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 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.
* 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.
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:—
* 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).
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."§
* 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.
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."**
* 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."
"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.
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.
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.