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Volume 1, 1868
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Art. VIII.—On the Island of Rapa.

[With Illustrations.]

[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, October 12, 1868.]

I May commence my notes by saying that the Island has been hithertoerroneously called Opara, but on my recent visit to it, I enquired particularly as to its proper native name, which I found was pronounced nearly as if spelt with a L, and two ps, or Lappa. Opara, they said, “was English name.” In future it will be called Rapa.

This Island—like other places one might mention—has acquired a temporary, and adventitious value, principally from its position, and the possession of a harbour. It was first discovered by the English navigator, Vancouver, since which time it has apparently been very little visited except by the small trading vessels from the neighbouring islands. Vancouver described it truly, as rugged, formed of craggy mountains, with very little level ground—the narrow valleys between the precipitous hill sides affording the only space for a limited cultivation.

The position of Rapa is in 27 ½° S. latitude, and 144° W. longitude; about 700 miles S.E. of the Society group, and some 4° S. of the troupic of Capricorn, and as nearly as possible two-thirds of the distance between Panama and Wellington.

Very little was generally known about the Island till lately, and nothing of its being favoured with so perfect a harbour. The finding of it out was the result of very many enquiries I made from every one I could hear of, who had been to the South Sea Islands, as to the existence of some suitable spot, where we might have a coal depot. For, on the establishment of the Panama service, I was so impressed with the desirability, if not necessity, of some stopping place near the route, that I used every effort for months endeavouring to find one. At last I was rewarded for my pains by hearing of Rapa.

Its situation, just on the outer verge of the Southern Archipelago and in the direct track (not the direct line) between Panama and New Zealand, makes it particularly advantageous as a place of call in case of accident or deficiency of fuel.

And, speaking of the track of the steamers between New Zealand and Panama, I will for an instant advert to the difference of route in going towards Panama and returning from it.

Leaving Wellington we adopt what is called the “great circle” course, which, though apparently roundabout, is in reality the direct and shortest line to Panama. Now, in returning from Panama to Wellington, we appear to adopt a much straighter course, but it is really somewhat longer. This is readily explained by reminding you that we are not sailing upon a level, but a curved surface. Take a round body to represent the earth, a thread stretched between any two points, is evidently the shortest distance between them, and viewed in a line with the centre is straight. This should be the ship's course. But on the chart generally used, this straight line will appear a curve—and all the straight lines (meridians excepted) are really curves. And although Mercator's projection, as it is called, is the most simple for the ordinary purposes of navigation, yet it

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Harbour of Rapa

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has led many people, and even seamen, to have confused ideas upon this very simple subject. In the track upwards to Panama the winds are frequently found favourable, because the course lies principally in the well known belt of westerly winds. From Panama we keep further north, through the heart of the easterly or trade winds, prevaling generally, though varying with the seasons, between the equator and the southern tropic. In this part of the voyage the winds are less favourable than the other, and particularly in the latter part; trying to avoid the westerly or adverse winds which prevail further south, we adopt this track which brings us close to Rapa. From which, I fear, you will think I have made too long a digression.

The Island is of very irregular form, with several indentations in the coast; two of which are considerable bays, having each its little village, whilst the third and largest, is the harbour. It is about twenty miles round, though from the irregularity of its outline it is difficult to estimate this exactly. The coast is bold, with no outlying reefs beyond half a mile.

