A seafaring race

We might call the Micronesians amphibians: they always have one foot in the water. The sea gives them their food so they need a good tool for fishing and they have this in their canoes. The present-day fishermen are the descendants of bold sailors, addicted to the sea. The instinct to migrate is in their blood as well as taste for adventure. In this they resemble sea birds. Modern life has rather clipped their wings, so to speak, but they take to the sea with all the enthusiasm of their ancestors, who were far more adventurous than Ulysses' companion s. Think of the Mediterranean: they only voyaged on a lake, whereas the Polynesians struggled against a vast ocean.

The older Gilbertese have actually seen the last ships in their country's fleet: the war canoes, some more than thirty metres long, which often made the voyage to Samoa (twelve hundred miles away) and sailed to other distant islands difficult to identify with certainty. There is no attempt here to pass off the Gilbertese as the best sailors in the Pacific. For one thing, they lacked wood and had very poor tools. They are, however, part of the Polynesian race that peopled the most isolated island groups in Oceania. Like the Polynesians, the Gilbertese crossed vast wastes of water and to do so they had to overcome their own fear, cowardice and laziness. The aim of their expeditions was not only bloodshed, rape and plunder. They also visited relations or distant friends. They sailed for pleasure, for glory and in the hopes of coming back full of fine tales. The human heart is never simple: all sorts of driving forces affect it. Nor is the Polynesian a savage creature: he has a splendid physique and a lively spirit. How he admires the majestic flight of the frigate bird ... and sometimes, like the frigate, lets the wind carry him.

Nor were these early people like careless children. They had a knowledge of navigation which has partly disappeared nowadays. Long voyages were only undertaken in the good season, towards June, when Rimwimata (Antares, the red star of Scorpio) appeared in the sky after sunset. In practice, from May to November is the time for steady winds, more gentle currents and less rain. Remember that the pandanus leaf sails don't take to rain very well. towards December, when Nei Auti (the Pleiades) replaces Antares in the sky, it's better not to venture too far from  port. One is less sure of fine weather and there is the danger of sudden westerly winds. During the good season thee are weeks which are particularly favourable for sailing. They can be detected from certain stars in the sky, from the moon's phases or by other less remote signs - such as the scorpion or a particular kind of mollusc which only leave their respective hiding-places in fine weather.

The stars point out direction. Each island is situated under a particular star and this instinct for direction-finding is well developed in the Gilbertese. The names of the cardinal points come readily to his lips. Maneabas are built to lie north-south. The course of the stars is measured as if seen between the lines of the rafters in the maneaba roof, by someone sitting below in the centre. The arch of the night sky represented thus would be eight degrees. Each degree is further subdivided into another four and each one has a name. This is a precise enough system to be able to know the time and the seasons from it. It is quite easy to miss a low-lying island. From a canoe you don't begin to see the tops of the palms until you are within about twenty kilometres of land. The presence of land can be revealed, however, much earlier by less obvious signs. To begin with there are the birds, if one knows how to interpret their flight habits. Then there are the clouds whose base reflects the greenery of the palm forest or the whiteness of the shore at low tide. Further away one can still see a shimmering in the air caused by evaporation from the lagoons, or you notice a circumflex shaped wisp of cloud over the island. This is formed by the rising warm air which pushes up the cloud over the middle of the land mass and leaves thinner cloud trailing over the island's ends. On a rainy night the waves should be carefully observed. Their direction and their movement are different in the open sea between the islands and in the shallow as one nears land.

The Marshallese in particular are well-known for their ability to navigate in overcast weather.

If neither the sky nor the sea give any helpful signs then there is one last resort for the navigator: magic. He can try to find the harbour he's looking for through divination. when setting off on a voyage he takes with him his ancestors' skulls, a palm-fond and some protective coconuts. He has to defend himself against the evil Spirits and the cunning of his enemies. There are plenty of dangers too. There are whales, sharks and swordfish which may crash against the frail sides of his canoe through sheer carelessness. Then there are whirlpools, whirlwinds and reefs - so many deceptive perils. It also makes sense to be wary of the porpoise - those big friendly creatures who show their amiable attitude by performing dangerous leaps, are too close to the sailor. They are kept at a safe distance when one points a stick at them and says: 'Who said your name? My lord porpoise you are sneezing. All the way from the depths of your territory, from the bottom of the sea. Baaa! Look at what I give you ... Baa! here are the splendours of the sky, the sun and the moon ... you are sneezing ... your name has been spoken .. ehee!'

