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Osa and I were nearing the end of a long cruise through the South Seas. We had come in contact with many wild peoples, but none of them were quite wild enough. I had made motion-pictures of cannibals in the Solomons. They were bona-fide cannibals, fierce and naked. But somehow, I never quite felt that they were the real thing: they so obviously respected the English Government officers and native police boys who accompanied and protected us. I wanted to get among savages who were unspoiled—to make photographs showing them in their own villages, engaged in their ordinary pursuits. I felt sure, from what I had seen and heard and read, that the pictures I wanted were waiting to be taken in the New Hebrides and nowhere else.
Savagery has been pretty well eliminated from the South Seas. The Solomon Islander is well on the road to becoming a respectable citizen of the British Empire. Most of the Fiji Islanders have left off cannibalism and have settled down and turned Methodist. If you except New Guinea and Borneo, the New Hebrides are probably the only islands in the Pacific where there are natives who live as they did before the white man’s coming.
The savages of the New Hebrides probably owe their immunity from civilization to an accident of government. For many years the ownership of the islands was disputed. Both British and French laid claim to them. Neither would relinquish hold; so finally, they arranged to administer the islands jointly until a settlement should be made. That settlement has been pending for years. Meanwhile, both governments have been marking time. Each party is slow to take action for fear of infringing on the rights—or of working for the benefit—of the other. Each maintains but a small armed force. The entire protection of the group consists of about sixty or seventy police boys, backed up by the gunboats which make occasional tours of the group. It is easy to understand that this is not an adequate civilizing force for a part of the world where civilizing is generally done at the point of a rifle, and that the savages of the more inaccessible parts of the group are as unsubdued as they were in the days of the early explorers.
I had heard that there were parts of the island of Malekula, the second largest island of the group, that no white man had ever trod, so I decided that Malekula was the island I wanted to visit. “The Pacific Islands Pilot,” which I had among my books, gave a solemn warning against the people of Malekula that served only to whet my interest:
“Although an appearance of friendly confidence will often tend to allay their natural feeling of distrust, strangers would do well to maintain a constant watchfulness and use every precaution against being taken by surprise.” So said the “Pilot.” “... They are a wild, savage race and have the reputation of being treacherous.... Cannibalism is still occasionally practiced. Nearly all are armed with Snyders. The bushmen live entirely among the hills in small villages and are seldom seen. Being practically secure from punishment, they have not the same reasons for good behavior that the salt-water men have, and should, therefore, be always treated with caution.”
A recruiter who had been for years in the New Hebrides enlisting blacks for service in the Solomons described Malekula to me in detail. It was a large island, as my map showed me, shaped roughly like an hour-glass, about sixty miles long and about ten miles across in the middle and thirty-five or so at the ends. He said that there were supposed to be about forty thousand savages on the island, most of them hidden away in the bush. The northern part of the island was shared between the Big Numbers and the Small Numbers people, who took their names from the nambas, the garment—if it could be called a garment—worn by the men. In the case of the Small Numbers, said my informant, it was a twisted leaf. In the case of the Big Numbers, it was a bunch of dried pandanus fiber. The recruiter said that the central part of the island was supposed to be inhabited by a race of nomads, though he himself had never seen any one who had come in contact with them. In the southern region lived a long-headed people, with skulls curiously deformed by binding in infancy.