Two Years with the Natives in the Western Pacific
Dr. Felix Speiser
With 40 illustrations from photographs and a map
This book is a collection of sketches written on lonely evenings during my voyage; some of them have been published in daily papers, and were so kindly received by the public as to encourage me to issue them in book form. In order to retain the freshness of first impressions, the original form has been but slightly changed, and only so much ethnological detail has been added as will help to an understanding of native life. The book does not pretend to give a scientific description of the people of the New Hebrides; that will appear later; it is meant simply to transmit some of the indelible impressions the traveller was privileged to receive,—impressions both stern and sweet. The author will be amply repaid if he succeeds in giving the reader some slight idea of the charm and the terrors of the islands. He will be proud if his words can convey a vision of the incomparable beauty and peacefulness of the glittering lagoon, and of the sublimity of the virgin forest; if the reader can divine the charm of the native when gay and friendly, and his ferocity when gloomy and hostile. I have set down some of the joys and some of the hardships of an explorer's life; and I received so many kindnesses from all the white colonists I met, that one great object of my writing is to show my gratitude for their friendly help.
First of all, I would mention His Britannic Majesty's Resident, Mr. Morton King, who followed my studies with the most sympathetic interest, was my most hospitable host, and, I may venture to say, my friend. I would name Mr. Colonna, Resident de France, Judge Alexander in Port Vila, and Captain Harrowell; in Santo, Rev. Father Bochu, the Messrs. Thomas, Mr. Fysh, Mr. Clapcott; in Malo, Mr. M. Wells and Mr. Jacquier; in Vao, Rev. Father Jamond; in Malekula, Rev. F. Paton, Rev. Jaffrays, Mr. Bird and Mr. Fleming; in Ambrym, Rev. Dr. J. J. Bowie, Mr. Stevens, Mr. Decent; in Pentecoste, Mr. Filmer; in Aoba, Mr. Albert and Rev. Grunling; in Tanna, Rev. Macmillan and Dr. Nicholson; in Venua Lava, Mr. Choyer; in Nitendi, Mr. Matthews. I am also indebted to the Anglican missionaries, especially Rev. H. N. Drummond, and to Captain Sinker of the steam yacht Southern Cross, to the supercargo and captains of the steamers of Burns, Philp & Company. There are many more who assisted me in various ways, often at the expense of their own comfort and interest, and not the least of the impressions I took home with me is, that nowhere can one find wider hospitality or friendlier helpfulness than in these islands. This has helped me to forget so many things that do not impress the traveller favourably.
If this book should come under the notice of any of these kind friends, the author would be proud to think that they remember him as pleasantly as he will recall all the friendship he received during his stay in the New Hebrides.
BASLE, April 1913.
Chap. Page Introduction 1 I. Noumea and Port Vila 19 II. Maei, Tongoa, Epi and Malekula 28 III. The Segond Channel—Life on a Plantation 35 IV. Recruiting for Natives 53 V. Vao 85 VI. Port Olry and a "Sing-Sing" 109 VII. Santo 136 VIII. Santo (continued)—Pygmies 161 IX. Santo (continued)—Pigs 171 X. Climbing Santo Peak 179 XI. Ambrym 191 XII. Pentecoste 224 XIII. Aoba 241 XIV. Loloway—Malo—The Banks Islands 250 XV. Tanna 270 XVI. The Santa Cruz Islands 277
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Shore in Graciosa Bay Frontispiece Facing page Women From the Reef Islands in Carlisle Bay 3 Native Taro Field on Maevo 10 Man from Nitendi working the Loom 15 A Cannibal before his Hut on Tanna 22 Dancing Table near Port Sandwich 31 Old Man with Young Wife on Ambrym 40 Front of a Chief's House on Venua Lava 47 Man from Nitendi 54 Cannibal from Big Nambas 61 Woman on Nitendi 70 Canoe on Ureparapara 77 Dancing-Ground on Vao, with Ancestor Houses 85 Dancing-Ground on Vao 93 Woman from Tanna 99 House Fences on Vao 106 Gamal near Port Olry 115 Group of Large and Small Drums near Port Sandwich 129 View along the Shore of a Coral Island 136 Interior of a Gamal on Venua Lava 147 Wild Mountain Scenery in the District of the Pygmies 163 Irrigated Taro Field on Santo 179 Dwelling of a Trader on Ambrym 191 View from Hospital—Dip Point 199 Women cooking on Ambrym 205 Fern Trees on Ambrym 218 Group of Drums and Statues on Malekula 227 Cooking-House on Aoba 241 Fire-Rubbing 244 Tattooing on Aoba 251 Dwelling-House on Gaua 255 Ancestor-House on Gaua 258 Drum Concert on Ureparapara 261 Interior of a Gamal on Gaua 264 Men from Tanna 270 Women from Tanna 272 Canoe from Nitendi 277 Man from Nitendi, Shooting 279 Man from Nitendi, with Pearl Shell Nose 284 Man from Tucopia 287 Map 291
TWO YEARS WITH THE NATIVES IN THE WESTERN PACIFIC
Late in the sixteenth century the Spaniards made several voyages in search of a continent in the southern part of the great Pacific Ocean. Alvara Mendana de Neyra, starting in 1568 from the west coast of South America and following about the sixth degree southern latitude, found the Solomon Islands, which he took for parts of the desired continent. In 1595 he undertook another voyage, keeping a more southerly course, and discovered the Queen Charlotte Islands; the largest of these, Nitendi, he called Santa Cruz, and gave the fitting name of Graciosa Bay to the lovely cove in which he anchored. He tried to found a colony here, but failed. Mendana died in Santa Cruz, and his lieutenant, Pedro Vernandez de Quiros, led the expedition home. In Europe, Quiros succeeded in interesting the Spanish king, Philip III., in the idea of another voyage, so that in 1603 he was able to set sail from Spain with three ships. Again he reached the Santa Cruz Islands, and sailing southward from there he landed in 1606 on a larger island, which he took for the desired Australian continent and called Tierra Australis del Espiritu Santo; the large bay he named San Iago and San Felipe, and his anchorage Vera Cruz. He stayed here some months and founded the city of New Jerusalem at the mouth of the river Jordan in the curve of the bay. Quiros claims to have made a few sailing trips thence, southward along the east coast of the island; if he had pushed on far enough these cruises might easily have convinced him of the island-nature of the country. Perhaps he was aware of the truth; certainly the lovely descriptions he gave King Philip of the beauties of the new territory are so exaggerated that one may be pardoned for thinking him quite capable of dignifying an island by the name of continent.
The inevitable quarrels with the natives, and diseases and mutinies among his crew, forced him to abandon the colony and return home. His lieutenant, Luis Vaez de Torres, separated from him, discovered and passed the Torres Straits, a feat of excellent seamanship. Quiros returned to America. His high-flown descriptions of his discovery did not help him much, for the king simply ignored him, and his reports were buried in the archives. Quiros died in poverty and bitterness, and the only traces of his travels are the names Espiritu Santo, Bay San Iago and San Felipe, and Jordan, in use to this day.
No more explorers came to the islands till 1767, when a Frenchman, Carteret, touched at Santa Cruz, and 1768, when Bougainville landed in the northern New Hebrides, leaving his name to the treacherous channel between Malekula and Santo.
But all these travellers were thrown into the shade by the immortal discoverer, James Cook, who, in the New Hebrides, as everywhere else, combined into solid scientific material all that his predecessors had left in a state of patchwork. Cook's first voyage made possible the observation of the transit of Venus from one of the islands of the Pacific. His second cruise, in search of the Australian continent, led him, coming from Tongoa, to the New Hebrides, of which he first sighted Maevo.
Assisted by two brilliant scientists, Reinhold and George Forster, Cook investigated the archipelago with admirable exactitude, determined the position of the larger islands, made scientific collections of all sorts, and gave us the first reliable descriptions of the country and its people, so that the material he gathered is of the greatest value even at the present day. The group had formerly been known as the "Great Cyclades"; Cook gave it its present name of "New Hebrides."
Incited by Cook's surprising results the French Government sent La Perouse to the islands, but he was shipwrecked in 1788 on Vanikoro, the southern-most of the Santa Cruz group; remains of this wreck were found on Vanikoro a few years ago. In 1789 Bligh sighted the Banks Islands, and in 1793 d'Entrecastaux, sent by Louis XVI. to the rescue of La Perouse, saw the islands of Santa Cruz. Since that time traffic with the islands became more frequent; among many travellers we may mention the French captain, Dumont d'Urville, and the Englishmen, Belcher and Erskine, who, as well as Markham, have all left interesting accounts.