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Each enemy must be met with its own particular spell. In this way the lone sailor can remain hopeful in a very uncertain situation. Those who are lost at sea might have been ignorant or not pious enough - who knows? Spells cast by enemies rain down like arrows and how can one parry these attacks? Then there are all the Spirits (Anti) in the sky, on land and below the waves. It's hardly surprising that even the most careful sailor may be beaten. Such a possibility must just be accepted. Any Gilbertese person who makes even the slightest discovery keeps it from being passed on as he wants to get as much honour and profit for himself from it as he can. Thus all knowledge was kept secret, whether it was to do with magic, medical remedies or bait for some fish or other. Knowledge about sailing was handed on from father to son and if there was no male heir then the daughters would even inherit the skill.

A woman's revenge

In about 1780 the people of Tarawa mounted an attack against Abemama and were beaten. To be really sure of victory the people of Abemama felt they must carry on the war in Tarawa (seventy miles away). There were three main leaders of these sorties: a general, a soothsayer and a navigator. This time the navigator was a woman, Baintabu, and she led the fleet. At first everything went well. Instead of meeting a bombardment from throwing spears, the Abemamna warriors were promised with pieces of babai, green coconuts and fish done to a turn. There was feasting and dancing and presents were made of ornaments, mats and all sorts of things. When the sharing out was done, instead of being included with the leaders, Baintabu, a mere woman, was left out.

Did she burst into tears and did she go from complaints to recriminations? The other leaders, well-fed and heaped up with gifts, took no notice and the injustice was not righted. On the voyage back to Abemama they were sailing against the prevailing east wind and they had to tack. The land disappeared from sight and night came on. The men at the steering oar of each canoe followed the leading one. Suddenly Baintabu was important again. At this time however, she was not in good form. She seemed to be asleep, stretched out on a mat in her canoe. All day they had sailed in the same direction without altering the sail and this was rather strange. Every time they tried to question the woman she didn't even lift her head but said 'Go on'. Obviously she was sulking. they knew why she was annoyed. Perhaps she was going back on her trust? Eventually this became so clear that, towards nightfall, the exasperated men picked up Baintabu and her mat and flung her into the sea. All the canoes went by and then the last one come along. In the dusk the sailors saw something floating. It was a mat. As they drew nearer they saw someone swimming. They fished the person and saw it was Baintabu. She thanked them ... she had fallen into the sea by accident ... and now they had saved her.

Now was a good time to slow down a little. The other canoes were out of sight. Never mind: they would find them in the morning. They must change direction. The sail was shifted to the other end of the canoe; Bainabu consulted the stars, gave her orders and lay down again, this time looking up at the sky. They tacked all night without meeting the other canoes and n or did they see them in the morning. They spent a lonely and miserable time for several days and then at last an island came into view. It was Abemama. Not another canoe came back. They waited for them but never saw them again. What did Baintabu feel that night as she heard the wails of the mothers and widows whose misery was caused because she had taken her revenge all too well?

There were other similar tragedies when there was a happy departure for some Cythers or Eldorsdo that ended with the luckless mariners meeting death in a shark's jaws or as food for cannibals in Santa Cruz or the Solomons. There is very little record of such victims as the Gilbertese don't like to dwell on their disasters. Successful voyages are more remembered. Not every Gilbertese Ulysses has a Homer to record his exploits, but if he leaves behind a son like Telemachus, then perhaps some of his history survives through his descendants.

The Gilbertese on Nui

Ten Tinti from Tarawa was once on the way back from Tabiteuea. There were six men and seven women in his canoe. Nei Ruruobu navigated and Tataua, who had been on Tabiteuea a long time, asked to go too. He wanted to see Tarawa, his own island, again. With him in the canoes he borrowed, were seventeen people, including two women. There were three navigators squabbling over the honour of leading the canoes; two too many. Off Nonouti a west wind took the travellers by surprise and for a week they drifted, not sighting land at all. On the seventh day navigators noticed from a cloud that there was an island near by: it was Nanumanga in the northern Ellice. They went on south and came to Nui. Driving away the inhabitants, the Gilbertese settled there in their place. This happened some ten generations (now about fourteen generations) ago and on Nui Gilbertese is still spoken. The population has Samoan blood in its veins, however, and this is how it happened ...

Three generations previously, a Samoan canoe had been carried away by opposing winds while they were shark fishing and had been swept off to Nui. Once on Nui, Beau, one of the five fishermen, married and had a daughter, Moreu. In her turn she had two daughters, one of whom, Nei Kowi, marired Tarai, from Vaitupu. when she was pregnant there was a great famine on Nui. Hoping to save her more easily elsewhere, the couple went to Nanumanga. There yet another misfortune awaited them. the king, Tem Buaki, took possession of Nei Kowi. Sadly, Tarai had to flee and went to Arorae where he died. When saying farewell to his wife, however, he said to her, 'If you have a son, be sure to instil our language into him and call him Rongomarie. And especially, don't forget to tell him of the misery his father suffered.' Rongomarie wiped out the people of Nanumanga when she became big and strong. He kept only one woman and spared only one man, Tekaawa. Baonga, his grandson, came back to Nui. he found that the followers of Tataua and Ten Tinti had settled the island. Baonga married his own son, Raurau, to a Gilbertese woman, Nei Kongie. This was seven generations ago (now about 11 generations ago).

