Charles Malato, “New Caledonian Tales” (1897)


New Caledonian Tales






Old Martinot was a fine old man, and when he walked the streets of Saint-Ouen, straight as an “I” and smiling in his white beard, the housewives greeted him with deference and the gamins ran after him, shouting:

“Hi, Captain Martinot! How are you, captain?”

From whence came this nickname of “captain,” by which they had all come to call him?

The good man had none of the slightly rigid appearance of old soldiers: he never wore a top hat, nor a straight collar clasped by a black tie, he was not strapped into a hermetically buttoned frock coat; finally, he assiduously engaged in angling, which indicates peaceful tastes, except towards the fish.

The majority of those who called old Martinot by the name of captain had absolutely no idea why they did so, if not to do as everyone else did, for the old man was not prolix on the subject of his campaigns, and his fellow citizens did not know if he had commanded dashing cavaliers or modest grunts, if he had gone out from Saint-Cyr or from the ranks, if he had fought the Germans, the Arabs, the Annamites, or had simply been garrisoned in the cities of France or overseas, awaiting some advancement in the service, far from the dangers of war. Yes, three-quarters of those who said to him with a big wave: “It will be cold” or “It will be warm, captain,” knew nothing of these things and many others too; but the observers, the discerning, who, unfortunately, as always the minority, thought they observed in the gait of old Martinot a significant waddle; then the same perceptive sorts had noticed his manner of dressing: in summer, a straw hat with a wide brim; in winter, a wool beret; a navy blue pea jacket of coarse cloth in all seasons.

Navy blue! It was clear, with no doubt about it: old Martinot had been a sailor, commander of a ship, naturally, since they called him “captain.”

“That proves he is an old sea-wolf,” said Jacques Bonneau, a logician of thirteen years who knew how, in the picturesque language of sailors, to designate a man who had spent the greater part of his life one-on-one with the ocean; the proof that he was a sea-wolf was that the captain had in his home a large library which was only filled with books of voyages.

Oh! I have seen it well, going, one day when I was sent to return some volumes that he had given to my father. (The elder Mr. Bonneau was a bookbinder.) And then, doesn’t he always go to walk by the water’s edge? Doesn’t he love fish, canoeing? Aren’t all his tastes aquatic?

Jacques had a tone of crushing superiority in pronouncing that last word, which his young auditors didn’t not understand so well, but which only produced more of an effect on them as a result.

— It is obvious, they cried, he can only be an old… How did you say it, Jacques?

— Sea-wolf, which is to say someone who voyaged for a long time as a sailor, heard the wind blow in the sails and braved the tempests, interjected the young Bonneau, intoxicating himself with his own eloquence.

— Yes, the proof that I must be a sea-wolf is that all his tastes are… what did you call them?

— Aquatic, Jacques condescended to explain further, that is relating to the water. It is a word that comes from Latin.

This declaration produced a profound impression: the younger Bonneau grew more and more in the eyes of his friends, and as the petulant Isidore, aged seven and a half, cried: “How many tales of voyages he must know, Captain Martinot!” all the others declared that they must go as a group (there was a good half dozen of them!) to beg the old man to tell those tales to them.

And that is how things occurred: it is in this way that they sometimes occur among those big children that we call men.

Old Martinot was at home, peacefully smoking his pipe, when the young band presented itself. Jacques, so self-assured when speaking to his friends, was now much less so; however, as all eyes were on him, he advanced, twisting his beret between his fingers and repeated, muttering:

— Excuse us, captain… excuse us… I beg your pardon… they want…

But he could not get to the point. Isidore, the boldest, perhaps because he was the youngest, shouted:

— Captain Martinot, we want you to tell us about your travels, “if you please.”

That good man laughed a bit sadly and responded:

— My history would perhaps interest you less than you think. However, I can tell you about some very far-off countries, their manners, and the tales with which they content themselves in the evenings. What country do you want me to talk about today?

— New Caledonia, please, captain, said Jacques, who had recovered his voice.

— You are right, approved the old man. It is an island belonging to France, and it is right that the French know it.

— And my cousin Bidoux, who is in the marine infantry, will go there shortly.

— Then, sit down and listen.

The children hurried to obey and old Martinot began:



First of all, my friends, understand that New Caledonia is a long, narrow island, around ninety leagues by thirty, situated in Oceania, the part of the world most recently discovered and explored.

It is very hot, and because of its position on the globe, what we call winter here unknown there. There is never snow or ice in that country, which allows its inhabitants—I am not speaking of the Europeans who have come to stay there—to not bankrupt themselves with the expense of a tailor.

It was Captain Cook, a great English navigator, who discovered the island, on September 4, 1774, and gave it the name of New Caledonia, because its mountains resembled those of Scotland, formerly called Caledonia. Its inhabitants lived under the absolute authority of chiefs and divided into tribes which did no all have the same language and made war constantly. They were cannibals…

— Excuse me, Captain, interrupted Paul. What does that mean?

