Sulphur , oil , and copra make the kind of tinder any firebug dreams of .
I suppose a Lascar sailor had sneaked a cigarette in the hold and touched off the blaze .
Now , roaring up in great oily clouds of smoke and flames , the fierce heat quickly drove us to the stern where we huddled like suffocating sheep , not knowing what to do .
The lifeboats were stuck fast .
We couldn't budge them .
I heard a cry from a stoker as a pillar of flame leaped from a hatch and tongued the man's bare back .
He sprinted to the rail and leaped overboard into the shark-infested waters .
One especially bad detonation shook Lifeboat No. 3 which trembled violently in the davits .
Brassnose yelled : `` Come on , Sommers , Max step on it , we got a chance now .
Heave on those ropes ; ;
the boat's come unstuck '' .
We pulled and swore and yanked and wept , scraping our hands until they bled profusely .
The Bonaventure was quivering and lurching like an old spavined mare .
Her stern was down and a sharp list helped us to cut loose the lifeboat which dropped heavily into the water .
Brassnose , Max and I leaped into the sea and swam to the boat .
`` Let's get away fast '' , said Brassnose , shaking water from his mop of bleached hair .
`` That tub is going to explode all at once '' .
Then the Bonaventure seemed to disintegrate with a roar of live steam , geysers of sparks and flames , and a dense cloud of black-and-orange smoke .
Dimly , we heard the voices of men in mortal agony but we couldn't go back into that inferno .
Already our leaky lifeboat was filled with five inches of water .
`` Sommers , you bale while we row '' , Brassnose commanded .
As best as I could determine , we were some 700 miles west of New Guinea , in the Bismark Archipelago .
Three days previously , we had steamed past barren Rennell Island in the distance .
Now we peered anxiously for any speck of land in the Pacific , for this interminable bailing would have to stop soon .
There were gigantic blisters and rope burns on our hands ; ;
our muscles were hot wires of pain .
Brassnose was strangely silent .
The big man with the whitened hair murmured something : his words sounded as if they were in the Manu tongue , which I recognized , having studied the dialect in my Anthropology 6 , class at the University of Chicago .
He then said something which struck a chord in my memory .
`` God help us if we're near the island of Eromonga .
We'd be in real trouble then .
I'd rather keep bailing -- or sink '' .
I was puzzled by the remark , then I recalled the voice of mild Professor Howard Griggs three years ago in a university lecture on primitive societies .
He had been speaking of this archipelago :
`` Even when the islands were under German mandate before World War 1 , , Europeans gave Eromonga a wide berth .
The place is inhabited by several hundred warlike women who are anachronisms of the Twentieth Century -- stone age amazons who live in an all-female , matriarchal society which is self-sufficient '' .
I remembered , too , the jesting voice of a classmate , Bobby Pauson : `` But how do they reproduce , Dr. Griggs ? ?
I'm sure that males have something to do with that process '' ! !
There had been classroom guffaws which quickly subsided as Professor Griggs said dryly : `` I see your point , Pauson .
Of course , males play a role there , but believe me when I say you wouldn't enjoy yourself one bit on Eromonga .
Indeed , you wouldn't live long , for the females either drive the men they've seized from neighboring islands back to their boats after exploiting them for amatory purposes , or they destroy them by revolting but ingenious methods .
In fact , one important aspect of their very religion is the annihilation of men '' .
`` I think I know what you mean , Brassnose '' , I said .
`` I know something about Eromonga .
Let's hope we come to a safer place '' .
But we didn't .
Three hours later , while we were bailing desperately , a dot of land came into view .
Foster Lukuklu Frayne made a sign over his heart with his two linked thumbs : I recognized it as an ancient Manu gesture intended to propitiate the Devil .
A half-hour passed ; ;
we had drifted closer .
In a voice so frightened as to seem not his own , the big bo'sun's mate quavered :
`` Tchalo ! !
It is Eromonga -- look hard , you can see with your naked eye the wooden scaffolding on the cliff '' .
I squinted at the looming shoreline .
There was a wooden tower or derrick there , something like a ski jump ; ;
it was perhaps 80 feet high and had been artfully constructed of logs .
A fine example of engineering in a primitive society .
`` What is the scaffolding for , Brassnose '' ? ?
He made a sound of despair deep in his throat .
It was embarrassing to see strapping , blonde Brassnose comport himself like a child who talks about bogeymen .
`` Aaa-ee ! !
It is their tultul , the ' jumping platform ' of death .
It is the last of the three tests of manhood which the women impose , to discover if a male is worthy of survival there .
Often , I heard my uncles and cousins speak of it when I was a small boy growing up in Rabaul .
They had never seen a tultul but they had heard about it from their fathers '' .
Our lifeboat was filling rapidly and despite what I had heard of the inhabitants of Eromonga , I was glad to see a long and graceful outrigger manned by three bronzed girls glide out of a lagoon into the open sea and toward our craft .
I expected Brassnose -- as a man with a strain of Melanesian in his blood -- to speak to them .
But he had turned a sickly green and appeared tongue-tied or panicked .
