‘bullamacow’: meanings and origin

Coined in the islands of the South Pacific, the noun bullamacow is a combination of the nouns bull and cow, and denotes cattle, beef, and, by extension, meat of any kind and tinned meat.




The earliest occurrence that I have found of bullamacow used in the sense of tinned meat is from The White Man’s Burden, by ‘C. R.-J.’, a short story set in New Guinea, published in The Westminster Gazette (London, England) of Wednesday 30th July 1902:

The court adjourned, to the unspeakable relief of the men of Gubassi, who, however, soon fraternised with the Kawarri men and shared their supper of rice and bullmacow (tinned meat) provided by Martin.




The earliest occurrence of the noun bullamacow that I have found is from First Impressions of Fiji, by C. F. Gordon Cumming, published in Good Words (London: Isbister and Company Limited) for 1881:

The strange lack of animal life is one of the most remarkable peculiarities of these isles, where the only indigenous four-footed creatures are rats and flying foxes. Even the pigs, which now run wild in the jungle, were originally introduced by the Tongans, who also brought ducks and fowls; and as to other animals, such names as seepi, mutton; god, goat; pussi, cat; ose, horse; collie, dog, and bullamacow, beef, sufficiently betray their origin. […]
Prior to that great change [i.e., Christianisation] a feast would have been held of small account which was not graced by abundant human flesh; and if by chance there was no war on hand to provide this delicacy, there was rarely much difficulty in finding victims; a defenceless troop of women from some neighbouring village, a canoe driven ashore by stress of weather, or, failing these, a few insignificant serfs or wives who had lost favour with their lords, supplied the place of home-farm produce. Several peculiarities were observed concerning the bokala, or human flesh. It was considered indigestible unless eaten with certain herbs which were purposely grown in every village (Solanum anthropophagorum). Moreover, it was the only meat which was preferred rather high, and which must not be handled, from a belief that it would produce skin-disease. Therefore it was invariably eaten with a peculiar round wooden fork with four long prongs. Some of the most noted cannibals, who gloried in the multitude of men whom they had eaten, actually kept a record of their number by erecting lines of stones. One of these registers numbers eight hundred and seventy-two! and the Christian son of this ogre declares that his father ate them all himself, allowing no one to share with him. Another member of the same family had registered forty-eight, when his becoming a Christian put a stop to the amusement, and compelled him to be satisfied with commonplace beef. In fact, one of the excuses urged by Thakombau for so long adhering to cannibalism was that he and his people had no other substitute for English bullamacow. It is, however, twenty years since he abjured the vile custom and accepted Christianity; but many of the islanders kept it up till quite recently.

Sidney Dickinson, too, mentioned bullamacow in association with cannibalism in Fiji in the Boston Evening Journal (Boston, Massachusetts) of Thursday 14th May 1891—kine is the archaic plural of cow:

A Trip to Fiji.
Glimpses of Old Fiji—Barbarous Customs of Ancient Savagery—Some Features of Cannibalism and Other Horrible Usages.
Special Correspondence of The Boston Journal.

Melbourne, March, 1891. Returned from the sunny isles of Fiji […], I look over my notes upon the life and country of Fiji, and bring into shape for this letter a few of my observations upon the barbarous and cruel customs which formerly cursed one of the fairest lands upon the face of the earth. […]
Cannibalism in Fiji, as elsewhere in the South Seas, was a custom which had many reasons for being. It was cultivated both by necessity and superstition, and was introduced and flourished under potent influences. All the South Sea Islands are practically barren of indigenous mammals. Birds there are, but not in plenty, and the sea swarms with turtle and fish; but of the meat which a strong man hankers after there is none—or, at least, was not until the white man came to these shores and introduced cattle, sheep, goats and swine. The wonder with which the natives regarded these strange animals, and the vague ideas they had of them, is indicated in Fiji by the native name of domestic kine—“bullomacow.” When the first pair of cattle was landed the natives asked what they were. “A bull and a cow,” answered the white men, and “bullomacow” every horned animal is to the Fijian unto this day.




The noun bullamacow occurs in My Consulate in Samoa: A Record of Four Years’ Sojourn in the Navigators Islands, with Personal Experiences of King Malietoa Laupepa, his Country, and his Men (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1887), by William Brown Churchward (1844-1920):

We passed several mobs of well-bred cattle, looking as plump and sleek as could be desired in any part of the world. The curious word ‘Bulli-ma-cou,’ applicable both to the meat and the animal, has its origin from the date of the arrival of cattle in Samoa. On the first animals being landed the natives inquired what they were, and were told that the beasts they saw before them were a bull and a cow; so combining the two English words they made one of their own, by which such animals are known to this day. The dictionary-manufacturers endeavoured to get the Samoans to adopt the word ‘povi,’ an adaptation from the Latin, but with no success. ‘Bulli-ma-cou’ it was in the beginning, and that will it remain while they have a language of their own.