— Cannibal means those who eat human flesh, just like a wild beast; a bad habit that I advise you never to take up.

For a long time, the island remained abandoned to its savage inhabitants. Finally, on September 24, 1853, Admiral Fevrier-Despointes took possession of it in the name of France and raised the tricolor flag at Balade.

Now, it must be said that the English, who are above all a people of navigators and merchants, had also had their eyes on New Caledonia, to take it away, as they had a much larger country, New Holland, that is called Australia today. So, which Admiral Fevrier-Despointes was still before Balade, aboard the corvette Catinat, a commodore or captain of an English vessel had dropped anchor at the Isle of Pines, about ten leagues to the south of New Caledonia.

The old chief of that isle was called Vandégou; while not knowing how to read and write any more than his subjects, he was filled with malice. He understood clearly that the French and English, however white they both were, were different peoples who disputed possession of the isle. Now, all his sympathies were for the French; but he did not dare show them, first because the commodore was there with his marines, his ship and its cannons, which seemed to him to hold the thunder, then because the superior officer showered him with gifts, in the hope that the old chief would end by raising above his hut the English flag that he had given him. By doing so, Vandégou would be recognized, along with all of the inhabitants of the island, as subjects of the king of England.

What the commodore did not know what that the chief of the Isle of Pines was, thanks to the intermediary of some French citizens already established in the region, in communication with Admiral Fevrier-Despointes, who was at that moment in Balade.

— So was there a telegraph? asked young Paul seriously, burning to be instructed.

— No, my friend. The telegraph was only installed in New Caledonia twenty years later. But there were some large pirogues with sails, made of trees cut down and hollowed out with fire. The Kanaks, for I must tell you that such is the name given to the majority of the natives of Oceania, steered these pirogues very skillfully. Thanks to these pirogues, Vandégou had been able to warn the admiral of the situation, and he had responded, exhorting the chief to fear nothing and sending him, in addition, a French flag that the chief should raise as soon as he glimpsed the French ship.

Consequently, while pretending to be persuaded by the words of the commodore, who declared that if he became an English subject he would have rum and tobacco every day as he wished, Vandégou had ordered one of his warriors, whose sight was very keen, to keep watch from the summit of the peak Nga, in order to signal the arrival of the French ship.

The peak Nga is a sun-burnt cone, with stunted shrubs scattered on its steep flanks. Around the height of the Eiffel Tower, it dominates the who country, but you can judge if you will reach it easily, lacking water to quench your thirst and shade to shelter in.

The Kanak, obeying the order of his chief, remained no less than eight days at his station, yawning to stretch his jaw and feeling his clear bronze skin turn completely black under the torrid rays of the sun. very fortunately, he has brought a stock of coconuts, with the liquid of which he slaked his thirst and a dozen yams, floury tubers, resembling potatoes in taste but of a different size and shape, for some of them reach a length of one meter.

There is a good distance between Balade, which is in the north of New Caledonia, and the Isle of Pines, which is off the south coat: something like ninety or a hundred leagues of ocean. However, the lookout finally saw a white spot appear on the immense blue surface that extended all around him, where the blue of the sky became confounded with that of the sea.

It as the French corvette.

With an haste that increased his contentment at finishing his monotonous, painful watch, the Kanak tumbled down the slopes of the peak Nga to go warn his chief. That one rubbed his hands, and when the commodore, suspecting nothing, insisted once more that Vandégou fly the English flag above his hut, the old scoundrel said to him with a large smile:

— Well, you will be content. Tomorrow I will raise my flag, but only tomorrow.

The commodore prevented himself from insisting, for fear that if he annoyed the chief he would lead him to change his mind. He returned to his ship, absolutely delighted, and, in his joy, even brought to the chief a fine necklace of red and blue pearls, finery about which the savages showed themselves great connoisseurs.

Vandégou, I blush to say, had the indelicacy to accept it.

The next day, at the first glow of the dawn, the commodore rose and went on deck. He straightaway cast a glance towards the shore where, among the green jumble of coconut, banana and papaya trees, rose, like some great beehives, the straw huts of the Kanaks.

A cry of anger escaped his throat.

Vandégou had kept his word: above his home, taller than the others, as was appropriate for that of a great chief, and decorated with three immense sea shells of bizarre shapes, a flag proudly waved its folds in the breath of the breeze.

But it was the French flag!

At the same time, the Catinat, rounding a point of land which had kept it hidden from the English lookouts, dropped anchor and saluted the national flag with twenty-one shots from her cannons.

It was too much! While Admiral Fevrier-Despointes went ashore, in full uniform, the furious commodore gave the order to get underway and, once on the open sea, in his despair at having been played by one shrewder than he, he blew out his brains.

This tragic denouement was assuredly most regrettable: however, it shows that to want to ruse with another one sometimes encounters one’s master, even if that other has skin the color of chocolate and does not wear a shirt.



You would be right to think that, the next day, all of old Martinot’s listeners were at their posts. Without begging pardon, the storyteller began right away, without warning his young friends that is was no longer a question of a fable, the work of some Kanak La Fontaine, but of a history authentic on all points.

