Some Coral Islands and Islanders
THE tropical Pacific is an ocean of many islands. Some of these are high volcanic peaks, others are low coral islets. Some lie crowded in archipelagoes, others in scattered groups of five or six, and a few are solitary specks of dry land or coral reef, the only objects in vast areas that break the monotony of sea and sky.
The “Union Group” is a little cluster of three low coral islands. It is about nine degrees of latitude south of the equator, and near the one hundred and seventy-second meridian. It is three or four hundred miles from any other important group, and the three islands composing it are about forty or fifty miles from each other.
At noon on the tenth day of March, 1860, we reckoned our little schooncr to be eighteen miles to windward of Oatafu, the northwestern member of this group ; and at three o’clock in the afternoon all on board were earnestly looking for the first signs of land ahead. We only knew of this island, that it was of coral formation. Whether it was inhabited or not we had never learned. Whether it was laid down on the chart correctly we could not tell, and this uncertainty, combined with the fear that we might be the victims of misplaced confidence in our chronometer, caused us to scan the horizon with uncommonly sharp eyes.
By four o'clock our anxiety was removed, and new interest aroused by the cry of “ Land, ho ! ” Looking in the direction indicated by the lookout aloft, to whom belonged the honor of the discovery, we discerned an uneven line of tree-tops,—a kind of dotted line, a little raised above the water, and stretching along the horizon for a few miles. These dots gradually developed into a continuous line of verdure. Approaching still nearer, this line assumed a circular form, enclosing within its limits the quiet waters of a lagoon. Finally the surf, rolling in heavily upon the reef, breaking into foam, dashing up the white coral beach, and contrasting strangely and beautifully with the green foliage above, became clearly visible.
A view from aloft revealed this still more to our admiration. The island, with its enclosed lagoon, appeared perhaps four or five miles long by two or three wide. A belt of reef and land, a hundred rods in width, encircled a lake. Without were the waters of the ocean, the long heavy swells breaking violently on the outer reef; within were the placid, delicately tinted waters of the lagoon, their surface scarcely ruffled by the wind, and dotted here and there with green islets.
An occasional break in the line of foliage marked the place where a narrow channel connected the waters of the ocean and the lake. The outer reef, which first broke the force of the ocean waves, was a level platform three or four hundred feet wide, about even with or very little below the surface of the sea, and over this the snowy breakers were chasing each other towards the shore. Then came the strip of elevated land, a gently rising, snow-white beach, crowned by a bright green belt of shrubbery and trees, the lofty plumes of the cocoanut towering above the whole. This belt of land seemed but a few hundred feet wide, and about ten feet high. On the inner shore, a smooth beach of finest sand was gently washed by the lagoon waters. It lay on the blue ocean before us like a green wreath, with a border of sparkling spray and foam.
All this we saw while approaching and sailing along the southern shore of the island ; but in the mean time the wind had become so light, and our progress had been so slow, that when we were fairly under the lee of the land the sun had reached the horizon, and darkness would speedily follow the very short tropical twilight. It was not only too late to land, but too late to look for anchorage ; for the shores of a coral island or reef usually make off so precipitously that the sounding-lead may find a hundred fathoms of water within a ship’s length of the breakers, and anchorage, when it exists, must be sought cautiously. Our captain, therefore, determined to test our patience by remaining under sail all night, standing off and on until morning ; and in a very few minutes our little schooner found herself close hauled on the wind, and thereupon commenced pitching savagely into the waves, as though she shared our annoyance. Aggravating as this was to those of us who were impatient for a run ashore, there was no appeal, and so we quietly made the best of it. We watched the island from the deck, until it became indistinct in the darkness. Then we went down to tea, and tried, with poor success, to compensate ourselves for a slighted dinner. Then came the inevitable rubber of whist, in which the captain played atrociously, because, as he said, he never could play well when near the land. Finally, having arranged for an earlier breakfast than usual, we laid ourselves upon our respective shelves, and slept.
It is no wonder if our dreams that night were somewhat colored by the experience of the afternoon. The sight of a coral island, especially of the lagoon form, is very impressive. The origin of the material, the formation of the reef, and notably the remarkable annular structure of the island, suggest innumerable inquiries to any thoughtful observer.
No wonder the early voyagers were struck with surprise and admiration at their first view of such an island, with all its beauty of grove and lake, and that they marvelled at beholding an immense ring of rock and dry land, standing in mid-ocean, in almost unfathomable depths, an irresistible barrier to the waves, and enclosing a quiet lake, in whose undisturbed waters vast fields of growing corals flourish. •
No wonder that they were puzzled to explain this remarkable feature, and that their speculations gave rise to some strange theories, in which their fancy pictured the "coral worms” as skilful architects, building up reefs and islands as beavers build dams, and invested the animalculæ with truly wonderful instincts, supposed to be especially shown in their choice of the annular form of island, as best adapted to withstand the force of the waves, and provide a secure retreat for themselves and their young.
But Science, in later days, has set aside these vague and erroneous impressions, and given clear ideas of the nature and functions of the coral-making zoöphytes, and of the way in which the reefs are formed. And Mr. Darwin has shown that the annular form of island, instead of being due to the instinct of the polyp, is caused by the slow subsidence of the land on which the coral growth was based. That thus, in few words, a coral reef, beginning in the shallow waters on the shore of an island, and encircling it as a fringing reef, has gradually increased upward, while the land itself has been slowly depressed ; and finally, the upward growth having kept pace with the depression, the reef appears as a ring of rock upon the surface, after the last peak of the island or mountain-top has disappeared.
In time the loose fragments of broken coral and shells, ground into sand, are swept together by the waves, and form a narrow strip of land a few feet above the ocean level.
Then floating cocoanuts or seeds, wafted by the winds, or brought by drifting logs, find their mysterious way to the newly made land. Trees spring up, and soon a luxuriant growth of vegetation converts the reef into a habitable islet. In process of lime a canoe-load of voyagers, natives of some other island, perhaps drifted off by irresistible currents or violent gales, or, possibly, having set out from an over-populated island in search of a new home, find their way thither, and it becomes the abode of man.
