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Polynesian Researches


page 60


Varieties and appearance of the plantain and banana—Vi or Brazilian plum—A-hi-a or jambo—Singular growth of the inocarpus, or native chesnut—Different kinds of ti, or Dracanæ—To, or sugar-cane—Foreign fruits and vegetables that flourish in Polynesia—Value of a garden in the South Sea Islands—Unsuccessful attempts to introduce wheat—Introduction of coffee—Native and foreign flowers—Tradition of the origin of the bread-fruit—Quadrupeds–Absence of venomous animals and reptiles—Manner of rearing pigs—Birds of the South Sea Islands—Albatross—Pigeons—Domestic fowls—Number and variety of fish on the coasts, and in the lakes and rivers.

More rich and sweet to the taste, though far less serviceable as an article of food, is the maia, plantain and banana, musa paradisaica and musa sapientum. These are also indigenous, although generally cultivated in the native gardens. They are a rich nutritive fruit, common within the tropics, and so generally known as to need no particular description here. There are not, perhaps, fewer than thirty varieties cultivated by the natives, besides nearly twenty kinds, very large and serviceable, that grow wild in the mountains. The orea, or maiden plantain, with the other varieties, comes to the highest perfection in the South Sea Islands, and is a delicious fruit. The stalk, or tree, on which these fruits grow, is seldom above eight or twelve feet high; the leaves are fine broad specimens of the luxuriance of tropical vegetation, page 61 being frequently twelve or sixteen feet long, eighteen inches or two feet wide, of a beautiful pea-green colour when fresh, and a rich bright yellow when dry. The fruit is about nine inches long, and in shape somewhat like a cucumber, excepting that the angles are frequently well defined, which gives to the fruit, when ripe, the appearance of a triangular or quadrangular prism of a bright delicate yellow colour. Sixty or seventy single fruit are occasionally attached to one stalk. Each plantain stem, or tree, produces only one bunch of fruit; and when the fruit is ripe, it is cut down, and its place supplied by the suckers that rise around the root whence it originally sprung. If the suckers, or offsets, be four or five feet high when the parent stem is cut down, they will bear in about twelve months.

The fruit is not often allowed to ripen on the trees, but it is generally cut down as soon as it has reached its full size, and while yet green; the bunch is then hung up in the native houses to ripen, and is eaten as the fruit turns yellow. When they wish to accelerate their ripeness for a public entertainment, they cut them down green, wrap them in leaves, and bury them thirty-six or forty-eight hours in the earth, and on taking them out they are quite soft, and apparently ripe, but much more insipid than those which had gradually ripened on the tree, or even in the house. The kinds growing in the mountains are large, and, though rich and agreeable when baked, are most unpalatable when raw; they have a red skin, and a bright yellow pulp. Their native name is fei: their habits of growth are singular; for, while the fruit of all the other varieties is pendent from the stem, this rises erect from a short thick stalk page 62 in the centre of the crown or tuft of leaves at the top. In several of these islands, the fei is the principal support of the inhabitants. The plantain is a fruit that is always acceptable, and resembles in flavour a soft, sweet, but not juicy pear; it is very good in milk, also in puddings and pies, and, when fermented, makes excellent vinegar.

The vi, or Brazilian plum, a variety of spondias, (spondias dulcis of Parkinson,) is an abundant and excellent fruit, of an oval or oblong shape, and bright yellow colour. In form and taste it somewhat resembles a magnum-bonum plum, but it is larger, and, instead of a stone, has a hard and spiked core, containing a number of seeds. The tree on which it grows is deciduous, and one of the largest found in the islands, the trunk being frequently four or five feet in diameter. The bark is gray and smooth, the leaf pinnate, of a light green colour; the fruit hangs in bunches, and is often so plentiful, that the ground underneath the trees is covered with ripe fruit, while the satisfied, and almost surfeited pigs, lie sleeping round its roots.

The ahia, or jambo, eugenia Mallaccensis, is perhaps the most juicy of the indigenous fruits of the Society Islands. It resembles, in shape, a small oblong apple, is of a bright beautiful red colour, and has a white, juicy, but rather insipid pulp. Though grateful in a warm climate like Tahiti, its flavour is by no means so good as that of the ahia growing on the Sandwich Islands. Like the vi, it bears but one crop in the year, and does not continue in season longer than two or three months. Both these trees are propagated by seed.

