The following is from an account by the naturalist, René Primavere Lesson, who visited Rotuma aboard the La Coquille in 1824. The account was published in 1829 as Chapter 23 (pp. 412-439) in Volume II of Voyage Médical Autour du Monde Exécuté sur la Corvette du Roi La Coquille, Commandée par M.L.I. Duperrey Pendant les Années 1822,1823, 1824 et 1825.Paris: Roret Librairie. This version was translated from the French by Ella Wiswell.
Crossing from Bay-of-the-Islands (New Zealand) to the island of
Observations on Rotuma and its inhabitants.
"Already the old day-star
April 17, 1824: A southwesterly breeze and superb weather sped us northward across the Marion Canal and away from Baie-des-Iles. As we were getting under way, we almost went aground, because, being well apeak, we hauled in the topsails which made us fall astern onto the rocks at the eastern point. But we recovered from this false maneuver by quickly raising the anchor and filling the sails. The rest of April went by with fine days, a smooth sea and a swift passage. We left the stormy waters of New Zealand for the light and variable squalls and frequent calms of these tropic seas.
We saw no land and certainly not the islands of Fiji....Phaetons, flying fish and shark often made an appearance, as well as clumps of grasses carried along by the tides. These floating fields with their new forms of marine life would have been a great discovery for a naturalist. During these calm days, we also caught a good number of strange zoophytes: jelly-fish, physalias and an unusual ribboned beroid. The latter was about eighteen inches long and very narrow, yellow at each end and pure white in the middle. It was shaped like a series of articulated rings, iridescent at the edges. On the 29th, a plover came and perched peacefully on the corvette with a trustfulness that proved fatal to him. Then the appearance of branches and fruit caught in our nets told us that land was nearby, even though our charts showed nothing. We were by then at 15 degrees, 9' 7" latitude south and 174 degrees, 19' 29" longitude east.
The sudden change from the old, rainy days of New Zealand to the damp heat of the tropics was having its effect of the health of the crew. They suffered from various inflammatory ailments which were eventually controlled with medication.
On the 30th, a day of numerous squalls which stained the sky with black clouds, we caught sight of the island of Rotuma, about 10 leagues away. We spent the night talking because the winds were changeable and the weather extremely uncertain. However, it was in a flat calm that we steered the next day, May 1, to the southwest point of the island and remained there. M. de Blosseville and I vainly begged permission to visit this place of which so many sailors have painted a charming picture. And yet Rotuma promised to be a lively chapter in the story of our voyage. Inhabited as it was by a race of people whose customs had preserved their native purity, whose goodness, touching ingenuousness and total simplicity untarnished by prolonged contact with strangers, it would have been interesting to see if only for a few hours. So we have had to make up for our lack of personal observations with the details we obtained in conversation with the good islanders.
Throughout the whole day of May 1, the Rotumans stayed with us on board the "Coquille"; their numerous canoes did not get back to shore until evening.
The island of Rotuma, [fn. This chapter was inserted in the July 1825 number of the "Nouvelles annales de Voyages," and in Volume 29, page 139 of the "Journal des Voyages."] as its inhabitants call it (incorrectly called Rotoumahou on some maps), is four or five miles long. Extending north and south, the middle of the island lies at 12 degrees, 31' O" south latitude and 174 degrees, 55' O" east longitude. It is in a solitary position in the middle of a wide expanse of open sea, at a considerable distance from the Friendly Islands and Fiji on the one hand, and from the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands on the other. Although a fairly high island itself, it seems to be a link in the chain of islands extending from the Carolines, through the Mulgraves, the Marshalls and the Gilberts, through San Augustino and the Grand-Cocal to the other archipelagoes of the Pacific.
The lack of contact with other islands and visiting European ships has left its original appearance intact. The race of people living there is gentle, kindly and in the same state of primitive simplicity as the Tahitians showed to the first visitors. However, although of the same race as the Tahitians and blessed also with a fertile and productive soil, these people do not appear to participate in bloody and inhuman rites. They welcomed with extraordinary eagerness the Europeans who settled on the island. Unfortunately, the virtues of the Rotumans are somewhat spoiled by thieving, which they regard as true kindness.