Thus coral lagoons are souvenirs of lands that have disappeared. They lie like garlands upon the waters, simple memorials of buried islands.
Oatafu, the island before us, on the following morning, wore nothing of a sombre or funereal aspect. The bright green colors of the foliage, the dazzling brilliancy of the snow-white beach, and the sparkling foam of the breakers, were too gay and joyous in their appearance to suggest regret for a departed continent. Moreover, the novelties of the present were too interesting to allow just then a thought of the past. Early in the morning, before we were fairly up and dressed, we had been surprised, and our curiosity excited, by the discovery of two canoes putting off from the lee side of the island towards us. In each canoe were two men, paddling vigorously. As we had no information concerning inhabitants, we were naturally very much interested in knowing what manner of men these might be who were about to pay us a visit. Our unconfiding captain jumped directly to the conclusion that the islanders were a race of man-eaters, and that the four representatives, now approaching us, were a sort of prospecting committee of the commissary department; but as there were only two men in each canoe, we who, with all hands told, were thrice that number, could have no hesitation in receiving them, however carnally minded they might be.
In a few minutes the canoes came alongside. These were each about twenty or twenty-five feet long, and two feet deep and wide, sharpened at both ends, and furnished with out-riggers. Though having at first the appearance of “ dug-outs,” they proved to be made of many parts, ingeniously fitted, and lashed together with fastenings of native twine. They seemed quite watertight, and behaved very well under the skilful management of the natives, who were paddling with all their force to keep up with the vessel.
The occupants of the two canoes were three men and one boy. They were good-looking fellows, well made, and in excellent condition. The boy was quite naked, and the men wore nothing of enough importance to be described, having only a narrow strip of material, something like cloth, worn above the hips, and passing between the thighs. Their faces were very friendly, and they could hardly restrain their delight at seeing strangers. Although we could hardly understand a word they said, they talked unceasingly, with great earnestness and much gesticulation, occasionally breaking out into an irrepressible song, then a loud laugh, and finally paddling away with a good-humored fury.
Through the interpretation of one of our men, a native of the Sandwich Islands, who found that he could understand a little of their dialect, we made out that they gave us a warm welcome, and invited us to visit their village, which lay on the inner shore of the lagoon, just hidden by the cocoanuttrees. We deferred doing this, however, until after breakfast, and meantime our visitors paddled off for the island, to make their report.
About nine o’clock, as we were preparing to go ashore, we discovered another and much larger canoe coming towards us under sail. In it were seated fifteen or twenty men. As they neared the vessel, one old fellow stood up, and waved in the air over his head a large roll or bundle of matting, fringed at both ends. Exactly what this meant we were left to imagine, but it was doubtless the prerogative of royalty to have it and wave it; for, as soon as they came alongside, our acquaintance of the early morning presented himself, and, pointing to him who held the bundle, gave us to understand that he was the “ariki,” or king.
His Coralline Majesty was a wellmade man of about fifty years of age. His raiment was as simple as that worn by his ambassadors of the morning. As a mark of royalty, however, he wore a strip of a cocoanut leaf, two or three inches wide, split along the middle, which, being put on over his head, rested upon his shoulders. The upper part of his body, especially his breast, was profusely tattooed. He was very dignified in manner, not talking much, nor manifesting the great curiosity which took possession of most of his followers. Withal he was a very fair specimen of royalty in the crude state. He sat down at once upon an offered deck chair, and, stretching out his legs, surveyed the assembly with a coolness which quite took me by surprise.
Presently a number of canoes came alongside, and the deck of our schooner was soon crowded by native men and boys. Evidently the arrival and presence among them of a vessel was a great and rare event, and was made the occasion of a general holiday. Many of them had got themselves up for the visit with great care, and were abundantly anointed with oil. Some wore head-dresses of shells, and necklaces of shells or beads ; and one fellow put on a great many airs, parading about the deck with a brass button (probably a souvenir of some naval visit) hung round his neck by a piece of twine. But the most remarkable ornament of all, worn by a good-looking man, was nothing else than a common board nail stuck through his ear like an ear-ring. I observed that they all had their ears perforated, though more for utility than ornament, for, having no pockets, they find it convenient to carry small articles stuck through their ears. Some of the older ones had so stretched their ears by use, that the slits in them were larger than a large button-hole. The king, on being presented with two cigars, lit one of them, in imitation of his host, and stuck the other in his ear, to reserve for a future occasion.
Would not an island like this serve well as a kind of Botany Bay for pickpockets ?
Among those who claimed special attention was one who said that he was a native of the Navigators’ (Samoan) Islands, and that he had been sent thence to Oatafu as a native missionary. He had, in evidence of this, a single copy of the Bible in the Samoan language. During the visit, however, I saw no other copy of this or any book; and, though I was perhaps unable to judge fairly, it did not appear to me that he had gained much, if any, influence among the people.
We proposed a visit on shore to the chief, to which he earnestly expressed his assent, and, in spite of the captain’s warning, three of us prepared to land. Immediately all the canoes started off in advance, as if to advise the remainder of the inhabitants of our coming; and we soon followed them, taking the chief and two other natives with us. Reaching the shore safely under the guidance of the chief, we walked towards the village, which was on the inner or lagoon side of the belt of land. Passing for some distance through a cocoanut grove, we presently came upon a collection of about fifty houses. They were arranged with considerable regularity along an avenue running parallel with the beach. In the middle of the street was a walk paved with smooth slabs of coral beach rock. The houses were of very simple construction, consisting of upright frames five or six feet high, covered by a high-peaked roof of cocoanut thatch. The eaves of the roof extended considerably beyond the sides, and lacked but two or three feet of reaching the ground. The sides of the houses were sometimes open, and in some cases thatched. As we passed along towards the chief’s house, troops of young children made their appearance ; but the women, none of whom had been on board, remained within their houses, though their manner indicated that their seclusion was not altogether a voluntary act.
