Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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 XXII. — Easter Island; Pitcairn Island; and Norfolk Island

page break

Chapter XXII.
Easter Island; Pitcairn Island; and Norfolk Island.

colossal images, easter island.

colossal images, easter island.

Easter Island, or Teapi, situated at the extreme south-eastern portion of the Polynesian groups, is remarkable for its solitary position, lying, as it does, nearly midway between the Society Islands and the coast of Chili, in South America, in latitude page 41427° 5' south, and longitude 109° 46' west, from Greenwich.

It is said to have been discovered by the Buccaneer Davis in 1687, who gave it his own name, calling it Davis's Land. It was afterwards visited by the Dutch commander, Roggewein, in 1772, who gave it the name of Easter Island, from having first seen it on the day of that feast, and published many fabulous accounts of the country and its inhabitants; and, subsequently, by Captain Cook and Mr. Forster, who anchored there in March, 1774. According to the description of the latter voyagers, Easter Island is from thirty to thirty-six miles in circumference, and of a somewhat triangular figure; its greatest length from north-west to south-east is about twelve miles, and its breadth six.

The island is generally mountainous and barren, and bears evident marks, not only of a volcanic origin, but of having been, at no very remote period, entirely ruined by an eruption. There are but few trees, and the ground is covered with loose rocks and stones that appear to have been exposed to great heat, and are of a black colour and cellular texture. A few species of coarse grasses grow amongst these stones, serving in some measure to soften the desolate appearance of the scene. In the northern part of the island are huge masses of black lava, without any vegetation whatever; and cliffs of a similar character rise abruptly from the shore in many places. Notwithstanding this general barrenness, however, there are several large tracts covered with cultivated soil, which produces potatoes of a golden page 415yellow colour, as sweet as carrots; also yams, plantains, and sugar-canes. The soil is of a dry, porous nature; and the grass which grows amongst the stones is used by the inhabitants as a manure, and for preserving their vegetables, when young, from the heat of the sun. There are no streams on the island; the water generally is brackish, and there is but one well that is perfectly limpid and fresh.

The most curious feature connected with Easter Island is the occurrence, on the sea-coast, of a number of colossal statues, of which, however, but very few remain entire to this day. At the period of Captain Cook's visit, there were to be seen the ruins of three platforms of stonework, on the east side of the island, on each of which had stood four of these large statues; but they were all fallen down from two of the platforms, and one from the third; being all more or less broken and defaced by the fall. One which was measured was fifteen feet long, and six feet broad across the shoulders. Each statue had on its head a large cylindrical stone, of a red colour, wrought perfectly round. Others were found that measured near twenty-seven feet long, and upwards of eight feet across the shoulders; and a still larger one was seen standing, the shade of which was sufficient to shelter a party of nearly thirty persons from the heat of the sun. The workmanship of these remarkable figures is rude, but not bad, nor are the features of the face ill-formed. The ears are long, according to the distortion practised by the natives of the island at the present time; but the body itself has but little of the shape page 416of a human figure about it. How these people, without any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous images, and afterwards place the large cylindric stones upon their heads, seems truly wonderful. It has been thought by some that the stone was factitious; and that each figure was gradually erected or built up, by forming a temporary platform round it, and raising it as the work advanced. At all events, they were strong proofs of the ingenuity and perseverance of the islanders in the age when they were constructed.

Although so far removed from the other Polynesian islands, the inhabitants nearly resemble in manners and customs, in religious belief, and in physical aspect, those of the Society Islands and other groups of the Eastern Pacific. The population of Easter Island is said not to exceed 1000 or 1200 souls. By some navigators they have been described as a very savage people, and by others, as a mild and amiable race; the latter description approaching nearest to the truth. The people are of middle size, and go entirely naked. Their greatest singularity is the size of their ears, the lobe of which is stretched out, so that it almost rests on the shoulder, and is pierced with a very large hole, capable of admitting four or five fingers with ease. The principal ornaments for their ears are composed of white down and feathers, and spiral rings or coils made of the elastic leaf of the sugar-cane, rolled up like a watch-spring. Their colour is a bright olive; their hair black, curling, and remarkably strong; and that on the head and beard is cut short. The women are small page 417and slender-limbed. They paint their faces all over with a reddish-brown earth or pigment, on which they lay a fine orange-colour, the whole being finally ornamented with streaks of white. Their dwellings are either miserable huts, or caverns and cavities in the ground amongst the lava currents; and their principal occupation consists in cultivating the patches of good soil which produce them food.

