A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War/Chapter 25

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CHAPTER XXV.

HURRICANE AT THE PAUMOTUS—MAHENA PLANTATION—WATCHING FOR VESSELS—FAREWELL TO TAHITI.

Fautawa, Tuesday, 12th.

News has just reached us of an awful hurricane and tidal wave which has swept the whole group of the Paumotus, and it is not known how far its influence has extended. Nothing of the sort has occurred in these seas in the present century. The French Resident and Mr Boosey, one of Mrs Brander's agents, have just arrived in the Elgin to ask for assistance, as the whole settlement of Anaa is a heap of hopeless ruin. It was a flourishing little town, about half the size of Levuka; it had about 150 houses, good stores, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Mormon churches, Resident's house, &c. The Seignelay touched there on that memorable cruise to the Marquesas, so I missed the chance of doing a historical, antediluvian sketch.

Mrs Brander is most anxious about the fate of her other manager, Mr Macgee; indeed we all are so, for he is a very good fellow, and he has been staying with the family here for some time. He is supposed to have been out that night in a very small vessel, which is missing. The gale must have been appalling. It is calculated that on Anaa alone, 300,000 cocoa-palms must have fallen, and Mrs Brander's loss in produce, stores and buildings, boats, three small ships and their cargoes, is reckoned at 40,000 dollars, equal to about £10,000—a serious night's work.

The Ségond is to be despatched to-morrow morning, loaded with provisions, timber, and all things likely to prove useful in this emergency. She is to go the round of every large isle in the group, and do what she can to help the wretched inhabitants.

They say these tidal waves always accompany an eruption of some volcano. I hope I shall not find that I have just missed one at Hawaii!


Mahena Plantation, Point Venus,
Thursday, Feb. 14th.

This is another place belonging to Mrs Brander, who sent me here with her manager, Mr Lander, a German, that I might have a few quiet days for sketching in this neighbourhood. There is a large house here, close to the sea, where the family occasionally come for a change. I was received by Toetoe, a handsome, stalwart lass, daughter of a chief of Tupuai, the romantic isle of which Byron sings in "The Island." She introduced me to pets of all sorts—rabbits, cows, horses, cats and dogs, especially a wee brown dog "Moosie." She gave me milk without limit—always a luxury—and in the evening we wandered by grassy paths beneath the cocoa-palms; and then in the clear moonlight started for a walk along the shore, which here is of a firm black sand, on which large waves break in as full force as on our own north coast. This is due to the fact that there is a passage through the coral-reef, just opposite the house; so the sea rolls in unchecked.


Monday, 18th.

I have been rather worried for some days by prickly-heat, from which many persons suffer almost continually in all tropical countries. It is a general all-overish, tingling irritation of skin, very unpleasant to the sufferer, who, however, receives no compassion, as he is pleasantly informed that it is a symptom of excellent health, and a safeguard against possible fever! Sea-bathing is generally recommended as a cure, so that sunrise and moonlight alike find me in pickle in the briny waters, where, borrowing courage from Toetoe's presence and good example (she being, as a matter of course, a perfect swimmer), I venture on a dash through the breaking waves to the pleasant calm water beyond; where, however, our peaceful enjoyment is considerably marred by the dread of sharks, which here venture close to the shore.

We have made various expeditions, walking and driving, to picturesque points on land and shore; and a day at the lighthouse enabled me to complete my previous sketch of Orofena, the highest mountain of Tahiti.

Now we are just starting to drive back along the coast to Papeete—a lovely route, by which, as you may remember, I last travelled by torchlight, on our return from the grand circuit of the isle.


Papeete, February 19th.

We have for some time been anxiously watching for the return of the Maramma, Mrs Brander's fine large ship, which is bringing cattle from the Sandwich Isles, and which will, I hope, take me there on her next trip, supposing no mischance has befallen her. But she is now considerably overdue, and fears are expressed that she may have disobeyed orders, and gone to the dangerous coast of Kauai, thence to fetch cattle. Or she may have encountered the hurricane.


February 20th.

A vessel has just come into port from Honolulu, bringing cattle. She has been nineteen days on the voyage, and reports that the Maramma is following.