But with Markham we enter that sad period which few islands of the Pacific escaped, in which the scum of the white race carried on their bloodstained trade in whaling products and sandalwood. They terrorized the natives shamelessly, and when these, naturally enough, often resorted to cruel modes of defence, they retaliated with deeds still more frightful, and the bad reputation they themselves made for the natives served them as a welcome excuse for a system of extermination. The horrors of slave-trade were added to piracy, so that in a few decades the native race of the New Hebrides and Banks Islands was so weakened that in many places to-day its preservation seems hopeless.
Thus, for the financial advantage of the worst of whites, and from indolence and short-sighted national rivalry, a race was sacrificed which in every respect would be worth preserving, and it is a shameful fact that even to-day such atrocities are not impossible and very little is done to save the islanders from destruction.
The only factor opposing these conditions was the Mission, which obtained a foothold in the islands under Bishop John Williams. He was killed in 1839 by the natives of Erromanga, but the Protestant missionaries, especially the Presbyterians, would not be repulsed, and slowly advanced northward, in spite of many losses. To-day the Presbyterian mission occupies all the New Hebrides, with the exception of Pentecoste, Aoba and Maevo. To the north lies the field of the Anglican mission, extending up to the Solomon Islands.
In 1848 Roman Catholic missionaries settled in Aneityum, but soon gave up the station; in 1887 they returned and spread all over the archipelago, with the exception of the southern islands and the Banks group.
Of late years several representatives of free Protestant sects have come out, but, as a rule, these settle only where they can combine a profitable trade with their mission work.
Owing to energetic agitation on the part of the Anglican and Presbyterian Churches, especially of Bishop Patteson and the Rev. J. G. Paton, men-of-war were ordered to the islands on police duty, so as to watch the labour-trade. They could not suppress kidnapping entirely, and the transportation of the natives to Queensland continued until within the last ten years, when it was suppressed by the Australian Government, so that to-day the natives are at least not taken away from their own islands, except those recruited by the French for New Caledonia.
Unhappily, England and France could not agree as to who should annex the New Hebrides. Violent agitation in both camps resulted in neither power being willing to leave the islands to the other, as numerical superiority on the French side was counter-balanced by the absolute economical dependence of the colonists upon Australia. England put the group under the jurisdiction of the "Western Pacific," with a high commissioner; France retorted by the so-called purchase of all useful land by the "Societe Francaise des Nouvelles Hebrides," a private company, which spent great sums on the islands in a short time. Several propositions of exchange failed to suit either of the powers, but both feared the interference of a third, and conditions in the islands called urgently for a government; so, in 1887, a dual control was established, each power furnishing a warship and a naval commissioner, who were to unite in keeping order. This was the beginning of the present Condominium, which was signed in 1906 and proclaimed in 1908 in Port Vila; quite a unique form of government and at the same time a most interesting experiment in international administration.
The Condominium puts every Englishman or Frenchman under the laws of his own nation, as represented by its officials; so that these two nationalities live as they would in any colony of their own, while all others have to take their choice between these two.
Besides the national laws, the Condominium has a few ordinances to regulate the intercourse between the two nations, the sale of liquor and arms to natives, recruiting and treatment of labourers, etc. As the highest instance in the islands and as a supreme tribunal, an international court of six members has been appointed: two Spanish, two Dutch, one English and one French. Thus the higher officials of the Condominium are:
One English and one French resident commissioner, One Spanish president of the Court, One English and one French judge, One Dutch registrar, One Spanish prosecuting attorney, One Dutch native advocate, One English and one French police commissioner.
The Santa Cruz Islands were annexed by England in 1898 and belong to the jurisdiction of the Solomon Islands.
The New Hebrides lie between 165 deg. and 170 deg. east longitude, and reach from 13 deg. to 20 deg. south latitude. The Santa Cruz Islands lie 116 deg. east and 11 deg. south.
The New Hebrides and Banks Islands consist of thirteen larger islands and a great number of islets and rocks, covering an area of about 15,900 km. The largest island is Espiritu Santo, about 107 x 57 km., with 4900 km. surface. They are divided into the Torres group, the Banks Islands, the Central and the Southern New Hebrides. The Banks and Torres Islands and the Southern New Hebrides are composed of a number of isolated, scattered islands, while the Central group forms a chain, which divides at Epi into an eastern and a western branch, and encloses a stretch of sea, hemming it in on all sides except the north. On the coast of this inland sea, especially on the western islands, large coral formations have grown, changing what was originally narrow mountain chains, running north and south, to larger islands. Indeed, most of them seem to consist of a volcanic nucleus, on which lie great coral banks, often 200 m. high; these usually drop in five steep steps to the sea, and then merge into the living coral-reef in the water. Most of the islands, therefore, appear as typical table-islands, out of which, in the largest ones, rise the rounded tops of the volcanic stones. They are all very mountainous; the highest point is Santo Peak, 1500 m. high.
The tides cause very nasty tide-rips in the narrow channels between the islands of the Central group; but inside, the sea is fairly good, and the reefs offer plenty of anchorage for small craft. Much less safe are the open archipelagoes of the Banks and Torres Islands and of the Southern New Hebrides, where the swell of the open ocean is unbroken by any land and harbours are scarce.
There are three active volcanoes on the New Hebrides—the mighty double crater on Ambrym, the steep cone of Lopevi, and the volcano of Tanna. There is a half-extinct volcano on Venua Lava, and many other islands show distinct traces of former volcanic activity, such as Meralava and Ureparapara, one side of which has broken down, so that now there is a smooth bay where once the lava boiled.
Rivers are found only on the larger islands, where there are volcanic rocks. In the coral rocks the rain-water oozes rapidly away, so that fresh-water springs are not frequently found, in spite of very considerable rainfall.
The climate is not hot and very equable. The average temperature in Efate in 1910 was 24.335 deg. C.; the hottest month was February, with an average of 27.295 deg., the coolest, July with 11.9 deg. C. The lowest absolute temperature was 11.9 deg. C. in August, and the highest 35.6 deg. C. in March. The average yearly variation, therefore, was 5.48 deg., and the absolute difference 23.7 deg..
The rainfall is very heavy. In December the maximum, 564 mm., was reached, and in June the minimum, 22 mm. The total rainfall was 3.012 mm., giving a daily average of 8.3 mm.
These figures, taken from a table in the Neo-Hebridais, show that the year is divided into a cool, dry season and a hot, damp one. From May to October one enjoys agreeable summer days, bright and cool, with a predominant south-east trade-wind, that rises and falls with the sun and creates a fairly salubrious climate. From November to April the atmosphere is heavy and damp, and one squall follows another. Often there is no wind, or the wind changes quickly and comes in heavy gusts from the north-west. This season is the time for cyclones, which occur at least once a year; happily, their centre rarely touches the islands, as they lie somewhat out of the regular cyclone track.
A similar climate, with but slightly higher temperature, prevails on the Santa Cruz Islands.
Flora and Fauna
The vegetation of the New Hebrides is luxurious enough to make all later visitors share Quiros' amazement. The possibilities for the planter are nearly inexhaustible, and the greatest difficulty is that of keeping the plantations from the constant encroachments of the forest. Yet the flora is poorer in forms than that of Asiatic regions, and in the southern islands it is said to be much like that of New Caledonia.
As a rule, thick forest covers the islands; only rarely we find areas covered with reed-grass. On Erromanga these are more frequent.
In the Santa Cruz Islands the flora seems richer than in the New Hebrides.
Still more simple than the flora is the fauna. Of mammals there are only the pig, dog, a flying-fox and the rat, of which the first two have probably been imported by the natives. There are but few birds, reptiles and amphibies, but the few species there are are very prolific, so that we find swarms of lizards and snakes, the latter all harmless Boidae, but occasionally of considerable size.
Crocodiles are found only in the Santa Cruz Islands, and do not grow so large there as in the Solomon Islands.
Animal life in the sea is very rich; turtles and many kinds of fish and Cetaceae are plentiful.
