ThePacific, the largest ocean in the world, extending over more than one-third of the surface of our globe, was discovered in the year 1513, by Vasco Nugnez de Balboa, a courageous and enterprising Spaniard, governor of the Spanish colony of Santa Maria, in the isthmus of Darien.
The desire of finding a more direct communication with the East Indies had prompted Columbus to the daring voyage which conducted him to the borders of the new world. In that immense and unexplored region, his followers pursued their career of enterprise, until Balboa, by discovering the great South Sea, accomplished what Columbus, notwithstanding his splendid achievements, had page 2 failed to perform. In his march across the isthmus which separates the Atlantic from the Pacific, (an enterprise designated by Robertson as the boldest on which the Spaniards had hitherto ventured in the New World,) Balboa, having been informed by his Indian guides, that he might view the sea from the next mountain, advanced alone to its summit; and beholding the vast ocean spread out before him in all its majesty, fell on his knees, and rendered thanks to God for having conducted him to so important a discovery. He hastened towards the object he had so laboriously sought, and, on reaching its margin, plunged up to his middle in its waves, with his sword and buckler, and took possession of it in the name of his sovereign, Ferdinand of Spain.
Seven years after this important event, Magellan, a Portuguese, despatched by the court of Spain to ascertain the exact situation of the Molucca Islands, sailed along the eastern coast of South America, discovered the straits that bear his name; and, passing through them, first launched the ships of Europe in the Southern Sea. It is, however, probable, that neither Balboa, while he gazed with transport on its mighty waters, nor Magellan, when he first whitened with his canvass the waves of that ocean whose smooth surface induced him to call it the Pacific, had any idea either of its vast extent, of the numerous islands that studded its bosom, the diversified and beautiful structure of those foundations, which myriads of tiny architects had reared from the depths of the ocean to the level of its highest wave, or of the varied tribes of man by whom they were inhabited. Boldly pursuing his way across the untraversed surface of this immense ocean, Magellan discovered the page 3 Ladrone, and subsequently the Philippine islands. The object of the voyage was ultimately accomplished; the Victory, the vessel in which Magellan sailed, having performed the first voyage ever made round the world, returned to Europe: but the intrepid commander of the expedition terminated his life without reaching his original destination, having been killed in a quarrel with the natives of one of the Philippine Islands.
Several distinguished Spanish, Dutch, and British navigators followed the adventurous course of Magellan across the waters of the Pacific, and were rewarded by the discoveries they made in that part of the world, which, under the appellation of Polynesia,∗ from a Greek term signifying many islands, geographers have since denominated the sixth division of the globe. This designation was, in the sixteenth century, given by Portuguese authors to the Moluccas, the Philippines, and other islands to the eastward of Java; and was first appropriated to those clusters and islands, in reference to which it is employed in the present work, by President de Brosses, in his History of Navigation, published in Paris, 1756.
∗According to De Brosses, Malte Brun, Pinkerton, and others, Polynesia includes the various islands found in the Pacific, from the Ladrones to Easter Island. The principal groups are—the Ladrone Islands, the Carolinas, the Pelew Islands, the Sandwich Islands, the Friendly Islands, the Navigators' Islands, the Hervey Islands, the Society Islands, the Georgian Islands, and the Marquesas.
But, although many single islands and extensive groups, of diversified form and structure, some inhabited by isolated families of men, others peopled only by pelicans or aquatic birds, have been visited and explored, fresh discoveries continue to page 4 be made by almost every voyager; and it is by no means improbable, that there are yet many islands, and even groups of islands, which remain unknown to the inhabitants of the other parts of the globe.
Most of the early voyages of discovery in this ocean attracted unusual attention: those made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from the facilities they were expected to afford in the ultimate discovery of the long-sought southern continent; or the rich booty they furnished the daring adventurers, who often captured the Spanish vessels loaded with specie or precious metals. The narratives of voyages of a later period were equally attractive, by the fascinating descriptions they presented of countries and people before unknown. Among these, none appear to have excited a livelier interest, or produced a deeper impression, than those performed by Captain Cook, in the close of the eighteenth century. They were instrumental, in a great degree, in diverting public attention from the splendid and stupendous discoveries in the New World, and directing it to the clustering islands spread over the Pacific; exhibiting them in all the loveliness of their natural scenery, the interesting simplicity, and novel manners, of their inhabitants. The influence of Cook's discoveries appears to have been felt by voyagers and travellers of other countries, as well as by those of his own. Humboldt, speaking of his laborious researches in South America, remarks, that “the savages of America inspire less interest, since the celebrated navigators have made known to us the inhabitants of the South Sea, in whose character we find such a mixture of perversity and meekness: the state of half-civilization in which these islanders are found, gives a peculiar charm page 5 to the description of their manners. Here, a king, followed by a numerous suite, comes and presents the fruits of his orchard; there, the funeral festival embrowns the shade of the lofty forest. Such pictures, no doubt, have more attraction than those which portray the solemn gravity of the inhabitants of the Missouri or the Maranon.”∗
∗Humboldt Pers. Nar. preface.
