Lucatt, Edward, Rovings in the Pacific, from 1837 to 1849; 2 vols., London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1851. pp. 157-202.
July 21st. (1841) Came to an anchor on the north-west side of the island of Rotumah, a small roadstead; and by a series of observations we ascertained the site of our anchorage to be in latitude 12o 28'S., and longitude 177o lO'E. The island is encircled by reefs, which run a considerable way out, with here and there boat passages through them. Inside the reef opposite to where we lay, the water alongside the beach deepens to seven fathoms, and if the place was of any importance my belief is that a passage might be easily widened through the yielding coral, to admit the ingress of vessels of burden. Many whalers call here for refreshments, and at present if it comes on to blow hard from the north-west you must slip and away, as there is no anchorage on the opposite side of the island The south-east trade, as the wind prevailing from this quarter is called, is pretty constant from the month of April to December; but from December to April it is liable to interruptions, when it occasionally blows hard from the north-west: during the season of the south-east trade little chance exists of the wind suddenly shifting.
The island is about fifteen miles long, and from two to seven broad, except at a place called the "neck," where it is only a stone's throw across. Tradition says the island was formerly in two parts, which by accumulations of sand and vegetable matter have been joined into one; it is of volcanic formation, and is entirely covered with scoria and ashes. The natives, in clearing their plantations, use the conglomerated masses for fences, &c. There are several exhausted craters on the island, but no records exist of any eruption having taken place. At the mouth of the largest crater trees are growing, which seem to have been rooted there for ages. We endeavoured to form some idea of its depth by hurling down stones and fragments of rocks, but it was like throwing into empty space, for no echoing sound came from the gloomy vacuum. Some few years ago, a party of New Zealanders landed upon the island, and one of their number dying recently, his comrades carried his corpse to the mouth of this crater, and after singing his requiem and firing a volley over the body, launched it into the immeasurable depth, fancying, I suppose, that they thus afforded him speedier means of mingling with the shades of his ancestors. The soil does not seem deep, though it teems luxuriantly, and produces a variety of tropical fruits and vegetables. Magnificent groves of cocoa-nut trees fringe the glowing white beach, and they appear to be the most valuable production on the island--they answer almost every purpose of life; the nut serves for food and drink, the husks of the fruit for clothing, cordage, &c., the wood for building and other purposes, and the leaves for thatch for their houses, brooms, &c.
It possesses about two or three thousand inhabitants, and their appearance strongly reminds me of the description I have read of North American Indians; they are copper-coloured, have long black hair reaching down to their waists, and go naked, with the exception of a piece of cloth girded round their loins. Male and female are clad alike; they have, according to our ideas, a very disagreeable fashion of lubricating their bodies with a yellow powder made from the root of the tumeric, mixed with oil, so that if you enter their houses, or come into contact with their persons, you quickly contract a similar dye, and it requires many ablutions before you can get rid of it; they say they use it as an antidote to the stings of mosquitoes and other insects. They are a tall race, many of the males beautifully formed, and are seemingly very mild and inoffensive; they lack the energy and vigour possessed by the New Zealanders.
The island is under the sway of a chief named Riam Kao, called par excellence the Emperor; subordinate to Riam Kao, kings are annually elected, apparently for the sole purpose of eating, drinking, and sleeping. The emperor influences the election, and the reign is but a scene of inactive feasting; the people are bound to supply the king with provisions, and he deferentially submits the daily offerings to the emperor, who first supplies his own wants. The emperor neither in dress nor person differs from his subjects in appearance, except that he is more ordinary looking than usual: he is not of high descent, and it is only by dint of bravery and intrigue that he has become the head of the country. Formerly it was under the dominion of two chiefs, who divided the island, but hostilities ensuing, the defeated or losing party were made to dwell in the centre of the island, whilst the conquering or winning side occupy the two extremities. The losing side therefore cultivate the most fertile portions of the island, but then they are absolutely at the disposal of the victors; and the chiefs when they are in need of pigs, yams, &c. &c., send without ceremony to the vanquished party, who dare not withhold the involuntary tribute. The chiefs possess power in proportion to the number of people who reside upon the land claimed by them: they have the absolute disposal of the young women born upon their estate, and their sanction is necessary before they can be given in marriage. A very singular custom prevails amongst them: all virgins arrived at the age of puberty wear their hair cropped close, and plastered with a cement made of burnt coral and the juice of a tree which turns it completely red, or of a dull foxy colour; a stiff white ridge bristles along the forehead. The name for virgin in the Rotumah dialect is Waitage, and English visitors, with their usual success and good taste, have converted it into "white head", which is certainly consonant with the appearance the plaster gives the head. They are not suffered to brush this cement out of their hair until they are married, nor are they allowed to wear it after the nuptial ceremony has taken place.