In the evening the lovely moonlight tempted us to visit our old haunts, the place where the admiral's band used to play every evening, but where, under the new régime, the hideous upa-upa is now nightly danced for the edification of the admiring crowd. There was the usual large picturesque assemblage, but their gaiety was of a more demonstrative type than heretofore. In short, the admiral's excellent restrictions, which were to inaugurate quite a new era in Tahiti, have already melted "like snowdrift in thaw" before the cheerful presence of the new ruler; who, on the very night of M. D'Oncieue's departure, summoned many damsels (friends of former days, and noted dancers of the obnoxious native wriggle) to Government House, where they were hospitably entertained. Of course news of this complete subversion of six months' compulsory reformation quickly spread to the remotest districts, and from all parts of the island all the dancers flocked to Papeete, where they now assemble every evening before Government House, and the crowd thus attracted is of a sort such as ladies would not care to mix in for long. To-night there was some rather pretty singing, but not to be compared with the true himènes—and from the laughter of the crowd it might be inferred that the words would not bear translation.


Friday, 22d.

The Ségond has returned from the Paumotus with a lamentable tale of disaster. We are all, however, much relieved at hearing that our friend Mr Macgee is safe; though he had a most narrow escape on the awful night of the hurricane, when he happened to be on the isle of Kaukura, which seems to have been the centre of the cyclone, and consequently suffered most. He had passed this island a few days previously in the Marion, but the sea had been too heavy to allow of so large a vessel venturing to approach. Business compelling him to return, he did so in the May, a smaller craft. Both vessels belong to Mrs Brander, and are named after her daughters.

Like the generality of the Paumotus, Kaukura consists of a circular group of low flat islets, either detached or connected by a reef, thus forming an atoll enclosing a calm sea-lagoon; the whole being protected from the outer ocean by an encircling reef. An existence more calm and peaceful than that of the dwellers in these coral-girt isles can scarcely be conceived; and a storm such as that which has devastated the group, is of such rare occurrence as to be little dreaded in the chances of daily life. Eighty years are said to have elapsed since the last hurricane occurred in these latitudes. Considering that many of these islets are not three feet above the water-level,—that ten feet is considered high ground, and fifteen is about the maximum elevation,—you can understand how appalling is the danger caused by any eccentricity of tide.

As cocoa-nuts are the chief produce of the group, and indeed the sole property of many families, it is customary to protect the interests of each member of the community from all danger of poaching on the part of his neighbour, by laying a taboo on the whole crop until a given day. I suppose I need scarcely tell you what is meant by this ceremony, which, under slightly varied names (tabu in New Zealand, tambu in Fiji, tapu in Samoa, and kapu in Hawaii), is common throughout the Pacific, and implies that something has been reserved or rendered sacred by order of the chief. In olden days the multitudinous forms of taboo were to all these islanders a heavy burden, weighing grievously upon them in every phase of life; and the infringement of the most arbitrary rule thus imposed was generally punished by death. Even now a formerly declared taboo carries such weight, and appeals so forcibly to the superstitions of the people, that it is almost invariably respected.

Thus in the matter of the cocoa-nut crop not a nut from the reserved plantations can be touched, till, on the removal of the prohibition, all the proprietors and their families, together with all interested in the purchase of the nuts, or in securing payment of debts previously contracted, assemble at the Rahui, as it is called, and there build for themselves frail booths of palm-leaves—a sorry shelter at the best.

In such a leaf-village, on one of the detached islets, all the inhabitants of Kaukura had assembled, together with a number of traders from other places, in all numbering nearly 200 persons, when they were overtaken by the awful hurricane of the 6th February, For some hours previously the greatest anxiety had prevailed. A strong easterly breeze had for three consecutive days lashed the waters of the lagoon into fury, then gradually veered round to the west with ever increasing force. The outer ocean, now rising in tumultuous waves, swept in from the westward; and, sweeping right over the barrier-reef with a roar like thunder, broke on the shore with a force unequalled in the memory of any islander now living. Thus the usually calm lagoon within the coral ring, and the annular lagoon on its outer edge, were alike lashed to tempestuous billows, dashing with awful force on either side of the low islet; while the water from below was actually forced up through the coral foundation, till the light sandy soil was so thoroughly saturated as to have become a mere quicksand.

