Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 30.djvu/218

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204
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

plant. It is counted by measure of length, and has some of the properties of the money of civilization, as it owes its value to the rarity of its material, and it can be easily divided into small sums.

The Ellice, the Gilbert (or, as they are usually called by the seamen, the Kingsmill), and the Marshall groups, are all composed of low, flat islands formed of coral. Some of them are nearly perfect atolls, Maraki in the northern Gilberts being perhaps the most perfect in the world.

It seems absurd to speak of the fertility of soil apparently composed almost entirely of sand, nevertheless even among these coral archipelagoes there are differences. The Marshall Islands have the most profuse natural growth of ferns and grasses; on the Gilbert Islands there is not even a fern; while the Ellice Islands hold an intermediate place between the sterility of the latter and the comparative fertility of the former. It is customary to reproach the natives of Oceania with invincible indolence; and, if it be a fault, I fear they must be convicted of desultoriness and unsteadiness in their work. The amount done in a year would if spread over the whole period give, I believe, a very respectable daily average. The labor expended by the Ellice-Islanders in cultivating their lands and growing the huge taro, which is the staple of their diet, must have been enormous. The vegetable is planted in vast trenches which look as though they had belonged to some great fortress long ago fallen into ruin. Even with the best implements the excavations would be extremely laborious, but one is lost in astonishment when one finds that many of the taro-beds now in existence were excavated by generations in possession only of tools of shell or wood.

All the islanders are expert fishermen. Shark's fin being an article of export, the shark is eagerly sought for. He is often caught without a hook; a piece of bait is put on the end of a line passed through a noose in a larger line and towed from a canoe. As the shark is seen to follow the bait, it is gradually hauled up till his head and shoulders are past the noose. The latter is then quickly tightened. Another plan, of which I was told on good authority, is even more remarkable. The sharks are supposed to sleep in rather shoal water under projecting pieces of coral with their heads just protruding, When a Gilbert-Islander sees one in this position he dives down with a small stick in his hand and gives the fish a tap on the nose, repeating it until the shark, for comfort's sake, changes his position and leaves his tail where his head had been. This is the fisherman's chance, and a second dive with a noose at the end of a line soon makes him master of his game, I am bound to say that I never saw this mode of fishing.

The Ellice-Islanders are all Christians, having been converted by the missionaries of the London Mission Society, They are inoffensive folk and have no arms. The Nukulailai people declare that they never did have any; but the natives of other islands undoubtedly had some