Shortly prior to the visit of Kotzebue, who describes the natives as hostile and opposed to his landing, he tells us, an American captain commanding a schooner called the "Nancy," of New London, had observed a vast multitude of seals on the shores of an uninhabited island near Juan Fernandez, called Massafuero, on the coast of Chili; and, thinking it might prove a good speculation to establish a fishery there, and being in want of hands, he proceeded to Easter Island, where he seized and carried off twelve men and ten women. These poor kidnapped people were for the first three days confined in irons, and were not released till fairly out of sight of land, when all the men jumped overboard, rather than be carried into slavery; but what ultimately became of the women, who were carried to the island of Massafuero, M. Kotzebue does not relate.

Twelve hundred miles south and east from Tahiti lies the solitary island of Pitcairn, which bears an historic interest as having been the rendezvous of the mutineers of the "Bounty." and, up to a recent period, the dwelling-place of their descendants. It was first discovered by Captain Carteret, in July, page 4181767, in the course of his voyage round the world, and so named by him after a young man, one of the Ship's company, who was the first to observe it. Traces have since been found of its having originally been occupied by an aboriginal race, but at the period of its discovery by Carteret it was uninhabited, and continued to be so until its occupation by the mutineers in 1789.

Pitcairn Island is but four miles and a half in circumference, a mile and a half being its greatest length. When first seen, it appeared, says Carteret, "like a great rock rising out of the sea," its highest point being 1,008 feet above the sea level. Like the Society Islands, it is of volcanic origin, and the scenery is wild and picturesque. The cocoa-nut, the plantain, the bread-fruit, and the banyan grow luxuriantly, and the soil is favourable for the cultivation of vegetables and cereals. Lieutenant Shillibeer, who visited Pitcairn in the "Briton," in 1814, says, "the island has an exceedingly pretty appearance, and, I was informed by Christian, was fertile, and capable of being cultivated. The coast is bound with rocks, insomuch that the islanders are at all times obliged to carry their little boats to the village, but the timber is so light that one man is adequate to the burden of the largest they have. Each family has a separate allotment of land, and each strives to rival the other in their agricultural pursuits, which are chiefly confined to the propagation of the yam, which they have certainly brought to the finest perfection." Of the village or settlement where the islanders dwelt, he remarks, page 419"After ascending a little eminence we were imperceptibly led through groups of cocoa-nut and bread-fruit trees to a beautiful picturesque little village, formed on an oblong square, with trees of various kinds irregularly interspersed. The houses were small, but regular, convenient, and of unequalled cleanliness."

The story of the mutiny of the "Bounty" is an old one now, and one with which most are familiar. Lieutenant Bligh, who had been sailing-master with Captain Cook in the "Resolution," was sent in 1787 to the South Seas for the purpose of obtaining a number of bread-fruit trees for introduction to the West Indies. During the voyage, Fletcher Christian, the master's-mate, persuaded most of the crew to join him in a mutiny against the captain's authority; and, when near Tofua, one of the Friendly Islands, the lieutenant, and eighteen other persons, were forced into an open boat with but a scanty supply of food, and turned adrift upon the ocean. They landed at Tofua, but were attacked by the natives, and one man killed; which compelled them to put to sea again at once. After a perilous voyage of forty-one days in this frail boat, with scarce provisions enough to sustain life, reduced to the twentieth part of a pound of food a day for each, the brave lieutenant managed to bring his eighteen companions in misfortune all in safety to Timor, after having endured the most perilous sufferings during a boat voyage of nearly 4000 miles under a burning sun.

