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Niuē-fekai (or Savage) Island and its People

The Island: Geographical and Physical

The Island: Geographical and Physical

Niuē is the common name by which the Island is known to the people themselves and to those of the adjacent groups, but its proper modern name is Niuē-fekai, used on formal occasions, in songs, &c. The origin of this name will be given later on. In the meantime it may be mentioned that it has a probable connection with those of other islands in the Western Pacific, such as Niuā in the New Hebrides, Niua-fou north of the Tongan Group, and Niuā-taputapu, Keppel Island.* It is somewhat remarkable how difficult to English tongues is the pronunciation of this name, and how often it is misspelt. It is pronounced in English letters “neeooway,” with a strong accent on the “way.” But this was not the original name of the island. Apparently its earliest name was Nuku-tu-taha, which was given by Huanaki, one of its earliest discoverers, from the fact of its being a solitary island, not one of a group, nuku being a very common Polynesian name for an island, or land, whilst tu is to stand, taha (Maori tahi) singly; one, &c. If, as is probable, the original discoverers came from the groups to the west, this would be an appropriate name to apply, as distinguishing it from the many-isled groups to which they were accustomed. Another old name of the island is Motu-te-fua, to which the natives now attach the meaning of sterile (tufua), but as there is a fairly strong accent on the te, this is probably the old Polynesian negative not now used by the Niuē people, and might perhaps be translated by “the island without fruit, or offspring.” A fourth name of the island is Fakahoa-motu, which again the natives

* The letters a and e are constantly interchangable in the Polynesian language. It was stated to me that fekai should really be faikai, food-possessing, but this requires confirmation. The word fekai is lost in the Niuē dialect, but in Tonga and Samoa—which are the dialects most akin to that of Niuē—it means “fierce.”

page 4 do not appear to be able to explain, beyond saying that it means that one of the original discoverers helped the other, any more than they can that of Nuku-tuluea, its fifth name. All these old names have gone out of use, except in song and on very formal occasions, being replaced by Niuē. It is perhaps needless to add that the most modern name is Savage Island, given to it by Captain Cook when he discovered* it in 1774–a name the natives do not like, for they feel it to be not appropriate in their present condition, and say that Captain Cook by applying this name gave them an unnecessarily bad reputation, for they never injured any of his crew, but merely made a demonstration to prevent his landing, fearing he would introduce disease amongst them.

The north end of the island has a general name, Mata-fonua (the front of the land), as has the south end, Mui-fonua (Muri-whenua in Maori, Muli-fanua in Samoa—meaning the “land's end”—in both of which countries the names are found—in New Zealand at the North Cape, in Samoa at the western end of Upolu Island. If my recollection serves me right, the east end of Rarotonga is also called Murienua). In addition to the above names, the north end of the island is called Ulu-lauta and the south end Hiku-lauta.

The sketch map accompanying this paper is taken from the Admiralty chart, to which I have added the names, villages, tracks, &c. The notice of the Hydrographer Royal should be drawn to the shape of the south-east end of the island, which is apparently a good deal out of position, and requires rectification.

The south point of Niuē is situated in south latitude 19° 10′, west longitude 169° 17′. The nearest land is Vavau, of the Tonga group, distant nearly west 240 miles. Tongatapu Island is distant S.S.W. about 300 miles, and Tutuila, of the Samoa group, N. by W. 270 miles. To the east Palmerston Island is the nearest land, about 360 miles E. by N., all directions given being true.

The island is about 40 miles in circumference, the extremes of length and breadth being about 17 and 11 statute miles respectively, whilst its average height above sea level is about 220 feet. It belongs to that class termed a “raised coral island,” and has a fringing reef (uluulu) quite close to the shore, the width of which is about 60 to 80 yards. Intersecting this reef in numerous places are narrow—and often deep—chasms (ara) which, under ordinary circumstances, afford good landing places, at any rate on the leeward side, which is towards the west. On the east side, where the prevailing E.S.E. trade winds blow home for eight months out of the twelve, landing is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

* That is—discovered it, so far as Europeans are concerned. Of course, the Polynesians had discovered and occupied it ages before Captain Cook.

