CONSIDERING Australia a continent, New Guinea is, next to Greenland, the largest island on the globe. It is longer than the distance from New York to Omaha, and its width in places is as great as the distance from Boston to Washington. It would make more than seven states the size of Kentucky, and about thirty-eight as big as Massachusetts.
Turn to your map and look at it. What is it like ? A crocodile ? Yes, a little ; but more like a gigantic bird squatting on the Arafura Sea and Torres Strait, its island-feathered tail extending eastward into the Pacific, and its ragged head about to swallow some of the islands of the Malay Archipelago.
This vast country was discovered by Menezes, a Portuguese navigator, in 1526, only thirty-four years after Columbus discovered America, but for centuries it lay unexplored and unclaimed. In 1848 the Dutch, who had been surveying the coast, took formal possession of the western portion of it, and in 1884 the English and the Germans claimed the remainder. The Dutch have now the lion’s share, or the whole western half of the island ; while of the remainder, the northern part be-longs to the Germans and the southern part is a British territory under the control of the Commonwealth of Australia. Each nation is gradually exploring its territory, and in time we shall learn all about the country.
At present we know only that it is a wild land of high mountains, great rivers, and low, fever-laden plains. The Charles Louis Mountains in Dutch New Guinea have peaks so high that, although they lie close to the Equator, they are clad in perpetual snow. They are said to have the highest peaks between the Himalayas and the Andes. The Bismarck range in German New Guinea is almost as high, and there is one peak in British New Guinea, or Papua, which is more than thirteen thousand feet high. Each country has great rivers which have built up vast deltas and plains. The Fly River in British New Guinea is a mighty stream up which boats have gone for more than six hundred miles.
Nearly all of New Guinea is covered with forests. The vegetation is so thick that it would take us months to make our way through it from one side of the island to the other. The trees are much the same as those we saw in Australia, but so dense that their leaves shut out the sun, and so bound together with creepers and rattans that one has to cut his path from one place to another.
There are many poisonous snakes in the forests, and also savage tribes hostile to white men. The dangers are so many and travel is so difficult that we shall confine our journeys to the coast. Port Moresby is the capital of the Territory of Papua, or British New Guinea, and we can there learn all that is known about the island.
In coming to New Guinea from New Caledonia we are in the coral seas all the way. The Great Barrier Reef extends almost to New Guinea, and that island itself has a coral reef guarding its coast. We make our way through a break in the reef, and wind in and out through coral gardens to a beautiful harbor, almost surrounded by hills. There is a collection of wooden buildings and native huts on the shore. They are Port Moresby, the chief town of New Guinea and the home of the English governor.
We go to the Government House, built on a commanding site at the eastern end of the harbor, and have delightful chats with the different officials. They tell us that the exploration of the island is going rapidly on, and that the different governments are beginning to develop their territories and civilize the natives. They are finding gold in the mountains and along the Fly and other rivers ; they are setting out cocoanut groves and rubber forests, and are planting tobacco and cotton.
We learn that the natives are very fond of tobacco, and that they use sticks of tobacco as money. The sticks are as long as a lead pencil and a little bit thicker. They are composed of the strongest tobacco leaves coated with a sweet mixture, which makes them stick fast. In some villages four sticks is the pay for a day’s work, and a certain number will buy a hatchet, a knife, a fish net, or a necklace. They are taken and given in trade at the stores of Port Moresby.
The natives of New Guinea are very interesting. They are Papuans, but differ greatly according to the tribes to which they belong and the parts of New Guinea which they inhabit.
Some of them are said to be cannibals, but in general they are good people, affectionate among themselves, and easily ruled by the foreigners. They are more intelligent than the native Australians, although very superstitious, believing in witches and ghosts. The most of the tribes worship a great spirit who, they think, lives in the mountains.
We see natives about Port Moresby wearing clothes much like ours, but they are the students of the mission school. The officials tell us that the people of the wilds wear almost no clothes whatsoever. The women and girls of some tribes have petticoats of long leaves, grass, or strips of bark strung together and bound about the waist in flounces, layer on layer. They have also necklaces of shells or metal, and the skirt and necklace, with a coat of tattooing, often forms the whole costume.