Quiros was the first navigator to discover Rotuma. He landed here in 1601 with his little fleet. He was delighted with the friendly welcome he received from the natives, who provided him with refreshments in abundance. It is painful to relate that he repaid their kindness by kidnapping several natives and dispatching others with gunshot.[fn. Quiros' description of his island does not fit entirely with Rotuma, but we know of no other place in the vicinity that fits any better.] A long time elapsed before the next European contact with these people. In 1791 the 'Pandora' came to Rotuma, and Captain Edwards named it Grenville Island and claimed it as his discovery. Commander Wilson of the "Duff," who had just taken some missionaries to Tahiti and the Marquesas, came across the island on September 3, 1797. Only two or three canoes greeted the ship bringing with them few provisions. Since that time, a few American or English whaling-ships have stopped there for provisions. Two months before our arrival, eight men from the ship "Rochester" deserted and were still there. [fn. This vessel rounded Cape Horn, sailed up the coast of Chile and Peru, stopped at Truxillo, went on to the Marquesas where it made contact with the natives, dropped anchor at Tonga-Tabu and then on to the shores of New Zealand and an anchorage at Island Bay. The crew had long been justified in complaining of the captain. He had killed one man on the coast of Peru and committed another murder at Island Bay. A meeting was called on board, consisting of five or six whaling-ship captains and presided over by Mr. Williams, a missionary. Each sailor took an oath on the Bible and the transcript of the trial was forwarded to England. The "Rochester" then left New Zealand, heading for Fiji, Mowala and the western islands. They made contact with the natives, keeping chiefs on board for days at a time without causing the least friction with the islanders. Arriving at Rotuma, they met a large school of whales and cruised in the vicinity for 15 days. When they sent boats ashore they were well received and went into several villages without insult. Several sailors deserted but when the captain put five of their chiefs in irons they delivered up the deserters. But his behavior had been so barbarous and he had pushed folly so far as to threaten to blow up the ship, that on the day of departure, at ten o'clock that night, eight men, including the third and fourth officers, let down a whaling dinghy with some books and instruments aboard. They rowed all night and in the morning, being out of sight of the ship, they set sail back to the island. As soon as they arrived they were surrounded, their instruments broken, their clothing torn off and the pieces used to decorate the islanders heads. They were given matting to wear and were eagerly invited into the chiefs' houses. They became increasingly delighted with the kindness of their hosts, however, no one would allow them a woman until they had had enough time to know if they liked living on the island. Twice they went to the king with their request. He gathered his Council and gave them some public women to help them be patient. Finally, after a month, they assembled all the nubile girls from the villages they were living in, and those chosen seemed very proud. We must attribute this desire to possess Europeans to a feeling of inferiority and curiosity, because the natives of Rotuma confess that they are very ignorant.(Information obtained and passed on by M. Poret-de-Blosseville.)] Two liberated convicts whom we had picked up at Port-Jackson begged insistently that we leave them on the island. Then some natives vied for the chance to receive them into their families and carried them ashore in triumph. According to the natives they had not seen more than ten ships in a very long time.
The island of Rotuma reaches its highest elevation at its northern end which seems to form a separate little island. Here a mountain presents a precipitous face to the rest of the island and rises above a beach which cuts into the land forming a small bay. The southern part of the island ends in a low-lying point surmounted by a coneshaped bluff which also appears to form a separate islet. But the lookout told us there was no break in the low-lying spit joining it to the island. Two islets, one very low, lie two or three miles to the north. An inhabited plain, where columns have been erected, encircles the island. The headlands by the sea are covered with coconut trees. The island in general seems particularly rich in vegetation. We were told that it was cultivated everywhere with the greatest cave and that the soil was extremely fertile.
In appearance Rotuma, like most equatorial islands, is very picturesque. Its mountains are certainly of volcanic origin because their sides are quite precipitous even if their crests are more softly round than jagged. The flat land encircling the island is formed from coral and the water is very deep at its edge.
Around ten o'clock in the morning, we noticed a long way off five or six canoes coming towards us. As they approached they were joined by others in an ever-growing number. Soon they hailed us. The natives came aboard without fear or hesitation. A few only asked if the ship was "tabu" and waited for permission to board. The deck was soon covered with more than a hundred and fifty natives, while around forty canoes paddled alongside the corvette.
These men were just like children, talking and gesticulating all at once. They wanted everything they laid eyes on. Each man spread out his waves and for mere trifles exchanged coconuts, bananas, poultry, clubs and beautifully made, delicate matting. Although they were so cheerful and good-humored, these islanders gave us some cause for complaint, just like all people close to the state of nature, they have a tendency to steal. After spending most of the day on board, the Rotumans returned to their island at sunset, but not without pressing us eagerly to follow them ashore where they promised us, with the least subtle gestures imaginable, women and food in abundance. One chief, who had taken a liking for me, wanted to use any means to get me ashore and, thinking this would really attract me, gave me a bunch of bananas and powdered my face yellow and red as he embraced me tenderly. Upset by my steadfast refusals, he caught sight of an English ex-convict working nearby and was lucky enough to persuade him. He was too happy for words.
