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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 II. — Active Volcanoes, Boiling Springs, and other Natural Phenomena

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Chapter II.
Active Volcanoes, Boiling Springs, and other Natural Phenomena.

boiling springs at savu-savu, fiji.

boiling springs at savu-savu, fiji.

The largest and most important burning mountains at present in a state of activity in the Polynesian Islands are those which occur in the Sandwich group. One of these, the volcano of Kirauea, in the page break
crater of kilanea. chap. ii.

crater of kilanea. chap. ii.

page 11 island of Hawaii, is especially worthy of notice. Indeed, the whole island, covering a space of 4000 square miles, from the summits of its lofty and snow-clad mountains, some 14,000 feet above the sea, down to the beach, is, according to the observations of geologists, one complete mass of lava and other volcanic substances in different stages of decomposition. Perforated with innumerable apertures in the shape of craters, the island forms a hollow cone over one vast furnace, situated in the heart of a stupendous submarine mountain, rising from the bottom of the sea.

The great volcano of Kirauea, or "Kiraueanui," as it is called by the Sandwich Islanders, is situated about twenty-five miles inland from the south-east coast of Hawaii, and nearly equidistant between the two great mountains called Moana Kea and Moana Roa, the elevation of the former of which is estimated to be 13,645 feet, whilst that of the latter exceeds 14,000.

This crater was first visited and described by the Rev. W. Ellis, who made the ascent in 1823. In his graphic and interesting narrative, he thus describes the scene presented to his view, on reaching the edge of the great crater, after a toilsome ascent through regions of lava and volcanic sand:—"About two p.m. the crater of Kirauea suddenly burst upon our view. We expected to have seen a mountain with a broad base, and rough indented sides, composed of loose slags or hardened streams of lava, and whose summit would have presented a rugged wall of scoria, forming the rim of a mighty page 12cauldron. But instead of this, we found ourselves on the edge of a steep precipice, with a vast plain before us, fifteen or sixteen miles in circumference, and sunk from 200 to 400 feet below its original level. The surface of this plain was uneven, and strewed over with large stones and volcanic rocks, and in the centre of it was the great crater, at a distance of about a mile and a half from the walls of the precipice on which we were standing. Our guides led us round towards the north end of the ridge, in order to find a place by which we might descend to the plain below. The steep down which we scrambled was formed of volcanic matter, apparently a light red and grey kind of lava, vesicular, and lying in horizontal strata, varying from one to forty feet in thickness. In a small number of places the different strata of lava were also rent in perpendicular or oblique directions from the top to the bottom, either by earthquakes, or other violent convulsions of the ground connected with the action of the adjacent volcano. After walking some distance over the sunken plain, which in several places sounded hollow under our feet, we at length came to the edge of the great crater itself, where a spectacle, sublime, and even appalling, presented itself before us. Immediately before us yawned an immense gulf, in the form of a crescent, about two miles in length, from north-east to south-west, nearly a mile in width, and apparently 800 feet deep. The bottom was covered with lava, and the south-western and northern parts of it were one vast flood of burning matter, in a state of terrific ebullition, page 13rolling to and fro its fiery surge and flaming billows. Fifty-one conical islands, so to speak, of varied form and size, containing so many craters, rose either round the edge or from the surface of the burning lake. Twenty-two of them constantly emitted columns of grey smoke or pyramids of brilliant flame; and several of these at the same time vomited from their ignited mouths streams of lava, which rolled in blazing torrents down their black, indented sides into the boiling mass below.

"The grey and calcined sides of the huge crater before us; the fissures which intersected the surface of the plain on which we were standing; the long banks of yellow sulphur on the opposite side of the abyss; the vigorous action of the numerous small craters on its borders; the dense columns of vapour and smoke that rose at the north and south ends of the plain; together with the ridge of steep rocks by which it was surrounded, rising probably in some places 300 or 400 feet in perpendicular height, presented an immense volcanic panorama, the effect of which was greatly augmented by the constant roaring of the vast furnaces below."