With danger alike imminent on land and sea, it was a difficult question which to face. The ground was apparently about to be wholly submerged, and the alarm was such that 118 persons, including one European (George Herder, agent for a large German mercantile house), decided to take refuge in their boats. All these, with the exception of one man, a native of Anaa, perished.

The others, including Mr Macgee and a few other Europeans, fled to the highest part of the land, which was about fifteen feet above the ordinary water-level. The ground is there strewn with large rocks and stumps of palm-trees. To these they clung all through the long dreary night, while the waves from both lake and sea met and dashed right over them in cataracts of foam.

Throughout the long hours of darkness they battled with the raging waters. Again and again they were dashed from the rocks or stumps to which they clung, and endured a moment of bewildering horror, while carried at the mercy of the swirling waters, till happily some other object presented itself at which to clutch. Further, they were in imminent danger from sharks, which, as they well knew, might attack them at any moment,—a consciousness which formed a horrible item in that night of dread. Mingling with the roar of the waters and the shrieking of the hurricane, came the crash of falling palms, uprooted, twisted, or snapped by the fury of the gale.

When morning broke, the tempest abated; the waters receded to their accustomed bounds, leaving the island a complete wreck, and its shores strewn with the bodies of the dead.

After a few days, a boat arrived in search of Mr Macgee, despatched from the island of Apataki, where he had left the Marion. He found her high and dry on the beach, but otherwise not seriously injured. Of the little May he had himself caught a last glimpse as a huge wave lifted her up and carried her right over the wharf, to disappear in the turmoil of seething waters beyond. Many other small craft have been wrecked. Amongst others the Hornet, a 42-ton schooner; the Nerine, 28-ton; and a great number of boats, which were washed out of the lagoon and carried out to sea.

The isles of Niau, Anaa, and Rangiroa, i.e., long cloud, seem to have suffered the most severely. On the latter almost every house has been destroyed, one hideous detail being that the cemeteries have literally been washed away, and the bodies, bones, and skulls lie strewn over the isle, mingled with the corpses of the drowned, to the gratification of such hungry pigs as have survived the deluge, and who quickly scented out the loathsome festival. Among the bodies which shared this horrible fate, was recognised that of a chief, who had been buried a few days previously.

Nor was this the only isle where the sea disturbed the resting-places of the dead. Mr Boosey told me that on his returning to the miserable wreck of what had been his home at Anaa, he therein found two skulls, which the waves had sportively deposited as grim ornaments for his dining-room. Anaa was the principal settlement in the Paumotu group. The storm did not actually break there till the 7th February, though for some hours previously the barometer had been falling steadily, marking a descent from 30.10 on the morning of the 6th to 29.24 on the afternoon of the 7th.

This so alarmed Mr Boosey that he proceeded to move some of his goods to a large native house built on the highest point of the island, which, however, did not exceed twenty-five feet above the sea-level. His neighbours, like those of Noah of old, somewhat derided his precautions; but even he had saved comparatively little, when the sea came pouring in over the reef in mighty waves, which swept all before them, almost entirely covering the island. When, on the morning of the 8th, the waters receded, a mass of broken timbers and rubbish alone remained to mark where, but a few short hours previously, had stood about 150 buildings of one sort or another. All the boats were destroyed, and the whole land strewn with fallen palms, lying tossed about at every conceivable angle. The destruction of cocoa-palms throughout the group is reckoned at two millions; and as these are the chief wealth, indeed the principal means of subsistence, of the people, and as it takes about eight years for a young palm to attain maturity, you can in a measure realise the loss thus represented, and the time that must elapse ere the poor Paumotus recover from the effects of this terrible storm. The Ségond reports that the sea for many miles around the group is so encumbered with wreckage of every sort, as seriously to endanger navigation.


Papeete, February 26th.

The chief interest of daily life is watching for vessels. The mail from San Francisco is late, and of the long-looked-for ship from the Sandwich Isles nothing further has been heard. Both ships belong to Mrs Brander. The former—the Paloma—is called after her little daughter; the latter—the Maramma—bears one of her own names. A hundred times a-day we look up to the semaphore to see whether the signals reveal any hint of the returning wanderers, but no cheering sign appears. It is very trying for my kind dear hostess, who has so much at stake, and whose eldest son Aleck is expected to return from Honolulu in the missing cattleship.

