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The Atoll of Funafuti, Ellice group : its zoology, botany, ethnology and general structure based on collections made by Charles Hedley of the Australian Museum, Sydney, N.S.W.

The Archipelago

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The Archipelago.

The Ellice Group is an Archipelago of somewhat vague limits, which trends for about four hundred miles in a north-westerly and south-easterly direction, and lies between Lat. 5° 35' and 11° 20' South, and Long. 176° and 180° East. After a gap of a hundred and fifty miles, the same general trend is continued across the equator into the Northern Hemisphere by the Gilberts, otherwise known as the Kingsmill or Line Islands, whose physical features repeat those of the Ellice Group, though the character of their inhabitants is widely different.

This particular archipelago is indeed but a link in a huge chain of islands which extends for about 3,500 miles from the Austral Islands through the Herveys, Samoas, Ellices, and Gilberts, to the Marshalls, forming the S.W. edge of that axial trough described by Dana* as the Central Depression of the Pacific, mapped by Whitmee as the Great Atoll Valley, and mentioned by Lapworth as "the mightiest of all the submarine buckles of the earth crust;" the opposite N.E. edge of which is indicated by the answering chain of islands stretching from Hawaii to Kure. West of this Marshall-Austral chain (the "zone pacifique australe" of Sacco§), and roughly parallel both to it and to the East Australian coast, is a second series of elevations whose contour, as shown by the "Challenger's" cross sections, is that of waves directed westward. These latter elevations have in common a fauna and flora characteristically continental, in contrast to the essentially drift fauna and flora of the outer chain, from which they are also distinguished by a system of volcanoes. The term Melanesian Plateau has been proposed as a collective geographical name for these elevations,—whose summits, now projecting as dry land, are New Zealand, Lord Howe Island, New

* Dana—Corals and Coral Islands, 1872, p. 328.

Encyc. Britt., (9) xix., 1885, Pl. iii.

Rep. Brit. Assoc, for 1892 (1893), p. 705.

§ Sacco—Essai sur I'Orogenie de la Terre, Turin, 1895, p. 31.

Challenger Reports—Deep Sea Deposits, 1891, Diagrams, 11, 12, 13.

Hedley—Proc. Linn. Soc. N.S.W. (2), vii., 1892 (1893), p. 335.

page 4Caledonia, New Hebrides, Fiji and the Solomons,—which during the life of the existing fauna have been first deeply sunk and then slightly elevated. Viewing Australia as the massif around which have been concentrically heaped up* this inner and outer chain, it is noteworthy that the only point in which the outer chain has swelled into large and lofty islands is where, in the Samoan Archipelago, it has swept on to the heel of the Melanesian Plateau.

Proceeding southwards the following are the inhabited islands of the Ellice:—Nanomea, Niutao, Nanomana, Nui, Vaitapu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, Nukulailai, and Nurakita. Every member of the group is essentially an atoll or lagoon island, but in the smallest, like Nurakita, the structure is masked by the filling in of the lagoon having reached completion, and converted the interior of the atoll from water to land.

To elucidate the relation of Funafuti to the other members of the group, the following sketch of the archipelago is compiled from the notes of various travellers:—

Nurakita.—" Six hundred miles from Samoa, sailing northwesterly, the first of the group, Sophia Island, is sighted. It is the south-easterly outlier of the group, and is the only one of sufficient height to be seen from the vessel's deck at a distance of twenty miles. Until a few years ago it was uninhabited, although the people of the next island, Nukulaelae, say that 'in the old, old time, many people lived there.' It is about three miles and a half in circumference, has but few cocoanuts growing upon it, and would have remained untenanted in its loneliness to this day but for the discovery of a fairly valuable deposit of guano. Then it was taken possession of by an enterprising American storekeeper in Samoa, named Moors, who landed native labourers and worked, and is still working, the deposit. The old native name

* In this connection Messrs. Haddon, Sollas and Cole (On the Geology of Torres Straits, Trans. R. Irish Acad., xxx., 1894, p. 473) have remarked that, "As our knowledge grows, we the more distinctly see in Australia and its islands the ruins of a great southern continent, fractured and submerged, possibly during the great Alpine Himalayan revolutions, and now in process of resurgence, as the vast folds of the earth's crust roll slowly inwards upon the central continental mass."

