The making of "kava", and its drinking.

by Frederick O'BRIEN

in "White clouds in the South Seas" (written in 1913)

The Vagabond, Kivi, who lived near the High Place, came down to my _paepae_ one evening to bid me come to a feast given in Atuona Valley to the men of Motopu, who had been marvelously favored by the god of the sea. Months of storms, said Kivi, had felled many a stately palm of Taka-Uka and washed thousands of ripe cocoanuts into the bay, whence the current that runs swift across the channel had swept the fruitage of the winds straight to the inlet of Motopu, on the island of Tahuata. The men of that village, with little effort to themselves, had reaped richly. Now they were come, bringing back the copra dried and sacked. Seven hundred francs they had received for a ton of it from Kriech, the German merchant of Taka-Uka, from whose own groves it had been stolen by the storms. On the morrow, their canoes laden with his goods, they would sail homeward. One day they had tarried to raft redwood planks of California from the schooner in the bay to the site of Kivi's new house. So that night in gratitude he would make merry for them. There would be much to eat, and there would be _kava_ in plenty. He prayed that I would join them in this feast, which would bring back the good days of the _kava_-drinking, which were now almost forgotten. I rose gladly from the palm-shaded mat on which I had lain vainly hoping for a breath of coolness in the close heat of the day, and girded the red _pareu_ more neatly about my loins. Often I had heard of the _kava_-drinking days before the missionaries had insisted on outlawing that drink beloved of the natives. The traders had added their power to the virtuous protests of the priests, for _kava_ cost the islanders nothing, while rum, absinthe, and opium could be sold them for profit. So _kava_-drinking had been suppressed, and after decades of knowing more powerful stimulants and narcotics, the natives had lost their taste for the gentler beverage of their forefathers. The French law prohibited selling, exchanging, or giving to any Marquesan any alcoholic beverage. But the law was a dead letter, for only with rum and wine could work be urged upon the Marquesans, and I failed to reprove them even in my mind for their love of drink. One who has not seen a dying race cannot conceive of the prostration of spirit in which these people are perishing. That they are courteous and hospitable--and that to the white who has ruined them--shows faintly their former joy in life and their abounding generosity. Now that no hope is left them and their only future is death, one cannot blame them for seizing a few moment's forgetfulness. Some years earlier, in the first bitterness of hopeless subjugation, whole populations were given over to drunkenness. In many valleys the chiefs lead in the making of the illicit _namu enata_, or cocoanut-brandy. In the Philippines, where millions of gallons of cocoanut-brandy are made, it is called _tuba_, but usually its name is arrack throughout tropical Asia. Fresh from the flower spathes of the cocoanut-tree, _namu_ tastes like a very light, creamy beer or mead. It is delicious and refreshing, and only slightly intoxicating. Allowed to ferment and become sour, it is all gall. Its drinking then is divided into two episodes--swallowing and intoxication. There is no interval. "Forty-rod" whiskey is mild compared to it. I had seen the preparation of _namu_, which is very simple. The native mounts the tree and makes incisions in the flowers, of which each palm bears from three to six. He attaches a calabash under them and lets the juice drip all day and night. The process is slow, as the juice falls drop by drop. This operation may be repeated indefinitely with no injury to the tree. In countries where the liquor is gathered to sell in large quantities, the natives tie bamboo poles from tree to tree, so that an agile man will run through the forest tending the calabashes, emptying them into larger receptacles, and lowering these to the ground, all without descending from his lofty height. The _namu_ when stale causes the Marquesans to revert to wickedest savagery, and has incited many murders. Under the eye of the gendarme its making ceases, but a hundred valleys have no white policemen, and the half score of people remaining amid their hundreds of ruined _paepaes_ give themselves over to intoxication. I have seen a valley immersed in it, men and women madly dancing the ancient nude dances in indescribable orgies of abandonment and bestiality. _Namu enata_ means literally "man booze." The Persian-Arabic word, _nam_, or _narm-keffi_, means "the liquid from the palm flower." From this one might think that Asia had taught the Marquesans the art of making _namu_ during their prehistoric pilgrimage to the islands, but the discoverers and early white residents in Polynesia saw no drunkenness save that of the _kava_-drinking. It was the European, or the Asiatic brought by the white, who introduced comparatively recently the more vicious cocoanut-brandy, as well as rum and opium, and it is these drinks that have been a potent factor in killing the natives. It has ever been thus with men of other races subjugated by the whites. Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography tells that when he was a commissioner to the Indians at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he and his fellow-commissioners agreed that they would allow the Indians no rum until the treaty they earnestly sought was concluded, and that then they should have plenty. He pictures an all-night debauch of the red men after they had signed the treaty, and concludes: "And, indeed, if it be the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means. It has annihilated all the tribes who formerly inhabited the sea-coast." It was not for me to speculate upon the designs of Providence with respect to the Marquesans. _Kava_ had been the drink ordained by the old gods before the white men came. Its making was now almost a lost art; I knew no white man who had ever drunk from the _kava_-bowl. So it was with some eagerness that I followed Kivi down the trail. Broken Plate, a sturdy savage in English cloth cap and whale's-teeth earrings, stood waiting for us in the road below the House of the Golden Bed, and together the three of us went in search of the _kava_ bush. While we followed the narrow trail up the mountain-side, peering through masses of tangled vines and shrubs for the large, heart-shaped leaves and jointed stalks we sought, Kivi spoke with passion of the degenerate days in which he lived. Let others secretly make incisions in the flower of the cocoanut and hang calabashes to catch the juice, said he. Or let them crook the hinges of the knee that rum might follow fawning on the whites. Not he! The drink of his fathers, the drink of his youth, was good enough for him! Agilely he caught aside a leafy branch overhanging the trail, and in the flecks of sunshine and shade his naked, strong brown limbs were like the smooth stems of an aged manzanita tree. He had not the scaly skin or the bloodshot eyes of the _kava_ debauchee, whose excesses paint upon their victim their own vivid signs. I remembered a figure caught by the rays of my flashlight one might on a dark trail--a withered creature whose whole face and body had turned a dull green, and at the memory of that grisly phantom I shuddered. But Broken Plate, on the trail ahead, called back to us that he had found a goodly bush, and without more words we clambered to it. The _kava_, a variety of the pepper-plant, grows to more than six feet in height, and the specimen we had found thrust above our heads its many jointed branches rustling with large, flat leaves. The decoction, Kivi explained, comes from the root, and we set to work to dig it. It was huge, like a gigantic yam, and after we had torn it from the stubborn soil it taxed the strength and agility of two of us to carry it to the _paepae_ of Broken Plate, where the feast was to be. A dozen older women, skilled in grating the breadfruit for _popoi_ making, awaited us there, squatting in a ring on the low platform. The root, well washed in the river, was laid on the stones, and the women attacked it with cowry-shells, scraping it into particles like slaw. It was of the hardness of ginger, and filled a large _tanoa_, or wooden trough of ironwood. The scraping had hardly well begun, while Broken Plate and I rested from our labors, smoking pandanus-leaf cigarettes in the shade, when up the road came half a dozen of the most beautiful young girls of the village, clothed in all their finery. Teata, with all the arrogance of the acclaimed beauty, walked first, wearing a tight-fitting gown with insertions of fishnet, evidently copied from some stray fashion-book. She wore it as her only garment, and through the wide meshes of the novel lace appeared her skin, of the tint of the fresh-cooked breadfruit. She passed us with a coquettish toss of her shapely head and took her place among her envious companions. They sat on mats around the iron-wood trough and chewed the grated root, which, after thorough mastication, they spat out into banana-leaf cups. This chewing of the Aram-root is the very being of _kava_ as a beverage, for it is a ferment in the saliva that separates alkaloid and sugar and liberates the narcotic principle. Only the healthiest and loveliest of the girls are chosen to munch the root, that delectable and honored privilege being refused to those whose teeth are not perfect and upon whose cheeks the roses do not bloom. Nevertheless, as I smoked at ease in my _pareu_ upon the _paepae_ of my simple hosts I felt some misgivings rise in me. Yet why cavil at the vehicle by which one arrives at Nirvana? Had I not tasted the _chicha_ beer of the Andes, and found it good? And vague analogies and