Since the death of Captain Cook, several intelligent and scientific men from England, France, and Russia, have undertaken voyages of discovery in the South Seas, and have favoured the world with the result of their enterprises. Their accounts are read with interest, not only by those engaged in nautical pursuits and the promotion of geographical science, but by the philosopher, who seeks to study human nature under all its diversified forms; and by the naturalist, who investigates the phenomena of our globe, and the varied productions of its surface. Voyages of discovery are also favourite volumes with the juvenile reader. They impart to the youthful mind many delightful and glowing impressions relative to the strange and interesting scenes they exhibit, which in after-life are seldom obliterated.—There are few who do not retain the vivid recollections of their first perusal of Prince Leeboo, or Captain Cook's Voyages. Often, when a school-boy, I have found the most gratifying recreation, for a winter's evening, in reading the account of the wreck of the Antelope, the discovery of Tahiti, and other narratives of a similar kind. Little, however, did I suppose, when in imagination I have followed the discoverer from island to island, and have gazed in fancy on their romantic hills and valleys, together with their strange but interesting inhabitants, that I should page 6 ever visit scenes, the description of which afforded me so much satisfaction. This, however, in the providence of God, has since taken place; and I have been led, not indeed on a voyage of discovery, commercial adventure, or naval enterprise, but, as a Christian Missionary, on an errand of instruction; not only to visit, but to reside a number of years among the interesting natives of those isolated regions. The following pages record my observations in that part of the world. The account of the ancient customs, &c. of the people, and recent changes, have been derived principally from the people themselves, by my own inquiries, or the communications of my predecessors or companions in Missionary pursuits, with occasional illustrations from those who have visited the islands for purposes of commerce or science.
Tahiti, and the isles in its immediate vicinity, are situated between five and seven degrees of latitude within the southern tropic. The principal island is supposed by some to have been discovered by Quiros, towards the end of the sixteenth century: on this point, however, different opinions exist, and no authentic knowledge of Tahiti was obtained until Captain Wallis, in the Dolphin, crossed the Pacific, about 160 years ago. He anchored in Matavai bay on the 19th of June, 1767, gave to the harbour the name of Port Royal, and to the land, King George the Third's Island. The adjacent island of Eimeo was seen by Captain Wallis, and from him received the designation of Duke of York's Island. In 1769, Captain Cook, who, with a number of scientific gentlemen, had been despatched to the South Seas, for the purpose of observing the transit of Venus, anchored in Matavai bay. By him the native name was affixed to the island page 7 which, through a slight mistake that a foreigner might easily make, he called Otaheite. Bougainville, manifesting in this respect a nicer discrimination of sound, rejected the O, which is no part of the name, and called it Taiti; he however omitted the aspirate. By the natives their island is called Ta-hi-ti. The i having the sound of e in their language, it is pronounced as if written in English Ta-he-te. Captain Cook visited several parts of Tahiti, and the neighbouring islands; and, in honour of his majesty George III, by whom the expedition had been sent, he designated the cluster of which Tahiti is the principal, The Georgian Islands: another cluster, which he discovered about 70 miles to the westward, he called The Society Islands, in honour of the Royal Society, at whose recommendation the expedition had been appointed. The Georgian Isles include Tahiti, Eimeo, Tabuaemanu or Sir Charles Sanders' Island, Tetunoa, Matea, and Meetia. The Society Islands include Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Borabora, Maurua, Tubai, Moupiha or Lord Howe's Island, and Fenuaura or Scilly Islands; with the small islets surrounding them.
The two clusters extend from 16 to 18 degrees S. lat. and from 149 to 155 degrees W. long. and are often included by geographical writers, among others by M. Malte Brun, under the general designation of the Society Islands.∗ As the islands are politically as well as geographically distinct, I have retained the designations given by Captain Cook, occasionally exchanging them for the terms Windward and Leeward Islands, which are frequently used by those residing and trading among them.
∗System of Geography, vol. iii. p. 630.