I was present at one of their marriages. The bridegroom makes a present to the chief who introduces the bride; the friends of the bridegroom lay offerings of mats, &c. at the feet of the bride, and her relatives make similar presents to the bridegroom: the happy couple are seated side by side, and their foreheads and bodies are profusely daubed with the tumeric powder and oil; pigs and fowls are killed and roasted, and abundance of vegetables cooked; bowls of kava, a species of narcotic drink, are prepared, and the friends of either party are invited to the festival. If the bridegroom is a man of any consideration, certain of his friends spring up and beat their heads with clubs and tomahawks, inflicting at times such serious wounds as to lay them up for months; and some continue to beat their heads till the old women of the party interfere, and take their clubs from them. The newly-married man makes presents to those who wound themselves, and if they continue indisposed for any length of time, he is bound to supply them with food until they are convalescent. When the feasting terminates, the nuptial tie is complete. After they have lived together for a few days, the wife will sometimes beg the husband to leave her, and he will absent himself for three or four months, when he will then again sojourn with her for a few days, and so keep on until she is reconciled to live with him altogether: but it sometimes happens that the wife refuses to quit her relations, and the husband being equally unwilling to abandon his, they separate by mutual consent, and are at liberty to enter into a fresh contract. The girls of these dissolved matches are now free, and may act as libertinely as they please without their character being affected; but adultery in the marriage state is punished with death, so also is the forfeit of virginity before marriage. They have Atua or spirit chiefs the same as in New Zealand, and in times of sickness these chiefs pretend to address the Evil Spirit, and exhort him to cease troubling the persons of the indisposed. Sometimes they will endeavour to propitiate the demon of evil by hanging up green boughs in the house where the sick may be lying, and by assembling all the friends of the afflicted party to a solemn feast when, much hog's flesh and kava is consumed; at other times, when the complaint is obstinate or of long continuance, they will use the most angry threats to scare the evil demon away.
I was on one occasion sleeping at an inland village, and throughout the night was kept awake by the most vehement denunciations. The cause of them proved to be a sick infant; and the chief was now entreating and now defying the evil spirit; he commanded it to quit the body of the babe: "If you don't go," was one of his expressions, "I will level the mountain above me, till it is as flat as the spot where my house stands." In spite of his threats the child died; and happening to return to the village at the time of its death, I staid to witness the ceremony of interment. I was invited to enter the house of mourning, and behold, it was a scene of lamentation: an old woman held the corpse in her arms, which was besmeared with red paint; the mother and three female relatives surrounded the body, and gave vent to the most piercing yells, which absolutely seemed to vibrate with agony; they beat their eyes with the flats of their hands till they were so swollen that they could scarcely see out of them; and at the intervals between the bursts of anguish they renewed pathetic supplications for the child to return. The scene forcibly reminded me of an "Irish Wake." The grave being ready, the father came into the house, and bending himself over the body of his child, he pummelled his face with his knuckles till he rubbed the skin off his cheek bones. The child was then carried out, and the very instant it had passed the threshold, the mother ceased her lamentations and suppressed all outward emotion, although just previously she had been shaking as if going into convulsions. I followed the party to the place of sepulture; the corpse was enveloped in four or five fine mats, and deposited in a small excavation lined with stone, a funeral dirge was sung, muskets were fired off, sand was then heaved over the grave, and the party retired. On returning to the house of mourning, I was surprised to see preparations for a feast progressing, and from courtesy remained a spectator of the banquet,
