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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 XVII. — The New Hebrides, and the Queen Charlotte Islands

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Chapter XVII.
The New Hebrides, and the Queen Charlotte Islands.

port resolution, tanna, new hebrides.

port resolution, tanna, new hebrides.

The New Hebrides were first seen by the Spanish navigator Quiros, in 1606, and were subsequently visited by Bougainville in 1768. Captain Cook (from whom they received their present name), was, however, the first to ascertain their situation and extent, as well as to add considerably to our know-page 349ledge of their number. They consist of a long chain of fertile volcanic islands, some of which are of a large size, stretching in the direction of north and south, through a length of about 400 miles, between the parallels of 14° and 21° south latitude, and 167° to 170° of east longitude. Their position is north of New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, and nearly south-east from the Solomon group.

The principal islands of the New Hebrides are Espiritu Santo, Malicolo, Vate, or Sandwich Island, Erumanga, Tanna, Aneiteum, Api, and the smaller ones of Ambrym, Aurora Island, Erunan, or Fotuna, and others of minor importance.

But little was known of this important group of islands, until the discovery of sandal-wood in several of them, about the year 1828; which caused vessels from New South Wales and other places to engage in a traffic for that commodity, which obtains a high price in the Chinese market. This traffic has been carried on with more or less activity ever since; and, as a consequence, there have been frequent quarrels with the natives, the traders in their transactions often conducting themselves in a manner discreditable to Europeans; and the natives, in their turn, revenging themselves by cutting off the vessels, and murdering such of the crews as fell into their hands. At Aneiteum, the southernmost island of the group, a regular factory was established by Captain Paddon, some years ago, who surrounding himself by a number of white men and their families, and treating the natives in a proper and judicious manner, succeeded in securing their friend-page 350ship; so that the entire island is now open to Europeans, who reside there in perfect security.

The first attempt to introduce Christianity into the New Hebrides, was made in 1839 by Mr. Williams, of the London Missionary Society, who, after landing at Tanna, visited Erumanga, where he unfortunately met his death at the hands of the natives. Since that period, missionaries, both European and Samoan, have been established on several of the islands, especially at Vate, Tanna, and Aneiteum; and it cannot be doubted but that ere long a regular footing will be obtained throughout the entire group, for the diffusion of the Christian religion.

The inhabitants of most of these islands have a different language; and as they are broken up into separate communities, and generally at war with each other, missionary labours have consequently been greatly impeded.

The New Hebrides consist mostly of hills, rising in some islands to the elevation of mountains; and contain several active volcanoes, which have been referred to in a previous chapter. In the valleys, the soil is excessively fertile, and the vegetation luxuriant in the extreme; but during the rainy season fever and ague prevail to a great extent, rendering the climate very trying to Europeans.

Espiritu Santo, the most northerly, and by far the largest of the group, is more than 160 miles in circumference. It was first visited by the Spaniards Quiros and Torres, who, on discovering it, at once imagined they had fallen in with the long-sought-for page 351southern continent; and in this conviction named it the Australia del Espiritu Santo. They entered a deep bay on the northern side of the island, which they described as having a port capable of containing upwards of 1000 ships, where they may anchor in security. Two rivers, between which this port was situated, were named, one, the Jordan, and the other the Salvador; and Quiros tells us "one of these rivers is as large as the Guadalquiver at Seville, and has a bar over which good frigates may enter." The banks of these rivers were covered with all manner of odoriferous shrubs and flowers; and "all parts of the country in front of the sea, where the verdure reached down to its edge, were beautifully variegated with fertile valleys, plains, winding rivers, and groves which extended to the sides of green mountains."

This terrestrial paradise the Spaniards regarded as their own, and, taking possession of the country in the name of Philip III., they went through the formalities of founding a city, to be called, "La Nueva Jerusalem;" but, before the first hut was finished, a bloody contest with the natives (which was provoked by the Spaniards themselves), together with a failure of provisions, obliged them to return to Lima. So anxious was Quiros of adding this splendid island to the other Spanish possessions in the Pacific, that he is said to have presented no less than fifty memorials to the king, after his return to Spain. In one of these, after extolling the rich and varied vegetation, the beautiful forests, free from the incumbrance of trailing shrubs, and page 352the fresh, and salubrious waters, he enumerates extensive silver mines, and pearls of the largest size, as being amongst the attractions of this favoured region.

Malicolo is also a fine island, well-wooded and well-watered, and possesses a fertile soil. It is about fifty miles long by twelve or fifteen broad, and is separated from Espiritu Santo by the narrow Strait of Bougainville.

Vate, or Sandwich Island, is also exceedingly fertile, and capable of supporting a very large population. It is about seventy miles in circumference. On its western side is a large land-locked bay with good anchorage, named, after his vessel by Captain Erskine, who visited it in 1852, "Havannah Harbour." The woods of Vate are adorned with tints of lively verdure, and contain a profusion of cocoa-nut trees. The mountains attain a considerable elevation towards the interior, and exhibit along their lower slopes hills of the most varied and picturesque forms, being in general bare of trees, but covered with rich pasture, and in some places arrayed with cultivated patches of a golden hue.

