The White Man’s Proof (part 8 of Magic Island)

This is part 8 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Read part 7 here.

Back in Port Vila, I took a cruise with Peter Whitelaw, owner of Sailaway Cruises, to Havannah Harbor, the other side of the island.  Peter is an Australian who sailed into Port Vila in 1980.  A cyclone suddenly hit and his boat was destroyed.  He’s remained in Vanuatu ever since, becoming one of those craggy but happy-go-lucky expatriates that you read about in Hemingway novels.  When I told him of my interest in magic, Peter gave me a warning.

“This is a very secretive society,” Peter said.  “Like an onion, you must peel it back in layers.”

The banyan tree, where magic is said to reside.

The banyan tree, where magic is said to reside.

And then Peter told me about black magic.  Whenever anyone dies at a young age or gets sick unexpectedly, Peter says, the ni-Vanuatu assume that someone cast a curse on that person.  In fact, he said, there is currently someone on trial on Espiritu Santo for killing three people by black magic.

When I researched the court case in the local newspaper, The Post, I was puzzled that the Vanuatu legal system was taking such claims of black magic seriously.  Then I discovered the most mysterious aspects of all: The man has confessed.  Why would a man confess to killing three people if he hadn’t?

In other Post articles, I discovered other surprising cases.  In one, a black magic group cast a spell on a teenage girl by hanging a black cat over a fire and chanting her name.  Later, they killed her.  Then, to cover up the crime, one of the group transfigured into the form of his sister “from the waist up,” and he successfully took his sister’s place for two days.  The legal system, astoundingly, is allowing such claims to be presented as fact in court.

This is truly a magical land, in which the realm of what is believed possible is far greater than what James Randi and the Skeptics Society might believe.  However, the Western mind does tend to reduce everything to explanations.  In my final days in Vanuatu, I was increasingly aware that most of my eyewitness accounts of magic came from ni-Vanuatu, people who are predisposed to magical rather than skeptical explanations.  Is a Western eyewitness more reliable than a ni-Vanuatu eyewitness?

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That’s when I heard Peter Whitelaw’s story.  Peter is a white man, an Aussie with a B.S. in electrical engineering, and thinks deeply about all things, whether cultural, political, or scientific.  A couple years ago, one of his ni-Vanuatu boatmates told him that he was being dogged by a curse that had been placed on him.  Peter was skeptical, of course.

But then one day, the mate was eating in the galley when his plate split into pieces in front of them all for no reason.  The shards and food all fell to the floor.

“This happens all the time,” said the ni-Vanuatu man with a besieged look on his face.

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A ni-Vanuatu fixing food in the traditional way.

When we perform magic in the Western world, standing onstage with our magic wands, most people consider what we do “just tricks.”  But there is a whole world out there, hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples, perhaps billions, who believe that the world is more than just the concrete and the verifiable.  They are willing to place magicians on the same pedestal upon which stood the ancient gods.

They believe that ghosts and spirits are all around us.  They believe that magicians can perform feats beyond all imagining.  They believe that the world is, like the waterfall at the base of Mount Yasur, evanescent and malleable and wondrously surprising, that it is, in a word, magic.

And who am I to disagree?

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(This is the end of this series.)

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