One can imagine how astonished we were to be addressed from one of the canoes in a European language. Four of the English sailors who had deserted the "Rochester" came aboard and told us the details of their adventures. They were dressed like the savages, that is, they wore nothing but a piece of matting around their waists. During their stay, they had been tattooed in the native fashion and the designs, being light and attractive, stood out perfectly on their white skins. However, they had also been smeared with yellow curcuma powder by their wives to make them look beautiful according to the local custom. One of the men, sated with the pleasures of love, tired of his tranquil existence and missing his family and homeland, asked and readily obtained permission to join the ship.[fn. He was called Williams John (sic), from northumberland. A cooper by trade, he had a gentle, honest nature, good sense and some learning. He gave some interesting information about the natives with whom he had lived for so long. Mr. de Blosseville wrote it down and passed it on to me.] The others said that they would finish out their days on the island and that the soft, lazy life of the islanders had the greatest charm for them. Still, it is likely that they will take the opportunity to leave on the first English ship to sail into those waters. This picture of bliss really attracted two of the sailors we had picked up in Sydney. So, reflecting on the wretched fate awaiting them at home, they decided to abscond and give themselves up to a life of sweet abundance, won without fatigue or work, surrounded by physical pleasures for as long as their strength allowed. Still it is disagreeable to know that the criminals of Port Jackson are now poisoning the islands of the South Pacific and that the first use they make of their liberty is to turn the natives against the Europeans who have stigmatized and rejected them. At Rotuma, the inhabitants rushed to welcome the newcomers and offer them housing, wives, food and a dignified station in life. Before the sailors from the "Rochester" arrived, they had raised to the rank of shaou [sau], or king, a black convict who had escaped from New Wales on the seal-hunting ship "Maquaire." He stayed there until his death. Such a unique fate for a man sold into slavery in Africa, taken to Europe and then sentenced to exile in New Holland, only to end his days ruling over a delightful island in the south seas!
The islanders of Rotuma belong to the pure oceanic race. The men we saw completely resembled the Tahitians, but they were generally better built and developed with more attractively shaped bodies. Their character, as far as we could judge and from all that we had heard, compared favorably with their physique.
The inhabitants of Rotuma are tall and well-built with just a few under five feet, the rest being three to five inches over at least. Their facial appearance is gentle and engaging, full of fun and gaiety. Their features are regular and the young, with their light coloring, are very good-looking. They wear their hair long, tied back high on their heads in a large bunch. When they came aboard, they untied their long black hair and let it spread over their shoulders as a mark of respect and deference. This was how they paid homage to their chiefs. Some of the men wore their hair in curly locks, reddened at the end, which could be due to the lime they sometimes put on it. Their large, black eyes are full of spirit, their noses somewhat flat and their large mouths furnished with two rows of the whitest teeth. They do not wear beards, using shells to shave with, but they do wear mustaches which they keep short. They pierce their ear-lobes and, like the Tahitians, put fragrant flowers in them, sweet gardenias or hibiscus blossoms. Their limbs are well-proportioned, their legs shapely, more than one of the young men who came on board could have served as sculptors' models. Their bodies are pleasantly rounded, with soft, smooth skin of a light copper color, though some are darker-skinned. Since they are frequently in the water, they are very clean and take good care of their hair.
These islanders go almost naked, wearing a narrow loin-cloth [fn. This is the langouti of the Madagascan blacks, and the term is also used in the African colonies of Mauritius and Bourbon.] to which they add a braid which ties around the waist and falls to the knees. They go bareheaded too, but sometimes they wear a piece of fishing-net to cover their hair or an eye-shade called ischao women from a coconut leaf exactly like the ones used by the Tahitians. All the material we gave them was immediately put on their heads. Shirts were made into turbans, but their favorites were colored trousers which they made into headgear even though they were hardly appropriate for covering the head. They were perfectly happy to have the legs dangle down over their chests. Their bodies are daubed with dust of red, orange or yellow color mixed with coconut oil. They extract this makeup from the root of the curcurma and preserve it in cone-shaped blocks. Sometimes they cover their bodies completely with this coloring, sometimes only in widely separated bands. In either case, this impermanent makeup makes close contact with them very inconvenient.
We never laid eyes on the women of the island whom the English sailors claimed were very pretty and extremely well-built. Only one woman did we see, ugly and old, who came in one of the canoes. However, it was not the fault of the natives if we never had the opportunity to judge the charms of their wives. They asked us several times to allow them to come to sleep on board, telling us to send them ashore in the morning. They pressed each of us individually, offering us their huts so that we could sleep on Rotuma lili [lelei]--good Rotuma, as they call their island, slowly pronouncing the words with a sweet almost feminine voice. Even the husbands of Sparta could not have been more accommodating. The soberest face among us had difficulty hiding a smile at the odd naiveté of their proposals and the gestures that accompanied them. They only knew one word of English and it was not one that can be written here.