At night, the grandeur of the scene reached its climax. "The dark clouds and heavy fog that after sunset had settled over the volcano, gradually cleared away, and the fires of Kirauea, darting their fierce light athwart the midnight gloom, unfolded a sight terrible and sublime beyond all we had seen.

"The agitated mass of liquid lava, like a flood of melted metal, raged with tumultuous whirl. The lively flame that danced over its undulating surface, page 14tinged with sulphurous blue, or glowing with mineral red, cast a broad glare of dazzling light on the indented sides of the insulated craters, whose roaring mouths, amidst rising flames and eddying streams of fire, shot up at intervals, with very loud detonations, spherical masses of fusing lava, or bright, ignited stones. The dark, bold outline of the perpendicular and jutting rocks around, formed a striking contrast with the luminous lake below, whose vivid rays, thrown on the rugged promontories, and reflected by the overhanging clouds, combined to complete the awful grandeur of the scene."

The heathen inhabitants of Polynesia always regard with superstitious dread these regions of fire, which they consider to be the primeval abodes of their volcanic deities. Kirauea was supposed by the Sandwich Islanders to be the head-quarters of their terrible goddess Pélé; and to their poetic fancies the conical craters were houses, where the gods of the mountain frequently amused themselves by playing Konane.* The roaring of the furnaces, and the crackling of the flames were the music of their dances, and the red sea of fire was the lake in which they sportively swam and played.

The volcano of Tongariro, which is situated amongst the high snow-oovered mountains of the interior of the north island of New Zealand, presents the appearance of a huge truncated cone, from which volumes of steam and vapour are issuing from time to time.

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This mountain is held in traditional reverence by the natives, and is much dreaded by them, being, as they say, the "backbone of their Tupuna," or great ancestor, and having a white head, like their principal chieftain. So sacred, indeed, is the "tapu," or law amongst them, forbidding any stranger to approach it, that its ascent has been a matter of great difficulty to Europeans. Mr. Bidwill, however, succeeded in getting to the top of the crater by stealth, during the absence of the chief of Taupo, and from his account we will take an extract.

The Tongariro is computed to be about 6200 feet above the sea, whilst not far from it rises the huge snow-clad mountain of Ruapahu, which attains an altitude of about 9000 feet.

Mr. Bidwill says: "After toiling upwards all day through a region of stunted vegetation and rugged water-courses, we came to a spot where the base of the cone could be seen. The natives refused to go any farther, and covered their faces with their mats, as they said it was 'tapu' to look at the sacred mountain, or at least the peak. Next morning I was astonished to see the mountains around covered with snow, except the cone, which was visible from its base to its apex, and appeared quite close. I set off, immediately after breakfast, with only two natives, as all the others were afraid to go any nearer to the much-dreaded place; nor could I persuade the two who did set off with me to go within a mile of the base of the cone. They, however, made a fire of such small bushes as they could collect, and waited for me till I got back. As there page 16was no path, I went as straight towards the peak as I could, going over hills and through valleys, without swerving to the right or left. As I was toiling over a very steep hill I. heard a noise, which caused me to look up, and I saw that the mountain was in a state of eruption; a thick column of black smoke rose up for some distance, and then spread out like a mushroom. The noise, which was very loud, and not unlike that of the safetyvalve of a steam-engine, lasted about half an hour, and then ceased after two or three sudden interruptions; the smoke continued to ascend for some time afterwards, but was less dense.

"I could see no fire, nor do I believe that there was any, or that the eruption was anything more than hot water and steam, although, from the great density of the latter, it looked like very black smoke. As I progressed towards the cone, I arrived at a stream of lava, which looked as though it had been ejected but yesterday. It was black, very hard and compact, and there was not the slightest appearance of even a lichen on it. I had no idea of a 'sea of rocks' until I crossed this lava-bed; the edges of the stony billows were so sharp that it was with difficulty I passed among them without cutting my clothes to shreds. I at last arrived at the cone: it was, I suppose, of the ordinary steepness of such heaps of volcanic cinders, but much higher. I estimate it at 1500 feet from the hollow from which it appears to have sprung. It looks as if a vast amphitheatre had been hollowed out of the surrounding mountains in order to place it in. The sides of page 17all the mountains around are quite perpendicular, and present a most magnificent scene. The cone is entirely composed of loose cinders, and I was heartily tired of the exertion before I reached the top. Had it not been for the desire of standing where no man ever stood before, I should certainly have given up the undertaking. The crater was the most terrific abyss I ever looked into, or could imagine. The rocks overhung it on all sides, and it was not possible to see above ten yards into it, from the quantity of steam which it was continually discharging. I imagine it to be at least a quarter of a mile in diameter, and very deep. It was impossible to get on the inside ledge of the crater, as the sides were, if not quite precipitous, actually overhanging, so as to make it very disagreeable to look over them.