When the British established their Protectorate they fond that the Gilbertese were always on the move. They would set off on a voyage on the slightest pretext. The real reasons for such excursions were sport, to go to dance meetings or to some feast or other. Local custom meant that a stranger had a right to hospitality and he would use and abuse this privilege quite shamelessly, for months or even years. In their innermost hearts his hosts would happily have wished him in hell, but politeness and a sense of propriety meant that they must behave affably towards him and keep smiling. Any island invaded, as it were, by a group of these idlers was turned topsy turvy. The young people were preoccupied with amusements, the others with chatting and stuffing themselves with food. The babai pits were plundered; any little stocks of food were requisitioned and wasted. There was no more fishing and people could get as drunk as they wished on fermented toddy. Then quarrels broke our and even more serious disasters. When Tem Binoka was king several boatloads of such carefree pilgrims were lost between Kuria and Abemama: the crew and the passengers were all drunk!

Nowadays all canoe voyages between islands are banned, except in the three instances where the distance is small. In this way many lives are saved and disasters avoided. Moreover there are the ships offering a commercial service, and this is  a sharp and salutary way of checking enthusiasm for thoughtless ill-planned voyages.

Building a canoe

The Gilbertese may see their knowledge of how to make long voyages vanishing, but they have certainly lost none of their skill in canoe-building. They haven't stopped perfecting the light canoes they use for fishing or for racing. The longest of these everyday canoes is rarely more than twelve metres. On some islands they have begun building the big seagoing canoes again. There is one in Utiroa village on Tabiteuea and it is 24.40 metres long and 2.20 metres high. In the Pacific there are three types of canoe: the twin hulled one, the canoe with two outriggers and the canoe that has only one outrigger. This last is the type used by the Gilbertese though they have seen other types in Samoa.

Do not think of the Gilbertese canoe as a large hollowed-out tree trunk. There are no large trees and the canoes are built of finely linked planks. The keel is in three sections, the main place slightly incurved and the two ends turned up. If you look from one end of a canoe under construction, you will see that there is a lopsided effect. The outrigger side (always windward) curves more. This gives the man at the helm quite a lot of help in steering the canoe and going about. In another style of canoe, known as Tongan, the construction is symmetrical. this difference leads of a lot of competition in races, to see which will do better. Even when they built the old war canoes, the early canoe-builders used bits of plank no longer than a couple of metres. Nowadays, a lot of American red pine is generally used. the planks run in one piece from stern to bows. The canoe is made much stronger in this way. There is a great deal of study of the canoe. Your local is no great calculator, but he has a keenly observant eye and his experience suggests a whole host of improvements to him. Attempts at emulation keep him awake. He looks for more elegance of line and particularly more speed, so that he can shine in canoe races. Tradition and progress together make an effective method of improving canoes. It is in fact difficult to imagine anything of its type that is lighter, more responsive to handling or swifter, than the Gilbertese racing canoe.

Under sail, the lean light canoe doesn't in itself maintain balance. It gets this from the outrigger, which is formed from a tree trunk worked into a cigar shape and tied to the canoe by three booms - or five at the most in the large early canoes. The outrigger acts as a counter weight to the sail which must always be on the other side of the canoe from it. To go about, the sail is carried from one and of the canoe to the other - this is why the canoe has an identical prow at either end. The steering oar is made of a long piece of wood. as for the outrigger, it must be neither too light nor too heavy and it is usually made from logs which have been washed up on the shore. There are two ways in which a canoe may capsize: firstly if there is too much weight on the outrigger side and secondly if the outrigger rises high in the air if there is too much wind on the sail. If it is gusty then the sailor has to be very careful about watching the trim of the canoe and must be ready to let go the sheet in time. If the canoe does go over the damage isn't too bad anyway. Good sailors know how to right the craft, unless the outrigger is too big. Out in the open sea this isn't pleasant and at night it becomes dangerous because of sharks.

