a ship, and had in his travels visited the Society Islands, drifting back after the lapse of some years to his own country.

      He had picked up a little of the Tahitian language, and also some words of English, though he was chary of using the latter. But my Kanaka had made the most of his opportunity, and aided by his own savage quickness, had learned enough to get a clear explanation of the mystery.

      The grand ceremonies of the sacrifice of all the black and parti-colored hogs to the Great Spirit took place annually, at a certain time of a certain moon, for the calendar of these barbarians is quite accurate enough for all anniversary purposes. The slaughter was carried on down in the basin, but no one was allowed to descend into it except the Oronoos, who were only ten in number. But all the people could join in the work of slaughter, by forming a ring round the verge of the pit, and sending death among the frightened swine, by any means at their command, and using all sorts of missiles, as well as long spears for thrusting. The Oronoos might kill, too, but their principal work was to drive the herds of pigs about, and rush them in masses towards the side of the pen, so as to bring them within reach of the excited populace.

      The enchanted ring was most rigorously tabooed, and the whole enclosure kept sacred ground, not to be polluted by the tread of any layman. And if, as happened sometimes, one fell down among the pigs below while engaged in the work of slaughter, he was pulled out again, and compelled to retire in disgrace from the remainder of the ceremonies, undergoing purification for a certain number of days to be decided by the Oronoos.

      I could easily imagine that the sport must have been exciting in the highest degree, and as the work was carried on night and day, until the last pig was slain, the actors in the strange drama were well exhausted when it was finished.

      The bodies were all collected in heaps by the Oronoos, who seemed to have the hardest work to do and huge bonfires were made, in which they were burned to ashes, while men, women and children gathered round the whole circumference of the pit, with wild songs and dances, making, as Aleck expressed it, "a big hula-hula."

      To eat the meat of any pig other than a purely white one was a curse and an abomination unto these people; to kill one of the sacred animals at any other time than during the annual festival was a crime punishable with death, and moreover calling for the special vengeance of Silkaty upon the souls of the sacrilegious offenders.

      The young pigs were taken in charge by the Oronoos, and all the colored ones, as soon as old enough to take care of themselves, were placed in the sacred taboo ground: but Aleck's friend had informed him that the number was growing less and less every year. There were only a few hundreds of parti-colored pigs now, where there were thousands a few years ago. it appeared to him that the great sacrifice to Silkaty must in time run out for want of material.

      "Of course it will," said I. "Don't you see, Aleck, these blockheads don't understand that by slaughtering all the black hogs once a year, and keeping only white ones for breeding, they are going to have in time nothing else but white ones. So much the better for them in barter with ships, but Silkaty will be brought on short allowance, and finally be cheated entirely out of his dues.'

      I could not help reflecting what a wasteful and destructive policy these islanders in their religious zeal were pursuing, and how expensive this system of sacrifice must be to them. For not only were they killing so many fine animals which might have served as food for themselves, or as mer-

White Hog Island. 367

chandise for sale, but they were obliged to feed and fatten them all through the year, even at the risk of famine in their own household; for Silkaty, it appeared, was not to be put off with lean or scrawny pork.

      The time for the annual massacre was now very near, and the Oronoos were eagerly watching the moon's horns, expecting in a day or two to issue their proclamation in Silkaty's name, and summon all his devoted followers to the work of blood.

      The news of our discovery was soon passed from one to the other of my shipmates, and in the course of the day they had all paid a visit to the wonderful pigsty, greatly to the disturbance of the equanimity of the Oronoos, who had felt called upon to remonstrate and to warn them away. I took this opportunity, when they were all assembled at night around the councilhouse, to issue orders that no one should again go near the place during our stay; but I did not feel that my authority would have the same weight here as on shipboard. I heard some of our crew talking upon the subject after we had retired for the night, and Barney Powers, a young Irishman, who pulled the stroke oar in my boat, asked his next neighbor what he thought these heathen would do if all their taboo pigs should happen to break loose and get out among the white ones?

