A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 21

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CHAPTER XXI.

A HEALING TREE—PLANTATION LIFE—VANILLA CROPS—CAT-AND-DOG LIFE—A FOILED ASSASSIN—THE TROPICS OF TO-DAY—ENGLAND IN DAYS OF YORE—AMONG THE CRAGS—INFANTICIDE—HEATHEN DAYS.
Chez Madame Brun, Papetoai,
Monday Night.

Another long day in scenes of dream-like loveliness. Early as I always awaken, the little trio were astir before me, waiting in their bathing-dresses to escort me to the shore, dancing joyously as sunbeams, and most carefully pioneering my path through the shallow water, so as to avoid the very unpleasant chance of treading on sea-hedgehogs and other spiny creatures. There are so very few places in the isles where sea-bathing is altogether free from danger of sharks, that it is a luxury on which we rarely venture, and therefore appreciate it all the more.

Immediately after early chocolate, a friendly gendarme lent me his horse (I had brought my own saddle), and, not without some cowardly qualms, I rode off alone in search of Madame Valles's plantation. The road lay along the shore—a lovely grass path, overshadowed by all manner of beautiful trees, of which the most conspicuous is here called the tamanu, an old acquaintance with a new name. In Fiji it is called ndelo. It is common not only throughout Polynesia but also in the East Indies, and in Mauritius.[1]

In all these lands this noble tree grows and flourishes, just above high-water mark, on what seems to us the most arid sandy shores, and outstretches its wide branches with their rich dark foliage, casting cool delicious shadows on the dazzling coral-sands, a boon to tired eyes, weary of the mid-day glare.

It is a tree for the healing of the nations. Its large glossy leaves, when soaked in fresh water, are valuable in reducing inflammation of the eyes; and its round green fruit contains a small grey ball, within which lies a kernel, which yields about sixty per cent of a green-coloured bitter oil, worth about £90 a ton in the Anglo-Indian market. It is an invaluable remedy as a liniment in all forms of rheumatism, rheumatic fever, bruises, stiffness, and similar ailments. Throughout the isles its virtues are fully recognised, but it is only prepared in small quantities for domestic use, and stored by prudent householders, in hollow gourds, which are the correct substitute for bottles. The labour of expressing the oil, by any hand process, is so great as to prevent an extensive manufacture; and I am not aware that any machinery for this purpose has found its way to the Pacific, though it does seem a pity that so valuable a product should be wasted, as it now is.

Wherever we go, in any of these isles, the sea-beach is strewn with myriads of these, and other seeds, some of which, such as the gigantic climbing-bean,[2] have been washed down by the mountain streams; while others, such as these grey balls, and the curious square-shaped seeds of the Barringtonia, in their outer case of nature-woven fibre, drop from the boughs which overhang the sea. The white blossom of the tamanu trees is both fragrant and ornamental, and many a pleasant hour have I spent on many a lovely isle, alone (save for the omnipresent army of hermit crabs) beneath the shade of these grand trees, beside the cool blue waters of the Pacific.

I had no difficulty in finding Madame Valles's home—a lovely nest, perched high on the hillside, with a background of grey rock-pinnacles and crags. The house is embowered in greenery, and from its verandahs you look through a frame of pure scarlet hybiscus to the bluest of lagoons, divided from the purply ocean beyond by the line of gleaming white breakers which bound the coral-reef.

M. Valles is at present very unwell, and quite a prisoner, so double work falls to the lot of Madame Valles, who has to do most of her own cooking and house-work, milk her own cow, and attend with unwearied care to that most precarious of all crops, vanilla. So you see that even in Moorea plantation life is not luxurious.

The great difficulty here is to obtain labour; and there is not one regular servant or labourer on this estate. Fifteen acres of coffee have all run wild, and grown into tall straggling bushes, from total lack of hands to tend it. As there is no one to gather the crop of ripe red coffee-cherries, they are left to drop, and the rats eat the soft fruit, leaving the beans untouched; so the family collect these, all ready pulped, and devoutly wish the rats were ten times as numerous.

But the most precious crop here is vanilla, which is both pretty and lucrative, being worth about four dollars a pound. It is a luxuriant creeper, and grows so freely that a branch broken off and falling on the ground takes root of its own accord; and it climbs all over the tall coffee-shrubs, the palms, avocat pear and orange trees, and everything that comes in its way, growing best on living wood, the tendrils thence deriving sustenance. It also flourishes best in unweeded grounds, the roots being thereby kept cool.