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The island has been raised by several efforts of the subterranean forces, as is plainly visible in the terraces which surround its shores. These elevations have been unequal in character and extent, and practically may be reduced to two.* The earliest caused the central part of the island to rise about 130 feet, and thus it remained for ages, the wide terrace on which most of the villages now stand, being at that time the encircling or fringing reef. The other great elevation raised the island a further height of about 80 to 90 feet, since which time little change appears to have taken place beyond the eating of the surf into the cliffs of coral. There are indications here and there that the island was once an atoll, with probably a very shallow lagoon, now shown by the brown reddish earth of the centre of the island, which is formed of very much decomposed coral rock. This reddish earth is a feature of other raised coral islands, as noticed by both Darwin and Dana. Where not occupied by this reddish earth, the surface of the island is extremely rocky, the grey weathered surface of the coral showing in fantastic rugged masses, that makes travelling off the paths very difficult indeed. The island may be likened to an inverted soup-plate, in which the rounded edge represents the lower terrace, the rim the old margin of the lagoon, and the bottom the level or undulating surface of the old lagoon. Coral (feo) is the only rock to be found on the island—there is no sign of any volcanic rock whatever. It decomposes into a fertile soil in the hollows of the rocks, more so than the reddish earth, which is not so rich but yet often supports a dense vegetation.

The second elevation of the island appears to have been of a more sudden character than the first, for it was probably during that period that the series of longitudinal chasms were formed that so frequently are found at the foot of the higher terrace—the old shore line, in fact, before the second elevation. Some of these chasms are very picturesque, overhung as they are by the rich vegetation of the tropics, and frequently containing pools of water in the bottoms, which serve as the water supply of the people. A particularly picturesque spot is Matapa, where the chasm that runs along a considerable length of the east side of the island (here and there) runs out to sea. It appears as if the lower terrace had fractured, with a tendency to split off, leaving these chasms to mark the points of weakness. It is along this lower terrace—which may average about one-third of a mile in width—that six out of the eleven villages are situated, all shaded by coco-nut groves, and presenting a very pretty appearance with the gleaming white coral houses of the natives showing amongst the dark green foliage.

* The terraced formation may be seen, though not distinctly, in Plate No. 1.

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The island is so rocky that cultivation, in the ordinary sense of the word, is extremely difficult; and yet the natives, by hard labour, produce from the soil abundance of food, of which the talo is the most plentiful, and is most excellent of its kind. It is extraordinary to see how well this plant, together with bananas (futi) and other food-plants, flourish amongst the rocks in places where it would generally be deemed impossible to grow anything. In the interior parts where the reddish earth prevails, certain kinds of food are also grown, such as sugar-cane, talo, &c., but the soil is generally not nearly so productive here. All over the interior the coral rock crops up here and there, even amidst the reddish soil, and often the finest trees on the island grows where there is most coral rock. It is difficult to get a view of any extent in the interior owing to the vegetation, and it was not until after much searching we found a place from which to take a photograph. Here an extent of about five miles was seen, and as in all other parts, there was no elevation visible above the general surface of more than 25 feet. The whole interior plateau is, in fact, a very gently undulating plain, from which the edges slope off somewhat steeply on all sides to the lower terrace. The edge of this plateau, or upper terrace, is about three-quarters of a mile distant from the sea.

It may be said that the whole island is covered by forest, although there are places here and there where the vegetation degenerates into serub. But these places have apparently been burnt and cultivated in former times, and the forests destroyed. The general name for the inland parts is tafagafaga* or rao, whilst the second growth of forest is called koukou-motua, and the wild native forest rao-motua.

From what has been stated above as to the source of the water supply, it will be understood that fresh water is scarce. The sole reliance of the islanders in this respect is upon the pools of water in the caverns (ana, or aloalo), for there is no such thing as a running stream in the island. The water is often deep below the surface and has to be hauled up by lines, but usually the supply is to be obtained not much below the level of the land. Many of the caverns contain brackish (māē) water (rai) which rises to a level of 60 to 70 feet above the sea level, and is affected by the tides at that height—such water is used for washing, bathing, and sometimes (in dry seasons) for drinking. It follows from this scarcity of water that the variety of

* It is as well to explain here that the Niuē “g” has always an “n” before it. Thus tafagafaga is pronounced tafangafanga (cf. Maori tawhangawhanga and whanga, a district, place, space, also the big ocean rollers.

Vai or wai is the common word for water wherever the Polynesian language is spoken, but the Maoris distinguish fresh water as wai-maori, or common water. The Niuē people have no such word as maori (native, common, in the ordinary manner) in their dialect, though it is found in several others.

page 7 talo grown in the island is of the kind that requires little moisture, unlike the taro of Eastern Polynesia, which requires periodical floodings with water. The Niuē talo is the best, to my mind, grown in the Pacific. The people depend largely on the milk of the cocoanut for drinking.