The king’s house only differed from the more common in being larger. The floor was made of evenly spread gravel or coral pebbles, covered with mats, for which the fibre of the cocoanut husk probably furnished the material. About the house were disposed many and various articles of use or ornament. Fish-hooks of shell and wood, nets, mats, calabashes, grass-rope, fish-lines, twine and cordage, generally were abundant.
On his Majesty’s “what-not” was an empty sardine-box, and a glass bottle marked “ Batty and Company’s Best Pickles.” But we saw no clubs, bows, nor arrows, nor weapons of any kind, excepting two or three old hatchets and sheath-knives, evidently obtained from some visitors like ourselves. On one of the posts I saw a rude figure carved, which had the appearance of being an object of worship. Presently some lads came in, bringing some young cocoanuts and a string of small fish. The latter, by active wriggling and squirming, gave sufficient evidence of having been freshly caught. These were spread before the company, and we were invited to the repast. A draught of the cocoanut water was a luxury not to be despised, but the feast of raw fish was politely declined. Our backwardness, however, was not shared by our hosts ; and the sight of the party as they sat upon the ground, each with a piece of cocoanut in one hand, and a nice little fish, held by the tail, in the opposite hand, taking first a mouthful of one and then of the other, was something long to be remembered.
This entertainment being over, we went out for a ramble under the guidance of several of the men. A few steps brought us to a house where many of the women and young children seemed to have congregated. Looking around upon the assembly, with an eye for feminine beauty, and curious to see if the gentler sex were as highly favored as their partners in form and feature, I was much disappointed to remark that most of those present were quite old, and that the very youngest woman in the party was old enough to have been the mother of the damsel of sweet sixteen for whom my eyes were vainly searching. Nevertheless, although pretty well seasoned, the better-looking gave some evidence to the fact that, with the charms of youth, they might have been quite attractive. They were well formed, and had rather pleasing features. Like the men, they were profusely tattooed, though more about the lips and lower part of the face than about the breast. Their only dress was a kind of girdle, made of cocoanutleaves, so arranged as to hang about the body like a skirt. It was fastened just above the hips ; and, though quite short, — hardly more than a foot in length, — was very thick, and so made as to stand out in a bell-shaped form, resembling somewhat the upper part of a large crinoline skirt. As they moved about in this remarkable costume, they suggested the figure of a ballet-dancer with a widely spreading, but somewhat abbreviated, skirt. This suggestion must be understood to refer to balletdancers of the more modest sort; as such a comparison with some of the artistes of the present day would be a great injustice to the Oatafu ladies. The entire absence of young women from the company seemed quite remarkable, especially because among the men there was a due proportion of youths and young men ; and it immediately occurred to us that some unpleasant experience with former visitors might have taught the lords of this part of creation the policy of keeping in seclusion the younger and more attractive members of the community. I was subsequently told, by one who had some means of knowing, that such was the truth; and, further, that, only a few years ago, the islanders had put to death a boat’s crew of sailors, who had landed from a whale-ship, and given offence by unwelcome familiarity with the women. The account of the killing of these men was remarkable. Being unused to war, and having no weapons, the natives proceeded on this wise : A number of them, unobserved, climbed to the tops of several cocoanut-trees, that stood together, some sixty or seventy feet high. The white men, of course ignorant of the design, were then gradually led along by other natives until they were directly below those who had climbed the trees, when the men aloft threw down cocoanuts upon them with so great and such well-directed force, that they were at once overcome, and then finished by those on the ground. The natives then took the boat, laid the oars and other appurtenances in it, shoved it off through the surf, and set it adrift within sight of the vessel to which it belonged. The ship captain—so says the story — understood what had happened ; but, fearing to attempt revenge, picked up his boat, and sailed away with all haste.
Whatever of truth or fiction there may be in this story, the islanders evidently had no intention of cocoanutting us, — at least in the same way; for we soon discovered that the greater part of the men were engaged in loading up their canoes with fish, cocoanuts, and shells, and were setting off to the schooner with the desire of trading; and before long we were left with only a few men and several of the women, who joined us on our stroll about the village.
This little strip of coral-made land we found to be about six hundred feet wide, forming an irregularly shaped ring some ten or fifteen miles in circumference. It was composed simply of the accumulations of coral fragments heaped up by the waves on the reef, and was not over eight or ten feet high. In some places, a thin coral soil lay upon the surface; in others, only the blackened and weathered pieces of coral, slowly disintegrating, and forming a kind of gravel. Nevertheless, the whole surface, from the outer to the inner beach, bore a luxuriant growth of vegetation. Cocoanut-trees were very abundant. There seemed to be no sources of fresh water on the island. On some islands of this description fresh water may be obtained by digging down a few feet through the loosely accumulated material to the hard bottom, where a thin stratum of fresh water, the result of rains, is found, and may be scooped up without difficulty. But on this island I saw no evidences of such a supply. The natives showed us their method of collecting rain-water by cutting out an excavation in the trunk of an old cocoanut-tree just above the ground. As the tree stands slightly leaning in the direction of the tradewind, the water falling upon it trickles down the trunk upon the lower side, and collects at the bottom in the place so hollowed out for its reception. We saw a number of trees so prepared for catching water. Each excavation might have held four or five gallons. But the natives do not depend on this source of water for subsistence. The cocoanut-tree, which supplies them with food, gives them also drink. The young nuts are filled with a thin, watery liquid, which quenches thirst; while the older nuts are their chief resource for food. The uses of the cocoanut-tree are truly wonderful; and in its relations to human life it is certainly without a parallel among trees. Here it is both meat and drink, — and more. It furnishes all the material for the islanders’ houses and canoes. Their scanty dress is from the same source. The nutshells are useful as containers and drinking-vessels, while calabashes and other utensils are made from the wood. The fibre of the husk supplies the material for cordage, matting, fish-nets, and lines. The oil, pressed from the ripe nuts, furnishes the evening light, besides supplying other wants. Thus the tree not only sustains the life, but is the source from which every physical need of the islander is supplied.