So the steep wooded hillside is densely matted with this fragrant spice, which scents the whole air,—indeed the atmosphere of the house is redolent of vanilla. It is like living in a spice-box, as the pods are laid to dry in every available corner. They must be gathered unripe, and dried in a moist warm place; sometimes they are packed under layers of quilts to prevent them from bursting, and so losing their fragrant essence.

All this sounds very pleasant, and only suggests light work, yet in truth this cultivation involves most exhausting toil. The plant is an exotic; it lives in these isles by the will of the planter, not by nature's law. In its native home exquisite humming-birds hover over its blossoms, therein darting their long bills in search of honey, and drawing them forth, clogged with the golden pollen, which they carry to the next flower, thus doing nature's work of fertilisation.

Here the flowers have no such dainty wooers, and the vanilla bears no fruit unless fertilised by human hand. So M. and Madame Valles, and their son, divide the steep hillside into three sections, and each morning they patiently but wearily toil up and down, up and down, again, and again, and again, in order to manipulate each blossom that has expanded during the night. "Faire le mariage des fleurs," as Madame Valles describes her daily task, is no sinecure; it must be done during the hottest hours of the day, when any exertion is most exhausting. It needs a keen eye to detect each fresh blossom, and any neglected flower withers and drops. Each day the ripening pods must be gathered, and in dry weather the plants require frequent watering—an indescribable toil.

This morning Madame Valles let me accompany her on her morning rounds, whereby I realised that toil and hardship are to be found even in paradise.

We returned to breakfast, which was served by an old French soldier—a garrulous old fellow, and evidently quite a "character." Apparently his life is a burden to him, by reason of the multitude of half-tamed animals which swarm about the place. In the dining-room were three old and six young cats; two large, three medium, and many small dogs,—all hungrily clamouring for food, and only kept off the table by the free use of a large, resounding whip.

In the afternoon M. Brun came in search of me, and we rode to the head of the bay, where there is a beautiful estate, and large comfortable house, built many years ago by an English planter, who failed, and the place was bought by Dr Michelli, an Italian, who chanced just then to be conveying a cargo of Chinese coolies to Peru. So many died on the voyage that he determined to halt at Tahiti, and give the survivors time to recruit. Finding this very desirable property in the market, he concluded that the part of wisdom was to go no further. So here he settled with about fifty Chinamen, who work the land and give him a third of the profits, while he rides about the mountains, and shoots wild cattle for their common use.

His surroundings are somewhat polyglot. The cook is an Englishman; servants of various degree are Tahitian; while the overseer, M. Bellemare, is a French externe-politique, who was exiled for firing at the late Emperor Louis Napoleon—a crime which the Emperor seems to have punished on the Biblical principle of heaping coals of fire, in the form of unmerited reward; for during his lifetime M. Bellemare received a regular pension and lived on the fat of the land—a clemency which certainly failed to awaken one thrill of gratitude in the would-be assassin. The pension having expired with the death of the Emperor, M. Bellemare has been obliged to seek remunerative occupation, which he has here found.

Tuesday, 11th.

Again a delightful sea-bathe, followed by real French chocolate, and then the charming little trio constituted themselves my guides, and led me by difficult, and to me undiscernible paths, over the wooded hills, and through la brousse, which consists of dense guava scrub, to various points, from which we obtained lovely views of the harbour. The walk involved an amount of severe scrambling which, even to me, was somewhat trying; but the children skipped along over rock and crag like young kids, only pausing, with charmingly pretty manners, to see if I required their aid, and bringing me all manner of treasures of fruit and flowers.

I fear no description can possibly convey to your mind a true picture of the lovely woods through which we wander just where fancy leads us, knowing that no hurtful creature of any sort lurks among the mossy rocks or in the rich undergrowth of ferns. Here and there we come on patches of soft green turf, delightfully suggestive of rest, beneath the broad shadow of some great tree with buttressed roots; but more often the broken rays of sunlight gleam in ten thousand reflected lights, dancing and glancing as they shimmer on glossy leaves of every form and shade—-from the huge silky leaves of the wild plantain or the giant arum, to the waving palm-fronds, which are so rarely at rest, but flash and gleam like polished swords as they bend and twist with every breath of air.