"The rocks on the top were covered with a whitish deposit, and there was abundance of sulphur in all directions. I did not stay at the top so long as I could have wished, because I heard a strange noise coming out of the crater, which I thought betokened another eruption; and as I had no desire to be either boiled or steamed to death, I made the best of my way down. I had not quite got down to the lava plain when I heard the noise of another eruption. I was half frozen before I reached the ravine, and thoroughly drenched by the mist, so that I was very glad when I found the place where I had left the natives and the fire, which I reached about seven in the evening."

From Tongariro, in a north-east direction to the page 18coast, the whole country of New Zealand is studded with boiling springs, solfataras, and stufas innumerable. The island of Puhiaiwakari, or White Island, lying off the east coast, is a low island still in a state of volcanic activity, and must be regarded as the summit of a crater but little elevated above the level of the sea. It emits, from time to time, volumes of white smoke, and produces a great quantity of sulphur. Several cargoes of this sulphur have been brought to Europe, where it has realized 8l. per ton. It is very pure, containing ninety per cent.

The island of Tofua, in the Hapai group of the Friendly Islands, is about ten miles in circumference. Sudden flames continually shoot up from its smoking crater, and terrific eruptions have from time to time taken place, accompanied with showers of stones and streams of molten lava. Tofua has a basin in its centre, and at the bottom, nearly on a level with the sea, is a pool of clear fresh water, about three miles across. The mouth of the volcano is about half way up this basin.

A few miles distant from Tofua, which is about three quarters of a mile in elevation, is a lofty conical island, just one mile high, with a volcano in action, from which the smoke pours forth in dense black clouds.

The appearance of the remains of the extraordinary island of Funualai, to the north of the Vavau group of the Friendly Islands, is thus graphically described by the late Rev. Walter Lawry: "Funualai presented the most awful and terrific appearance. page 19It was a circular and rather high volcanic island, about ten miles round, until of late, when it became so frightfully convulsed, that it was turned inside out, and split into two parts." The heavy earthquakes which preceded this catastrophe caused the inhabitants to leave the island in their canoes, and proceed to Vavau. When Mr. Lawry sailed past it in the Wesleyan Missionary vessel, he says, "the idea it impressed upon our minds was that of a ruined world. It smelt very strongly of sulphur, and exhibited rents, and piles of burnt sand and vitrified matter, as if the bowels of the earth had been turned outside. The openings of crater after crater were seen in all directions, and the sea, for a great distance, was discoloured by the floods of lava poured forth; whilst volumes of smoke were issuing from the countless crevices of the smouldering ruin. The light of the flame caused quite an illumination at Vavau, distant thirty-five miles; and the noise of this fiery disgorge was distinctly heard for three successive days at Niua Foou, distant 130 miles." The dust and vitrified matter were discharged from this volcano to such a height, that their withering effects were seriously felt at Vavau, where the damage was considerable both to the trees and the crops generally: whilst vessels passing from Tonga to Vavau had their decks loaded with tons of falling ashes.

