THE WHALE TOOTH
by Jack London
It was in the early days in Fiji, when John
Starhurst arose in the mission-house at Rewa
Village and announced his intention of
carrying the Gospel throughout all Viti Levu.
Now Viti Levu means the "Great Land," it being
the largest island in a group composed of many
large islands, to say nothing of hundreds of
small ones. Here and there on the coasts, living
by most precarious tenure, was a sprinkling of
missionaries, traders, beche-de-mer fishers,
and whaleship deserters. The smoke of the hot
ovens arose under their windows, and the bodies
of the slain were dragged by their doors on the
way to the feasting.
The Lotu, or the Worship, was progressing slowly,
and, often, in crablike fashion. Chiefs, who
announced themselves Christians and were welcomed
into the body of the chapel, had a distressing
habit of backsliding in order to partake of the
flesh of some favorite enemy. Eat or be eaten
had been the law of the land; and eat or be
eaten promised to remain the law of the land for
a long time to come. There were chiefs, such as
Tanoa, Tuiveikoso, and Tuikilakila, who had
literally eaten hundreds of their fellow men.
But among these gluttons Ra Undreundre ranked
highest. Ra Undreundre lived at Takiraki. He
kept a register of his gustatory exploits. A
row of stones outside his house marked the bodies
he had eaten. This row was two hundred and thirty
paces long, and the stones in it numbered eight
hundred and seventy-two. Each stone represented
a body. The row of stones might have been longer,
had not Ra Undreundre unfortunately received a
spear in the small of his back in a bush skirmish
on Somo Somo and been served up on the table of
Naungavuli, whose mediocre string of stones
numbered only forty-eight.
The hard-worked, fever-stricken missionaries
stuck doggedly to their task, at times despairing,
and looking forward for some special manifestation,
some outburst of Pentecostal fire that would
bring a glorious harvest of souls. But cannibal
Fiji had remained obdurate. The frizzle-headed
man-eaters were loath to leave their fleshpots
so long as the harvest of human carcases was
plentiful. Sometimes, when the harvest was too
plentiful, they imposed on the missionaries by
letting the word slip out that on such a day
there would be a killing and a barbecue. Promptly
the missionaries would buy the lives of the
victims with stick tobacco, fathoms of calico,
and quarts of trade-beads. Natheless the chiefs
drove a handsome trade in thus disposing of their
surplus live meat. Also, they could always go
out and catch more.
It was at this juncture that John Starhurst
proclaimed that he would carry the Gospel from
coast to coast of the Great Land, and that he
would begin by penetrating the mountain
fastnesses of the headwaters of the Rewa River.
His words were received with consternation.
The native teachers wept softly. His two fellow
missionaries strove to dissuade him. The King
of Rewa warned him that the mountain dwellers
would surely kai-kai him -- kai-kai meaning "to
eat" -- and that he, the King of Rewa, having
become Lotu, would be put to the necessity of
going to war with the mountain dwellers. That
he could not conquer them he was perfectly
aware. That they might come down the river and
sack Rewa Village he was likewise perfectly
aware. But what was he to do? If John Starhurst
persisted in going out and being eaten, there
would be a war that would cost hundreds of
Later in the day a deputation of Rewa chiefs
waited upon John Starhurst. He heard them
patiently, and argued patiently with them,
though he abated not a whit from his purpose.
To his fellow missionaries he explained that
he was not bent upon martyrdom; that the call
had come for him to carry the Gospel into
Viti Levu, and that he was merely obeying the
To the traders, who came and objected most
strenuously of all, he said: "Your objections
are valueless. They consist merely of the
damage that may be done your businesses. You
are interested in making money, but I am
interested in saving souls. The heathen of
this dark land must be saved."
John Starhurst was not a fanatic. He would
have been the first man to deny the imputation.
He was eminently sane and practical. He was
sure that his mission would result in good,
and he had private visions of igniting the
Pentecostal spark in the souls of the
mountaineers and of inaugurating a revival
that would sweep down out of the mountains
and across the length and breadth of the
Great Land from sea to sea and to the isles
in the midst of the sea. There were no wild
lights in his mild gray eyes, but only calm
resolution and an unfaltering trust in the
Higher Power that was guiding him.
One man only he found who approved of his
project, and that was Ra Vatu, who secretly
encouraged him and offered to lend him guides
to the first foothills. John Starhurst, in
turn, was greatly pleased by Ra Vatu's conduct.