— Know, he said to them, that many years before the French took possession of the country, Nouméa, which would one day become the capital of the colony, was inhabited by a most warlike tribe, subject to the authority of a great chief named Damé.

Damé was very brave and very skillful, but also very fierce. Human flesh pleased him much more than fish, coconuts and yams; and he constantly made war on his neighbors to satisfy his tastes, which all his warriors shared.

Is it is not agreeable for a man in good health, whether he is Kanak or European, to become a roast, the tribes attacked resisted with their best and reduced by many the number of their persecutors. One day, finally, they banded together against them, and while they celebrated one of those great festivals accompanied by feasts and dances, which the natives call piloux-piloux, they surprised them, made a great massacre of them, and burned their habitations, as well as all their crops.

In the air, filled with war-cries, the assegais flew. These weapons are long wooden spears, sharpened at both ends, that the Kanaks brandish by the middle and send a great distance to strike the enemy or the goal that they aimed at. Today, many end it a point or even an iron trident, notably those that serve to harpoon fish; but as, at that time, the metal was still not known to the indigenous New Caledonians, they contented themselves with hardening the ends of their assegais in the fire or attaching a long, sharp fragment of stone there. Stone still served them as, long ago, it had served the primitive people of Europe, for their axes, their slings, and all their construction tools.

The club, wielded by those who fight body to body, breaks skulls. The Kanaks give to some of these weapons the shape of a thick baton, a bit larger and rounded at one end; and to others, that of a bird’s beak atop a rather long handle; others, finally, cut from the gayac, have preserved all the minces and zigzagging branches of that tree and seem to project so many rays from all sides. Whatever the form given to the club, I want you to believe that, in battle, it is a most redoubtable weapon.

I will not try to describe a Kanak battle more fully, for if war, though sometimes just and necessary, is always hideous, it is especially so when the combatants seem no longer to be men, but wild beasts, sparing neither the wounded nor the old and sometimes spare the women only to make them serve as slaves.

Damé attempted to resist, but his enemies were to numerous. So, judging the situation with a glance, he gathered around him the remains of his tribe, took his old father Sésagni on his back, and, hidden by the smoke of the fires, they all disappeared rapidly towards the mountains.

The region of Nouméa, which extends to the south of the island, is steep and arid. On these heights where hardly a few sparse shrubs sprout in the reddish soil, the fugitive only found some rare wild fruit to appease their hunger.

It seemed impossible to think of establishing themselves in such a region: what’s more, Ouatone, chief of the tribe of the Kambouas, the most bitter against Damé, would very quickly discover their retreat.

So old Sésagni advised his son to descend the other side of the mountains, which looked towards the sea to the southeast, and ask asylum for himself and his tribe from the great chief Kaâte, of the tribe of the Touaourous.

— Your mother Kaâmen, he said to him, belonged to that tribe, with which we have never made war. I am sure that Kaâté will not refuse us hospitality: and it is the only chance of salvation that remains to us.

Damé, according to custom, had succeeded his father as chief because he had become too old to concern himself with the affairs of the tribe, but he always listened to his advice with deference. And this advice was the best anyone could give him: consequently, they all set out towards the county of the Touaourous.

They walked for a long time, for it was necessary to hide all trace of their passage, in order to throw off the pursuit of Ouatone. It was only the third day when, descending the course of a river encased between high rocks, they distinguished by the rising sun the blue immensity of the sea breaking in the distance on some coral reefs, and, at their feet, a vast forest of coconut trees, from which emerged some huts.

Then Sésagni, who had traveled much in the past, said to his son:

— I am not mistaken: that village is Yaté, and it is there that the great chief of the Touaourous resides. Now that we are here, arrived in his territory, send a messenger to announce our arrival and ask him to receive us.

So the chief of the Nouméas chose from among his warriors—there remained to him about forty—the most experienced and skilled. He gave him his instructions and gave him for Kaâté two coconut leaves interlaced, as a sign o peace.

Damé possessed in the past in his hut many objects that, for the Kanaks of that period, were so many treasures: ouatchitchis, little white and pink shells, valued like true jewels because of their rarity, some bamboo flutes decorated with designs, some combs of tortoise shell, of these tall, square combs, with long teeth, with which the New Caledonian topped, as with jewelry, their frizzy hair. Damé also possessed some nets of very fine weave, some colliers of a money peculiar to the natives, made from bouts of certain shells, strung like pearls and valued by their length, some war-masks, terrible accoutrements, made of a robe of black feathers and a wooden mask, grimacing, terrifying, that were worn in certain solemn ceremonies. The serpentine, a beautiful greenish, transparent stone, of which they made axes, was not lacking either, nor the poum-bouhe, the fur of the New Caledonian bat, greatly valued for making belts, collars and wrapping the wood of weapons, which became thus symbols of luxury.

