What followed was a most distressing spectacle. Two of the fathers stood out. Carrying coupe-coupes (the Moi weapon which is half knife and half axe), they approached the animal from behind. They succeeded after several false attempts, when the heavy knife struck home with a hideous chopping sound, in hamstringing first one leg, causing the animal to hop about on a single back leg in a frantic effort to avoid the blows, and then the second leg, when it collapsed on its hocks, its rear legs bent uselessly under it. This frightful disablement failed to prevent it from shuffling with desperate energy round the post, while, like minor bullfighters that have fulfilled the role assigned to them, the men with the coupe-coupes retired, and two others, armed with lances, stepped for¬ward. The subsequent tragedy was long drawn-out and incomparably bloodier than a bullfight, when until the last moments of its life the bull is majestic and incalculable. About this grotesquely shuffling bulk there was squalor and humiliation in which we were all involved. No particular technique, it seemed, was demanded of the killers, and they had a good half-hour in which to pursue their prey with desultory proddings and stabbings. Finally, with a frightful shuddering groan – the first sound that it had uttered – the animal expired, was immediately dragged away and thrown on a brushwood fire, where it was left to scorch superficially for about fifteen minutes. No attempt has ever been made to reform or modify cruel sacrifices of this kind, and this is the end which awaits every buffalo in the Moi country. One is told by the French that it is part of their policy to respect the religious customs of the natives. In such matters as this there is much official susceptibility where the natives’ freedom of action is concerned.
In the early afternoon we came back. There were thirty-seven jars of alcohol lined up with a number of bamboo tubes protruding from each, and every Moi in Pleiku, including all the pupils, was exceedingly tight. Politely, following the Resident’s example, we took our place for a few seconds before each jar, rejected the baskets of chopped, raw meat, and nibbled with slight nausea at skewers with titbits grilled a la kebab. This token participation was obligatory, otherwise the Resident risked having the heads of the families declare the ceremony null and void and refuse to allow the children to attend school. After a few minutes we arose to go, but the Jarai schoolmaster spotted our intention and came reeling towards us to beg the Resident to wait a moment. There was a surprise arranged for us and, raising his arm, he shouted a command. The thirty- seven pupils rose unsteadily from their jars and, leaning upon each other for support, formed a swaying line. There while we faced them rather sheepishly across the blood-splashed earth and beneath the buffalo skull, now scraped clean and shining and impaled on a spruce ritual post, they burst into Auld Lang Syne, rendered to the words, ‘Faut-il nous quitter sans espoir – sans espoir de retour?’ They wanted to show us that their school years had not been spent for nothing.
The remainder of the day was spent in an official visit to the Vietnamese community of Pleiku. To guard against any fifth column activities on behalf of the Viet-Minh, all the Vietnamese in the district had been concentrated in the single village of Phu-Tho, which was guarded by a French fort. The purpose of the Resident’s visit was to offer official congratulations on the eve of the feast of Tet, the Chinese and Vietnam¬ese New Year; originally celebrated with the abandonment of all endeavour for the first three months of the year – a period which it has now been found convenient to reduce to a week.
The attitude of the Resident towards his Vietnamese minority was one of uneasy tolerance. I had now, in unbroken succession, met four French administrators who were all highly intelligent, broad-minded and well-intentioned. They recognised evil, and as far as they could without risking their positions, they fought it where they saw it. At least one of them, although he would not openly admit it, was a fervent anti-colonialist. Yet none of them could ever find a good word for the Vietnamese. They conceded that there was a special charm in the way of living of the Laotians and the Cambodians. The Mois, of course, were children, lazy and improvident but delightful. But the Vietnamese – well, you never knew where you were with them, they suffered from an inferiority complex, concealed their true thoughts or feelings, were cruel and had no religion to speak about, were ‘not like us’. It is unsafe to discuss the Vietnamese in a French audience, because a reproving voice will always be raised to tell you to wait until you have lived thirty years in the country before you talk of fathoming this muddy psychological pool. The most intelligent Frenchman seems to be influenced subconsciously in this matter by the sheer dead-weight of prejudice of his uncritical compatriots. I am reminded of the British interpretation of the Chinese character as portrayed in the popular magazines of the period following the Boxer rebellion, when for a generation the Chinese supplied us with villains of fiction who were obnoxious in a two-faced and totally un-English way.
To me this suggests that the French like the Laotians and the rest of them because they do not fear them. They can relax their defences in the comfortable knowledge that these are harmless and declining peoples, and with this their good qualities become, rather nostalgically, apparent. They are like the Spanish conquerors of the West Indies who delayed official recognition that the Caribs had souls until their extermination was almost complete, or like the Americans who are sentimental about their vanishing Indians, forgetting the massacres of the last century when the only ‘good injun’ was a dead one. The Vietnamese are a subject people who refuse to go into a graceful decline. There are seventeen millions of these ‘bad injuns’ and nothing is too bad for them.