Otherwise life is running on in strangely even tenor, and I begin to realise that in the South Seas, as in other places, delirious gaiety is only an occasional accident, and even music is only practised by fits and starts. Certainly it has been well for the truthfulness of my impressions of travel that I stayed here long enough to see a little of the dessous des cartes, instead of seeing everything only through the roseate glasses of the hopeful admiral, who was so sanguine that his multitudinous reforms would all flourish. I am glad that I have seen Tahiti in all its phases, especially in its quiet ordinary state, which no one travelling in a man-of-war, or in any other large ship, can ever see, as the kindly people are always glad-of the smallest pretext for getting up festivities.

Amongst other wrong impressions, I should certainly have carried away an idea that himène singing was the normal condition of Tahitian life—that all the people were for ever warbling like birds, as naturally as they breathed, and that the very air was musical. I now find that this is by no means the case. Since the outburst of song which everywhere greeted King Ariiaue on his accession, all the birds have been mute. I have only heard one himène, and that was got up to order, in honour of H.M.S. Shah, and a very poor specimen it was.

But chiefly I rejoice that my prolonged stay here with this fine family of real old Tahitian chiefs (who have treated me with the same loving kindness they heap on one another), has not only shown me whatever still remains of the true Tahitian element, but has also enabled me to realise, in person, the existence of the warm-hearted unbounded hospitality which (now necessarily well-nigh a tale of the past, in over-crowded British isles) still flourishes and luxuriates beneath these balmy heavens.

But as all things must have an end, and my visit to Tahiti has already extended to five months, I now only await the arrival of either of the missing ships, to decide by which route to tear myself away from the Tahitian paradise, and all the kind, kind people in it, to whom it owes half its charm.


March 5th.

Misfortunes never do come singly, and really it seems as if every vessel that has come in of late has brought tidings of some fresh loss. Of those for which we watched so anxiously, the first to arrive was the Paloma, from San Francisco. Great was the joy when she was sighted, great the dismay when it became known that she brought no mails. It appears that she had been becalmed on her voyage to 'Frisco, and so had arrived late. The French consul there, sooner than allow one day's delay in starting the return mail, had chartered another vessel, the Bonanza, to bring it down, at a cost to the Paloma of 2000 dollars. The latter had to wait several days in San Francisco for cargo; and nevertheless, though the Bonanza is accounted a swift sailer, the Paloma reached Honolulu several days before her. She brought news that the Maramma got into so many difficulties at the Hawaiian Isles that Aleck Brander deemed it best to take passage by the mail-steamer up to San Francisco, intending to return thence in the Paloma; but finding that the Bonanza was chartered for an immediate start, he decided to come by her, and so has only just arrived, after both the other ships had been some days in harbour.

The Maramma has had quite a chapter of accidents. After making an excellent run to Honolulu, she went down to Kauai to ship cattle, when it was discovered that she had sprung a serious leak, and had nine feet of water in her hold. Happily she was so close inshore that she landed all her cargo without difficulty. A Government steamer was sent down to tow her back to Honolulu, at a cost of 3000 dollars. Another 1000 dollars were there expended on repairs, and to this must be added 2000 more of dead loss on the voyage,—and all this was due to one rat-hole!

Now she is undergoing further repairs here, and will very likely be despatched to Hawaii in a very few days, in which case she will probably go direct to Kauai, the most beautiful, and least visited, of all the Sandwich Isles. It is a very tempting possibility, yet the element of doubt as to whether she really will go at all, exists so clearly, that it seems wiser for me to take passage in the Paloma to San Francisco, and thence return to Honolulu by mail-steamer. It is a terribly long round; for whereas Honolulu is 2000 miles from here, San Francisco is at least 4000, as the crow flies, and as ships go, the voyage is often one of 5000 miles, or even more—a long voyage to undertake in a brigantine of 230 tons!

