Read The Shark God Online

Authors: Charles Montgomery

The Shark God

The Shark God

Encounters with
Ghosts and Ancestors
in the South Pacific


What indeed do we not owe to the influence of the departed? They are not dead. Thousands of them live for us, they still speak to us out of every century, and from far down the ages, till we have reached the furthest bounds of history. Somehow they seem all round us.

Life's Journey

A Packet of Sand

Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!

Heart of Darkness

The story should begin in Oxford.

Oxford, in the muted light of early spring, not far from the pincushion spires of the old Bodleian Library, past the long sandstone wall and the constellation of early spring narcissus, through the marble rotunda and the oak-paneled anteroom, up the creaking staircase to the attic. That's where I found the envelope that set the journey in motion.

I remember the oath—you can't just wander into the attic of Rhodes House or any other part of the Bodleian Library without taking the oath, which includes a promise not to set fire to the books. It's understood that you will not touch the older manu
scripts with your fingertips, since oil from human skin is like acid to the wrinkled flesh of old parchment. I raised my hand and swore.

But the envelope. I found it in file c/nz/mel2, a cardboard box full of tattered letters, newspaper clippings, and journal extracts. Inside it was a postcard from Egypt, stamped at Port Said: Jan. 30,1884. There was no image on the front of the card, just the address of one Reverend Prebendary Plant, the vicar of Weston-on-Trent. The envelope also contained a sheet of cream-colored paper folded many times over and sealed with red wax. The seal was broken.

I made a little fortress of books and albums so the archivists could not see me, then I carefully unfolded the paper. Inside it was another piece of paper, folded to the dimensions of a matchbook. It had also been sealed with wax, and this seal was broken, too. I opened it and peered inside.

It contained perhaps a spoonful of sand and splinters, as though someone had taken a walk on a beach, then scraped the sole of his shoe and swept the remains into that little packet. I reached in and ran my finger through the grit. The splinters were so dry they crumbled on touch. I turned the paper over. Handwritten on the back of it: “Sand and wood from the spot where Bishop Patteson died.”

A story: John Coleridge Patteson, the first bishop of Melanesia, had been welcomed ashore on the tiny atoll of Nukapu on a sunny afternoon in 1871. He was led to a palm-thatched hut and offered a grass mat, on which he lay down to rest. The bishop closed his eyes, as if to ready himself for the blow that would shatter his skull, as if he was waiting to die and be resurrected as the martyr-hero of the western South Pacific. The blow came. Everyone agrees on that one detail. Dozens of versions of the story eventually emerged, and they once captivated England as thoroughly as those of the martyrdom of Livingstone in Africa. Preachers, politicians, and pundits turned their attention to the South Pacific.
Queen Victoria was petitioned to deal with the “atrocity.” A warship was dispatched to bomb Nukapu and burn its village to the ground. Money, recruits, and a new mission ship sailed across the miles. Patteson's martyrdom was carved into stone and set into stained glass. Yet the circumstances surrounding the bishop's murder were—and still are—shrouded in mystery.

I took a pinch of the sand and rolled the grains between my thumb and forefinger. Nukapu. I imagined the reef, the island, and the murder that was a transforming moment in the history of the South Pacific, a moment that tied together the dreams of an ancient culture, the crimes of a generation of rogues, and the aspirations of hundreds of spiritual adventurers, including my own great-grandfather.

I was ten years old when the first piece of the story came to me. My father, who had spent most of his life as a sailor, had found his final port on the west coast of Canada. He and my mother bought a swath of pasture and forest on Vancouver Island. He felled the last of the great firs, planted his fields with clover, built a barn for his Herefords, and then he died.

A few weeks after the funeral, my mother discovered my father's dispatch box in a corner of the attic. She hauled the black tin trunk down to the dining-room table and began to sift through it. I remember watching her and seeing the worry on her brow. I know now that she was terrified my father was receding, drifting away on the sea of memory. She wanted to imprint my brother and me with something of our father's character—something that would remind us that we were part of a story that did not end with his death, a story that would bind us to him, or at least to his name.

The box didn't offer much. My father ran off to sea when he was fifteen. He had served on troopships in the Atlantic and Indian oceans during World War II, dodged German submarines in the Mediterranean. He had fed dinner leftovers to sharks off the coast of Sicily. One letter, posted in Cape Town, described a show
down with a water buffalo in Mozambique. What else? He once had a girlfriend in Athens. He bought a Super 8 camera in Tokyo. He spent decades at sea, but the scraps in his box didn't begin to fill in the blanks. It was as if he had not wanted his tale to be told.