The natives belong to the Melanesian race, which is a collective name for the dark-skinned, curly-haired, bearded inhabitants of the Pacific. The Melanesians are quite distinct from the Australians, and still more so from the lank-haired, light-skinned Polynesians of the eastern islands. Probably a mixture of Polynesians and Melanesians are the Micronesians, who are light-skinned but curly-haired, and of whom we find representatives in the New Hebrides. The island-nature of the archipelago is very favourable to race-mixture; and as we know that on some islands there were several settlements of Polynesians, it is not surprising to find a very complex mingling of races, which it is not an easy task to disentangle. It would seem, however, that we have before us remnants of four races: a short, dark, curly-haired and perhaps original race, a few varieties of the tall Melanesian race, arrived in the islands in several migrations, an old Polynesian element as a relic of its former migrations eastward, and a present Polynesian element from the east.
Every traveller will notice that the lightest population is in the south and north-east of the New Hebrides, while the darkest is in the north-west, and the ethnological difference corresponds to this division.
In the Banks Islands we find, probably owing to recent immigration, more Polynesian blood than in the northern New Hebrides; in the Santa Cruz group the process of mixing seems to be just going on.
The number of natives in the New Hebrides and Banks Islands amounted, according to the approximate census of the British Resident Commissioner in 1910, to 65,000. At a conservative estimate we may say that before the coming of the whites, that is, a generation ago, it was ten times that, i.e. 650,000. For to judge from present conditions, the accounts of old men and the many ruined villages, it is evident that the race must have decreased enormously.
The languages belong to the Melanesian and Polynesian classes. They are split up into numerous dialects, so widely different that natives of different districts can hardly, if at all, understand each other. It is evident that owing to the seclusion of the villages caused by the general insecurity of former days, and the lack of any literature, the language developed differently in every village.
On some islands things are so bad that one may easily walk in one day through several districts, in each of which is spoken a language quite unintelligible to the neighbours; there are even adjoining villages whose natives have to learn each other's language; this makes them fairly clever linguists. Where, by migrations, conditions have become too complicated, the most important of the dialects has been adopted as a kind of "lingua franca."
Under these circumstances I at once gave up the idea of learning a native language, as I never stopped anywhere more than a few weeks; and as the missionaries have done good work in the cause of philology, my services were not needed. I was, therefore, dependent on interpreters in "biche la mar," a language which contains hardly more than fifty words, and which is spoken on the plantations, but is quite useless for discussing any abstract subject. In nearly every village there is some man who can speak biche la mar.
As we have seen, colonization in the New Hebrides was begun by the whalers, who had several stations in the southern islands. They had, however, little intercourse with the natives, and their influence may be considered fairly harmless.
More dangerous were the sandalwood traders, who worked chiefly in Erromanga. They were not satisfied with buying the valuable wood from the natives, but tried to get directly at the rich supplies inland. Naturally, they came into conflict with the natives, and fierce wars arose, in which the whites fought with all the weapons unscrupulous cruelty can wield. As a result, the population of Erromanga has decreased from between 5000 and 10,000 to 800.
Happily, the northern islands were not so rich in sandalwood, so that contact with the whites came later, through the coprah-makers. Coprah is dried cocoa-nut, which is used in manufacturing soap, and the great wealth of cocoa-nut palms attracted coprah-makers as early as the 'Seventies of the last century. They were nearly all ruined adventurers, either escaped from the Noumea penitentiary or otherwise the scum of the white race. Such individuals would settle near a good anchorage close to some large village, build a straw hut, and barter coprah for European goods and liquor. They made a very fair profit, but were constantly quarrelling with the natives, whom they enraged by all sorts of brutalities. The frequent murders of such traders were excusable, to say the least, and many later ones were acts of justifiable revenge. The traders were kept in contact with civilization through small sailing-vessels, which brought them new goods and bought their coprah. This easy money-making attracted more whites, so that along the coasts of the more peaceable islands numerous Europeans settled, and at present there are so many of these stations that the coprah-trade is no longer very profitable.
Naturally, many of these settlers started plantations, and thus grew up the plantation centres of Mele, Port Havannah, Port Sandwich, Epi and the Segond Channel. Many plantations were created by the "Societe Francaise des Nouvelles Hebrides," but owing to bad management these have never yet brought any returns.
Thus, to the alcohol peril was added another danger to the natives,—work on the plantations. They were kidnapped, overworked, ill-fed; it was slavery in its worst shape, and the treatment of the hands is best illustrated by the mortality which, in some places, reached 44 per cent. per annum. In those days natives were plentiful and labour easy to get, and nobody worried about the future; so the ruin of the race began, and to-day their number hardly suffices for the needs of the planters.
Then the slave-trade to Queensland, Fiji, even South America began, so that the population, relatively small from the first, decreased alarmingly, all the more so as they were decimated by dysentery, measles, tuberculosis and other diseases.
Against all these harmful influences the missions, unsupported as they were by any authority, could only fight by protests in the civilized countries; these proved effectual at last, so that the missions deserve great credit for having preserved the native race. Yet it cannot be said that they have restored its vitality, except in Tanna. It seems as if the system of imbibing the native with so much European culture, and yet separating him from the whites and regulated labour, had been noxious to the race, for nearly everywhere the Christianized natives die out just as fast as the heathen population.
About ten years after the French, the English began planting, and to-day nearly all arable land along the coast is cultivated. The English suffer much less from lack of labour, which is doubtless owing to their more humane and just treatment of the hands. In the first place, they usually come from better stock than the French, and, secondly, they are strictly controlled by the Government, whereas the French Government does not even attempt to enforce its own laws.
There is now some question of importing Indian coolies; the great expense this would entail would be a just punishment for the short-sighted cruelty with which the most valuable product of the islands—their population—has been destroyed. Only by compelling each native to work for a definite period could a sufficient amount of labour be produced to-day; but such a system, while extremely beneficial to the race as a whole, stands but a poor chance of being introduced.
The products of the islands are coprah, coffee, corn, cocoa and, of late years, cotton. The chief item, however, is coprah, for the islands seem specially suited for the growing of cocoa-nut palms. Rubber does not seem to thrive.
In spite of the great number of officials, the Government does not make itself much felt outside the larger settlements, at least on the French side. There are not yet magistrates on each island, so that the Government hears only so much about the crimes committed on the islands as the planters care to tell, and naturally they do not tell too much. The British Government is represented by two inspectors, who frequently visit all the British plantations and look into labour conditions; the activity of the French authorities is restricted to occasional visits from the Resident.
Thus the natives have no means of complaining about the whites, while they have to submit to any punishment they may get on the accusation of a colonist. This would be a very one-sided affair; happily, the missionaries represent the interests of the natives, and the power of the Government does not reach far inland. There the natives are quite independent, so that only a few hours away from the coast cannibalism still flourishes. Formerly, expeditions from the men-of-war frightened the natives; to-day they know that resistance is easy. It is, therefore, not the merit of the Government or the planters if the islands are fairly pacified, but only of the missions, which work mostly through native teachers. Still, the missions have had one bad effect: they have undermined the old native authorities and thus created general anarchy to complete the destruction begun by European civilization.
In the Santa Cruz Islands there is only one plantation, worked by boys from the Solomon Islands, as the Santa Cruz natives are not yet used to regular work. But to-day they frequently recruit for the plantations on the Solomons, and there come into contact with civilization. There the labour conditions are strictly watched by the British Government; still, boys returning from there have sometimes imported diseases, generally tuberculosis, which have reduced the population by half.
Communications with Sydney, the commercial centre of the Western Pacific, are established by means of a French and an English line of steamers. A few small steamers and schooners ply at irregular intervals between Noumea and the New Hebrides.
The English steamers fly the flag of Burns, Philp & Company, the great Australian firm which trades with numerous island groups of the South Seas. Their steamers touch the Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands, stop for a few days at Vila, then call in a four weeks' cruise at nearly all the plantations in the islands. They carry the mail and ply a profitable trade with the planters; they also do errands for the colonists in Sydney, procuring anything from a needle to a horse or a house. Being practically without serious competitors they can set any price they please on commodities, so that they are a power in the islands and control the trade of the group; all the more so as many planters are dependent on them for large loans. To me, Burns, Philp & Company were extremely useful, as on board their ships I could always find money, provisions and articles for barter, send my collections to Vila, and occasionally travel from one island to another.