In certain seasons of the year, if the bread-fruit be scarce, the natives supply the deficiency thus page 63 occasioned with the fruit of the ma-pe or rata, a native chesnut, tuscarpus edulis. Like other chesnut-trees, the ma-pe is of stately growth and splendid foliage. It is occasionally seen in the high grounds, but flourishes only in the rich bottoms of the valleys, and seldom appears in greater perfection than on the margin of a stream. From the top of a mountain I have often been able to mark the course of a river by the winding and almost unbroken line of chesnuts, that have towered in majesty above the trees of humbler growth. The ma-pe is branching, but the trunk, which is the most singular part of it, usually rises ten or twelve feet without a branch, after which the arms are large and spreading.

During the first seven or eight years of its growth, the stem is tolerably round, but after that period, as it enlarges, instead of continuing cylindrical, it assumes a different shape. In four or five places round the trunk, small projections appear, extending in nearly straight lines from the root to the branches. The centre of the tree seems to remain stationary; while these projections increasing, at length seem like so many planks covered with bark, forming a number of natural buttresses round the tree. The centre of the tree often continues many years with perhaps not more than two or three inches of wood round the medula, or pith; while the buttresses, though only about two inches thick, extend two, three, and four feet, being widest at the bottom. I have observed buttresses, not more than two inches in thickness, projecting four feet from the tree, and forming between each, natural recesses, in which I have often taken shelter during a shower. When the tree becomes old, its form page 64 is still more picturesque, as a number of knots and contortions are formed on the buttresses and branches, which render the outlines more broken and fantastic.

The wood of the rata has a fine straight grain, but being remarkably perishable, is seldom used, excepting for fire-wood. Occasionally, however, they cut off one of the buttresses, and thus obtain a good natural plank, with which they make the long paddles for their canoes, or axe-handles. The leaf is large and beautiful, six or eight inches in length, oblong in shape, of a dark green colour, and, though an evergreen, exceedingly light and delicate in its structure. The tree bears a small white racimated panicle flower, esteemed by the natives on account of its fragrance. The fruit, which hangs singly or in small clusters from the slender twigs, is flat, and somewhat kidney-shaped. The same term is used by the natives for this fruit, and the kidney of an animal. The nut is a single kernel, in a hard, tough, fibrous shell, covered with a thin, compact, fibrous husk. It is not eaten in a raw state; but, though rather hard when fully ripe, it is, when roasted in a green state, soft, and pleasant to the taste.

In addition to these, the ti-root, dracanæ terminalis, resembling exactly that found in the Sandwich Islands, is baked and eaten; and the to, or sugar-cane, saccharum officinarum, which grows spontaneously, and perhaps in greater perfection than in any other part of the world, was formerly cultivated, and eaten raw. On a journey, the natives often carry a piece of sugar-cane, which furnishes a sweet and nourishing juice, appeasing at once, to a certain degree, both thirst and hunger. Within a few years they have been page 65 taught to extract the juice, and, by boiling it, to prepare a very good sugar.

Most of the native fruits are delicious; and their number has been greatly increased by the addition of many of the most valuable tropical fruits. Vines, oranges, shaddocks, limes, and other plants, were introduced by Captains Cook, Bligh, and Vancouver. It is stated, that as soon as the young grapes were formed, the natives plucked and ate them, but were so displeased at their acidity, that they tore up the plant. Vines were also taken by the Missionaries, but nearly destroyed by the natives in their wars. In 1824 I brought a number of plants from the Sandwich Islands; which were thriving when I last heard. Citrons, tamarinds, pine-apples, guavas, Cape mulberries and figs, custard apples and coffee plants, have at different times been introduced, and successfully cultivated, by the Missionaries. Many foreign vegetables have been tried, yet few of them thrive. The growth of corn has been more than once attempted without success. Pumpkins, melons, water-melons, cucumbers, cabbages, and French-beans, flourish better than any other foreign vegetables.