So , I mustered my few words of the Manu dialect and said , `` We greet you in peace .
In ngandlu .
My friends and I come from a ship which was destroyed by fire .
We are thirsty and hungry ; ;
our sore and burned hands and arms need attention '' .
The girl in the prow of the outrigger turned a smile like a beacon on me .
I noted that her full breasts were bare and that she wore a garland of red pandanus fruit in her blue-black hair .
She said , `` My name is Songau and these girls are Ponkob and Piwen .
You are welcome to Eromonga .
My people await you on the shore .
You shall have food , water and rest '' .
Thirty minutes later , the outrigger grated on sand and other girls , waiting on shore , rushed forward to pull it up on the beach and make it fast with vine ropes to a large boulder .
I saw a dozen or so other outriggers moored there .
I looked .
All my rosy visions of rest and even pleasure on this island vanished at the sight .
There was a mound of bleached human bones and skulls at the base of the big wooden derrick .
Some had been there for years ; ;
others still had whitened shreds of decayed flesh sticking to them .
There was one object which sickened yet fascinated me .
This was also a corpse -- a male , judging from the coral arm bands , the tribal scars still discernible on the maggoty face , the painted bone of the warrior caste which still pierced the septum of the rotting nose .
The body may have been two or three weeks' dead .
I looked with revulsion at the legs .
They were shattered .
Many small bones protruded crazily from the shreds of flesh .
The man must have leaped to his death from the topmost rung of the tultul .
As if divining my thoughts , the girl Songau smiled warmly and said in the casual tone an American woman might use in describing her rose garden :
`` This is our tultul , a jumping platform , aku .
Later , you shall know it better .
Is it not well-made ? ?
Our old one blew down in a storm at the time of the pokeneu festival fifteen moons ago .
It took thirty of our women almost six moons to build this one , which is higher and stronger than the old one .
We are very proud of it '' .
`` You have every right to be '' , I replied gravely in the Manu dialect , but my attention was fixed on Brassnose , the biggest and strongest of us .
He looked as if he was going to keel over .
I felt a queasiness in my own stomach but it wouldn't do to show these girls that we were afraid .
Not so soon , anyway .
I clapped the big man with the bleached hair on his shoulder and said heartily , hoping it would make an impression on the women : `` This one is the maku Frayne .
He speaks your language too , for he is the grandson of a chieftain on Taui who made much magic and was strong and cunning .
The maku Frayne has inherited this strength from his grandfather '' .
This was the worst thing I could have said .
Brassnose turned a stricken face toward me and said brokenly , `` Sommers , you meddling Yank , you're a fool ! !
They despise males who brag of their strength ; ;
they destroy such men with their damned tests .
You've ruined me , blast you '' ! !
At first , I thought he was out of his head , talking wildly like this .
But a glance at Songau and the other women confirmed what Brassnose had blurted out .
The women's faces had hardened after my statement .
At a nod from Songau , four lithe and muscular girls darted to Frayne's side and seized him by the arms .
The man was an ox and he put up a creditable struggle ; ;
but four Eromonga women are more than a match for the strongest male that ever lived .
Besides , terror had sapped some of Frayne's vitality and will .
My last impression as they led him off to a stockade was of his pale face
In the Manu tongue , `` eromonga '' means manhood -- a quality which the women derisively toasted in weekly feasts at which great quantities of a brew like kava were imbibed .
In the hut to which I was assigned -- Max had his own quarters -- my food was brought to me by a wrinkled crone with bare drooping breasts who seemed to enjoy conversing with me in rudimentary phrases .
Her name was L'Turu and she told me many things .
For an anthropologist , loquacious old L'Turu was a mine of information .
Though I had a great dread of the island and felt I would never leave it alive , I eagerly wrote down everything she told me about its women .
( Her account was later confirmed by the Scobee-Frazier Expedition from the University of Manitoba in 1951 .
From L'Turu , I heard that until about 1850 the people of this island -- which was about the size of Guam or smaller -- had been of both sexes , and that the normal family life of Melanesian tribes was observed here with minor variations .
But in the middle of the last century an island woman named `` Karipo '' seized a spear in the heat of an inter-tribal battle and rallied the women after their men had fled .
Miraculously , Karipo and her women had succeeded in driving a hundred invaders from the isle of Pamasu back to their war canoes , after considerable loss of life on both sides .
Karipo was something of a politician as well as a militarist .
She quickly exploited the exalted position she now occupied , by harassing the disorganized males and even putting many of them to death .
Within a decade or less , few men were left and a feminist society had sprung up .
`` Karipo was great goddess , told our mothers that men were not necessary except to father children '' , the crone told me .
`` All men went away from here .
Those who stayed had to pass tests .
Few passed '' .
She cackled with mirth , showing the stumps of betel-stained teeth .
`` Karipo's women then named this place ' Eromonga ' -- manhood -- for just the strongest men could stay here .
Come , I show you '' .
The old woman arose stiffly and led me to a clearing where a small hut stood .
In the shade of a palm tree in front of the squalid dwelling I saw four figures in a semi-circle on the ground .