The French line is run by the Messageries Maritimes, on quite a different plan: it is merely for mail-service and does not do any trading. Its handsome steamer travels in three weeks from Sydney to Noumea and Port Vila, visits about three plantations and leaves the islands after one week. This line offers the shortest and most comfortable connection with Sydney, taking eight days for the trip, while the English steamers take eleven.
The port of entrance to the group is Port Vila, chosen for its proximity to New Caledonia and Sydney; it is a good harbour, though somewhat narrow.
NOUMEA AND PORT VILA
On April 26, 1910, I arrived at Noumea by the large and very old mail-steamer of the Messageries Maritimes, plying between Marseilles and Noumea, which I had boarded at Sydney.
Noumea impresses one very unfavourably. A time of rapid development has been followed by a period of stagnation, increased by the suppression of the penitentiary, the principal source of income to the town. The latter has never grown to the size originally planned and laid out, and its desolate squares and decayed houses are a depressing sight. Two or three steamers and a few sailing-vessels are all the craft the harbour contains; a few customs officers and discharged convicts loaf on the pier, where some natives from the Loyalty Islands sleep or shout.
Parallel streets lead from the harbour to the hills that fence the town to the landward. Under roofs of corrugated sheet-iron run the sidewalks, along dark stores displaying unappetizing food, curios and cheap millinery. At each corner is a dismal sailors' bar, smelling of absinthe. Then we come to an empty, decayed square, where a crippled, noseless "Gallia" stands on a fountain; some half-drunk coachmen lounge dreaming on antediluvian cabs, and a few old convicts sprawl on benches.
Along the hillside are the houses of the high officials and the better class of people. There is a club, where fat officials gather to play cards and drink absinthe and champagne; they go to the barber's, roll cigarettes, drink some more absinthe and go to bed early, after having visited a music-hall, in which monstrous dancing-girls from Sydney display their charms and moving-picture shows present blood-curdling dramas. Then there is the Governor's residence, the town hall, etc., and the only event in this quiet city of officials is the arrival of the mail-steamer, when all the "beau-monde" gathers on the pier to welcome the few passengers, whether known or unknown.
In Noumea itself there is no industry, and the great export of minerals does not touch the town. Once, Noumea was meant to form a base of naval operations, and strongly fortified. But after a few years this idea was abandoned, after having cost large sums, and now the fortifications are left to decay and the heavy, modern guns to rust.
In spite of a prohibition, one may climb up to the forts, and be rewarded by a beautiful view of the island, which does not impress one as tropical. The rounded hills are covered with shrubs, and only in the valleys are there a few trees; we are surprised by the strong colouring of the distant mountains, shining purple through the violet atmosphere.
Seaward, we see the white line of the breakers, indicating the great barrier-reef which surrounds the isle with an almost impenetrable belt; a few channels only lead from the shore to the open ocean.
On the 1st of May the Pacific arrived at Noumea, and her departure for Vila, next day, ended a most tiresome stay.
It was a sad, rainy day when we left. Impatiently the passengers waited till the freight was loaded,—houses, iron, horses, cases of tins, etc. Of course we were six hours late, and all the whites were angry, while the few natives did not care, but found a dry corner, rolled themselves up in their blankets and dozed. When we finally left, heavy squalls were rushing over the sea; in the darkness a fog came on, so that we had soon to come to anchor. But next morning we had passed the Loyalty Islands and were rolling in the heavy swell the south-east trade raises on the endless surface of the Pacific.
Next day, through the light mist of a summer morning, the forms of islands appeared, flat, bluish-grey lines, crowned with rounded hills. Slowly finer points appeared, the ridge of mountains showed details and we could recognize the tops of the giant banyan trees, towering above the forest as a cathedral does over the houses of a city. We saw the surf, breaking in the coral cliffs of flat shores, found the entrance to the wide bay, noticed the palms with elegantly curved trunks bending over the beach, and unexpectedly entered the lagoon, that shone in the bright sun like a glittering sapphire.
We had passed the flat cliffs, covered only with iron-wood trees, and now the water was bordered by high coral plateaux, from which a luxuriant forest fell down in heavy cascades, in a thickness almost alarming, like the eruption of a volcano, when one cloud pushes the other before it and new ones are ever behind. It seemed as if each tree were trying to strangle the others in a fight for life, while the weakest, deprived of their ground, clung frantically to the shore and would soon be pushed far out over the smooth, shining sea. There the last dense crowns formed the beautiful fringe of the green carpet stretched soft and thick over the earth.
Only here and there the shore was free, showing the coral strand as a line of white that separated the blue of the sea from the green of the forest and intensified every colour in the landscape. It was a vision of the most magnificent luxuriance, so different from the view which the barren shores of eastern New Caledonia offer.
The bay became narrower and we approached the port proper. Small islands appeared, between which we had glimpses of cool bays across glassy, deep-green water, and before us lay a broken line of light-coloured houses along the beach, while on the plateau behind we could see the big court-house and some villas.
A little distance off-shore we dropped anchor, and were soon surrounded by boats, from which the inhabitants came on board. A kind planter brought me and my belongings ashore, and I took up my quarters in the only hotel in Port Vila, the so-called "blood-house," thus named because of its history.
Vila is merely the administration centre, and consists of nothing but a few stores and the houses of the Condominium officials. There is little life, and only the arrival of the ships brings some excitement, so that the stranger feels bored and lonely, especially as the "blood-house " does not offer many comforts and the society there is not of the choicest.
I immediately went to present my letters of introduction to the French Resident. The offices of the British Residence were still on the small island of Iariki, which I could not reach without a boat. The French Residence is a long, flat, unattractive building; the lawn around the house was fairly well kept, but perfectly bare, in accordance with the French idea of salubrity, except for a few straggling bushes near by. Fowls and horses promenaded about. But the view is one of the most charming to be found in the islands. Just opposite is the entrance to the bay, and the two points frame the sea most effectively, numerous smaller capes deepening the perspective. Along their silhouettes the eye glides into far spaces, to dive beyond the horizon into infinity. Iariki is just in front, and we can see the well-kept park around the British Residence, with its mixture of art and wilderness; near by is the smooth sea shining in all colours. While the shores are of a yellowish green, the sea is of every shade of blue, and the green of the depths is saturated with that brilliant turquoise tint which is enough to put one into a light and happy humour. This being my first sight of a tropical landscape, my delight was great, and made up for any disappointment human inefficiency had occasioned.
The French Resident, Mr. C, received me most kindly, and did me the honour of inviting me to be his guest. I had planned to stay in Vila a few weeks, so as to get acquainted with the country and hire boys; but the Resident seemed to think that I only intended a short visit to the islands, and he proposed to take me with him on a cruise through the archipelago and to deposit me at the Segond Channel, an invitation I could not well refuse. My objection of having no servants was overruled by the Resident's assurance that I could easily find some in Santo. I therefore made my preparations and got my luggage ready.
In the afternoon, Mr. C. lent me his boat to go and pay my respects to Mr. Morton King, the British Resident. The difference between the two residences was striking, but it would be out of place to dwell on it here. It may be caused by the fact that the French Resident is, as a rule, recalled every six months, while the British Resident had been at Vila for more than three years. Mr. King received me most cordially and also offered his hospitality, which, however, I was unable to accept. Later on Mr. King assisted and sheltered me in the most generous manner, so that I shall always remember his help and friendship with sincere gratitude.
I also had the honour of making the acquaintance of the British judge and of most of the Condominium officials.
It was a dull morning when we left Vila on board the French Government yacht. In days gone by she had been an elegant racing-boat, but was now somewhat decayed and none too clean; however, she had been equipped with a motor, so that we were independent of the wind.
Besides the Resident and myself there were on board the French judge, the police commissioner, and a crew of boys from the Loyalty Islands near New Caledonia. These are excellent sailors and are employed in Vila as French policemen. They are very strong and lively and great fighters, and would be perfect material for a police force were they not such confirmed drunkards. Because of this defect they all had to be dismissed soon afterwards and sent back to their own country, as in Vila, instead of arresting drunken natives, they had generally been drunk themselves and were often fighting in the streets. But on board ship, where they had no opportunity to get drunk, they were very willing and always cheerful and ready for sport of any kind.