To these people this little coral island is all the known world. They probably possess less knowledge of other portions of this planet than we do of other planets. They knew, indeed, of the existence of a neighboring island, like their own, and whence they or their ancestors had probably come ; but many of the living generation had never seen it. It is difficult clearly to conceive of the moral and intellectual condition of a people whose ideas have never expanded beyond the limits of a coral island; who have no conception of a mountain or a river, of a surface of land greater than their own little belt, or of a slope higher than their own beach ; who have but a single mineral, — the coral limestone, — but very few plants, no quadrupeds excepting, perhaps, rats or mice; who live almost without labor, gathering cocoanuts, without an idea of tilling the soil ; whose only arts are the taking of fish, and the making of houses, canoes, and their few utensils ; whose unwritten language is only adapted to the expression of the simplest ideas ; who have never gone beyond their island horizon and returned again; and whose only intercourse with other human beings has been through the rare and brief visits of passing vessels. After a somewhat extended walk, we returned to the vicinity of the houses, where one or two more of the younger ladies favored us with their company. We, of course, considered this a pleasing indication that they were gradually overcoming the fear, or the restraint, that had kept them away at first. Some of the women prepared to cook a large fish for our benefit; and, while this was going on, the young ones devoted themselves entirely to our entertainment by singing what, I dare say, was a very jolly song, and finally commencing a dance. How this would have ended, if no interruption had occurred, it is impossible to say. Quite likely, one after another, the hidden beauties would have slipped out from their places of concealment to join in the festivities ; and, when the canoes returned, the men might, perhaps, have found the whole troop of young things performing the “Black Crook,” or some other equally impressive presentation of the Terpsichorean art; but, unhappily, just as one of our new friends was in the midst of an extravagant pas seul, a party of a dozen men, who had come ashore unnoticed, suddenly arrived upon the ground, and put an injunction on further proceedings. Moreover, they brought a note from our nervous captain, saying that the vessel was overrun by the natives, who, he feared, would soon begin some mischief; and imploring us, by all the regard we had for his comfort, to come off at once, and let him get under way. We therefore reluctantly took leave of our island friends ; and, launching our boat safely through the surf, soon regained the vessel. The captain had spent an uneasy day. Unwilling to put the least trust in the natives, he would gladly have kept his vessel out of their reach, and so not permitted them, to come on board ; but while we were ashore, he was equally desirous, for our sakes, to keep on good terms. However, as we were now ready to go, and had a good breeze, we gave them notice to clear the deck. The king, who remained to the last, went over the side, I am sorry to say, in quite an unamiable mood, because, having ground up an old hatchet for him, we firmly declined giving him the grindstone. But he recovered his good-nature before we got beyond hearing distance ; and we caught our last glimpse of him as he stood up in his canoe, waving the royal insignia with which he had welcomed us in the morning, and shouting, with his companions, an affectionate farewell.
Since the date of this visit I have met with some information that throws a little light on the previous history of the island and its neighbors of the same group. The island of Oatafu was discovered by Commodore Byron, during his voyage round the world, on June 24, 1765. He called it the Duke of York’s Island. A party landed to gather cocoanuts, and returned with the report that there were no indications that the island had ever been inhabited. It would thus appear that there were no people there a century ago. He did not see the other islands of the group. These are Nunkunono, or the Duke of Clarence; and Fakaafo, or Bowditch.
The Missionary Chronicle, the published record of the London Missionary Society, printed, in 1847, a letter from one of the resident missionaries at the port of Apia, Upolu, one of the Samoan (or Navigators’) Group, dated December, 1846, relating that a whale-ship, just arrived at that place, had picked up, a few days before, a double canoe, containing eleven natives in a very exhausted condition. Their language proved to be somewhat similar to the Samoan, and from their account they were evidently natives of the Union Group. They had started in their canoe, with twenty other canoes, to go from Nunkunono to Oatafu. A violent gale had blown this unfortunate party off, and they could not tell whether the others reached their destination safely or not. They had been drifting between two and three months, subsisting scantily on cocoanuts, and perhaps some fish, catching rain-water in their open mouths. The letter stated that they would be returned when opportunity offered, and that Samoan converts would accompany them as religious teachers. This statement accounts for the presence of the “missionary” referred to on a foregoing page.
We visited the other islands of the group, Nunkunono and Fakaafo ; but our experience there was so much like that already related, that a detailed account would involve too much repetition. I prefer, therefore, to describe a visit to the island of Manihiki, or Humphrey’s, which with its neighbor, Rakaanga, or Rierson’s, lies some six or seven hundred miles east of the Union Group. These islands closely resemble those already described in natural features, but the combined influences of intercourse with foreigners and the teachings of Christian missionaries have wrought some strange and interesting effects among the people.
We sighted the island of Manihiki at daylight. It lay ten or fifteen miles distant, the broken line of tree-tops just skirting the horizon. Unfortunately the wind had died entirely away, and the flapping sails and lazily rocking vessel promised us a tedious day of waiting for a breeze. Discontented with this, we determined to set out at once in our boat for the island, and leave the captain and crew to bring the schooner up as soon after as possible. Accordingly, prepared with lunch and fresh water, we embarked, and, after three or four hours’ rowing, reached the shore, and landed upon one of the little islets of the atoll.
We had no previous information concerning the island, and did not even know whether it was inhabited or not.
After spending some time on the islet on which we had landed, we brought our boat through the channel from the ocean side to the inner lake, and prepared for a little sail on the lagoon. After a short cruise, we observed on a distant part of the shore what appeared to be a house ; and, while looking at it, discovered on the beach a large party of people, and several canoes filled with men just setting off to meet us.
A few minutes later they were closely approaching us, and if we, at first, had any apprehensions of an unfriendly reception, they were removed as soon as the men came near enough to be distinctly visible. They were all dressed in shirts, pantaloons, and straw hats, and their amiable faces bespoke great pleasure at seeing visitors. As soon as we were within hail, they began to speak; and we were glad to discover that our interpreter could communicate much more readily with them than with the natives of the Union Group.
We also made another discovery, which not only enlightened us considerably regarding the people and their condition, but also helped to assure us of a kind welcome.