Other instances of Pacific islands once inhabited but afterwards depopulated by war, famine, disease or storm, are: Caroline Island, where the American Scientific Expedition discovered maraes, &c. (Mem. Nat. Acad. Sci., ii., 1884); Gente Hermosa, of which Whitmee says, "The island was formerly inhabited by a large race of people whose skeletons are now found, all of them I am told exceeding six feet in length. No one knows by what means they became extinct, but the fact that their skeletons are lying unburied in various parts of the island, points to famine, or an epidemic which quickly proved fatal to all the people, as the probable cause" (Missionary Cruise in the S. Pacific, 1871, p. 6); and Palmerston Island, described by Gill (Jottings from the Pacific, 1885, p. 37).

page 5of this spot is Ulakita—a name, by the way, that is almost unknown, even to the local traders in the Ellice Group."*

Nukulailai.—" Eighty or ninety miles away is Nukulaelae, a cluster of thirteen low-lying islets, forming a perfect atoll, and enclosing with a passageless and continuous reef a lagoon five miles in length by three in width. This narrow belt of land—in no case are any of the islets over a mile in width—is densely covered with cocoanuts, and, seen from the ship, presents an enchanting appearance of the highest green, accentuated on the westerly or lee shore by beaches of the most dazzling white. Thirty years ago Nukulaelae had a population of four hundred natives. Then one day there came along two strange vessels—a barque and a brig—and hove-to close to the reef; and in a few hours nearly three hundred of the unfortunate, unsuspecting, and amiable natives were seized and taken on board by the Peruvian throat-cutters and kidnappers that had swept down upon them, and, with other companions in misery, torn from their island homes, were taken away to slavery in the guano fields of the Chincha Islands. Of the Nukulaelae people none ever returned, and all but two perished miserably under their cruel taskmasters on the gloomy Chinchas." "Fangafana is the name of the islet on which the settlement stands. Nukulaelae is the name of another islet and is used to designate the group. Near tradition traces the people to the island of Funafuti; remote mythology says that Mauke, the first man, had his origin in a stone."§

The next atoll, Funafuti or Ellice Island, is reserved for a more extended description, and passing over it we come to Nukufetau, or De Peyster's Group, lying sixty miles to the leeward and consisting of "A very beautiful group of thirty-seven islets almost surrounding a lagoon. The name signifies the land of the fetau (Calophyllum inophyllum), the only indigenous tree of large size found there. The settlement is located on the island of Te anamu, and there are houses also on Sakuru. Fairly good water can be obtained at Te anamu. Other islets in this group are Te afuavea, Te afuana, Te afatule, Paifa, Funata, Mata Nukulaelae (like Nukulaelae), Teafualoi, Nualei, Niuatangi, Teafuanono, Motu tu lua, Teafuniua, Niuatui, Niuatibu (a Gilbert Island name), Oua, Lafaga (where there is said to be fresh water), Niuaruko, Faiava, Potiki, Moturaro (here also water is to be found), Motufetau, Motuloa, Te afua, Te motumua (here

* Becke—Evening News, Sydney, 25 April, 1896.

Officially spelt Nukulailai, otherwise the Mitchell Group.

Becke—loc. cit.

§ Turner—Samoa, 1884, p. 280.

"Sakuru seems to have been uplifted ten or twelve feet."—Turner, loc. cit., p. 284.

page 6also there is water), Te afualoto, Motuloto, Te afua fale niu, Te afuatakalau, Te fale (here also there is said to be water). The names here given will, to those acquainted with Gilbert Island, Tongan, Samoan, and Rarotougan dialects, furnish instances of the influence of all these dialects in the nomenclature of the group."* In 1884 Mr. C. M. Woodford estimated the population at 240.