The native men wear even less than the women. Many a one has only a necklace and bracelets and a bit of cloth about the waist, with perhaps a bark belt or two, ten inches wide, bound around the body. The belt is usually tied very tight, compressing the waist like a corset, so that even though the man be full grown, his waist is exceedingly slim. We ask the reason for such a custom, and are told that the men want the women to think they have small stomachs and are therefore small eaters. The woman provides most of the food, and a young woman who is looking about for a husband naturally chooses the man who eats least. A boy on being asked why he laced himself so tightly, said, ” I do so because when I am older I must get me a wife, and if I have a big stomach, no one will have me.” It is said that some of the tribes think it a disgrace for men to be fleshy, and the braves do all they can to keep lean.
In eastern New Guinea the men tattoo their bodies and faces in hideous fashion. In some tribes the women are tattooed all over, the ink being pricked into the skin with thorns. The thorn is dipped into the ink and then driven through the skin with a little mallet. Such dressmaking is slow, but a suit once made lasts a lifetime.
Each tribe has its own way of combing the hair, and the headdress often indicates the state of the man or woman who wears it. For instance, you may know whether a woman is married or single by a look at her head, for girls shave their heads close to the scalp upon being wedded, and keep it so shaved for the rest of their lives.
The men of some regions dress their hair so that it stands out all over the head, and in others they thread the hair through many little bamboo tubes or pipes, so that it looks like great tassels.
Many natives pierce their ears, and some thrust sticks and other ornaments through their noses. Indeed, the odd customs are as many and as different as the tribes, and this is so not only in dress, but in the manner of living.
In some villages the men dwell in clubhouses and the women in huts off by themselves, a number of the latter often being in one hut. The women cook the food in the huts and bring it to their husbands at the clubhouse. There they lay it on the porch, for women may not enter the clubhouse, nor do they eat with their husbands. These clubhouses are of great size. They have a sort of ridge roof thatched with straw or leaves, which makes them look like immense hayricks. There are no windows, and the smoke gets out as it can.
In parts of New Guinea the men and women live together in apartment houses. Such a house may be five hundred feet long and sixty feet wide, and may contain as many as fifty families. It is divided up by little partitions into stalls or pens, opening upon a central hall. Each family has its own stall ; in it the cooking is done, and there all sleep at night. The apartment houses are made of a frame-work of poles, roofed with grass or the leaves of palms and bananas.
We are delighted with the native children. They have their own sports. The girls have odd-looking dolls, the boys play leapfrog and games, and altogether they have as much fun as we do at home.
One of the oddest things in New Guinea is the cradle, which is made of the fiber of the banana plant knitted into a bag. The baby is put in the bag and hung to a pole in the roof or in a tree outside the hut, and swung off to sleep. When the mother goes away, she merely unties the string and throws the cradle, baby and all, on her back and walks off with it.
Many of the native tribes devote themselves to hunting and fishing. Some make pottery for sale, and others have little farms where they raise sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, and other tropical fruits. The people live largely upon vegetables, but in many respects are much the same as the Australians, eating game and fish, and also snakes and lizards, and worms which they find in the trees.
New Guinea has about the same wild animals as Australia. It has ant-eaters, kangaroos, wallabies, wild pigs, and dingos. It has alligators and turtles, and sharks swarm the coasts. It has ten species of snakes, many ants, and an in-sect whose bite produces sores like pimples. It has gorgeous butterflies and the most beautiful birds of the world.
The birds of New Guinea are wonderfully interesting. We see some in the woods not far from Port Moresby, and pigeons of various kinds in the settlement. The Goura pigeon is almost as big as a hen turkey, and it is more beautiful than a peacock. Its body is of a brilliant light blue ; its neck shines like an opal, and it has a crest of tiny blue feathers running high up from the back of its head which, when the sun touches it, shines as though it were set with jewels.
And then there are the tiniest humming birds, more brilliant than our humming birds at home. There are red birds and parrots of most gorgeous colors. There are cassowaries as big as young ostriches, with hairlike feathers resembling brown strings, and with feet so strong that a kick would break the skull of a man. We see a young cassowary, which has been tamed in Port Moresby, but are told that it is not a safe pet, for it eats the buttons from the workbasket, and it is by no means certain that it may not take a bite out of the kitten or peck at the baby.
The most beautiful of all birds, however, is the bird of paradise, of which many varieties are found in New Guinea. This bird is comparatively small, but its feathers are beautiful. The golden bird of paradise has six long feathery tips on its head, and a great crest or crown, which rises out of the middle of its back, forming a canopy over it. Others of these birds have bright red feathers with velvetlike plumes encircling the base of the head, and tail feathers which stand up like wires. The feathers are so fine that they are sent to Europe in great quantities for hats and bonnets.