I noticed that some of the men were entirely shaved, and all of them showed the greatest disgust at the sight of our sailors' hairy chests. They practice circumcision, as far as I could tell, and two men offered to perform this sanitary operation on me.
The principal ornament of those who came on board who seemed to enjoy a certain rank was a large pearl-oyster shell on the breast called a tifa. Apparently, there are no oysters around their shores, so they try to obtain them from whomever they can, offering one of their fine straw weavings for five or six shells of this testacean. Some wore porcelain ovules called pouré; [fn. These porcelain beads are called pourao by the Tahitians.] some wore a white braid on their breasts called toui [probably tui = strung together] while others wound long strings of shells around their bodies. None of these paltry decorations, however, seemed designed as a mark of rank or authority. Around the necks of some young people, I noticed necklaces made of balls of ivory. This ornament, usually worn by women, is so highly prized by the islanders, that they zealously collect the teeth of the whale, [fn. They call them touboua, tamboua in Fiji. The Marquesans think so highly of these teeth that just one is regarded as the greatest possible fortune; "that a good one is considered equal to the greatest property" as Shilliber says in Briton's Voyage, 1813.] an excellent trading article for whalers. They prefer them to fabrics, even to metal axes, even though they can only turn them into ornaments. Perhaps they attach some superstitious importance to them. When I came on deck carrying a large whale's tooth, the only one I had, I was surrounded in a twinkling by an enormous number of islanders shouting with astonishment and admiration. They offered me my choice of anything they had, and when I exchanged it with one of them for a couple of very fine mats, they showed great satisfaction and quickly confided their new treasure to an old man in a canoe alongside the ship. To the whalers, they give large quantities of bananas, taro and coconuts for each tooth. This is because they consider the whale to be the queen of the sea (according to what M. de Blosseville was told). They also believed that the ships are armed in order to take the teeth from the whales and to extract their oil to anoint people; they were most astonished to learn that the oil is only used for lamps.
Their usual clothing is made of the fairest and finest weavings, but sometimes they just wear curcuma leaves around their waists. This rather immodest garment leaves perfectly visible what it is supposed to hide. The weavings they wrap themselves in are beautiful, superior to any made by the Tahitians. They are woven with the narrowest bands of gold-colored straw which they obtain from the stubble of a certain grassy plant. It is tedious work because it is tightly woven and done with great care. They are scalloped at their edges and sometimes dyed yellow or daubed with other colors. They probably serve other purposes than clothing because some of them are very large. The islanders would exchange these for European fabrics or metal tools, especially axes.
The Rotumans also make a fabric out of tree bark similar to those of the Sandwich Islands and the Society Islands. They dye it a deep reddish-brown, probably by the same dying process, and also make use of breadfruit and mulberry tree barks. However, there is very little of this paper-like clothing. The women's loin-cloths are of a thick white material covered with filaments; they sold us a couple of them. The kaive, or fibrous coconut husk, is used to make twined braids which are dyed deep black and tied around the men's waists like a belt.
I noticed some children with heads completely shaved except for the top, where the hair was preserved in long braids like a Chinese pigtail. One of these children was very light-skinned, a remarkable fact leading one to believe that some sailors from Asia could have strayed off-course in the southeastern seas.
Unfinished iron was of no interest to the islanders; towards the end of our commercial relationship, tools, although appreciated, gave them less pleasure than large, blue, glass beads. They rather liked red kerchiefs from Rouen and knives and fish-hooks, especially large ones. With a few small fish-hooks we were able to obtain coconuts, taro, yams, sugar-cane and breadfruit. They only brought us a dozen chickens which led us to conclude that poultry has not thrived here, although they assured us to the contrary. We saw no pigs at all; the entire island has no more than a dozen altogether. They told us that a terrible drought had destroyed all their fruit trees so that the natives, deprived of their usual food, had been forced to kill most of their pigs. Even this measure had failed to prevent a famine which caused more than a hundred islanders to die of starvation. Ever since then pigs have not flourished on the island. The old people also talk about a violent hurricane that ravaged the island forty years before: the sea covered the shoreline, destroyed houses, and drowned many natives.
They say the island is very fertile, abounding in foodstuff of all kinds, such as can be found in the Society and Friendly Islands and other groups scattered throughout the vast Pacific Ocean. This profusion of fruits and roots contributes to the abundance of life of these fortunate islanders, and gives to their existence its characteristic softness and indolence. Aside from the fruits already mentioned, the soil produces an abundance of vy [vi] or which they also call evy; and mapé (inocarpus indulcis) which they call ifi, among many other plants. It is only in very rare cases, during extreme atmospheric disturbances, that their existence on that island is ever endangered.
