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Polynesian Researches


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Situation, extent, and productions of Rapa—Singularity of its structure—Appearance of the inhabitants—Violent proceedings on board—Remarkable interposition of Providence—Visit of some natives to Tahiti—Introduction of Christianity into Rapa—Raivavai—Accounts of its inhabitants—Visit of Capt. Henry—Establishment of a native mission—Fatal ravages of a contagious disease Tubuai—Notice of the mutineers of the Bounty—Origin of the inhabitants—Prevention of war—Establishment of salutary laws—Rimatara—Productions—Circumstances of the inhabitants—Abolition of idolatry—General improvement—Rurutu—Geological character—Population—Auura—His voyage to Maurua—Return to his native island—Destruction of the idols—Visit to Rurutu—Advancement of the people in knowledge, industry, and comfort—Unjust conduct of visitors—Treatment of the shipwrecked by the natives—Progress of Christianity.

About seven degrees nearer the equator than New Zealand, and thirty-six farther to the eastward, the lofty and many-peaked island of Rapa is situated. The first account of this island is given by Vancouver, who discovered it in his passage from New Zealand to Tahiti, on the 22d of December, 1791. According to the observation made at the time, it was found to be situated in lat. 27. 36. S. page 363 and long. 144. 11. W. The mountains are craggy and picturesque, and the summits of those forming the high land in the centre, singularly broken, so as to resemble, in no small degree, a range of irregularly inclined cones, or cylindrical columns, which their discoverer supposed to be towers, or fortifications, manned with natives.

∗The mingled emotions of astonishment and fear, with which the natives regarded every thing on board Vancouver's ship, prevented their replying very distinctly to the queries he proposed; and he observes, “Their answers to almost every question were in the affirmative, and our inquiries as to the name of their island, &c. were continually interrupted by incessant invitations to go on shore. At length, I had reason to believe the name of the island was Oparo, and that of their chief Korie. Although I could not positively state that their names were correctly ascertained, yet, as there was a probability of their being so, I distinguished the island by the name of Oparo, until it might be found more properly entitled to another.” The explicit declarations of the natives, made under more favourable circumstances, have now determined Rapa to be the proper name of this island.

It is the furthest from the equator of a number of scattered islands, which lie to the south of the Tonga, Navigators' and Society Islands, and are designated by Multe Brun, The Austral Islands.

∗System of Geography, vol. ii. p. 647.

Rapa is about twenty miles in circumference, is tolerably well wooded and watered, especially on the eastern side. The taro, or arum, is the most valuable article of food the natives possess, and, with the fish taken on their coast, forms their chief subsistence. The breadfruit, mountain plantain, banana, cocoa-nut, and fruits, have been brought from Tahiti, but they do not appear to thrive. The eastern coasts appear the most fertile. On this side of the island the fine harbour of Aurai is situated. The entrance is intricate, but the interior capacious, extending several miles inland. The landing on the beach is good, and fresh water convenient.

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In person, the inhabitants resemble those of Tahiti more than the New Zealanders, though their language bears the greater affinity to that of the latter. Vancouver, judging from those he saw around his ship, estimated their number at 1500. Mr. Davis, who visited them in 1826, supposed the population to amount to about 2000; but Messrs. Simpson and Pritchard, in April, 1829, found that an epidemic had reduced their numbers, and did not think there were above 500. The island is divided into several districts, and is governed by one supreme ruler, or king, and a number of subordinate chiefs. The name of the present chief is Tereau. Fortifications crown the summits of many of their hills; these are so constructed as to render them impregnable by any means which the assailants could bring against the besieged. Wars have not been frequent among them, and, when they have existed, have been less sanguinary than those among the islands to the northward.

Their system of religion was exceedingly rude, and resembled, in some respects, that which prevailed in Tahiti, though the names of their gods were different. The principal idol was called Paparua; it was formed of cocoa-nut husk, curiously braided, and shaped into a kind of cylinder, full in the centre, and smaller at the ends, and was not more than two or three inches long. To the favour of this god they sought for victory in war, recovery from sickness, and abundance of turtle. Poere was another of their gods; it was of stone, twelve or fifteen inches in length. It was fixed in the ground, and invoked on the launching of a canoe, and the opening of a newly-built house; and on its will the supply of water in the springs page 365 was supposed to depend. The favour of the gods was propitiated by prayers, offerings, and sacrifices; human victims were not included among the latter, which principally consisted in fish.

