The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 20
The Islands with the Manners and Customs of the Natives
The Islands with the Manners and Customs of the Natives.
In 1606 Quiros first discovered one of these islands. He called it Terra del Espiritu Santo, and founded a town on it which he called the New Jerusalem. In 1768, Bougainville discovered four or five more of the islands, and gave them the name of the Great Cyclades. In 1774, Captain Cook explored all the islands, and called them the New Hebrides. The group is 400 miles in length, lying N.N.W. and S.S.E, between 14° and 21°, S. latitude, and 166° and 171°, E. longitude, N. by W. from New Zealand, distant from Auckland 1200, and from Sydney, 1500 miles. The time is 11 hours and a few minutes fast of Greenwich, and about half an hour slow of Wellington. The islands are all within the tropics, and are from twenty to thirty in number. The names of the larger islands beginning at the south, are, Aneityum, Tana, Eromanga, Faté, Api, Ambrim, Malikolo, Whitsun, Aurora, Leper's Isle, and Espiritu Santo.
The area of the group is about 3,500 square miles, or equal to that of the counties of Ayr, Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, and Wigtown, or to the half of Wales. The several islands lie S.E. and N.W. from each other, at unequal distances, and their longest diameter is that between these points. They are all independent, that is, are claimed by no other country. With two exceptions, they are of volcanic origin. They are lofty, being in some cases 3,000 feet high. The scenery is varied, and very beautiful, being composed of sharp peaked mountains, gently undulating plains, and deep valleys, covered with grass, ferns, and trees. Some of the islands rise gradually from the shore to the inland peaks, others have a bold coast with table land at a considerable elevation. A few have an outlying reef, but generally they have deep water close in shore, and the navigation is free of danger. There are several harbours, three of which are not only capacious, but landlocked. The surrounding sea teems with the whale, shark, and turtle, as well as smaller fish, and the shores abound in coral and shells. The islands are well wooded and watered. On some of them there is abundance of Kauri, and other timber, and on others, sandalwood, which brings from £30 to £40 per ton in China. The soil is very fertile, especially along the shore, and in the valleys, and page 2 produces in abundance all sorts of tropical fruits—the spontaneous and the cultivated. The cocoa nut, bread fruit, taro, yam, banana, sugar cane, wild fig, chestnut, rose apple, arrowroot, &c., &c., are indigenous. The yam is the plant most cultivated on the dry islands, the taro on those having swamps and abundance of water. The guava, custard apple, pine apple, melon, orange, lime, cotton, &c., have been introduced, and grow well. The largest indigenous quadruped is the rat. There is a great variety of birds, bats, and insects. There is a snake, but it is harmless. Some of the fish emit a poison, while others when eaten are injurious to health. There are two volcanoes, one of which on Tana is visible at night for more than thirty miles. The prevailing wind is the S.E. trades, but it goes round the compass by N., perhaps once a month. In the more Northerly Islands the trade wind is very constant, and the land and sea breezes more perceptible. There are two seasons—the wet and the dry. In the former, which lasts from December till April, the sun is vertical, and the rains accompanied with thunder and lightning, are heavy and continuous. During these months the hygrometer often indicates an atmosphere perfectly saturated. In the dry season, which lasts from April to December, we have rain less frequently; and when the wind is well from the S., there may be a difference of six or seven degrees between the two bulbs of that instrument. The thermometer, in the south of the group, has a range of about thirty degrees all the year round—viz., from sixty to ninety deg within doors,—about half the range in the Australasian Colonies. The climate, as compared with that of New Zealand, is moister, more debilitating, and hotter, especially at night. The barometer has a range of a third of an inch. It stands as a whole lower in summer than in winter. During cyclones, i.e., storms of wind having two motions, one on their own axis and another in a direction forward, the barometer falls as much as one-and-a-half inches, more especially at the centre, where a perfect calm prevails. There are whirlwinds also, which mow down every thing in their path. These storms occur from December till April. Slight earthquakes are also experienced. The prevailing disease is fever and ague. It seizes the Natives as well as Europeans. The epidemics are influenza and dysentery. The latter at times commits great havoc. Measles and small pox have visited some of the islands and proved very fatal.