The following table, principally from Wallis, Cook, and Wilson, will shew their relative situations:—
|SOUTH LAT.||WEST LONG.|
|Tahiti, north point,||17||29||17||149||33||15|
|Maiaoiti, or Sir Charles Sander's Island,||17||28||0||150||40||0|
|Tahaa, three miles northward of Raiatea.|
|Lord Howe's Island,||16||46||0||154||12||45|
In the preceding list I have adopted the orthography introduced by the first Missionaries, and by the press now established among the people. This has not been done from caprice or affectation, but because the letters approach the nearest to the signification of the sounds used by the natives themselves. In the words Otaheite, Otahaa, &c. sounds were exhibited which do not belong to the names they were intended to express, and on this account only they have been rejected.
As the native names of persons and places will unavoidably occur in the succeeding pages, a brief notice of the sounds of the letters, and the division of some of the principal words, will probably familiarize them to the eye of the reader, and facilitate their pronunciation.
The different Polynesian dialects abound in vowel sounds perhaps above any other language; they have also another striking peculiarity, that of rejecting all double consonants, possessing invariably vowel terminations, both of their syllables and words. Every final vowel is therefore distinctly page 9 sounded. Several consonants used in the English language, do not exist in that of the Georgian and Society Islanders. There is no sibilant, or hissing sound: s and c, and the corresponding letters, are therefore unnecessary. The consonants that are used retain the sound usually attached to them in English.
The natives sound the vowels with great distinctness: a has the sound of a in father, e the sound of a in fate, i that of i in marine or e in me, o that of o in no, and u that of oo in root. The diphthong ai is sounded as i in wine. The following are some of the names most frequently used in the present work.
The first column presents them in the proper syllabic divisions observed by the people. In the second column I have endeavoured to exhibit the native orthoëpy, by employing those letters which, according to their general use in the English language, would secure, as nearly as possible, the accurate pronunciation of the native words. The h is placed after the a only to secure to that vowel the uniform sound of a in father, or a in the interjection ah, or aha. Y is also placed after a, to secure for the Tahitian vowel e, invariably the sound of a in day-light or may-pole.
Tahiti, the principal of the Georgian Islands, is the most extensive and lofty of the group. It is formed by two peninsulas, united by a long broad isthmus. The largest is circular in form, and above twenty miles in diameter. The smaller is oval, and is sixteen miles long, and eight broad. The circumference of the whole island is 108 miles. The whole of the islands are mountainous in the interior, and have a border, from one to four miles wide, of rich level land, extending from the base of the high land to the sea, and though the outline of each has some peculiarity distinguishing it from the rest, in their general appearance they resemble each other. Tetuaroa, Tubai, Lord Howe's, and Scilly islands, however, form exceptions, as they are low coral islands, seldom rising many feet above the sea. Eimeo is supposed to be about twenty-five miles in circumference, Huahine probably more than thirty, and Raiatea somewhat larger. The others, though equally elevated, are of smaller extent.
A corresponding resemblance to each other prevails in the geological structure of the principal clusters and surrounding islands; the substances of which the majority are composed being the same, while each island has some distinguishing peculiarity.
There is no reason to suppose that either Tahiti, or any adjacent island, is altogether volcanic in its origin, as Hawaii, and the whole of the Sandwich Islands, are. The entire mass, composing the latter, has evidently been in a state of fusion, and in that condition has been ejected from the focus of an immense volcano, or volcanoes, originating, probably, at the bottom of the sea, and forming, by their action through successive ages, page 12 the whole group of islands; in which nothing like primitive or secondary rock has yet been found. In Tahiti, and other islands of the southern cluster, there are basalts, whinstone dykes, and homogeneous earthy lava, retaining all the convolutions which cooling lava is known to assume; there are also kinds of hornstone, limestone, silex, breccia, and other substances, which, under the action of fire, do not appear to have altered their original form. Some are found in detached fragments, others in large masses.