      Both men enjoyed a hearty laugh at the droll idea, but they were soon snoring, while I lay awake, thinking further upon the subject, for Barney"s remarks had been to me very suggestive. Sure enough, what would they do if any one but a duly qualified Oronoo should dare to touch one, much less to kill one or lame one, under pain of incurring the eternal displeasure of the Silkaty.

      Daylight was already shining through the chinks of the house, when I was roused the next morning by strange outcries, and hurriedly pushing open the door, perceived that the whole village was astir, and that people were running back and forth, as if something very unusual had excited them. I naturally looked seaward, thinking that the arrival of a ship might have produced such an effect, but no sail was visible.

      "Here! here!" said the Kanaka boatsteerer. "Look!"

      I did look, and beheld the key to the whole mystery. Five or six black and spotted pigs fraternizing with as many white ones, rushed past the doors, heading straight for the huts in the plain below, and more were to be seen in the background, coming down from the interior.

      Two of the most venerable of the Oronoos, with consternation depicted in their countenances, were making their best possible speed up toward the sacred pigpen, but it was evident they were too late to avert the catastrophe. The taboo pigs had all broken loose from their prison, and were swarming in every direction, singly and in squads, all over the island.

      With the exception of the priests, the whole population, men, women and children, fled to the waterside, and were to be seen with every indication of haste and mortal terror, launching all the available canoes of every description.

      "What does all that mean?" asked one of another.

      "Mean," said Aleck, with conscious superiority of understanding, "mean taboo. Kanaka afraid to touch taboo pig – no can live here – go big water."

      Despite the impression produced upon me by the sight and sound of such a horrible panic seizing upon a whole nation of people, the words of my tawny shipmate broke the spell, and we roared with laughter till our sides ached. There was something so irresistibly funny in the idea of a whole population about to abandon their homes, as the Moscovites did the doomed city of Moscow, and take up their abode upon the waters of the Pacific, driven out by a herd of swine. The plague of locusts would have been a trifle to these benighted islanders, compared with the abomination of coming in contact with red or black pigs.

      Before the sun was half an hour high a cordon of canoes filled with jabbering barbarians encircled the island at a distance of a quarter of a mile or less, while the ten Oronoos and twelve seamen from the Gratitude formed the entire garrison, so far as human beings were concerned, and the great army of pigs held full possession, roaming everywhere at will. We now assembled together for a council as to what should be done in the emergency, and were enabled to get at a sort of understanding through the medium of the boatsteerer Aleck, and the travelled Oronoo, who spoke a little bad Tahitian, and less of worse English. The people must remain in their canoes until the parti-colored porkers were all

368 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

secured in their enclosure, unless the proper time arrived for the great feast of the slaughter before this could be done.

      The wise men who had been taking lunar observations for several nights past believed the time would come within the next forty-eight hours. And after that happy moment should arrive, it was possible by very elaborate ceremonies to lift or suspend the taboo so that all the people might take part in the hunt without being endangered by contact with the unclean beasts.

      To attempt with our small force to get them back to their place of confinement seemed an endless undertaking, one which the Oronoos, with their characteristic love of idleness, certainly would not undertake. For all the pigs of the island were now ranging promiscuously together, and no white ones must be driven in, or permitted to get into the sanctuary, every colored one must be singled out, and taken care of separately; and above all, no pig must be killed, or in any way maimed or injured previous to the appointed time. The job of securing them was too big a one, involving too much downright hard work, so the priests lay down under the shade of the palm trees, and probably consulted with Silkaty, while we visitors also took our ease, and discussed the question, "How the pigs could have broken loose?" without arriving at any satisfactory conclusion. I thought I saw something in the twitching of young Barney's face which was to me sufficient evidence of the truth, but he stoutly denied all knowledge of the matter, and I did not press the accusation hard against him.

      The rude wall, the only part of the prison built by human hands, had been undermined by pulling away a log at the bottom, and leaving a gap, out of which the pigs could pour, a dozen at a time. But who had done the mischief?

