Friday, 7 October 2016

The Flying Rabbits of Tumumoa

By Alfred B. Mittington, Soc. Zoo. Br.

 [First published in the Peterloo Review, Wellington (NZ), 18 June 1954.]

Far from me, dear reader, to criticise the native rites and customs of small exotic tribes. Such cultural arrogance is no longer of the age. And for one like myself, who has always been an ardent defender of the Blantun Indians of the inner Brazils, to do so is nearly unthinkable. Nevertheless, I admit I was truly stunned, not to say incensed, to hear of the ritual of Rabbit Throwing that regularly occurs on Tumumoa, the smallest of the inhabited islands of the New Zealand archipelago. And I frankly confess to mad fury on learning that the New Zealand government of Mr Patty O’Couvart refuses to interfere with this despicable practice, on the hollow grounds that it is not a blood sport, that it is good for pension-plans, and that it is – take care now! - an ‘ancient tradition’, because it got started as long ago as 1856, A.D. (which tells you what counts as archaic in these Fresh Upstart Nations Down Under!)

What is the truth which the O’Couvart administration refuses to acknowledge? Rabbit throwing, for all its hallowed significance within Tumumoan religion, is the cruellest of practices. If it only involved a single rabbit, the conscientious person might still take a deep breath and swallow his rightful indignation. But no....!! Whole runs of rabbits are being subjected to this harmful and humiliating operation, hurled around by the dozens at the ceremonial victims, by massive crowds of elated, and often intoxicated, participants!

What is more: Rabbit throwing is of recent invention, and therefore cannot even claim to be vindicated by age. And worse of all: this nauseating ritual is not at all native to Tumumoa, but is, on the contrary, a cultural contamination of Western origins. It may have turned into a local fertility rite, but it isn’t Melanesian at all. And even if it were, would that justify the thoughtless, pitiless tossing of dozens of life bunnies at a ceremoniously dressed man and woman, folks who themselves often come away with scratches, blue spots and extremely soiled costumes for which they have paid dear money? I dare say it would not! And were circumstances only slightly different, I would here, on this very page, admonish the O’Couvart government to crack down ruthlessly on this practice and force the native Tumumoans to replace the life rabbits with some other (inanimate) symbol of fertility. Would, I say - but will not. For here lays the whole problem: the rabbits already ARE a replacement! And the recent history of the rite makes one shudder at the thought of proposing yet another substitute. Far from improving matters, every cure has so far proven to be considerably worse than the original disease. And one loathes to continue the trend.

The reception of the Graydons on Tumumoa

The roots of Rabbit Throwing lie in the days soon after the Christianisation of this corner of Melanesia in the mid 1850s by the Graydon family; a set of missionaries, originally in the service of the British & Foreign Bible Society, who came to Tumumoa when kicked out of Gibraltar for social misbehaviour. Lieutenant James Newenham Graydon, their Patriarch, was an extremely zealous evangelist and – let us call a spade a spade - a total nutcase. He was ‘as insane as a man who sets his house on fire in order to warm his hands,’ as one of his former colleagues in Spain described him. If we may believe their shipping bill, which has miraculously survived, the Graydons had the weirdest notions about the place where they were headed. Their luggage contained – and here I only quote the more intelligible items – a 60 foot fold-up Tabernacle, 20 copies of A Pilgrim’s Progress, 5,000 pairs of ‘Baboon Pantaloons’, 14 enemas ‘for personal use’ and 1,000 copies of the New Testament in Manchu-Tatar. The presence of the latter lot may perhaps be explained by the misconception current at the time that Melanesians originated in the southern Chinese province of Canton (a theory convincingly discredited of late by Dr Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition). But the Baboon trousers are truly inexplicable, unless there be a connection, as has been suggested, with the accusation of ‘animal mistreatment’ which caused the Graydon’s exile from the Gibraltar Rock.

However that may be, the Graydons sailed in, they landed, and set up shop. And the very next day trouble started. It just so happened that the morning after their arrival, they were invited to attend the wedding ceremony between the chief’s 23rd daughter, Minoabubu, and a young Tumumoan called Taupotini. During that festival, certain fertility rites were performed which were meant to guarantee the newly wed couple ample progeny. We do not know exactly of what those fertility rites consisted, but they were guaranteed to be terribly shocking to a Victorian pastor. There may have been some masturbation. Perhaps there was a bit of public fornication. We cannot tell from the prudish descriptions which Mrs Mabel Graydon entrusted to her diary (what is one to make of her mentioning ‘horrid regular movements’ and ‘lascivious exposure of linguistic body parts?’ – for all one knows, the dumb brutes only chewed some cassava-roots in an impolite manner!)