It has just occurred to me that probably you have no very distinct idea of the shape of a cocoa-palm leaf, which does not bear the slightest resemblance to the palmettos in the greenhouse. It consists of a strong mid-rib, about eight feet long, which, at the end next to the tree, spreads out, very much as your two clenched fists, placed side by side, do from your wrists. The other end tapers to a point. For a space of about two feet the stalk is bare; then along the remaining six feet a regiment of short swords, graduated from two feet to eighteen inches in length, are set close together on each side of the mid-rib. Of course the faintest stir of the leaf causes these multitudinous swordlets to flash in the sunlight. Hence the continual effect of glittering light, and also the extreme difficulty of securing a good photograph of a cocoa-palm.

A little lower than these tall queens of the coral-isles, rise fairy-like canopies of graceful tree-ferns, often festooned with most delicate lianas; and there are places where not these only, but the larger trees, are literally matted together by the dense growth of the beautiful large-leaved white convolvulus, or the smaller lilac ipomæa, which twines round the tall stems of the palms, and over-spreads the light fronds, like some green waterfall. Many of the larger trees are clothed with parasitic ferns; huge bird's-nest ferns grow in the forks of the branches, as do various orchids, the dainty children of the mist, so that the stems are wellnigh as green as everything else in that wilderness of lovely forms. It is a very inanimate paradise, however. I rarely see any birds or butterflies, only a few lizards and an occasional dragon-fly; and the voice of singing-birds, such as gladden our hearts in humble English woods, is here mute—so we have at least this compensation, for the lack of all the wild luxuriance which here is so fascinating.

I wonder if a time will ever come when these fairy isles shall have passed through changes as marvellous as those which geologists teach us to trace in Old England.

Have you ever fully realised that "once upon a time" all the strange beautiful plants which we call tropical, were growing in rank luxuriance on English soil? I believe that the curious diapered stem of the quaint papawa is one of our common fossil forms. In Dr Buckland's museum at Oxford, I remember seeing unmistakable fruit of a screw-pine (pandanus) found in the Oolite, near Charmouth. As to the London Clay, the Isle of Sheppey seems wholly composed of relics of tropical plants, turtles, serpents, and shells, now unknown save in these warm isles. I have seen a drawing of the section of a fossil fruit found there, which might have been made from a split bread-fruit; also nuts greatly resembling those of the cocoa and areca palms. The custard-apple is found there, and the dracæna and yucca, and many another tropical leaf and fruit. Would that they grew there now!

Picture to yourself a time when the bleak Northumbrian coast was a forest like one of these, and the coals, of which we now so gladly heap up blazing fires, were all beautiful ferns and palms, waving in the warm sunlight! Truly it is hard to realise. Even the dragon-flies and lizards of those antediluvian forests are preserved, and spiders and scorpions. As to the chalk and lias and limestone, they give us sponges and corals and zoophytes enough to build up any number of coral-reefs; and there are great turban echini with heavy spines, like those we find here, and star-fish innumerable, and teeth and vertebræ of sharks and ray.

So that there really was a time when Old England must have been as fascinating as any South Sea isle. What she may have been in the days of the mammoth and megatherium, and all the gruesome race, restored for our edification at the Crystal Palace, is quite another matter; the very idea is suggestive of nightmare!

Wednesday, 12th Dec.

This has been a grey stormy day, with heavy showers, but as Dr Michelli had promised to escort me up the valley to the foot of the mighty crags, I could not lose so good an opportunity; and indeed such solemn mountain scenes only borrow fresh grandeur from the gloom, so that I almost prefer a stormy leaden sky for such an expedition; besides, it is no small gain to have a veiled sun, as its full rays, when refracted by the black trap dikes, make the ascent somewhat of a toil.

The friendly gendarme again lent me his horse to ride to the head of the harbour, where the Doctor had other steeds ready for the mountain. Unfortunately he himself was unwell, and so was obliged to commit me to the care of the externe-politique, who fulfilled his trust admirably, though I confess that it gave me something of an eerie feeling to find myself at a height of 2000 feet above my fellow-men, sitting quietly sketching among black crags and floating mists, alone with a would-be murderer, who, glorying in his shame, entertained me at great length with a most animated description of the whole story, nor spared me one of his poignant regrets at the failure of his vile attempt.

