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Poisonous Fish Of The Pacific Islands Post by :Brian_Harvard Category :Essays Author :Louis Becke Date :April 2011 Read :1370

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Poisonous Fish Of The Pacific Islands

Many years ago I was sent with a wrecking party of native seamen to take possession of a Swedish barque which had gone ashore on the reef of one of the Marshall Islands, in the North Pacific. My employers, who had bought the vessel for L100, were in hopes that she might possibly be floated, patched up, and brought to Sydney. However, on arriving at the island I found that she was hopelessly bilged, so we at once set to work to strip her of everything of value, especially her copper, which was new. It was during these operations that I made acquaintance with both poisonous and stinging fish. There were not more than sixty or seventy natives living on the island, and some of these, as soon as we anchored in the lagoon, asked me to caution my own natives--who came from various other Pacific islands--not to eat any fish they might catch in the lagoon until each one had been examined by a local man. I followed their injunction, and for two or three weeks all went well; then came trouble.

I had brought down with me from Sydney a white carpenter--one of the most obstinate, cross-grained old fellows that ever trod a deck, but an excellent workman if humoured a little. At his own request he lived on board the wrecked barque, instead of taking up his quarters on shore in the native village with the rest of the wrecking party. One evening as I was returning from the shore to the schooner--I always slept on board--I saw the old man fishing from the waist of the wreck, for it was high tide, and there was ten feet of water around the ship. I saw him excitedly haul in a good-sized fish, and, hailing him, inquired how many he had caught, and if he were sure they were not poisonous? He replied that he had caught five, and that "there was nothin' the matter with them." Knowing what a self-willed, ignorant man he was, I thought I should have a look at the fish and satisfy myself; so I ran the boat alongside and clambered on board, followed by two of my native crew. The moment we opened the fishes' mouths and looked down their throats we saw the infallible sign which denoted their highly poisonous condition--a colouring of bright orange with thin reddish-brown streaks. The old fellow grumbled excessively when I told him to throw them overboard, and then somewhat annoyed me by saying that all the talk about them being unsafe was bunkum. He had, he said, caught and eaten just the same kind of fish at Vavau, in the Tonga Islands, time and time again. It was no use arguing with such a creature, so, after again warning him not to eat any fish of any kind unless the natives "passed" them as non-poisonous, I left him and went on board my own vessel.

We had supper rather later than usual that evening, and, as the mate and myself were smoking on deck about nine o'clock, we heard four shots in rapid succession fired from the wreck. Knowing that something was wrong, I called a couple of hands, and in a few minutes was pulled on board, where I found the old carpenter lying writhing in agony, his features presenting a truly shocking and terrifying appearance. His revolver lay on the deck near him--he had fired it to bring assistance. I need not here describe the peculiarly drastic remedies adopted by the natives to save the man's life. They at first thought the case was a hopeless one, but by daylight the patient was out of danger. He was never able to turn to again as long as we were on the island, and suffered from the effects of the fish for quite two or three years. He had, he afterwards told me, made up his mind to eat some of the fish that evening to show me that he was right and I was wrong.

A few weeks after this incident myself and a native lad named Viri, who was one of our crew and always my companion in fishing or shooting excursions, went across the lagoon to some low sandy islets, where we were pretty sure of getting a turtle or two. Viri's father and mother were Samoans, but he had been born on Nassau Island, a lonely spot in the South Pacific, where he had lived till he was thirteen years of age. He was now fifteen, and a smarter, more cheerful, more intelligent native boy I had never met.

His knowledge of bird and fish life was a never-ending source of pleasure and instruction to me, and the late Earl of Pembroke and Sir William Flower would have delighted in him.

It was dead low tide when we reached the islets, so taking our spears with us we set out along the reef to look for turtle in the many deep and winding pools which broke up the surface of the reef. After searching for some time together without success, Viri left me and went off towards the sea, I keeping to the inner side of the lagoon. Presently in a shallow pool about ten feet in circumference I espied a small but exceedingly beautiful fish. It was about four inches in length, and two and a half inches in depth, and as it kept perfectly still I had time to admire its brilliant hues--blue and yellow-banded sides with fins and tail tipped with vivid crimson spots. Around the eyes were a number of dark yellowish or orange-coloured rings, and the eyes themselves were large, bright, and staring. It displayed no alarm at my presence, but presently swam slowly to the side of the pool and disappeared under the coral ledge. I determined to catch and examine the creature, and in a few minutes I discovered it resting in such a position that I could grasp it with my hand. I did so, and seizing it firmly by the back and belly, whipped it up out of the water, but not before I felt several sharp pricks from its fins. Holding it so as to study it closely, I suddenly dropped it in disgust, as strange violent pains shot through my hand. In another two minutes they had so increased in their intensity that I became alarmed and shouted to Viri to come back. Certainly not more than five or ten minutes elapsed before he was with me; to me it seemed ages, for by this time the pain was excruciating. A look at the fish told him nothing; he had never seen one like it before. How I managed to get back to the schooner and live through the next five or six hours of agony I cannot tell. Twice I fainted, and at times became delirious. The natives could do nothing for me, but said that the pain would moderate before morning, especially if the fish was dead. Had its fins struck into my foot instead of my hand I should have died, they asserted; and then they told the mate and myself that one day a mischievous boy who had speared one of these abominable fish threw it at a young woman who was standing some distance away. It struck her on the foot, the spines penetrating a vein, and the poor girl died in terrible agony on the following day. By midnight the pain I was enduring began to moderate, though my hand and arm were swollen to double the proper size, and a splitting headache kept me awake till daylight. The shock to the system affected me for quite a week afterward.