The population of the group has been estimated at one hundred and fifty thousand. The Natives are Papuan, i.e., they are like the inhabitants of New Guinea—not so fair, tall, or intelligent as the Malays, nor so dark and degraded as the aborigines of Australia. It is impossible to say whence they have come, and whether they be the real aborigines or a mixed race. They are rather under medium stature, well-built, fleshy, active, and expert at swimming and climbing. Their hair is a dark brown, or a light sandy color, and is woolly in general, but curly in some, and straight in a few. On some islands the men wear it long, and divided into numerous locks, each lock being wound round or served with the page 3 fine inner bark of a native plant. These locks, about the thickness of whipcord, are tied behind the neck, and allowed to hang down the back. The men are naked, with the exception of a narrow girdle of bark or matting, and a wrapper of leaves. The women have a rude petticoat made of grass, or the flax-like fibres of a native plant. They are all exceedingly fond of ornaments, such as shells, teeth of various animals, beads, strips of red or other showy cloth, rings of tortoise shell, plates of pearl, &c. These they wear in the tips of their ears, and on their arms, wrists, necks, and legs. A piece of wood is worn in the septum of the nose. Their faces are streaked with red and black ochres, made into a paste with oil. Their perspiration when excessive has a sensibly unpleasant odour. They are subject to scrofulous swellings and sores difficult to heal, and they enjoy better health in the warm than in the cold season. Many children die in infancy; families are not large, and as a race they are not long-lived. Owing to certain practices there are more men than women. In disposition they are suspicious, revengeful, jealous, and selfish—not to be depended on, volatile and treacherous. They are addicted to lying, stealing, cruelty, uncleanness, war, and bloodshed. Physical qualities are far more appreciated by them than mental. They are not without intellectual ability. They learn easily to pull an oar, handle tools, read, write, cipher, and sing tunes. They can tell you the owner of this dog or that fowl, or of these fruit trees and those foot prints. They can commit long passages of Scripture, and many of them speak two or more languages. If their minds are less powerful in any respect than our own, it seems to arise solely from want of exercise.
On the same island there are several tribes, each having its own district and chief. The power of the chiefs, which descends from father to son, is very limited. Their laws are few, and might is generally right. The Natives do not roam much. They erect houses, make plantations and fences, fish, and go frequently to war. They irrigate by taking the water along the hill sides for miles at a higher level than that pursued by the parent stream. They fish with nets and also with hooks. They plait baskets and mats. They have one musical instrument like a flute, and another like Pan's pipes. They are fond of singing, especially when a number of them are doing some work, as carrying a log, but it is monotonous, embracing only a few notes. On Espiritu Santo they make rude, unglazed earthenware. The principal meal is eaten in the evening. Their food, consisting of vegetables with fish, fowls, and pork, is cooked among the ashes, or else by covering it up with leaves in contact with stones at a red heat. Kava, a narcotic beverage, obtained by chewing the root of a plant of the Piper family, is drunk by the men about sunset. They retire early, and rise at break of day. The men never go abroad unarmed. Their weapons consist of clubs, iron bolts got from wrecks, and pieces of stone or branch coral. They have also muskets, spears, and arrows, these last being tipped with bone and poisonous. They trade but little. Occasionally page 4 they exchange fish for food, or other property for ochre, ornaments, and kava. In canoes they visit the adjoining islands, and there are traces of a league of hospitality between districts on one island and those of another island. Marriages take place early. A feast is given by the parents, and the girl goes to her new home. They mourn for the dead. The corpse is buried or cast into the sea, a stone being attached to the feet to make it sink.
They are polygamists, and infants are betrothed. Circumcision is practised, and they are inveterate cannibals. No Native likes to tell you his name before any of his brethren. Chiefs often declare tabu, i.e., certain places, fruit trees, kinds of fish and food, are pronounced tabu, or forbidden to certain parties for so many moons. If you give a Native food, he will not touch it with his bare fingers—a piece of paper or a leaf must interpose between his fingers and it. There are sacred men, who by their incantations make rain, wind, death, and all other calamities. Hence the Natives are careful to pick up all scraps of food, and even hair, lest some wizard find them and evolve evil from them. They have feasts, at which large collections of food, animal and vegetable, are made. Dancing, singing, and beating of hollow trees are practised at night, at full moon. They believe in the existence of gods or spirits—superior beings who have made and who govern the world. There are priests who make offerings of food and drink to these spirits. They believe in an invisible world, in which the sin to be most severely punished will be stinginess. They have faint traditions about the Creation, the Fall, and the Flood. Their religion consists in a belief in magical incantations and spirits, and in the practice of unmeaning rites and ceremonies.
The only resemblance is that between the words for two, just as in the Australian dialects. The words for one, three, four, and five are very unlike. On Aneityum and Tana the Natives count by fives on their fingers and toes, but on Eromanga and Fate by tens. page 5 As there is such a diversity in the numerals, we need not wonder that the vocabularies of these islands bear scarcely any resemblance.