You see that the great chief whose true story I’m telling you was, before his misfortunes, a very wealthy man. But at this moment, the only riches remaining to his were some cords de poum-bouhe, adorned with shells, around his neck, waste and knees, plus his assegai and club, which almost never left him.

As gifts in general favorably dispose those who receive them, Damé took off his necklace of poum-bouhe and sent the messenger to offer it to Kaâté along with the coconut leaves. The warrior left in haste, leaving his chief and his companion to anxiously await his return.

Now, while they were extended in the high grass, watching the side where the messenger had left in order to see if there would come to them from there friends waving green leaves as a sign of peace or enemies brandishing arms, a young girl, carrying on her head a basket full of yams, passed without seeing them.

She appeared slender and very graceful; her complexion was not dark brown but on the contrary copper red and very clear; her hair, instead of being frizzy, floated smooth and thick on her shoulders. In short, she was very beautiful.

But her beauty was not what the Nouméas admired the most. For three days, they had wandered famished in the mountains, barely nourishing themselves with some wild roots. And the sight of that young girl reawakened all their cannibal instincts. That what a fine morsel of roast to sink one’s teeth into! The yams that she carried in her basket could continue to keep her company, like the potatoes around a fricot.

That is what the Nouméan warriors thought, casting avid looks at the poor child, looks glowing with hunger.

A Nouméan warrior, named Bondou, approached Damé and said to him in a low voice:

— Master, we are hungry and you see that young girl. If you want, I will approach her silently, creeping in the grass, and, with a blow of my club on the skull, I will lay her out dead. Then we could eat her flesh.

Damé was a terrible cannibal; but he harshly pushed back the warrior, saying to him angrily:

— Bondou, I don’t know what keeps me from cracking your skull! What! Will we come as fugitives to ask for the hospitality of the tribe of Touaourous, and begin by killing one of their women? Get out, or answer with your life.

The warrior knew his chief: he retreated trembling and bowing. Fortunately for him, there only remained to Damé a very small number of warriors and consequently he had to show himself economical of their lives: otherwise Bondou would have courted a great risk.

However Damé knew well that his men were hungry and that hunger is a terrible advice-giver. And he judged it good to rise from the high grass that hid him from the view of the young girl and advanced a few steps. As soon as she saw him, she was seized with trembling, because for tribes always at war every stranger was generally an enemy. She wanted to hide behind the undergrowth, but Damé cried out to her.

— Young girl, fear nothing. Return to your tribe and tell them all that you have seen Damé, great chief of the Nouméas, who comes with his warriors to see the Touaourous as friends. Isn’t that true, you all?

And all the Nouméas rose, letting out a cry of “Yes!” as is the custom of the Kanaks when their chiefs have spoken to them.

The young girl, reassured, went on without responding, for in those days every native chief was still a very prominent personage for a woman other than his own to dare address him. She descended rapidly towards Yaté and, taking some shortcuts, arrived there even before Damé’s messenger. She went immediately to warn Ataya, the wife of Kaâté, and Ataya went to warn her husband. So the great chief was not surprised when his warriors brought to him the Nouméa who asked to speak to him.

Among the most savage peoples, many have a virtue that is not always possessed by the civilized: hospitality. Kaâté was as much a warrior as any chief; he considered himself the absolute master of his subjects and knew no other constitution than his heavy club with a bird’s beak. But it was enough that the unfortunate Damé came to him asking asylum for him to agree to his request.

He himself, followed by an escort of Touaourous warriors, came to meet the newcomers. He cordially took the hands of Damé and his old father, and led them, with all the Nouméas, to the village of Yaté and ordered the women of the tribe to bring them plenty of provisions.

Then, as he possessed between the rivers of Yaté and Ounia a fine plain bathed by the sea and demanding only that it be cleared, he generously gave up a great part of it to Damé so that he could found a new tribe there.

The great chief of the Nouméas forgot neither a service or an injury. All his vice, he recalled what Kaâté had done for him and he remained his faithful friend.

Many moons, or, if you prefer, many months—for it is thus that the majority of savages count time—had passed since the installation of the Nouméas at Naouaran, the name that their new country bore. Damé, we must do him this justice, was not only a redoubtable warrior: he understood well how to conduct the business of his tribe. It is certainly regrettable that such a man had never known reading, writing, the four rules and that he had above all loved his neighbor in the form of beefsteak. Well, no one is perfect!

Thanks to his activity, numerous huts had been constructed; fields extended in every direction; the majority of the Nouméan warriors were married to Touaourou wives, while others, escaped from the fury of Ouatone, arrived constantly to find their brothers. Among them were found Capéia, Damé’s son, whom his father had believed dead. In short, the power of the intrepid chief began to be reestablished, and more than once of his old enemies, the Kambouas, having crossed the mountains to attack them, had been victims of their aggressions.

Old Sésagni was dead: they had celebrated his funeral with great pomp: there were many speeches recounting his great deeds, some great funerary meals and a pilou-pilou ending with the simulation of a combat.