To a European, a garden is a valuable acquisition in this part of the world; and, next to our dwellings, we regarded it as an important part of our domestic establishment. As soon as the sites of our houses were fixed, we employed natives to enclose a piece of ground adjoining them. I received, in December, 1816, from governor Macquarie in New South Wales, a hundred ears of Egyptian wheat, which being a kind frequently grown in a warm climate, it was supposed might flourish in the islands. The grain was planted page 66 with care, and grew remarkably well; the leaf was green, the stalks high and strong, and the ears large; but as they began to turn yellow, few of them contained a single grain, and those that were found were shrivelled and dry. Potatoes were also tried, and have been repeatedly planted since, in different situations and seasons; but although, after the first growth, they usually appear like young potatoes,—if planted again, they are invariably soft and sweet, very small, and less palatable than the indigenous sweet potato.

At Afareaitu I had sown a number of seeds from England, Rio Janeiro, and New South Wales. Coffee and cashew-nuts, anacardium occidental, I had before planted in boxes; they grew well, but the coffee and the cashew-nuts were totally destroyed by the goats, which, leaping the fence one day, in a few minutes ate up the plants on which I had bestowed much care. The custard-apple, anona triloba or squamosa, that I had brought from Rio, were preserved, and plants from it are now bearing fruit in several of the islands. In addition to these, I was enabled to cultivate the papaw apple, carica papaya, French-beans, carrots, turnips, cabbages, and Indian corn; while our little flower-garden, in Huahine, was adorned with the convolvulus major and minor, capsicum, helianthus, and amaranthus, with several brilliant native flowers, among which the gardenia and hibiscus rosea chinensis were always conspicuous. The front of our house was shaded by orange trees, and our garden enclosed with a citron hedge.

The comfort connected with a garden, and the means of support derived therefrom, were not our only inducements to its culture; we were desirous to increase the vegetable productions of the island, page 67 and anxious also that our establishments should become models for the natives in the formation of their own, and in this we were not disappointed A neat little garden was afterwards considered by numbers as a necessary appendage to their habitation. The natives display a taste for the beautiful, in their fondness of flowers. The gardenia, hibiscus, and amaranthus, were often woven in graceful wreaths or garlands, and worn on their brows. They were delighted when the helianthus was added to their flowers. Pomare and his queen passed by my garden when the first ever grown in the islands was in flower, and came in, to admire its size and brilliancy. Soon after their return, I received a note from the king, asking for a flower for the queen, and also one for her sister; I sent them each a small one; and the next time they appeared in public, the large sunflowers were fixed as ornaments in their hair.

To the list of the edible vegetables, fruits, and roots of the Society Islands, already given, others might probably be added, but these are sufficient to show the abundance, diversity, nutritiveness, delicacy, and richness of the provision spontaneously furnished to gratify the palate, and supply the necessities, of their inhabitants. Here man seemed to live only for enjoyment, and appeared to have been placed in circumstances, where every desire was satisfied, and where it might be imagined that even the apprehension of want was a thing unknown. Amid the unrestrained enjoyment of a bounty so diversified and profuse, it is hardly possible to suppose that the divine Author of all should neither be recognized nor acknowledged; or, that his very mercies should foster insensibility, and alienate the hearts of the participants in his page 68 bounty. Such, however, was the melancholy fact. Although

—— —— —— —— ——“the soil untill'd
Pour'd forth spontaneous and abundant harvests,
The forests cast their fruits, in husks or rind,
Yielding sweet kernels or delicious pulp,
Smooth oil, cool milk, and unfermented wine,
In rich and exquisite variety;
On these the indolent inhabitants
Fed without care or forethought.”

We have often endeavoured to learn from the natives whether the vegetable productions used as food when the islands were discovered by Captain Wallis, were found there by those who first peopled them; whether these colonists, from whatsoever country they may have come, had brought any seeds or roots with them; or whether they had been, at a more recent period, conveyed thither from any other islands: but their answers, with regard to the origin of most of them, have been so absurd and fabulous, that no correct inference can be drawn from them. Most of them are, in their traditions, stated to have been formed by their gods, at the same time that the fishes of the sea, the fowls of the air, and the inhabitants of the earth, were produced.