We did not travel far that first day, but stopped after a few hours' sail in Port Havannah, north of the Bay of Mele. This port would be one of the best harbours in the group, as it is almost entirely landlocked; only, the water is so deep that small craft cannot anchor. Yet it would be preferable to Port Vila, as the climate is much better, Vila being one of the hottest, stuffiest and rainiest spots in the group, and its harbour is becoming too small for the increased traffic of the last few years. Port Vila only became the capital of the islands when the English influence grew stronger, while all the land round Port Havannah belonged to a French company.
We spent the afternoon on shore shooting pigeons. Besides a few ducks, flying-foxes and wild pigs, pigeons are the only game in the islands; but this pigeon-shooting is a peculiar sport and requires a special enthusiasm to afford pleasure for any length of time. The birds are extremely shy and generally sit on the tops of the highest trees where a European can hardly discover them. The natives, however, are very clever in detecting them, but when they try to show you the pigeon it generally flies off and is lost; and if you shoot it, it is hard to find, even for a native. The natives themselves are capable of approaching the birds noiselessly and unseen, because of their colour, so as to shoot them from a short distance. My pigeon-shooting usually consisted in waiting for several hours in the forest, with very unsatisfactory results, so that I soon gave it up.
We were all unsuccessful on this particular day, but it ended most gaily with a dance at the house of a French planter.
We slept on board, rocked softly by the ship, against which the waves plashed in cosy whispering. The sky was bright with stars, but below decks it was dark and stuffy. Now and then a big fish jumped out of the black sea, otherwise it was quiet, dull and gloomy as a dismal dream.
Next day we rose early and went shooting again. Probably because we had been given the best wishes of an old French lady the result was as unsatisfactory as the evening before. We then resumed our journey in splendid weather, with a stiff breeze, and flying through blue spaces on the bright waves, we rapidly passed several small islands, sighted "Monument Rock," a lonely cliff that rises abruptly out of the sea to a height of 130 m., and arrived late in the afternoon at Maei, our destination.
MAEI, TONGOA, EPI AND MALEKULA
Maei is a small island whose natives have nearly all disappeared, as is the case on most of its neighbours. There is one small plantation, with the agent of which the Resident had business. After we had passed the narrow inlet through the reef, we landed, to find the agent in a peculiar, half-mad condition. He pretended to suffer from fever, but it was evident that alcohol had a good deal to do with it, too. The man made strange faces, could hardly talk and was quite unable to write; he said the fever had deprived him of the power of using his fingers. He was asked to dinner on board, and as he could not speak French nor the Resident English, negotiations were carried on in biche la mar, a language in which it is impossible to talk about anything but the simplest matters of everyday life. Things got still worse when the agent became more and more intoxicated, in spite of the small quantities of liquor we allowed him. I had to act as interpreter, a most ungrateful task, as the planter soon began to insult the Resident, and I had to translate his remarks and the Resident's answers. At last, funny as the whole affair was in a way, it became very tiresome; happily, matters came to a sudden close by the planter's falling under the table. He was then taken ashore by his native wife and the police-boys, who enjoyed this duty immensely. We smoked a quiet pipe, looked after the fish-hooks—empty, of course—and slept on deck in the cool night air. Next morning the planter came aboard somewhat sobered and more tractable. He brought with him his wife, and their child whom he wished to adopt. As the native women do not as a rule stay with their masters very long, the children are registered under the formula: "Child of N. N., mother unknown," an expression which sounds somewhat queer to those who do not know the reason for it.
After having finished this business, we weighed anchor and set sail for Tongoa. This is one of the few islands whose native population does not decrease. The Presbyterian missionary there gives the entire credit for this pleasant fact to his exertions, as the natives are all converted. But as in other completely Christianized districts the natives die out rapidly, it is doubtful whether Christianity alone has had this beneficial effect, and we must seek other causes, though they are hard to find.
After a clear night we sailed along the coast of Epi. The bright weather had changed to a dull, rainy day, and the aspect of the landscape was entirely altered. The smiling islands had become sober, lonely, even threatening. When the charm of a country consists so entirely in its colouring, any modification of the atmosphere and light cause such a change in its character that the same view may look either like Paradise or entirely dull and inhospitable. What had been thus far a pleasure trip, a holiday excursion, turned suddenly into a business journey, and this change in our mood was increased by a slight illness which had attacked the Resident, making the jovial gentleman morose and irritable.
The stay in Epi was rather uninteresting. Owing to the dense French colonization there the natives have nearly all disappeared or become quite degenerate. We spent our time in visits to the different French planters and then sailed for Malekula, anchoring in Port Sandwich.
Port Sandwich is a long, narrow bay in the south of Malekula, and after Port Vila the most frequented harbour of the group, as it is very centrally located and absolutely safe. Many a vessel has found protection there from storm or cyclone. The entrance to the bay is narrow, and at the anchorage we were so completely landlocked that we might have imagined ourselves on an inland lake, so quiet is the water, surrounded on all sides by the dark green forest which falls in heavy waves down from the hills to the silent, gloomy sea.
Immediately after our arrival my companions went pigeon-shooting as usual; but I soon preferred to join the son of the French planter at Port Sandwich in a visit to the neighbouring native village. This was my first sight of the real, genuine aborigines.
No one with any taste for nature will fail to feel the solemnity of the moment when he stands face to face for the first time with primitive man. As the traveller enters the depths of the virgin forest for the first time with sacred awe, he feels that he stands before a still higher revelation of nature when the first dark, naked man suddenly appears. Silently he has crept through the thicket, has parted the branches, and confronts us unexpectedly on a narrow path, shy and silent, while we are struck with surprise. His figure is but slightly relieved against the green of the bushes; he seems part of the silent, luxuriant world around him, a being strange to us, a part of those realms which we are used to imagine as void of feeling and incapable of thought. But a word breaks the spell, intelligence gleams in his face, and what, so far, has seemed a strange being, belonging rather to the lower animals than to human-kind, shows himself a man, and becomes equal to ourselves. Thus the endless, inhospitable jungle, without open spaces or streets, without prairies and sun, that dense tangle of lianas and tree-trunks, shelters men like ourselves. It seems marvellous to think that in those depths, dull, dark and silent as the fathomless ocean, men can live, and we can hardly blame former generations for denying all kinship with these savages and counting them as animals; especially as the native never seems more primitive than when he is roaming the forest, naked but for a bark belt, with a big curly wig and waving plumes, bow and arrow his only weapons. When alarmed, he hides in the foliage, and once swallowed up in the green depths which are his home and his protection, neither eye nor ear can find any trace of him.
But our ideas change when we enter his village home, with its dancing-grounds with the big drums, the sacred stone tables, idols and carved tree-trunks, all in a frame of violently coloured bushes—red, purple, brown and orange. Above us, across a blue sky, a tree with scarlet flowers blows in the breeze, and long stamens fall slowly down and cover the ground with a brilliant carpet. Dogs bark, roosters crow and from a hut a man creeps out—others emerge from the bush and from half-hidden houses which at first we had not noticed. At some distance stand the women and children in timid amazement, and then begins a chattering, or maybe a whispered consultation about the arrival of the stranger. We are in the midst of human life, in a busy little town, where the sun pours through the gaps in the dark forest, and flowers give colour and brightness, and where, after all, life is not so very much less human than in civilization.
Then the forest has lifted its veil, we have entered the sanctuary, and the alarming sensation of nature's hostility is softened. We white men like to talk about our mastery over nature, but is it not rather true that we flee from nature, as its most intense manifestations are oppressive to us? Is not the savage, living so very close to nature, more its master, or at least its friend, than we are? We need space and the sight of sun and sky to feel happy; the night of the forest, the loneliness of the ocean are terrible to us, whilst to the native they are his home and his element.
It is evident that under our first strong impression of the native's life we overlook much—the filth, the sores, the brutality of social life; but these are really only ripples on an otherwise smooth existence, defects which are not less present in our civilization, but are better concealed.
The next day we followed the coast of Malekula southward. There are immense coral reefs attached to the coast, so that often the line of breakers is one or two miles away from the shore. These reefs are a solid mass of cleft coral stones constantly growing seaward. Their surface is more or less flat, about on a level with the water at low tide, so that it then lies nearly dry, and one can walk on the reefs, jumping over the wide crevices in which the sea roars and gurgles with the rise and fall of the breakers outside. These ever-growing reefs would surround the whole coast were it not for the fresh water that oozes out from the land and prevents the coral from growing at certain points, thus keeping open narrow passages through the reef, or wider stretches along the coast free from rocks. These basins form good anchorages for small craft, as the swell of the open sea cannot cross the reef; only the entrances are often crooked and hard to find.