      I knew that of course the savages must suspect that I or some of my people were guilty of this sacrilege, and had reason to fear that after the days of slaughter were over this subject would come up next in order at the council, and might place us in great danger, if our ship did not arrive in the nick of time.

      We endeavored to show our good-will by volunteering to assist the Oronoos in anything to repair the mischief, but they only pointed to the heavens, and gave us to understand that they meant to wait for the signal from Silkaty, which the moon's horns would soon give them.

      All that day matters remained the same, the clamor of tongues encircling us, and sometimes a canoe venturing in near enough to receive provisions on board, returning as soon as possible to her station in the fleet.

      At night the ten wise men sat down to continue their astronomical observations, while we, intrenched in our own fortress, set a regular watch, and awaited the issue. At about midnight we heard the Oronoos begin a kind of wild chant, which swelled louder and louder upon the stillness of the night, while all the voices of those in the canoes were hushed. Soon afterwards a bonfire was kindled, and then the chants and incantations were continued, more earnestly than before.

      Aleck said that all this must be a part of the ceremonies of lifting the taboo, and that as soon as this was finished we might expect the people ashore to begin the work of slaughtering Silkaty"s hogs, wherever they were to be found.

      They would not want to pen them up, he said; they would kill every colored pig on the island, and their next movement would most likely be for vengeance upon us. We accordingly made our preparations as quietly as possible for instant departure. The ceremonies of lifting the taboo were at last finished, the bonfire being suffered to die out, and the most perfect silence fell upon the island, broken only by the sounds of the gentle breakers over the low coral reef. Not a voice was audible from the multitude in the canoes – not even a paddle dip broke the stillness, and the Oronoos sat in a> group for at least two mortal hours, motionless as so many statues in bronze.

      It was as I judged nearly daybreak, and we were getting fearfully impatient at the long suspense, when suddenly a blast from ten great conch-shells – such a blast as might have thrown down the walls of an ancient city – announced that the moment had come when every man, woman and child was free to join in the sacrifice to Silkaty. The welkin rang with shouts and outcries, while a simultaneous rush to the shore was made by the hundred canoes. The whole population jumped ashore, eager for the work of massacre, and the pigs themselves joined in the clamor, as if they knew and understood the impending peril. My men sat crouched under the shadow of the boats, ready and

The Diamond Ring. 369

waiting for the moment to arrive. At the very height of the noise and confusion consequent upon the landing of the savage hosts, away went the two light boats sliding down the slope into the smooth water. We leaped lightly into them, and in an instant were drifting out into the lagoon.

      The oars were shipped with marvellous quickness, and though the Oronoos, on perceiving this movement, gave an alarm at once, no one attempted to stop us, for the daylight was breaking, and the all-important business of slaughtering pigs for Silkaty absorbed universal attention as their first religious duty. A few strokes of the oars sent us outside of the reef, where we lay surveying the scene at our leisure, and with little fear of attack, for once afloat we did not fear twenty times our own number of such enemies as these.

      The islanders gave themselves up to the hunt with the most perfect abandon, spearing and stoning the poor beasts wherever found, and yelling and howling like so many incarnate demons. Now and then we could see a group of them while pausing to take breath, pointing towards us, and shaking their weapons as if eager to attack us, but as the sun rose over the island, a sail was visible in the offing standing in towards us, and before noon we were again on board the Gratitude

      We cruised in the neighborhood two or three days, while the festival of blood was in progress. The bonfire of pork illuminated the sky at night, and the burnt-offerings were doubtless grateful to the nostrils of the mighty Silkaty.

      When all was over, we finished our barter for white hogs, but were careful not to trust ourselves again completely in the power of the natives by going on shore.

      Barney, the young Irishman, was as I had expected, the author of all the trouble, having let the pigs out from sheer love of mischief, for he afterwards, at sea, confessed the fact, and we had many a hearty laugh over our serio-ludicrous adventure at White Hog Island.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: White Hog Island.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 45, No. 4 (Apr 1877)
Pages: 364-369