The French have assumed the protectorate of it—on the ground, I believe, that it is a dependency of the Tahitian group—but looking, a day or two ago, at a recent French map of the world dedicated to the Emperor, I saw a circle described round the Society group, as the limits of their protectorate. Now this line happens to be more than three hundred miles distant from Rapa, and had we not established a station there, I fancy they would never have gone near it. But the French having made an effort to induce the Company to adopt Tahiti as the half-way house, of course unsuccessfully, and hearing that we were in search of a place more in the track than Tahiti, they fancied it must be at one of the Gambier Islands, lying considerably to the N.E. of Rapa, and included in the protectorate circle. Accordingly they sent a Resident there, to watch our proceedings. Finding after some time that we did not appear there, but had selected Rapa for our port of call, the same Resident was sent to that Island in the early part of the present year, on board the French was transport “La Dorade.” A few months previous to this, and subsequent to our appearance at the Island, another French steamer “La Touche Treville” called at the Island. They make out for the first time that Rapa—though nearly, as I said, three hundred miles out of the magic circle drawn by themselves round the Society group—belongs to the Tahitian protectorate. Some three months ago, the French war steamer “La Touche Treville” called at the Island, as I am informed, made nearly all the inhabitants drunk, and got the King, Tapanua (a most powerful toper), and two chiefs, Miroto (the man who betrayed the Tahitians to the French), and Eiton, to sign away the Island to the French. This, Eiton told me himself. Many of the influential chiefs being absent, kept sober on the occasion, and deny the King's right to alienate any lands not his personal property. His dusky majesty having drunk all the rum, now begings to repent his bargain, and hopes the English will come to the Island and preserve him from all intruders. The object of the French was, as one of their Captains told us, simply to embarass the operations of the Company, or they certainly would not incur an expense of about £600 per annum, to watch our coaling, merely.

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It is only due to the supineness of the English Government that this fine harbour is not under their control; for, three years ago, on my representation, application was made to the Admiralty to send a man-of-war there. However, nothing was ever done in the matter.

The appearance of Rapa, as we approached in the “Ruahine,” was very picturesque, with its sharp peaks, thrust up as it were into the air, through the irregular but more rounded forms of the mountainous hills of the Island. The harbour lay just before us, with two coal ships securely moored about two miles off, there being, seemingly, no obstruction between us and them. But beneath the quiet looking surface, lay the treacherous reefs, which, difficult and dangerous, as they are, to approach heedlessly, form the security of the harbour. We stopped some time, close to the entrance, waiting for a boat to come off, the Captain prudently hesitating to enter, lest the buoys might, by accident, have become displaced. And the event proved how wise this precaution was, for we found afterwards that one of the principal buoys had been driven by a recent gale, quite across the channel. At length the expected boat came, with the Captain of the Company's coal ship, and a native pilot. We moved cautiously ahead, and very soon the bottom was clearly visible under us; then we approached the entrance of the narrow tortuous channel among the reefs—the rocks glistening just below the surface, ominously close to the ship at times. The Captain, and our two pilots, were all on the qui vive as we threaded the crooked passage, appearing as a blue line amid the black and green patches of the reefs. It was with a feeling of relief we at length saw that we were safely through the lines of buoys, and found ourselves in the most romantic, snug harbour imaginable, the land rising on three sides, like the walls of an amphitheatre, and protected by the reefs and a beacon islet on the fourth, or eastern side; with the advantage of having fresh air from the open sea. Twenty ships might moor safely there, and small craft innumerable. The endless variety of form and colour around us was most enchanting. Near our anchorage was a very small village, rejoicing in thirty-one inhabitants; but further off, on the opposite side, was another larger village, which we call the capital—where the King and the French Resident live. We only regretted to see the French flag waving there instead of the English—and there is not the slightest doubt but that the natives would themselves have preferred it. It is perhaps matter of legitimate regret, that the simple manners and customs—the primitive feudal sway of the native chiefs—should be interfered with by either flag.