The following essay by the U.S. journalist and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903) was published in The St James’s Gazette: An Evening Review and Record of News (London, England) of Wednesday 4th July 1888:


There are few people who are ignorant of sandal-wood as a vegetable product; but there are many, even among the widely travelled, who are not aware that this name is also characteristic of a peculiar dialect of the English language spoken among the many islands of the Pacific Ocean. And as the islands in which it is used have been gradually formed by myriads of marine coral-insects, so Sandal has (unnoted by the world) been made by many petty Yankee whalers and “blackbirders,” with the aid of innumerable natives; who have among them, little by little, worked it down into a dialect of such simplicity that any further attempt to attenuate it must result—as in the case of the Scotchman’s starved mare—in its “utter deesappearance a’tegeither.”
Though travellers have from time to time favoured the world with specimens of this Sandal-wood lingo, it simply passed with them for broken English, such as is spoken by all “natives” whose hard fate it is not to be born to talk our noble tongue. But about seven years ago Mr. E. L. Layard, the British Consul at Nouméa, observing that this South Sea Indo-Saxon had a character of its own, made a collection of samples of it. Germany, as is well known, abounds with professors learned in detail; and among them is Professor Hugo Schuchardt, of Gratz, who is deeply erudite in patois, lingoes, slangs, and jargons. To him Mr. Layard transmitted his collection, which was in time made known to the world in a paper entitled Uber das Melaneso-Englische, being published in Vienna as a number of the Kréolische Studien. From this little work of ten pages from the records of the travellers above mentioned, but especially from a gentleman who was for many years engaged in “practically solving the labour problem” in the Pacific—i.e., in “blackbirding”—I have obtained some knowledge of Sandal.
Mr. Layard calls this dialect “Bêche-le-mar English;” that being, apparently, the name by which the patois is known at Nouméa. Bêche de mer is the Holothuria edulis or “sea-slug,” beloved of the Chinese, who make soup of it. Its collection gives employment to many “beach-combers” and crews of vessels, who speak the language in question; whence its name. But Walter Coote, in his “Wanderings South and West” (London, 1882), gives several specimens of it as “Sandal-wood.” Now a rose by any name may smell as sweet; but when we can have a name which is sweetly scented by association, it is as well to give it preference.
Plainly enough, Sandal-wood English is Chinese Pidgin simplified and adapted to another kind of grammar than that which is becoming known as the Sinical. In Chinese, as it is a root language, a noun is distinguished from a verb or pronoun by a prefix equivalent to “thing” or “piece:” that is, “piece” as a representative specimen, not a fragment. Hence “one piecee man,” “one piecee goods,” or “one piecee plitty gal.” In Sandal-wood we have for the noun-sign “feller” or “fellow”—that is, a distinct personality—to express the same idea. This and other characteristics of the dialect are set forth in the following extract, which embodies the adventures of an unfortunate South Sea Islander who had been “blackbirded:”—
Me speakee English. My name belong Black John. Me been Porter Mackai; too muchee wark, my word! Me no sleep all er time—plenty wark. Big-fellow wind he come, me plenty sick, my word! Me no likee Porter Mackai; plenty sugar he stop (is there), me carry him plenty time. Me get one feller bokus (one box or chest), one feller gun, plenty tambacca. Me stop three-feller year—my word! too muchee wark! me no sleep; me carry sugar, my word! Me no likee him. Now you give me tambacca. You come England (i.e., “you are from England”). Me savvy England; plenty far. Good fellar man he belong England—fellar man he belong Porter Mackai he no good.
“Stop,” in Sandal-wood, indicates being at, or in, or remaining, in a very extended sense. It is of Pidgin origin. Thus a Chinese, when he asks “You stop China side long-tim?” means “Were you (or will you be) a long time in China?” It is exemplified in the following extract from “Wanderings”:—
I shouted to native who was in a small schooner: “Steamer he no come? “No,” was his answer: “Steamer he stop on a stone. All man he go salt-water. Plenty man he die. Steamer he finish.”