∗Missionary Chronicle, vol. iv. p. 167

On my voyage from New Zealand to Tahiti, we made this island on the 26th of January, 1817. The higher parts of the mountains seemed barren, but the lower hills, with many of the valleys, and the shores, were covered with verdure, and enriched with trees and bushes. The island did not appear to be surrounded by a reef, and, consequently, but little low land was seen. The waves of the ocean dashed against the base of those mountains, which, extending to the sea, divided the valleys that opened upon the western shore. As we were not far from the island when the sun withdrew his light, we lay off and on through the night, and, at daybreak the next morning, found ourselves at some distance from the shore. We sailed towards the island till about 10 A. M.; when, being within two miles of the beach, the head of our vessel was turned to the north, and we moved slowly along in a direction parallel with the coast. We soon beheld several canoes put off from the land, and not less than thirty were afterwards seen paddling around us. There were neither females nor children in any of them. The men were not tataued, and wore only a girdle of yellow ti leaves round their waists. Their bodies, neither spare nor corpulent, were finely shaped; their complexion a dark copper colour; their features regularly formed; and their countenances, often handsome, were shaded by long black straight or curling hair. Notwithstanding all our endeavours to induce them to approach the ship, they continued for a long time at some distance, page 366 viewing us with apparent suspicion and surprise. At length, one of the canoes, containing two men and a boy, ventured alongside. Perceiving a lobster lying among a number of spears at the bottom of the canoe, I intimated, by signs, my wish to have it, and the chief readily handed it up I gave him, in return, two or three middle-sized fish-hooks; which, after examining rather curiously, he gave to the boy, who, being destitute of any pocket, or even article of dress on which he could fasten them, instantly deposited them in his mouth, and continued to hold with both hands the rope hanging from our ship. The principal person in the canoe appearing willing to come on board, I pointed to the rope he was grasping, and put out my hand to assist him up the ship's side. He involuntarily laid hold of it, but could scarcely have felt my hand grasping his, when he instantly drew it back, and, raising it to his nostrils, smelt at it most significantly. After a few moments' pause, he climbed over the ship's side. As soon as he had reached the deck, our captain led him to a chair on the quarter-deck, and, pointing to the seat, signified his wish that he should be seated. The chief, however, having viewed it for some time, pushed it aside, and sat down on the planks. Our captain had been desirous to have the chief on board, that he might ascertain from him whether the island produced sandal-wood, as he was bound to the Marquesas in search of that article. A piece was therefore procured and shewn to him, with the qualities of which he appeared familiar; for, after smelling it, he called it by some name, and pointed to the shore. While we had been thus engaged, many of the canoes had, unperceived by us, approached the ship; and page 367 when we turned round, a number of the natives appeared on deck, and others were climbing over the bulwarks. They were the most savage-looking natives I have ever seen, and their behaviour was as unceremonious as their appearance was uninviting. Vancouver found them unusually shy at first, but afterwards remarkably bold, and exceedingly anxious to possess every article of iron they saw: although his ship was surrounded by not fewer than three hundred natives, there were neither young children, women, nor aged persons, in any of their canoes.

A gigantic, fierce-looking fellow, who had seized a youth standing by the gangway, boarded us, and endeavoured to lift him from the deck; but the lad, struggling, escaped from his grasp. He then seized our cabin-boy, but the sailors coming to his assistance, and the native finding he could not disengage him from their hold, pulled his woolen shirt over his head, and was preparing to leap out of the ship, when he was arrested by the sailors. We had a large ship-dog chained to his kennel on the deck, and, although this animal was not only fearless, but savage, yet the appearance of the natives seemed to terrify him. One of them caught the dog in his arms, and was proceding over the ship's side with him, but perceiving him fastened to the kennel by his chain, he was obliged to relinquish his prize, evidently disappointed. He then seized the kennel, with the dog in it; when, finding it nailed to the deck, he ceased his attempts to remove it, and gazed round the ship, in search of some object less secure. We had brought from Port Jackson two young kittens; one of these now came up from the cabin, but she no sooner made her appearance page 368 on the deck, than a native, springing like a tiger upon its prey, caught up the unconscious animal, and instantly leaped over the ship's side into the sea. Hastening to the side of the deck, I looked over the bulwarks, and beheld him swimming rapidly towards a canoe lying about fifty yards from the ship. As soon as he had reached the canoe, holding the cat with both hands, and elevating these above his head, he exhibited her to his companions with evident exultation; while, in every direction, the natives were seen paddling their canoes towards him, to gaze upon the strange creature he had brought from the vessel. When our captain beheld the thief thus exhibiting his prize, he seized his musket, and was in the act of levelling it at the offender, when I arrested his arm, and assured him I had no doubt the little animal would be preserved, and well treated. Orders were now given to clear the ship. A general scuffle ensued between the islanders and the seamen, in which many of the former were driven headlong into the sea, where they seemed as much at home as on solid ground, while others clambered over the vessel's side into their canoes. In the midst of the confusion, and the retreat of the natives, the dog, which had hitherto slunk into his kennel, recovered his usual boldness, and not only increased the consternation by his barking, but severely tore the leg of one of the fugitives who was hastening out of the ship, near the spot to which he was chained. The decks were now cleared; but as many of the people still hung upon the shrouds, and about the chains, the sailors drew the long knives with which, when among the islands, they were furnished, and by menacing gestures, without wounding any, succeeded page 369 in detaching the natives from the vessel. Some of them seemed quite unconscious of the keeness of the knife, and, I believe, had their hands deeply cut by snatching or grasping at the blade. A proposal was now made to entice or admit some on board, and take two of them to Tahiti, that the Missionaries there might become acquainted with their language, gain a knowledge of the productions of their island, impart unto them Christian instruction, and thus prepare the way for the introduction of Christianity among their countrymen, as well as open a channel for commercial intercourse. Our captain offered to bring them to their native island again, on his return from the Marquesas; and, could their consent have been by any means obtained, I should, without hesitation, have acceded to the plan; but, as we had no means of effecting this object, I did not conceive it right to take them from their native island by force.

