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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 XV. — The Marquesas, or Mendāna Group

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Chapter XV.
The Marquesas, or Mendāna Group.

a morai in nukahiva, marquesas.

a morai in nukahiva, marquesas.

This cluster of islands consists of two groups, named respectively the Marquesas and the Washington Islands. The former were discovered in 1595 by Mendāna, the Spanish navigator, who named them Las Marquesas de Mendoça, in honour of the Vice-page 324roy of Peru. After being long forgotten, they were re-discovered and examined by Captain Cook. The more northerly, or Washington group, were first visited by the Americans in 1791, and afterwards by Krusenstern. All these islands are, how-ever, more generally known to navigators as the Marquesas, and contain, besides the large island of Nukahiva, which is about seventy miles in circum-ference, the smaller ones of Ouahouga (or Washington Island), Ohevahoa, Oualeava, Tabouata, or St. Christina, and Fetouiva, or Magdalena, together with others of but little importance.

The Marquesas lie 900 miles to the north-east of the Society Islands, nearly midway between them and the equator, being situated between the parallels of 8° and 11° south, and the meridians of 138° and 141° west. They have a warmer climate than Tahiti, and are all mountainous and volcanic, rising to upwards of 5000 feet above the sea. The mountain peaks are extremely broken and craggy; and the centres of some of the islands are occupied by piles of rocks resembling ruined castles and towers. The volcanic precipices in many places extend abruptly down to the sea, presenting barren walls of black and naked lava, but the intermediate valleys are singularly fertile and picturesque, and copiously watered by streams, which descend in numerous cascades, one of which, in Nukahiva, being 2000 feet high, is among the most beautiful in the world. The coral reefs surrounding these islands are less extensive than those of the groups to the southward, and the harbours which they page 325form are less secure for shipping. The port of Anna Maria in Nukahiva is the principal harbour of the group; and in St. Christina there is also good anchorage in a port protected from the tradewind, and having two excellent streams of fresh water flowing into it; it was here that the Spaniards anchored, giving it the name of Madre de Dios.

Missionary labours appear to have been attended with but little success in the Marquesas. In the year 1797 Captain Wilson, who commanded the Ship "Duff," belonging to the London Missionary Society, landed a missionary there, who was kindly treated, and furnished with a share of food, at a period when the natives were suffering from scarcity; but after remaining little more than eighteen months he returned to England, without having accomplished the object of his mission. About five-and-thirty years ago they were again visited by English missionaries from Tahiti, two of whom remained some years in the islands, though their efforts to induce the inhabitants to embrace Christianity appear to have been unproductive of good.

The French nation then took possession of the Marquesan group, and some Roman Catholic missionaries were placed there, but with what result is not known. Within the last few years some missionaries from the American church, with native assistants, have gone from the Sandwich Islands, and arc now labouring in the northern portion of the Marquesas, amongst the deeply interesting people by whom they are inhabited.

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Although the Marquesas are regarded as a French dependency, having formally been taken possession of by that power, but little has hitherto been done in the way of colonization, or developing the resources of these islands. The military establishment of the French at Nukahiva has latterly been abandoned, according to accounts from Tahiti; and the Marquesans still remain far behind most of the inhabitants of the other islands of the eastern Pacific in their acquaintance with Christianity and civilization.

The population of this group has been variously estimated; but it probably does not altogether exceed from 20,000 to 30,000 at the present time.

Nukahiva, and several of the other islands, are frequently touched at by British, French, and American vessels engaged in the South Sea whalefishery.

The island of Nukahiva is not only more extensive than the rest, but of greater fertility. It is divided, by the natural boundaries of almost inaccessible mountain ridges or spurs sloping to the sea, into several districts or valleys, each containing from 1500 to 2000 people, with an hereditary king or chief attached to each. These tribes are frequently at war with each other, but seldom come to a sanguinary battle; although the mode of warfare they adopt is productive of greater calamity than the loss even of a few slain, for they go by night into the enemy's district, and destroy the bark from every bread-fruit tree they meet with. As the bread-fruit, when thus treated, will not again bear page 327for five years, a raid of this kind is certain to involve the unfortunate district in want for several subsequent years.

The earliest accounts we have of the Marquesans are from the Spaniards. In July, 1595, Mendāna discovered the island of Fetouiva or Magdalena. Of the natives he says, "These islanders were in colour almost white: they had long hair, which some suffered to hang loose, and others gathered in a knot at the top of the head. Their faces and bodies were marked with representations of fish, and with various other devices, which were painted or wrought into their skins, of a blue colour: they were of good stature, and so well shaped, that in person they had much the advantage of ourselves. They had fine teeth and eyes, and good countenances: their voices were strong; but their manners gentle." All the Spanish accounts are diffuse in praise of the beauty of the natives of Magdalena, and particularly of the children, who were entirely naked. Of these, Figueroa says, "There came, among others, two lads paddling their canoe, whose eyes were fixed upon the ship; they had beautiful faces, and the most promising animation of countenance; and were in all things so becoming that the captain affirmed nothing in his life ever caused him so much regret as the leaving such beautiful creatures to be lost in that country."

Although the Marquesans are described by some voyagers as ferocious cannibals, and constantly engaged in barbarous wars, to their earliest English visitors they appeared hospitable and gentle; and page 328on their first discovery by the Spaniards, so civilly disposed were they, that a beautiful native woman seated herself by the side of Donna Isabel, the wife of Mendāna, and began to fan her. But the Spaniards, as was ever their custom, found means to quarrel with these people, and to drive them into the fastnesses of the woods and mountains with their fire-arms.