A single word serves for the verb in every tense; but as the pupil advances in thought and feels the need of a future, he supplies it with a sweet “by-and by.” “By-an-by he come” is the equivalent of “he will come,” as Professor Schuchardt says. To eat, which like “food,” is set forth in Pidgin English by chow-chow, appears in Sandal-wood as kai-kai. Whether the latter is derived from the former or from the Hawaiian kau-kau; or whether the Sandwich Island term is not itself from the Chinese; and finally whether the Chinese be anything but the English chaw or “chew” disguised, is not agreed. This term kai-kai is in Sandal-wood extended from eating to devouring or destruction of every kind. Thus, when a stupid servant who, not being familiar with the action of heat on metals, had put a silver teapot into the fire, where it melted, the cook reproved him in these words: “What for you put diss-belong-a-master in fi-yer? Him cost plenty money, and that fellow” (the fire) “kai-kai him.” Again: “Boat he capsize—water he kai-kai him.” A beautiful illustration of it is further given in the following description of a prison:—
Calaboose he no good! Put hand and foot belong-a-me in iron clothes (fetters), that no good! Spose rat come kai-kai me, I no fight him. Mis-ki-ti (mosquitoes) plenty kai-kai me. Lice (rice) he no good.
“Fight” is ingeniously applied in Sandal-wood not only to coming into opposition with, but also to contact of many kinds. “What for you leave pin in clothes?” remarked a certain Vanno; “him fight my finger.” On being asked if he had dusted a mat the same man replied, “Yes, I fight him.” In precisely the same spirit the facetious American speaks of “wrestling” with hash or whisky.
“Bull-a-ma-cow” means meat of any kind; but Mr. Layard heard mutton, or a sheep, defined as “small-fellow bull-a-ma-cow.” “Plenty bull-a-ma-cow he stop,” means that there is a good provision of meat; while a butcher is known as “man belong bull-a-ma-cow.” “To make dead” is to end or extinguish. “What for lamp you make him dead?” is Sandal-wood for “Why did you put out the lamp?” Absence or want is vigorously expressed by “no come ’long;” e.g., “Plenty money no come ’long,” declares that the speaker is at a low tide financially. “No got” is also used, as in Pidgin, to express the same idea. “Man-a-bush” is a bushman or untutored savage. “Him fellow all same man-a-bush” is an assertion that certain persons were stupid or uncivilized. “Grog” is the generic term for all strong drink, including wine; just as lum or rum in Chinook jargon means all kinds of spirits. The peculiarities of Polynesian pronunciation appear in esterrong for strong, esseppoon for spoon, essaucepan for saucepan, péllate for plate, covverra for cover, and mil-lit for milk. There are, of course, great varieties of words in different groups of islands. A Mr. Broun thought that tobi was Duke of York for “wash;” but it was afterwards ascertained to be only a desperate native effort to pronounce the English word “soap.” In the same place the “aboriginals” firmly believe that kinkenau and tillewat are the purest English for “to steal” and “to tie fast,” but on what the faith is based is not as yet known to inquirers.
It will appear by these specimens of Sandal-wood that Professor Schuchardt is right in declaring that it would hardly be possible to make oneself intelligible at all by any simpler means. Mr. Layard supplied him with the following fact by way of illustration;—“I heard an expression used three times in as many minutes, and each time in a different sense. Yet the boy answered without the least hesitation. A man had come into the shop. “What name he make?” asked the master. Reply at once—giving the name. Then followed “What name you make?” (What are you doing?) Reply: “Me look him”—he was counting some things. “What name he make?”—i.e., “How many are there in all?” was the final query. “Twenty,” was the immediate reply.
It is the unanimous opinion of persons who have had years of experience in talking Sandal-wood or analagous [sic] Pidgin dialects that, with a little practice in one, thought—especially as regards the ordinary conversation of daily life—may be expressed by means of it far more freely than could be supposed. There are not more than 600 words in it. Let us make liberal allowance and say 1,000. Persons of ordinary capacity can learn twenty-five words a day, and at this rate in forty days the native can make himself intelligible or understand others. The grammar goes for nothing: it hardly exists. This brings us to the curious fact, as yet so little considered, that by proceeding on the Pidgin principle, anybody can learn enough of any language in two months to make himself intelligible, or, as the saying is, “to get along.”
The great point of interest as regards Sandal-wood and Pidgin English is that they are extending very rapidly. Natives of the many islands of the Pacific who speak different languages are rapidly adopting it as a means of communication, just as Chinese from different districts talk with one another in Pidgin. This is an immense advantage as regards British commerce; and it might be worth while for Government to publish and scatter widely vocabularies of these jargons for the use of both visitors and natives in partibus infidelium [= in the regions of the infidels].