During many subsequent visits to the Marshall Group our crews were always cautioned by the people of the various islands about eating fish or shell-fish without submitting them to local examination. In the Radack chain of this widely spread out archipelago we found that the lagoons were comparatively free from poisonous fish, while the Ralick lagoons were infested with them, quite 30 per cent, being highly dangerous at all times of the year, and nearly 50 per cent at other seasons. Jaluit Lagoon was, and is now, notorious for its poisonous fish. It is a curious fact that fish of a species which you may eat with perfect safety, say, in the middle of the month, will be pronounced by the expert natives to be dangerous a couple of weeks later, and that in a "school" of pink rock bream numbering many hundreds some may have their poison highly developed, others in but a minor degree, whilst many may be absolutely free from the taint. In the year 1889 the crew of a large German ship anchored in one of the Marshall Islands caught some very large and handsome fish of the bream kind, and the resident natives pronounced them "good." Three or four days later some more were taken, and the cook did not trouble to ask native opinion. The result was that eight or nine men were taken seriously ill, and for some time the lives of several were despaired of. Two of them had not recovered the use of their hands and feet at the end of ten weeks, and their faces, especially the eyes and mouth, seemed to be permanently, though slightly distorted. All the men agreed in one particular, that at midday they suffered most--agonising cramps, accompanied by shooting pains in the head and continuous vomiting to the point of exhaustion, these symptoms being very pronounced during the first week or eight days after the fish had been eaten.

That kind-hearted and unfortunate officer, Commodore J. G. Goodenough, took an interest in the poisonous and stinging fish of the Pacific Islands, and one day showed me, preserved in spirits of wine, a specimen of the dreaded _no'u_ fish of the Hervey Group--one of the most repulsive-looking creatures it is possible to imagine out of a child's fairy book. The deadly poison which this fish ejects is contained in a series of sacs at the base of the spines, and the commodore intended to submit it to an analyist. By a strange coincidence this gallant seaman a few months afterwards died from the effects of a poisoned arrow shot into his side by the natives of Nukapu, one of the Santa Cruz group of islands.

This _no'u_ however, which is the _nofu_ of the Samoans, and is widely known throughout Polynesia, and Melanesia under different names, does not disguise its deadly character under a beautiful exterior like the stinging fish of Micronesia, which I have described above. The _nofu_ which is also met with on the coasts of Australia, is a devil undisguised, and belongs to the angler family. Like the octopus or the death-adder (_Acanthopis antarctica_) of Australia, he can assimilate his colour to his environment. His hideous wrinkled head, with his staring goggle eyes, are often covered with fine wavy seaweed, which in full-grown specimens sometimes extends right down the back to the tail. From the top of the upper jaw, along the back and sides, are scores of needle-pointed spines, every one of which is a machine for the ejection of the venom contained at the root. As the creature lies hidden in a niche of coral awaiting its prey--it is a voracious feeder--it cannot be distinguished except by the most careful scrutiny; then you may see that under the softly waving and suspended piece of seaweed (as you imagine it to be) there are fins and a tail. And, as the _nofu_ has a huge mouth, which is carefully concealed by a fringe of apparently harmless seaweed or other marine growth, he snaps up every unfortunate small fish which comes near him. In the Pacific Islands the _nofu_ (_i.e._, "the waiting one ") is generally a dark brown, inclining to black, with splashes or blotches of orange, or marbled red and grey. In Australian waters--I have caught them in the Parramatta river, Port Jackson--they are invariably either a dark brown or a horrid, dulled yellow.

Despite its poison-injecting apparatus this fish is eaten by the natives of the Society, Hervey, and Paumotu groups of islands, in the South Pacific, where its flesh is considered a delicacy. It is prepared for cookery by being skinned, in which operation the venomous sacks are removed. In 1882, when I was living on the island of Peru in the Gilbert Group (the Francis Island of the Admiralty charts), a Chinese trader there constantly caught them in the lagoon and ate them in preference to any other fish. Here in Peru the _nofu_ would bury itself in the soft sand and watch for its prey, and could always be taken with a hook. And yet in Eastern Polynesia and in the Equatorial Islands of the Pacific many deaths have occurred through the sting of this fish, children invariably succumbing to tetanus within twenty-four hours of being stung.

A little more about poisonous fish, _i.e._, fish which at one time of the year are good and palatable food and at others deadly. In the lagoon island of Nukufetau (the "De Peyster Island" of the charts), where the writer lived for twelve months, the fish both within the lagoon and outside the barrier reef became highly poisonous at certain times of the year. Flying-fish (which were never caught inside the lagoon) would be safe to eat if taken on the lee side of the island, dangerous, or at least doubtful, if taken on the weather side; _manini_, a small striped fish much relished by the natives, would be safe to eat if caught on the reef on the western side of the island, slightly poisonous if taken four miles away on the inside shore of the eastern islets encompassing the lagoon. Sharks captured outside the reef, if eaten, would produce symptoms of poisoning--vomiting, excessive purging, and tetanus in a modified form; if caught inside the reef and eaten no ill effects would follow. Crayfish on one side of the lagoon were safe; three miles away they were highly impregnated with this mysterious poison, the origin of which has not yet been well defined by scientists.


(The end)
Louis Becke's essay: Poisonous Fish Of The Pacific Islands

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