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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 XX. — The Kingsmill Group, and other scattered Islands near the equator

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Chapter XX.
The Kingsmill Group, and other scattered Islands near the equator.

village in the kingsmill group.

village in the kingsmill group.

Immediately south of the Gilbert Islands, and extending two or three degrees both north and south of the equator, is the Kingsmill group. It reaches from 173° to 176° east longitude, and consists of about fifteen low coral islands, the most elevated of which is not more than twenty or thirty feet above page 391the level of the surrounding ocean. These are encircled everywhere with broad reefs, between which are openings at intervals, through which vessels can pass.

Drummond Island, or Taputeouea, the largest of the Kingsmills, is in 1° 25' south latitude, and 174° 50' east longitude. It is about thirty-five or forty miles long, and very narrow, so much so, indeed, that in some places it is not more than a mile across. At its north-west extremity is the native town of Utiroo, which alone contains upwards of 400 houses, whilst four or five other towns are scattered over the island.

Sydenham Island, or Nanouti, is next in size, being nineteen miles long by eight wide.

Apamama, or Simpson's Island, is very low, and partially surrounded by a reef forming a kind of lagoon inside. It is seven or eight miles long by four wide.

Kuria is six miles long by three wide, and very populous.

Taritari is about thirteen miles long, and thickly covered with cocoa-nut, pandanus, and low brushwood. It swarms with musquitoes. This island, and that of Makin, which is six miles long and very narrow, are also known as Pitt's Islands.

The population of the entire group has been variously estimated at from 30,000 to 60,000 souls, the latter being probably nearer the mark.

Some of the smaller islands have rather a bare aspect, with patches of white coral sand, and only scanty groups here and there of trees; whilst others are densely covered with thick groves, which present page 392an inviting aspect from the sea. Water is obtained by digging in the coral sand, but it is generally rather brackish to the taste. The soil, which is but a few inches in depth, is composed of coral sand and vegetable mould.

Bread-fruit trees are to be found on some of the northern islands; and "taro," which grows to a large size, is carefully cultivated by the natives. Fish is very abundant throughout the reefs and lagoons, and forms a considerable proportion of the food of the natives.

The climate of the Kingsmills, though of high temperature, is equable and less oppressive than in most tropical countries. For the most part constant breezes prevail, and frequent rain falls, which moderates the great heat, and at the same time confers fertility on the soil. Between October and April variable winds, with typhoon-like gales from the south-west, prevail, during which the natives are obliged to tie down their houses with stakes, in order to prevent them being blown away. These storms last three or four days, during which time the trunks of large trees are washed upon the west side of the islands, together with lumps of resin, similar to the cowrie-gum of New Zealand. From May to September the weather is fine, with clear skies and only occasional showers, the wind blowing constantly from the eastward.

From diseases these islands appear to be tolerably free. Consumption, a kind of cholera, and a skin disease, called by the natives "gune," being the only maladies from which they seem to suffer.

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Of the inhabitants of the Kingsmills, Commodore Wilkes, of the United States Exploring Expedition, says, "The character of these islanders is the most savage of any that we met with; their ferocity led to the belief that they were cannibals, although no positive proofs were seen of it. They are under no control whatever, and possess little of the characteristic hospitality usually found in savage nations. It was observed also that their treatment of each other exhibited a great want of feeling, and, in many instances, passions and propensities indicative of the lowest state of barbarism." They are of a copper colour, a shade or two deeper than the inhabitants of Tahiti; they are of middling stature, well made, and slender. Their hair is fine, black, and glossy; the nose slightly aquiline, with the mouth rather large, with full lips and small white teeth. Their beards and moustaches are fine and black, like their hair. The women have delicate features, good figures, and may be called decidedly pretty. The people of Pitt's Islands differ much from those of the rest of the Kingsmill group. They are lighter in colour, taller and more robust, with limbs full and well-rounded, and oval faces, with regular and delicate features. The Pitt Islanders, moreover, are a quiet and peaceful race, and not addicted to the cruel and desolating wars that characterize the inhabitants of the Kingsmills generally.