Erumanga is high and rocky, and presents an iron-bound shore nearly all round, with deep water close to the cliffs. There is, however, an anchorage at Dillon's Bay, on the west, and also one at Cook's Bay, on the east coast.

Erumanga is about the same size as Vate, but not nearly so fertile. Its inhabitants were formerly notorious for their cannibal propensities, and are page 353represented as being the most barbarous of all the natives of the New Hebrides. The Europeans who visited Erumanga to procure sandal-wood did not land; but the natives swam off with the wood, through the surf, to the ships' boats.

Thirty-five miles south of Erumanga lies the island of Tanna, which is twenty-five miles long by ten broad. Its south end is mountainous, and it contains a very active volcano, previously described in Chapter II. Indeed the whole island is the seat of subterranean fires, which seem to contribute much to that exuberance of vegetation for which the island is distinguished—plants attaining here twice the height they have in other islands, with broader leaves and a stronger perfume. In some parts there are solfataros, or sulphur springs; and both hot and tepid waters gush from the earth in many places. The scenery of Tanna is varied and picturesque, the ranges of hills being separated from one another by wide valleys, which abound in cocoa-nuts, yams, sugar-canes, bread-fruit, and a sort of nutmeg.

The inhabitants are a treacherous race, and, like their neighbours the Erumangans, bore the reputation of being sadly addicted to cannibalism, even digging up the bodies of the dead after burial, to gratify their horrid appetites. The efforts of the missionaries, who were placed at Port Resolution some eighteen years ago, had but little effect on the natives of Tanna. Dysentery unfortunately broke out, which the heathen priests ascribed to the agency of the missionaries; and the latter, page 354after being plundered of everything, barely escaped with their lives on board a whaler.

Port Resolution, the principal harbour of Tanna, is a pretty spot; the land around the village is well cultivated, and the vegetation everywhere most luxuriant. Many small vessels call there periodically; and the missionary settlement occupies the northern side of the bay. The small islands of Niua and Erunan, or Fotuna, lie to the eastward of Tanna. The former is low, and well inhabited; the latter lofty, about fifteen miles in circumference, and peopled by a wild race, similar to those of Tanna.

Aneiteum, the most southerly of the chain of the New Hebrides, is some thirty miles round. It consists of very high land, and has a harbour formed of a sandy island and reefs on its south-west side. The inhabitants are more civilized than any others of the group, in consequence of the European establishment on the island, before referred to. The island, however, is far from fertile, hardly producing food enough, during some seasons, to supply the wants of its inhabitants. Shocks of earthquake are frequently felt at Aneiteum.

The small but majestic island of Aurora, lying east of Espiritu Santo, is adorned with picturesque forests, diversified by fine waterfalls; whilst Ambrym, near Malicolo, attracts attention by its volcano, which is constantly emitting impetuous columns of white smoke.

The natives of the various islands composing the New Hebrides exhibit a considerable diversity both page 355of language, manners, and personal appearance. The people of Vate, for instance, are little inferior in stature, strength, and intelligence to the Figians, whilst those of Erumanga, Tanna, and Aneiteum, although differing considerably from each other, appear to belong to a less robust and a less advanced people. The inhabitants of Malicolo, on the contrary, are compared by Captain Cook to "apes;" and of these islanders he says, "they are the most ugly, ill-proportioned people we ever met with, with monkey countenances; and they had a belt round the waist, pulled tight across the belly, which made them look not unlike overgrown pismires."

Of the people of Tanna, Captain Erskine says, "They are generally of short stature, but muscular and athletic for their size; the colour of their skins a shiny black, and their bodies covered thinly with hair or a kind of down. Some had black or brown crisp hair; but that of the greater number was twisted, and tied up into an immense number of thin cords, the ends being frizzed out about two inches from the extremity, where the colour was a sandy red (produced by lime). The nose was generally rather flat, and the eyes of a chocolate colour; the ears of almost all being pierced, having flat rings of tortoise-shell and other trinkets hanging from them. The features of the men would not have been disagreeable, but for the constant custom of daubing their faces with black-lead, to which a thick plastering of red ochreous earth was generally added."

The inhabitants of Vate have but few points of resemblance to those of Tanna, except in the colour of page 356their skins. Captain Erskine thus describes them: "They were of larger stature, and more regular features, some having straight and almost aquiline noses, good foreheads, and beards of a moderate size. As their manners were more composed, so their dress was much more decent, consisting of a broad belt of matting, seven or eight inches wide, very neatly worked in a diamond pattern of red, white, and black colours. Many of them were tattooed, or rather had their arms and chests covered with raised figures. The cartilage of the nose was pierced, and filled with a circular piece of stone; and the lobes of the ears always so, large ornaments of white shells, or of tortoise-shell being hung from them, so as often to extend the orifice to a great size. Round their arms they wore handsome bracelets, made of small rings ground out of shells. In some instances their crisp hair was gathered up into a large top-knot, coloured yellow by lime, and a neat plume of cocks' feathers, attached to the 'scratching pin,' inserted into it." Their bows and arrows are of beautiful design, the barbs being exquisitely carved, and the sockets ornamented with red and white plaited grass, and decorated with feathers. Their canoes are built with outriggers, and, although of coarser construction, resemble those of the Navigator's Islands.