From an incorrigible heathen, with a heart as
black as his practices, Ra Vatu was beginning
to emanate light. He even spoke of becoming
Lotu. True, three years before he had expressed
a similar intention, and would have entered
the church had not John Starhurst entered
objection to his bringing his four wives along
with him. Ra Vatu had had economic and ethical
objections to monogamy. Besides, the missionary's
hair-splitting objection had offended him;
and, to prove that he was a free agent and a
man of honor, he had swung his huge war-club
over Starhurst's head. Starhurst had escaped
by rushing in under the club and holding on to
him until help arrived. But all that was now
forgiven and forgotten. Ra Vatu was coming
into the church, not merely as a converted
heathen, but as a converted polygamist as
well. He was only waiting, he assured Starhurst,
until his oldest wife, who was very sick,
John Starhurst journeyed up the sluggish Rewa
in one of Ra Vatu's canoes. This canoe was to
carry him for two days, when, the head of
navigation reached, it would return. Far in
the distance, lifted into the sky, could be
seen the great smoky mountains that marked
the backbone of the Great Land. All day John
Starhurst gazed at them with eager yearning.
Sometimes he prayed silently. At other times
he was joined in prayer by Narau, a native
teacher, who for seven years had been Lotu,
ever since the day he had been saved from
the hot oven by Dr. James Ellery Brown at
the trifling expense of one hundred sticks
of tobacco, two cotton blankets, and a large
bottle of painkiller. At the last moment,
after twenty hours of solitary supplication
and prayer, Narau's ears had heard the call
to go forth with John Starhurst on the mission
to the mountains.
"Master, I will surely go with thee," he had
John Starhurst had hailed him with sober
delight. Truly, the Lord was with him thus
to spur on so broken-spirited a creature as
"I am indeed without spirit, the weakest of
the Lord's vessels," Narau explained, the
first day in the canoe.
"You should have faith, stronger faith," the
missionary chided him.
Another canoe journeyed up the Rewa that
day. But it journeyed an hour astern, and
it took care not to be seen. This canoe was
also the property of Ra Vatu. In it was
Erirola, Ra Vatu's first cousin and trusted
henchman; and in the small basket that never
left his hand was a whale tooth. It was a
magnificent tooth, fully six inches long,
beautifully proportioned, the ivory turned
yellow and purple with age. This tooth was
likewise the property of Ra Vatu; and in
Fiji, when such a tooth goes forth, things
usually happen. For this is the virtue of
the whale tooth: Whoever accepts it cannot
refuse the request that may accompany it or
follow it. The request may be anything from
a human life to a tribal alliance, and no
Fijian is so dead to honor as to deny the
request when once the tooth has been accepted.
Sometimes the request hangs fire, or the
fulfilment is delayed, with untoward consequences.
High up the Rewa, at the village of a chief,
Mongondro by name, John Starhurst rested at
the end of the second day of the journey. In
the morning, attended by Narau, he expected
to start on foot for the smoky mountains that
were now green and velvety with nearness.
Mongondro was a sweet-tempered, mild-mannered
little old chief, short-sighted and afflicted
with elephantiasis, and no longer inclined
toward the turbulence of war. He received the
missionary with warm hospitality, gave him
food from his own table, and even discussed
religious matters with him. Mongondro was of
an inquiring bent of mind, and pleased John
Starhurst greatly by asking him to account
for the existence and beginning of things.
When the missionary had finished his summary
of the Creation according to Genesis, he saw
that Mongondro was deeply affected. The little
old chief smoked silently for some time. Then
he took the pipe from his mouth and shook his
"It cannot be," he said. "I, Mongondro, in
my youth, was a good workman with the adze.
Yet three months did it take me to make a
canoe -- a small canoe, a very small canoe. And
you say that all this land and water was made
by one man --"
"Nay, was made by one God, the only true
God," the missionary interrupted.
"It is the same thing," Mongondro went on,
"that all the land and all the water, the
trees, the fish, and bush and mountains,
the sun, the moon, and the stars, were made
in six days! No, no. I tell you that in my
youth I was an able man, yet did it require
me three months for one small canoe. It is
a story to frighten children with; but no
man can believe it."
"I am a man," the missionary said.
"True, you are a man. But it is not given
to my dark understanding to know what you
"I tell you, I do believe that everything
was made in six days."
