Page images


1851, 1852, 1853.


Whampoa, China, December, 1852.

WE sailed from Sydney on the 31st October, and it was with sincere regret that we left a country a more intimate acquaintance with which it would have been so instructive to have made, and with which we were so much pleased during our short visit to it. During the long voyage we had to make after quitting Australia, we suffered much from the excessive heat, and while you at home were wrapping yourselves up in furs to keep out the biting winter cold, we were sighing in a red-hot atmosphere from which there was no escape. During the day, the burning sun sent down its perpendicular rays, which, being reflected in the mirror-like waves of the Pacific Ocean, arose again, as it were, with a hundred-fold additional heat; still, under an awning, it was possible to obtain some little air and coolness, but at night, when one was shut up in a comparatively small, close cabin, oh, ye gods! what suffering in soul and body! Both good temper and patience were put to flight, and dearly did we purchase our experience of the oft-sung voyage over the smooth Pacific. Everything in this earth, however, must arrive at a conclusion; it is but to await the coming moment of change, and however cruel may be the trial we are passing through, our organisation is so constituted that it takes a considerable amount of evil to destroy it.

At the expiration of a couple of weeks our spirits revived under the influence of a fine fresh trade wind. On the 21st November we found ourselves off Duperrey Island, or, as the natives call it, "Mogal." A European sail-boat came out to us, bringing two Americans, six natives, and a turtle. Their object was to sell that and some other things, and when they found that we were willing to become purchasers of their commodities, they returned to the island for a larger supply. I obtained permission from our commander to accompany them. The little group consisted of three low islets entirely of coral formation. Upon a sign from the people in the boat, two of the natives from among the number collected on the beach sprang into the water, and carried me on their shoulders over the sharp coral reef to the island. Nothing more beautiful than this coral-reef could be imagined. Down deep below the calm surface of the transparent water I beheld an astonishing sight; the coral assumed the appearance of bushes and of flowers, all sparkling in the richest colours. It is at the sight of such wonders that the poet gives the rein to his fancy, and sings of enchanted palaces and mysterious magnificence beneath Ocean's waves.

The island could only boast of a single thick grove of cocoa-nut-trees, all other vegetation seeming very poor. While the natives were running about to try to catch some swine, which seemed very unwilling to be made prisoners of, and were intended for sale on board the frigate, I hastily, with my guides, traversed the island, whose good-natured, undraped inhabitants took me in a canoe over a lagoon to the adjacent island. At one extremity of this stood a collection of huts, raised on poles about three ells in height, with roofs of leaves, and two small houses


made of bamboo, which were the dwellings of the two white men. these far from spacious abodes we found the wives of the two Americans, of whom the one had five, the other only four, all good-tempered-looking creatures, in loose calico dresses, with red handkerchiefs over their shoulders, smoking their small, clay pipes, and apparently leading, without any jealousy of each other, a quiet, indolent life, which, compared to the fate of their brown sisters in general, was an enviable one. The islands had been formerly inhabited by three numerous races, who had so entirely destroyed each other that no more than eighty-seven inhabitants were now left. These possessed large herds of swine and a quantity of poultry; they caught turtles in abundance on the coral reefs, grew maize, bananas, &c., and had plenty of cocoa-nuts and bread-fruittrees. The two Americans, who had arrived there in some small craft about six months before our visit, had settled themselves there as masters among the good-natured people; had taken their women, according to their fancy, as wives for the time being; sold their property, viz., swine, poultry, and fruit to ships that touched at the island in passing, by which sales they often make as much as forty dollars a month, while as a recompense to the natives the real owners-they only gave a little tobacco, a little brandy, and some trifling article of clothing. Everywhere we see the fair colour treat the dark in the same arbitrary way. A good-sized church evinced that some missionary had formerly been there. Time did not permit of my remaining longer in this harem, where all formalities were so entirely dispensed with. On our return to the first island it had all the appearance of being in flames. In order to catch the fowls which had flown up among the cocoa-nut-trees, fires had been lighted at the foot of the trees, and the birds, blinded by the strong glare, allowed themselves to be more easily taken. It was, indeed, a curious spectacle in the dark evening to see these swarthy figures running round the cocoa-nut-trees with flaring torches, and to listen to their discordant cries, blending in anything but harmony with the cackling of the fowls. After having been carried over the coral reefs, I reached the frigate about eight o'clock in the evening.

