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Polynesian Researches



This island, which is situated in lat. 22. 27. S. and long. 150. 47. W., was discovered by Captain Cook, by whom it was called Ohetetoa. This is also one of its proper native names, but is much less frequently used than Rurutu, by which it is now generally known. The island is of small extent, probably not more than twelve miles in circumference. It is surrounded by a reef of coral, page 394 but is destitute of any harbour, and there is only one place at which even a boat can land. A narrow border of low land extends from the shore, and the interior is mountainous and broken. Rurutu, considering its size, presents natural scenery equal in beauty to any of the adjacent islands, and a greater variety in its geology than any other. Many of the rocks are basaltic; others appear formed of a vesicular kind of ancient lava; besides which, fibrous limestone is occasionally met with, and a beautiful and singular stalactites. Garnets are also found in several parts. The soil is fertile: most of the productions, used as articles of food in the Society Islands, flourish here; while the dracana, the casuarina, and the barringtonia are not only abundant, but attain an unusual size—the trunk of the latter frequently exceeding four feet in diameter.

The inhabitants, though not more numerous than those of Rimatara, are darker in their complexion, more enterprising in their character, and active in their habits. Their temples were numerous, and their idols, especially their great god, Taaroa, were among the most singular we have met with in the Pacific. Their priests, who were their physicians, maintained great influence over the people, though their system of worship appears less sanguinary than that of their more civilized neighbours. They were addicted to war. Their helmets were among the most imposing in the South Sea Islands, and their spears, which were made of the hard dark wood of the casuarina, were often from twelve to eighteen feet long. Vessels traversing this part of the Pacific, occasionally hove-to off this island, for the purpose of allowing the natives to bring off their hogs, fowls, and vegetables, for page 395 barter; but few foreigners went on shore, and little intercourse was held with them, until the establishment of a native Mission among them. The events which led to this are rather remarkable, and cannot fail to interest those who find pleasure in noticing the proceedings of Divine providence in the small and remote, as well as more extensive and conspicuous, changes that take place in the circumstances of men.

In the end of 1820, a distressing and contagious disease made its appearance among the inhabitants of this island. Accustomed to ascribe every calamity to the anger of their gods, they attributed that with which they were now visited, and which threatened their annihilation, to this cause, and had recourse to every means which they supposed could pacify the evil spirit. Still the disease continued, until not many more than two hundred inhabitants remained. Among these, Auura, a young and adventurous chief, determined to seek his safety on the ocean. He communicated the design to his friends; and, as some were desirous of proceeding to Tubuai, to obtain pieces of iron, and others, with himself, deeming that, if they remained, death was inevitable, thought they could but die at sea, determined to accompany him. Taking their wives with them, Auura and his friends launched his canoe, sailed to Tubuai, and, after remaining some time, embarked to return. A storm drove them out of their course; and, after having been drifted at the mercy of the waves for three weeks, their canoe struck on the reefs which surround Maurua, the most westerly of the Society Islands. The natives of this island treated the exhausted voyagers with hospitality and kindness, and gave them an account of the changes that had taken place among page 396 the islands around them. As soon as they had recovered from the fatigues of their voyage, Auura and his companions launched their canoe, and sailed for Borabora. When they reached the mouth of the harbour, the wind was unfavourable for entering, but a boat from the island conveyed the chief and his wife to the shore, while their companions continued their voyage to Raiatea, where they were kindly treated by the inhabitants, and soon after joined by their chief. Every thing in the island was new and surprising; and, under the influence of astonishment, the strangers visited the dwellings of the Missionaries, the native Christians, the chapel, and the schools, and soon became regular pupils themselves. After having been some time at Raiatea, they publicly renounced their idols, and professed themselves the worshippers of the true God. Next to their desire for instruction themselves, they seemed exceedingly anxious to return to their native island, to impart to their countrymen the knowledge they had received. No opportunity for accomplishing their wishes in this respect, occurred, until a vessel, on her way to England, touched at Raiatea; we were on board at the time. The captain generously agreed to convey them to Rurutu, which he intended to pass, in his way to Cape Horn. Two native Christians, and their wives, were, at the request of Auura, selected to accompany them, and the short interval, between their appointment, and the departure of the vessel, was employed in making preparations. Their friends and neighbours came forward with promptness and generosity, and, according to their means, furnished such articles as were most likely to be useful in the land to which they were going. The men page 397 were intelligent, active, and devoted Christians, and their wives pious and amiable women.