Aleck Brander has been giving us most interesting accounts of his reception in Honolulu by all the royalties and high chiefs of Hawaii. As I have before mentioned, they all count blood-relationship with the high chiefs of Tahiti; and though they rarely meet, a visit from one to the other is a great event. So Aleck's first visit was celebrated by a true native welcome, and he had the luck of seeing such traces of old Hawaiian custom as have not yet quite died out. But it sounds odd to hear of presentations of food, and of crouching servants, quite à la Fiji, combined with very smart American-Parisian dresses, very much décolletée. At least the photographs, of which Aleck has brought a large supply, represent the great ladies of Hawaii in very low-necked and short-sleeved dresses of gorgeous material. Certainly the simple robes of Tahiti are infinitely preferable.

On Board the Paloma,
Saturday, 9th March.

The die is cast, the sad partings over, and I have bidden a long farewell to the kindest and most affectionate community I have yet discovered in all my wanderings. I took leave of them all yesterday morning, for the Paloma had gone to Hitiaa, on the other side of the island, there to load with oranges.

My only fellow-passengers are a very kind couple, Mr and Mrs Boyd, who are accompanied by a pretty fair-haired child. We came together from Papeete, in a comfortable coach with canvas cover, and had a most lovely sixty miles' drive along the shore, with the distant hills standing out clearer and more beautiful than I had ever yet seen them, and the foliage seeming richer than ever, as I looked on it all with the sorrowful feeling that it was for the last time.

Several bridges had been washed away during a recent storm—the same which wrought such devastation in the Paumotus—so we had to cross the rivers at the mouth, by driving quite into the sea. It was rather nervous work, as the horses did not like it at all. But otherwise, the beautiful grass roads were in excellent condition, and we had four changes of very good horses, so the drive was most delightful.

Now the beautiful isle lies far behind us, fading into the blue distance, and we are fairly started on our far journey.

Small as is our ship, she is in every respect satisfactory, and as clean and cosy as a gentleman's yacht. I never saw so small a vessel carry so much sail,—truly our Paloma deserves her name, for she is now flying before the breeze like a swift white-winged carrier-pigeon, bearing many a letter.[1]

She also carries 270,000 oranges—a fragrant cargo. They are gathered unripe, to be ready for the market on our arrival. Probably, if we make a slow voyage, we shall seriously diminish their numbers! On their account, every part of the ship is kept as cool and airy as possible.

Our cabins are excellent. Mine is large and comfortable, and has two windows opening on to the deck, so that they need never be shut unless weather is very bad. The table is excellent, the service quiet and attentive. Our Danish captain is an exceedingly good fellow, as is also his wife, who travels with him. The cook and steward, and the two mates, are Swedes and Germans. Seven Rarotongans compose the crew: all are very quiet and silent. So is little Edith, with her cat and kitten. The canary is the only noisy person on board, and sings joyously.

We are starting as it were on a long yachting cruise in summer seas.


Saturday, April 20th,
Still on Board the Paloma.

Our summer cruise has lasted six weeks; we have made about the longest voyage on record. We have lain becalmed for days, which both the captain and his wife attribute to my perversity in writing letters on board! They say it always happens when passengers write, and that it ought to be an irrevocable law that all ink-bottles are emptied when their owners embark. Unaccountable currents have drifted us far out of our course, and the irregular behaviour of the trade-wind has driven us right to the west of the Sandwich Isles, and yet had not the kindness to blow us close to Honolulu, where I might have met some vessel running in and transhipped,—Captain Nissen would not have dared to land me himself, as he would thereby have broken his mail contract. But we passed close to Kauai, which, seen from the sea, is a very uninteresting-looking island; and then we sailed so close to Niihau that we could distinguish every house. It did seem a pity that the aggravating contract should prevent my landing at once, instead of my having to go on all the way to San Francisco, just to return in a steamer! We have actually made a voyage of 6000 miles since we left Papeete! For my own part, I really have not disliked it. We have had lovely weather; everything has gone on most pleasantly; and what with reading, working, and painting, the days have been well filled.

Yesterday was Good Friday, which in Germany and Denmark is called "the quiet day,"[2] and it was observed by the Danes and Germans, and all the crew, by a cessation from all manner of work not positively necessary. The Rarotongans are all Christians, and have their own books, which they read quietly on Sundays.

Now we are off the coast of California. We are nearing the Golden Gates, and hope to find ourselves safe in harbour, before the dawn on Easter morning.


THE END.

 

PRINTED BY WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS.

 
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  1. Paloma—a dove.
  2. Der stille Tag.