The variety of substances found in some of the smaller islands is greater than that which is met with in Tahiti, or the Georgian cluster. In Borabora there are masses of rock, apparently composed of feldspar and quartz; and in Maupiti, besides the common vesicular lava and the basalt common to all the islands, a species of granite is found in considerable abundance, which presents an anomaly as striking in the geology of these islands, as that furnished by the existence of carbonate of lime in the island of Rurutu, where garnets are also obtained. Hornblende and feldspar are found in Huahine, as well as in some of the other islands. Ancient lava, containing olivine, augite, and zeolite, are also met with, together with pumice and cellular lava, some kinds of which, found in Sir Charles Sanders' Island, areof a dark blue colour, and, though apparently containing a portion of iron, so light as to float on the water. Specimens of these I have by me; and a large one of the latter kind from Sir Charles Sanders' Island, is more porous than any I ever met with among the volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands, and so completely honeycomb in its structure, that it is difficult to account for its formation.page 13
Strata, or veins of basalt, are frequently met with in all the islands: they usually occur in mountains of amygdaloid rock, or cellular volcanic stone. The veins or strata are seldom, if ever, horizontal, but generally perpendicular, oblique, or curved. One of the most extensive and curious of these, is piled up in stupendous grandeur near the head of Matavai valley, and overhangs the mountain-stream that flows around its base. There are several in Huahine, which I have examined. One, on Hua-hiné-iti, intersects, in an oblique direction with an inclination towards the west, a large mass of pumice and ancient porous lava; another, situated on the south-east front of Vaiorea, in the midst of a pile of more compact and apparently recent lava, is nearly perpendicular; both resemble very much the whinstone dykes in the north of Ireland. The crystallized columns or prisms are very perfectly formed, and are laid at right angles with the position of the vein they compose. The greater part appear pentangular, but their shape and size is not uniform. On comparing a very small triangular crystal, which I brought from Vaiorea, with one which I procured from the dykes near the Giant's Causeway, the substance and structure of each appeared nearly the same.
Although so many unequivocal appearances of the action of fire occur in almost every island, especially in those in which I have had the best opportunity of pursuing inquiries, relative to the probable origin of the islands, viz., Huahine, and the small adjacent island of Vaiorea, where the cellular rocks often present a surface, exactly resembling that of the recently ejected and scarcely indurated lava in Hawaii; I never met with any cavern, aperture, or other formation resembling a page 14 crater; nor have I heard of the existence of any, with the exception of the large lake called by the natives Vaihiria, situated among the mountains of Tahiti. The wild and broken manner, however, in which the rocks and mountains now appear, warrants the inference, that since their formation, which was probably of equal antiquity with the bed of the ocean, they have been thrown up by some volcanic explosion, the disruptions of an earthquake, or other violent convulsions of the earth; and have, from this circumstance, assumed their bold, irregular, and romantic forms.
Every writer on the South Sea Islands has been lavish in praise of their scenery. Malte Brun observes, “A new Cythera emerges from the bosom of the enchanted wave. An amphitheatre of verdure rises to our view; tufted groves mingle their foliage with the brilliant enamel of the meadows; an eternal spring, combining with an eternal autumn, displays the opening blossom along with the ripened fruits.”∗ When speaking of Tahiti, he remarks, that it “has merited the title of Queen of the Pacific Ocean.” The descriptions in Cook's voyages are not exaggerated, and no scenery is adapted to produce a more powerful or delightful impression on the mind of those who traverse the wide ocean, in which they are situated, than the islands of the South Sea. The effect on my own mind, when approaching Tahiti for the first time, will not be easily obliterated.
∗Syst. of Geog. vol. iii. p. 396. Ibid. p. 631.
The sea had been calm, the morning fair, the sky was without a cloud, and the lightness of the breeze had afforded us leisure for gazing upon the varied, picturesque, and beautiful scenery of this most enchanting island. We had beheld successively, as page 15 we slowly sailed along its shore, all the diversity of hill and valley, broken or stupendous mountains, and rocky precipices, clothed with every variety of verdure, from the moss of the jutting promontories on the shore, to the deep and rich foliage of the bread-fruit tree, the Oriental luxuriance of the tropical pandanus, or the waving plumes of the lofty and graceful cocoa-nut grove. The scene was enlivened by the waterfall on the mountain's side, the cataract that chafed along its rocky bed in the recesses of the ravine, or the stream that slowly wound its way through the fertile and cultivated valleys, and the whole was surrounded by the white-crested waters of the Pacific, rolling their waves of foam in splendid majesty upon the coral reefs, or dashing in spray against its broken shore.
Cataracts and waterfalls, though occasionally seen, are not so numerous on any part of the Tahitian coast, as in the north-eastern shores of Hawaii. The mountains of Tahiti are less grand and stupendous than those of the northern group — but there is a greater richness of verdure and variety of landscape; the mountains are much broken in the interior, and deep and frequent ravines intersect their declivity from the centre to the shore. As we advanced towards the anchorage, I had time to observe, not only the diversified scenery, but the general structure and form, of the island, Tahiti, excepting the border of low alluvial land, by which it is nearly surrounded, is altogether mountainous, and highest in the centre. The mountains frequently diverge in short ranges from the interior towards the shore, though some rise like pyramids with pointed summits, and others present a conical, or sugar-loaf form, while the page 16 outline of several is regular, and almost circular. Orohena, the central and loftiest mountain in Tahiti, is six or seven thousand feet above the sea. Its summit is generally enveloped in clouds but when the sky is clear, its appearance is broken and picturesque.
