Travel: The Island World

We speak of the Old World, the New World, the Oriental, and the Western World. In this chapter we enter what may appropriately be called the Island World. The geographical name for this world is Oceania. It is called the sixth division of the globe, though as for that, it might with equal propriety be called the third, according as we enumerate the other continents. By grouping Europe, Asia, and Africa together, and the Americas into a second division, Oceania and Australasia become the third, by counting each of the continents as a separate division, Oceania is the seventh, or by counting the Old World continents separately, and the Americas as one, and Australasia separately, Oceania becomes the sixth division.

Sailing southwest from the Hawaiian Islands, we enter this unique world at a central point. From the southeastern shores of Asia and from the eastern shores of Australia, this great family of islands stretches away in a southeasterly direction across about two thirds of the width of the Pacific Ocean, nearly to the shores of South America. Eight thousand miles would scarcely cover the distance from western Malaysia to Pitcairn on the southeast. The islands are divided into four great families, Malaysia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Each of these comprises numerous smaller groups and single islands. Speaking of them as a whole, the islands are either of coral or of volcanic origin. The excep tions to this rule are very few. It is believed that the coral islands have for their foundations, rocks which have been upheaved by volcanic action, but which have not come to the surface, and upon these the wonderful little builders have begun their work. Coral is a calcareous deposit of minute plant-animals classed as zoophytes. By the action of countless millions of these creatures, thousands of islands have been created, many of which have become the habitations of men. The coral islands are of law formation, generally not rising in any place more than a few feet above the level of the sea. Many are surrounded by a reef of the same formation, which lies but a short distance outside the island, and forms a lagoon of placid water about it. Often the island consists of this reef only, the central portion being a lake of salt water encircled by a low ridge of coral rocks forming a wreath of palm trees. The circles are not always complete, they may be but a segment with the arc toward the prevailing wind, and perhaps a submerged line of coral rocks forms the chord of the are. The soil which has been formed on these islands is a vegetable mold, very rich, and hence vegetation is exceedingly rank.

Volcanic islands exist where the upheaval has been more complete, rocks having been thrown by subterranean forces above the water generally to considerable height. Sometimes the shores of these islands rise like walls from the ocean depths to such a height as to be not only inaccessible but extremely grand. In other cases the center of the island is the apex of the pile from which the surface slopes in more or less gentle lines to the shore. These islands present upon approach an interesting and imposing appearance. In the dim distance their ragged outlines at first look like clouds on the horizon. But upon nearer approach, they assume the color of living green, and at last appear in the attractive loveliness of luxuriant foliage, in which they are completely clothed from crown to water’s edge.

The volcanic soil is very fertile, and the warm, humid climate unites with the quickly-responsive ground, and produces vegetation in nature’s most bountiful measures. Indige nous to these islands we find, among other trees, the cocoapalm growing spontaneously. Its green fruit furnishes a delicious, cool, and nutritious drink. The milk of the green cocoanut is apt to impress a northerner unfavorably at the first drink, but his prejudice soon gives way to a hearty relish for the product of this tropical cow. This figure is not inappropriate, since our four-footed cows furnish us with food in milk, butter, and cheese while living, and when they are killed, men eat their flesh, wear their skins, and even utilize their hair. Likewise with the palm tree, its uses for man kind are numerous. Its fruit furnishes food and drink in a variety of forms. Milk, cream, and butter for culinary uses and of delightful flavor are easily obtained from the ripened nuts. In some varieties there is a cabbage formation at the top of the trunk, which is not unlike the vegetable after which the “cabbage palm” is named, and it is used in the same way. From the pith of other varieties, sago is manufactured. The wood is used in the construction of dwellings, while of the fibrous bark, matting is made, such as we often see in the halls and aisles of our public buildings. There are more than five hundred species of the palm, and it is probable that no other class of the vegetable world is so serviceable to mankind, unless we be called upon to except the grasses. May we not then from these facts call the palm the islanders cow?

Palm trees have a slender, straight trunk, which, in the case of the cocoa-palm, often grows to a height or more than fifty feet. There being no branches, the leaves grow out of the body of the tree in a tuft at its top. The leaves of the different species vary in form, some are very broad, and from these the common. palm-leaf fans are made. Others are long and slender in form, among which there is a kind whose leaves, we are told, sometimes grow fifty feet long and eight feet broad, though none such came under my observation. These enormous leaves are pinnated, that is, divided into narrow strips, and from what I have seen, I am not led to doubt the statement referred to. Cocoanuts, both in the fresh state and dried, form the principal article of export from the islands. The dried article is called “copra.”

Besides the palm, we find growing luxuriantly and everywhere the banana plant, the fruit of which forms a staple article of food and commerce. Then there are guavas, mangoes, pineapples, and other tropical fruit, and these, with bread-fruit, yams, and arrowroot, form the principal diet of the natives.

The inhabitants of Oceania seem to be descendants of a common stock, though whence they came is unknown. It is believed, upon what seems to be good authority, that the Samoan Islands were the home of the original ancestry. They formerly built immense canoes with decks, capable of carrying more than a hundred people. With such vessels it was not difficult to scatter themselves throughout the entire island region.

Entering Oceania as already indicated, by the commodious boats of the “I Oceanic” line, a distance of two thousand seven hundred miles south and a little west from Honolulu, we reach Pago Pago, island of Tutuila, of the Samoan group. This group is a member of the Polynesian family. Among other groups included in this division are the Fiji group,- consisting of about two hundred and eighty islands and islets, eighty-seven of which are inhabited,- Tonga, Society, and the Low Archipelago. The Society Islands are under French dominion, and with the names of some of them many of our readers are already familiar through their knowledge of the missionary work which has been done upon them. Among them we may mention Tahiti, Raiatea, and Rurutu.

The Polynesians are among the finest specimens of aborigines to be found in the world. They are of good stature and physique, erect and dignified, and in youth many of both sexes are handsome. As the steamer enters the harbor and drops anchor at some distance from the shore, we are quickly surrounded by canoes loaded with natives and their wares. With surprising agility a portion of each boat’s occupants clambers to the ship’s deck, while the others proceed to pass up the various articles which they have brought out for sale. The fruit of the land is well represented, and the passengers are generally anxious to invest in something to eat that is fresh from the shore. There are also beautiful baskets of coral of every variety of form, and an interesting assortment of handmade trinkets and curios, in which we would gladly invest were it not for the trouble of transporting them. However, we purchase a piece of ” tappa,” or native cloth, for a table spread.

This curious fabric has been neither spun nor woven, but is made by beating the inner bark of the bread-fruit tree into a very thin layer of pulp, and then beating several of these layers into one. When the cloth is dried, it is painted in rude and fantastic patterns, and is used for articles of clothing. The people of all these islands are exceedingly childlike and simple in their characters and their culture. Their traditions abound in ridiculous superstitions. Their affections are strong but fickle, and their malice, though easily excited, is readily appeased. They were, when discovered by the white men, true children of nature, subject to the passions of the natural heart, yet tractable, docile, and very impressible under good influences. Their simple habits of living and primitive diet, which is almost purely vegetarian, have doubtless contributed largely to making them what they are -physically fine specimens of mankind, in nature childlike and susceptible to good impressions. The fact that in some instances they were actual cannibals does not invalidate the principles alluded to, namely, that the diet and the habits of living have an effect upon the character. People of every nation and clime are witnesses to that truth. Cannibalism was originally connected with their heathenish religion and superstition, rather than being a part of their chosen dietary. They were real children of fallen human nature, savage by instruction and birth, but their simple manners of life have made them easily accessible to those who work for their good as well as to the evil minded.