Postcolonial Text / Author

The Discovery of Europe

Jane Downing
New South Wales, Australia

Editor's Note - This fragment, reproduced below, was found in the archives of the David Street Parish Church, Bristol, in 1998. As the Parish was presided over by Rev. Ogdenash (1873-1899), inventor of the left-switch carding device, the current incumbency received a Millennial Project Grant to renovate the site of the rectory. Excavations of the cellars almost literally unearthed a store of valuable new documentation on the eighteenth and nineteenth century life of the Parish. Amongst the files were the papers of a previous rector, and one time missionary to the South Seas, Rev. Earnest Sinclair-Johns, who spent the evening years of his life at the David Street Parish (1861-65). A deeply curious man, he appears to have recorded a number of oral histories on his island of South Ngamatau, this being one dating from the 1840's or 50's.

Long ago Kiaben,[1] son of Kiabus, son of Ngauman, sailed to the furthermost ends of the earth's seas and discovered a new island to be set upon the wave charts of the kingdom. And the name of the island was Oorope.[2]

Kiaben was as brave as Letao, the creator of fire, and as wise as the foraging bat. When the typhoon came to wreak the gods' anger on Ngamatau the people turned to Kiaben in their dire need. He gathered the men of the clan to council and listened well as each village chief told of the suffering of his people. At sunrise Kiaben pushed his canoe into the lagoon to seek sustenance on the oceans and there was great fear he would never be seen again.

On the fourth day following the waves, a large canoe appeared on the horizon. It had high wings like an attacking owl and rocked on the ocean like a surfacing whale. Kiaben swum to the leviathan and went onto it, sending the men on his canoe home to Ngamatau saying, "this canoe is bigger and will take me further to find food."[3]

Three cycles of the seasons had turned before Kiaben returned to Ngamatau and I, his son, will tell the tale of his great discoveries in the words he has handed down for our eternal benefactions.

The island my father found was grey and was denuded of cocoanut trees and knew not the breadfruit, pandanus or banana. The people were pale and sickly as a consequence. They were forced to survive on watery vegetables and the flesh of giant four legged beasts.[4] Rarely were they awarded the gifts of the ocean, for it had made itself thin to creep between the land's shores[5] and the men of the island built heavily by its side and still many were forced to live daily without sight of the great water.[6]

Lost, the people have become ashamed of their bodies. They cover them with kloths; the women are particularly ugly with their charms hidden. They have also become cowardly and refuse to tattoo their skin. All ornaments are temporary and are removed. Only men upon the great canoes show a resilience to the old ways and gain small tattoos.

For all this, there is great wealth on the island. Kiaben was taken to live with one chief of the temples who had in his possession many watnots and many men coming to listen to his storytelling [preaching].[7] He had many rooms in his dwelling, and rooms upon rooms, towering up as high as the breadfruit tree. Many people were forced to live high because the moral laxness of the generations had allowed an excess of births leading to unimaginable over-population with litter beaching on the pathways.

The moral laxness was unknown in this dwelling of one offspring. The benefactor was in everything a good man of great kindness and learning, not only to Kiaben but to the poor who gathered at his door.[8] For in the presence of the wealth and the watnots there are those who are poor and starve when it is not a time of crisis and typhoon. This was unbelievable to Kiaben's eyes: for food is not shared as it should be and care is not like the sun's rays [constant] but like the appearance of the turtle [rare].

The benefactor taught Kiaben the language of the island as he taught the male children of the clan. Their culture is so primitive the people have also lost the use of memory and must rite learning down with little picture lines on white leaves to prompt their rememberings. We did not believe Kiaben in all his stories until the missionary came and we saw this with our own eyes. Now we know all Kiaben told us was true.

The boy children were also instructed in the legends of their island and Kiaben entertained the people of Ngamatau with these stories. We fell in typhoons of laughter. We remember that the High Chief Jorj Durd [George III, 1760-1820] had ants in his head and was not let out of his household. The Wigs, with the hair of dead beasts on their heads took his power when he was not looking. He was son of Jorj Sekud [George II, 1727-1760] who had fought great battles with other tribes, the Skots to the north, the Frenjs and the Spanids to the south. It was said this island then Ruled the Waves. But Kiaben feared for the people of the waves. On the next island the common people had revolted against their High Chief and chopped off his head, and the head of his consort and the heads of the lesser chiefs and Kiaben saw the commoners around him, like the Frenjs, too were not joyful.

Maybe the chiefs had displeased the gods by trying to capture one of them in a great house [church] while ignoring the others. His benefactor was not happy with Kiaben's understanding of the island's plight but Kiaben had already decided against taking the daughter of his benefactor for wife. Having studied the hierarchy of the clans he knew she was not of his own high class and would give no advantage to his life on the island.

Then the sun went out. The air turned away from warmth and Kiaben could understand why the people of Oorope hid their bodies in more and more kloths. Rain came down and was not water but formed as thick as many sand grains, cold and white to cover the huts and pathways and ocean edge.

Kiaben was sad and wanted to see the sun again. He doubted it would ever return to Oorope. So he took a land canoe pulled by a beast as large as a human to the ocean and found a shib to take him away.[9]

A voyage across the oceans and past islands as tall as the sky brought him finally to Ngamatau in an outrigger canoe of his own construction, a fine vessel he had made in the south. He filled it with preserved foods and cocoanuts but the gods had been kind to celebrate his return and his island was once more fruitful and green.

The council gathered to decide if they should take their war canoes and return to conquer Oorope and betake themselves of the wealth. But when the laughter and applause had lulled in the starry night and the waves were whispering sweet songs to the children's dreams, the elders looked out across the ocean and saw Oorope as something black in the darkness. And so the idea was given up. They left the island to its mad chief and its natives. It did not seem in their eyes so terribly great a prize.[10]



Rev. Sinclair-Johns dated the event to the first decade of the nineteenth century.


Europe. More precisely as the narrative later indicates, the island in question was England.


It must be remembered that this is an interpretation of the events. In all likelihood the man was kidnapped by this ship of whalers or privateers.


The pig being the largest non-sea creature Kiaben would have previously encountered.


He is describing a river; the river Thames.


This is London. It is impossible to trace Kiaben's voyage there, but he could well have worked passage on the whaler or privateer or with one of various exploratory expeditions. A perusal of the ships' Logs of the time does not identify his presence, but it is known islanders were shipped as curiosities and virtual slaves.


Words within [ ] are the original inclusions of Rev. Sinclair-Johns.


Oral histories inevitably become changed in the telling, reflecting the needs of the teller and the audience. Thus, note the emphasis given in Rev. Sinclair-Johns' transcription to the Christian (Methodist?) minister's good deeds.


There were few ships plying the Pacific at this time, though whalers were already following the Explorative Expeditions (Cook, Flinders, the French Baudin, the Russian Kotzebue) out of London in search of wealth. In the next couple of decades, once the maps were fully drawn by the explorers, the great rush of colonists would commence.


Missionaries arriving on Ngamatau some two decades following these events were greeted with hearty "Good day to you Mista" from all the islanders, though Kiaben the warrior was himself no longer alive. He died in battle with an island group to the north.