The sail is triangular in shape and held up by two yards - one horizontal and the other vertical. a mast leans to join the upright yard and the top of this mast is fixed to the outrigger by a shroud. In small canoes the sail has only these two rapports. The weight of the sail against that of the outrigger maintains the balance of this flexible supporting mast and if the wind suddenly veers then mast and sail swing over to the outrigger side. This is the classic form of mishap which usually meant nothing worse than a soaked sail. A man standing in the canoe fan raise the mast and the sail at the same time. In large canoes the mast is held up by two stays and one abroad to the outrigger. In olden days the big canoes were owned by a clan or family; bay a village or by a chief. Their construction was too much for one individual to undertake. Recently the people of Tabiteuea have tried to build such canoes in their villages. All the material is imported. competition in canoe races causes such trouble, however, that the government has had to stop this activity which might have led to war.

The Gilbertese is not yet sufficiently master of himself to be a real sportsman as the English think of such a person. He cheats and is too easily made angry, so that his pleasure from the race is spoiled. Nevertheless he is worthy of emulation, in that his outrigger canoe can go at great speed. In a good wind it can go as fast as thirty to thirty-five kilometres per hour. The Gilbertese also handles his canoe with great skill. Anyone who has built his own canoe, who often fishes in it using a drag-net and who races with it, becomes one with it, rather like a rider and his horse. He loves and appreciates the intoxication of speed. When it skims over the smooth lagoon waters, sail at an angle and outrigger just out of the water, he knows the same sensations as a flier or a bird caught up in a high wind. There is the same dizzy thrill and rush of fresh air. A missionary might mention a voyage between Makin and Butaritari village, taking two and a half hours, during which the outrigger only touched the water twice and then only for a few moments when it was necessary to slow down to enter the lagoon. 


Fish is as necessary to the Gilbertese as beef is to your Londoner, but it is not so easily found. There are no markets. Each man fishes on his own account. The people are so close to the water that you'd think it wouldn't be hard to get fish, but this is not so. Catching fish is a problem which is only solved through determination and use of intelligence. The well-populated islands consume an enormous amount of fish; one family could use up twenty kilos in two days. So there is constant fishing, but the supply grows less if one fishes in the same area all the time.

The islands don't all have the same share of facilities. Some have no lagoon. Some villages were badly placed if they want to send canoes out into the ocean. If the various types of fishing I am going to mention give the impression of ease and abundance then one must remember that some types of fishing cannot be carried out every day, the fish move off and the sport is always chancy. Sometimes thee is no canoe, sometimes no net or no line. Most often the fisherman fails in some way: in health, in determination or in courage. On some islands half the young men don't know how to sail a canoe any more. They no longer do any fishing other than with a net from the shore. Their families are force to eat nothing but small fry. The present generation is better equipped with fishing gear, but they take the easiest way.

The fishing ground - if we can call it that - might be the shore, the lagoon or the open ocean. There are different types of fish in each place. The best-stocked place for fish is the rocky line of reefs around the island. In the coral chambers and grottoes there are a thousand types of fish. This area is also usually the most impossible to reach because of the great breakers which constantly batter against the reef. The patches of rock scattered about the lagoon are also rich in fish. The best fishing ground, however, is in the open sea within about ten miles around the island. The farther away from the reef one goes the less chance there is of good fishing. 

Night fishing

Let us suppose that it is the good weather season and the women have prepared a stock of torches. Night is about to fall over Kuria. It is an absolute must that two canoes go out together on night fishing so that they can give help should there be any mishap. One man up front holds a torch, a second works the steering oar and a third holds a landing net on a long pole. The canoe sails along the edge of the reef where the flying fish have come in for the night. there they are, scattered about, motionless, their 'wings' stretched out. They can be clearly seen in the torchlight which suddenly dazzles them. Scooped up first time you can see one flutter in the net until it is quickly emptied into the canoe. Another, startled now, darts farther away or stuns itself against the side of the boat -- or leaps into the sail. The men have to be careful not to disturb the taraba (hound-fish) as with one leap these little darts, some forty centimetres long, can disembowel a man.

After two hours work the torches are used up. The moon has risen; it isn't quite a full one. This is the time for the ikabauea (barracuda) to hunt for food. The fishing line is hardly in the water before they snap at the bait. The men run them through with one swift th5rust - or the bait is lost. You must beware of the barracuda's fearsome teeth, though. Force his head against the side of the boat, bend him until you hear a little cracking noise. Then there is a sigh of breath and he will never again close the long weapon of his jaws for his back is broken. Shallows extend for a good distance from the northern end of the atoll. Usually, the mingling of winds and currents there make it an impossible place for canoes. This August night is calm, how4ver, the moonlight tends to frighten away the creatures lurking in coral caves, but it is reassuring for the fisherman who wants to keep an eye on his island.

