The numerous range of islands in the North Pacific, lying between the parallels of 5° and 10' N., and extending from 135° to 165° of east longitude, were discovered in the year 1686, by Francisco Leazeano, when driven by a severe gale from the Ladrone Islands, and were, named by him the Carolinas, after King Charles of Spain, form a very dangerous archipelago. They consist principally of low coral islands, begirt and intersected with numerous shoals, rendering the navigation amongst them in thick weather both difficult and dangerous.
As they are more imperfectly known than any part of Polynesia, and as the direct route by the eastern passage from Sydney to Manila and China, during the N.E. monsoon, lies through this group, it becomes the duty of all navigators to publish every information then may obtain concerning them, for the benefit of others ; and in the event of shipwreck in the vicinity, it might be important to know that refuge may be obtained at the island I have here attempted to describe, which would be far preferable to risking a passage in open boats to the Ladrone Islands, as the Isabella's crew did.
the Island of Ascension.
The native name is Bonibay. This island is one of the largest and most elevated of the Caroline group, and it is much more extensive than is shown by the charts. It is said by the Europeans who are living on it, to be upwards of 60 miles in circumference, which, from the angles I took on the east side, I found to be nearly correct. A range of mountains extends along its centre, the highest not less than 3000 feet, which may be seen from 15 to 16 leagues. On the north end of this island is a remarkable table hill, off where lies a flat island with high perpendicular cliff's, called by the natives Joequoits ; there are also several small islets scattered along the shore. The main island, including the smaller ones, is completely surrounded by a coral reef level with the water, which extends upon an average about 2 miles from the level. Within the reef at low tide there is barely sufficient water for the native canoes. There is said to be thirteen passages through this reef; two of these lead to the only harbours on the island - one situated an the S. W, side, named Kitte, and the other Matelina on the east side they are both considered good ; wood and water may be procured conveniently from either; the former is however preferable. During the strength of the N.E. trade, which generally blows strong from the month of June to December, which renders it difficult to get out of the former, it being on the weather side of the island. This island, from its general appearance, and from the fact of quantities of trap and large holders being found round it base, is evidently of volcanic formation. It is well wooded from the tops of the mountains to the water side; in the valleys is a fine rich alluvial deposit, which appeared very fertile and well adapted for all the inter-tropical productions, which consist of the breadfruit, the cocoa-nut, the plantain, the mangoe, and a small sour orange. The yam and sweet potatoe, are the only produce the natives cultivate (if making a hole in the earth without preparing the soil can be so termed) and they yield a very abundant crop. The breadfruit-tree is very numerous here, and exceedingly prolific, they bear two crops annually, and yield fruit during nine months in the year. Both the natives and Europeans are very fond of it ; they cook it by baking it in a hole in the ground, heated with hot stones ; this, with fish, which are plentiful, is their principal food. There are a few fowls and pigs on the islands, but they are reserved by the Europeans to barter with vessels for tobacco, gunpowder, clothes, &c. all of which articles are in great demand here. The green turtle is plentiful, also a few of the hawk's bill ; the latter are becoming very scarce, in consequence of their being much sought after for the shell, which is usually called tortoise-shell.
The cocoa-nut is in great abundance, this graceful tree, unlike most that bear flout, appears to flourish equally well on the barren sandy beach of the low coral islands, where their roots are almost laved by the rising tide, as in the most fertile or luxuriant soil, the utility of this never failing tree is fully appreciated by the natives of this island, and great care is taken of it by them ; a certain number being allotted to each family. The Europeans residing here, by continually tapping them for the toddy which exudes from the trunk, with which they distill, by a very rude process, a strong alcohol, not only doing much injury to the tree, but at the same time introducing habits of intemperance among the natives. The natives are about the middle stature, well but not robustly made, their complexion is a dark copper colour, they have little or no beard, Strait black hair, smooth skin, and expressive dark eyes, the high bones and rather angular cast of features denote their Malayan descent; although they do not possess that stern ferocity of expression by which that race are distinguished : on the contrary, these natives have a mild and agreeable appearance, the food, climate, and various other physical causes combined, acting on successive generations, may have had the effect of softening down their character and appearance. The females are, for the most part good looking, some of them even handsome, who have a delicacy of form and feature rarely to be found in savage life, the eye is large and expressive, the hair a beautiful glossy black, kept very clean, dressed à la Chinese, and frequently decorated with garlands of a sweet scented flower ; their general appearance denotes a gaiety and amiability of temper; they seem to rank higher and are treated with much greater respect than is usually the custom in uncivilized life, and appear to have much influence and power : they are also exempt from all unfeminine labour. If a wife imagines herself ill-treated by her husband, he cannot prevent her returning to her friends ; in cases of adultery, the husband is permitted to kill the adulterer, but cannot punish the adultress. The chiefs all descend in the female line, the son of a chief's sister by one of another tribe is a chief, the chief's son is only a commoner. In fact, both the civil and social state of these islanders, denote a certain degree of civilization. The dress of the female consists of a piece of native cloth round the waist, the men wear the maro, the usual dress among the Polynesian islands.