Vaitupu.—"Oaitupu (literally 'the fountain of water') is although nearly the smallest, the most thickly populated of all. It has no lagoon accessible from the sea, and landing even is not always easy. Here, although the soil is better than that of the other islands, and the natives have taro, bananas, and pumpkins to vary the monotonous diet of cocoanut and fish obtaining elsewhere in the Ellices, they are very subject to that species of eczema known as tinea dequamans (locally it is called 'lafa')."§ The Rev. S. J. Whitmee says:—" It is nearly round, about four miles across, and has a salt water lagoon in the centre, completely shut off from the sea by a ring-like strip of land about half a mile across. The population amounting to three hundred and seventy-six are very advanced."

The next island, Nui, Egg or Netherland Island, is remarkable for being in the possession of an outlying colony of Gilbert Islanders or "Tafitos," differing from the Ellice Islanders in language, customs, appearance and demeanor. Moresby says:—"We communicated with Egg or Netherland Island, a crescent-shaped reef, with the horns of the crescent lying about two and a half miles north and south of each other. The two hundred inhabitants were all Christians, and had escaped the kidnapper; their village stands on an islet on the southern horn."**

Nanomana, "N anomaga, the Hudson Island †† of Commodore Wilkes, is the smallest of the group. It is barely a mile and a half long, and not one in width, yet supports a population of six hundred people. The writer (who was the second white trader there since the people accepted Christianity in 1870) spent a year on the island, and can bear testimony to the kindly nature and honesty of its people. During all the time he lived there as

* Rev. J. E. Newell—Proc. Austr. Assoc. Adv. Sci. for 1895 (1896), p. 609.

Geogr. Journ. 1895, vi, p. 344.

Officially Vaitupu, otherwise Tracey Island.

§ Becke—loc. cit.

In Findlay—Directory of the South Pacific Ocean, 1877, p. 753.

Turner, Becke, Newell and Findlay—loc. cit. Whitmee—Journ. Anthrop. Inst., viii., 1879, p. 274.

** Moresby—New Guinea, 1876, p. 77.

†† After the Commander of the "Peacock."

page 7agent for Messrs. John S. De Wolf and Company, of Liverpool, he never had as much as a scrap of tobacco stolen from him, although his trade goods were piled up indiscriminately on the floor of his house, which had neither doors, locks, nor a bolt of any kind. In this, however, the Nanomagans are peculiar—the other islanders are not so particular."* "There is a lagoon here, centre very deep, sides very muddy," writes Dr. Gill in a MS. account of a visit to this island in 1872, which he has kindly allowed me to peruse. Wilkes, however, denied it a lagoon, and none is shown upon the Admirality Chart (South Pacific, No. 766, Ed. 1893).

"Niutao, Lynx or Speiden Island is an atoll about three and a half miles in circumference, and has two small lagoons. It is said to have had its origin with other islands in two ladies, the one called Pai and the other Vau. They came from the Gilbert Islands with a basket of earth, and wherever they threw it about the islands sprang up. Other traditions say that the people came from Samoa in two canoes which drifted thither. The one went to Vaitupu and the other to Niutao." "This island," Moresby informs us, "differs from the others of the group in having no guarding reef, and no companion islands near it. It stands alone in the ocean, scarcely raised above its level, and is simply a huge flat-topped coral rock, two and a half miles by one and a half in extent, which rises perpendicularly from fathomless depths, and is only saved from being washed over by the sea by a narrow shore reef, on which the great surf expends itself. We pulled to the edge of the boiling surf and met canoes, which landed us without a wetting, and were received on the beach with the most intense curiosity by the natives, who had never seen a man-of-war before. They are a well-looking, dark, straight-haired race, and number four hundred and seventeen souls, a large population for so small an island, but their food is abundant, an unlimited supply of cocoanuts, fowls, pigs, flying-fish, skipjack and sharks… …. Their mode of procuring water is curious. They cut the coral rock to a depth of twenty feet, and make an opening wide at the top and narrowing into three small holes below, which fill with a brackish water as the tide rises. They have not any other supply, but do not need it as they have an unlimited supply of cocoanut milk."§

* Becke—loc. cit.