He piles up ikanibong (red snapper) and ingo (larger red snapper, in his canoe. These fish are both red but the second one is longer and thicker reaching eighty centimetres in length and attaining a good weight. Young sharks often get mixed up in the fishing. They shower you with water as they splash about and you can lose a good quarter of an hour in stunning them and removing the hook caught in their skin. Worst of all is when the large sharks go by and carry away the fishing lines.

The shark

As day approaches the canoes coming back from night fishing pass those going out to fish with drag-nets. They work away in the full light of day, battling against the wind, the waves and the sun whose bite is eased by the sea breezes. This fishing is to be a contest between creatures of the same size. The bait is made of cock's feathers and a metal cable attaches the hook to the fishing line, for these hunters of the sea have teeth like tiger's. The method used against them isn't complicated. You tempt them by dangling bait under their noses as quickly as possible. The Gilbertese canoe is ideal for this as it skims silently and swiftly by, trailing a long rope. It goes by, comes back and goes past again. Furthermore it would keep to its useless course for some time if the sea birds didn't help it, notably the terns. The fisherman watches them and he sees them flying one by one from their nesting-place until they meet over there, rather like a dark cloud low over the water. He follows them. Everything is drawn to that area for the sea too ha its cities and towns as well as its deserted areas. A shoal of tiny fish leaps from the water. they don't have a moment's peace for a great school of bonito is after them. You can watch them leaping easily and gobbling up small fry at every attempt. The small fish move in frantic haste, as hard as they can but here are other enemies above: the dark flock of terns. They swoop down and soar up again, screeching, only to drop once more, almost immediately. This remarkable bustle and activity in one little corner of the vast waste of ocean attracts other more powerful creatures, who chase the bonito or attack each other. There's the swordfish, the ingimea and the bara - one rather more bulky, the other more slender and tapered. There are sharks of all shapes and sizes. Then the fisherman arrives, sailing right into the melee. His line is out. The sail goes round and then stays put. the fisherman needs all his strength to deal with his catch and he has to hurry, for there are plenty of sharks there ready to take his fish from him. this drag-fishing - or using a noose, as is the custom on some islands - usually brings in good fish. Quite often the swordfish is more than two metres long. Quite often the swordfish is more than two metres long. Quite often, too, the large fish break the line and get away.

Drag-fishing methods are rarely any good for catching shark. If the fisherman wants to take one he must lower his sail and use fish as bait. Should he meet up with some shark on the hunt then one of them will soon bite. A shark by itself, however, is more defiant. To take him you must be careful to pull in the line as soon as possible. Let him have two or three metres of line and just enough time to torn ready to make off with the bait. Then the hook will become well embedded in his cheek. Once he feels this he is full of fight and a positive menace to the frail canoe. Your Gilbertese knows his opponent, however. He brings him alongside and while one man controls him, the other thrusts a stick through the shark's mouth, right down into its belly. Then the great head and the thrashing body are rendered impotent. The shark is now unable to beat the water with its enormous tail and all that is needed to stun it are a few blows on the nose with a club. This is usually what happens but unfortunately the shark does sometimes have the last word, as it were. It only needs one plank to be damaged and the canoe will sink.

Another thing that happens every year is that some canoes are surprised by sudden squalls and capsize, or drift away. Some manage to reach near-by islands. Others never return. Two fishermen from Nikunau whose canoe had been smashed up by a shark were lucky enough to be rescued the same evening by a passing ship. A man from Marakei, who had made his line fast around his foot, was dragged away and drowned by his catch. Those sharks that frequent the lagoon or come inshore to hunt, are not usually very dangerous. The local people don't worry much about them when they are bathing. In any case a shark would have to be a pretty good size before it attacked a man and also any rash person isn't always faced with a hungry shark. The most dangerous sharks are those that have been wounded and find it difficult to catch their usual food - or two or three monsters as much as eight or ten metres long who only rarely enter the lagoon, usually staying in deep water.

On Tarawa, Tabonaora was fishing off Marenanuka, using a line. He was on a little mound of sand, not far from land. The tide came in - but where was Tabonaora? He didn't come home. A large tiger shark was seen in the area and suspected of having taken the man. The next day the victim's brother went along to the place where he had last been seen. All he had with him was a well-sharpened knife. Then the tide came in but the man didn't wait long - not until it was high tide. When the shark swam by he went for it and ripped open its belly. When the monster was thus cut open the fisherman's body was found inside, sliced in two. On the same island, Tekatatia, from Buariki, was famous for killing sharks, known for his skill throughout the Gilberts. He always went for them with a knife, using a ray as bait. Near Bairiki, on Tarawa, a large man-eating shark was sighted. A fisherman who has only his wife with him in his canoe, went off to attack the creature. Father G. saw the shark: his belly was ripped open for about two metres. The fisherman had plunged his knife in just behind the head, in the shark's side, and as it turned away this rip had been caused.