Hearing some natives sing did not give us a very high opinion of their style of singing. They favor the psalmodic tone of other islanders though sometimes adopting a livelier measure while some of them dance in accompaniment to the voice. Their dance is nothing more than a pantomime of strange, irregular movements, a far cry from the precision of the New Zealanders. They say that the women's dance is graceful and free of indecency. Here is one of their songs which M. de Blosseville collected without being able to discover the meaning:
Chi a leva, chi a leva
The only weapon we ever saw in Rotuman hands was a club and they made no objection to exchanging all that they brought with them. This carefully wrought weapon is three to four feet long of a very hard red wood, flattened and sharpened at the sides of the striking end which is carved. Two young men showed us how they use it. They tried to look very war-like by pulling up their hair, rolling their eyes and twisting their faces into a thousand grimaces. In their hands, the club seemed to be wielded by a European drum-major, so much did they twirl it around in all directions. Seeing this, we convinced ourselves that these people in their sea-girt isolation had very few occasions to use their weapons and that war seldom came to trouble the profound peace they enjoyed. We learned, however, that some years ago the islanders had to repulse an attack or settle differences between themselves by force of arms.
Their most outstanding and characteristic ornamentation is tatooing, which they call chache. The body, from the lower chest to just above the knee, is completely covered with a regular tattoo strongly reminiscent of the thigh-pieces of the knights of old. A broad stripe behind the thigh prevents the bands of tattooing from completely encircling the leg. The stomach and loins are covered with curving scalloped lines whose blackness contrasts agreeably with the natural color of the untouched skin. The chest and arms receive another kind of design. Where the former is notable for the black mass it forms on the skin, the latter is distinguished by the delicacy of its designs: the fragile shapes of flying fish, flowers and other graceful objects. Some natives had rows of black dots on their legs, while others displayed raised scars on the shoulders of the type as common among the African Negro race as among its scattered branches in the Pacific. Tattooing seems so natural to primitive man that it seems to clothe his nakedness and provide him with a durable raiment of charm and grace.
The climate of Rotuma, which the English inhabitants say is very healthy, seems to have a bad effect on the health of some natives, because I saw several consumptives. I saw two or three men with large scars on their legs and even open, gnawing ulcers. They seemed to pay no attention to these large weeping sores and danced around the deck as though their legs were sound. I noticed a one-eyed man and a cripple, but saw no trace of elephantiasis or leprosy. Their skin was generally smooth without weals or scars, apart from coral cuts. The cheekbones of some young men looked scorched by some procedure to raise blisters. We learned through their sign-language that these were burns made by a kind of moxa and inflicted under certain circumstances and in religious ceremonies. The Englishmen assured us that syphilis was unknown in this fortunate island. May Heaven preserve them from that scourge which contact with white people will quickly introduce!
Williams John (sic.) gave us the following information about medical matters: most ailments are as simple as their remedies, aside from chronic ulcers, chest diseases, and another which ultimately eats away the legs. Doctors do not seem to form a specific professional class, although one chief was himself the king's doctor. John himself had witnessed the manner in which an intestinal ailment was treated. The doctor went to the patient's home and had him transported to a nearby dwelling where he was laid on his back, naked to the waist, on several woven mats. There, he was roughly massaged with oil all over his body. Then, moving to his head, the doctor rubbed his temples as though trying to express something by this action. The patient was then turned on his stomach and after a few days had completely recovered.
For cuts and wounds, they make a kind of poultice from the bark of a tree and various plants. They apply it to the wound with leaves and John felt obliged to praise its salutary effect.
The islanders must be skillful fishermen because they use huge nets more than forty feet long. One alone brought aboard two very large flying fish.
The population of the island has never been estimated except in a rough fashion. Captain Wilson set it at six or seven thousand, but to my mind it could hardly exceed three or four thousand. In the information he gave to M. de Blosseville, John provided an estimate that must be much too high, but which at least proves that the island is well-populated. According to that sailor, the district of the king or epigigi contained about fifteen hundred souls, seven other districts contained a thousand each, and sixteen with six hundred for a population of eighteen thousand. As I said, this number seems excessive. The population has an equal number of women to men.
The Rotumans obey a high chief called the chaou [sau] whom they frequently change, since their government seems to contain a mixture of electoral and feudal laws.