In reference to the origin of the bread-fruit, one of their traditionary legends states, that in the reign of a certain king, when the people ate araea, red earth, a husband and wife had an only son, whom they tenderly loved. The youth was weak and delicate; and one day the husband said to the wife, “I compassionate our son, he is unable to eat the red earth. I will die, and become food for our son.” The wife said, “How will you become food?” He answered, “I will pray to my page 69 god; he has power, and he will enable me to do it.” Accordingly, he repaired to the family marae, and presented his petition to the deity. A favourable answer was given to his prayer, and in the evening he called his wife to him, and said, “I am about to die; when I am dead, take my body, separate it, plant my head in one place, my heart and stomach in another, &c. and then come into the house and wait. When you shall hear first a sound like that of a leaf, then of a flower, afterwards of an unripe fruit, and subsequently of a ripe round fruit falling on the ground, know that it is I, who am become food for our son.” He died soon after. His wife obeyed his injunctions, planting the stomach near the house, as directed. After a while, she heard a leaf fall, then the large scales of the flower, then a small unripe fruit, afterwards one full grown and ripe. By this time it was daylight; she awoke her son, took him out, and they beheld a large and handsome tree, clothed with broad shining leaves, and loaded with bread-fruit. She directed him to gather a number, take the first to the family god and to the king; to eat no more red earth, but to roast and eat the fruit of the tree growing before them.—This is only a brief outline of the tradition which the natives give of the origin of the bread-fruit. The account is much longer, and I wrote it out in detail once or twice from the mouth of the natives; but though not unpleasant as a specimen of the natives' faculty of invention, it is ill adapted to afford information. It was probably invented by some priest, to uphold the influence of the gods, and the tribute of first-fruits paid to the king. The origin of the cocoanut, chesnut, and yam, are derived from similar sources; the cocoa-nut having grown from the page 70 head of a man, the chesnut from his kidneys, the yams from his legs,—and other vegetable productions from different parts of his body. The importance of the bread-fruit and cocoa-nut, in the estimation of the natives, may also be gathered from the fact of their fabulous traditions assigning their origin to the head and the heart of him whose affection for his son was stronger than his love of life.

There are no serpents in the islands, and the only venomous reptiles are a species of centipede, and a small kind of scorpion. The natives are seldom stung by them; and though the bite of the latter is painful, it is not attended with danger or serious inconvenience. There are no beasts of prey, nor wild animals, with the exception of a few boars or hogs, and dogs, in the mountains, and these are not often troublesome.

With the exception of the fish on the coasts, the variety and abundance in the animal is much inferior to that in the vegetable productions of the South Sea Islands. Hogs, dogs, rats, and lizards were the only quadrupeds originally found among them. Hogs, called by the natives puaa, or buaa, and which they say were brought by the first inhabitants, were found in the island by Wallis and Cook. These, however, differed considerably from the present breed, which is a mixture of English and Spanish. They are described as having been smaller than the generality of hogs now are, with long legs, long noses, curly or almost woolly hair, and short erect ears. An animal of this kind is now and then seen, and the people say such were the only hogs formerly in Tahiti. It was also said, that they, unlike all other swine, were wholly averse to the mire; and a phenomenon so novel page 71 among the habits of their species, produced a poetical effusion, which appeared in a monthly periodical about five or six and twenty years ago. If such were the cleanly habits of the swine in Tahiti at that time, they have degenerated very much since, for I have often seen them stretched out at ease in a miry slough, apparently as much at home as the greatest hog would be in such a situation, in any other part of the world.

The swine now reared are large, and often well fed; they are never confined in sties, but range about in search of food. Those that feed in the heads of the valleys live chiefly upon fruit and roots, while those kept about the houses of the natives are fed occasionally with bread-fruit or cocoa-nuts. Unless well fed, they are very destructive to the fences and the native gardens, and bite through a stick, one or two inches in diameter, with very little effort: sometimes the natives break their teeth, or put a kind of yoke upon them; which, in some of the islands of the Pacific, is rather a singular one. A circular piece, as large as a shilling or a half-crown, is cut out of each ear, and when the wound has healed, a single stick, eighteen inches or two feet long, is passed through the apertures. This wooden bar lies horizontally across the upper part of the pig's head, and, coming in contact with the upright sticks of a fence, arrests his progress, even when he has succeeded in forcing his head through. The flesh of the pig, though in general soft, rich, and sweet, is not so fine as English-fed pork, neither has it the peculiarly agreeable taste by which the latter is distinguished. This is probably caused by the Tahitian swine feeding so much upon cocoa-nuts, and other sweet fruit. For the kind, however, native pork is page 72 very good; but, having little meat besides, we soon became tired of it. Although capable, when all the bones are taken out, of being preserved by salt, the natives never, till lately, thought of sitting down to less than a hog baked whole. Several of the chiefs, however, now only dress so much as is necessary for the immediate use of their families, and salt the remainder.