Every occasion, whether of mirth or sorrow, is seized as a opportunity for feasting; and strange as the observance of this custom appeared to me, upon reflection, we shall see that we ourselves are guilty of many greater anomalies. Do we not feast the followers of our dead, and entertain those who assemble to witness our marriages? and if we bestow charity, do we not do so in the shape of a dinner, a ball, or a fancy fair? How much do we sacrifice to our own appetites and vanities, which charitable feelings alone could never extort from us? Many a man would give two guineas for a ticket to a "charity dinner" or "ball," that would not bestow a sixpence from pure benevolence: such is human nature. But to return from this digression. The father has expressed his grief for the loss of his child by rubbing the skin from his face; but the mother is called upon to undergo a much more painful mark of her regret; her beautiful long hair is cut off close to the scalp; and her body and arms are burnt all over from the waist to the neck, and from the wrists to the shoulders. Another female takes a lighted piece of stick, which burns like a flambeau, and applying it to the body of the bereaved sufferer, scorches regular rows of spots, of the bigness of a shilling. I was told by one of the sufferers that the operation is peculiarly painful, and they are unable to lie down form many days after it, but are compelled to sleep in a sitting posture, supported by soft mats. I did all I could to convince them of the absurdity and inutility of such a practice, and they confessed that they were fools; "but," said they, "it is the custom of the country, and if we did not comply with it, we should be scorned and derided." They know no such thing as "silent grief:" the more they injure themselves, and the louder the lamentations, the greater is the affection they display, they fancy, towards the dead. I noticed several women who had lost the first joint of one or both of their little fingers; and ascertained that they had been amputated to propitiate the anger of the incensed spirit, and induce him to remove the sickness with which he was visiting their friends. The women appear to be the sacrifices on all occasions. Another curious manifestation of the power which the fear of ridicule has over them, exists in their custom of drinking kava. It is a nauseous beverage prepared from the root of a shrub in a very filthy manner: the root is brought into the house, scraped and wiped clean; it is then divided, and young men and women with good teeth chew it until it is reduced to a pulp; when a sufficient quantity is chewed, it is put into large wooden bowls, water is poured over it, and it is worked about with the hand, till all its strength and virtue is expressed. The pulp is next carefully collected, and using it like a sponge, with it they squeeze cups full of the precious nectar to be handed to the assembled guests. The kava cups are made of the polished shell of the cocoa-nut, and hold about half a pint. It is a most ludicrous scene to watch the parties drinking it: some toss it off with an air of heroic determination; some swallow it as if their lives depended upon the haste with which they could get it down; and others involuntarily shudder as they take the cup; and the stomachs of some have been known to reject it three times before they have succeeded in keeping it down, and all this because it is supposed to be a feat of manhood, and they would be laughed at if they declined drinking. I chewed a small portion of the root by way of experiment; but its pungent, disagreeable flavour speedily caused me to reject it. Every great chief has his orator or speaker, who presides over the preparation of the kava; and he selects for chewers only those who possess clean, wholesome-looking mouths. I never saw but one person drink it with an unmoved countenance, and that was an Englishman: the old women, when invited to partake of the dreaded draught, make the wryest faces imaginable; and all spit and sputter after it as if they had swallowed poison. When drunk to excess, it stupefies the senses, and renders, the body powerless. It operates something like opium, those labouring under its effects, though incapable of moving a limb, imagining themselves monarchs, warriors, orators, &c., and they enjoy or suffer the most extravagant fancies and delusions; when the delirium passes away, it leaves them with a severe head-ache.