The biggest shark ever was caught by Kake and King Kaiea of Abaiang. It was a hammerhead shark between ten and twelve metres long. Once hooked, it towed the boat all day long and another enormous shark followed it, attracted by the blood. Brother C. notes that a canoe from Makin paddling its way Butaritari, in a light and changeable wind, was accompanied by a shark. However much they tried to beat it off with their paddles, it insisted on coming back. At one stage it came so close that they caught it in a noose and made it fast to the canoe, though leaving the end of its tail free. Then they made this galley-slave row and they got to the village earlier than expected and not unduly tired. That evening the useful extra rower was eaten. Shark's meat is perhaps rather leathery and indigestible, but the local people love it, especially the old ones. The young people are rather less willing to eat it, particularly because of a rather unpleasant smell which afterwards emanates from one's own skin. Some gourmets are very fond of shark's liver but they should beware of this. If the liver has a bilious tinge about it and it curved at the end, then it is very often poisonous.

A whole family in Nikunau ate liver like this and every one of them died in extreme agony. There are no fish that are poisonous in themselves. Even the nautilus is edible if it is properly cleaned. Nevertheless certain areas are suspect, where any fish are bad and may claim victims. The surroundings of sunken ships are especially avoided, because of the carbon and lead monoxide in the area. A plumpish fish whose flesh is very much appreciated, is the bonito. The Japanese fish for it in the Marshalls, salting it and exporting it to Japan. In the Gilberts there is bonito fishing in the south especially. A piece of mother of pearl is used as a lure on the end of a long rod and if this hits the middle of the shoal, a skilled fisherman can take a fish a minute.


Once there were blue whales to be seen and you can still see sperm whales. When on e of these vast creatures is washed up then it's a feast for the whole island. Sometimes the Gilbertese will harpoon porpoise for there are plenty of them, but they usually wait until they are washed up. They come in numbers like the sixty two found on Abemama in 1936. The year before there had been forty-two to cut up. The largest was five meters long and three around. What happens is that they come into the lagoon and can't find the way o9ut again. If a few canoes block them off, they panic and they can be driven in to shore like a herd of sheep.

The Marshallese have an original method of catching them. They don't wait for them to come into the lagoon but go out over the reef to look for them. On a particular day all the canoes are organized and a leader is chosen. The canoes must form a regularly spaced line. They move so as to hold the porpoise between the canoes and land. When he's within striking distance, a man from the leading canoe dives down holding two stones which he knocks together under water. When he runs out of breath he lets go of the stones and surfaces. He is picked up not by his own canoe but by the second one, from which another diver has just gone down. And so it goes on, along the entire line of canoes. Frightened by this unusual noise the Porpoise panic and usually head for land as they can take refuge in the shallows. You can see them dive and then surface to breathe, making a noise rather like a large tyre suddenly losing air. The canoes follow them and do what they can to terrify them, while looking for the king of the school. This is not, as you might imagine, the biggest porpoise, or an old and cunning one, but the smallest and newest born of the group. All that is necessary is to drive this one where you want it to go. What instinct urges the porpoise to stay with this frightened little one? Whatever it is, they all follow it, their big flippers working until their bellies touch land and the children come shrieking out to ride on their backs.

Quite often fish differ from one island group to another. Amongst others, the Marshalls have two strange kinds of fish which aren't found in the Gilberts. To catch one type, all you need to do is surround the shoal with a floating piece of string. Not a single fish will swim under this boundary and the fisherman then has plenty of time to make the circle smaller and go and find a net. As for the other sort, if a fisherman comes across them he must go within a certain distance of them and then turn sharply on his heels. The whole shoal will follow him one after another. He is careful to lead them into one of the stone fish traps on the beach. Then the villagers need only come along with their landing nets and baskets.

The Ray

Another large form of 'game' in the Gilberts is the giant ray. You wouldn't dream of trying to catch the largest which are more than three arms' spans across, only those which four men could manage to lift. The method of catching them is to harpoon them. They will then drag the canoe along for ages before succumbing. To cut them up in the open sea is dangerous as their live particularly attracts sharks. When the liver is crushed to draw them, you will soon see a line of snapping jaws going for the oily stream; dorsal fins show above the water and the sharks move up. It's not long before their flat noses are in there helping to tear apart the prey. On occasions like this one has the best opportunity to watch large sharks and to spear them.