It finally happened that two tribes, the Tyas and the Dodgis, established on either side of Naouaran, became frightened of the strength regained by their neighbors. Although they had never given them the least reason for complaint, the chiefs of these two tribes decided that it was prudent for them to defeat the Nouméas by surprise. An old Dodgi chief, by the name of Docou, alone opposed that plan, but no one would listen to him.

One fine afternoon, Damé, working in his field, saw a mass of Tyas warriors pass before his hut.

— Where are you going in such numbers? he shouted to them.

— We are going, responded the oldest of them, to help the Dodgis with their farming. Last moon, they came to assist us.

As it is still the custom in certain of our countries between inhabitants of neighboring villages, particularly at the harvest times, the Kanaks of friendly tribes went as a group to help one another to clear, sow, harvest, hollow out boats and construct pirogues.

Nothing should be more agreeable than this work done in common, animated by songs, where all were spurred by competition.

So the response of the Tya seemed completely natural to Damé, who shouted to the others: “A good journey to you!” And he returned to his task.

However, night arrived, a black night, since for several days the moon had deserted the sky. After the fatigues of the workday and a meal of yams cooked under the ashes or boiled. Damé and his subjects went to lie down on the mats that constituted all the bedding of the Kanak. All slept, or seemed to sleep.

Suddenly, a strange murmur spread from the distance and a sort of muffled clamor came at times to Damé’s hut. The noise approached, but it was still not loud enough to wake those who slept.

All at once, the large leaves of a thicket of banana trees were pushed aside and gave passage to a man who rushed towards Damé’s hut, pushing aside the fabric of bark that hid but did not close its entry, and approached the sleeping chief.

— Master! he cried, get up: the Dodgis strike us. Together with the Tyas that have rushed on our villages. Already almost half of our warriors are massacred!

Damé, suddenly awakened, bounded up with a frightening roar. He grasped his faithful club and assegai, the, rushing out of his hut, he awakened with great cries his sleeping fellows. His son Capéia was the first to rejoin him. At their head, the chief, who seemed to be pursued by misfortune and treason, advanced toward the shore to make out the place where his enemies could be found and determine their number.

A terrible spectacle struck his gaze.

Over an immense extent, all the huts of his villages were on fire. Au couchant, the skies were all red: by the glow of the fires, Damé saw a mass of Tyas and Dodgis pursue the Nouméas escaping from the flames.

With a glance, the chief judged the situation. He had before him more than five hundred enemies thrilled by the success and carnage and, around him, there were not fifty warriors.

— Let’s fight them anyway, advised Capéia bravely.

— No, his father replied with authority; to struggle in these conditions would not be courage, but madness. Let us flee: it will not be for long.

And the little band, swelled by women and old folks, hastily followed its chief towards the mountains of Coronourou, covered with thick forests, where it was not easy for the murderers to find them again and where, in any case, they could not profit from the superiority of their numbers. at the same time, Damé dispatched with all haste a messenger to Kaâté to inform him of the treacherous aggression of which his unfortunate tribe had been the victim, and begging him to come to their aid. The warrior disappeared, running in the midst of the darkness, brandishing his long assegai armed with three enormous fish bones.

When, some minutes later, the Dodgis and Tyas arrived at Damé’s hut, they found it empty, along with the neighboring homes. Their disappointment was great, and old Docou, who had followed them only unwillingly, said to them with bitterness:

— You wanted to strike a chief who had never caused you the least harm. Now, he has escaped you and you know what a terrible warrior he is: you have made a mortal enemy who will never forgive you and much blood will still flow.

But the others would not listen to him; and they had done to much to turn back. However, as the darkness prevented them from determining the direction taken by the fugitives, they put off the pursuit until morning. In conformity with their cannibalistic habits, they lit a great fire…

— Excuse me, Captain, interrupted Isidore, did the savages have matches?

— No, responded old Martinot, laughing, in those days that match did not even exist among us, who would replace it with the lighter. As for the Kanaks, like all the primitive peoples, they obtained fire by rapidly rubbing two dry branches against one another for a long time. The wood, heating, ends up producing some sparks that, falling on grass places below, set them aflame.

That was a very long and bothersome truth: so the Kanaks took great care to maintain their fire, often for several days. Sometimes, they set alight a big insole, a tree whose branches are very hard and covered with several layers of bark like a pelt. The tree took hardly less than a week to slowly be consumed and every passing native could go there to seek fire.

So the Tyas and Dodgis would light a great fire and begin to gather the bodies of the Nouméas in order to cut them up and cook them in holes dug in the earth and heated with rocks reddened in the flame of the braziers. While occupying themselves with these preparations, they sang to celebrate their victory, which was, however, hardly glorious.

Only Docou remained silent and uneasy. I must say that, even in the midst of these frightful customs of cannibalism, there were some men who abstained from touching the flesh of their fellows. Docou was one of those.

However, the messenger sent by Damé had arrived breathless at Kaâté’s hut and, awakening the chief, has told him the terrible news. The great Tooaourou chief, seized by indignation and anger, immediately called his warriors with great shouts: in an instant, two hundred armed men were gathered around him.