We were paid a visit by the deposed king, a good-looking man called Tamanaoua, with an engaging face and distinguished manners. The reigning chief, called Rihamkao, who had not been in office very long, came to see us the same evening. He was the handsomest of all the islanders who came on board and his manners were not lacking in dignity. Some district chiefs accompanied him, among whom was a chief named Takapoura who was so timid that the least movement on board frightened him. He kept begging us not to do him any harm in a high, girlish voice which made him quite ridiculous. He was one of the hostages that the captain of the Rochester had clapped in irons on his ship until the return of the deserters hiding on the island.
These islanders seem to have very limited religious ideas, expressed in a few rudimentary rituals. Their greatest belief is in spirits.
Among themselves, rubbing noses is the act of greeting, but they do not make such a dreamy ceremony of it as do the New Zealanders who have the same custom.
For the polite transaction of any business, it is necessary to sit down. Our polite European custom of standing up at such times is for them, as for many other races, the greatest incivility imaginable.
Their character, as it showed itself to us, is of an outstanding gentleness. They always have a smile on their lips and good-nature is imprinted on their cheerful features. They behave like noisy children when surprised or moved by some perfectly ordinary sight. They showed great astonishment at the sight of cockatoos and cats, but nothing fascinated them as much as a kangaroo from New Holland and ducks. They found the ducks extraordinary birds. Their minds are so excitable that it is hard to hold their attention for more than a few moments and it was with great difficulty that we were able to collect a few words of their language. Once, we were trying to learn the names of the parts of the body, from which they concluded that we were cannibals, and they replied with gestures of disgust, saying kai kai nou-Zeland (the New Zealanders eat human flesh). They had learned about this custom from the Englishmen living on the island. These Europeans said that they had never observed the slightest trace of spitefulness in the character of the islanders, in all of their relationships, they are kind and helpful, if a little inquisitive and importunate. The chief fault of the natives of Rotuma is thieving and there is no denying their great fondness for this vice so repugnant to our principles. Everything they can lay their hands on is fair game, and when caught in the act, they laughingly return the booty. It became necessary to resort to stern measures and to punish the guilty. Men were posted on deck to guard easily stolen objects. Whenever a thief was caught in the act, he was chased from the ship with a whip and made to restore what he had stolen. Although they knew very well that they were committing a punishable offense, the natives showed no sign of shame, and the punishment they received never inspired them to vengeance. Even his comrades, the receivers of his stolen goods, seemed unconcerned at his misfortune or laughed at his clumsiness and kept on stealing whenever an occasion presented itself. In spite of our precautions, it was impossible to supervise the crowd of savages who swarmed over the boat. Although we were able to retrieve some bundles of scrap-iron, in the end six were missing along with twelve or fifteen iron or copper belaying-pins. The frenzy of these child-men to possess whatever caught their lively imaginations was so great that we even saw them trying to untie the tackle and make off with a cannon. While one islander was stealing something the others distracted our attention. So adept were they at stealthily cleaning our pockets they could have taught course in pick-pocketing in Paris or London!
The canoes (vaka) used by these islanders have a roughly carved outrigger. They are enclosed and pointed fore and aft, and driven by oval paddles which are also carved without much taste. We saw only one small double canoe (aoe) which came in the evening. The mast was notched and set up on a piece of wood which linked the two canoes. It held up a sail of very coarse matting. The canoes were covered by a platform which prevented sea water from getting into the hull and which supported a shelter consisting of an awning of flexible branches. [fn. These boughs came from the hibiscus tiliaceus.] On the whole, it was a poorly designed vessel, and long-distance navigation was probably undertaken in larger canoes.
The Rotuman language differs from the general Oceanic language in fewer and less remarkable ways than do the dialects of neighboring provinces of France. The few words we were able to learn most closely resemble those of the Friendly, Fijian, Society and Sandwich Islands along with New Zealand. The language itself is not particularly sonorous or pleasant, but the drawn-out, syllabic pronunciation of the natives in their soft, fluting voices lends it those qualities.