Our captain brought us safely into a quiet lagoon, where the yacht lay in deep green water, smooth as glass, while beyond the reef the breakers dashed a silver line across the blue ocean.
Of course we immediately went shooting on the reef. I did not have much sport, as I could see nothing worth shooting, but I was much interested in wading in the warm water to observe the multiform animal life of the reef. There was the "beche-de-mer," the sea-cucumber, yellow or purplish-black, a shapeless mass lying in pools; this is a delicacy highly valued by the Chinese and therefore a frequent article of exportation. The animals are collected, cut open, dried and shipped. There was the ugly muraena, which goes splashing and winding like a snake between boulders, and threatens the intruder with poisonous looks and snapping jaws. Innumerable bright-coloured fish shot hither and thither in the flat pools, there were worms, sea-stars, octopus, crabs. The wealth of animal life on the reef, where each footstep stirs up a hundred creatures, is incredible, and ever so many more are hidden in the rocks and crevices.
The plants that had taken root in the coral were mostly mangrove bushes with great forked roots.
THE SEGOND CHANNEL—LIFE ON A PLANTATION
When the tide rose, we returned to the yacht and continued our cruise northward, passed the small islands of Rano, Atchin, Vao and others, crossed the treacherous Bougainville Strait between Malekula and Santo, and came to anchor in the Canal du Segond formed by Santo and Malo. This channel is about eight miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide at its narrowest point. On its shores, which belong to a French company, is a colony of about a hundred and fifty Frenchmen. The Segond Channel would be a good harbour but for very strong currents caused by the tides, which are unfavourable to small boats; its location, too, is not very central. The shores are flat, but rise abruptly at some points to a height of 150 m. There are level lands at the mouth of the Sarrakatta River and on the tablelands.
The Sarrakatta is one of the sights of the New Hebrides, and a pull up the narrow stream affords one of the most impressive views to be had of tropical vegetation. The river cuts straight through the forest, so that the boat moves between two high walls of leafy green. Silently glides the stream, silently broods the forest, only the boat swishes softly, and sometimes a frightened fish splashes up. Every bend we round shows us new and surprisingly charming views: now we pass a giant tree, which towers up king-like on its iron-hard trunk far above the rest of the forest, trunk and limbs covered with a fine lacework of tender-leaved lianas; now we sweep along a high bank, under a bower of overhanging branches. The water caresses the tips of the twigs, and through the leaves the sun pours golden into the cool darkness. Again we glide into the light, and tangled shrubbery seams the river bank, from which long green strands of vines trail down and curl in the water like snakes. Knobby roots rise out of the ground; they have caught floating trunks, across which the water pours, lifting and dropping the wet grasses that grow on the rotten stems. Farther up the bushes are entirely covered with vines and creepers, whose large, thick leaves form a scaly coat of mail under which the half-strangled trees seem to fight in vain for air and freedom. In shallow places stiff bamboos sprout, their long yellow leaves trembling nervously in an imperceptible breeze; again we see trees hung with creepers as if wearing torn flags; and once in a while we catch sight of that most charming of tropical trees, the tree-fern, with its lovely star-shaped crown, like a beautiful, dainty work of art in the midst of the uncultivated wilderness. As if in a dream we row back down stream, and like dream-pictures all the various green shapes of the forest sweep by and disappear.
The Resident introduced me to the French planters, Mr. and Mrs. Ch., and asked them to take me in, which they agreed to do. Having rented an old plantation from the French company, they had had the good fortune to find a regular frame house ready for them.
After I had moved into my quarters the Resident returned to Vila, and I remained on the borders of the wilderness. What followed now was a most unsatisfactory time of waiting, the first of many similar periods. Having no servants, I could undertake nothing independently, and since the planters were all suffering from lack of hands, I could not hire any boys. As the natives around the French plantations at the Canal du Segond are practically exterminated, I saw hardly any; but at least I got a good insight into the life on a plantation, such as it was.
With his land, Mr. Ch. had rented about thirty boys, with whom he was trying to work the completely decayed plantation. Many acres were covered with coffee trees, but owing to the miserable management of the French company, the planters had changed continually and the system of planting just as often. Every manager had abandoned the work of his predecessor and begun planting anew on a different system, so that now there was an immense tract of land planted which had never yet yielded a crop. In a short time such intended plantations are overgrown with bush and reconquered by the wilderness; thus thousands of coffee trees were covered with vines and struggled in vain for light and air. It seem incredible that in two weeks, on cleared ground, grass can grow up as tall as a man, and that after six months a cleared plantation can be covered with bushes and shrubs with stems as thick as one's finger. The planter, knowing that this overwhelming fertility and the jealous advances of the forest are his most formidable enemies, directs his most strenuous efforts to keeping clear his plantation, especially while the plants are young and unable to fight down the weeds. Later on, weeding is less urgent, but in the beginning it is the one essential duty, more so than planting. Mr. Ch. had therefore an enormous task before him, and as he could not expect any return from the coffee trees for two or three years, he did as all planters do, and sowed corn, which yields a crop after three months.
His labourers, dark, curly-haired men, clad in rags, were just then occupied in gathering the big ears of corn. Sluggishly they threw the golden ears over their shoulders to the ground, where it was collected by the women and carried to the shed on the beach—a long roof of leaves, without walls. Mr. Ch. urged the men to hurry, as the corn had to be ready for shipment in a few days, the Pacific, the French mail-steamer, being due. Produce deteriorates rapidly in the islands owing to the humid climate, so it cannot be stored long, especially where there is no dry storehouse. Therefore, crops can only be gathered just before the arrival of a steamer, making these last days very busy ones everywhere. It is fortunate for the planters that the native labourers are not yet organized and do not insist on an eight-hour day. As it was, Mr. Ch. had to leave more than half his crop to rot in the fields, a heavy rain having delayed the harvesting.
The humidity at the Segond Channel is exceptionally great. As we stood on the fine coral sand that forms the shores of the channel, our clothes were damp with the rain from the weeds and shrubs which we had passed through while stumbling through the plantation. The steel-grey sea quivers, sleepy and pulpy looking; in front of us, in a grey mist, lies the flat island of Aore, the air smells mouldy, and brown rainclouds roll over the wall of primeval forest surrounding the clearing on three sides. The atmosphere is heavy, and a fine spray floats in the air and covers everything with moisture. Knives rust in one's pocket, matches refuse to light, tobacco is like a sponge and paper like a rag. It had been like this for three months; no wonder malarial fever raged among the white population. Mr. Ch., after only one year's sojourn here, looked like a very sick man; he was frightfully thin and pale and very nervous; so was his wife, a delicate lady of good French family. She did the hard work of a planter's wife with admirable courage, and, while she had never taken an active part in housekeeping in France, here she was standing all day long behind a smoky kitchen fire, cooking or washing dishes, assisted only by a very incapable and unsophisticated native woman.
On our return to the house, which lies about 200 metres inland, we found this black lady occupied with the extremely hard and puzzling task of laying the table. It seemed to give her the greatest trouble, and the deep distrust with which she handled the plates found eloquent expression in queer sighs and mysterious exclamations in her native tongue, in resigned shakes of the head and emphatic smacking of the lips. She was a crooked bush-woman from the north of Malekula, where the people, especially the women, are unusually ugly and savage. A low forehead, small, deep-set eyes, and a snout-like mouth gave her a very animal look; yet she showed human feeling, and nursed a shrieking and howling orphan all day long with the most tender care. Her little head was shaved and two upper teeth broken out as a sign of matrimony, so she certainly was no beauty; but the sight of her clumsy working was a constant source of amusement to us men, very much less so to her mistress, to whom nothing but her sincere zeal and desire to help could make up for her utter inefficiency.
It cannot be denied that the women from those islands, where their social standing is especially low, are not half so intelligent and teachable as those from places where they are more nearly equal to the men; probably because they are subdued and kept in degradation from early youth, and not allowed any initiative or opinions of their own. But physically these women are very efficient and quite equal to the men in field work, or even superior, being more industrious.