So Kaâté address these words to them, which are worthy of being quoted, for they show that even the most backward people and those considered the most ferocious are not strangers to every sentiment of justice:

— Time presses: our friends are slaughtered. We are as numerous as they, and we cannot be beater, for we have right on our side.

It is a great strength, believe me, my friends, to have confidence in the triumph of right. When we learn history, we see that in many era small peoples, attacked by powerful enemies, have been victorious because their cause appeared to just to be defeated.

The Touaourous were of the opinion of their chief and all rushed like a hurricane toward Coronourou. At the first light of the day that, in this region, rise and fall almost without twilight, Damé, hidden with his people in the forest perceived those who flew to his rescue. So he let out a terrible war-cry, which the wind carried to his enemies and which guided the Touaourous to him.

— Damé, Kaâté said to him then, be our war-chief, for it is for you to have revenge against the traitors.

— I accepts, responded the chief of the Nouméas. And, addressing himself to them all: Warriors, he should, we have been struck by surprise and by darkness: we will strike directly and in the light.

A great cheer responded to him.

However, the Tyas and Dodgis had dug and heated the pits destined to serve as ovens: they prepared to lower the bodies of their victims, wrapped in large banana leaves, when the echo brought to them the war-cry of the Touaourous and Nouméas. Leaving the preparations for their feast, they seized their weapons and rushed to meet the arrivals.

A wide, deep river separated the combatants. Under a volley of assegais, Damé threw himself into the water and began to swim, followed immediately by Kaâté and Capéia. That example pulled along all the others.

“Come!” cried the Tyas and Dodgis, confident in their numbers, “We will eat you like your brother who are stretched out over there.”

“Forward!” shouted Touaourous and Nouméas. “Can we be defeated? We have right on our side! War! Death!”

The shock was terrible, but it did not last long: the anger and confident in their triumph multiplied by ten the strength of the Touaourous and Nouméas. Damé, in particular, engaged in such prodigies of vale that, soon, his enemies, broken, fled in disorder.

The victors then unwrapped the bodies of their brothers from their envelopes of leaves and, according to their custom, exposed them on the rocks and trees where when the weather and the beaks of the birds of prey had done their work, they would go to seek the bones, in order to deposit them in caves surrounded by a thick foliage that hid them from the view of strangers.

As for the ovens that the traitors had dug in order to cook the Nouméas, they were used for those of the Tyas and Dodgis who had fallen in the battle.

It was already late when this obligatory feast was finished and the warriors urged Damé to lead them again to exterminate their enemies. But the Nouméan chief reminded them of this words of the morning: “We will strike them openly and in the light.”

Ad the next day, indeed, there was a bloody battle: the Tyas and Dodgis in their turn defended their paternal soil, their huts, their crops, the lives of their elders and children, the liberty of their women, threatened with slavery at the hands of the victor. But it was all useless against the furious impetus of their enemies.

The survivors of the two tribes, reduced to two hundred at most, hardly hard time to hastily throw themselves into their pirogues, which, borne by the wind, would carry the Dodgis to the Île Ouen and the Tyas to the Isle of Pines.

Damé had lost a great number of his warriors, but he had become master of the vast territory of the vanquished, which his ally Kaâté generously ceded to him in its entirety. The two chiefs lived many years and always remained friends.



The next day, all the children were gathered around their old friend, whom they found in a humor even more merrier than usual, for with his hook he had snatched a bunch of innocent gudgeons from their tearful families.

— Captain Martinot, Jacques asked him, was the story of Damé not finished?

— That is likely, for that chief only died at a very advanced age, after New Caledonia was taken by the French.

I have told you of the destruction of his tribe by the Kambouns, his flight to Yaté with his old father and some warriors, his establishment at Naouaran and the new trials from which he emerged victorious. Such adventures happed, almost three thousand years ago, to a chief from Asia, named Aeneas, who, more fortunate than Damé, found, many centuries after his death, a great poet to celebrate his memory. Later, if you read Virgil’s Aeneid, you will find there some striking analogies with the history of Damé.

— And the Tyas, the Dodgis, what became of them? insisted Jacques, who insisted on being completely informed.

— That, said old Martinot, is another story. So listen.

I told you that the traitors that plotted the massacre of Damé and his warriors, being beaten in two battles, has been forced to save themselves in their pirogues.

The more numerous were the Dodgis who, pushed by a favorable wind, landed on the Île Ouen, which faced the southern coast of New Caledonia, from which it was separated by a narrow arm of the ocean.

Fugitives in their turn, the Dodgis would feel the bitterness of exile more than the Nouméas. The country that they had left was much more fertile than the where they now found themselves obliged to live. Over there, some flocks of Kagus, running birds about the size of a hen, rose on long, thin legs and promenaded in the forest; along the streams were fat deer and in the rivers were all sorts of fish; the Tyas’ apple trees offered their pink fruit, melting in the mouth like a like a light mousse and full of a fragrant water; the green banana trees with large leaves sagging under the weight of their bunches or clusters; the coconut trees were not lacking either; in the hollows of the hills grew the yam and taro. In short, life was easy and agreeable.