Matavai bay was the first place where we anchored, or had an opportunity of examining more closely the country. The level land at the mouth of the valley is broad, but along the eastern and southern sides, the mountains approach nearer to the sea. A dark-coloured sandy beach extends all round the bay, except at its southern extremity, near One-tree Hill, where the shore is rocky and bold. Groves of bread-fruit and cocoa-nut trees appear in every direction, and, amid the luxuriance of vegetation every where presented, the low and rustic habitations of the natives gave a pleasing variety to the delightful scene.
In the exterior or border landscapes of Tahiti and the other islands, there is a variety of objects, a happy combination of land and water, of precipices and plains, of trees often hanging their branches, clothed with thick foliage, over the sea, and distant mountains shewn in sublime outline and richest hues; and the whole, often blended in the harmony of nature, produces sensations of admiration and delight. The inland scenery is of a different character, but not less impressive. The landscapes are occasionally extensive, but more frequently circumscribed. There is, however, a startling boldness in the towering piles of basalt, often heaped in romantic confusion near the source or margin of some crystal stream, that flows in silence at their base, or dashes over the rocky fragments that arrest its progress: and page 17 there is the wildness of romance about the deep and lonely glens, around which the mountains rise like the steep sides of a natural amphitheatre, till the clouds seem supported by them—this arrests the attention of the beholder, and for a time suspends his faculties in mute astonishment. There is also so much that is new in the character and growth of trees and flowers, irregular, spontaneous, and luxuriant in the vegetation, which is sustained by a prolific soil, and matured by the genial heat of a tropic clime, that it is adapted to produce an indescribable effect. Often, when, either alone, or attended by one or two companions, I have journeyed through some of the inland parts of the islands, such has been the effect of the scenery through which I have passed, and the unbroken stillness which has pervaded the whole that imagination, unrestrained, might easily have induced the delusion, that we were walking on enchanted ground, or passing over fairy lands. It has at such seasons appeared as if we had been carried back to the primitive ages of the world, and beheld the face of the earth, as it was perhaps often exhibited, when the Creator's works were spread over it in all their endless variety, and all the vigour of exhaustless energy, and before population had extended, or the genius and enterprise of man had altered the aspect of its surface.
The valleys of Tahiti present some of the richest inland scenery that can be imagined. Those in the southern parts are remarkable for their beauty, but none more so than those of Hautaua, Matavai, and Apaiano. Those portions of them, in which the incipient effects of civilization appear, are the most interesting; presenting the neat white plastered cottages in beautiful contrast with the picturesque page 18 appearance of the mountains, and the rich verdure of the plains.
The outline of the mountains of Eimeo, and much of the low land, may, when the weather is clear, be distinctly seen from Tahiti.
Moorea is the name most frequently given by the natives to the island of Eimeo, which is situated about twelve or fourteen miles west from Tahiti. In the varied forms its mountains exhibit, the verdure with which they are clothed, and the general romantic and beautiful character of its scenery, this island surpasses every other in the Georgian or Society groups. The reef of coral which, like a ring, surrounds it, is in some places one or two miles distant from the shore, in others united to the beach. Several smal and verdant islands adorn the reef: one lies opposite the district of Afareaitu on the eastern side; and two others, a few miles south of Papetoai; the latter are covered with the elegantly growing casuarina, or aito-trees, and were a favourite retreat of Pomare the Second. Eimeo is not only distinguished by its varied and beautiful natural scenery, but also by the excellence of its harbours, which are better than those in any of the other islands.
On the north side is Taloo harbour, in lat. 17°30' south, long. 150° west: one of the most secure and delightful anchoring places to be met with in the Pacific; Opunohu is the proper name of this harbour; near the mouth of which, on the right-hand side, there is a small rock, called by the natives Tareu, towards which, it is possible, Captain Cook was pointing, or looking, when he inquired of the natives the name of the harbour his ship was then entering. Tareu might be easily understood as if page 19 spelled Taloo, and the name of the rock thus mistaken for that of the harbour. Separated from Opunohu by a high mountain, is another capacious bay, called, after its discoverer, Cook's harbour; it is equally convenient for anchorage with the former, but rather more difficult of access.
On the north-eastern side of Eimeo, between the mountain and the sea, is an extensive and beautiful lake, called Tamai, on the border of which stands a sequestered village, bearing the same name. The lake is stocked with fish, and is a place of resort for flocks of wild ducks, which are sometimes taken in great numbers. The rivers of Eimeo, like those of the other islands, are but small, and are principally mountain streams, which originate in the high lands, roll down the rocky bottoms of the ravines, and wind their way through the valleys to the sea. The mountains are broken, and considerably elevated, but not so high as those of Tahiti, which are probably 7000 feet above the level of the sea.