About a thousand miles from this island there is another large island called Fanning’s, abounding in cocoanuts, and uninhabited until recently, when an Englishman took possession of it, and began the manufacture of cocoanut - oil. This we had known before, but we now learned that his necessary laborers were hired from this island and its neighbor ; it being his custom to take up a party of men, women, and children once in a year, and then return to exchange them for a fresh lot. He pays their labor in calico and such clothing as they commonly wear,—pantaloons, shirts, and straw hats, — besides tobacco, knives, and other implements. As this had been in operation several years, most of the inhabitants had been engaged in the work at one time or another, and their employer’s name had become a household word.
As we claimed acquaintance with the gentleman, we were at once received as his “ brothers.” They gave us a hearty welcome, and pointed to the shore, where, they said, the missionary was waiting to receive us ; and a part of the company at once paddled off to precede us with a report.
On reaching the shore, we found nearly the whole population of the village, some two or three hundred people, assembled to receive us. Most of the grown people were dressed, — the men in shirts or pantaloons or both, and the women in loose calico robes or gowns. A few of the older and more conservative people, however, seemed to look upon such articles of dress as innovations of the rising and progressive generation, and such held fast to their old-fashioned cocoanut ideas. The young children generally were naked.
The “ missionary ” came forward to do the honors. He proved to be a native of Raratonga, a large and high island of the Hervey Group, some five or six hundred miles away, where the English missionaries have long been established, and under whose teachings he had become a convert. Having been qualified by them to teach others, he had come thence to Manihiki some ten years before, and had become a very important member of their society.
He received us with much dignity in the midst of the assembled people, all of whom pressed forward to shake hands; and, when these greetings were over, we were invited to the king’s house, where his Majesty was expecting us.
Led by the missionary, and followed by the people, we walked along a wide, well-shaded avenue which crossed the belt of land at a right angle to the two beaches. We soon reached the “ Palace,”— a house similar in construction to those already described, in which we found the king sitting on a high-backed bench, something like an old-fashioned settle. He was a good-natured old fellow, perhaps sixty years of age. He wore a blue woollen shirt and blue pantaloons, such as are common among us for “overalls.” Before him was a roughly made table, a specimen of native workmanship. He gave us places beside him on the “throne,” and cocoanuts in all their various edible forms were set before us.
After a short interview, during which he invited us to spend the night ashore, as it was already too late to pull back to the vessel, we went out for a walk. To our surprise we came directly upon some stone buildings of very considerable dimensions, built of coral beach and reef rock, and plastered over with lime, made from burning the same rock. The doors and window-spaces were arched, and the latter furnished with roughly made blinds, though without sash. The first of these was pointed out as the church, and over the door was written “Ziona.”
Opposite the church was another stone building, which proved to be the missionary’s house. Farther on, a third was in process of construction, intended to be the school-house ; and opposite the last was a large building, not of stone, but of the primitive style, which served as a hall of assembly for public purposes, and also as a place of confinement for offenders. These four buildings formed the four corners of the two avenues of the village ; and at this point we found the cross street, running parallel to the sea-beach, and more than a quarter of a mile long, paved like the other in the middle, well shaded, and having on either side a long row of dwellings. These houses were of the simple native style of construction, and seemed to be neatly kept. About many of the houses were pigs and fowls, which had been introduced upon the island some time before. Before the doors the preparations for the evening meal, or rather the evening cocoanuts, were now going on, some of the people having satisfied their curiosity sufficiently to be able to resume their domestic duties.
During our walk we were taken to see some of their canoes of the larger, sea-going sort. Small canoes for ordinary uses were plenty enough ; but these larger ones, which are not often required, were hauled up, and put under cover. They were between fifty and sixty feet long, made with much care and some attempt at ornamentation, certain parts of the woodwork being inlaid with pearl. They were double canoes, that is, two were joined together by stout cross-pieces of such length that the two canoes were several feet apart. The bow of either canoe was opposite the stern of the other. When used under sail, the sail is set on the lee canoe, while the passengers and freight are in the weather one ; and, if it be necessary to tack ship, the masts and sails are shifted to the other canoe, and passengers and cargo transferred accordingly. The natives use these vessels for crossing from Manihiki to the neighboring island, some forty miles distant. This journey, I believe, is not often made, and only attempted under favorable winds, as these canoes are not adapted to beating to windward. It has happened twice within a few years that parties have been blown or currented off while making this journey. Once, previous to the visit herein described, a party of men and women, unable to gain the land, were drifted off, and, after floating several weeks, landed upon an uninhabited island about one thousand miles distant. Here they subsisted on the few cocoanuts they found until they were taken off by a passing vessel, and carried to the Samoan Islands, whence they were, in time, returned to their native home. Some of these survivors we saw at the time of our visit.
Another party, in 1861, were currented off in a similar manner ; and, after eight weeks of untold suffering, those who survived landed upon an inhabited island fourteen hundred miles west of their own. There they remained five months, until taken off by the Missionary packet, a vessel devoted to the service of the London Missionary Society. The Chronicle, relating this, adds the interesting fact, that among the survivors of this party were several converts, one of them a deacon of the church on his native island. They had their Bibles with them. Finding that the inhabitants of the island to which they had come had never received a Christian teacher, or any instruction whatever, they began at once to teach them to read, and to preach to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and so prepared the way for further missionary effort after their departure.
When we had finished our walk, the missionary took us to his own house. This was a large stone building, divided into three apartments, of which the middle one was the general reception-room. The floor was covered by mats, and several roughly made tables and seats composed the furniture. On one table was a number of books, chiefly Bibles, hymn-books, and primers. These books were, I believe, in the language of Raratonga, possibly modified to suit the dialect of the islanders. We were told that all the inhabitants could read, and many could write. All possess Bibles and hymn-books, slates and pencils. All the children attend school, and receive instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The church is regularly organized, and comprises more than a hundred members, and many, if not all, the remaining adults are what are termed “class members.” The entire population may be said to have embraced Christianity. A report in the Chronicle of date subsequent to that of this visit states that the islanders of Manihiki had paid more than fifteen pounds for Bibles and books for their own use, and contributed more than ten pounds for missionary work elsewhere, and that four young men, natives of Manihiki, were going to Raratonga to study and qualify themselves as religious teachers among other islanders.