On the Île Ouen, on the contrary, the dry and rocky soil was covered with underbrush: much painful clearing was necessary before they could think of being able to obtain anything from it. The exiles had hardly any resource to survive on but fish: so they were very unfortunate and the sicknesses that famine gives rise to began to diminish their number.

Old Docou, who had made all his efforts to turn his brothers from treason, did not cease to sigh after his children, who remained living in his tribe and doubtless in the power of the victors. Who knew if those had been killed and eater to atone for the crime of their father of being Dodgi! However, he still found the strength to console his companions and advise them.

Many moons had passed since the arrival of the Dodgis, and their situation was always worsening. So they resolved, in the end, to ask pardon of Damé and beg him to let them return to their country.

Alone once more, Docou battled this proposition.

— Wretches! he said, have you become mad to imagine that Damé could ever forgive you for your treason? You are unaware then of what kind of man he is!

But, this time again, they did not listen to him: anything appeared preferable to staying on the Île Ouen.

Two young men, named Djéï and Yalap, volunteered to fulfill that perilous mission: they left, followed by the thoughts of all their brothers, who wished them good luck.

A favorable wind filled the sails of their pirogues. Nonetheless, they did no go immediately toward Naouaran: they fished first, in order to be able to add some fish and, if possible, some turtles to their presents, for they feared that those would not be considerable enough. The ocean, of a deep blue and hardly rippled by the breeze, silvered with a light foam toward the reefs. Djéï and Yalap, good sailors, tacked for a full day in sight of the coast and had the good fortune to take a large sea turtle, which they hoisted, not without difficulty, into their pirogue and turned it on its back. They also captured in their nets some octopi and some congers. Happy with such an excellent catch and confident in the fine welcome that their gifts would earn them, they landed in the night close to Naouaran and hid their embarkation in a cover surrounded by brush. At daylight, loading as many object as they could carry, they set out towards Damé’s hut.

At first, Damé could not believe his eyes when he recognized the two Dodgi warriors.

No doubt his hand mechanically grasped the handle of his club. However, as Damé had a great empire under him, he contained himself and listened to the words of the two envoys.

They had deposited their present at the feet of the chief and, remaining bowed before him, they explained to him the sad situation of their brothers, begging him to let them return to the region and promising to respect him from now on as master.

Damé remained pensive for a few moments, then he responded gravely:

— Djéï and Yalap, bear my response to your companions. You wanted to murder me and all my tribe. However, let your brothers return: whatever evil they have done, they will touch the shore without being attacked and I hope that, soon, the hostilities between the Dodgis and the Nouméas will no longer exist except in memory. Return to the Ile Ouen and tell those who remain there that I accept their presents and permit them to return.

The messengers did not make him say it twice: they left, delighted, after thanking Damé, and raced towards their pirogue, in which they soon embarked again.

The crossing was rapid and joyful: as if it wanted to declare itself on their side, the wind blew now from the shore and pushed the craft, which seemed to fly over the tranquil waters, towards the south. In their joy, Djéï and Yalap did not cease singing of the leniency of Damé and the good fortune of the Dodgis who were going to see their homeland again.

As soon as their sail was spotted on the Ile Ouen, all the exiles ran to the shore. Many believed that they would never see the two men again, and their return appeared to be a good omen.

— Well! They cried to them, even before they had disembarked. What was Damé’s response?

— Damé accepted, said Djéï and Yalap, proud to announce this good news. He will allow you to return to your country.

These words were greeted by an immense shout of joy. Then, as often happens, old Docou, who had constantly advised prudence to his brothers, was the first to urge them to prepare to leave.

Straightaway, they set themselves to repairing the dilapidated pirogues; they fished all night, in order to be able to offer still more presents to Damé on the day of their arrival, and, from the next morning, the Dodgis, reduced to the number of only eighty-two, all put to sea in six great boats.

Truly, luck seemed to have smiled on them, for, hardly had they doubled, by using their long poles as paddles, the south point of New Caledonia, when a favorable wind carried them straight towards Naouaran.

Who could express their joy when they saw again the reddish mountains of their country, the long forest of coconut trees that border the ocean! Already, they could distinguish the foaming torrents scintillating in the sun at the summit of the peaks and the straw roofs of the huts, rising like beehives in the midst of the verdant uplands. Those huts, where the victor now lived, were once their own! Who knows how many of them would not hold, deep in their hearts, the hope of one day taking up again the struggle against Damé and of exterminating those who occupied their country. The mind of man is made thus and the Kanak easily forgets the lesson that events have taught him.

Would the future realize these hopes? That is what we will soon see.

They disembarked and soon headed toward Damé’s hut, only leaving Djéï and Yalap to guard their crafts.