The lonely island of Niua Foou, lying by itself nearly midway between the Navigator's and the Friendly Islands, is a remarkable volcanic feature, although not now in active operation. This island, page 20composed for the most part of blocks of lava, is far from being rich and fertile like those of Tonga and Vavau; it is about fifteen miles in circumference, and has the singular appearance of being hollow in the middle. It resembles the brim of a hat, the centre being, no doubt, the crater of an extinct volcano. A sheet of brackish water covers this immense cavity, which has never yet been fathomed. It stretches about three miles across, and seems to have no communication with the sea. This unruffled lake, with three small islets covered with trees, forms a beautiful contrast to the troubled sea, whose roaring billows continually lash the vitrified ironbound coast of the outer rim or circle on which the natives live. There are no fish of any kind in this central lake. Upon the whole of the island there is scarcely a drop of fresh water, except what falls from the clouds, which the natives secure in hollow trees scooped out for the purpose. The view of the interior lake studded with islets, as seen from the elevation of several thousand feet—the peep, through the ravines, of the outer ring, of the deep-blue surging ocean—and then, below, a landscape of woods, fruit-trees, and native plantations, interspersed with blocks of scoria, as if fresh from the mouth of a furnace, constitute a scene of peculiarly novel grandeur.

Volcanic disturbances appear to be continually occurring amongst the islands of the Tonga or Friendly group; and, owing to some remarkable submarine agency, the missionary brig, 'John Wesley,' was totally wrecked, in November, 1865. page 21on the island of Tau. Being bound to Tonga, the vessel, lying-to during the night amongst the reefs, was suddenly driven forward by an alarming race of current towards one of them; just afterwards, three tremendous tidal waves carried the vessel clean over the outer edge of the reef, and left her nearly dry, where she remained a total wreck, the missionaries and crew narrowly escaping with their lives.

In the New Hebrides are the active volcanoes of Tauna and Ambrym. Around the slopes of the former are numerous fumeroles or spiraculæ, which, whenever an explosion takes place, emit large quan tities of sulphurous vapours. These fumeroles extend in some places close down to the sea; and at high water, many of the hot springs, so numerous thereabouts, are covered by the tide.

Forster, who observed these islands on Cook's second voyage, says of them: "When we were in the midst of the New Hebrides we saw a fine large island, which had all the appearance of the greatest fertility and highest cultivation. We remarked on its summit, in two places, a smoke rising, of a much greyer hue than that from an ordinary fire. Coming afterwards to Mallicollo, we learned from the natives that this isle was called Ambrym, and that there was a fire coming out of the hills. We observed on the south-east side of the island (which is gently sloping, and has a very beautiful appearance) white columns of smoke, rolling with great velocity and strength out of the summit of one of the inland hills, which, however, was not the highest hill on page 22the isle. The north shores of Mallicollo were covered with pumicestones of various sizes.

"The Island of Tanna was seen by us afterwards. The night preceding our arrival we observed a very great fire on this isle, every now and then blazing up with violence. In the morning we saw plainly a volcano at the end of a low range of hills, not elevated more than 120 or 150 yards above the sea; its aspect was that of a truncated cone, quite barren, of a reddish grey, and having the appearance of being formed by ashes, pumice, and lava. Every four or five minutes we perceived a straight column of smoke of a reddish cast rising with great velocity. After the smoke, or rather column of ignited ashes, had risen to a considerable height, the resistance of the air and its own gravitation brought it down, when it branched out into separate masses, assuming the form of a large cauliflower. The clouds of smoke and ashes emitted from the volcano had all the various hues of yellow, orange, red, and dark purple, dying away into brownish grey." Some of the ignited stones thrown up by the crater of Tanna must be of an immense size, as they were distinctly visible, according to Forster, from the deck of the vessel when eight miles off.