While still with the missionary, a messenger came from the king to invite us to supper with the “royal family.” We obeyed immediately. We found our host seated alone behind his table, on which the feast was spread. Cocoanuts were of course in abundance, and flying-fish, partially baked, were not uninviting; but the glory of the occasion was a chicken that had been sacrificed for our good. The king did the honors gracefully, and seemed much pleased with our expressions of satisfaction. Meantime the queen and princess royal sat on the floor, surrounded by many people of various degrees of distinction, and all much interested in watching the strangers.
This entertainment was scarcely over, when the missionary sent for us to return to his house, where, to our surprise, we found a second repast prepared in much the same style, and a larger congregation of natives assembled to witness our disposal of it. We did all that men of our capacity could, but, unhappily, failed to do full justice to our host’s hospitality.
As the evening wore away, and we began to think of bed, we heard a remarkable noise in the street. It was the beating of the Rap Tap. This instrument, as I afterwards discovered, was a piece of wood twelve or fifteen inches long, and three or four thick, hollowed out like a trough, so that, when beaten, it gave a dull, ringing sound. One man, with two attendants, marched through the village, beating this at short intervals, and following the beating, first with a distressing screech, and then a short proclamation to the effect that bed-time had come, and warning all against being found out of doors or with lights burning thereafter. The missionary informed us that this was a very strict rule, and any one offending against it was liable to fine or punishment. He accordingly showed us places to sleep in an adjoining apartment, giving us very comfortable mats for beds, and then bade us good night. A few minutes later, quiet reigned throughout the entire community.
We had learned that the inhabitants of the island, numbering altogether four or five hundred, were divided into two communities, one of which lived in a village similar to this on the other side of the lagoon. We were also told that with this other community were living two white men, who had been on the island several months. A messenger had been sent to these foreigners to report our visit, and in the morning they both made their appearance. They were delighted to see us, and welcomed an opportunity to get away from the island ; they lost no time in making known their desire to go with us under any conditions, and to be left anywhere, only asking to be taken away. The reason for this soon became apparent.
Of these two men, one was an Englishman, forty or fifty years of age, and the other an American not over twenty-five. The former had been left on the island about seven months before by a trading-vessel that had called in search of pearls. The American had belonged to the crew of a little vessel that had touched there four months before, on her way from San Francisco to Tahiti; and he, hoping to enjoy an indolent and lawless life among the islanders, had deserted the vessel.
The Englishman, it appeared, had lived for many years by vagrancy. He had wandered all over the Pacific Ocean, and had either visited or lived upon a large number of its islands. It is not improbable that he was an escaped convict, and so, partly from choice, partly from necessity, preferred to spend his life beyond the reach of law. In this way the vagabond had spent a few months, or possibly years, on one island, and then, having exhausted the novelties of the place, and made himself odious to the people, had succeeded, by means of some passing whaler or other vessel, in reaching another, and then another, and so on until he had brought up where we found him, in a very unhappy condition, and ready for still another island. The American was a stout and hearty but demoralized youth, who had chosen to enter upon the same career, but had made what he considered an unhappy beginning on an island and among a people where he felt the rigors of the law in a degree he had never before dreamed of.
They gave a long account of their experience among the people ; and their statements, though necessarily to be taken with many grains of allowance, furnished some information concerning the native character and social condition. The missionary, they said, had been there about ten years, and was not only the religious teacher, but had become the lawgiver. The king and chiefs, who were the ostensible rulers, were entirely under his influence, and did nothing without his approval. The laws, which were rigidly enforced, had been framed by the missionary; they were based generally upon the precepts taught by the English missionaries at Raratonga, and included what additional light he could get from the Mosaic code.
No wonder that a couple of first-class vagabonds, who had felt the inconvenience of law at home, and who were seeking a place where neither Law nor Gospel had ever been heard of, found themselves in very unpleasant circumstances under such an administration.
When they had first come, they were kindly and hospitably received. They were regarded as the representatives of a superior race, and hailed as residents with delight. Everybody was happy to do them a service. They were welcome guests in any house, and were provided with plenty of cocoanuts and fish without even the labor of helping themselves. But after a time the lustre of their superiority began to wear off. Their laziness and worthlessness were properly appreciated, and their various sins of omission and commission, which, at first, had been allowed to pass unnoticed, now gave offence, and the offenders were held responsible at law, precisely as any other member of the community. It was then they began to realize that the way of transgressors is hard.
Whether the missionary had given the islanders a regularly written code, or not, I cannot say ; but a few of their regulations will indicate how far their daily walk and conversation were affected by the system of laws.
Absence from church, unless for a satisfactory reason, was a punishable offence. Men were forbidden to smoke on Sundav, and women at any time. Walking out on Sunday was against law. Women were fined for appearing at church without bonnets. (And such bonnets ! for some good Christian ladies in London, thinking perhaps, that, next to a new heart, a benighted woman would most need a new bonnet, had sent out a lot of the drollest-fashioned, high-peaked straw bonnets for the poor things to wear. And I will take advantage of this parenthesis to add, that the same considerate people had sent a full suit of black broadcloth, with a black cylinder hat, for the missionary to wear when discharging the duties of his office. As these clothes were wholly unlike those in common use, he had come to regard them somewhat as robes of office, and to put them on as a priest puts on the sacred vestments ; and it is truly ludicrous to fancy him, as described by the white men, on semiofficial occasions, when, in addition to his simple native garments, he would, according to his estimate of the importance of the event, wear now the coat, or the vest, or, perhaps, only the hat alone.) Anything like musical instruments were forbidden, because, I suppose, only associated with dancing. Singing songs which were not in the hymn-book was likewise forbidden. Every member of the community, from the king to the youngest child able to talk, was obliged to recite a verse of Scripture every Sunday, and, in default thereof, was held liable to a fine.
