"Pacific Island Legends"

Pacific Island Legends

"Pacific Island Legends"
1944, by Jean Laville and Captain Joseph Berkowitz, Medical Corps., U.S. Army
Librairie Pentecost, Noumea, New Caledonia

Here we reproduce a chapter from this fascinating book. It gives great insight into the culture and the people of the South Pacific. The book was made to inform our military people about the local culture and lore.

"The legends have been written, in most cases, exactly as they were related by the natives themselves."

"In the tropical splendor of these verdant islands, surrounded by the calm blue waters of the Pacific and warmed by the kindly rays of the sun, the natives lead a truly enviable existence. How interesting are the legends of their past and how simple their manner of living!"   - "Pacific Island Legends"

From "Pacific Island Legends" ...

Telephones Are Installed

The administration of New Caledonia in its maternal solicitude for Lifou, decided to run a telephone line from We to Chepenehe, the village where the Resident Manager of the island had his home. The natives were, accordingly, called together, and each tribe was assigned as its duty the task of cutting a certain number of posts and placing them firmly at set intervals along the road. The old men of the tribe were skeptical of the whole procedure. After all, they reasoned, how could words of the white man run along a wire without toppling over? Oh, it was possible, they admitted, in good weather, but the words would surely be swept away by the slightest wind and lost in the woods. Rain, also, would be a serious obstacle for conversation, "unless," as one old man said, "the whites string their words along the wire as we do our old money."

A young man who had spent some time in Noumea added that the insulators would certainly stop the passage of the words, if they were strung along the wire. Everyone managed to express some opinion, and throughout the period of the installation the subject of all conversation was the telephone and how ridiculous it was. The natives worked on the telephone installation disinterestedly and without enthusiasm. They knew that the words of the white man whould never pass the the thirty kilometers from We to Chepenehe. Why even the toutou could not be heard for such a distance, and that was much louder than the voice of the white man who couldn't talk above a whisper.

Finally, the day for testing the new apparatus arrived, and natives seated themselves along the course of the poles and on the slopes bordering the road to watch the fun. Everyone was awaiting anxiously the moment when the words would run down the wire, and many expected to see them fall into the dust or into the bushes. They waited in vain, however, because they never saw the words passing by.

Some listened along the posts, while others were daring enough to climb the posts and even touch the wire, hoping to feel the words in their passage. So, having spent the entire day in the hot sun without hearing or seeing a thing, they returned to their homes that night and made light of the ways of the whites.

The following day the Chief’s orderly arrived from We, terribly excited, on a horse wet with perspiration. ... He had seen the whites telephoning and had even heard them talking!

"At first, the white man who manages the post-office turned a little handle," he exclaimed, excitedly. This made a sound like stones falling onto a steel axe. He then kept shouting the same word over and over again and seemed to be angry and annoyed. Over his ear there was something like a pumpkin tied with a piece of string. As he spoke he placed his mouth near something large and black the shape of an ear, and then he laughed and said many words so rapidly that it was impossible to understand them.

After he finished his conversation the rattling noise was heard again, then he got up, took his little pumpkin and, turning toward me said, "Come here, Jim, the Chief wants to talk to you."

"But Master," I shouted, "I don't know anything about your gadgets."

"It's very simple," he replied, "you listen and then you talk."

And Jim listened to his Chief’s voice with surprise and emotion. It was not the same voice that he was accustomed to hearing but, after all, that could not be expected over such a distance. He was astounded to hear the telephone speak in the language of the natives, when it had been in existence only three days. The fact that the telephone spoke in French seemed normal to him, since it was part of the life of the whites, but how it managed to learn to speak native language in so short a time ... that was what he could not understand. He became terribly excited and his first thought was that perhaps the Chief had died and that his soul had come to speak to him through the medium of the telephone.

In the early morning, not being able to wait any longer, he hastily saddled his horse and galloped to Chepenehe as quickly as he could. Upon his arrival he was reassured of the Chief’s good health. Then thinking of his emotional upset of the previous day, he wiped his forehead and, with a nodding of his head, muttered, "White man sure has crazy ways!"

"Pacific Island Legends" 1944
Jean Laville and Captain Joseph Berkowitz, M.C., U.S.A.
Librairie Pentecost, Noumea, New Caledonia

We hope you have enjoyed this story ... about what happens when modern inventions meet age-old cultures!

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