But there were other stories in the box. Diaries. Bits of paper. Newspaper clippings from the Victorian era. Photos of stone mansions in Ireland and India. Soldiers on tanks. Tea parties on vast lawns. Buggies drawn by camels. There were books about God: volume after volume of theological musings and fatherly advice for Christians, palm-sized booklets with titles like
Life's Journey
, and guides for young missionaries headed for distant colonies. The covers of some were stamped with the same nautical scene: a square-rigged ship sailing toward an island populated with diminutive natives. The sea was rough, but the sun smiled down on the ship, whose sole passenger stood at the bow, waving an open Bible toward shore.

These were my great-grandfather's writings. Unlike my father, the Right Reverend Henry Hutchinson Montgomery had taken pains to ensure that his descendants would remember him. In fact, though the bishop was buried in 1932, he had always presided over our household. There he was, floating in a whorl of crimson brushstrokes above the dining-room table. A royal blue cloak printed with exquisite thistle bouquets hung from his shoulders. A pancake-sized medallion and a gold cross dangled from his neck. His face was weathered, cheeks hollowed with age, but there was a soaring, powerful dignity to him. He kept his white beard tidy and trimmed. The bishop looked down over his long nose, not at you but into—what was it, a prayer book? He wore a gold, cone-shaped miter. We never cursed in front of him.

It was under that portrait that I sifted through the black trunk to discover the story that would make me forget all about my father's mystery years. It didn't look like much on the outside: a pocketbook bound with blue cotton and frayed at the crown. The
cover, polished by years of jostling among other unread volumes, reflected the lamplight. The title was stamped across it in gold, as brilliant as the day it was printed:

The Light of Melanesia.

The pages were the color of smoke, and brittle. Some were decorated with floral motifs, thistles, and mermaids. The text was faint. But the photos were mesmerizing. Faded monotones showed muscular black men clutching spears or dozing on sleek outrigger canoes. Those men were naked but for the feathers that poked from their frizzy hair like peacock plumage, curls of—was it shell? bone?—that hung from their earlobes and noses, and shocking phallic sheaths that shot up from their loins. Bare-breasted women emerged like shadows from still lagoons. A gang of magnificent, barrel-chested men carried a long pole adorned with rings of feather money. Then, beyond a village of grass huts, past an explosion of jungle, a ship with three masts waited at anchor.

The writing was difficult. I didn't read it all, just enough to understand that this was an account of a journey made more than a century ago; that back in the days when the world was a wild and treacherous place, when white men in top hats and ties confronted cruel savages on the rocky shores of remote islands, when black magic and powerful spirits still ruled the shadows, the bishop had followed the ghost of the martyred Patteson to the darkest corner of the South Pacific. It was an adventure sanctioned by God Himself. The story I fashioned from the raw material of those pages went like this:

By 1889, the British Empire was nearing the apex of its power. It controlled a fifth of the world, but much of that domain was still lacking the spiritual guidance of the Church of England. The archbishop of Canterbury consecrated the forty-two-year-old Henry Montgomery as bishop of Tasmania and sent him off to the empire's distant fringe. The bishop was happy in the antipodean colony, which was like a bit of Cornwall dropped off the coast of
Australia. He had a comfortable manor house and a great stone cathedral in which to preach. He had a wife and four children. But after three years, he left them all. He caught a steamer to New Zealand, where he set sail for the Tropic of Capricorn aboard the mission schooner
Southern Cross.
The objective: to bring the One True God to the heathens of the Melanesian archipelagos, hundreds of islands shrouded in violence, fear, and—equally shocking to the Victorian missionaries—nakedness, promiscuity, and sloth.

The bishop cataloged the horrors of this most perilous mission field. Dozens of traders and evangelists had already been murdered on the shores of the islands that were scattered across 1,200 miles of ocean between Fiji and New Guinea. Some, like Patteson, were clubbed to death. Some were pierced with arrows tipped with human bone. Others were held underwater until their bodies stopped shaking. The most unlucky were cooked and eaten. The natives had not been behaving well toward each other, either. An epidemic of head-hunting had spread east from New Guinea through the Solomon Islands. Entire villages had been wiped out. Hundreds of miles of coastline were left desolate by the skull-collecting chiefs of New Georgia. Old women were killing their own grandchildren.