Fines are the usual punishment for offences ; and, if their system of laws is peculiar, that of the fines is more so. It seems to have been based on the doctrine, that he that offends in one point of the law is guilty of all; and, further, that, as the second violation of a law is a greater crime than the first offence, the enormity of the sin is measured only by the number of times that the sinner has offended. Whatever the theory, the fact appeared to be, that the first violation of law was punished by a certain fine, the second offence by double the first fine, the third offence, no matter what, whether smoking, dancing, or adultery, by double the second fine, and so on in geometrical progression.
The fines were usually levied in calico, for, as the labor of the people is generally paid in that article, it has become the currency of the country. The unit is one fathom of calico, and is considered the equivalent of fifty cents. Values are expressed in fathoms, and a ten-dollar coin is accordingly a twentyfathom piece. The fine for the first violation of law is five fathoms ; and, according to the foregoing, that of the second, third, or fourth offence is ten, twenty, or forty fathoms. I was told that persons had been fined even one thousand fathoms and over. I naturally inquired what became of all the calico that must from time to time be forfeited by offenders, and was told that all fines were paid over to the “ Council,” consisting of the king, chief men, and the missionary, who made distribution thereof for the public good or their own ; that sometimes fines were paid in pigs, fowls, or cocoanuts, and that this provision was appropriated for refreshments at the meetings of the “Council,” and that, when the delinquents and their friends had no more wherewith to pay, the sentence was convertible into work upon the road or public buildings.
Now, as may readily be supposed, our two foreign friends had brought but a small supply of dry goods or any other goods to the island ; and, when they became subject to law, a very brief career in vice brought them to the end of their calico. The very first fine exhausted their stock, and took their extra shirts and pants besides ; and the Englishman could find no words to express his deep sense of the injustice done him, when the “ Council,” having taken everything else of the calico kind from him, finally laid out in one straight line his sea-chest, shot-gun, pocketrevolver, straw hat, tobacco-box, pipe, and other personal property, and took them calico measure, fathom per fathom, in payment of a fine.
This, at the moment, had been too much for him, and he had attempted resistance, but soon found that worse than useless, for it increased his punishment, which was now converted into work upon the public way, and, at the time of our arrival, both men were under sentence to build an almost incredible number of fathoms of road. Truly the lines had fallen to them in unpleasant places. Much of the foregoing, it must be remembered, is given as the statement of the two white men, who could hardly be expected to be unprejudiced witnesses ; but I subsequently had occasion to learn from an intelligent man, who, in connection with the business, before referred to, of making cocoanutoil, had seen much of these people, that the statements were in the main correct, and, as far as they go, fairly indicate some of the first results of the influences of civilization and the teaching of Christian missionaries among this simplest of all simple folk.
The missionary, who was himself a convert from heathenism, himself instruted in and teaching them from a Bible which, owing to the extreme poverty of their language, must have been a very deficient translation, may have been able to give but very imperfect ideas of Christian doctrines, and of their application to the every-day life and conduct of believers ; but he was, I think, a sincere and conscientious man, and honestly gave them such light as he had, imparting to them what he had himself received. Having been their first teacher, and having instructed them in the new religion, he was naturally looked to for guidance and direction in other matters, and so became their Lawgiver.
We spent the following day or two on the island. The schooner arrived, and came to anchor, opposite the village, though not until her apprehensive captain had positively assured himself that we had not been eaten up on the first night of our absence.
Trade for fowls and cocoanuts was opened, and was carried on in the presence of the king and missionary, their approval being necessary for each transaction. We found occasion to visit the village on the other side of the lagoon, where we found a state of affairs precisely similar to that with which we had already become acquainted. We looked into the church, and found the interior furnished with rather roughly made benches or seats, arranged like pews in an ordinary meeting-house among us. At one end was a high pulpit, reached by steps. The wood-work was ornamented by inlaid pearl. Before the pulpit was a table, where, the white men said, the sacrament was administered monthly. What was used as a substitute for bread and wine in this service I could not learn ; but if anything other than cocoanut and water, it must have been imported for the purpose.
On the evening of the second day I had an interesting experience. Among my first acquaintances on the island were two young men who had enjoyed unusual advantages for seeing the world. A year or two previous a whale-ship had called there in passing, whose captain had induced these two youths to join the vessel in a cruise for a year, with the condition that they should be returned at the end of the time. They had accordingly spent one year in the forecastle of this ship, and had acquired a good deal of such knowledge as the associations of the place furnished and their limited capacity enabled them to receive. They came back as travelled men. They could speak a few words of English, and this accomplishment, combined with their comparatively wider experience, made them important members of society. One was called John Allen (possibly the name of the ship), the other was Jeremiah. The latter had married the king’s daughter, and John was also connected with some of the first families on the island. John and Jeremiah lived together with their families. They invited me to spend our second night at their house, and I having promised to do so, they asked a number of their aristocratic connections to meet me there in the evening “ very sociably.” On arriving, I found fifteen or twenty people besides the usual members of the household. The first part of the entertainment was provided in the shape of a roasted chicken and two boiled eggs, which I was desired to eat while the host and the other guests looked on. As the chicken was small and the eggs fresh, I found this a commendable arrangement. After the cloth was removed, the company found great entertainment in asking me as many and various questions as John and Jeremiah, with their small stock of words and ideas, could put into English. Then slates and pencils were introduced, and I was desired to write my name, the name of our vessel, where we came from, and so forth, all of which was very carefully imitated by my observers. They were desirous that I should sing for them, but I was obliged to excuse myself; and, on returning the compliment by asking them for a song, John replied that I should bear them bimeby.” This was soon explained. At eight o’clock the Rap Tap sounded, and immediately all guests left the house to go to their own. When quiet was restored, John took two hymn-books and a Bible from the shelf, and, giving one hymn-book to Jeremiah, the two led off in a hymn, the rest of the family following. The words, of course, were native ; and such, I judge, may have been the music, as there was no semblance of a tune. When this was concluded, John read a chapter from the Bible ; and then, all kneeling down, he offered up the evening prayer.
