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Polynesian Researches

Raivavai, or High Island

Raivavai, or High Island,

Is one of the most important of these islands, and is situated about six degrees to the north-west of Rapa. It was discovered by Lieut. Broughton, in the Chatham, on the 2d of December, 1791, who gives its situation as 23. 42. lat. and 147. 41. W. long. Its high and broken mountains may be seen in clear weather at the distance of fifty miles. Around the sterile centre mountains, there is a considerable portion of low land. The island is scarcely twenty miles in circumference. The harbour is open and insecure; but, being on the western side, it is sheltered from the prevailing winds. A few years ago the inhabitants amounted to about 2000, but the ravages of a fearful epidemic, in the year 1829, reduced them, it is said, to about 800. They page 376 resemble the South Sea Islanders in many of their usages, but appear to have been less cruel, and, in some respects, more ingenious. Their carving is superior to any found among their more civilized neighbours. Infanticide was unknown among them, and we have no evidence that they offered human sacrifices, though strongly addicted to idolatry. Their temples were extensive, some of which, with their appendages, though forsaken by their worshippers, still remain entire. One of them contains upwards of twenty large stone idols. The temples, furniture, number, size, and materials of which their gods are made, manifest the former zeal and devotedness of the people in the service of their idols.

In 1819 Pomare visited Raivavai in an American ship. The inhabitants tendered him their homage, and sought his protection. On his departure, he left a man, called Para, as a kind of political agent among them, who also endeavoured to teach some of the natives to read.

In the month of January, 1821, Captain Henry, commanding a vessel belonging to Pomare II. touched at this island. He made it on the Sabbath-day, and, on landing, found the inhabitants about to assemble in their place of worship. This building was 117 feet by 27. His arrival prevented for a short time their commencing the public service; but the scene which was afterwards presented, is described in a letter Captain Henry wrote to us on reaching Tahiti, as “affecting and delightful.” Eight hundred and forty-eight persons attended; seven hundred of whom entered the place, the remainder continuing round the doors. “Each individual, on entering the church, page 377 kneeled down, and uttered a short prayer.” In reference to their deportment, Capt. Henry observes, “The very quiet, devout, and orderly manner in which they conducted themselves, not only in church, but during the Sabbath, excited my highest admiration.”

The open renunciation of idolatry, and the general profession of Christianity, were effected at a public festival, which occurred about four months prior to Capt. Henry's visit. All the inhabitants, with the exception of about twenty-five persons, had declared themselves desirous of Christian instruction, and every one in the island had renounced idolatry. Most of their former objects of worship were removed from the temples, and some of those mutilated stone figures were actually converted into seats or benches, at the doors of the building erected for Christian worship. The knowledge of the individual left by Pomare was very limited; his behaviour, also, was immoral; and the natives had sagacity enough to perceive that his conduct did not accord with what he taught them Christianity required; consequently, they refused to pay much attention to his instructions, but requested that proper teachers might be sent to them. In 1822, suitable teachers from Eimeo were stationed in this island; these have shewn the utmost diligence and fidelity in promoting the temporal and spiritual improvement of the people. In Jan. 1825, when visited by Messrs. Tyerman Bennet, and Henry, two large places had been erected for public worship; at the opening of one of them, 1300 persons were present. At the same time, baptism was administered to fifty-two adults, and page 378 sixty children. In the latter part of the same year, I visited Raivavai. The singular, broken, and romantic shape of the mountains, gave universal interest to the scenery; the natives were numerous, and, though uncivilized, their behaviour was neither barbarous nor repulsive. They were anxious to entertain us with hospitality and kindness, and readily conducted me to whatever was interesting in the neighbourhood. Their idols were of stone, which appeared a kind of cellular lava, of a light ferruginous colour. They were generally rudely carved imitations of the human figure. The people appeared ingenious, patient, and industrious, and the carving of their paddles, bowls, and other domestic utensils, in the taste displayed in its devices, and the skill of its execution, surpassed any thing of the kind I have seen in the Pacific.

∗Missionary Chronicle, No. 54, p. 165.

The teachers, Horoinuu, Ahuriro, and Tohi, gave me a very favourable account of their attention to instruction. In 1829, when they were last visited, it was found that a contagious epidemic, a kind of malignant fever, had destroyed a great portion of the inhabitants. This disease was originally brought from Tubuai, and, for a considerable time after it appeared, from ten to fifteen deaths occurred daily. If a healthy person came in contact with the body or clothes of one diseased the malady was generally communicated. During the first stages of the progress of the disease, whole families, from attending the sick, were simultaneously attacked with the dreadful complaint, and often buried in one common grave. The visitors observe, “Never have we witnessed a more melancholy spectacle; houses are left without inhabitants; page 379 land without owners; and that which was formerly cultivated, has now become desolate.”

In 1826 Mr. Davies organized a Christian society, or church, among this people, when sixteen persons were, after due examination, united in Christian fellowship with the teachers of Eimeo who were residing among them. Of these, twelve have died; to the survivors forty-six were added, during the time Messrs. Pritchard and Simpson remained with them, in 1829.

∗Missionary Report, 1827, p. 29.