The mutineers, meanwhile, proceeded to Tahiti, page 420where a portion of them remained; nine, however, declining to settle there, went in the "Bounty" in pursuit of a new home, and established themselves on Pitcairn Island, taking with them their Tahitian wives, and six Tahitian men, three of whom had wives, and one child. The early history of this small colony was dark and stormy: quarrels and disputes arose amongst them, and out of the nine original mutineers only two died a natural death. One of these, John Adams, survived till the year 1829. He was a remarkable man, who, deeply repenting of the crimes committed by himself and his companions, endeavoured to make what recompense he could, by training up the children they had left behind them in the paths of religion and virtue. Left as they were without spiritual care, the colonists did the best they could for themselves. The children received lay baptism, and the prayers of the Church were regularly read in public worship; but of course the Holy Communion could not be celebrated. In 1852 Mr. Gr. H. Nobbs was ordained deacon and priest by the Bishop of London, and went out as "Chaplain of Pitcairn's Island."

For many years the fate of Christian and his companions (who had run the ship ashore and burned her at Pitcairn) remained unknown, and it was not till 1808 that an American vessel touched at Pitcairn, and reported to the British Government that it was the refuge of those of the mutineers of the "Bounty" who had left Tahiti in 1790; but no steps were taken in the matter, nor was the island page 421visited again till the year 1814, when Sir Thomas Staines, commanding H.M.S. "Briton," came upon it unexpectedly, and was not a little astonished, on making a close survey of the shore-on which he perceived houses, cultivation, and people-to be hailed in good English by a young man who came off in a canoe, and who said his name was "Thursday October Christian." "These people proved," says Sir Thomas Staines, in his letter to the commander-in-chief, "to be the descendants of the deluded crew of the 'Bounty,' who, from Tahiti, proceeded to the above-mentioned island, where the ship was burnt. Christian, the lieutenant, appears to have been the leader and sole cause of the mutiny in that ship. A venerable old man, named John Adams, is the only surviving Englishman of those who last quitted Tahiti in her; and his exemplary conduct and fatherly care of the whole little colony could not but command respect and admiration. The pious manner in which all those born in the island have been reared, and the correct sense of religion which has been instilled into their young minds by this old man, have given him the preeminence over all, who look to him as the father of the whole, as one family. The elder Christian fell a sacrifice to the jealousy of an Otaheitian man within three or four years after their arrival upon the island. They were accompanied by six Otaheitian men and twelve women. The former were all swept away by desperate contentions between them, leaving only one man and seven women of the original settlers now alive."

page 422

In 1831, the numbers of the islanders having increased to eighty-seven, the difficulty of procuring a sufficient supply of food, and especially of water, in the little rocky island they inhabited, became apparent, and they were, at their own desire, removed to Tahiti, under convoy of a British ship of war. Displeased with the low state of morality amongst the Tahitians, and having been attacked with fever, which proved fatal to twelve of their number, they only remained there for a few months, and then chartered a vessel to convey them back to their former home. In 1839 the Pitcairn Islanders were taken under the protection of the British Government, and a magistrate, chosen by the votes of the people themselves, from amongst their number, was recognized to carry out a code of simple laws and regulations which had been drawn up by Captain Elliott of H.M.S. "Fly," for the use of these simple and primitive islanders.

In 1853, a scarcity of provisions, followed by much sickness, caused again a desire for a change of residence, and the islanders petitioned Government to grant them Norfolk Island (from which the penal settlement was about to be removed), where they might have more room for the cultivation of the soil, and the production of the necessaries of life. Their petition being acceded to, they left in the year 1856, with tearful eyes, their beloved little island; and, headed by their excellent pastor, Mr. Nobbs, proceeded to Norfolk Island, a distance of 3000 miles west from their former home. This emigration of the Pitcairners, 194 in number, was page 423made at the expense of the British Government, they being conveyed in H.M.S. "Morayshire" to Norfolk Island, where they were all safely landed on the 8th May, 1856.