The South Sea islands are not more distinguished by the elevation of their mountains, the picturesque outline of their landscapes, and the richness of their verdure, than by the extent, variety, and beauty, of those natural breakwaters of coral by which they are surrounded. The large islands, though not of coral formation, all share the advantages of that secure protection which the reefs afford. Among the smaller islands four, viz. Tetuaroa, Tobua, Moupiha, and Fenuaara, appear to rest on coral foundations. The former, which is about twenty miles north of Tahiti, includes five small islets, the names of which are Rimatu, Onehoa, Moturua, Hoatere, and Reiona. They are enclosed by one reef, in which there is an page 20 opening on the north-west, but only such as to admit with difficulty the narrow canoes of the natives. They are all low islands, the highest parts being seldom three or four feet above the water; the only soil they contain is composed of sand and fragments of coral, with which is mingled vegetable mould, produced on the spot, or carried from Tahiti. The chief article of food produced in these islands is the fruit of the cocoa-nut tree; with extensive and verdant groves of which they are adorned. They seem, at a distance, as if they were growing on the surface of the water, and the roots and stems of many are washed by the spray, or by the tide, when it rises a few inches higher than usual. Upon the kernel of the cocoa-nut, and the fish taken among the reefs, the inhabitants principally subsist.
Te-tua-roa, (the long, or distant, sea,) is part of the hereditary possessions of the reigning family of Tahiti; it is attached to the district of Pare, and is said formerly to have been the depository of the monarch's treasures. Most of the inhabitants of these little islets occupy, under the king, a part of his own land, from which they are supplied with bread-fruit and taro. They are much employed in fishing, and formerly brought over large quantities of fish, conveying in return bread-fruit, and other edible productions, from Tahiti. In the wars which disturbed the conclusion of the reign of Pomare the First, and the commencement of that of his successor, many of the inhabitants were cut off; and the decrease of population, thus occasioned, has diminished the intercourse between these islands and Tahiti.
In addition to the fishery carried on here, Tetuaroa has long been a kind of watering-place page 21 for the royal family, and a frequent resort for what might be called the fashionable and gay of Tahiti. Hither the areois, dancers, and singers, were accustomed to repair, together with those whose lives were professedly devoted to indolence and pleasure. It was also frequented by the females of the higher class, for the purposes of haapori, increasing the corpulency of their persons, and removing, by luxurious ease under the embowering shade of the cocoa-nut groves, the dark tinge which the vertical sun of Tahiti might have burnt upon their complexions. So great was the intercourse formerly, that a hundred canoes have sometimes been seen at one time on the beach.
The coral reefs, around the islands, not only protect the low land from the violence of the sea, but often exhibit one of the most sublime and beautiful marine spectacles that it is possible to behold. They are generally a mile, or a mile and a half, and occasionally two miles, from the shore. The surface of the water within the reef is placid and transparent; while that without, if there be the slightest breeze, is considerably agitated; and, being unsheltered from the wind, is generally raised in high and foaming waves.
The trade-wind, blowing constantly towards the shore, drives the waves with violence upon the reef, which is from five, to twenty or thirty yards wide. The long rolling billows of the Pacific, extending sometimes, in one unbroken line, a mile or a mile and a half along the reef, arrested by this natural barrier, often rise ten, twelve, or fourteen feet above its surface; and then, bending over it their white foaming tops, form a graceful liquid arch, glittering in the rays of a tropical sun, as if studded with brilliants. But, before the eyes of page 22 the spectator can follow the splendid aqueous gallery which they appear to have reared, with loud and hollow roar they fall in magnificent desolation, and spread the gigantic fabric in froth and spray upon the horizontal and gently broken surface of the coral.
In each of the islands, and opposite the large valleys, through which a stream of water falls into the ocean, there is usually a break, or opening, in the line of reef that surrounds the shore—a most wise and benevolent provision for the ingress and egress of vessels, as well as a singular phenomenon in the natural history of these marine ramparts. Whether the current of fresh water, constantly flowing from the rivers to the ocean, prevents the tiny architects from building their concentric walls in one continued line, or whether in the fresh water itself there is any quality inimical to the growth or increase of coral, is not easy to determine; but it is a remarkable fact, that few openings occur in the reefs which surround the South Sea Islands, excepting opposite those parts of the shore from which streams of fresh water flow into the sea. Reefs of varied, but generally circumscribed extent, are frequently observed within the large outer barrier, and near the shore, or mouth of the river; but they are formed in shallow places, and the coral is of a different and more slender kind, than that of which the larger reef, rising from the depths of the ocean, is usually composed. There is no coral in the lagoons of the large islands.