The women of Vate are generally tall; they wear their hair closely cropped, and occasionally ornament their bodies with raised or tattooed figures similar to those of the men. Their dress consists of a broad waistbelt, with a square mat in front; and behind is a singular appendage resembling a broad page 357tail, which is fastened from the waistband, and descends nearly to the middle of the calf of the leg. This "tail" is made of plaited grass, having at the end a loose fringe about eighteen inches long, which spreads out in the form of a fan.

The reception-houses of the Vatean villages are often of considerable size, being sometimes as much as one hundred feet long, and are open on one side. They are remarkable for having the interior of their roofs covered with bundles of bones suspended from the rafters. These bones do not appear to belong to the human species, but principally to consist of the vertebræ of pigs, the "merry-thoughts" and breastbones of fowls, and the bones of fishes, mingled with the shells of lobsters and other crustaceans.

Of the population of the New Hebrides it is difficult to speak with any degree of certainty, although it appears that the coasts in many places abound with populous villages. Aneiteum is known to possess about 5000 inhabitants, and Tanna has 15,000, according to Mr. Turner. The great island of Espiritu Santo, as well as Vate, is thickly peopled; so that probably the entire group may contain at least 60,000 souls.

Ever since the massacre of Mr. Williams at Erumanga, in 1839, the natives of the New Hebrides have been objects of increased solicitude to the untiring missionaries. For many years they laboured on with but little success, being driven from one island to another, and suffering continual hardships from the savage barbarism of the people. The year 1859, however, saw a marvellous change at and page 358around the mission stations, which had by this time been established on many of the islands. Large numbers now profess Christianity; and a considerable body of missionaries and native teachers are at present successfully carrying on their good work. As late, however, as 1860, the savage character of the Erumangans again manifested itself in the massacre, by the heathen party, of Mr. Gordon, a missionary stationed at Erumanga, and his wife, who were put to death in consequence of the belief that they had caused an epidemic disease from which the natives were suffering. Their loss was severely felt by the Christian inhabitants, to whom the blow was a fearful one. "The day after their murder," writes an eye-witness, "the missionaries were buried, amidst the tears and lamentations of the people. Mana, the native teacher, stood beside the grave and delivered an address to his countrymen, which powerfully affected the bystanders. Amongst these there was one man who seemed to be utterly overcome with grief. Strange to say, this was the chief of the district, now a convert to Christianity, and formerly the murderer of John Williams."

In the beautiful but unhealthy island of Vate, in Api, Malicolo, and Ambrym, and in the large island of Espiritu Santo, to the north, native teachers have still more recently been established; and although several of them have fallen victims to the climate, their efforts to introduce Christianity amongst the inhabitants have been rewarded with success.

The Queen Charlotte Islands are situated to the north of the New Hebrides, almost midway between page 359them and the Solomon Archipelago: they consist of the islands of Santa Cruz and Vanikoro, with a few others of smaller size, lying between 10° and 12° south latitude, and 165° and 168° east longitude. This group is described as being of volcanic origin; and the islands, which are tolerably mountainous, are well wooded and fertile.

Santa Cruz was first discovered by Mendāna, the Spanish navigator, on his second voyage in search of the Solomon Islands, about the year 1570. Carteret afterwards landed there in 1767, and was engaged in a terrible contest with the natives, who at first received him favourably, and entertained him and his officers in a house of assembly similar in form and accommodations to those once used in Tahiti. He changed the name of Santa Cruz to that of Egmont, and made it the principal of a group to which he gave the appellation of Queen Charlotte's Islands. In Santa Cruz is a remarkably fine harbour, called La Graciosa, where Carteret anchored.

The inhabitants, who are very numerous, are of a dark-olive colour, though some are nearly black, and seem to belong to a different race. They all have the crisp hair of the Austral negroes, with regular features, and broad foreheads. They pluck the hair off every part of the body, and delight in wearing that of the head white—an appearance they produce by means of lime—this colour forming a strange contrast to the darkness of their bodies, which is further increased by tattooing. Carteret describes these people as being brave and vigorous, and says that they resolutely defended their island, which is rich and page 360fertile, and the coasts lined with large villages. Their weapons are principally bows, with poisoned arrows, beautifully carved, and coloured with red, black, and yellow.

Vanikoro is celebrated as having been the scene of the disastrous shipwreck of the vessels under the command of La Pérouse, in 1788. It afterwards received from the French Admiral D'Entrecasteaux—then engaged in searching for traces of La Pérouse—the name of Recherche Island, but was unfortunately passed by him at a distance, and without receiving a careful examination. Thus the fate of the missing expedition, last heard of at Botany Bay, in New South Wales, remained a mystery for a further period of nearly forty years, when accident gave a clue to researches which showed that the ships commanded by La Pérouse had been lost upon the coral reefs by which Vanikoro is surrounded. The small island of Tucopia lies considerably to the south-east of Vanikoro.