The men of the better class are elaborately tattooed by professed tattooers, who are held in much estimation, and receive high prices for their work. Young men are not tattooed until they page 394arrive at the age of twenty, and the slaves never. The women are not so much ornamented by this process as the men; and, owing to the delicacy of the lines and the distance between them, they do not show very conspicuously.

The mats worn by the men are made of the leaves of the pandanus, slit into slips about a quarter of an inch wide, and woven by hand; they are of two colours, the light yellow and the dark brown, the slips being braided together so as to form regular figures, square or diamond-shaped, which have a pleasing effect. They also wear a conical cap on the head of similar material. The shoulders are covered with a small oblong mat, having a slit in the middle, through which the head is passed, after the fashion of a "poncho." The women wear a graceful petticoat of fringe, composed of the leaves of the cocoa-nut cut into thin strips, depending from the waist to the knee. In their ears they wear long rolls of the pith of a shrub abundant on these islands. Long strings of human hair, mingled with beads, sometimes upwards of a hundred fathoms long, are worn round the body, and serve to fasten the mat. Their beads are made of cocoa-nut and shells, strung alternately black and white, ground down to a uniform size, and fitted together like a necklace.

In battle, the costume of the Kingsmill warrior is peculiar and striking in the extreme. On the head is worn a cap formed of the skin of the porcupine fish, bristling with sharp spines, and ornamented with a few feathers at the top. The body is pro-page 395tected by a kind of cumbrous rope armour, made of cocoa-nut fibre netted together; whilst they carry swords and long spears made of light wood, some of which have several formidable blades, and are closely set on both sides with rows of the teeth of the tiger-shark.

As respects their social state, the people are divided into three classes—the chiefs, the landowners, and the slaves. There does not, however, appear to be any general authority existing throughout the group, excepting in the islands of Apamama, Nanouki, and Kuria, where there is a king who governs the three, and resides on the first-named island. In some parts the government is carried on by the whole body of chiefs, who take rank according to their age. In the towns are large councilhouses, called "mariapa," for the purpose of accommodating the chiefs and people on all public occasions. The chiefs have absolute rule over their own families and slaves; and minor crimes are punished by the offended party or his relatives; but in cases of importance the decision is made and the punishment ordered in council.

One great and marked distinction between the Kingsmill Islanders and those of other parts of Polynesia is the entire absence of the "taboo" or "tapu" system, or of laws and prohibitions emanating from the priests, and said to be received from the gods.

Their religious belief is of a simple kind. They worship a tutelar deity, called Tabu-ariki; and also a female divinity, of a cruel nature, named Itivini, page 396who they suppose kills all the little children who die, and eats them. Several kinds of birds and fish are also regarded as sacred by them. A coral stone, tied round with fresh cocoa-nut leaves, represents Tabu-ariki; the homage to which consists in repeating prayers, and depositing a portion of food before the stone. A single cocoa-nut, bound with a wreath of leaves, and placed in the centre of a small circle surrounded with coral stones three feet high, impersonates Itivini. They also believe in an existence after death, and that the departed spirit ascends into the air, where it is carried about by the winds until it finally reaches the Kainakaki or elysium.

Their mode of salutation when a stranger arrives is by anointing his forehead with cocoa-nut oil mixed with coloured earth, and drawing a line down the face to the chin. Each chief has a different coloured oil, so that a stranger bearing on his features either black, white, red, or brown may be known to be under the protection of the chief whose colour he wears.

Although poultry abounds on these islands the natives are averse to eating them. They are, however, passionately addicted to cock-fighting, though whether this barbarous sport is purely a native one, or has been introduced by European runaways, who have from time to time resided on these islands, it is not easy to determine. Dr. Coulter, who visited the Kingsmills in a whaling vessel, thus alludes to their cock-fighting propensities:—"In approaching the town we came in contact with a group of about one hundred people, excitingly and ardently engaged page 397in cock-fighting. Being a stranger, and bearing the friendly mark of the chief Wowma, a passage was at once made for me to the inside of the circle, where the poor cocks were fighting each other: two lay dead that had already been killed, and two more were engaged in a cruel conflict. The excitement of the natives appeared great when either of the birds was knocked over by the other. There did not appear to be any betting or stakes laid on the combat; the whole affair being evidently got up merely for the satisfaction of seeing the poor birds destroy each other."