From the traditional account of the natives, it appears their race have not been inhabitants of this island for any very long period. The following is their version of the cause of the arrival of their forefathers. Many moons ago a canoe, with several men, women, and children, on board, was driven by a storm from some other island, after drifting for some days at the mercy of the winds and waves until all their food and water were expended, and they had given themselves up to despair, they observed a pigeon hovering over their heads, when they, as a last resource, determined to follow its course, which subsequently led them to this island, which was then uninhabited. The place these natives were from, was, in all probability, one of the Marian Group, being driven thence by a northerly gale beyond the limit of the trade, thence to the eastward by the Line westerly monsoon, assisted by a strong current.
Their houses display skill and ingenuity in the construction, they are raised from the ground on piles of stones to prevent dampness; the sides are made of reeds, placed not close to each other, in order to admit air; the roof is composed of the leaves of the palm, and projects over, forming a kind of verandah, which protects the inmates both from the rain and sun, the interior is not partitioned off, and they sleep on mats very neatly made. Their houses are generally erected near the beach, for the conveniency of fishing, at which they are great adepts, and are very skilful in the management of their canoes.
I was informed by the Europeans living there, that the population was about 4000, and as near as I could judge from the numbers that visited the ship, they do not exceed that number. Several hundreds were carried off about three years since by an epidemic, which, by the description, resembled the cholera; they could give no account of the origin of this disease, it could not have been introduced by the shipping, as there had been no vessel at the island for some time previous, and none at any time with a disease of this kind on board. My stay here was too short to obtain much information concerning their religion : they believe in a future state ; they worship the hand, or spirits of their fathers, and hold sacred several birds, fish, &c. At times they imagine themselves endowed with the gift of prophecy, and frequently pretend to foretell coming events, even some of the Europeans believe they possess this power. The general character of these men is, that of being willing and obliging, and not given to pilfering, as most of the inhabitants of Polynesia are. About a mile from the south side of Matalina harbour, in a secluded place, on the bank of a salt water creek, are the ruins of two very remarkable buildings. From the traditions of the natives, they were erected previous to their arrival on the island, from the quantity of weeds and shrubs by which they were enveloped, it was almost impossible to ascertain their exact form or design, they appeared to be quadrangular, from thirty to forty yards square, about fourteen feet high, forming a raised platform with a parapet without embrasures ; in the centre of the platform is a kind of vault which would be difficult to find unless pointed out; they are about twelve feet by eight square; the top or roof is formed of long pieces of the columnar basalt (of which the whole building is composed) placed transversely ; they have been partially filled by stones and earth. On turning some of the earth I discovered several human bones, and an immense quantity of small pieces of coral with a hole in the centre ; they varied in size from a shirt button to a shilling, and were made from the stem of the branch coral, and had probably be(en) used either for money or ornament. Whatever these buildings were intended for, or who built them, must remain a mystery; the natives have not the most remote idea who built them, or for what purpose. They regard them with a superstitious reverence, and seldom approach them ; and all they know is, that their forefathers found them in their present state, when they first came on the island.
Considerable skill and ingenuity is displayed is their construction, worthy even of an architect of the present day; no cement was used; the joints are well divided; the labour must have been immense, some of the pieces of the columnar basalt measured twenty-four feet, and were very heavy, and had most probably to be carried a considerable distance, as there was no appearance of basalt in the neighbourhood. Probably these buildings were erected by the Buccaneers, and intended by them for one of their strongholds ; this supposition is borne out in some measure by the fact of a piece of brass canon being found on one of the mountains. Had uncivilized man ever had possession of this island, what motive can be assigned for his leaving it where nature has been so exceedingly bountiful, teeming as it does with all the choicest intratropical productions, leaving man in his savage state nothing to desire.
When I visited this island in 1841, is the barque Hope, there were about fifty Europeans, principally English, I understand they have considerably increased since this, and they willingly protect, encourage, and are ready with fire-arms if necessary, any deserters from vessels that wish to join them, as was the case with the American whaler Sharon; they are generally men of bad character, and of idle and dissipated habits, who prefer living an indolent life with the uncivilized savage, rather than work to obtain as honest livelihood amongst their own countrymen. They were living (as before observed in my description of Pleasant Island) in a manner which maybe easily imagined, from men of their character, without either law, religion, or morality to restrain them with an unlimited use of an intoxicating spirit. The introduction of this spirit is much to be regretted, as, independent of the quarrels, bloodshed and murders, which even horrifies the untutored savage), it occasions amongst the Europeans themselves, but also from the moral effect it may ultimately have on the natives, ignorant as they necessarily must be of the evil consequences arising from the indiscriminate use of it. I am happy, however to say, that when I visited the island, they were indifferent to it, although quite adept in smoking tobacco. The only spirit used by them at that time, and then only on great occasions and but sparingly, is that generally drunk among the South Sea Islands, prepared from kava (Peper Mythisticum.)
This and the neighbouring islands would be a good field for the labours of the missionaries, as this naturally mild and tractable race of men would, when they knew their holy mission, receive them with kindness and gratitude, and doubtless would readily embrace the mild doctrines of Christianity, in preference to their own dark and superstitions creed. If some such measures are not speedily taken, the moral atmosphere of this beautiful island will be tainted, and one of the loveliest of God's creation will become a Pandemonium.
P 61 11 May 44
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