Next to the flesh of swine, that of the dog was formerly prized by the Tahitians, as an article of food. Nevertheless, dogs do not appear to have been reared for food so generally as among the Sandwich Islanders; here they were fed rather as an article of luxury, and principally eaten by the chiefs. They were usually of a small or middling size, and appear a kind of terrier breed, but were by no means ferocious; and, excepting their shape and habits, they have few of the characteristics of the English dog: this probably arises from their different food. The hog and the dog were the only quadrupeds whose flesh was eaten by the Tahitians. Rats were occasionally eaten uncooked by the Friendly Islanders; but, although numerous, they do not appear to have been used for that purpose here. Cats are now domesticated in most of the houses, and appear great favourites with the people.

To these, horses, asses, horned cattle, goats, and sheep, have been added, and, excepting the latter, appear to thrive exceedingly well. Rabits have been several times taken to the islands, and either turned loose, or fed in pens; but the climate, or food does not seem to have been suitable, and they seldom lived long.

The feathered tribes of the South Sea Islands, like those of the northern Pacific, are not distinguisned page 73 by brilliancy of plumage, or melody of song. There are, however, several varieties, and some of them in amazing numbers. The most numerous class are the aquatic birds. These skim the surface of the ocean, derive their subsistence from the sea or the inland lakes and streams, build their nests in the hollows of the craggy rocks, or haunt the lagoons and streams, rearing their young, and reposing by the side of the inland waters, or among the tall grass and rushes that border the extensive lakes or marshy hollows. Among the former may be reckoned the stately albatross, diomedia exulans, called by the natives obutu; the tropic bird, phaeton aetherius, called otaha; several kinds of petrels, called otatare, and others: these abound in all the islands, but appear to resort in greater multitudes to the unnumbered clefts in the rocky sides of the mountains of Borabora and Maurua, than to the more eastern islands. Among the lakes are several kinds of heron, that stand like sentinels on the broken rocks, watching for their prey, or march with solemn gravity along the margin of the stream: wild ducks resort to the lagoons and marshes.

There are several kinds of birds of prey, and a number of the woodpecker tribe, with some small paroquets, of rich and splendid plumage. In the inland parts of some of the islands, the turtle-dove, which is called uupa, and among the mountains pigeons, which, for the sound of their notes, the natives call uuairao, are found in considerable numbers. Among the singing birds, which are not numerous, the omaomao is the most conspicuous. It is about the size of the English thrush, is of a yellow and brown speckled colour, and in its note resembles the thrush more than any other bird.

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The most useful bird, however, is the common domestic fowl, called moa by the natives. These were found among the islands by their discoverers, and appear to have been there as long as the people. They are of the same kind as those reared in England; the bodies are smaller, and the legs longer, but this may perhaps have arisen from their not being confined, and seldom fed by the people. Those that are tame usually live upon what they find in the garden, or the fragments of bread-fruit, &c. left after the native meal. During the day they seldom wander far from their owner's dwelling, and at night, either take shelter under the same roof, or roost on the boughs of the trees by which it is overshadowed. Eggs are often plentiful, and the flesh of the fowls, though inferior to that of those fed in England, is generally good. Besides the tame fowls, there are numbers wild in different parts of the island, which range the woods, feeding on fruits or insects; these are occasionally taken by the natives, but are inferior to those that are domesticated. Fowls are not much used by the inhabitants, but are now reared chiefly to supply the vessels that touch at the islands for refreshment.