"So you say, so you say," the old cannibal
It was not until after John Starhurst and
Narau had gone off to bed that Erirola crept
into the chief's house, and, after diplomatic
speech, handed the whale tooth to Mongondro.
The old chief held the tooth in his hands
for a long time. It was a beautiful tooth,
and he yearned for it. Also, he divined the
request that must accompany it. "No, no;
whale teeth were beautiful," and his mouth
watered for it, but he passed it back to
Erirola with many apologies.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In the early dawn John Starhurst was afoot,
striding along the bush trail in his big
leather boots, at his heels the faithful Narau,
himself at the heels of a naked guide lent him
by Mongondro to show the way to the next village,
which was reached by midday. Here a new guide
showed the way. A mile in the rear plodded
Erirola, the whale tooth in the basket slung
on his shoulder. For two days more he brought
up the missionary's rear, offering the tooth
to the village chiefs. But village after village
refused the tooth. It followed so quickly the
missionary's advent that they divined the request
that would be made, and would have none of it.
They were getting deep into the mountains,
and Erirola took a secret trail, cut in
ahead of the missionary, and reached the
stronghold of the Buli of Gatoka. Now the
Buli was unaware of John Starhurst's imminent
arrival. Also, the tooth was beautiful -- an
extraordinary specimen, while the coloring
of it was of the rarest order. The tooth
was presented publicly. The Buli of Gatoka,
seated on his best mat, surrounded by his
chief men, three busy fly-brushers at his
back, deigned to receive from the hand of
his herald the whale tooth presented by
Ra Vatu and carried into the mountains by
his cousin, Erirola. A clapping of hands
went up at the acceptance of the present, the
assembled headman, heralds, and fly-brushers
crying aloud in chorus:
"A! woi! woi! woi! A! woi! woi! woi! A tabua
levu! woi! woi! A mudua, mudua, mudua!'
"Soon will come a man, a white man," Erirola
began, after the proper pause. "He is a
missionary man, and he will come to-day.
Ra Vatu is pleased to desire his boots. He
wishes to present them to his good friend,
Mongondro, and it is in his mind to send
them with the feet along in them, for
Mongondro is an old man and his teeth are
not good. Be sure, O Buli, that the feet
go along in the boots. As for the rest of
him, it may stop here."
The delight in the whale tooth faded out
of the Buli's eyes, and he glanced about
him dubiously. Yet had he already accepted
"A little thing like a missionary does not
matter," Erirola prompted.
"No, a little thing like a missionary does
not matter," the Buli answered, himself
again. "Mongondro shall have the boots. Go,
you young men, some three or four of you,
and meet the missionary on the trail. Be
sure you bring back the boots as well."
"It is too late," said Erirola. "Listen!
He comes now."
Breaking through the thicket of brush,
John Starhurst, with Narau close on his
heels, strode upon the scene. The famous
boots, having filled in wading the stream,
squirted fine jets of water at every step.
Starhurst looked about him with flashing
eyes. Upborne by an unwavering trust,
untouched by doubt or fear, he exulted in
all he saw. He knew that since the beginning
of time he was the first white man ever
to tread the mountain stronghold of Gatoka.
The grass houses clung to the steep mountain
side or overhung the rushing Rewa. On either
side towered a mighty precipice. At the best,
three hours of sunlight penetrated that narrow
gorge. No cocoanuts nor bananas were to be
seen, though dense, tropic vegetation overran
everything, dripping in airy festoons from the
sheer lips of the precipices and running riot
in all the crannied ledges. At the far end
of the gorge the Rewa leaped eight hundred
feet in a single span, while the atmosphere
of the rock fortress pulsed to the rhythmic
thunder of the fall.
From the Buli's house, John Starhurst saw
emerging the Buli and his followers.
"I bring you good tidings," was the missionary's
"Who has sent you?" the Buli rejoined quietly.
"It is a new name in Viti Levu," the Buli
grinned. "Of what islands, villages, or passes
may he be chief?"
"He is the chief over all islands, all villages,
all passes," John Starhurst answered solemnly.
"He is the Lord over heaven and earth, and I
am come to bring His word to you."
"Has he sent whale teeth?" was the insolent
"No, but more precious than whale teeth is
"It is the custom, between chiefs, to send
whale teeth," the Buli interrupted.
"Your chief is either a niggard, or you are
a fool, to come empty-handed into the mountains.
Behold, a more generous than you is before you."
