Polynesia; A popular description of the physical features, inhabitants, natural history, and productions of the islands of the Pacific. With an account of their discovery, and the progress of civilisation and christianity amongst them.
Chapter XIX. — The Caroline Archipelago; The Pelew Islands; The Marshall and Gilbert Islands
The Caroline Archipelago; The
Pelew Islands; The Marshall and Gilbert Islands.
In 1595, one of the Caroline Islands in about 6º north latitude, was seen by Mendāna; but two proas full of people, driven by the violence of a storm from these islands as far as Samal, in the Philippines, roused the attention of the college of Jesuits at Manilla, who made several unsuccessful attempts to establish missions on the Carolines, which the wrecked natives described as being very numerous. In the year 1710, two priests, Duberron and Cortel, embarked in the "San Trinidad," with a crew of eighty six men, to establish themselves on the Pelew Islands. They landed on Sonsorol, but the ship was driven off with the current; and what became of the missionaries was never afterwards ascertainedpage 378
These islands are generally fertile, and possess an agreeable climate; but they are, at times, subject to dreadful hurricanes. For some years past, English and American vessels, principally whalers, have resorted to the Caroline Islands in great numbers for water and refreshments; as many as ten or twelve ships arriving at one island during a single season. Several white men, generally runaway sailors, reside on the islands thus visited, and keep what are called accommodation-houses, for the use of the captains and crews of vessels resorting to these shores. The effect of so large an influx of foreigners of this class has had a sadly demoralizing influence upon the natives, who are fast decreasing in numbers. Within the last few years several American missionaries have established themselves, along with some native teachers from the Sandwich Islands, upon Ualau, or Strong's Island, and Ponape, or Ascension Island, two of the group. Their efforts met with much discouragement from the open hostility of the white men, and the apathy and recklessness of the natives. In 1854 the small-pox broke out with great virulence, and, being ascribed to the prayers of the missionaries, subjected them to bodily peril. The safety of those who submitted to vaccination by the medical missionary, produced, ultimately, a reaction in favour of Christianity; and the mission still carries on its labours amongst the remnant of the population still extant.
The largest and most important of the Caroline Islands are Hogoleu, Bornabi, Strong's Island, and Yap; the former situated at the eastern, and the page 379latter at the western extremity of the chain. Hogoleu is about eighty miles long by forty broad; Bornabi is upwards of seventy miles in circumference, and Strong's Island sixty; whilst Yap is ten miles long and seven or eight miles in breadth.
Hogoleu, instead of being one continuous island, consists of five large and high islands of volcanic formation, together with a number of smaller ones, which are situated within a very extensive central lagoon, the whole being surrounded by coral reefs and low islands of similar structure. There are many passages for vessels to be found through this outer barrier reef of Hogoleu; and secure anchorage may be obtained in many places within the lagoon. The inhabitants are very numerous, amounting to from 15,000 to 20,000 souls; they are described as being of a light copper complexion, and are a cruel and treacherous race. Bêche-de-mer is abundant on the reefs; but, owing to the character of the natives, great precautions are necessary in obtaining it, the crews of several vessels thus engaged having been attacked by them. Of the people of Hogoleu, Captain Cheyne says, "They are very expert in slinging stones, and can throw the spear with great precision; we also observed many of them armed with brasshilted cutlasses, and a great number had large Spanish knives."
Strong's Island, or Ualau, is of volcanic formation and moderate elevation. It is surrounded by a coral reef, and possesses two good and safe harbours, at which many vessels touch for wood and water, as well as yams and fowls, of which an abundant supply page 380may be obtained. This island is very fertile; it produces good bread-fruit, and is clothed with many species of fine timber trees from the shore to its summits.
Bornabi is high, of volcanic origin, and surrounded, like Hogoleu and Ualau, by coral reefs, between which and the mainland are many small islands, which are elevated only a few feet above the water, and covered with cocoa-nut trees. This large island has several excellent harbours, the two principal of which are Matalanian, and Roankiddi, both the resort of whaling vessels.