Fish are numerous in the seas that surround the islands; they abound on their coasts among the reefs, and in their extensive lagoons. The enormous whale, called by the people tohora, is often seen by the natives in their canoes, pursuing his gigantic pastime, raising his unwieldy bulk above the water, or spouting it in the air. The black-fish pass along their straits, and the porpoises often appear in shoals, or exhibit their gambols to the great amusement of the people, frequently throwing their whole bodies several feet out of the water, curving their tails, and falling headlong into the sea. The page 75 natives call them oua, a word which also signifies to spring or jump. Here, also, are seen a great number of the ray species, from the large unsightly diabolus, to the smallest kind, and a great variety of the medusa, or cuttle-fish. The fleet, beautiful, and sportive dolphin, and the anomalous creature called the flying-fish, that pursues its way alternately through the water and the air, and seems the uniting link between the feathered and the finny tribes. The natives call it marara. The totara, or hedge-hog fish, is also found among their reefs. The operu, scomber scomber of Linneus, resort to their coasts in large shoals, at stated seasons of the year, and are taken in great numbers by the people.

The islanders are usually expert fishermen, and fish is a principal means of support for those who reside near the shore. The albicore, bonito, ray, swordfish and shark, the porpoise and the dolphin, are among the larger sea-fish that are eaten by them; in addition to which, they have an almost endless variety of rock-fish, which are remarkably sweet and good.

In the rivers they find prawns and eels, and in their lakes, where there is an opening to the sea, multitudes of excellent fish are always found; among others is a salmon, which, at certain seasons of the year, is taken in great abundance. It exactly resembles the northern salmon in size, shape, and structure, but the flesh is much whiter than that of the salmon of Europe, or of those taken on the northern coasts of America; the taste is also the same, excepting that the Tahitian salmon is rather drier than the other. In the sand they find muscles and cockles, and on the coral reefs a great variety of shell-fish; among which, the principal are crabs, page 76 lobsters, welks, a large species of cham, and several varieties of echinis, or sea-egg. Numbers of turtle are also found among the reefs and low coralline or sandy islands. The turtle was formerly considered sacred; a part of every one taken was offered to the gods, and the rest dressed with sacred fire, was eaten only by the king and chiefs; and then, I think, either within the precincts of the temple, or in its immediate vicinity; now they are eaten by whomsoever they are caught. Most of their fish is very good, and furnishes a dish of which we never tired.

The rivers furnish few fresh-water fish; eels are the principal, and they are very fine. Eels being great favourites, are sometimes tamed, and fed till they attain an enormous size. Taaroarii had several in different parts of the island. These pets were kept in large holes, two or three feet deep, partially filled with water. On the sides of these pits, the eels formed or found an aperture in a horizontal direction, in which they generally remained, excepting when called by the person who fed them. I have been several times with the young chief when he has sat down by the side of the hole, and, by giving a shrill sort of whistle, has brought out an enormous eel, which has moved about the surface of the water, and eaten with confidence out of its master's hand. Connected with the fresh-water fish, a phenomenon is often observed, for which the natives are puzzled to account. In the hollows of the rocks, and in other places, to which they suppose the sea and the river never gain access, and where the water collected is entirely what falls from the clouds, small but regularly formed fish are sometimes found. The people have frequently expressed their surprise at finding them, and appeared to wonder how they ever came there. They call page 77 them topataua, literally, rain-drop, supposing they must have fallen from the clouds with the rain.

The accounts the natives give of the introduction of the animals found on the islands by the first European visitors, are most of them as fabulous as those relating to their own origin. Some, indeed, say that pigs and dogs were brought from the west by the first inhabitants; but others refer their origin to man. One of their traditions states, that after Taaroa had made the world and mankind, he created the quadrupeds of the earth, the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea; but one of their most indelicate accounts states, that in ancient times a man died, and after death his body was destroyed by worms, which ultimately grew into swine—and were the first known in the islands. We never observed among them any traces of the Asiatic doctrine of the transmigration of souls; although they believed that hogs had souls, and that there was a distinct place, called Ofetuna, whither they supposed the souls of the pigs repaired after their death. This idea some carried so far as to suppose, that, not only animals had souls, but to imagine that even flowers and plants were organized beings, also possessing souls. Another singular practice in reference to their pigs was, that of giving them some distinct, though often arbitrary name; so that each pig had his own proper name, by which he, as well as the several members of the family, was distinguished. This difference, however, prevailed—a man frequently changed his name, but the name of the pig, once received, was usually retained.