So named by Wilkes, who sighted the island in 1841, after the purser of the "Peacock." "Niutao," says Gill (Jottings, p. 1), signifies "baked cocoanut."

Turner—loc. cit. p. 287.

§ Loc. cit., p. 79.

page 8

Nanomea.—This is the northernmost of the Ellice Group, it is probably the San Augustin Island of Murelle (1781), and Taswell and Sherson Islands of the brig "Elizabeth."* (1809). The Rev. S. J. Whitmee says (1870), "There are two islands within three or four miles of each other connected by a reef, dry at low water. The westerly island is named Lakena; it is nearly round, two miles or more across, well stocked with cocoanut and other trees, and has a deep fresh water lagoon in its centre. It is not inhabited, but is used by the people of the other island for the cultivation of food. Nanomea, the second island, is about four miles long by one to two wide; it has a shallow water lagoon towards the east end, partially open to the sea. The inhabitants are taken together the finest race of men, so far as muscular development goes, I have ever seen. They are almost a race of giants. I believe nine out of every ten would measure six feet or more high, and their breadth is proportionate to their height. The Englishman resident on the island estimates the population at about one thousand." Becke writes "There were last year eight hundred and thirty people on the two islands, Nanomea and Lakena." Here "the men are heavily bearded, and not a little proud thereof."§

The Ellice Islanders seem ethnologically to have segregated themselves in three groups. Nukulailai and Nukufetau were anciently more or less dependents of Funafuti, with which Vaitupu was allied; all four for instance united in the worship of Foilape or Firafi. In 1841, the Nukufetau people described their world to Wilkes as consisting of Funafuti, Vaitupu, and the Tokelaus. Nanomea and is Tanomea were closely linked by their extraordinary quarantine rites, Niutao by its position and skull worship was associated with these; the north and south group also differed in their method of making the titi (see Vegetation post). As we have already remarked Nui stood apart.

The atoll of Funafuti was discovered by Captain Peyster) in the "Rebecca," on March 18th, 1819. According to the observations of Captain Wilkes, it lies in Lat. 8° 30' 45" South, Long. 179° 13' 30" East. A position which may otherwise be described as due north of Fiji, and precisely half way between that and the Equator. It is about a thousand miles south-south-west of what Dana considered** as the centre of the great Pacific subsidence.

* Mercantile Magazine, Sept., 1873, p. 257.

In Findlay—loc. cit. p. 755.

Loc. cit.

§ J. B. Davis—Anthrop. Rev., vii., 1870, p. 191.

Findlay—loc. cit., p. 751.

Wilkes—Narrative U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1845, p. 295.

** Dana—Corals and Coral Islands, 1872, p. 324.

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The nearest high land is the small island of Rotumah, two hundred and sixty miles to the south-west; but the nearest land of any considerable size is Vanua Levu, four hundred and fifty miles south.

On nearing Funafuti, as with any South Sea atoll, a long low line of vegetation on the horizon gives the first intimation of the approach to land. Looming larger, the tallest palm trees show their plumed heads sharp against the sky. Nearer, if to windward, the dense vegetation is framed by a long white line of ever breaking surf; to leeward, a beach of sand, dazzling white in the sunshine, limits the forest. Not till the observer has entered the lagoon by one of the navigable channels does the atoll as a whole extend before him. In this instance Dana's poetic comparison* of an atoll to "a garland thrown upon the waters" is scarcely applicable, so many and so wide are the rents in the wreath of foliage.

* Loc. cit., p. 167.