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Polynesian Researches



This island lies nearly three degrees westward of Tubuai, and some miles nearer the equator. It is about twenty miles in circumference; and though higher than any of the islands of coral formation, its hills present but a small elevation. The soil is fertile, and the lowland, surrounded by a natural safeguard or reef, is generally attached to the shore. There is no harbour, nor any opening in the reefs, excepting for a boat. The hills are clothed with the trees and shrubs common to the page 389 neighbouring islands, while the valleys and level grounds yield the fruits and roots which are met with in Tahiti and the northern clusters. Rimatara, however, is principally distinguished as the favourite resort of a beautiful species of paroquet, which is so numerous as to occasion great annoyance to the inhabitants, by destroying their fruit. These birds are small, but their plumage, which is of red, green, and purple, is rich and brilliant. The feathers of these little birds have ever been held in high estimation among the inhabitants of the other islands, whither they have been conveyed as the most valuable articles of native commerce. The population of this island is small, not much exceeding 300. The natives are well formed; their hair is straight or curled, and their complexion fairer than that of the inhabitants of the Society Islands. They are a quiet, gentle race, occupied generally in the simplest employments of agriculture and fishing. They display less native energy than their neighbours; and though their sources of enjoyment are scanty, their crimes and their sufferings are proportionably less. Diseases are few, and an unusual number of very aged persons are found among them. Yet, in a community so small and isolated, and whose habits were in many respects mild, and comparatively humane, woman was subjected to an invidious and humiliating sense of her inferiority. She was necessitated, by the will of man, to labour in the culture of the earth, though deprived of an equal participation of its abundant and choicest productions. The toil required to furnish the means of subsistence, was performed exclusively by the wife, while the husband spent his hours in indolence and amusement. This state of things, not more favourable to morals than to page 390 happiness, was sustained by the rude system of superstition in which they lived, and which prevailed in the adjacent islands.

To the exertions of the Missionaries, and native Christians, in spreading Christianity, we are indebted for our knowledge of the existence of this island, and the circumstances of its inhabitants; at least, I have met with no account of it, before that given by the Missionaries who established native teachers among the people. Although the inhabitants of the Society Islands reported the existence of an island, somewhere to the southward, which they designated by this name, the first intelligence that we received of its situation, extent, and population, was derived from the inhabitants of Rurutu, who were driven to the Society Islands in 1821.

When Auura, the chief of Rurutu, accompanied by teachers from Raiatea, returned to his native land, in the year 1821, he found there a number of the inhabitants of Rimatara. These followed the example of the inhabitants of Rurutu, in destroying their idols, and receiving Christian instruction; sailing shortly afterwards to their own island, they induced many of their countrymen to do the same. In the month of June, 1822, the Christians in Borabora sent two of their number, Faarava and Oo, to instruct the inhabitants of this island in reading, writing, and the first elements of religion. They were accompanied by the European Missionaries, and all received a cordial welcome from the people. Although the natural productions of Rimatara were inferior to those of Borabora, and the comforts of life fewer than those enjoyed in their native land, this did not discourage them. They applied themselves with page 391 diligence to the accomplishment of their object, and such was the success with which their exertions were attended, that, when Mr. Williams visited them, in October, 1823, fifteen months after the arrival of the native teachers, he found the inhabitants had renounced their idols, and were living in harmony among themselves, and with their teachers, whom they greatly respected. They had erected a place for the worship of the true God. This building was sixty feet long, and thirty wide; the walls were plastered, and the floor was boarded. A neat pulpit, of excellent workmanship, built, as was also the chapel, after the plan of that in which the teachers had been accustomed to worship in their native island, was also finished. It was opened for divine worship during Mr. Williams' visit; and the congregation, including the greater part of the population, amounting to about three hundred, presented a most interesting spectacle. The females were neatly dressed in white native cloth, each one wearing a bonnet, which the wives of the teachers had taught them to make. Men, who had grown old in the service of idolatry, and who had never met for worship in any but a pagan temple, now assembled to render homage to the living God. The venerable figures, whose heads were grey with years, appeared in striking contrast with the youth and sprightliness of the children by whom they were surrounded. During the service, all appeared interested and attentive. At this time, the entire population were under instruction; and the children's school contained 130 scholars.

About the time of the commencement of the Mission, an American seaman, of the name of Robert, accompanied by a number of natives, undertook page 392 to convey some books from Rurutu to Rimatara, a distance of about seventy miles. He reached Rimatara in safety, but, on returning, was driven out of his course, and pershed with several of his companions. The day after his death, the boat was picked up by a vessel, about 200 miles distant from the island; and, by proper treatment, such of the crew as were still alive, recovered from the weakness and exhaustion which famine had induced.

In the year 1825, two years after Mr. Williams left them, this island was visited by Mr. Bourne, from Tahaa. He was welcomed by the people, who had begun to think that they and their teachers were forgotten by their friends. Twelve months before his arrival, Oo had been removed by death: stedfast and faithful to the end of his days, he had the honour of being the first native Missionary who had ended his days in communicating the blessings of Christianity to others. Faarara, his companion, had lost by death his wife and child. He was eminently devoted to his work, and, under these bereavements, was cheered by the sympathies and esteem of the people, and the evident advantages that resulted from his efforts. Mr. Bourne was delighted with the improvement of the station, and the diligence of the people, especially of some who were far advanced in years.

Although the circumstances of the females were considerably ameliorated by the abolition of idolatry, yet the cultivation of the ground, and other kinds of labour unsuitable to their sex, were still performed by them. During his visit, Mr. Bourne, at a public meeting, proposed an alteration of their established usage in this respect, which was alike derogatory to the females, and inimical to an page 393 improvement in morals. Each chief present expressed his sentiments in favour of the proposal and the result, was an unanimous declaration, “that, from that day forward, the men should dig, plant, and prepare the food, and the women make cloth, bonnets, and attend to their household work.” The change thus introduced, by instituting a suitable division of labour, has proved favourable to domestic virtue and social happiness, while it has augmented the means of subsistence, and the sources of comfort.

∗Miss. Chron. No. 41. p. 271.

Within the last ten years, the intercourse between Rurutu and Rimatara has been frequent, though not always safe.

The last accounts from this island state, that the people continue to improve in the knowledge and practice of religion, and to advance in energy and industry. In order to increase their conveniences, they had sent one of their number to Borabora, a distance of nearly four hundred miles, to learn the art of carpentry, turning, &c., that, on his return, he might be able to teach his countrymen. They had also sent a letter to Mr. Platt, requesting him to visit them, and establish a Christian church among them.