The feat of setting the table was accomplished in about an hour, and we sat down to our simple meal—tinned meat, yams and bananas. Then the foreman came in. Only a short time ago he was one of the finest warriors in the interior of Malekula, where cannibalism is still an everyday occurrence. He, too, wears his hair short, only, according to the present fashion, he lets the hair on his forehead grow in a roll-shaped bow across the head. He is well built, though rather short, and behaves with natural politeness. His voice is soft, his look gentle and in the doorway his dark figure shines in the lamplight like a bronze statue.
Mr. Ch. tells him that the boys will have to work all night, at the same time promising an encouragement in the shape of a glass of wine to each. The natives' craving for alcohol is often abused by unscrupulous whites. Although the sale of liquor to natives is strictly forbidden by the laws of the Condominium, the French authorities do not even seem to try to enforce this regulation, in fact, they rather impressed me as favouring the sale, thus protecting the interests of a degraded class of whites, to the detriment of a valuable race. As a consequence, there are not a few Frenchmen who make their living by selling spirits to natives, which may be called, without exaggeration, a murderous and criminal traffic.
Others profit indirectly by the alcoholism of the islanders by selling liquor to their hands every Saturday, so as to make them run into debt; they will all spend their entire wages on drink. If, their term of engagement being over, they want to return to their homes, they are told that they are still deep in debt to their master, and that they will have to pay off by working for some time longer. The poor fellows stay on and on, continue to drink, are never out of debt, and never see their homes again. This practice has developed of late years in consequence of the scarcity of labour, and is nothing but slavery. It might easily be abolished by a slight effort on the part of the Government, but there is hardly any supervision over French plantations outside Port Vila, and in many plantations conditions exist which are an insult to our modern views on humane treatment. On English plantations there is but little brutality, owing to the Government's careful supervision of the planters and the higher social and moral standing of the settlers in general.
My host had some European conscience left, and treated his hands very humanely, but I dare say that in course of time, and pressed by adverse circumstances, even he resorted to means of finding cheap labour which were none too fair. The French by-laws permit the delivery of alcohol to natives in the shape of "medicine," a stipulation which opens the door to every abuse.
The boys were soon on hand, each awaiting his turn eagerly, yet trying to seem blase. Some drank greedily, others tasted the sour wine in little sips like old experts; but all took care to turn their backs to us while drinking, as if from bashfulness. Then they went to work, giggling and happy.
Meanwhile, those on the sick-list were coming up for the planter's inspection. The diseases are mostly tuberculosis, colds, indigestion, fever and infections, and it is evident that if they receive any medical treatment at all, it is of a primitive and insufficient description. The planters work with fearfully strong plasters, patent medicines and "universal remedies," used internally and externally by turns, so that the patient howls and the spectator shudders, and the results would be most disheartening if kind Nature did not often do the healing in spite of man's efforts to prevent it. Naturally, every planter thinks himself an expert doctor, and is perfectly satisfied with his results.
Mr. Ch. was ill with fever, nevertheless we went down to the work-shed. It was a pitch-dark night, the air was like that in a hothouse, smelling of earth and mould. The surf boomed sullenly on the beach, and heavy squalls flogged the forest. Sometimes a rotten branch snapped, and the sound travelled, dull and heavy, through the night.
From far away we hear the noise of the engine peeling the corn-ears. Two of the natives turn the fly-wheels, and the engine gives them immense pleasure, all the more, the faster it runs. The partners are selected with care, and it is a matter of pride to turn wheels as long and as fast as possible; they encourage each other with wild shrieks and cries. It seemed as if the work had turned to a festival, as if it were a sort of dance, and the couples waited impatiently for their turn to drive the engine. The delight of the boys in the noise of the machinery was very favourable to the progress of the work, and at midnight a long row of full sacks stood in the shed. We stopped the work and told the boys to go to sleep. But the demon of dancing had taken hold of them, and they kept it up all night, and then went straight to work in the fields when the sun rose. By the third evening everything was ready for the arrival of the Pacific, and the boys were deadly tired and lame.
We were just sitting down to dinner one dull, heavy night, when we heard a steamer's long, rough whistle. The Pacific. Everyone jumps up in excitement, for the Pacific brings a taste of civilization, and her arrival marks the end of a busy week and breaks the monotony of daily life. We run to the shore and light strong lamps at fixed points, to indicate the anchorage, and then we rush back to finish dinner and put on clean clothes. Meanwhile, the boys have been roused, and they arrive, sleepy, stiff and unwilling, aware that a hard night's work is before them, loading the produce into the tenders.
The steamer approaches quickly, enormous and gay in the darkness, then she slowly feels her way into the harbour, the anchor falls, and after a few oscillations the long line of brightly lit portholes lies quiet on the water, only their reflection flickers irregularly on the waves through the night. In all directions we can see the lights of the approaching boats of the planters, who come to announce their shipments and to spend a gay evening on board. There are always some passengers on the steamer, planters from other islands on their way to Vila or Sydney, and soon carousing is in full swing, until the bar closes.
All next day the steamer stays in the channel, taking on produce from every plantation, and for two days afterward merrymaking is kept up, then the quiet monotony of a tropical planter's life sets in once more.
Sometimes a diversion is caused by a boy rushing up to the house to announce that some "men-bush" are approaching. Going to the veranda, we see some lean figures with big mops of hair coming slowly down the narrow path from the forest, with soft, light steps. Some distance behind follows a crowd of others, who squat down near the last shrubs and examine everything with shy, suspicious eyes, while the leaders approach the house. Nearly all carry old Snider rifles, always loaded and cocked. The leaders stand silent for a while near the veranda, then one of them whispers a few words in broken "biche la mar," describing what he wants to buy—knives, cartridges, powder, tobacco, pipes, matches, calico, beads. "All right," says Mr. Ch., and some of the men bring up primitive baskets of cocoa-nut leaves, filled with coprah or bunches of raw cocoa-nuts. All of them, especially the women, have carried great loads of these things from their villages in the interior on the poorest paths, marching for days.
The baskets are weighed and the desired goods handed to the head-man. Here the whites make a profit of 200-300 per cent., while on the other islands, where there is more competition, they have to be satisfied with 30 per cent. Each piece is carefully examined by the natives: the pipes, to see if they draw, the matches, whether they strike, etc., while the crowd behind follows every movement with the greatest attention and mysterious whispers, constantly on the watch for any menace to safety. The lengthy bargaining over, the delegation turns away and the whole crowd disappears. In the nearest thicket they sit down and distribute the goods—perhaps a dozen boxes of matches, a few belts, or some yards of calico, two pounds of tobacco, and twenty pipes, a poor return, indeed, for their long journey. Possibly they will spend the night in the neighbourhood, under an overhanging rock, on the bare stone, all crowded round a fire for fear of the spirits of the night.
Sometimes, having worked for another planter, they have a little money. Although every planter keeps his own store, the natives, as a rule, prefer to buy from his neighbour, from vague if not quite unjustified suspicion. They rarely engage for any length of time, except when driven by the desire to buy some valuable object, generally a rifle, without which no native likes to be seen in Santo to-day. In that case several men work together for one, who afterwards indemnifies them for their help in native fashion by giving them pigs or rendering them other services. On the plantations they are suspicious and lazy, but quite harmless as long as they are not provoked. Mr. Ch. had had about thirty men working on his plantation for quite some time, and everything had gone well, until one day one of them had fallen into the Sarrakatta and been drowned. According to native law, Mr. Ch. was responsible for his death, and should have paid for him, which he omitted to do. At first there was general dismay, no one dared approach the river any more; then the natives all returned to their villages, and a few days later they swarmed round the plantation with rifles to avenge their dead relative by murdering Mr. Ch. He was warned by his boys, who were from Malekula for the most part, and this saved his life. He armed his men, and after a siege of several weeks the bushmen gave up the watch and retired. But no one would return to work for him any more.
Altogether, the bushmen of Santo are none too reliable, and only the memory of a successful landing expedition of the English man-of-war a year ago keeps them quiet. On that occasion they had murdered an old Englishman and two of his daughters, just out of greed, so as to pillage his store. They had not found much, but they had to pay for the murder with the loss of their village, pigs and lives.