surmises floated before me in the curls of smoke that rose in the clear evening light. What hidden clue to the remotest beginnings of the human race lies in the fact that two peoples, so far apart as the Marquesans and the South American Indians, use the same method of making their native beverage? In the Andes corn takes the place of the _kava_ root, and young girls, descendants of the ancient Incas, chew the grains, sitting in a circle and with a certain ceremoniousness, as among these Marquesans. The Marquesas Islands are on the same parallel of latitude as Peru. Were these two peoples once one race, living on that long-sunken continent in which Darwin believed? Dusk fell slowly while I pondered on the mysteries in which our life is rooted, and on the unknown beginnings and forgotten significances of all human customs. The iron-wood trough was filled with the masticated root, and in groups and in couples the girls slipped away to bathe in the river. There they were met by arriving guests, and the sound of laughter and splashing came up to us as darkness closed upon the _paepae_ and the torches were lit. Lights were coming out like stars up the dark valley as each household made its vesper fire to roast breadfruit or broil fish, and lanterns were hung upon the bamboo palisades that marked the limits of property or confined favorite pigs. A cool breeze rose and rustled the fronds of cocoanut and bamboo, bringing from forest depths a clean, earthy odor. The last bather came from the brook, refreshed by the cooling waters and adorned with flowers. All were in a merry mood for food and fun. Half a dozen flaring torches illuminated their happy, tattooed faces and dusky bodies, and caught color from the vivid blossoms in their hair. The ring of light made blacker the rustling cocoanut grove, the lofty trees of which closed in upon us on every side. Under the gaze of many sparkling eyes Kivi pierced green cocoanuts brought him fresh from the climbing, and poured the cool wine of them over the masticated _kava_. He mixed it thoroughly and then with his hands formed balls of the oozy mass, from which he squeezed the juice into another _tanoa_ glazed a deep, rich blue by its frequent saturation in _kava_. When this trough was quite full of a muddy liquid, he deftly clarified it by sweeping through it a net of cocoanut fiber. All the while he chanted in a deep resonant voice the ancient song of the ceremony. "_U haanoho ia te kai, a tapapa ia te kai!_" he called with solemnity when the last rite was performed. "Come to supper; all is ready." "_Menike_," he said to me, "You know that to drink _kava_ you must be of empty stomach. After eating, _kava_ will make you sick. If you do not eat as soon as you have drunk it, you will not enjoy it. Take it now, and then eat, quickly." He dipped a shell in the trough, tossed a few drops over his shoulder to propitiate the god of the _kava_-drinking, and placed the shell in my hands. Ugh! The liquor tasted like earth and water, sweetish for a moment and then acrid and pungent. It was hard to get down, but all the men took theirs at a gulp, and when Kivi gave me another shellful, I followed their pattern. "_Kai! Kai._ Eat! Eat!" Kivi shouted then. The women hurried forward with the food, and we fell to with a will. Pig and _popoi_, shark sweetbreads, roasted breadfruit and sweet potatoes, fruits and cocoanut-milk leaped from the broad leaf platters to wide-open mouths. Hardly a word was spoken. The business of eating proceeded rapidly, in silence, save for the night-rustling of the palms and the soft sound of the women's hastening bare feet. Only, as he saw any slackening, Kivi repeated vigorously, "_Kai! Kai!_" I sat with my back against the wall of the house of Broken Plate, as I ate quickly at the mandate of my host, and soon I felt the need of this support. The feast finished, the guests reclined upon the mats. Women and children were devouring the remnants left upon the leaf platters. The torches had been extinguished, all but one. Its flickering gleam fell upon the aged face of Kivi, and the whites of his eyes caught and reflected the light. The tattooing that framed them appeared like black holes from which the sparks glinted uncannily, and the _kava_ mounting to his brain or to mine gave those sparks a ghastliness that fascinated me in my keen, somnolent state. From the shadows where the women crouched the face of Teata rose like an eerie flower. She had adorned the two long black plaits of her hair with the brilliant phosphorescence of Ear of the Ghost Woman, the strange fungus found on old trees, a favored evening adornment of the island belles. The handsome flowers glowed about her bodiless head like giant butterflies, congruous jewels for such a temptress of such a frolic. The mysterious light added a gleam to her velvet cheek and neck that made her seem like the ghost-woman of old legend, created to lead the unwary to intoxicated death.