It was clear to the bishop that the Evil One had reached the islands long before the missionaries. It wasn't just war and violence that marked his presence: Satan had imbued his servants with the most sinister of powers. Black magic was rampant. A sorcerer could kill a man by shaking a handful of cobwebs at him. People worshipped sharks, stones, invisible spirits, and the dead, all of whom demanded constant blood sacrifice. The jungles of Melanesia echoed with the chanting of their followers.

To my adolescent mind, Melanesia was a fabulously sinister and magical place. Good and evil were indeed clashing in the South Pacific, and in 1892, goodness required a new champion: it had been twenty years since the murder of Bishop Patteson. Now
Patteson's replacement had succumbed to the ravages of tropical disease and retreated to England. The archipelago was desperate for a bishop. The white priests the
Southern Cross
had dropped on so many hostile islands needed reassurance. The natives had to be shown that their bond with the Almighty had not been broken. The mission frontier needed to be pushed even farther into the archipelago of bloody ritual and bubbling volcanoes so that Patteson and the other Christian martyrs would not have died in vain. There was really no choice for my great-grandfather but to sail across the miles and repeat the journey of his heroes.

Henry Montgomery wrote to his children from the deck of the
Southern Cross.
“Remember,” he told them, “that your father visited all these islands, and that his heart went out to the dwellers among these lonely scenes, praying ever that they might be brought to know their Father in His son Jesus Christ.” He reminded his children that they were special. “You have all been taught that we must be true and pure and upright because we are Christ's disciples; but next after that reason there is no incentive to live nobly which is so powerful as the possession of a great family tradition. You come from a family of ‘gentlemen'; you know that word does not signify mere outward refinement: it tells of a refined and noble mind, to which anything dishonourable or mean or impure is abhorrent and unworthy.”

This was the kind of story my mother had wanted me to find. I held on tightly to the bishop's counsel for years. Sometimes, after hours spent shoveling Hereford manure, I would kick off my gum boots on the porch and pad quietly into the dining room to stand and look at the old man, and know that here was proof that I was connected to a confrontation with the spirit world, something grand, noble, and so very far away from the stumps, muck, and drudgery of the farm.

I didn't think much about religion, or that there might be anything less than heroic about the bishop's journey. I didn't consider
that his story might be an argument, a construction, a myth. I just imagined his schooner at full sail over that vast, beckoning ocean, and a hundred thousand cannibals, sorcerers, and ghosts waiting beneath the palms. And I let the bishop's story ebb and flood through my dreams, as vivid and enduring as
The Jungle Book
Treasure Island
Star Wars.
It remained so for two decades, long after I had shunned the doctrines of the church, long after I had relegated my family's god to the pantheon of imagined heroes.

But sometimes a story returns to demand your attention, and you must decide whether to let it live or fade. I found
The Light of Melanesia
again when I was thirty-two. I read it all this time, slowly. The bishop and his brotherhood of spiritual adventurers didn't seem so heroic anymore. Their convictions seemed childish, their God a piece of fancy, their crusade to sell him to people on the far side of the world downright racist. The years—and my postcolonial skepticism—were ripping out pages of my great-grandfather's myth and setting fire to them. The Melanesia of my boyhood dreams threatened to disappear. I became obsessed with the islands. I sought out Oceanists, theologians, mission historians, anyone who might offer a piece of the real story, not just of my great-grandfather and his Victorian brotherhood but also of the islands they had set out to change. I flew to England to search for clues. I thought that if I completed the story, I might be able to put it aside for good.

I began inside Lambeth Palace, the archbishop of Canterbury's brick fortress on the south bank of the Thames. I pored over hundreds of pages of ecclesiastical correspondence in the palace library, and learned that the Victorian bishops were uniformly incapable of writing legibly. I took the train to Oxford. I uttered the Bodleian oath. Then, in the creaking attic of Rhodes House, I was rewarded. There were crates and crates of notes, reports from the Melanesian Mission, logbooks from the
Southern Cross,
and a dozen accounts of Patteson's murder. There was a shoe box full of
sketches: faded line drawings of spears, canoes, and carved paddles. There were diary accounts of misty mornings and slaughter on creamy sand beaches. There were woeful notes about the sins into which some missionaries had fallen: “The temptations on a desert island,” mourned one cleric. Digging through it all was like peering into the corners of my own memory. Every photo, every story, seemed strangely familiar, as if they had grown from the story I had been telling myself for years, only this story wasn't quite the shape I remembered.

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