THE English are a great colonizing nation. Their country in Europe is small; but by discovery, conquest, and peaceful annexation they have acquired possessions in all parts of the globe, including many of the islands of the Pacific. We steamed through coral groups belonging to them on our way about New Guinea, and found their flag floating over the southern part of the Solomons. The English own also the Gilbert and the Ellice islands, composed of atolls lying north and north-east of New Guinea; the Fanning Island south of Hawaii, noted for guano; the Cook Islands, which might be called the sisters of the Society Group ; the Tongas, not far from the Fijis, and many islets scattered here and there over this sea.
All of these possessions are ruled by the governor of the Fiji Islands, who has the title of High Commissioner of the Western Pacific. He is appointed by the king of England, and has his capital at Suva on the island of Viti Levu (ve’te la’voo) or “Big Fiji,” the largest of the Fijian Group. Many of the islands are ruled through their chiefs, who are advised by the English officials. The Tongas have a king of their own and a legislative assembly, half of whose members are elected by the people, although they are under British protection.
The Fijis are the most important of all these small English islands. They lie about twelve hundred miles north of New Zealand. They are volcanic islands rising steeply out of the sea, each having a coral reef about its coast, so that it might be considered the head of a mountain with a necklace of coral.
There are more than two hundred such islands, the group having an area as large as Massachusetts. Only eighty of the islands are inhabited, and many of these are so small that there is but one village upon them. Most of the people live on Viti Levu, which is about the size of Connecticut, and Vanua-Levu (va’noo-a-la’voo), more than twice as big as Rhode Island.
Our trip from the Solomons to the Fijis takes several days ; but the sea is smooth, and we are able to gather information about them while on the way. They were discovered by the Dutch in 1643, but were not thoroughly explored until Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States navy sailed about them in 1840.
At that time and for years thereafter the inhabitants were ferocious cannibals, who considered human flesh the greatest of delicacies. The different tribes made war upon one another, and each sent out canoes to the neighboring islands to secure captives for their feasts. Slaves were kept and fattened for food, and upon rare occasions a man might sacrifice his relatives and friends.
This was the condition when the missionaries first came to the Fijis. They had great trouble at first ; but they made many conversions, and at last converted the king, and with his aid the rest of the people, so that to-day the Fijians are almost all Christians. There are more than a thousand churches on the islands, and most of the natives attend them, and there are about thirty-three thousand children in the Sunday Schools. The Fijians have their own native preachers, and a common sound evening and morning is the hymn sung at family worship. The barbarous customs have been done away with, and civilization has taken their place. Schools have been established, and nearly all the natives can read and write. Many have farms, and they are among the happiest of the Pacific peoples.
There are several thousand Englishmen now living in the Fijis, and also a large number of East Indians who have been brought in to work on the plantations. Fijians do not care to labor more than is necessary to support themselves, and this in a land where one can live on breadfruit and bananas is not much.
The islands have quite a trade with New Zealand and other countries. The English raise sugar, tobacco, tea, rice, and tropical fruits for export; they also sell copra or dried cocoanut meat, pearl shells, and beche de mer.
We are approaching the Fijis. Great masses of green dot the sea in different directions. Now we are nearer, sailing along Viti Levu. The hills rise up from the coast, and low-hanging clouds are resting upon them. Notice that strip of light green dividing the deep blue waters outside from those close to the coast. That marks the coral reef where the water is shallow. The town on the beach is Suva, the Fijian capital. You can see its buildings under the cocoanut trees which border the shore.
Now we are going into the harbor through a funnel-shaped entrance. Our steamer moves slowly, avoiding the native boats which are shooting hither and thither. What queer things they are ! Look at this one at the right of the steamer. It has a three-cornered sail, made of matting, and an outrigger, a cocoanut log floating in the water outside the boat and tied to it with bamboo to keep it from turning.
See the men in the boat ! They have frizzly hair and skins of a mahogany brown ; but they are tall and fine looking. How their muscles swell as they work their way through the water ! They are Fijians. Listen! they are calling out a welcome to us, but the commotion on board is so great we can not understand them. .
