B. Scott Holmes

Just trying to stay alive and keep my sideburns too

Kava Drinking

Fri, 09/19/2014 - 13:11 -- scott

I've been reading, and mapping locations from a book about the Queensland/Kanaka trade, written by the captain of one of the ships used to "recruit" Kanakas to work the sugar cane fields of Queensland, Australia, _The South Sea islanders and the Queensland labour trade_ by William T. Wawn.

"The mission schooner Dayspring came to an anchor here [Tanna Island] the day after we arrived. On board were some passengers, natives of Tanna, who had been granted a passage in her to and from the neighbouring island of Fotuna. These men now went on shore, and I was rather surprised to see several large roots of kava accompany them. I should have thought that a missionary vessel would have been forbidden to carry such an article.

The kava is a species of pepper, called Macropiper methysticum by botanists. It grows as a straggling bush with jointed, crooked branches, and leaves as large as the palm of my hand. From the root an intoxicating drink is made. The mode of preparing this drink is simply disgusting. The root is washed, chopped into small pieces, and then chewed. In the large groups to the eastward, young girls alone perform this operation, but in the New Hebrides the men do it for themselves. After having been well masticated, the root is mixed with sufficient water in large wooden bowls, and is then fit for use. In the Caroline group alone, the root, well washed and scraped, is pounded upon large flat stones, mixed with water, and filtered through a fine, fibrous bark. So prepared, I have often drunk it. A taste for it is soon acquired, though at first it reminds one of a mixture of soap-suds with a dash of pepper. It has a very different effect from alcohol. It is soothing, and a pint of strong kava, or even half that quantity for a beginner, will apparently have no more effect than to make a man feel desirous of being let alone and allowed to sit quietly and smoke his pipe. It is when he gets up to walk that he feels the effects. When his knees give way, he discovers that kava acts in contrary fashion to alcohol. The latter first affects the head, but kava goes to a man's legs at once. Alcohol excites, kava soothes, and then stupefies.

Tanna women are not allowed to indulge in kava, or even to see men drinking it. When I first visited this island in 1870, I noticed that, just before sundown, the women and children disappeared from the beaches, and their voices were not to be heard anywhere. I was told that the reason for this was because the men prepared and drank kava at that hour; and if any unfortunate woman happened to see a man under its influence, she would be immediately clubbed."