If one of a tribe offends his chief, it is imagined that he is endowed with the power to afflict the offender's family with sickness, unless he makes immediate atonement, and humiliates himself to appease the chief's ire; and the way they deprecate his vengeance is by prostrating themselves before him with a green bough suspended round their necks, when they express their contrition and sue for pardon. The chief rarely withholds the olive branch, and the pardoned offender presents him with pigs, yams, &c., in proportion to the nature or magnitude of the offence; and a general feasting bout ratifies the peace.
Every village possesses a play-house and its own peculiar burial-ground; the latter is constructed at the foot of a hill by building a stone wall, four or five feet high, and filling in the back of it with sand, till a level is formed against the rising ground to the height of the wall and inclination of the land. The bodies are only deposited just beneath the sand; and after they have lain there three, six, nine, or twelve months, a rough, unhewn stone is placed upon the top of them, the size of the stone being regulated by the importance of the party when living. The stone over some of the chiefs cannot weigh less than seven or eight tons, and the grave-yards have the appearance of Druidical remains. The placing of these covering stones is the signal for a feast provided by the friends and relations of the deceased; the more massive the block, the greater is the number of hands required to raise it. Thus do they furnish lasting memorials of the rank and wealth once held by those who repose beneath them.
Owing to severe gales that visit the island during the prevalence of north-west winds, the houses are built at an extended angle, meeting a perpendicular of only sufficient height to admit of a person's entering upon hands and knees. They pay much more attention to the comfort of the interior of their dwellings, than do the New Zealanders, the floor of the very meanest being covered with mats. They have mats of a softer kind for sleeping on, and mats of a still superior quality for festivals and high occasions. Some of them, when they are about to build, enclose a space with low stone walls, two or three feet high: the enclosure is filled with earth and stone, and levelled off with fine dry sand; upon this made ground or terrace they erect their tenements, so that in the rainy season they are always provided with a comfortable dry floor. I have said that every village possesses its play-house: formerly the natives used to assemble on moonlight nights on the sands beneath their splendid palmina groves, and practise singing, dancing, and other athletic sports till the rising of the sun; but now they scarcely suffer a night to pass without meeting in the play-house to sing and dance. They have no musical instruments, and their songs are composed of sentences, repeated over and over again to a monotonous but not unmelodious chant, accompanied with peculiar movements of the body; they are admirable time keepers, but I cannot conceive that they have much ear for music, for on my favouring them with one of our bounding English lyrics, the rascals said my singing put them in mind of crying. Now if I had a "beautiful nasal twist," like some snuffling psalm-singers that I have heard, my astonishment would not have been excited at the remark, but having a clear, full voice, my national vanity was piqued.
Except on feasting occasions, very little animal food is eaten by them; their diet consists principally of vegetables, and their heartiest meal is made in the middle of the night. The climate is excessively hot, and I imagine that the sensation of cold is scarcely known amongst them. They are subject to huge swellings of the members, called by us elephantiasis, but by them fe-fe; to scorbutic eruptions, and to the breaking out of virulent tumours, which eat into and decay the bone. I beheld some shocking spectacles. There is also a blight, which at seasons affects the atmosphere, and many are apt to lose sight of one or both their eyes. To the intemperate drinking of kava they attribute most of their complaints; but such is the anomalous perversity of our natures, that like our dramdrinkers, although conscious of the evil that is destroying them, they will not refrain from it. Inveterate drinkers of kava become utterly imbecile, and their skin assumes a rough and scaly appearance, like that of a fish. Talking of fish, I must not omit to notice a peculiar way they have of catching them. At ebb-tide they erect mounds of loose stones on the coral flats, which at high tide are covered: fish seek the shelter of the crevices in the mounds, and a large body of natives provided with seines will go out, and form a circle on the reef from half a mile to a mile in circumference; certain parties keep the nets in proper positions, whilst others shout, and beat the water with sticks, gradually closing and contracting the circle; the frightened fish fly from one place of refuge to another, but the noise and turbulence still following and increasing, they dash at the nets, which, from their less turbid appearance, afford the most fallacious hopes of escape, and are taken in great numbers.