On a former voyage, about two years before this period, Captain Powel had been becalmed near the shores of this island. Many of the natives came off in their canoes, but did not venture on board; perceiving, however, a hawser hanging out of the stern of the ship, about fifty of them leaped into the sea, and, grasping the rope with one hand, began swimming with the other, labouring and shouting with all their might, as they supposed they were drawing the vessel towards the shore. Their clamour attracted the attention of the seamen, and it was found no easy matter, even when all hands were employed, to draw in the rope. While the greater part of the crew were thus engaged, a seaman leaning over the stern with a cutlass in his hand, so terrified the natives, that, as page 370 they were drawn near the vessel, they quitted their hold, and by this means the hawser was secured. A breeze shortly after springing up, they steered away, happy to escape from the savages by whom they had been surrounded.

On the present occasion we experienced a signal deliverance, which, though it did not at the time appear very remarkable, afterwards powerfully affected our minds. As soon as the vessel was cleared of the natives, and the wind was wafting us from their shores, I went down to the cabin, where Mrs. Ellis and the nurse had been sitting ever since their first approach to the ship; and when I saw our little daughter, only four months old, sleeping securely in her birth, I was deeply impressed with the providence of God, in the preservation of the child. During the forenoon, the infant had been playing unconsciously in her nurse's lap upon the quarter-deck, under the awning, which was usually spread in fine weather, and she had but recently taken her to the cabin, when the natives came on board. Had the child been on deck, and had my attention been for a moment diverted, even though I had been standing by the side of the nurse, there is every reason to believe that the motives which induced them to seize the boys on the deck, and even the dog in his kennel, would have prompted them to grasp the child in her nurse's lap or arms, and to leap with her into the sea before we could have been aware of their design. Had this been the case, it is impossible to say that the result would have been; bloodshed might have followed, and we might have been obliged to depart from the island, leaving our child in their hands. From the crude food with which page 371 they would have fed her, it is probable she would have died; but, from my subsequent acquaintance with the natives of the South Sea Islands, I do not think that during her infancy they would have treated her unkindly. As it was, we felt grateful for the kind Providence which had secured us from all the distressing circumstances which must necessarily have attended such an event.

These brief facts will be sufficient to shew somewhat of the character of the natives of Rapa, in 1791 and 1817. They continued in this state until within the last five or six years, during which a considerable change has taken place.

Towards the close of the summer of 1825, a cutter belonging to Tati, a chief in Tahiti, on a voyage to the Paumotus, or Pearl Islands, visited Rapa, and brought two of its inhabitants to Tahiti. On their first arrival, they were under evident feelings of apprehension; but the kindness of Mr. Davies the Missionary, and the natives of Papara, removed their suspicions, and inspired them with confidence. They were both delighted and astonished in viewing the strange objects presented to their notice. The European families, the houses, the gardens, the cattle, and other animals, which they saw at Tahiti, filled them with wonder. They also attended the schools and places of public worship, and learned the alphabet. Soon after their arrival, the cutter sailed again for their island, and the two natives of Rapa returned to their countrymen loaded with presents from their new friends, and accompanied by two Tahitians, who were sent to gain more accurate information relative to their country, and the disposition of its inhabitants. When the vessel approached their island, and the people saw their page 372 countrymen, they appeared highly delighted; and towards the evening, when, accompanied by the two Tahitians, they drew near the beach in the ship's boat, the inhabitants came out into the sea to meet them, and carried the men and the boat altogether to the shore. This to the strangers was rather an unexpected reception; but, though singular, it was not unfriendly, for they were treated with kindness. The accounts the natives gave their countrymen, of what they had seen in Tahiti, were marvellous to them: the captain of the cutter procured some tons of sandal-wood; and when he left, the Tahitians returned, having received an invitation from the chiefs and people to revisit their island, and reside permanently among them; a request so congenial to their own feelings, that they at once promised to comply.