The Marquesans are perhaps the finest race throughout Polynesia. Both men and women are remarkably beautiful, in symmetry of form and gracefulness of movement surpassing all others in the Pacific; so much so, that they would not, it is asserted, lose by a comparison with the most perfect models of ancient sculpture. Their complexion generally is so fair as to be but little darker than that of Europeans; but it is visible only in the youths, for the custom of tattooing is carried to such a pitch amongst them that the skin of an adult Marquesan becomes the mere canvas, as it were, of a picture. This operation begins at the age of twelve or thirteen, but it is not till they attain thirty or thirty-five that their persons are entirely covered. The tattooing is, nevertheless, remarkable for its regularity and good taste. Some of the women are as fair as an English brunette, with the rosy tint showing in their cheeks, and are less generally tattooed than the men. Mendāna describes them as being "dressed in elegant robes made of bark, which reached from the breast to the calf of the leg." These were their "tappa" cloth garments, which, in common with most of the page 329islanders of the eastern Pacific, they prepare from the bark of the paper-mulberry tree with much skill, ornamenting it, like their bodies, with a variety of pleasing and graceful patterns. On ordinary occasions the men wear but little covering, the waist being bound round with a long piece of tight stuff, the ends of which passing between the thighs, fold back again, and hang to the middle of the leg. At other times they adopt a simple covering of green leaves, forming a sort of short skirt round the loins. They also wear a picturesque kind of hat made of palm leaves, which gives an interesting finish to their manly figures. Their religious ceremonies appear to be similar in most respects to those which formerly obtained in Tahiti. Each district has its sacred "morai," where the dead are buried under large stones. They have numerous gods, many of which have similar names to those of the defunct divinities of the Society Islands.

They are excessively fond of ornaments, the men making theirs from sea shells, or of a light wood, which, by the application of an earth, becomes beautifully white. The women prefer flowers, which at all seasons of the year are to be found in perfection. Whales' teeth, also, as in Figi, are held in great estimation, and are worn by the chiefs suspended round their necks. Their other ornaments consist of a kind of coronet, ingeniously made of light wood, on which is fastened, by means of the rosin of the bread-fruit tree, small red berries. A necklace is also worn of similar materials. Added page 330to these are long bunches of human hair, tied round the ankles and wrists, and always worn in battle, though not generally at other times.

Their principal head-dress is a sort of broad fillet made of cocoa-nut fibre. In front is fixed a mother-of-pearl-shell, wrought into a circular shape; before that, another circular plate of tortoise-shell, finely perforated with curious figures; and in front, again, a still smaller rounded piece of mother-of-pearl, with a little disc of tortoise-shell in the centre. To this are fastened the tail feathers of cocks or tropic birds, which, when the fillet is tied on the head, stand upright; so that the whole makes a very elegant ornament.

Their amusements consist principally of dancing, swimming, and wrestling, throwing their wooden javelins, and slinging stones; in the whole of which they are great proficients. Their arms consist of clubs, carved and plain, which they harden to an extreme by burying them in the mud; spears, ten feet long, and slings made of grass, from which they throw stones a great distance, with considerable accuracy.

The Marquesans are very expert fishermen. They go out in their canoes, which are long and narrow, having an outrigger and a projecting stage, on which the steersman stands. In these they paddle through the surf of the reefs, and either use long bamboo-rods and lines, from which a pearl imitation of a flying fish is attached, for the capture of the bonito, dolphin, or albicore; or they use hand-nets, the fisherman, in such cases, diving page 331down close to the coral rocks, the net in one hand and a stick about two feet long in the other, applying this net to the opening of any hole in the coral, and with the stick beating out the fish. Two dangers attend this mode of fishing; one is the unexpected dash of a shark at the man; the other, that his long black tresses, which are cast loose before entering the water, occasionally get entangled, and these hold him fast in the strong and jagged branches of coral with which the edges of the descending reef are composed.

Their houses are generally placed close to trees, which afford an agreeable shade. They have a high back wall, with a shed roof sloping down to the front, where there is a low wall or fence. They are thatched with cocoa-nut leaves, closely and thickly put on; whilst the inside of the walls is usually covered with a close matting. Two long poles or spars run the whole length of the house, near the back wall, about six feet apart from each other—the intervening space covered deeply with grass or leaves, and a fine mat over it. This is the bed for the household, the heads of the sleepers resting on one pole, the backs of their necks being supported on it, as on a wooden pillow; the feet or ankles resting on the other. The portion of the house in front of this long family bed, is used for domestic purposes, eating, mat-making, singing, and various evening amusements.

The "pahooa" or theatre, is generally constructed on some level spot, surrounded by rising grassy banks. The surface is covered by a smooth page 332and variously-coloured pavement. The spectators, with their refreshments of baked pigs, bread-fruit, and other eatables, occupy the surrounding banks. In the centre are the dancers, who, being profusely ornamented, and painted of a golden yellow with turmeric and cocoa-nut oil, perform their lewd dances to the music of drums, beaten by the flat of the hand.

Lieutenant Shillibeer, who visited Nukahiva, in the year 1814, in H.M. frigate "Briton," commanded by Sir Thomas Staines, speaks very highly of the kind and friendly reception met with from the natives, and denies that they were addicted to cannibalism, as affirmed by Captain Porter, an American, who, in the U.S. frigate "Essex," took forcible possession of Nukahiva more than fifty years ago, and committed such acts of cruelty and oppression upon the unoffending people, that to the present day his name is spoken of by them with detestation and horror.