On the 5th of July, 1821, they embarked with the chief and his friends, and, three days after leaving Raiatea, the ship made Rurutu. The next day Auura and the Raiateans entered a boat, and rowed towards the land. When they approached the shore, the boat's crew were rather alarmed by the eagerness with which the people waded into the sea to meet them; but, being assured that it was only indicative of a desire to bid them welcome, they resumed their confidence. They were startled at being saluted by the inhabitants in the name of “Jehovah, the true God;” of whom they afterwards found the natives had heard, by means of a woman who had left Raiatea four or five years before, and had, by a ship, reached the southern islands.

As soon as they landed, Mahamene and Puna kneeled on the ground, and rendered thanks unto God for their preservation. They were not aware that the spot on which they made this acknowledgment was sacred to Oro, and could not account for the earnestness with which the Rurutuans exclaimed, “This party will die.” The strangers also inadvertently cooked and ate their food in a place that was considered as sacred: this, with the circumstance of the females eating with the men, filled the natives with greater astonishment, and they waited for some time, expecting to see them suddenly expire. At length they concluded that the gods would execute vengeance upon them during the night; and, so great was their anxiety on this subject, that they could not wait till daybreak—one of them went at midnight to the chief's house, and, calling aloud, inquired if his wife was page 398 not destroyed by the spirit, or god. When they saw that the whole party had remained uninjured during the night, they expressed their indignation at the deception of which they had been the dupes.

The Christian natives had no sooner landed, than they made known the object of their visit, and proposed to bring the matter more fully before the inhabitants at a public meeting on the following day. Auura, the chief who had accompanied them, sent his own idol away by the captain of the Hope, who sailed on the same evening.

On the next day, which was the 12th of July, the entire population assembled, and the little Christian band appeared before them. Auura, who was then about thirty years of age, of tall and graceful figure, addressed his countrymen. He narrated succinctly the leading incidents of his voyage; alluded to their apprehension that he “had been eaten by the evil spirit in the depths of the sea,” but declared that God had led him, by a way that he knew not, to a land where teachers dwelt, and where the word of God grew and flourished;—that he had returned to them, that they might know the compassion of Jehovah, the name of the Son of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit, in enlightening their hearts. He declared, that their god, whom he designated on this occasion the evil spirit, was the great foundation of all deciet, and proposed that his dominion should be annihilated, and the images, or idols, burnt, that his influence might cease for ever, and that the government, or reign, should be given to Jehovah, &c.

The king and chiefs replied, “We will receive the word of life; we will burn the evil spirits; let page 399 every thing made by our hands, as an object of worship, be totally charred in the fire.” To these statements they added this remarkable declaration—“Behold, you say, O Auura, that we have souls, or spirits—till now we never knew that man possessed a soul.” Auura then introduced the two Missionaries from Raiatea, stated their object, and recommended them to the kind attention of the people.

At this time, two men, pretending to be inspired by Rurutu's god, rose up. One said, “We will hold the good word.” The other began by declaring his acquaintance with the foundation of the universe, his descent from Taaroa, his birth in the heavens—and was proceeding, when the chief interrupted him, and requested him to demonstrate his relation to the celestial world, by “shooting up into the sky;” and then, accusing him as the destroyer of the Rurutuan people, ordered him away. The teachers then addressed the meeting, and, after briefly stating their object, recommended them to provide an entertainment the next day, of which they and their wives and children should unitedly partake, and thus prove the deception of their false gods.

On the succeeding day, a feast was prepared; turtle, pork, and other kinds of food considered sacred, were dressed, and a number of both women and children sat down, and ate of the prohibited dishes. The priests had declared, that any who should thus offend, would be instantly destroyed by the gods of their ancestors—this was to be the test of their power.

The inhabitants were not uninterested spectators at this feast; and when, afterwards, they saw no one convulsed, or suddenly stricken with death, page 400 they arose, hurled their idols from the places they had so long occupied, burnt to the ground three of their sacred dwellings, in which their idols were kept, and, on the same day, proceeded, en masse, to the demolition of their temples.

A large boat, belonging to Mr. Threlkeld, had been towed to the island by the vessel which conveyed the teachers. After remaining about a month in Rurutu, the Raiateans attached to the boat took leave of their countrymen, launched their boat, loaded with the rejected idols, and, after being six days at sea, reached in safety their native island.

The Christians in Raiatea, who had, in hope and faith, sent out their first Missionaries, little expected such immediate success. A public meeting was convened, at which the abolished idols were exhibited, appropriate addresses delivered, and sincere acknowledgments rendered to the Most High, for the favourable reception their countrymen had experienced.