So saying, he showed the whale tooth he had
received from Erirola.
"It is the whale tooth of Ra Vatu," he whispered
to Starhurst. "I know it well. Now are we
"A gracious thing," the missionary answered,
passing his hand through his long beard and
adjusting his glasses. "Ra Vatu has arranged
that we should be well received."
But Narau groaned again, and backed away
from the heels he had dogged so faithfully.
"Ra Vatu is soon to become Lotu," Starhurst
explained, "and I have come bringing the Lotu
"I want none of your Lotu," said the Buli,
proudly. "And it is in my mind that you
will be clubbed this day."
The Buli nodded to one of his big mountaineers,
who stepped forward, swinging a club. Narau
bolted into the nearest house, seeking to
hide among the woman and mats; but John
Starhurst sprang in under the club and threw
his arms around his executioner's neck. From
this point of vantage he proceeded to argue.
He was arguing for his life, and he knew it;
but he was neither excited nor afraid.
"It would be an evil thing for you to kill
me," he told the man. "I have done you no
wrong, nor have I done the Buli wrong."
So well did he cling to the neck of the one
man that they dared not strike with their
clubs. And he continued to cling and to
dispute for his life with those who clamored
for his death.
"I am John Starhurst," he went on calmly. "I
have labored in Fiji for three years, and I
have done it for no profit. I am here among
you for good. Why should any man kill me?
To kill me will not profit any man."
The Buli stole a look at the whale tooth. He
was well paid for the deed.
The missionary was surrounded by a mass of
naked savages, all struggling to get at him.
The death song, which is the song of the
oven, was raised, and his expostulations
could no longer be heard. But so cunningly
did he twine and wreathe his body about his
captor's that the death blow could not be
struck. Erirola smiled, and the Buli grew
"Away with you!" he cried. "A nice story
to go back to the coast -- a dozen of you
and one missionary, without weapons, weak
as a woman, overcoming all of you."
"Wait, O Buli," John Starhurst called out
from the thick of the scuffle, "and I will
overcome even you. For my weapons are Truth
and Right, and no man can withstand them."
"Come to me, then," the Buli answered, "for
my weapon is only a poor miserable club, and,
as you say, it cannot withstand you."
The group separated from him, and John Starhurst
stood alone, facing the Buli, who was leaning
on an enormous, knotted warclub.
"Come to me, missionary man, and overcome me,"
the Buli challenged.
"Even so will I come to you and overcome you,"
John Starhurst made answer, first wiping his
spectacles and settling them properly, then
beginning his advance.
The Buli raised the club and waited.
"In the first place, my death will profit you
nothing," began the argument.
"I leave the answer to my club," was the Buli's
And to every point he made the same reply, at
the same time watching the missionary closely
in order to forestall that cunning run-in under
the lifted club. Then, and for the first time,
John Starhurst knew that his death was at hand.
He made no attempt to run in. Bareheaded, he
stood in the sun and prayed aloud -- the
mysterious figure of the inevitable white man,
who, with Bible, bullet, or rum bottle, has
confronted the amazed savage in his every
stronghold. Even so stood John Starhurst in
the rock fortress of the Buli of Gatoka.
"Forgive them, for they know not what they do,"
he prayed. "O Lord! Have mercy upon Fiji. Have
compassion for Fiji. O Jehovah, hear us for His
sake, Thy Son, whom Thou didst give that through
Him all men might also become Thy children. From
Thee we came, and our mind is that to Thee we
may return. The land is dark, O Lord, the land
is dark. But Thou art mighty to save. Reach out
Thy hand, O Lord, and save Fiji, poor cannibal
The Buli grew impatient.
"Now will I answer thee," he muttered, at the
same time swinging his club with both hands.
Narau, hiding among the women and the mats, heard
the impact of the blow and shuddered. Then the
death song arose, and he knew his beloved
missionary's body was being dragged to the oven
as he heard the words:
"Drag me gently. Drag me gently."
"For I am the champion of my land."
"Give thanks! Give thanks! Give thanks!"
Next, a single voice arose out of the din,
"Where is the brave man?"
A hundred voices bellowed the answer:
"Gone to be dragged into the oven and cooked."
"Where is the coward?" the single voice demanded.
"Gone to report!" the hundred voices bellowed back.
"Gone to report! Gone to report!"
Narau groaned in anguish of spirit. The words of
the old song were true. He was the coward, and
nothing remained to him but to go and report.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~