The openings in the reefs around Sir Charles Sanders' Island, Maurua, and other low islands, are small and intricate, and sometimes altogether wanting, probably because the land, composing these islands, collects but a scanty portion of page 23 water; and, if any, only small and frequently interrupted streams flow into the sea. The apertures in the coral beds around the larger islands, not only afford direct access to the indentations in the coast, and the mouths of the valleys, which form the best harbours, but secure to shipping a supply of fresh water, in equal, if not greater abundance, than it could be procured in any other part of the island. The circumstance, also, of the rivers near the harbours flowing into the sea, affords the greatest facility in procuring fresh water, which is so valuable to seamen.
These breaches in the reefs, in many places, especially at Papete, or Wilks' Harbour, in Tahiti and Afareaitu, in Moorea Fare, in Huahine, and along the eastern side of Raiatea and Tahaa, are not only serviceable to navigation, but highly ornamental, and contribute much to the beauty of the surrounding scenery. At the Ava Moa, or Sacred Entrance leading to Opoa, there is a small island, on which a few cocoa-nut trees are growing. At Tipaemau there are two, one on each side of the opening, rising from the extremity of the line of reef. The little islets, elevated three or four feet above the water, are clothed with shrubs and verdure, and adorned with a number of lofty cocoa-nut trees. At Te-Avapiti, several miles to the northward of Tipaemau, and opposite the Missionary settlement—where, as its name indicates, are two openings—there are also two beautiful, green, and woody islands, on which the lowly hut of the fisherman, or of the voyager waiting for a favourable wind, may be often seen. Two large and very charming islands adorn the entrance at Tomahahotu, leading to the island of Tahaa. The largest of these is not more than half a mile in page 24 circumference, but both are covered with fresh and evergreen evergreen and trees.
Detached from the large islands, and viewed in connexion with the ocean rolling through the channel on the one side, or the foaming billows dashing, and roaring, and breaking over the reef on the other, they appear like emerald gems of the ocean, contrasting their solitude and verdant beauty with the agitated element sporting in grandeur around. They are useful, as well as ornamental. The tall cocoa-nuts that grow on their surface, can be seen many miles distant; and the native mariner is thereby enabled to steer directly towards the spot where he knows he shall find a passage to the shore. The constant current passing the opening, probably deposited on the ends of the reef fragments of coral, sea-weeds, and drift-wood, which in time rose above the surface of the water. Seeds borne thither by the waves, or wafted by the winds, found a soil on which they could germinate—decaying vegetation increased the mould—and by this process it is most likely these beautiful little fairy-looking islands were formed on the ends of the reefs at the entrance to the different harbours.
The Soil of the islands presents considerable variety. The sides of the mountains are frequently covered with a thin layer of light earth, but the summits of many of the inferior hills present a thick strata, or covering, of stiff red ochre, or yellow marl. The ochre greatly resembles burnt clay, and in the island of Rurutu, and some others of the group, its colour is so strong as to enable the natives to form a bright red pigment for staining or painting their doors, window-shutters, canoes, and, when mixed with lime, the walls of page 25 their houses. This kind of ochre is seldom found in the lofty mountains composed of basalt, or cellular volcanic stone, but generally covers the lower hills that rise between the interior mountains and the shore. It is not peculiar to any single island, and in some places it appears several feet in thickness. Besides the soil on the sides of the mountains and the bottom of the valleys, around each of the islands there are level borders of varied breadth, sometimes three or four miles wide. This, to the inhabitants, is the most valuable portion of land; here their gardens are enclosed, and hence their chief subsistence and greatest luxuries are derived. The soil here is a rich alluvial deposit, with a considerable admixture of vegetable mould. It is remarkably prolific; the only manure ever used is decayed leaves, and these are employed more to loosen than enrich the soil. Near the base of the mountains, though stony, it is fertile; but nearer to the sea, where a considerable portion of sand is incorporated, it is less fruitful. In many places the sea has thrown up an embankment along the shore, considerably higher than the intervening space between the shore and the mountains; extensive swamps are thus formed. Though the effiuvia arising from these marshy places must be highly prejudicial to health, they are generally prized by the natives, and, though not drained, enclosed for the culture of the different kinds of arum which constitute so great a portion of the food of the people, when the bread-fruit is out of season. The soil of the South Sea Islands is not only rich, but extensive, and capable, if cultivated, of supporting a population nearly ten times as large as that which it now sustains.page 26
The Climate of the South Sea Islands is in general regular, and, though considerably hotter than in Europe, is more temperate than that of the East or West Indies, or those parts of the continent of America that are situated in the same latitude. This is probably occasioned by the vast expanse of ocean around; for though only 17 degrees from the equator, the thermometer, in the shade, seldom rises higher than 90, while the general average in some of the islands is not more than 74. During the time the Duff remained in Tahiti, from March to August, 1797, the thermometer was never lower than 65, and seldom higher than 73; and between the months of April and August, 1819, it ranged in the morning from 68 to 78, at noon from 75 to 84, and in the evening from 70 to 78. Sometimes it rises for a short time much higher than 90, but I never saw it so low as 60. The heat is constant, and, to an European, debilitating, though much less so than that of an Indian climate. To the natives it is genial, and, excepting in the immediate neighbourhood of their stagnant waters or marshy ground, is salubrious. They experience no inconvenience from the heat, and often, when the mornings have been gratefully cool to a European, they wrap themselves in their warmest clothing.