Now we are in the harbor coining up to the pier. There are boats large and small all around us, and we anchor side by side with German, English, and American steam-ships which are here to trade with the Fijis.
We take a stroll along the Victoria Parade, the chief street of Suva, make a call upon the governor, and then go to the hotel, where we enjoy a land meal after our long stay upon ship.
There are many natives in and about Suva. Most of them speak English, and we take several for guides and interpreters during our travels over the islands. We go much of the way upon horseback, for there are bridle paths almost everywhere, and we can travel easily and safely through this once cannibal land.
We ride along the coast where the brown-skinned Fijian girls are fishing on the coral reefs and bringing their catch to the shore. The fish are of all colors; some are almost as gorgeous as the birds we saw in New Guinea. There are green fish and pink fish, gold fish and silver fish, and fish the color of sapphires and rubies.
These seas are noted for their animal life. The coral gardens have crabs of many kinds. They have star-fish and an indescribable variety of sea monsters. Some of the coral patches are almost real gardens in their profusion of shrubs, bushes, sprigs, and sponges of coral. Some coral is pink, some blue, and some lavender. We gather specimens and lay them away, but they lose their beauty after being well dried.
Our trips into the interior are even more delightful than those along the shore. We travel through woods where the trees shade us from the tropical sun, and now and then stop to rest under a great umbrella fern, lying on the beds of ferns underneath. The ferns of the Fijis are even finer than those of New Zealand. There are birds’-nest ferns clinging to the boughs of old trees, and climbing ferns which hang down from the branches and trunks. The Fijis have beautiful pines and flowering trees, where we see red and green parrots peeping out through the blossoms.
There are also poisonous plants, such as the tree nettle, which has glossy leaves with red and white veins. When touched, they sting one so that the pain lasts for days. And then there is the tree called the itch plant, whose sap is somewhat like milk, and if it touches your skin, causes terrible pain ; it will make your body break out into sores which will last a long time.
Everywhere we go we see little farms cultivated by the natives. There are fields of bananas, sweet potatoes, taro, and yams, and of rice, sugar cane, and Indian corn. Many of the fields are in terraces, or steps one above the other, irrigated from the streams by pipes of bamboo.
We rejoice in the pineapples which are brought from the fields for us, and in bananas fresh from the stem. The natives invite us into their homes, and frequently ask us to stay over night. Their houses are not large, but they are beautifully made. They have walls of reeds coated with dried leaves and covered by a heavy thatched roof, upheld by tree trunks set into the earth. The ordinary house has but one room, with an opening at the front covered by a mat which serves as the door. In the center is the fireplace, a hole cut out through the floor with a scaffolding over it, upon which food is hung to be cooked. The most of the cooking is done in earthenware pots. There are no chimneys, and the smoke colors everything black. Wooden bowls, cocoanuts, and gourds are the chief kitchen utensils.
There are no chairs in most of the huts. The family and friends lie around upon mats spread upon a layer of soft grass. These mats are also the beds, the best of them being upon a slightly raised portion at one end of the room, where, as guests of honor, we are allowed to sleep.
For the first night or so, we try the Fijian pillows. They are little logs of bamboo on legs just high enough to fit under the neck and raise the head off the floor, but so hard that they make our necks stiff ; so we roll up our coats and use them instead.
It is very warm in the Fijis, and the natives of the interior wear little clothing. They are modest, however, and are careful how they treat one another. They are cleanly, and have wooden bowls of water at the doors of their houses, so that one may wash his feet before stepping upon the white mats. We always take off our shoes when we visit our native friends in their homes, although they politely protest.
We carry canned stuffs with us to vary the diet of yams, taro, breadfruit, and bananas, which are the chief food of the natives. At some villages as a great honor we are treated to a feast of roast pork. Pigs are found throughout the Fijis, and their flesh is considered a great delicacy. The pig is first killed and cleaned. It is then roasted whole by filling its inside with red-hot stones and laying it in a little pit lined with more hot stones, and covering it up with grass and earth. This forms a natural bake oven quite as good as one made of iron or bricks.