During his visit to our ship, Williams John gave M. de Blosseville a variety of information about native customs which have much in common with those of other South Seas islands. The obvious intelligence of this sailor gave us confidence in the accuracy of his account. Here are the facts that he reported:
The island of Rotuma is divided into twenty-four districts each governed by a chief called a hinhangatcha [gagaja]. According to seniority, each one succeeds to and exercises the authority of supreme chief, or chaou [sau], for a period of twenty months. Every morning he holds a council meeting with twelve chiefs to handle matters of business. The ceremony for changing the chaou is performed with few formalities: all the chiefs assemble, and the oldest one hands a leafy branch to the new chaou. The chiefs have great power. They possess all the land, forcing all the inhabitants to work and arranging the marriages of young girls so they will. They lead their tribe into battle, fulfill priestly functions at baptisms, marriages and funerals, and administer justice. Moreover, as one would expect among a people of such gentle customs, the authority of a chief is more like that of a father, neither oppressive nor cruel. Whenever a chief goes, people stand aside for him, and before the king one is obliged to sit down and unfasten ones hair, the usual mark of respect (these ceremonies were also observed when they came on board). The honours accorded the chiefs, the respect for old people, the commoners' submission and the children's obedience bore witness to the great orderliness of their system, while their customs reflected great credit on their morality. Sometimes war came to trouble them, but more often their character kept it at a distance. Five years ago, jealousy about some poorly determined boundaries stirred up civil war between two districts and involved the whole island. It culminated in a battle where a hundred or so natives were killed on one side or the other. Peace was offered and accepted and all hatred was dispelled immediately. Some time before this war, Rotuma was attacked by cannibals from an island called Noué, some three or four days sailing away. The aggressors were defeated and fled, leaving behind some of their members who are still in slavery. When the chiefs go into battle, they wear four small weavings of different sizes and adorn their heads with a headband of four mother-of-pearl shells. They start the battle by attacking the opposing chiefs and then the fighting becomes general. Their only weapons are a lance of twelve to fifteen feet, a club and stones weighing around two pounds which they hurl by hand. After the encounter, the dead are buried on the battlefield with stones marking their graves.
Their civil life offers more attractive details. They live together in villages and each family has its own house. The villages are built on the seashore, arranged around the district cemetery, or thamoura [tamura]. The chief's cabin is the closest to the water and the largest, usually about 40 feet long and 25 feet high. The dwellings of the other islanders are no more than fifteen feet long, their size ranging somewhat according to the number of children in the family. They stand at 60 feet from each other and, like their Tahitian counterparts, they consist of posts set in the ground which support a pointed roof covered with coconut leaves. The lower part is covered with matting. The only furnishings are mats, wooden pillows and tables for eating around. These dwellings are distinguished by the greatest cleanliness. The natives take three daily meals, their food consisting of fish, breadfruit, taro, [fn. Taro is the Tahitian name for the edible root of the Arum esculentum, or Caribbean cabbage.] yams and puddings made from yams. The tables they eat from are very long, low and narrow. A banana leaf serves as a table cloth and they only touch their food with a piece of leaf between their fingers. Usually, pigs are eaten only by the chiefs or at wedding festivities. As to their cooking practices, they are just like those of all other Polynesian races; they cook their food in ovens using heated stones, but they never eat raw fish as they do in the Friendly Islands.
The chiefs have a lieutenant or deputy to replace them on occasion. They never work and are served by the residents of the district in turn.
They also have people to take care of their farms. These farms and those belonging to other islanders are located in the interior of the island and form a continuous series of plantations.
Their practices with regard to marriage, birth and death are extremely remarkable. The chiefs marry off the young girls to whomever they please and the girls are not free to refuse the chosen husband and often they have never seen him before. When the Englishmen came to settle on the island, the chiefs of their district gathered all the girls and gave them their choice. As for the chiefs' daughters, the eldest has to marry a chief and the others must marry a man of their father's choosing regardless of rank. Once the choice is made, the future couple must sleep for one or two nights on the same mat, although the chiefs watch to see that the match is not consummated. The day of the marriage is spent in dance and festivities, then, towards evening, the lovers are conducted to the seaside and enter the water. The girl lies on her back and the man washes her body, then he lies in the opposite direction while the girl performs the same ceremony. This takes place before numerous witnesses of both sexes who have brought gifts of mats and who sing while the couple is in the water. After five minutes, they leave the sea bound to each other for life. They are conducted to a house where, in the presence of the spectators and under the direction of an aged woman, the girl's hymen is broken. If the existence of this treasure appears doubtful after an inspection of the mats, the girl is sent away and the young man is free to choose another, the rejected bride being reduced to live in public dissoluteness. Women, however, are not slaves; on the contrary, they are loved and respected. Once married though, if a woman commits adultery, the chief puts her to death with a blow from a club to avenge her husband's honor. Her partner in adultery is thrown into the sea attached to a trail canoe. As for the chiefs, they are allowed to commit adultery. Unmarried girls are free to give their favors whenever they please, but their virginity is precious to them since without it they cannot marry. When they wish to show off their virgin condition, they powder the tops of their heads with coral lime and paint their sides red up to their chins and their behinds black to the middle of their backs. Once married, they give up this strange adornment. Their hair, shorter than the men's, is practically shaven down to their heads. A simple loincloth is the entire costume and their breasts are bare.