The little diamond-shaped rays which are found in quantity in the lagoon are another species. They inhabit the shallows, perhaps as a safe place against sharks, and when they are there you can use a spear to catch them. They dig out holes for themselves in the sand where there is a strong current. If the water is rough you run the risk of stepping on them. These rays are dangerous because of their barbed and poisonous sting which is situated just on top of the base of their long tail. If they are taken by surprise in pools or trapped in a net they defend themselves by plunging their sting backwards into the fisherman's leg. The sting can be more than twenty centimetres long and it breaks off and stays in the wound. It is very difficult to get it out. There are many more Gilbertese stung by rays than are savaged by sharks. In 1936 on Maiana a hammerhead shark some three spans long was trapped near land. In its side a ray's sting was buried. Certainly this great lord of the seas must have been prevented from catching its food for it to come and beg in the shallows. It also had a piece of fishing line and a hook in its belly.


In the little lagoon at Aranuka you can see most turtles. The method of catching them is really rather attractive. I don't mean the custom of turning the poor creature over on its back and scrounging its eggs when it comes ashore to lay them in the scrub along the beach - nor the catching of them in large-meshed nets when they are browsing in not particularly deep water. What I am thinking of is torch fishing in the moonlight. If this method is used the turtle is speared with a harpoon from a canoe while it is feeding. this fishing by moonlight is a real sport. You need three or four light canoes each with a couple of men to paddle, a clear sky, a full moon, a sea only lightly ruffled by breeze and then the fun can begin. First there is the flushing out of a turtle. Spaced out, the canoes follow the shore-line and once a turtle is sighted they manoeuvre so as to cut off its path back to deep water. It is driven in towards land or some sandbank or other. To do this the men beat the water with their paddles. It is all a matter of frightening the turtle and wearing out by preventing it from surfacing to take in air. Kept down on the bottom like this it will not take long to die. Now the canoe glides silently up and one man slips down through the water. He approaches the turtle from behind and takes hold of it by its shell, near the neck and the tail. The moment the turtle moves he positions it and in a flash, the man, carried up by his catch, is out of the water. His friend in the canoe leans over and grabs hold of the turtle's flipper and they haul it on to the canoe, its white belly facing the moon.

Not every dive is successful. A single untimely scrap of cloud has saved more than one desperately escaping turtle. Nevertheless, it is rare for fishermen to come back empty-handed, as this is such a good spot. In other places turtles are not so numerous and are more scattered. Their shells have no value but their meat is not to be scorned. There is a fine flavour of underwater plants in their greenish fat.

Various types of fishing

When the good season is back then fishing is possible just off the reef. A canoe can float there then quite safely. Its unfamiliar shadow, however, always frightens the fish somewhat. Thus, you can sew some bold types using another method. Taking with him a float, a line and a knife, the fisherman swims across the reef. A few spans out beyond it is a good fishing ground. Wearing diving goggles, he can see all the marvels of his island: underwater grottoes, living coral and its brilliantly hued inhabitants. His presence doesn't frighten any of the fish. They swim round him quite happily and he can see them go for his bait without any hesitation. He can make a good catch in very little time and then go back ashore. Sometimes, however, this is spoiled by the arrival of a man-eating shark. Seen by day, he seems to be out on a stroll. the fisherman sends him away by giving him any fish he has caught. Sometimes, instead of using hooks, good divers use a spear. They go off and skewer green, blue, yellow or red fish as they lurk in their grottoes. Sometimes they come face to face with a kauoto (a really big fish) - big enough to take half a man into its vast maw. This great pot-bellied creature is hardly ever awake during the day, however. He may also meet a clumsy type of shark, the babu (with a flat snout) which piles rocks up round itself. It can be taken by the tail but you have to pull it out of the water from a canoe. 

Lagoon fishing, though less picturesque, has more variety. Fishermen there can indulge in all manner of rod and line fishing. When they go out torch fishing they may also find mullet amongst other fish. some of the big lagoons are especially rich in ikari, A plumpish silvery fish some fifty centimeres long with very fine white flesh and a great many bones. Tail in the air and nose down in the mud, it lives on worms, various tiny creatures and on crustaceans. You know it is around when the water is rough. Every month after the full moon, shoals of them - females no doubt - go round the island beyond the reef, from north to south. Then it is possible to catch hundreds of them at a time in the net. It is to catch them particularly that the stone fish-traps are built. They are caught when the tide goes out. Then you can on occasion pick up as many as two thousand of them. This is a marvellous windfall for the schools. On some islands ikari account for perhaps half the fish consumed. Every island has its own speciality in the way of fishing, but everywhere on dark nights when the tide is low, you can see moving torches flaming in the blackness. this is kibe - family fishing with a torch at low tide. Women, children - everyone helps to gather small fry. There is no need of canoes or lines. All they need are torches, landing-nets, knives ... Children and poor people too can have a taste of the wealth offered by the sea. On about the seventh day of the moon's cycle they will perhaps bring back crayfish. By day shellfish are there for the picking. They aren't numerous everywhere, but they have a varied size and flavour - everything right up to the giant clam which takes four men to pull it from the depths. The local doesn't bother much about any over-heavy shell and quite often he breaks the edges of the bivalve. If, after a good ten or so dives, he manages to remove the mollusc from its shell, then he brings back a basket containing a slimy mass, which can be eaten. The sea doesn't offer any crabs worth eating. The best are found in the mangrove roots - or in the forest where you get the coconut-crab: far superior to any crayfish.