Minoabubu and Taupotini on their wedding day

Nowadays we would shrug our shoulders over such things, mumble something about cultural relativism, and find ourselves a keyhole to peep through. Not so our upright Victorians! They were still convinced that God had sent them over to the darkies to teach them Civilisation, to wit: chastity, Sunday prayer, baboon pantaloons and plenty of enemas. So Lieutenant Graydon immediately set to work. It took him a week to convince Chief Ububaonim that what went on during the local marriage celebrations was Terribly Wrong in the Eyes of Our Maker (he might have succeeded a little quicker, but it ain’t easy to explain in Manchu-Tatar what Sin is to a savage who is unaware of the concept.) Ububaonim, at first, gently parried the objections.

            ‘On weddings no huba huba aloha,’ the cordial old chief replied, ‘then no little papoosoas. No little papoosoas – then no taxpayers. Bad for spouses. Bad for government. And incidentally: calamitous for national pension plan. Whole of the demographic pyramid topsy-turvy. That not how Kutahkutah ordained Mamoa of Universe. So sorry. Can’t be helped..’
            ‘But it CAN be helped!!’ Lieutenant Graydon exclaimed frenziedly as he jumped to his feet. ‘With the help of the Lord we will find an alternative!’
            ‘Await options,’ the old chief spoke amiably, as he rattled his Kuri-shell bracelet. ‘Consult think-tank. Wreck brain drain. Call again.’

Good old Chief Ububaonim

In only three 12-hours prayer-sessions of the collected Graydon clan, an alternative was indeed discovered. And it surely says something that the bright idea originated with young Matthew Graydon, the 11-year old Benjamin of the family. The alternative was rice. Throw rice at the newly-weds. That, after all, was an old, hallowed Anglo-Saxon tradition, perfectly sanctioned by the British churches, which, as young Matthew had learned in school just before sailing to the antipodes, likewise conveyed the ritual desire for the young couple to go and multiply profusely in Biblical obedience.

Next day Lieutenant Graydon hauled one of the family’s 80-pound bags of dried rice to the village fatafafa and went to see Ububaonim. He argued vehemently and at length. He explained that rice was far stronger a talisman than huba huba aloha. Just look at how plentiful the Englishmen were on the face of the earth! At least as many as all the fingers and toes of all the Tumumoans put together! There were so many, in fact, that they had to get away from their own island, and come in their canoes to other archipelagos, like Tumumoa. And look at Tamaʻitaʻi Mabel, how she had born him 11 healthy children! All because of Rice, your Majesty! – Because of Rain Showers of Rice on our wedding day!

Ububaonim considered the arguments coolly. To tell the truth, he was not much impressed with the Englishman’s dialectics. He was even a little taken aback to learn that these whiteys from across the waters still did not realize that papoosoas were a result of huba huba, not from some funny fooling around with staple foodstuffs. But - and this is essential now - Ububaonim was a deeply devout man, to whom the laws of hospitality were sacrosanct. He wanted nothing more than to please these poor guests of his, who had had to flee their own overpopulated native island and live out their sorry lives far away from the blessing of home and family. So he shrugged his shoulders, rattled his kuris, and spoke: ‘Can give it try. Progress innovation. You happy I happy.’

'The Rice Wedding (by young Miss Abigail Graydon)

And so it was ordained. During the next wedding that took place on Tumumoa, the newly weds were duly bombarded with shovelfuls of dry rice, thrown at them from the side-lines as they chastely marched out of the Marae arm in arm (young Matthew Graydon had had a splendid time explaining to the natives how the thing was done). The Graydon family gave solemn thanks to the Lord Our God for inspiring good king Ububaonim with Divine Wisdom. And the huba huba aloha took place, discreetly so as not to disturb the honourable white exiles, during the stag nights and hen parties celebrated the night after the wedding ceremony in a remote spot on the upper skirts of the volcano. A new tradition was born. Everybody happy. 