The scenery on every side was magnificent. Huge indigo-coloured mountain-masses looming out awfully through the floating cloud-wreaths—tremendous precipices—deep mysterious ravines—right above me towered a gigantic square-shaped mountain, and beyond it one vast pinnacle. You never can lose the impression of Cyclopean fortifications and watch-towers. The higher ridges are absolutely inaccessible; but adventurous cragsmen sometimes find their way by tracks which wild goats would shun—narrow ledges by which they can creep along the face of a precipice, and so pass on to another ravine, or scramble from ledge to ledge with the help of ropes. "Le jeu vaut-il la chandelle?" I should say not.

From the highest point we reached, I obtained a grand view of the valley, which lay bathed in sunlight, while we were shrouded in mountain gloom, with a storm fast gathering overhead. Far below us, beyond the orange-groves and the cultivated lands, lay the two harbours, Pao Pao and Opunohu—two calm lagoons lying to right and left of a mighty rock-pyramid, which is crowned with trap ridges, so narrow as here and there to have altogether worn away, leaving arches and apertures through which the sky is seen, as through the eye of a needle. This is a common feature of the ridges which form the centre of this strange isle, and which are thus pierced in many places—a phenomenon duly accounted for in Tahitian legends by the spear- thrusts of certain demigods and heroes.

A few heavy rain-drops, with a prospect of abundance to follow, compelled me to abandon this splendid sketching—ground, and return to the lower world, where the Doctor awaited my return, to share an excellent breakfast, with all the delicacies of Moorea. One of these, which is perhaps unknown to you, is the Abercarder pear, or, as it is called in India, "subaltern's butter," a pear-shaped fruit, the size of a big man's fist. Within its green rind lies the softest melting pulp, really like vegetable butter, with a large round seed in the centre. This fruit is either eaten with pepper and salt, or else beaten up with lemon-juice and sugar; and it is excellent in either form. The chief difficulty is to secure it, as all animals have a passion for it; cows, horses, even dogs and cats, watch for the falling of the ripe fruit, and quickly despatch it.

After breakfast I rode back here, and found my host and hostess just starting for the village, so I strolled along with them to see the big coral church, memorable as having been the first built in this group, a monument of early zeal, and a wonderful triumph of will over difficulties. But now, whether from diminished energy or decreased population I know not, the place is falling into disrepair, and suggests retrogression.

But the bird-cage homes of the people are charming, and the inmates are charming, and the brown-eyed olive-coloured babies, and their most careful little brothers and sisters, are especially attractive. To-day I have seen the loveliest baby I have ever yet met with. Of Italian and Tahitian parentage, it receives a double heritage of beauty, and the little Aurora is destined hereafter to take her place among the fairest maidens of Italy.

Certainly children here have a very happy time of it. What with idolising parents, and friends who seem always ready to play with them, their only danger lies on the side of excessive spoiling. And yet, in heathen days, the Tahitians were as noted for infanticide as the Sandwich Islanders,—with the one difference that here, the poor little unwelcome guests were disposed of at the very moment of their birth, and if spared for even a few minutes they were generally saved; whereas in Hawaii, the system of child-murder was much more deliberate.

The extent to which it was practised in both groups makes one marvel how the isles failed to be wholly depopulated. Though offspring were generally numerous, few parents cared to rear more than three children; a man with four was looked upon as a taata taubuu buu—that is, a man with a heavy burden. The majority of Tahitian women in pagan days spoke openly, and without the slightest shame, of having put to death half-a-dozen helpless innocents, while some confessed to ten or twelve; and when the missionaries and their wives implored these women to spare their little ones, yet unborn, their words were heard with derision, and the cruel mothers would return to boast how they had obeyed the custom of the isles, in defiance of white men's counsel.

Afterwards, when these same women had become Christians, they would come to the school festivals, at which were sometimes gathered several hundred happy children, whose lives had been spared in obedience to a better law; and often, with bitter tears, did these childless mothers bewail their own dead offspring, murdered by their own hands. At one such meeting, a venerable chief arose to address the people, and show, by contrast with the past, how great was their present gain. Pointing to a troop of comely lads and lasses, he said: "Large was my family, but I alone remain. I am the father of nineteen children; all of them I have murdered: now my heart longs for them. Had I spared them, they would now have been men and women, knowing the word of the true God. But all died in the service of the false gods, and now my heart is repenting—is weeping for them."

