The Limping Man of Makin Meang: a Pacific island mystery

by frankbeswick

When you discover that the person who walked past you is already dead you get quite a surprise

Arthur Grimble's book, A Pattern of Islands, tells of the life of a British colonial officer in the South Pacific. Set in the first quarter of the twentieth century the book, which is autobiographical, is honest about Grimble's flaws of character, and it also contains accounts of one or two strange events that some might be tempted to conceal out of fear of sceptical ridicule. One of these tales is Grimble's strange experience after visiting "The Place of Dread." I read this book when I was sixteen and have re-read it more than once. An interesting read.

Picture courtesy of 44833

The Myth of Makin Meang

Kiribati, once in the days of the British Empire known as the Gilbert Islands,is an archipelago in the South Pacific. Its northernmost island is Makin Meang, which is the  subject of a religious myth. The pagan Kiribatans believe that at the northernmost point of the islands is "The Place of Dread." There at this barren outcrop of coral where the currents meet in the turbulent foaming waters and the only sounds are the trade winds booming diapason and the shrieks of seabirds that hunt in the  clashing waters, sits the god Nakaa, who passes judgement on the dead. Judgement is not dealt on the rightness of one's life, for this does not interest Nakaa, but on whether or not the right rituals have been said over the dead. Failure to follow the correct rites will subject the soul of the dead person to strangulation in Nakaa's net. Those souls that pass the test fare forth across the sea to be with their ancestors in the Kiribatans original homeland, wherever that was. 

It is not just the residents of the isle who must travel to that place, for on their deaths the souls of all Kiribatans travel there and begin their journey to the Place of Dread. Spirits from the southern islands in the archipelago take the western path, but local souls from Makin Meang journey on the eastern one. The inhabitants of the isle rarely visit the Place of Dread, but there are two rules to follow if they do: they must take a coconut to plant  in Nakaa's grove, which is just south of the northern point; and they must never look behind them. If they see a ghost face to face they will, they believe, be dead within the year. But on returning there is the greatest danger, for they will be confronting the traffic stream of ghosts. To obviate this danger locals travel by the eastern path, which is has fewer ghosts on it, and anyway, checks can be made to ascertain whether any deaths are expected on the island. If they are, the path is avoided.   

Sir Arthur Grimble, who was the colonial officer for the islands, says in his book "A Pattern of Islands" that an atmosphere lurks over Makin Meang, for its inhabitants  are living with the knowledge that the thoughts of dying Kiribatans are winging to their island in the moment of their passing. 

When Grimble made his first official visit to Makin Meang he demanded that he be shown The Place of Dread.The local magistrate to whom he made the request was unhappy, for although he was a Christian he believed that pagan souls trod that path to Hell. Eventually he gave the job of leading Grimble to a Kiribatan police constable, who was scared, but reluctantly did his duty. Grimble was later to feel ashamed of the burdens that he had placed on these good people.  He and the constable set off on the eastern path.

What Grimble Saw.

The journey to the Place of Dread was uneventful, and finally he reached his destination, only to be disappointed that such an unprepossessing promontory was what he had travelled to visit. But Grimble  had taken little water with him and in that droughty coral archipelago he ate his lunch and was unable to replenish his supplies of water. He began to be thirsty, and it was the growing thirst that led to what followed. They left after two in in the afternoon 

Initially the colonial officer asked the Constable, who was walking forty paces behind, behind to scale  a palm tree to get him a coconut, but the man refused to steal one of Nakaa's nuts, and there was still a mile of Nakaa's Grove to go. Then Grimble saw a figure. Maybe this man could scale a palm tree to assuage Grimble's thirst. The path curved round a beach and the  figure was visible all the way. Grimble could not take his eyes from the man, for in him lay the remediation of his thirst. The time was approaching three o'clock. 

As the man approached Grimble saw that he was a grizzled man in his fifties, walked with a limp,had a scar down his cheek and was clad in a fine mat around his waist. As the colonial officer bade him stop, the man simply walked past with no acknowledgement, as though Grimble were not there. This was strange behaviour for the usually courteous islanders, so Grimble thinking that there might be something wrong with the man ran back to the constable to get him to "ask that chief to stop." But the police officer stood uncomprehending, then fled in terror shielding his eyes. 

On returning to the village the angry Grimble demanded that the man be brought to him that evening, but the magistrate asked for a description, which Grimble gave. Magistrate and constable agreed that it was Na Biria.

"Then bring him to me at once." the angry young man demanded. 

"I cannot do that." replied the magistrate, who then told the  dumbfounded officer that Na Biria had died that day shortly before three  o'clock. 

After Grimble demanded  proof that the man was dead the magistrate took Grimble to Na Biria's  house, but as he approached and saw the mourners he had a pang of conscience, for he knew that if the rituals were disturbed the Kiribatans would believe that Nakaa would strangle Na Biria in his net, and the officer did not want to cause good people such grief. He went away humbled and ashamed of his arrogance.  

Interpreting the Experience

Grimble discounted suspicions that he had been set up, as A man with  a limp could not easily disappear then race back to the village, crashing through the plantation without being heard. Setting up a death then hiding Na Biria for every one of Grimble's visits would have been extremely risky and difficult. Why bother?Furthermore, the constable seemed genuinely scared, with beads of cold sweat breaking out when Grimble asked him who the man was. This is not an act. 

Furthermore, Grimble had never met or seen Na Biria, as this was his first visit to the Makin Meang, so the officer was hardly likely to have imagined him.

There was also the timing. Na Biria had been seen at the time that he was dying. How much of a coincidence is this? too much, I believe. 

The only explanation that Grimble could give was that in Na Biria's dying moments his thought projected itself to the place of dread with the force of sixty generations of fear behind it and that Grimble had picked up the impact of the thought as it went. But this would involve a kind of telepathy. But then Grimble  asked that if this was not so, what had he seen? 

We need to keep an open mind to experiences that are out of the ordinary and not dismiss them out of hand. Grimble had the courage to write about some experiences that are out of the ordinary. Not all of his book is about the supernatural, but the little that he has is interesting and significant.  

Updated: 09/24/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 09/16/2019

The inhabitants rarely visit the Place of Dread because they believe that if you see a ghost you will die within a year, so walking back along the paths to the place makes you likely to come face to face with a ghost.

Rituals for the dead take place in the deceased person's home. The rituals do not take place at the Place of Dread.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/16/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practical information and the product lines.
You indicate that "The inhabitants of the isle rarely visit the Place of Dread." Is Pattern of the Islands informative about the reasons that prompt rare local visits there? Is saying the proper rituals over the dead a reason or would they be sayable at the actual place of death or even somewhere else?

AngelaJohnson on 09/28/2018

I'm impressed that Sir Arthur Grimble backed down and did not try to interfere with native beliefs, plus that he acknowledged he could have actually seen the dead man's spirit.

frankbeswick on 09/24/2018

Quite right. What intrigued me was that Grimble saw the man from a distance. It was not therefore a transitory apparition.

blackspanielgallery on 09/24/2018

Strange things happen. We cannot always understand everything we see.

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