In the month of January, 1826, two Tahitian teachers and their wives, accompanied by two others, one a schoolmaster, and the other a mechanic, sailed from Tahiti for Rapa. They carried with them not only spelling-books, and copies of the Tahitian translations of the scriptures, but also a variety of useful tools, implements of husbandry, valuable seeds and plants, together with timber for a chapel, and doors, &c. for the teachers' houses. They were conducted to their new station by Mr. Davies, one of the senior Missionaries at Tahiti, who was pleased with his visit, and, upon the whole, with the disposition of the people, although some appeared remarkably superstitious, and, as might be expected, unwilling to embrace Christianity. This arose from an apprehension of the anger of their gods, induced by the effects of a most destructive disease, with which they had been recently visited. The gods, they page 373 imagined, had thus punished them for their attention to the accounts from Tahiti. The teachers, however, landed their goods, and the frame-work of the chapel. The chiefs received them with every mark of respect and hospitality, pointed out an eligible spot for their residence, gave them some adjacent plantations of taro, and promised them protection and aid.

The Sabbath which Mr. Davies spent there was probably the first ever religiously observed on the shores of Rapa. Several of the natives attended public worship, and appeared impressed with the services. These being performed in the Tahitian language, were not unintelligible to them. The native teachers were members of the church at Papara; and as they were but few in number, and were surrounded by a heathen population in a remote and solitary island, it being then expected the vessel would sail on that or the following day, they joined with Mr. Davies their pastor in commemorating the death of Christ, under the impression that it was the last time they should ever unite in this hallowed ordinance.

Situated some degrees from the southern tropic, the climate is bracing and salubrious, the soil is fertile, and while it nourishes many of the valuable roots and fruits of the intertropical regions, is probably not less adapted to the more useful productions of temperate climes. Mr. Davies estimates the population at about two thousand. Vancouver supposed that Rapa contained not less than fifteen hundred, merely from those he saw around his ship. In their language, complexion, general character, and superstitions, they resemble the other islanders of the Pacific, though less civilized in their page 374 manners, more rude in their arts, and possessed of fewer comforts, than most of their northern neighbours were, when first discovered. Their intercourse with Tahiti has not only increased their knowledge, and their sources of temporal enjoyment, but has been the means of introducing Christianity among them, and raising many to the participation of its “spiritual blessings.” In 1829, Messrs. Pritchard and Simpson found that four chapels had been erected in different stations, at which, by native Missionaries, religious instruction was statedly imparted. The inhabitants manifested a pleasing attention during public service, and their advancement in knowledge exceeded the expectations of their visitors.

A fresh avenue is here opened for European commerce, and valuable information is likely to result from the visit of the teachers to this solitary abode. The English Missionary from Tahiti was the first foreigner that ever landed on their coasts; but many years before his arrival, an inhabitant of some other island, the only survivor of the party with whom he sailed from his native shores, had been by tempestuous weather drifted to the island, and was found there by the native teachers, who first went from Tahiti. His name was Mapuagua, and that of his country Manganeva, which he stated was much larger than Rapa, and situated in a south-easterly direction. The people he described page 375 as numerous, and much tataued; the name of one of their gods the same as that of one formerly worshipped by the Tahitians. An old man who resided at the same place with the stranger, gave Mr. Davies the name of eleven places, either districts of Manganeva, or adjacent islands, which are unknown to the Tahitians. The information thus obtained will be valuable in the search for those islands, which has already been commenced; and if no sources of wealth be found, nor important channels of commerce opened, their discovery will increase our geographical knowledge, and extend the range of benevolent operation.

∗The islands which bear the nearest resemblance to the description here given, are situated in lat. 23. 12. S. and long. 135. W. They are lofty, verdant, and populous, and were discovered on the 24th of May, 1797, by Captain Wilson, in the Duff; by whom, in honour of Admiral Lord Gambier, they were called Gambier's Islands.—Missionary Voyage, p. 118.

Rapa forms the southern extremity of that part of Polynesia which Malte Brun has designated the