I tried to find boys at the south-west corner of Santo, where the natives frequently descend to the shore. A neighbour of Mr. Ch., a young Frenchman, was going there in a small cutter to buy wood for dyeing mats to sell to the natives of Malekula, and he kindly took me with him. We sailed through the channel one rainy morning, but the wind died down and we had to anchor, as the current threatened to take us back. We profited by the stop to pay a visit to a Mr. R., who cultivated anarchistic principles, also a plantation which seemed in perfect condition and in direct opposition to his anti-capitalistic ideas. Mr. R. was one of those French colonists who, sprung from the poorest peasant stock, have no ambitions beyond finding a new and kindlier home. Economical, thrifty, used to hard work in the fields, Mr. R. had begun very modestly, but had prospered, and was now, while still a young man, the owner of a plantation that would make him rich in a few years. This good, solid peasant stock, of which France possesses so much, makes the best colonists, and as a rule they succeed far better than those who come to the tropics with the idea of making a fortune in a few years without working for it. These fall into the hands of the big Noumea companies, and have the greatest trouble in getting out of debt. Not only do these firms lend money at exorbitant interest, but they stipulate that the planter will sell them all his produce and buy whatever he needs from them, and as they fix prices as they please, their returns are said to reach 30 per cent.
Besides these two kinds of French settlers, there is a third, which comes from the penitentiary in Noumea or its neighbourhood. We shall meet specimens of these in the following pages.
After having duly admired the plantation of Mr. R.—he proved himself a real peasant, knew every plant by name, and was constantly stopping to pick a dead leaf or prune a shoot—we continued our journey and arrived at Tangoa. Tangoa is a small island, on which the Presbyterian mission has established a central school for the more intelligent of the natives of the whole group, where they may be trained as teachers. The exterior of this school looks most comfortable. One half of the island is cleared and covered with a green lawn, one part is pasture for good-looking cattle, the other is a park in which nestle the cottages of the teachers,—the whole looks like an English country-seat. At some distance is a neatly built, well-kept village for the native pupils. I presented an introduction to the director. He seemed to think my endeavours extremely funny, asked if I was looking for the missing link, etc., so that I took a speedy leave.
We spent a few lazy days on board the little cutter; the natives would not come down from their villages, in spite of frequent explosions of dynamite cartridges, the usual signal of recruiters to announce their arrival to the natives. It rained a good deal, and there was not much to do but to loaf on the beach. Here, one day, I saw an interesting method of fishing by poisoning the water, which is practised in many places. At low tide the natives rub a certain fruit on the stones of the reef, the juice mixes with the water in the pools and poisons the fish, so that after a short while they float senseless on the surface and may easily be caught.
After a few days I was anxious to return to the Segond Channel, as I expected the arrival of the English steamer, which I wanted to meet. I could not find any guide, and the cutter was to stay for some days longer, so I decided to go alone; the distance was only about 15 km., and I thought that with the aid of my compass I would find my way along the trail which was said to exist.
I started in the morning with a few provisions and a dull bush-knife, at first along a fairly good path, which, however, soon divided into several tracks. I followed the one which seemed most likely to lead to my destination, but arrived at a deep lagoon, around which I had to make a long detour. Here the path came to a sudden stop in front of an impenetrable thicket of lianas which I could hardly cut with my knife. I climbed across fallen trunks, crawled along the ground beneath the creepers, struck an open spot once in a while, passed swamps and rocks,—in short, in a very little time I made an intimate acquaintance with the renowned Santo bush. Yet I imagined I was advancing nicely, so much so that I began to fear I had gone beyond my destination. About four o'clock in the afternoon I struck a small river and followed its crooked course to the coast, so as to get my bearings. Great was my disappointment on finding myself only about 1 1/2 km. from the lagoon which I had left in the morning. This was a poor reward for eight hours' hard work. I was ashamed to return to the cutter, and followed the shore, not wishing to repeat that morning's experience in the forest. The walk along the beach was not agreeable at all, as it consisted of those corroded coral rocks, full of sharp points and edges, and shaped like melted tin poured into water. These rocks were very jagged, full of crevices, in which the swell thundered and foamed, and over which I had to jump. Once I fell in, cut my legs and hands most cruelly and had only my luck to thank that I did not break any bones, and got safely out of the damp, dark prison. But at least I could see where I was, and that I was getting on, and I preferred this to the uncertain struggle in the forest. In some places the coast rose to a high bank, round which I could not walk. I had to climb up on one side as best I could and descend on the other with the help of trees and vines. Thus, fighting my way along, I was overtaken by the sudden tropical night, and I had to stop where I was for fear of falling into some hole. A fall would have been a real calamity, as nobody would ever have found me or even looked for me on that lonely coast. I therefore sat down where I was, on the corals where they seemed least pointed. I did not succeed at all in making a fire; the night was quite dark and moonless, and a fine rain penetrated everything. I have rarely passed a longer night or felt so lonely. The new day revived my spirits, breakfast did not detain me long, as I had nothing to eat, so I kept along the shore, jumping and climbing, and had to swim through several lagoons, swarming, as I heard afterwards, with big sharks! After a while the coral shore changed into a sand beach, and after having waded for some hours more in the warm water with the little rags that were left of my boots, I arrived dead tired at the plantation of Mr. R. He was away, so I went to his neighbour's, who was at dinner and kindly asked me to join him. Although it was only a flying-fox, I enjoyed it as a man enjoys a meal after a twenty-four hours' fast.
The men were just starting for Mr. Ch.'s, and took me with them. My adventure had taught me the impassableness of the forest, and after that experience I was never again tempted to make excursions without a guide.
RECRUITING FOR NATIVES
A few days later the English steamer came, bringing my luggage but no hope of improvement in my dull existence. A French survey party arrived too, and set to work, but as they had not enough boys with them, I could not join them. I spent my days as well as I could, collected a few zoological specimens, and read Mr. Ch.'s large stock of French novels until I felt quite silly.
At last an occasion offered to see primitive natives. George, the son of a neighbour, had agreed to go recruiting for Mr. Ch. As I have said before, providing sufficient labour is one of the most important problems to the planter in the New Hebrides. Formerly there were professional recruiters who went slave-hunting as they would have followed any other occupation, and sold the natives to the planters at a fair profit. In their schooners they hung about the shore, filled the natives with liquor and kidnapped them, or simply drove them on board wholesale, with the help of armed Loyalty boys. Their methods were as various as they were cruel, murder was a daily occurrence, and, of course, the recruiters were hated by the natives, who attacked and killed them whenever they got a chance. The better class of planters would not countenance this mode of procedure, and the natives are now experienced enough not to enlist for work under a master they do not know. Also the English Government keeps a strict watch on the recruiting, so that the professional recruiter is dying out, and every planter has to go in search of hands for himself. But while the English Government keeps a sharp eye on these matters, the French Government is as lenient in this as in the question of the sale of alcohol, so that frequent kidnapping and many cruelties occur in the northern part of the group, and slavery still exists. I shall relate a few recruiting stories later on: some general remarks on the subject may not be amiss here.
In years past the natives crowded the recruiting schooners by hundreds, driven by the greed for European luxuries, by desire for change, and inexperience; to-day this is the case in but very few and savage districts. Generally the natives have some idea of what they may expect; moreover, by trading with coprah they can buy all they need and want. They enlist nowadays from quite different motives. With young people it is the desire to travel and to "see the world," and to escape the strict village laws that govern them, especially in sexual matters, and to get rid of the supervision of the whole tribe. Sometimes, but only in islands poor in cocoa-nut trees, it is the desire to earn money to buy a woman, a very expensive article at present. Then many seek refuge in the plantations from persecution of all sorts, from revenge, or punishment for some misdeed at home. Some are lovers who have run away from their tribe to escape the rage of an injured husband. Thus recruiting directly favours the general anarchy and immorality, and indirectly as well, since the recruiters do their best to create as much trouble as possible in the villages, knowing it will be to their advantage. If they hear of a feud raging between two tribes, they collect at the shore and try to pick up fugitives; if there is no war, they do their best to occasion one, by intrigue, alcohol, or agents provocateurs. They intoxicate men and women, and make them enlist in that condition; young men are shown pretty women, and promised all the joys of Paradise in the plantations. If these tricks fail, the recruiters simply kidnap men and women while bathing. This may suffice to show that, as a rule, they do not use fair means to find hands, and it is hardly surprising that where they have been they leave behind them wrecked families, unhappiness, enmity, murder and a deep hatred of the white man in general as the cause of all this misery. This recruiting is not only immoral in the highest degree, but also very harmful to the race, and it is to-day one of the principal reasons for its decay.