Except that Tumumoa is a dry island. And that rice will not grow in its arid, saline soil...

The Tumumoans are a marrying kind of people. They harbour a solid belief in the Family as the corner log of society. The next three months saw at least three dozen wedding celebrations; and by early September the Graydons’ supply of dried rice had run out. What to do? When consulted, that horrid King Ububaonim turned outright hostile! ‘Ways of ancestors not so bad, huh?’ he spoke savagely at Lieutenant Graydon, who was squatted humbly at his feet. ‘Rice limited resource. Runs out. Huba huba does not. Well – unless all wives get moon in head same night… Has happened to me. Embarrasing.’ And then, scratching himself under his orchid-crown, he said: ‘Better regress to old tradition. Avoid social conflict. And long walks to volcano.’

The horrid barbarian chief Ububaonim

Lieutenant Graydon was dumbstruck – and not only by the threat of being hurled into the infernal crater by way of human sacrifice, which this savage pagan had just voiced – but even more by the abhorrent thought of the Lord’s Work being Undone. He pleaded, first, loudly, to the Lord in Heaven, then, vehemently, with this royal servant of Moloch. He shouted, he sang hymns, he quoted Scripture, he rolled frenzied in the dirt of the floor. After roughly 10 minutes of this, Ububaonim, beginning to fear for his guest’s heart and mental health, gave in. ‘Alright! Accept! Calm down dorsal spine. Will compromise!’ he exclaimed, wildly waving his ostrich-feather fly-waif at the man to give him some cool air. ‘Go. Wash brain drain again. Renew innovation. Make proposal.’ And, as the grateful missionary slumped exhausted to the floor, the old king mumbled to himself: ‘See what comes from too much self-huba!’

What more, dear reader? I’m sure you can guess it. After lengthy Prayer Meetings, the Graydons did come up with a fresh solution. Mustard-seed! – the Biblical allegory for quick promulgation; of which, as luck would have it, they had three sturdy bags in their pantry. The proposal was accepted, and to the missionaries’ endless joy, mustard seed caught on well in the rich volcanic soil of the island. It seemed that the Divine Solution had been found at last. But then the brides and bride’s maids of Tumumoa filed a complaint with the chief. Them tiny little mustard seeds got into their hula-skirts and itched them to madness all through the ceremony and the party afterwards. You couldn’t get rid of them. Not by shaking, not by scratching, not by bathing. You found them for days afterwards in your rongorongo. So, they suggested, couldn’t they just, you know, go naked during the weddings? Also saved them having to go change for the post-nuptials up on the volcano. Ububaonim, a healthy fellow for his 67 summers, was not unsympathetic to the idea. ‘If you cannot climb the mountain you may still look up its skirts, eh?’ he winked thickly at the lieutenant. But the Graydons, of course, were scandalised (particularly Mabel who still harboured hopes of putting her Baboon Pantaloons to some good use before long). They sang hymns – they went into raptures – they threw their spectacles on the ground and stomped them to pieces, they….

The Tumumoa bridesmaids on strike

In short: by February of the next year an attempt was made with gulls’ eggs. Eggs were a typical fertility symbol as well, as young Matthew remembered from an article on Easter customs. But unfortunately thrown eggs make an awful mess and the mighty stag-parties turned into terrible stick-parties, which really wrecked the fun. Then somebody, with a nice Freudian touch avant la lettre, proposed coconuts. Three wedding-guests and the happily married couple itself had to be hospitalized because of the experiment, so the idea was immediately abandoned. Next, thoughtlessly, the newly-weds and their attendants were showered with chemical fertiliser. It caused an awful skin rash in everyone, and the bridesmaids let it be known they’d rather to go back to the mustard seeds, rongaronga trouble or not, than subject themselves any longer to this chemical warfare! And then, at long last, somebody noticed the rabbits of the island. The rabbits, which bred like, well…. rabbits. The rabbits, fertility totem par excellence, who knew better than any other animal how to go about a good bit of huba huba aloha. They were soft, there were many, you could swing them by the ears and – last but not least – the touch of their soft fur on your naked skin had a most enjoyable titillating effect on the whole of the company….