There are three or four small islands off Rotumah, one of which deserves particular notice. From its singular formation it has been called Split Island; it is as if a violent convulsion had rent the island in two, and by a knife; only, when the island yawned, its rocky summit must have toppled into the chasm, preventing the closure of the mighty fissure; and there it remains midway, wedged firmer than any arch ever spanned by man. The weather would not admit of my visiting it; but I am told that a boat may he taken through the passage by employing paddles instead of oars.
August 17th. This morning we again dropped anchor at Rotumah, not exactly at our old station, being somewhat closer in with the reef. ...
As my time was pretty much at my own command, I employed it in making observations about the Island. In my walks I was delighted with the great variety of trees, shrubs, and beautiful flowers. At every step some new floral beauty would burst upon me, glowing with the most brilliant colours; and unlike the flowers and shrubs of New South Wales, most of them possess a grateful perfume. Fruit, too, and vegetables grow in great abundance, and there are several descriptions of both, which I never saw or heard of before. The Timanu is a tree deserving particular notice; it is a wide-spreading umbrageous tree, with a deep green foliage, its shade furnishing a cool retreat from the noontide sun. There is a fine grove of them on the beach opposite the anchorage, which the natives are very proud of. Like all the plants and shrubs on the Island, it is evergreen, and at certain seasons it throws out bunches of white blossoms delightfully fragrant. The natives are passionately fond of it, and with it they impregnate the oil with which they anoint themselves. The wood is hard, of a deep mahogany hue, with a beautiful curling and waving grain: it takes a high polish, and looks extremely handsome when worked into furniture. The native canoes are of peculiar construction. They have no trees high enough of the proper wood to form the main body of the canoe, like the New Zealanders; they are therefore built out of several pieces, which are sewed together with a sort of twine, of their own manufacture, made from the husks of the cocoa-nut. They are deep and narrow, somewhat angularly formed; the thwarts for the pullers to sit upon are made fast to the gunwales, and, to prevent the canoe from capsizing, they have an outrigger attached. They are unsightly-looking things, wanting altogether the lightness and grace of a New Zealand canoe; their paddles, too, are clumsy and heavy, and lack the symmetry and grace of the New Zealanders. There are several large double canoes on the Island, connected together by a strong platform; and in former times, when the population of the country exceeded the means of support, or it was feared that it would do so, oracles were consulted, and at their instigation a party would start off in one of these canoes in search of fresh land: sometimes failing in their object, they would find their way back again in a most miserable plight; but the result of the generality of such expeditions was never known. Of late years, there have been no adventures of the kind, and these ship-canoes from their long disuse are fast falling to decay; there are seventeen or eighteen of them upon the Island, carefully built over to protect them from the weather. These ship-canoes are no two of the same length; the longer one will be from eighty to ninety feet, while the smaller, answering the purpose of an outrigger, would not exceed fifty or sixty feet: each canoe has from four to five feet beam, but they have no floor; and, looked at separately, without their stem and stern pieces, they would be taken for troughs. They are kept about six feet asunder by cross beams lashed and otherwise made fast to the gunwales of both canoes; the beams are planked over, which furnishes a deck of from fourteen to sixteen feet in breadth. Both canoes are entirely covered in, and there are small hatchways with sliding covers. When a party has determined upon an exploring expedition, they build a house upon the main deck and stow their provisions, &c. in the holds of the canoes. Their sails are made of a species of rush marled together: in form they resemble the New Zealanders, being when set like an inverted triangle.