Favoured by a fresh breeze, we made the Island of Ascension early next morning, but the current was running so strongly against us that we could not go ashore until nine o'clock. The island reminded us somewhat of Tahiti, though it was by no means so beautiful. On the side where we lay the entire coast was skirted by low coral islets, and the water was so shallow that we could not land from our boats, but had to transfer ourselves into the canoes of the natives, a number of which, fitted up with little decks in the centre for passengers and goods, came out for us. On landing, we wandered about from hut to hut along the high beach, some collecting plants, some other objects, with our crowd of followers increasing at every moment, but all peacefully and civilly disposed. The side of the island on which we had landed was exceedingly steep, so that the ascent was accomplished with extreme difficulty, especially as the vegetation possessed an exuberance and density that rendered it almost impossible to penetrate a few yards into the thicket of bushes and groups of trees, without the help of some sharp instrument to cut one's In its details it presented, however, nothing of peculiar interest, abounding in nearly the same kind of trees and plants that are found in the other volcanic islands of the Pacific Ocean. The cocoa-nuts and


bread-fruit-trees towered above all the other groups of trees, and the tall wild sugar-cane grew in thick masses, while on the coasts were to be seen that tree which forms so fine a shade, with its thousand green arms issuing from its central trunk. Prettily situated among these leafy retreats lay the huts of the natives: some on the shore, some on the rising ground above. They did not differ much from the huts we had seen in all the other islands. They were composed of plaited mats, placed above low stone walls (blocks of lava of one or two ells in height are found all along the beach), with narrow windows or spaces in the mats, admitting but little light, and with roofs pointed in the centre. The huts were divided into small rooms, in which we generally found people either sleeping or lying down doing nothing. I was much surprised to see swarms of children, and but a small number of women.

The race of human beings here seemed to be obliging, peaceable, and good-tempered; they had pleasant countenances and fine hair. They did not wear here only a band round their waists, as in many of the other islands, but also a full garment of soft plaited grass or straw, which reached from the waist to the knee. Their belts were of fine workmanship, and always red, that colour seeming to be the favourite, for they even preferred money"-copper coins-to "white money"-silver. For ornaments they wore necklaces of fragments of bone, or glass beads.

I hired a canoe for a piastre with four fellows to row it, and crossed the bay to the residence of one of the kings of the island. At the extremity of the point, sheltered by a thick grove of bread-fruit-trees, stood a house, in form quite undescribable, which I supposed to be the royal abode, but soon ascertained that it was only the place where three or four gigantic canoes were kept, which doubtless formed the whole of the royal fleet. Farther up the island I descried three neat-looking houses of the usual shape, and in one of these I had the honour of being presented to his majesty. As I observed that the royal personage before me had a small cigar stuck in the large hole in his left ear, I took the liberty of passing one through the corresponding hole in the right ear, whereupon his majesty intimated that I was "a very good man," to which sentence

the whole conversation was limited.

Royalty was here displayed in venerable nudity, as a skinny, meagre old man, with a lacklustre, sleepy countenance; near him stood a chief, a strongly-built elderly man, who looked like a warrior, and a younger one of the same stamp, who was, no doubt, the crown prince, and who was very inquisitive about "the country of the great ship," whose name he had much difficulty in pronouncing. On the outside of the window sat twelve or fourteen old men in a half circle-these were the dignitaries, and great men of the state. I was so prodigal as to bestow some cigars on them. The second house contained the queen and her ladies, who, one and all, were a parcel of wizened, withered-looking old frights; and the third house was the abode of the junior members of the royal family. There was nothing remarkable about these high-born personages, who, like all their subjects, were redolent of the nasty odour of the cocoa-nut oil, with which their brown skins were lavishly smeared. As with the commoner classes, so among those of a higher station, I observed evidences of that disease which prevails among three-fourths of the community, swelling the legs enormously. This complaint-elephantiasis-is very general in those southern regions.

After this visit, which certainly left no favourable impression of palace life in the Caroline Islands, I was conveyed in my canoe to another bay, on whose shore there was a curious-looking ruin, which I wished to examine more closely. It was the remains of an extensive building, surrounded by walls of from ten to twenty ells in height, and about three ells in thickness, flanked by square pillars of basalt twenty-three ells high; several arches, vaults, and passages, were still to be seen. It had all the appearance of never having been completed; but what now remained of the edifice was half concealed by trees, which had sprung up among the ruins, and by creeping plants. It was, undoubtedly, very strange to find the remains of a work which, by whomsoever planned and constructed, evinced architectural knowledge, some extent of power, and command of labour, in the midst of a community where everything seemed totally in a state of nature-where the human race appeared very weak, and everything bespoke the absence of cultivation, and the existence of primeval wildness.