The first fertility rabbit sailed through the Tumumoan air on March 15th 1856 during the marriage of Kanathea and Opari. It was thrown by the bride’s father Aehtanak, and landed smack in the middle of Opari’s face (not wholly coincidentally, by the looks of it; due to some obscure old dispute over spliced mango-trees, Aehtanak couldn’t stand the sight of his new son-in-law). Other than that, however, all of the celebrants were mighty pleased with the new projectiles. The rabbits caused no brain damage, they did not get into your skirt, they uttered most cheerful little shrieks as they came sailing through the air, and the ones that died in the process could be roasted on the spot for the subsequent wedding-feast. 

The ultimate perversion:
A Tumumoa bridesmaid nursing throwable rabbits! 

This then reader, is the wholly modern and Western origin of Rabbit Throwing, that cruel blood sport masquerading as a traditional Melanesian rite. There is nothing ancient in it. There is nothing hallowed to it. It does not root in venerable Tumumoan religion or the profound philosophical concepts of the Noble Savage. It is purely the result of warped missionary brains and the dry saline soil of Tumumoa. And I say that it is high time to put a stop to the very very very sick practice! Ever since March 1856, nearly a hundred years ago now, this shameful superstition has been continued, in ever higher frequency and ever growing numbers. Nowadays, rabbits are being deliberately bred for the purpose. A special species has been developed over the years, one of good flyers and slow runners with exceptionally lengthy ears. Some of these poor animals are subjected to this painful and humiliating experience three, four, yes, sometimes even FIVE times before they succumb and get turned into spare ribs. And only the faulty reasoning, and the blind slothfulness of the O’Couvart government stands in the way of calling a halt to a practice which is an abominable blot on the reputation of the whole southern hemisphere! Shame on you, Patrick O’Couvart, you Judas Iscariot of neo-colonialism! SHAME!

Postscript on the further missionary activities on Tumumoa

Despite a promising start, the Tumumoa mission ultimately ended in failure. Initopuat , the first-born son of Minoabubu and Taupotini (the couple of the first wedding), became one of Graydon’s most devout converts, and eventually rose to be the first Episcopal bishop of the island. Yet even this could not guarantee the continued success of Christianity. The natives simply refused to come over. The main bone of contention turned out to be Tumumoan baptism customs. The natives were in the habit – as the reader surely has noticed from the above - of naming children after their father, but with the names written in reverse so as to keep the generations apart. Much as they tried, the upright and over-sensitive British missionaries could not accustom themselves to the Tumumoan faithful innocently applying the same principle to the Son of God. Perhaps it smacked too much of animal worship, golden calves and the Egyptian deity Anubis. A feeble attempt was made to explain to them that the True Name of the Lord was Jehova – but as bad luck would have it, in Tumumoan the word ‘Avohei’ signifies ‘eating avocado bread with your uncle’s daughter’, one of the gravest and most intolerable taboos on the island. The Tumumoans were scandalised and lapidated several of the preachers with coconuts. Missionary activity on Tumumoa ceased in the 1890s. Rabbit Throwing, however, persisted.

Note from the editor

The publication of the above J’Accuse had some unforeseen side-effects, insofar as it helped to topple the O’Couvart government. The outcry caused by Mittington’s revelations of modern Tumumoan marriage-rites was immense. These being days of animal lovers, Bugs Bunny and Christian vegetarianism, animal protection societies all over the globe picked up the hue and cry. New Zealand got vilified in churchyards, schoolrooms and community centres the world over. By early 1955, the O’Couvart government could no longer dodge the issue. Patty O’Couvart, however, was a proud politician and he refused to ‘cave in to this Mittington maniac’. Consequently, far from interfering with the practice out of concerns for animal wellfare, the government decided to play the ‘conservationist’ card. Rabbits were declared a protected species, and under that banner Rabbit Throwing was forcibly discontinued. Within two years, the rabbit population in New Zealand baby-boomed from an estimated 150,000 individuals to 20,000,000. Agricultural produce plummeted 43 %. Farmers staged sit-ins and let loose thousands of rabbits inside the Agricultural Ministry and Wellington City Hall. On 16 August 1955, the O’Couvart government resigned. For unexplained reasons, present-day Tumumoans throw satellite-disks at newly-wed couples; and rabbits are now being fought with industrial poison and special, laboratory-prepared strands of myxomatosis.