The natives of Rotumah do not tattoo their faces, but their bodies, particularly from the waist to the knees, are ornamented with various designs, some of them very elegant; and when I first saw them at a distance, I thought they had got on close fitting blue drawers. Their arms are covered with fantastic devices, and being desirous of witnessing the operation I induced a native to tattoo a small figure on one of mine. Very few are skilled at the art of tattooing, and I was surprised at the number of instruments used by the operator: they are made of small pieces of tortoise-shell of different widths neatly secured to handles, and resemble miniature garden hoes, with fine serrated teeth cut in the edges of the blades, sharp as needles. Having rubbed down the nut of a peculiar tree that had been burnt to charcoal, the operator mixed with it the juice of a herb, and water to render it sufficiently fluid. Without first tracing the design, he dipped the teeth of the instrument into the mixture, and placing it on my arm tapped it gently with a light piece of wood so as just to draw the blood, and he kept changing the instrument from very broad to very narrow, as the nature of the figure he intended to produce, required. The operation is painful, at least I found it so, and should think it must be very severe to those who submit their whole bodies to the puncturing process; but it is the 'fashion of Rotumah,' and the fear of being ridiculed by their companions overcomes every other dread.
Circumcision is practised among them, and the performance of the ceremony is looked upon as an eventful period in their lives: great feasting is always made upon the occasion, provided by the father of the child. They do not know from what the custom has originated; in fact they seem to possess very little traditionary lore, and what they have amongst them is generally of the most absurd description, that respecting the origin of Rotumah not the least so. They say that many ages ago it was only a rock, but that a man and woman swam across the sea with baskets of earth upon their shoulders and there deposited it. It grew, and from it sprang the fertility with which the island is now clothed, and this couple were the ancestral Adam and Eve of the Rotumah population. They seem to have various superstitious notions, but no religious faith, fully believing in the agency of evil spirits, but do not appear to have the least notion of the good offices of a benevolent one. They have no forms of worship amongst them. The friends of a sick party will sometimes indulge in abusive and fiery language to the evil spirit, to see if they can scare him from those afflicted; but finding he is not to be forced away by bullying, the females, who in all climes and countries are ever ready to devote themselves to soothe the couch of sickness, try their powers of propitiation by sacrificing to the demon first one joint of their fingers and then another.
I observed in my memoranda the last time I visited here, that the natives had a nasty practice of smearing their bodies with oil and powder made from the tumeric root. I had opportunity this time for noting further particulars: those who are engaged in planting the root are forbidden all intercourse with women, or even with their own families, and until the ground is prepared, and the business of planting is finished, they abstain as much as possible from contact with any one; their food is prepared and carried to a certain distance from them, and they sleep in a house distant from the settlement, religiously convinced that if they fail in these observances the crops would not prosper. The same observances are maintained, and if possible with greater strictness when the root is being dug up, and during the time of its manufacturing process into powder. The root, after being carefully washed, is scraped and put into a covered trough, left open at one end to admit the arm of the manufacturer, who pours in water, and works the scrapings about with a round stick till its virtues are expressed; it is then allowed to stand awhile, when the refuse is carefully separated: after it has had time again to settle, the water is poured off, when a bright red sediment is found; this is made into conical cakes, rather larger than an ordinary wine-glass, and dried in the sun. If the manufacturer neglects or breaks any of the regulations imposed upon him, they assert that all his efforts will prove utterly unavailing. I laughed heartily at this intimation, and they told me that I might laugh, but they had tested the truth of it by repeated experiments; hereupon I was rude enough to indulge in louder cachinnation, but it only had the effect of making them compassionate me as a fool.
A London missionary vessel, in visiting the island a short time since, had left behind, with the sanction of the chiefs, some of the Friendly Island natives who had been converted to Christianity, for the purpose of using their exertions in the same cause with the Rotumah people. At present they possess no influence whatever, for though the Friendly Island natives are enabled to read the scriptures which have been rendered into their own tongue by the labours of the English church-missionaries, the Rotumah dialect differs so much from theirs, that I did not hear of a single neophyte. The chiefs derided the idea of becoming missionaries, admitting, at the same time, that the Vavao natives were quite harmless people, who neither "makee steal nor makee fight."
The following are the bearings ... (the author goes on to narrate an adventurous trip to Hof Leua with some Rotumans from Uea and an Englishman named Emery who lived on Uea and for which it received the name Emery's Island. He describes a feast held on the island and the bird-catching activities of the natives. Of interest are bird catching methods, use of turmeric for ceremonial purposes, and a story related about Hatana).