One of the chief women, who, having learnt to read at the age of sixty, had proved a most useful school-teacher, was bitterly troubled in the hour of death by the thought of her sixteen children, every one of whom she had herself put to death. But there was scarcely a woman who had attained middle age ere the spread of Christianity, who was not haunted by the same sad memories; and one visitor to Tahiti has recorded his amazement when, on his expressing his belief that statements had been exaggerated, his friend appealed to three most respectable, motherly-looking women, who chanced to be sitting in the room quietly sewing, and quite at random, asked each in turn how many of her children she had killed. With shame and evident pain, the first, with faltering voice, replied, "I have destroyed nine;" the second said she had killed five; the third had killed seven. So that these three women casually selected, had killed twenty-one children!

It seems scarcely credible that such deeds were perpetrated by the same race whom we now see so gentle and loving; but heathenism always tended to cruelty.

In nothing was this more apparent than in the treatment of the sick. Generally speaking, the best a sick man could hope for was simple neglect. As soon as it was evident that his illness would be protracted, a hut of cocoa-palm leaves was built for him at a little distance, and he was carried there. For a while he was supplied with food and drink; but his friends soon grew careless, and so often forgot him, that he very probably died of starvation. Should he be possessed of property coveted by his neighbours, he was very likely murdered with the most wanton barbarity. His "friends" having determined on his death, proceeded to his hut, armed with their spears; and, unheeding of his cries for mercy, they treated him as a target, trying who could take best aim, till at length some one, more merciful than the others, rushed in and pierced him through the heart.

At other times the sick were buried alive. Their relations dug a pit, and then, pretending that they would carry the sufferer to the river to bathe, they threw him into the ready-made grave, and drowned his cries by quickly throwing in stones and earth. Sometimes the victim perceived what was in store for him, and endeavoured to escape; but he was invariably captured by his murderers, and carried to his untimely grave.

Almost the first great change wrought by Christianity was in the care of the sick, who now are nursed with the utmost tenderness, the natives having, many years ago, formed themselves into societies for the express purpose of building houses, where the aged and helpless, who have no friends or children to tend them at home, may be fed and clothed, and comforted by the ministrations of Christian teachers.

In one respect, the people of Tahiti, like those of Samoa, proved superior to most other Pacific islanders. There is no evidence of their having ever been cannibals. While their neighbours in the Paumotus and the Marquesas, in the Hervey Isles and New Zealand, and in nearly every group throughout the Western Pacific, never lost a chance of feasting on human flesh, these gentler savages, like those of Samoa, do not seem to have been tempted by the hideous fare. They contented themselves with heaping insult on the bodies of the slain, which were often brutally mutilated.

Nothing amazes me more than to hear travellers and others occasionally talk with positive regret of the work of missionaries of all denominations, throughout these various groups of isles. To hear them speak, you would suppose that the natives, in their untutored state, were the most innocent, loving, and attractive of mortals. Surely such men can know nothing of the past, and of the dangers incurred by the early teachers, to whose earnest labours in the beginning of the present century those ungrateful talkers owe their own present safety. But even in those days the worst dangers and the most virulent opposition encountered by the missionaries were almost invariably stirred up by iniquitous white men—generally sailors and shipmasters.[3]

Certainly the Tahitians, as we now see them, are as gentle and affectionate as it is possible for a people to be. Most kind and hospitable, always cheerful and good-natured, easily pleased and amused, finding matter for mirth in every trifle; so that angry words or recriminations are rarely heard, but rather a sound of rippling laughter, which seems here to pervade the very air. A messenger is just going across to Tahiti to take letters, and to fetch any that may have arrived by the schooner from San Francisco. I shall send this as a postscript to my last, which will probably reach you at the same time.—So good-bye.

Your Loving Sister.

  1. Calophyllum inophyllum.
  2. Entada scandens.
  3. If any are disposed to doubt this statement, they have only to refer to the circumstantial and thoroughly authenticated accounts published by the various missionary societies ; those, for instance, of the American Board, which again and again, in the early days of the mission to the Sandwich Isles, have occasion to refer to the outrages committed by British and American seamen, who came in armed bands to attack the mission stations, in their rage at the influence acquired by the missionaries, and the consequent change in the morals of the people. Again and again life and property were threatened, and the mission premises were only saved from destruction by the timely arrival of determined chiefs and their retainers.