On my return from the Sandwich Islands, in company with the deputation from London, I called at Rurutu, in October, 1822. As we approached the shore, a native came off, to a distance of one or two miles, not in a canoe, but in a large wooden dish used in preparing food; it was about six feet long, and eighteen inches or two feet wide. The native invited us to the shore. On landing, we were greeted with the most cordial welcome by the chiefs and people, and were astonished at the effects of little more than one short year's exertion. Many had learned to read, and some to write; the teachers had erected neat plastered dwellings for themselves and, under their direction, the people had built a substantial chapel, eighty feet long, and thirty-six page 401 feet wide. In this I preached to nearly the whole of the inhabitants, who were serious and attentive. After the service, we examined the building, the pulpit, &c., and were delighted to behold the railing round the table in front of the pulpit, and by the side of the stairs, composed of the handles of warriors' spears.

Twelve months afterwards they were visited by Mr. Williams, who found their industry and improvement had been progressive. The young king had died; and as there were two candidates for the supreme authority, this led to the formation of two settlements instead of one: to each of these, one of the teachers was attached; and as the friends of Auura had not succeeded in procuring for him the government of the island, the teacher attached to his party had proposed, as a sort of compensation, to make him king of the church. When this plan was mentioned to Mr. Williams, he informed them that the Lord Jesus Christ was the King of the church! that he was a Prince, as well as a Saviour! and that in the Bible there was nothing about the appointment of any other king of the church. This was sufficient, and Auura's friends were content that he should be supreme in his own district, but subordinate to the uncle of the late king, who had been the more successful candidate for the government of the island. This fact serves to shew the advantages of European Missionaries occasionally visiting the stations under the care of native Missionaries. In November, 1824, I again visited Rurutu, travelled across the mountains from one settlement to the other, and conversed with most of the inhabitants, many of whom were living in comfortable dwellings, and wearing decent clothing. Industry, activity, and cheerfulness, were every where manifest, page 402 and the improvement of the people encouraging. Twelve months after our departure, they were visited by Mr. Bourne. The numbers of houses were increased, and a general air of comfort pervaded the settlement. Though not very frequently visited prior to their intercourse with Raiatea, they were the victims of most unjust plunder, from those who resorted to their shores for the purposes of refreshment. A short time before the first European Missionaries visited them, an English ship hove-to off the island, and on the captain's intimating his wish to obtain pigs and vegetables, the natives took off a supply, including a number of large hogs, for which they were promised axes in return. Their canoe was attached to the vessel by a rope, while the hogs, &c. were hoisted upon the deck. As soon as their canoe was empty, the captain threw down a bundle of pieces of iron hoop, and useless pieces of iron, and, telling them that was their payment, cut the rope by which they held to the vessel, and sailed away. Indignant at the treachery and robbery of the white men, they returned to the shore, held a public council, related the conduct of their visitors, exhibited the payment they had received, and proposed that they should avenge themselves upon the next ship that might arrive. The proposal was received, and it was determined that, instead of taking off provisions, they should invite the captain on shore, and then murder him and his companions; while others should go off with supplies, with which they should gain admittance to the ship, and there murder the remainder of the crew, and seize the vessel. This was their purpose when the first Missionaries visited them. As soon as Mr. Threlkeld was page 403 acquainted with it, he dissuaded them from it, and recommended them to give him the articles they had received, assuring them he would write to the owners of the ship, who would remunerate them. The ship was afterwards wrecked and lost, and the captain no longer employed by his owners. Another ship, commanded by an individual, who was chief officer at the time of this unjust transaction, was also lost, and I have not heard of any recompense being made to the natives. They however, since they have embraced Christianity, have treated every foreigner by whom they have been visited with kindness. Nine months after our departure in 1824, a large American ship, the Falcon, Captain B. C. Chase, was wrecked here The chief officer and crew remained some time on the island. The captain proceeded to South America, but, before he left, he delivered the following testimony to the native teachers. “The natives gave us all the assistance in their power, from the time the ship struck till the present moment. The first day, while landing the things from the ship, they were put into the hands of the natives, and not a single article of clothing was taken from any man belonging to the ship, though they had it in their power to have plundered us of every thing. Since I have lived on shore, myself, officers, and people have received the kindest treatment from the natives, for which I shall ever feel thankful. Myself and officers have lived in the house of Puna, who, together with his wife, has paid every attention to make us comfortable, for which I return my sincere thanks, being the only compensation I can make them at present.”—The contrast between this conduct, and their purpose some years before, is decisive as to the page 404 benefit Christianity has conferred, while the testimony of Captain Chase is as honourable to himself as it is just to the people, and satisfactory to their friends. The last intelligence from this interesting island, dated 1829, is highly satisfactory. At this time, Mr. Williams visited them, opened a new chapel, sixty feet long, and forty feet wide, inspected both the stations, and found, in one, scarcely an adult who could not read, and was gratified with the hospitality of the people, their industry, improvement, and comfort; about eighty natives were united in Christian fellowship.