The climate of Bornabi is very moist, scarcely a day passing without rain during the months from September to January. These continual showers produce rapid vegetation, and keep up a constant run of fresh water from the hills.
The whole island is thickly wooded, and produces many varieties of good timber suitable for shipbuilding and other purposes. The shores are surrounded by mangrove-trees, growing in the salt water, which form an impenetrable barrier to boats or canoes landing, except in the rivers and small channels formed by the creeks.
The soil is composed of a rich loam, and would, if properly cultivated, produce every variety of tropical fruits and esculent roots, together with coffee, arrowroot, and sugar. The woods throughout the islands are very thick, and often composed of large and fine trees; among them are the tree-fern, banyan, pandanus, sassafras, and several species of palms. The trunks of many of the trees are clothed with vines page 381and climbing plants; and the lower parts of them enveloped with ferns, of which there are many varieties.
Beautiful sweet-scented flowers of various colours are abundant, and are much esteemed by the natives, who string them into wreaths, which both sexes wear round their hair at feasts and on other occasions. The bread-fruit tree here grows to a large size; and the cocoa-nut, banana, and wild orange are also found in great numbers. The "kava" is cultivated extensively; and an intoxicating drink is made from the toddy-palm.
The cultivated lands do not extend far from the coasts, near which all the villages are situated. There are no inhabitants in the interior; and but few of the natives have ever visited the centre of the island. Wild pigeons occur in infinite numbers. There are no indigenous quadrupeds, excepting rats and the vampire, or "flying fox," which is very destructive to the bread-fruit. Fish are taken on the reefs in great abundance and variety.
The population of Bornabi is recorded to be about 7000; and upwards of sixty Europeans are resident on the island, chiefly runaway convicts and sailors, who carry on a lucrative trade in tortoise-shell and bêche-de-mer, which they procure from the natives, and re-sell to the ships at a profit of 500 per cent.
The complexion of the Bornabi Islanders is a light copper colour. The average height of the men is about five feet eight inches; whilst the women are much smaller in proportion, with delicate features and slight figures. Their noses are slightly aqui-page 382line, but a little broad at the base; the mouth rather large, with full lips, and beautiful white teeth. Both sexes wear handsome ornaments, composed of small beads, in the lobes of their ears, which are much distended. Both men and women have beautiful black hair, which they dress with a variety of perfumes mixed with cocoa-nut oil; and the chiefs and their families ornament their heads with wreaths of fragrant flowers. They also anoint their bodies with turmeric, in order to give themselves a whiter appearance. The men wear neither whiskers nor beard; they extract the hairs by means of tweezers, made either of a piece of tortoise-shell bent double, or a pair of small cockle-shells. Both sexes are very handsomely tattooed.
These people are remarkable for the affection they bear towards their offspring, and also for the respect they pay to old age. They are good-humoured, desirous of pleasing, and exceedingly hospitable.
The island of Bornabi is divided into five tribes, independent of each other, and each having a sovereign of its own. Every king has a prime minister and a council formed of nobles, by whom all affairs of importance are decided. In every village is a large council-house, with a raised platform in the centre for the accommodation of the chiefs while discussing the affairs of the tribe. These meetings are always attended with feasting and kava-drinking, at the expense of the chief in whose village the meeting is held.
The canoes of Bornabi are hollowed out of a large tree, and are very neatly made. The outrigger is page 383attached to the canoe by many projecting pieces of light wood, neatly squared and painted. In the centre is a platform for the chiefs to sit on. These canoes are painted red, look exceedingly handsome, and are furnished with a mast and a triangular sail made of pandanus matting. They sail very fast, and carry ten or a dozen men.
Their houses are of superior construction, forming an oblong square. The frame rests upon a foundation of stone-work four or five feet from the ground, above which the sides are covered in with wickerwork, having several open spaces left for windows, to which they have shutters of the same material. The whole frame of the house is made of squared timber; and the uprights are mortised into the wallplates. In the centre of the floor is a fireplace; and the remainder is covered over with wicker-work, similar to that of the sides. The roof is thatched neatly with pandanus leaves. These houses thus constructed are exceedingly clean and comfortable, and have a neat and even elegant appearance.