The interior of the north island of New Zealand, having the great crater of Tongariro as its centre of volcanic action, is remarkable also for the number of boiling ponds and thermal springs which are scattered about in the neighbourhood of the Taupo and Roturua lakes. Perhaps the most extensive and interesting of these are the hot springs of Roto-page 23mahana, and the boiling cascade of Wakatara. As a description of one or two of them will suffice to show the general character of the whole, we will quote Dr. Dieffenbach's account of his visit to Rotomahana:—he says, "Towards evening we reached the hills which surround the warm lake on all sides. They were of considerable elevation, and many of their slopes were almost entirely converted into red or white clay by the hot gases which issued from the surface. When we arrived on the crest of these hills, the view which opened was one of the grandest I had ever beheld. Let the reader imagine a deep lake of a blue colour, surrounded by hills; in the lake several islets, some showing the bare rock, others covered with shrubs, while on all of them steam issued from a hundred openings between the green foliage, without impairing its freshness; on the opposite side a flight of broad steps of the colour of white marble, with a rosy tint, and a cascade of boiling water falling over them into the lake." On being conveyed next morning in a native canoe across the lake to the foot of the cascade, Dr. Dieffenbach ascended the steps, which are about fifty in number, and from one to two feet deep; many of them, however, having subdivisions, resulting from the gradual deposition of the silex held in solution by the boiling water. He goes on to tell us, "that these steps proved to be entirely owing to the siliceous deposits of the waters of the hot pond above. We found the water moderately tepid. The steps are firm like porcelain, and have a tinge of carmine. The concretions assume interesting forms of mamillary page 24stalagmites of the colour of milk-white chalcedony; and here and there, where the rounded steps over-hung the former deposits, stalactites of various sizes were depending. The boiling pond on the top, which was clear and blue, could not be approached, as the concretions at its margin were very thin and fragile. The pond was about thirty feet round, and perhaps one hundred feet above the level of the Rotomahana. The water which is discharged from this pond and from other places into the lake, warms its waters to 35° Fahrenheit above the temperature of the air, that is, to 95°."

Mr. Angas visited the boiling springs which formerly issued from the side of a steep mountain above the native village of Te Rapa, on the shores of Lake Taupo; he says, "There are nearly 100 of them; they burst out, bubbling up from little orifices in the ground, which are not more than a few inches in diameter, and the steam rushes out in clouds with considerable force; the hill-side is covered with them, and a river of hot water runs down into the lake. The soil around is a red and white clay, strongly impregnated with sulphur and gases; pyrites also occur. Several women were busy cooking baskets of potatoes over some of the smaller orifices; leaves and fern were laid over the holes, upon which the food was placed." All that now remains of the once pretty and populous native "pah," or village of Te Rapa, is a mass of dry yellowish mud, a tremendous land-slip having occurred shortly after Mr. Angas's visit. The numerous small boiling springs having gradually loosened page 25the side of the mountain above the "pah," its own weight brought it down with the force of an avalanche, carrying trees, rocks, and everything before it, till it overwhelmed the "pah," swallowing up the poor old chief Te Heu-Heu, with about sixty of his people—men, women, and children. The only living things that escaped having been a horse, and a youth, a nephew of the chief.

Of the boiling ponds, two miles from Te Rapa, Mr. Angas says: "On the edge of a great swampy flat, I met with a number of boiling ponds, some of them of very large dimensions. Along whole tracts of ground I heard the water boiling violently beneath the crust over which I was treading. It is said that the Roturua natives, who build their houses over the hot springs in that district for the sake of warmth at night, frequently meet with fatal accidents. It has happened that when a party have been dancing on the floor, the crust has given way, and the convivial assembly have been suddenly swallowed up in the boiling cauldron beneath. Some of the ponds are ninety feet in circumference, filled with transparent, pale-blue, boiling water, sending up columns of steam. Channels of hot water run along the ground in every direction; and the surface of this calcareous flat around the margins of the boiling ponds is covered with beautiful incrustations of lime and alum, in some parts forming flat, saucer-like figures. Husks of Indian corn, mosses, and branches of trees, were incrusted in the same manner. I also observed small deep holes or wells here and there amongst the grass and tall page 26rushes, from two or three inches to as many feet in diameter, filled with boiling mud, which rises up in large bubbles, as thick as hasty-pudding. These mudpits send up a strong sulphurous smell."

The natives in the vicinity of these hot springs construct reservoirs, into which they conduct the water gradually, its temperature being kept up or decreased at pleasure by stopping out the boiling stream with mud and stones. By this means they are enabled to enjoy the luxury of a warm bath, of which numbers, especially of the young people, are continually availing themselves; and it is not unusual to see twenty or thirty persons squatting together in the hot water, with only their heads above the surface.

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banian tree in the navigator's islands. chap. iii.

banian tree in the navigator's islands. chap. iii.

* A game somewhat resembling drafts, also played by the New Zealanders.