On some beaches you can pull what looks like a long thick piece of macaroni out of the sand. this is the ibo, sometimes called sea asparagus, a type of worm. Between the rocks you may find the waro (mantis prawn), a white crustacean which has as defence two comb-edged claws that fold up. For this reason the locals call their pocket-knives after the creature. Its soft centre, incidentally, is delicious. The Gilbertese have two kinds of traps: one for fish amongst rocks and the other for the eel. This latter is made of very hard sticks, tied close together. A sort of string pocket forms an entrance. In it you can catch eels thicker than a wrestler's arm. There is no eel fishing by hand as this would be too dangerous when you consider the teeth, stings and prickles that abound. Nevertheless, it is tempting on a fine moonlit night to slip a noose round the tail of the nuonuo (a fish with poisonous darts on its tail). It's so much the worse for the fisherman who mistakes the end of the fish! It can break up shells and crush pebbles. The main danger, however, is if an eel shreds your finger to bits. You test likely places with a stick first. If you feel this being bitten then at least you are warned.

Yet even if he is hurt the fisherman comes back, for he must eat and he knows the dangers. Your fisherman defies these dangers and mocks them, yet every time anyone goes into the water, even if it is nothing more than walking over mud or amongst coral, he runs a risk. There is the shark, the ray, the eel, the taraba or the nunua (barracuda) bristling with teeth like a fierce hound. Any one of these may sink its teeth into you and then slip away. Then there are the jelly fish who float by and leave smarting blisters on your skin. thee is also the treacherous non (stonefish) so ugly that it conceals itself in the mud and whose ugliness is recalled in its Gilbertese name. It slides under your foot and its poisonous prickles give you an extremely uncomfortable sore. There are plenty of sly enemies awaiting bare feet: coral, sea-urchins, sharp-pointed shells and all the filthy creatures that lurk in the mud.

One fanatic fisherman was old Te Kariringa, from Kuria. He had no equal for agility fifty years ago. his favourite sport? Spear-fishing when he would chase the fish through the water with all the grace of a dancer. Once he came up so swiftly behind his spear which was skewering something in the sand, that he impaled his own thigh on the wooden handle. He broke the bone and after that he limped. As he wasn't nimble enough on land he spend half his life on his canoe. Frequently he slept there, with a shark he had caught at his head, waiting for another to come up from below and wake him from his slumbers. He watched for the return of calm nights where there wasn't a breath of wind to set the canoes drifting. Then, with one of his friend, he would make for a bay on the north coast of the island, where the reef was very close to the land. Beyond the reef there was a sharp descent to a ledge swarming with fish. Te Kariringa brought back many strange creatures from that area. On his big hook he put rather smaller pieces of bait. He paid no attention to light tugs on the line but when he felt a heavier weight added to that of the stone at the end of his line, he began to pull the line in. It was no easy task to pull in a hundred and fifty to two hundred spans of line and whatever was on the end. His hands smarted and his friend had to take a turn. At last there was something wriggling. it was only small fry, though: a greenish creature, about half a metre long, With four hooked fins about a thumb's length in size - the eri. There were two or three of these. Finally there came a dark inert mass, gasping for breath and with its huge eyes affected by the sudden starlight. They met this monster with a spear through its body. The two men each took an end of it and hauled on to the canoe a sort of marine porcupine. Anyone who touched it would have found his hand covered in blood. What about its flesh? It wasn't so much that you needed Epsom salts after eating it, or that it nauseated you or made you violently ill. The effects were much more subtle and you wouldn't really be ware that anything was happening to you. To mitigate the purgative effects of eating the creature's flesh, they boiled it twice and salted it. Then it tasted good and didn't have a bad effect on anyone's health.   

The Gilbertese export none of the things that fishing brings in except sharks' fins which the Chinese use to make soup. The sale of these brought in 715 pounds in 1926 but nowadays this little pit of profit has gone down. Nor are sea-cucumbers (beche de mer) sold. No really good quality mother-of-pearl has been found. In fact there is nothing that might attract outside interest. The sea is thus left entirely at the disposal of the Gilbertese.

Gilbertese Wars

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