The dress of the men is made of young cocoa-nut leaves bleached, and slit into narrow strips, which are fastened to a string at one end; it is about two feet in depth, and reaches from the hip to the knee. A man, when fully dressed, has about six of these tied round him. They also wear wrapped round the waist very handsome belts, which are about six feet long, and are made of the fibres of the banana tree, woven in a hand-loom, and dyed red and yellow, in variegated figures. The women's dress consists of an upper article of clothing, like a handkerchief, page 384across the shoulders, and a fathom of tappa or calico, dyed yellow, wrapped round the loins, tucked in at one side, and reaching to the knee. Both sexes are very fond of ornamenting themselves with necklaces and head-bands of variously-coloured beads; and they wear tassels of red thread in their ears. They also wear pretty shades for the face, made of cocoa-nut leaves, which encircle without covering the head. They have a peculiar mode of preserving the bread-fruit in holes in the ground, which are lined with banana leaves, and rendered both airand water-tight. It is said the fruit thus preserved will keep several years. Yams are cultivated extensively throughout the island; and at their feasts kava-drinking is carried on to excess.
The only musical instrument they have is a small flute, played by the nostrils, and a drum of hollow wood covered over at the ends with shark's skin. Their dances are by no means indecorous, and are performed by the unmarried men and girls, who stand in a row on a plank, and with graceful movements of the arms and body keep time with their feet to the song. Both sexes are tattooed from the loins to the ankles, and from the elbows to the knuckles. The natives are very clean; they bathe three times a day, and anoint their bodies with scented cocoa-nut oil and turmeric.
Their weapons consist chiefly of muskets and spears. Of the former there are said to be fully 1500 amongst the people of Bornabi, they having procured them from the whalers as payment for yams and tortoise-shell.page 385
Their religion is very simple. They have neither images nor temples; and, although they believe in the immortality of the soul, and that their elysium is surrounded by a wall with a bottomless ditch round it, guarded by an old woman, yet they do not appear to have any religious observances. They look upon cannibalism with as much abhorrence as we do ourselves, and are not supposed ever to have practised it.
Near Matalanien Harbour, in Bornabi, are some interesting old ruins, the origin of which is involved in obscurity. That a fortified town once stood upon this spot, and not built by savages, cannot be doubted, the style of the ruins giving strong proofs of civilization. Some of the stones measure eight or ten feet in length, are hexagonal, and have evidently been brought thither from some other country, there being no stone on the island similar to them. Streets are formed in several places; and the whole town seems to have been a succession of fortified houses. It seems probable that at one time this town was the stronghold of pirates; and it has been conjectured that it was built by the Spanish buccaneers, some two or three centuries ago. Similar ruins exist also at Strong's Island, of which the natives can give no account.
Yap is surrounded by a coral reef, and is possessed of an excellent harbour on its south-east side, having an entrance about 200 yards wide. The island is moderately elevated in the centre, and slopes gradually towards the shore all round. There is but little timber of any size growing upon page 386it, which necessitates the inhabitants to get their canoes built at the Pelew Islands, which they frequently visit. The villages are situated near the shore, among groves of cocoa-nut, bread-fruit, and betel-nut trees.
The natives of Yap are an able-bodied race, wellformed, and of a light copper complexion. They are in a more advanced state of civilization than any of the other Caroline Islanders, their villages being regularly laid out into streets, which are neatly paved. They have also well-constructed stone wharfs and piers. Each village has a large square, in which the chiefs meet for consultation.
Their dress, and their manners and customs generally, resemble those of the islands previously described, except that both sexes wear conical hats, formed of palm-trees sewn together, which protect their heads effectually from both rain and sun. They smoke tobacco, which they roll up in leaves, in a similar fashion to the cigarettes of the Spaniards.
The natives of Yap are represented by those who have visited the island to be a treacherous and cunning race, not to be depended on; as they are apt to endeavour to obtain possession by force or fraud of any article which they covet. Indeed, faithlessness is a prevailing characteristic of the inhabitants of all the Caroline Islands.