Since that period, a party of twenty-seven persons still longing after Pitcairn, returned thither in a small vessel. In 1864, the Rev. Mr. Nobbs writes, "We who remain number 248 persons, nearly equal as to sex. Our confirmation, last year, added fifteen communicants: the monthly average is seventy. We expect Bishop Patteson, of Melanesia, in April. The total number of births, since our arrival in 1856, is 117; deaths, twenty-six."

These interesting people have been visited by Sir William Denison, when Governor-General of Australia; and by Bishops Selwyn and Patteson, who all speak in high terms of their conduct; describing them as "a body of our fellow-subjects sprung from mutineers and murderers, who seem, from a concurrence of testimony, to be leading a life of primitive simplicity, unstained by any crime."

Norfolk Island is situated in latitude 29° 3' south, and longitude 167° 58' east; lying about 900 miles east from the coast of Australia; and almost due north from the north cape of New Zealand, from which it is distant a little more than 300 miles. It is very small, containing an area of only thirteen and a half square miles. The greater portion of its surface is tolerably level; Mount Pitt, the highest eminence on the island, only rising 1050 feet above the level of the sea. Norfolk Island is well watered and healthy, and the soil in general fertile.

page 424

Philip Island, a small islet adjacent to Norfolk Island, is at present the habitation of a multitude of rabbits, which have deprived it apparently of every vestige of vegetation, so that it appears like a high mound of red clay, with a few solitary pine-trees growing upon it. It was once the abode of that now extinct bird the Nestor productus, or Philip Island parrot.

For many years past this island has had an unenviable notoriety as a penal settlement of the worst class of criminals-of prisoners so hardened as to be banished from the convict establishments of the neighbouring Australian colonies. Happily, however, the extensive penal establishment at Norfolk Island, which converted one of earth's fairest spots into a scene of the lowest moral degradation and hopeless physical suffering, was broken up ten years since, and the island is at present occupied by the Pitcairn Islanders, who were removed thither at their own request under the auspices of the British Government.

The principal settlement is at Sydney Bay, on the southern side of the island.

Up to the year 1788 Norfolk Island was totally uninhabited, when a small party of settlers was sent thither from New South Wales; and, two years afterwards, two hundred convicts were placed there. In 1807, by direction of the home Government, the convicts were removed, and the establishment broken up; but in 1825 it was again made a penal settlement, and for several years the horrors of the place, owing to the dreadfully vicious condition of the page 425criminals in servitude there, became proverbial. In 1836 no less than 1000 convicts were upon the island.

A recent visitor to Norfolk Island says, "This island, one of the loveliest spots on earth, is now occupied by perhaps the most moral and wellbehaved community in existence, after having been for fifty years a blot upon the face of creation; the abode of criminals of the deepest dye, of whom endless tales might be recounted which would only serve to make the blood run cold. One could not but feel a wish, as we passed up the street, that the great old prisons, with their dismal emblems of punishment and their hundred dungeons, were levelled with the ground, and every trace of the former history of Norfolk Island obliterated."

Norfolk Island, as viewed from the sea, looks rather barren, its coast being iron-bound; in some places the high cliffs are composed of fine pillars of basalt. It is difficult to approach the shore, even with boats, except at Sydney Bay, and another spot called the Cascades, at the back of the island, on account of the heavy surf. On landing and penetrating into the interior of the island the scenery is peculiarly charming and beautiful. The hills and valleys are clothed with fine grass, and scattered here and there with forest clumps or single individuals of the magnificent Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria excelsa), "disposed" says Mr. Hood, "as if by the hands of the landscape gardener in the most picturesque manner over the whole island up to the top of Mount Pitt, which rises to the height of more than page 4261000 feet. It resembles one grand park. There is one avenue of these trees a mile and a half in length which is unequalled in beauty by anything of the kind I have ever seen. Some of these pines, which Lave flourished for ages on the slopes of Mount Pitt, are most noble trees, attaining more than 200 feet in height. Sheep and cattle, sleek and comfortable looking, are seen in all directions revelling in the abundant pastures; and wild turkeys, fowls, and pigs find luxurious abodes under the shelter of the thick groves of guava, lemon, and loquat trees, from which one disturbs large flocks of pigeons, descendants of the imported dove-cote breed."