Forty Years On The Pacific/New Hebrides
ONE of the most interesting groups in the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean is that of the New Hebrides, lying in the hurricane zone.
They are at present jointly administered by resident commissioners appointed by Britain and France, under what is known as a "Condominium," but the day is not far distant in my opinion—perhaps even before this is in print—when they will be wholly French. Between 166 degrees and 171 degrees east longitude and 14 degrees south latitude, the whole 400 miles over which these 12 large and 100 smaller islands, extend, lies within the tropics, but owing to an ocean environment the temperature rarely exceeds 95 degrees nor falls below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Scattered throughout the group are several commodious harbors of commercial and strategic value which in future years will come into prominence.
Vila Harbor is a very beautiful one—very blue and sparkling and tropical; exquisitely set in peaky hills and gemmed with fairy islands. Havannah Harbor, some miles to the south of Vila, is large and very deep. There are excellent harbors in some of the other islands of the group, notably Port Sandwich and Port Stanley in Malekula. Vila is the commercial center of the group and is the site of the British and French Residencies, the former being romantically situated on a small island in the center of the harbor and the latter on the mainland. Vila is a scattered little town, dozing in a nest of lemon flowered hibiscus and waving cocoanut palms. One cannot walk a step without realizing how thoroughly French the settlement has become—which but a few years ago was full of English people. When I first knew the islands there was not a Frenchman in the group; in a few more years from the way things are going now, there may not be an Englishman; as to-day the French outnumber the British by over two to one, the number being 700 French and under 300 English, while the native population is estimated at 60,000. The French language is now almost the only one heard in Vila. The Post Office, public buildings, and a few stores comprise the only street. There is no pier, and cargo from the steamer is carried by native labor in small boats to the beach. The Catholic Cathedral with its belfry, the Presbyterian Church, and a wireless station with its two great pillars, 165 feet in height, are conspicuous features of the landscape. For years there has been more friction among the various missionary societies here than any group in the Pacific.
The first impression of the traveler at the port is the number of natives working at the stores, plantations, private and official residencies. The native police and official messengers add to their number, which seem to be drawn from different islands of the group, so much do they vary in appearance.
Captain Wetheral, who has been navigating among these islands for many years, describes the native as a splendid worker, but will sulk if one starts to bully him. They have plenty of money, owing to the keen competition between British and French traders for copra and other products.
In 1774 Captain Cook visited the group and gave it its present name. He thoroughly explored and charted every island, and to this day his labors are appreciated by seamen in these waters. He was followed by many voyagers. After their visits there was a sad period from which few islands in the Pacific escaped, in which the scum of the white race carried on a blood-stained traffic in whaling products and sandalwood. The horrors of the labor traffic for the Queensland sugar plantations were added, so that in a few decades the native race was so weakened that in many places its preservation seemed hopeless. For a considerable time the New Hebrides were the principal recruiting ground for labor traffic, the natives being taken away in large numbers and often by force and fraud. The only accomplishment they brought back was the facility of swearing in English. They not only invariably relapsed into their old ways but became more degraded, if that were possible; for the plantations turned out some of the most accomplished specimens of savage scoundrels imaginable-—men who had grafted on to their originally depraved natures the vices of civilization, but none of its virtues.
One of the greatest evils in these islands was the sale of liquor to the natives, but is not nearly so bad as it used to be, but still goes on here and there, though strictly forbidden by law. The traffic was carried on by Frenchmen from New Caledonia, who sold the vilest kind of "fire water." Every effort has been made by the authorities to suppress the wretched trade, but it is difficult to do this. There are many places where ten years ago thriving villages stood, and to-day in the same places there are only a few solitary posts, a few battered remnants of thatch, silent and uncanny, pitiful testimony of the dying race, and of the devastating effects of the traffic of which I have spoken.
Among other causes of the disappearance of the native population is tuberculosis, brought on through wearing thin, ragged clothes and seldom changing them, or the other extreme, too warm clothing. In the least civilized sections of the islands where native life is at its natural state, the population is maintained. The majority of planters urge the wearing of only a lava-lava while at work.
According to law, no arms or munitions are permitted to be supplied to the natives, although supplies reach there from Noumea. The result is that a visit of British and French men-o'-war is frequently found necessary. In no time, the natives all over the island know of the approach of these vessels, no doubt by some sort of bush telegraphy. The undergrowth is so thick and the grass tall enough to hide them, thus enabling them to defy and laugh at constitutional authority.
Many years ago the New Hebrides was a rich field for blackbirding and at present for recruiting natives for other islands. In November, 1918, seventeen labor recruiting vessels were wrecked near these islands and many lives lost.
With deep waters along their shores, some good streams, convenient harbors and soil of wonderful richness and fertility, the New Hebrides form a valuable group.
Copra is the staple commodity and many thousands of tons of it find their way to the Sydney market. Recently, however, the cocoanut trees were attacked by a pernicious black beetle that did much damage. Coffee grows abundantly and cocoa and vanilla plantations promise to yield handsomely in the near future. There are some excellent cotton plantations.
The yam is the island stand-by food, both for the native and white man, and grows in many shapes and sizes. Some species are difficult to tell when cooked, from good potatoes, and what is more, the crop rarely if ever fails, owing to the regular and abundant rainfall throughout the islands.
Some idea of the richness of the soil can be imagined when I mention that Mr. Martin keeps 5,000 sheep on two thousand acres of land on Erromanga, where the rainfall is not so heavy as in the northern parts of the group, where as much as 10 inches has fallen in one day. Mr. Martin keeps the stock up by importing about a dozen merino rams annually, thereby producing a large quantity of wool. As for fruit, on the island of Aneityeum, orange trees, from SO to 70 feet high, loaded down with thin-skinned oranges with few seeds, abound in quantities and require both a man's hands to span. Besides oranges, the islands are rich in granadillas, custard apples, breadfruit, bananas and pineapples; some of the latter attaining a weight of 20 pounds. In fact, all tropical fruits grow in great variety and perfection. The New Hebrides are truly a paradise for planters, and only await a different form of government to make them a desirable place to settle in.
The largest island, Santo, is some 64 miles long and 32 miles in breadth. It is heavily wooded, has broad and fertile valleys and is watered by numberless streams. The next largest island is Malekula, which is likewise very fertile territory. The interior of the island is not very well-known yet, and the inland tribes are very truculent. Intertribal fighting is always going on. Most of the settlement is on Efate or Sandwich Island, almost the center of the-group. There are three active volcanoes—those of Ambrym, Lopevi and Tanna. The crater of the Tanna volcano is not more than 600 feet above the level of the sea. It is one of the finest in the Pacific, is always active and is one of the sights of these islands. The late Dr. Steel, of Sydney, once described it as the "great lighthouse of the Southern Isles, which every three or four minutes bursts forth with great brilliancy, like a revolving light." Each time it wears a different aspect. It is always grand and inspiring and never can become an "Old Affair."
Rubber has been experimented with in many of the plantations, but with poor results, and as a business proposition is being abandoned.
Many of the settlers have a good selection of cattle, which, together with goats and wild pigs, thrive wonderfully in these islands.