I have heard it conjectured that the Chinese, long, long ago, might have established themselves here, and erected the building, the ruins of which are now to be found. It is unquestionable that in ancient days the Chinese played a more important part beyond the boundaries of their own country than they do now. What supports the antiquarian's opinion is, that walls, if not Cyclopean, at least of astonishing thickness, are found in the Island of Ascension; and further, a wide space around the large building above alluded to was crossed by sort of canals bordered with basalt. Were these once the streets of a town, or ditches round a fortress? A metal cannon has been found there! These channels were so shallow that our light and almost flat canoe could with difficulty be impelled through them, even by means of a pole. Had a sinking of the earth taken place since they were first constructed, or had they become so shallow in consequence of a heaving of the soil? It is impossible to suppose that this place, as it now appears, to which a boat cannot approach within the distance of a couple of English miles, and where everything is low and swampy, would have been selected for the site of such a solid stone building; all rather leads to the belief that one of those revolutions must have taken place in the interior of the earth which entirely change the aspect of a country.

It would have been most interesting to have scrutinised the island more minutely, to have gathered, if possible, further reminiscences of a bygone age. But I had promised to return to the frigate before it should be dark, and was therefore obliged to leave the island with all its dim mysteries, with no other acquisitions than a few curiosities I had purchased by barter in the huts of the natives.

A party of female fishers attracted my attention, wading barefooted into the sea in their slight, Eve-like attire, without seeming to be at all incommoded by the sharp coral ground; their dark, well-shaped figures made quite a picturesque contrast to the white bottom, the clear blue water, and the green foreground of thick mangrove bushes. With much grace they dipped the extended net, which a cluster of them held in their hands, down in the sea, and dexterously drew it up, filled with a number of fishes, shining like silver. The natives of the Caroline Islands are always described as good, well-meaning people, and I have every reason to add my testimony to the truth of this statement. The Island of Ascen

sion contains about 7000 inhabitants, and is divided between four chiefs, among whom occasionally serious feuds break out, and in the consequent battles, fire-arms, of which they have plenty, are used. Some missionaries have settled among them, but they do not appear to possess much influence. I was told that the French Roman Catholics, who were driven away from the Sandwich Islands, had taken refuge here, but I could obtain no intelligence of their further fate. Some Europeans were already settled here. One of them, a German, had made all his domestic arrangements apparently to his own entire satisfaction, and provided himself with a house, wives, and other appurtenances; he also carried on a lucrative traffic in the Holothurier, a kind of marine animal, which, dried and smoked, is considered a great delicacy among the Chinese.

By six o'clock I was on board, and we set sail immediately. But we soon found ourselves in the midst of the most difficult navigation, requiring extreme vigilance, for, dashing on with all sails set, we came unexpectedly on a coral reef, which, formed like a circle, lay at not more than a cable-length's distance from us, and which, covered with foam from the billows that dashed furiously against it, enclosed a calm, light-blue lagoon. At one corner of the reef stood, dark and threatening, the wreck of a ship, that in the midst of its death-like decay yet spoke energetically to us of dangers and unforeseen disasters which might overtake the mariner at any hour of his life. Although the shattered vessel had every appearance of being long forsaken, our frigate saluted it by a signal gun, and then our course was altered. When it is remembered that three hundred years have elapsed since these dangerous waters were first passed, and that large sums have been offered by the great maritime European powers to have them thoroughly surveyed, it seems strange that to this day there should exist, if not exactly ignorance of them, at least so much uncertainty about these groups of islands and adjacent seas. Some islands figure on the charts which are never found in reality, others are erroneously grouped and designated, and, still worse, there is even now a great backwardness in giving the reefs and depths of the sea. The above-mentioned reef, for instance, cannot be found at all in many charts, whilst in others it is given as doubtful; and on others, again, it is marked as a high rock, though we saw the white-crested waves dashing over it on a level with the horizon.

On the 27th of November, we found ourselves off Guaham, one of the most southerly of the Mariana or Ladrone Islands, and the seat of the government of their Spanish owners. Arago has described in such glowing terms these islands, with their Paradise scenery, and pleasing inhabitants especially feminini generis-that it was with great delight we hailed their lovely shores. The island reminded us of Madeira, Pahu, and Tahiti. In its centre rises a high mountain range, with rounded summits, whence transversal ridges branch off towards the sea-shore, where they terminate in more detached hills, amidst which wind narrow valleys blooming with the richest vegetation, interspersed with clear rills and gushing streams; whilst a fresh greenwood enlivens the hills, contrasting charmingly with the red soil which appears in patches here and there, and forms a pleasing variety of colour. We cast anchor at Umata, close to a small projecting rock, from the top of which the Spanish flag was waving. It was not necessary to be officially informed that the Spaniards ruled here; this was to be seen by the first glance at the

« PreviousContinue »