War, on all the islands except Makin, appears to be the principal business of these people—as cockfighting is their pastime. Both sexes join in the combat; and the victors make no distinction of age or sex in the indiscriminate massacre that ensues. Although the Kingsmill people are not generally cannibals, it occasionally happens that, when some celebrated warrior is slain, the young men eat portions of his flesh from motives of hatred and revenge.

Their houses and canoes are well built; and indeed all their fabrics are large, strong, and durable, although constructed of unsuitable materials. The "mariapa" or council-house on the island of Makin is an enormous building, with a lofty arched roof, supported by framework and upright poles, lined with matting, and thatched with leaves. Their ordinary dwellings are open below, with a sleeping loft above; whilst some are mere sheds, without lofts, where the chiefs pass much of their time in receiving visits and in con-page 398versation. Those of their canoes built on the northern islands are the largest; they have the usual outrigger, and are some of them sixty feet in length.

The principal food of these islanders is fish—which they catch on the reefs and in the lagoons in great abundance—and the taro, cocoa-nut, and pandanus. Of the nuts of the latter, pounded and prepared, they make a sort of paste, which they call "karapapa," which is put up in rolls from eight to ten feet long, bound with leaves, and made so smooth and round that they resemble pillars of brown stone. This preparation will keep for years, and is much depended on in times of scarcity. Taro and grated cocoa-nut are made into balls as large as 32-pound shot, and baked in their ovens. Toddy is procured from the spathe of the cocoa-nut tree, and used as an intoxicating beverage at their feasts, where it is served in large wooden bowls, from which it is handed round in small cups formed of cocoa-nut shells, or in human skulls.

Their great festivities take place at the full moon, when feasting, singing, and dancing, are indulged in for three days. Football, flying kites, fencing, sailing small canoes, and swimming matches in the surf, are also favourite amusements with the younger portion of the community.

Of all their customs those connected with their funeral ceremonies are perhaps the most singular. Captain Wilkes, who commanded the United States Exploring Expedition, and visited the Kingsmills in 1840, gives the following description of these rites:—"When a man dies, his body is taken to the page 399'mariapa,' washed, and laid out on a clean mat, where it remains for eight days, and every day at noon it is taken into the sun, washed, and oiled. During this time the friends are engaged in wailing and singing praises of the dead, and in dancing; but they think it a great weakness to shed tears on such occasions. After this mourning, the body is sewn up in two mats, and sometimes buried in the house of the nearest relative, the head being always turned towards the east. In other cases, it is stored away in the loft. When the flesh is nearly gone, the skull is taken off, carefully cleaned, oiled, and put away. The skulls of their ancestors are kept by chiefs as a kind of household deity, to which they frequently offer up prayers and entreaties, to keep watchful care over their descendants. The skulls are not unfrequently taken down, bound with wreaths, anointed with oil, and have food set before them. In passing from one island to another, these skulls are always carried along, as if members of the family, and treated with every mark of reverence.

"The funeral ceremonies on Makin (Pitt's Islands) are still more extraordinary. After the first wailing, the body is washed, and laid out on a new mat, spread on a large oblong plate of tortoise-shell sewn together. From two to six persons, according to the size of the corpse, seat themselves opposite to one another on the floor of the house, and hold this plate, with the body of their friend, on their knees. When tired, they are relieved by others, and in this manner the service is kept up for a space of time varying from four months to two years, page 400according to the rank of the deceased. During the continuance of this lying in state, a fire is kept burning in the house, day and night, and is never extinguished. At the end of the period, the remains are wrapped in mats, and either stowed away in a loft, or buried. The grave is marked with three stones, and the skull preserved as in the other islands."