When a child is born, the chief goes to the mother's house and seats himself in the middle. A married woman brings the child to him and mixes coconut oil and salt water in the palm of his hand. With it he [or she?] rubs the face, gums and lips of the child and then, having asked the parents for the name of the child, he calls it aloud and his assistants repeat it. This ceremony, which lasts about half an hour, is repeated on six consecutive days. For a chief's child, the gathering lasts for three or four hours and there is eating, singing and drinking of kava.
When someone dies, he is laid out on a mat in his hut, a wooden pillow under his head, his lower body covered with a mat, his upper body painted red. After remaining thus for a day and a night, the body is wrapped in six of the finest woven mats and carried to the thamoura [tamura] on a plank carried by four natives among tears and groaning. A grave, five feet deep, is cut into the ground and in place of a coffin they use a sort of trough of flat stones into which the body is lowered. The gaps between the stones are carefully filled with resin from a certain tree. During the ceremony, the chief remains seated at one end of the grave and sings above a funeral dirge. When the earth has covered the grave and a large funeral stone has been set in place, everyone gathers at the dead man's house where a great feast has been prepared on orders of the chief.
As a mark of her grief, a woman who loses her husband cuts her hair and, with a red-hot stick, covers her breast with burned spots; a widower, on the other hand, gashes his brow and shoulders with a sharp stone. At the death of a chief, his sisters undergo the same mourning as his widow. But this is where we had the sorrow to discover the only bloody practice which dishonors Rotuma in the eyes of the human race. At the funeral of a chief, all the families gather in the thamoura [tamura], and there two boys of ten or twelve years, whose fate it is to be called to honor, are killed by the dead man's successor. They are dispatched with a blow from a club and buried in special graves on either side of the deceased. A similar honor is paid to a chief's wife, and two girls are the victims sacrificed to her.
Besides the village thamoura, there is a burial place on the highest mountain on the island where are buried those kings who died while in office. This place, which contains around twenty tombs at the moment, is scrupulously maintained and surrounded with beautiful island trees which have been planted with care. At the head of each tomb rises an eight foot stone, at the foot, one of four feet and two long stones mark the sides.
As far as one can tell, their religious ideas are extremely superficial; they believe only in a supreme being or spirit who inflicts death by suffocation. They call this death atoua ['atua]. They believe that after death, all is dissolved. We tried to make them understand the tenets of the Christian religion, the punishment of evil and the reward of good, all of which seemed to astound them greatly.
Their gentleness and humanity embraces animals also and they will not allow anyone to kill a fly, a rat or a snake. [fn. It is very remarkable that Rotuma boasts a kind of snake. These creatures are unknown in the Society, Sandwich Islands and Friendly Islands. This type seems to be a long grass-snake of a gentle disposition and frugivorous.] Only mosquitoes were shown no mercy by them. They especially venerate snakes. There is a beautiful species on the island, very large with a dark brown back, golden sides and a yellow bellow. It seems to be not at all venomous.
In a family, the husbands and grown men eat at the same time but on different tables or leaves. When the meal is over, the women and children begin theirs. For large meals, the same practice prevails; more guests, more tables. For lighting, they use dried coconut branches shaped into torches which give a brilliant light for about ten minutes.
The natives awake before sunrise. They get up and gather on the porches of their houses to enjoy the freshness of the morning. At eight o'clock, they breakfast on nuts which they call ifi (mapé, inocarpus edulis, Forst.) and evy apples (Spondia Cythevea, Commers). Then they go to tend their crops, plant taro (arum) or till their property. The only tool they have for this work is a kind of wooden spade. Others work on the canoes or go fishing. Towards eleven o'clock, they return and eat coconuts; then they prepare their food in a little hut about three hundred feet from their house. The main meal which they take at one o'clock consists of a large number of dishes, like ifi, taro, yams and bread-fruit prepared in a special way; first they split it eight ways and remove the inside, then they fill it with four different kinds of coconut milk of various ages. They then join the pieces together again and cook it all in a banana leaf. After dinner, they take a siesta or swim in the sea. Afterwards, they resume the tasks begun in the morning and at nightfall they have their third meal. This consists of fish and papouta [papul ta?], that is a taro leaf wrapped in banana leaves with coconut milk and cooked on hot stones. Then, they gather in the thamoura [tamura] where they perform a variety of dances until ten o'clock and at eleven everyone goes home. These islanders seem to drink nothing but coconut milk. There is very little fresh water on their island and no permanent stream. After a rainfall, water is saved in ponds or ravines.
The inhabitants of Rotuma know their neighbor islands and have some rare communications with Fiji and Tonga. They were able to give very little information about the island called Noué which they indicated was three or four days sail or two hundred miles east-north-east of Rotuma. It is as large and high as Rotuma, separated from a second island by a narrow channel. The inhabitants are cannibals, but of the same race and a slightly darker complexion.