As they walked, a young Touaourou, who had spent two day at Naouaran and was returning to Yaté, saw them. He recognized without difficulty Docou, whom he knew, and, all stirred up, approached him, saying:

— Wretch! Where are you all going? Do you think it is wise for Dodgis to go where Damé can be found? Flee! There is still time.

— Ah! responded Docou, whether I die here at the hand of the terrible Damé or I die of sadness in exile, will may fate be different? At least, if I must perish, I will have the pleasure of seeing my tribe again an perhaps of embracing my children. Do you know if they still live?

— Yes, responded the Touaourou, they live and thrive: a Nouméan has taken them in and raised them as his children.

— Then, said the old chief with joy, whatever happens, I can die with an easy mind.

The young man, seeing Docou unshakeable, move off with a sigh and the others continued on their way.

Soon, their arrival was noticed and they saw a Nouméan appear who demanded of them:

— Who are you and what do you seek?

They replied: We are the Dodgis; we could to make peace with the great chief Damé.

Then the warrior, who had already received instructions, let them enter into a vast walled yard behind the dwelling of the redoubtable chief. While waiting for him to arrive, all extended themselves on the ground or squatted on the mats that carpeted the ground. They had left their arms in the pirogues, in order to better should that they came as friends, and only carried some fish and shells in order to offer them to their victor.

Damé finally arrived, followed by a crowd of Touaourou and Nouméan warriors. They turned to the newcomers with cordial words, while the chief, at whose approach all rose, sat on a mat in the midst of the Dodgis and, making a sign to them to also seat themselves, spoke to them thus:

— Dodgi warriors, I see you again with pleasure, although we have battled; but the heart of man is taken to forgetting. Tomorrow, you will already think no more of our old quarrels. Rest yourselves: the women will come with some provisions and this evening a great feast will take place.

The Dodgis greeted that speech with a great cry of joy. Already they spoke on familiar terms with the Nouméas, whose numbers increased every moment. Soon the women appeared, carrying on their heads some bunches of banana leaves and baskets of yams. Some of the warriors gathered dried branches, and tossed them on large, flat stones: soon, on this improvised hearth the flame crackled and rose.

Suddenly, Damé knit his brows. At that sign, forty-eight clubs crashed down on the heads of Dodgis and forty-eight bodies rolled to the ground. Old Docou perished like the others. Only Yalap and Djéï, not seeing their brothers return, understood what had happened and fled in the pirogue to an island from which they never returned.

Such was the punishment that Damé exacted for the treason of the Dodgis. The feast that had been announced to them took place, but they paid all the costs.

— And the Tyas? asked Isidore.

— The Tyas, replied the storyteller, had, as I have said, taken refuge on the Isle of Pines. They also desired to return to their country; and perhaps Damé, to set them a trap, had enlisted the chief of the island to advise them to return.

However, the Tyas knew of the sad fate of the Dodgis. So it was not as supplicant that they expected to present themselves, but as men resolved to make themselves respected.

There must have passed not months but years since the arrival of the fugitives on the Isle of Pines, and, if France had still not taken possession of New Caledonia, at least numerous Europeans came on merchant ships to trade in the vicinity. The Tyas, who had lived less miserably than the Dodgis, had managed to procure, in exchange for their products, a certain number of rifles and munitions with the aid of which they counted on returning in strength to their tribe.

So they set out, around fifty of them, and landed at Yaté.

Their arrival had been expected and the pirogues had been sighted. So hardly had they set foot on the land than the Tyas found themselves attacked by a multitude of Nouméas and Touaourous.

— That must be terrible, said Paul. The poor Nouméas would have been very surprised and very afraid at hearing the shots of the rifles.

— It was terrible, indeed, responded old Martinot, but the surprise was not for the ones you think. For of all the rifles sold by the Europeans, none short: the weapons and ammunition had completely deteriorated and the Tyas, who had left behind their assegais and clubs, were slaughtered without even being able to defend themselves.



That last story, despite its tragic character, was nonetheless appreciated.

However, some of the listeners appeared preoccupied and Paul translated their thought by asking:

— Captain Martinot, why don’t you tell us the story of your voyages? It must be so fine!

The good old man made an aggravated motion; then, after a moment of hesitation, he responded:

— My children, it is because… Why haven’t I told you? I have never been a captain… or even a sailor.

— Impossible! cried the young listeners, surprised and, we must admit it, dismayed.

— It is as I tell you. My whole service record has been limited to being, for fifteen years, lifeguard at the Henri IV baths, an honorable, but very sedentary situation.

— But there, said Jacques desperately, the stories that you have told us, monsieur Martinot, are imaginary?

— Hold on, my children! My principle is not to fool the world. These stories are indeed those that the Kanaks of New Caledonia told in the evening. I never told you that I learned them on the spot, which would have been a great lie: I owe the knowledge of them to my bookseller, a good friend who helped me make many voyages in my mind. I would have wanted to accomplish those voyages in reality, but, such is life, it rarely brings the realization of the wishes that we make!

Thus said honest old Martinot. The reader will understand why, being scrupulous, we have never, for our part, given him the title of captain.


[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.