Ocean Island lies due west from the Kingsmills, in latitude 0° 48' south, and longitude 169° 49' east. It is a high, circular island, nearly fifteen miles in circumference, having neither harbour nor anchorage. It has no surrounding reefs, but the coast is steep-to all round, and clear of any hidden dangers. This island is very thickly inhabited by a fine-looking race of men of a light copper colour, with pleasing features. The men go entirely naked, and the women wear a sort of petticoat, formed of young cocoa-nut leaves cut into strips, and braided on to a string at one end. They have fine black hair, which they dress with much care, perfuming it with sweet essences mixed with cocoa-nut oil. They subsist chiefly on cocoa-nuts, bananas, sugar-cane, and fish. Their houses are small but neat. They are thatched with cocoa-nut leaves, having open sides, but they have a loft resting on the wall-plates, in which they sleep. The lower apartment is paved with round stones, and is generally cool and pleasant.

They have canoes formed of thin planks sewn together, which carry from four to ten persons each, and are propelled by paddles only.

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Pleasant Island is nearly three degrees to the west of Ocean Island, being in longitude 167° 5' east, and only twenty-five miles south of the equator. It is fourteen miles in circumference, rather low, and covered with trees, and is surrounded by a fringing reef, projecting from the shore for about 200 yards. Like Ocean Island, it possesses neither harbour nor anchorage. The natives resemble the inhabitants of that island in physical appearance, and in their mode of forming their houses and canoes. The men wear a petticoat or kilt similar to that used by the women of Ocean Island, whilst the dress of the Pleasant Island females consists of a wrapper of native cloth, made of the fibres of the banana-tree, woven on a small loom. The natives manufacture rope from the cocoa-nut husks, and hats from the plaited leaves of the young cocoa-nut similar to those usually made by sailors, and which they have been taught the art of constructing by the runaway seamen who are constantly living amongst them. The population of Pleasant Island is, according to Captain Simpson, about 1400.

Ellice's Islands, or the Vaitapu group, are a numerous cluster of low coral islands scattered about to the northward of the Friendly Islands, and west-north-west from the Samoas, from which they are distant about 500 miles. They are also sometimes called De Peyster's Islands. Vaitapu, the principal island, is situated in 7° 28' south latitude. It is a lagoon island, and contains about 400 inhabitants. All these islands are well wooded page 402with cocoa-nut, pandanus, and pisonia; and the natives subsist chiefly on the two first of these, together with fish, and a kind of taro.

The people of this group are darker than the Samoans; they practise tattooing; and both sexes wear the maro, as well as a broad girdle with a heavy fringe. They have many peculiar weapons; and large canoes hollowed out of a single tree, with outriggers, and triangular sails. The population of the entire group is not more than 1700 or 1800.

To the north-east of Ellice's Islands is situated the Phœnix cluster, which consists of seven or eight uninhabited islands. To the south of these lies the Union cluster, containing three principal islands, viz., Otafu, or Duke of York's Island; Nukanono, or Duke of Clarence Island; and Fokakafo, or Bowditch Island. These islands are of a coralline formation, and in their general aspect resemble the atolls of the Paumotus. The inhabitants are a quiet, harmless people, considered to be the fairest race in central Polynesia, and much resemble the Samoans in form and features. They are said to have been unacquainted with the use of fire previous to the arrival of foreigners amongst them.

Stewart's Islands consist of five low coral islands, covered with cocoa-nut trees, and connected by reefs, forming a central lagoon. The group is of a triangular form, about 15 miles in circumference, and is situated in latitude 8° 24' south, and 163° east longitude, or about half-way between the Kingsmills and the Solomon archipelago. This little cluster of islands is inhabited by a very page 403hospitable and inoffensive race, who are of a light copper complexion, and are described as being the best-disposed people throughout Polynesia. The present population does not exceed 170 souls, who can nearly all speak broken English, having learned it from their intercourse with the whale ships, who often visit them to procure supplies of cocoa-nuts and pigs, which are abundant there. The central lagoon is well stocked with fish, and immense quantities of beche-de-mer are to be obtained on the reefs, which the natives collect and dispose of to the traders for tobacco, calico, knives, hatchets, and other commodities. The village where the inhabitants reside is on the lagoon shore of the easternmost and largest island, which is about a mile in length.