Westward from the Society Islands, and north-west from Rurutu, a number of important and populous islands and clusters are situated. Some of them were visited by Cook, Bougainville, La Perouse, and other early navigators, others have been recently discovered by the Missionaries, or masters of vessels conveying native Missionaries to the different islands. To the inhabitants of most of these, a knowledge of the gospel has been conveyed by Christians from the Society Islands, and by many tribes it has been cordially received. During the summer of 1830, Messrs. Williams and Barff visited most of these islands, including the Hervey, Tonga, Hapai, and Samoa, or Navigators groups. They have since transmitted a very copious and interesting journal of their voyage, with historical and general notices of the islands and their inhabitants, and an account of the introduction of Christianity, and its influence on the people. This, we have reason to believe, will soon be published; our additional notices must therefore be brief and general.

It would appear that, although much has been page 405 done for the natives of these distant islands, yet much still remains to be accomplished. In a letter written by Mr. Williams, to the late foreign secretary of the London Missionary Society, dated October 21, 1830, he states the following particulars.

“We visited the Hervey Islands, and found all our stations in a state of considerable prosperity.”—And after narrating an unsuccessful attempt to land at Savage Island, and describing the pleasure a visit to the Friendly Islands afforded, and the reasons which induced them to decline visiting the Fijis, to which they sent native teachers, Mr. Williams continues:

“Leaving Tognatabu, we proceeded to the Hapai Islands, where we met Finau, the king of Vavau, who, with many of his chiefs, had come to attend a marriage ceremony: this saved us a voyage, as we had a teacher from Borabora for that island. We attended his majesty, and made our propositions to him, Mr. Cross and Mr. Thomas kindly interpreting for us. He replied, that we might leave the teacher and his wife, if we pleased; but it was his determination not to embrace Christianity yet, neither to suffer any of his people to do so; and that he would kill the first that did. Treating us at the same time with the greatest respect, he said he looked upon the change as a matter of importance, and he did not think it well to use deceit on such an occasion, his mind being made up on the subject. Several of the Vavau chiefs have left wives, lands, servants, yam plantations, and all they possess, and choose to live in a state of poverty at Lefuga, under the instruction of Mr. Thomas, rather than return to their own possessions at Vavau, and renounce page 406 Christianity, which they must do if they return, as Finau threatens all with death who do not abandon their new religion.

“Leaving the Hapai group, we steered direct for the Samoa group, when we experienced a severe gale of wind, which afflicted us all with violent catarrh. One died, and several were reduced to the point of death. The wind however abating, by making the land and getting into warmer weather, we soon recovered.

“Very providentially, a chief of the Samoas, being at Togna, with his wife and family, wished much to return, and applied to us for that purpose. We were glad of the opportunity of conveying him home, and he proved an invaluable acquisition to us; and we sincerely hope, and fully expect, he will prove equally valuable to the teachers we placed there.

“The Samoa Islands are eight in number, four in the windward group, and four in the leeward group; two of which are much larger than Tahiti, and all are full of inhabitants. War raging at two of the principal islands, we thought it best to commence our labours on one only, which was not the seat of war, and to which the chief we had brought from Togna belonged. We used our utmost endeavours to induce the chiefs to give up the war: they promised they would terminate it as speedily as possible, and come and learn from the teachers the lotu, or word of the great God. We placed eight teachers on the large island of Savai; four under the protection of the king, Malietoa, and four under the protection of his borther. Mr. Barff and I went on shore, and remained there two nights and three days, during which time (although probably no European had page 407 been on shore before) we were treated with the utmost respect and kindness. A commodious dwelling was given up, by the chiefs, for our people to worship and teach in, with four good dwelling-houses for themselves and families. We promised the chiefs and people, in the large public meeting we held, when we exchanged our presents, &c., to visit them in ten or twelve months' time, and that, if they had attended to the instructions of the teachers, we would then assure them that European Missionaries would come and settle with them as soon as possible. One thing affected us much: the two largest of the islands, Upolu and Savai, are about ten miles distant from each other; war was raging between them; they were actually fighting on the shore of Upolu while we were landing the teachers on the opposite shore of Savai; the houses and plantations were blazing at that very time.”

On taking an impartial retrospect of Polynesia, and surveying man under the influence of his ferocious passions and unregenerate propensities, we find ourselves constrained to admit, that the power of God accompanying his gospel, is the only antidote in existence for the moral maladies of the human race. Nothing but this can induce the fallen sons of Adam to “beat their sowrds into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;” and when its universal diffusion shall take place, we feel assured that “the nations of the earth will learn war no more.”