The climate is remarkably serene and equable; its changes are neither violent, frequent, nor sudden. This circumstance, were it not for the constant heat, would render it remarkably salubrious. The atmosphere is moist, and the agreeable alternations of land and sea breezes are experienced during the greater part of the year The refreshing land breeze sweeps down the valleys soon after sunset, but, though grateful to page 27 the inhabitants on the shore, it extends only a short distance over the ocean. The sea breeze sets in in the forenoon. These breezes are, however, from the circumscribed surface of land, which in comparison with the surrounding waters is exceedingly limited, more feeble and transient than those which prevail on the shores of the continents in the same latitude.
Strong currents of air, resembling whirlwinds, occasionally sweep across the islands, and produce considerable devastations among the plantations and habitations of the people: tempests are sometimes heavy and destructive, but the islands are never visited with those fearful hurricanes or tornadoes, that occur in the West Indies, or in the Indian and Chinese seas. In general, the winds are moderate, and peculiarly refreshing.
The east, with its variations from north-east to south-east, being the regular trade-wind, is most prevalent, but is seldom unpleasantly violent. Winds from the north are often tempestuous, more so than from the south, yet, although during the season of variable winds, viz. from December to March, they are strong, and continue several days, they are not dangerous. The wind seldom prevails from the west, among the Society Islands, excepting in the months of December, January, and February. At this season, though the westerly winds are usually of short duration, they are often heavy and boisterous. The sky is dark and lowering, rain frequently falls in torrents, and the weather is remarkably unsettled.
Rain is much more frequent in the Society than in the Sandwich Islands, during the whole of the year; but, except in the rainy season, it is seldom heavy or lasting: gentle showers fall during many page 28 of the months, almost every alternate day, though sometimes there are some weeks of dry weather. The rainy season, the only variation of the tropical year, occurs when the sun is vertical, and generally continues from December to March, At this season the rains are heavy, and often incessant for several weeks — the streams are swollen and muddy—the low lands overflowed—fences washed away—and, unless great care is taken, many plantations destroyed. The winds are also variable and tempestuous, the climate is more insalubrious, and sickness among the people greater, than at any other period. Thunder and lightning are frequent on the islands, especially during the rainy season. The lightnings are vivid and awful, though not frequently injurious to the dwellings, or fatal to the inhabitants. The thunder is sometimes loud and terrific, often more appalling than any I ever heard in any other parts of the world. The awful effects of the loud and quick-succeeding thunders is probably much increased by the hilly nature of the country, which greatly augments the reverberations of the deafening reports.
Among the natural phenomena of the South Sea Islands, the tide is one of the most singular, and presents as great an exception to the theory of Sir Isaac Newton as is to be met with in any part of the world. The rising and falling of the waters of the ocean appear, if influenced at all, to be so in a very small degree only, by the moon. The height to which the water rises, varies but a few inches during the whole year, and at no time is it elevated more than a foot, or a foot and a half. The sea, however, often rises to an unusual height, but this appears to be the effect of a strong wind blowing for page 29 some time from one quarter, or the heavy swells of the sea, which flow from different directions, and prevail equally during the time of high and low water. But the most remarkable circumstance is, the uniformity of the time of high and low water. During the year, whatever be the age or situation of the moon, the water is lowest at six in the morning, and the same hour in the evening, and highest at noon and midnight. This is so well established, that the time of night is marked by the ebbing and flowing of the tide; and, in all the islands, the term for high water and for midnight is the same.