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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.


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That vast expanse of water known as the Pacific Ocean, the Mar del Zur, or the South Sea, which stretches between the east coast of Asia and the west coast of America, is the largest ocean on the globe, covering an area of some 70,000,000 square miles, and extending 10,000 miles from east to west at its widest breadth on the equator. Its extreme southern limit is the Antarctic Circle, whence it extends, northwards, through 130° of latitude, until it narrows off towards Behring's Straits, which connect it with the Arctic Seas beyond.

This wide ocean received the title of the "Pacific" from the moderate and delightful weather experienced by the first, Spanish navigators who sailed on its bosom along the coast of Peru and within the tropics, where, at most times, it is found to be comparatively smooth; but without the tropics, in the high latitudes towards either pole, the fury of the winter storms and the roughness of the sea are quite equal to those of other oceans with less attractive names.

The equator separates this great tract of water page viinto the two grand divisions of the North and South Pacific Oceans; both of these are remarkable for the numerous groups of volcanic and of coral islands with which they are studded; and they constitute a distinct portion of the globe, now generally known as "Polynesia," but to which French geographers have given the title of" Oceania." Some of our modern writers on this subject, however, limit the designation of Polynesia to those islands only which are inhabited by a light-coloured race of people, allied to the Malaysian, and all speaking dialects of the same tongue. Under this division they include New Zealand, the Sandwich Isles, the Marquesas, the Friendly and Navigator's groups, together with the Society, Harvey, and Austral Islands. To New Guinea or Papua, the Admiralty and Solomon groups, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and the Fijis or Viti, all of which are peopled by the dark-skinned, crisp-haired tribes, styled Papuans, or Austral negroes, they give the name of Melanesia; whilst the Ladrone Islands, together with that long belt of low coralline formations lying to the north of the equator, and east of the Philippines, known as the Pelew and Caroline archipelagos, they designate Micronesia; including also under this appellation the Radack and Ralick chains, the Gilbert and Marshall Isles, and several other small groups of but little importance.

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The extent of ocean embraced within the wide limits throughout which the countless multitudes of the Pacific islands are scattered is equivalent to little less than half the circumference of the globe; but the proportion of land to water in this vast area is very small; over by far the larger portion of it an unbroken expanse of waters meets the voyagers' gaze; whilst, for the most part (if we except Papua and New Zealand), the island-clusters that rise above the waves are mere specks in comparison with the immensity of the ocean that surrounds them.

Long before his death, that great navigator, Columbus, was aware of the existence of the Pacific Ocean, having heard of it from the Indians of Panama during his fourth voyage; but it was not till ten years afterwards that Yasco Nunez de Balboa first gazed upon its broad waters from the mountains of Quaregua. Although the new ocean was thus descried for the first time by European adventurers, its bosom was still untracked by any vessel of civilized nations, until Magellan, the earliest circumnavigator, in 1513, found his way into the Pacific through the strait that bears his name, between Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego; whence he sailed westward, across the entire breadth of the Pacific, touching at the Ladrones, and thence proceeding to the Philippines.

About the close of the sixteenth century the page viiiSpaniards sent ships across the Pacific from their recently conquered possessions in Peru, and discovered the Solomon Islands, which Alonzo de Mendāna took possession of in the name of the king of Spain, with the view of founding a colony there. On a second voyage for that purpose he lighted upon the Marquesan group, and reached the large island of Santa Cruz, in the New Hebrides, where he died.

A little later, the Dutch doubled Cape Horn, and, after discovering various parts of the coasts of New Zealand and Tasmania, they arrived at the Friendly Islands. Ultimately, under Commodore Roggewein, the same nation discovered, in 1722, Easter Island, situated in the south-eastern portion of the Pacific, far remote from any other land, where colossal stone images of men were seen ranged along the cliffs. From thence the Commodore sailed across the Pacific, towards the East Indies, touching on his way at New Britain and New Guinea.

It was England, however, during the reign of George III., which mainly achieved the exploration of this beautiful and interesting portion of the globe. A series of expeditions were fitted out by the British Government, commencing with those of Byron, Wallis, and Carteret, and by their means the Society Islands and several other important groups were made known to us; but it was the three voyages of page ixthe illustrious Captain Cook, undertaken between the years 1767 and 1779, that formed the grandest era of discovery in the Pacific.

After carefully exploring a vast number of islands, and making detailed observations upon their inhabitants and general character, Captain Cook discovered a lofty and fertile cluster of large islands, lying in the north Pacific, just within the tropics, which he named the Sandwich Islands, after the Earl of Sandwich; and these are now the most highly civilized of all the Polynesian groups. It was at the Sandwich Islands, however, that our great circumnavigator, through a misunderstanding with the natives, met with his untimely and lamentable death.

After Cook's labours were over, all the leading outlines of the Polynesian region had been pretty tolerably explored; yet ample room existed for the more careful researches of future navigators, many of whom, French, American, and Russian, as well as English, have since added greatly to our knowledge of the" islands of the Pacific."

Since these grand discoveries took place, a remarkable change has been effected in the social condition of many of the islands (especially those inhabited by the light-coloured race), through the combined influences of Christianity and civilization, consequent upon European intercourse with them. The missionaries, of various sects, have done much page xgood in overthrowing idolatry, and the cruel and bloody rites connected with it; whilst British and American commerce have opened up a trade with numerous islands that must ultimately lead to their civilization.

Colonization, also,—which, within the last half-century, has started into existence the great Australian colonies, now teeming with wealth, and possessing a vigorous and rapidly increasing European population—has spread itself further on into the Pacific, and the fair valleys of New Zealand (despite the unfortunate conflicts that have taken place with the original inhabitants of the soil) are at the present moment scattered over with Anglo-Saxon homesteads, and its glorioous forests are falling before the settler's axe. France, likewise, has lately established a military settlement in New Caledonia, and her tricoloured flag now floats over that considerable possession; whilst the lovely island of Tahiti, with its dependencies, as well as the Marquesas, are also under the dominion of the French empire.

In the North Pacific, the Sandwich Islands are becoming of considerable commercial importance; and the Spanish have long had a colony in the Ladrones. Soon, the" islands of the sea," with civilization and Christianity going hand in hand to their aid, shall display a far greater change than page xithey have hitherto done. Vast fields for enterprise will be found in that great land of New Guinea, teeming with all the wealth of the tropics; in the large and fertile islands of New Britain, New Ireland, and the Solomon groups; and also in Fiji or "Viti," the sovereignty of which its native king, Thakombau, has already offered to the British crown.

In the following chapters of this book it will be our province to enter into more detailed descriptions of the various groups of the Pacific Islands—of their volcanic or coral origin—their scenery, natural history, and productions; and, especially, of the interesting races of mankind by which they are peopled, and of their progress in Christianity and civilization. In conclusion, we would quote from a reverend author, who has travelled much in Polynesia: he says, speaking of its physical features, that "in no part of the world are the sublime and beautiful found united in bolder contrast and variety. Lava-belching volcanoes, throwing up vast mountains, and then shattering them again with earthquake throes and convulsions; torrents, leaping precipices of a thousand feet; the blue, unbroken billows of five thousand miles of ocean thundering incessantly upon their coral coasts; placid lagoons and shore-reefs, beautiful with the coral shrubbery of a genial ocean; a tropical velvet verdure covering with its grateful mantle the steepest mountain crags; groves page xiiof the palm and bread-fruit trees, like cedars of Lebanon; dells and valleys, and palm-covered plains, like the Garden of Eden, replete with every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food—these are some of the natural features and contrasts of beauty and sublimity to be found in the fairy gardens of Polynesia."

G. F. A.

London, 1866.