After this there was a brief interval, during which preparations for the night’s rest were made. A wooden bench or couch, covered by a mat, was appropriated to my use. The rest of the people spread their mats on the floor. John’s father and mother occupied one corner. The young children lay in another corner. John and his wife took the corner nearest to me, and Jeremiah and his wife were crowded out, and so lay on their mats just outside the house, under the projecting eaves. In a few minutes everybody was asleep.
As I lay down for the night, I could but think of the position of the two white men among these people. This quiet scene of family worship, and the social and religious conditions which its observance implied, contrasted most strangely with what they, in their evil imaginations, had expected and hoped to find. Seeking only a country without law, where they could lead lives of indolence and licentiousness, and do the works of the flesh without restraint, they found themselves among a most exacting people, and subject to laws compared with which, in their view, a state-prison discipline appeared altogether lovely. I shall long remember poor Bill, the Englishman, who, stating his grievances, and warming up with the subject, said : “ Why, sir, the people are good enough in their way. I ’ve got nothing agin the people. But you see, sir, its the law that I don’t like. The law, that they pretend to take from the Bible, and that the missionary says is the same as in my country. Now, sir, it’s true as how I ’ave n’t read the Bible a great deal, but I never found no such laws as theirn in what little I ’ave read. And then, when I tell ’em there’s no such laws in iny country, in spite of what the missionary says, they just say, ‘Fine him ag’in for disputin’ the missionary’; and when I say there’s no law for that in the Bible, they up and say, ' ’Ave ’im up ag’in for sayin’ it’s not in the Bible.’ But it’s plain their Bible can’t he like ourn, for, as you well know, sir, there are four-and-twenty letters in our alphabet, while there are no more than twelve in theirn, and I should Just like to know how a language of twenty-four letters can he turned into one of twelve. So it stands to reason that the Bibles can’t be all the same.” The following day we were to leave. The two men begged to be taken away, and landed on some other island. We told them our next point of destination was an uninhabited island known as Suwarrow’s (or Souvoroff’s), some hundreds of miles distant. Bill declared that he knew the island of old, and would rather be left there than remain where he was. The American seconded him in this, and we finally consented to take them and two women, who, they declared, were their wives, under condition that they should disembark at Suwarrow’s Island. This, they said, was what they most desired ; for there they would have an island to themselves, would make their own laws, and raise a colony after their own heart. Immediately they prepared to go, but were at once met by objections on the part of the “ Council,” who held that the men should work out their sentence on the road before taking their departure. This, however, was finally compromised, and the party came aboard the vessel. As soon as we had said good by to our friends ashore, and completed all other arrangements, we got under way ; but just as the sails were filling, and the vessel beginning to move, a cry was heard alongside, and directly a woman was discovered clinging to a rope’s end that hung over the gangway. As she not only begged to be taken on board, but refused to return ashore, she was hoisted in. Probably her coming had been previously arranged; but the men, fearing a refusal, had not ventured to ask transportation for a spare wife. So we set out with five colonists. In a few days we reached the designated island. We found it similar in character to the coral islands already described, but much greater in extent, the lagoon being hardly less than twenty miles in diameter. Leading into this lagoon we found a fine channel, through which we sailed, and came to anchor in the waters of the lake. A day or two were spent in examination, during which the colonists were busy in spying out the land with reference to their future happiness. Bill declared himself disappointed. Instead of finding cocoanuttrees in abundance, he had only counted fifty. He had looked for fresh water in vain; and as the time for our departure drew near, he began to realize that the pleasure of being his own lawgiver would be attended by some sacrifices. Unwilling to leave the party there against their wish, especially as the island is very rarely visited by vessels, we finally gave them the alternative of returning whence we had brought them. This decided the matter. Both men declared that, rather than return, they would struggle for existence where they were. Cocoanuts might be scarce, but fish and crabs would abound ; and they would at least have their own way, and be happy. So they began at once to build their house. The men cut the wood, and put up a rough frame, while the women gathered branches and prepared the thatch ; and before we left they were about ready to go to housekeeping. We gave them a cask of water, one or two barrels of bread, some tools, fish-lines, and hooks, and some other articles very desirable under their circumstances. They professed themselves contented, and well pleased with their prospects, and promised faithfully to preserve our names in their posterity. So we bade them good by, and on the following morning, at sunrise, we hoisted our sails to the breeze and sailed out of the lagoon, while the five colonists stood on the beach, waving hats and hands, and a little red, white, and blue flag, which Bill had somehow managed to conceal or to recover from the never-to-be-forgotten "Council.” I have never since heard of them. For aught that I know they are still there. If so, I trust that they get on without the world as well as the world does without them.
The voyage of which the foregoing is a partial account was made in 1860. There is a melancholy item of the subsequent history of the islands referred to which must be added. In 1863 a number of slaving-vessels were fitted out at Callao, in Peru, to cruise among the islands of the Pacific in quest of coolies, or, more properly, slaves, for the Peruvian market. The very islands herein described, and many like them, were visited, and their defenceless inhabitants kidnapped. From Manihiki many were taken; and from Oatafu, it is said, every able-bodied man and woman and the larger children were seized and hurried off, leaving only the aged and helpless behind. There is an additional interest given to the account of this deplorable affair, by the fact that the island of Oatafu had, but a short time before, become the scene of very successful missionary labors. Christian teachers had been sent there in 1861, and the entire population had become converts. They had learned to read and write, and the church and school were in a flourishing condition. The same is true of many of the other islands depopulated by the man-stealers.
The recital of the operations of these slavers, who, in order to secure the natives on board the vessels, used force where strategy failed, in some cases driving them at the point of the bayonet, firing upon and killing many in order to terrify and capture the rest, — of the fearful suffering of all the captives, and the death of many on the voyage, and, finally, of their miserable condition in Peru, —is truly distressing. The French government, on learning the facts, promptly called the Peruvian government to account for depredations committed on islands under French protection. Unfortunately the islands that suffered most are unprotected by any nation. An indignation meeting was held in Sydney, and a memorial addressed to the British government, praying for intervention in the matter; but I have never learned what measures, if any, were adopted by that government to seek redress for this diabolical outrage upon humanity.