The Pelew or Pallou Islands lie to the south-westward of Yap, at a distance of a little more than 200 miles, and are the most westerly of all the Polynesian islands. They were first discovered by Villalobos, page 387in 1543. There are nearly twenty small but populous islands composing this group, which is surrounded by a reef. The principal ones are Pellelew, Angour, Erakong, Babelthouap, and Kyangh. Their surface is composed of hills and valleys, the latter having generally a rich soil. Forests of trees with luxuriant foliage give the hills a beautiful appearance. There are no rivers, but there are numerous brooks and ponds, which supply plenty of water. The scenery is rich and lovely; and the native villages, which resemble much those of the people of Yap, are scattered about on the coasts, amidst pleasant groves of cocoa-nuts and bread-fruit trees.
The Pelew Islanders have always been represented as an amiable, gay, and innocent people. They are handsome, of a middling stature, and of a very dark copper colour. Their hair is long and flowing. The men go naked, and the women wear small aprons or fringes made of the fibre of the cocoa-nut. Both sexes are tattooed, and their teeth are blackened by an application of herbs. Their government is vested in a king, under whom are "rupaks," or chiefs, forming a sort of nobility; and the whole of the land is the absolute property of the king. Their houses are fixed on broad stones, raised about three feet from the ground, and are formed of boards and bamboo. They have likewise large halls for public meetings. They manufacture pottery of a coarse kind, also knives of mother-of-pearl, and beautiful dishes, bracelets, and spoons of tortoise-shell. Some of their necklaces are made of cornelian pebbles strung together. Their canoes are made out of page 388trunks of trees, beautifully carved, painted red, and inlaid with shells. Their arms are pikes, javelins, and slings. Fish and bread-fruit are their principal articles of food, as well as fowls, which are found in the woods in a wild state. They make a sort of preserve of the sugar-cane, and use the betel-nut and chunam.
The Pelew Islands were first made known to us by the shipwreck there of the East India Company's vessel "Antelope," commanded by Captain H. Wilson, in the year 1783. The captain and crew were received with the greatest kindness by the natives, and their king, Abbe Thulle, generously relieved their wants, and afforded them all the succour in his power. After remaining four months on the little island of Oroolong, these shipwrecked people left the Pelew Islands in a small vessel they had constructed there for that purpose, and proceeded to China, whence they embarked for England. The most interesting circumstance in connection with their return was the visit of Prince Lee Boo, the second son of Abbe Thulle, to England. This youth, of a sweet intelligent countenance, and a generous and affectionate disposition, was confided to Captain Wilson's care by the king, who was desirous that he should see the wonders of the great country from which his shipwrecked friends had come.
Poor Lee Boo arrived safely in England, but before many months elapsed he caught the smallpox, and died. He was buried in Rotherhithe churchyard, far away from his own pleasant groves of waving cocoa-nuts and shady bread-fruit trees. page 389Soon afterwards the Honourable East India Company ordered a tomb to be erected over his grave, with an inscription, below which are the following lines:—
"Stop, reader, stop! let Nature claim a tear—
A prince of mine, Le Boo, lies buried here."
To the north-east of the Carolines is a large cluster of low coralline islands, discovered by Marshall and Gilbert in 1788; the northern portion being usually called Marshall's, and those to the south Gilbert's Isles. These islands range in two lines or chains, running parallel to each other, north and south, about sixty to one hundred miles apart. The western of these is called the Radick, and the eastern the Ealick chain, each comprising fifteen or sixteen islands. The soil on these low islands is generally scanty, thongh they produce bread-fruit and cocoanuts, with a few bananas.
The inhabitants are a fine race, with good features, long curling hair, and athletic frames. The men are partially clothed, and the women wear fine, beautifully-made mats, reaching from the waist to the feet. They are fond of ornaments, and distend the lobe of the ear to an enormous size. They perform long voyages from one island to another in canoes made of bread-fruit-tree planks. These islanders have not had much communication with foreigners; but American missionaries are now labouring amongst them.