Our coaling, of course, was proceeded with at once, and the greater part of the passengers, anxious to escape for a while from their iron prison, gradually dispersed on shore; whilst those who remained made bargains with the natives for coral, tropic birds' feathers, bananas, etc. I began doing a little sketching, and after securing some of the very peculiar features of the land, my next object was to determine with a moderate degree of accuracy, the height of the most prominent of the remarkable aiguilles, which jut up in this curious island. This had never been done, and, previous to arrival, I had heard so many different guesses at the height of the Rapa peaks, varying from 400 to 1400 feet, etc., that I was the more anxious to arrive at something definite. The difficulty was to secure a sufficiently level space to measure a base line

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Harbour at Rapa Island

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(not the most easy thing to do with precision, even under favourable circumstances). However, finding the shore was impracticable, I selected a spot on the beach, nearly in a line with the ship and the mountain. Then, I ascertained the length of this in three ways. One by measurement from the chart, another by sound, and thirdly by the angle subtended by the ship's whole length, with sextant The average of these gave me a tolerable base, and, of course, by the angles at each end of the same, and a little triangulation, I arrived at the height of the peak I selected, viz. 2100 feet.

My short experience of the inhabitants, together with the testimony of others, gave me a very favourable impression of their peaceful simplicity of character, and honesty. They number now only about 125 to 130 men, women, and children. Formerly it was thought, and indeed, according to their own account, there were 1200 to 1500 in number. But it is said that internal wars in the first instance, and then the ravages of various epidemics brought amongst them, have reduced the inhabitants to the present limited number. They are, in appearance, a fine, manly, well made race, and looked very Maori to me. The wonder is that, living as they do principally upon an esculent root called “taro,” somewhat tasteless and insipid to us, with a scanty supply of meat and fish, they keep up so good an appearance.

The language generally, the names of the points of land, mountains, etc., seemed to my ear also very Maori-like. However, I cannot speak very positively on this head, as my Maori lore is not great. Almost the only word of Maori which I know (and that they tell me is wrong) is—Tenako. Of course I tried the effect of this, but I was responded to by— Uronnah! sounding very much like. “Your-honor,” which I thought properly respectful, and somewhat Irish.

The climate of the Island must be, to a European, very delightful, for surrounded as it is by the sea, the temperature is very equable, and though close to the tropics, the thermometer seldom shows more than 75° in the height of summer. The weather, though mostly fine, is changeable, with occasional sudden showers, as might be expected from the effect of the high peaks arresting the clouds, and causing them to precipitate their suspended moisture. The winds are for nearly nine months of the year from S.E. to N.E., and westerly the remaining part. For, of course, lying so near the tropic, the trade wind is swayed southward by the sun in the summer time (November, December, January, and February)— when the Island is embraced by it, and left, in the winter, to the northern limit of the regular westerly current of air, which then extends more northerly.

I have arranged with the meteorological department in England, to make it a station for those observations, and very shortly the instruments will be there—so that Rapa may become a point of great scientific interest and utility. In fact, the Southern Pacific being an almost unknown sea to us, meteorologically, the importance of this fixed station of Rapa in conjunction with the observations on board the Panama ships and in New Zealand, cannot be too highly estimated. We have already a tide gauge there, showing the extreme rise and fall to be two feet six inches, and the establishment of the port, or high-water at full and change, 12.15 The wave, which in August swept along these coasts, was felt also at

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Rapa, indeed it partly washed away our coal wharf. There was also a slight earthquake—the impulse of which came from the south—coinciding very nearly in point of time with the disturbances felt here, and those which have desolated Peru—all which effects confirm very significantly the sagacious predictions of our friend Dr. Hector, of the locality of the principal eruption. Further particulars, and more exact information, relative to the time of those occurrences will invest these phenomena with yet greater interest.

The peculiar, irregular form of the land, with precipitous mountains and deep gullies, cause sudden gusts and eddies of wind in the harbour, varying continually in direction, so that it is difficult to say exactly what wind is blowing outside, unless it happen to be from the eastward, or directly in. There is a remarkable absence of surf, I am informed, which is not easily accounted for—my correspondent saying that “landing is easy anywhere, and boats can lie alongside precipitous cliffs, exposed to a swell which rolls in unchecked for thousands of miles without breaking” I am quoting from a letter to me from our representative.

The resources and products of the Island are, at present, but few in number or quantity, excepting perhaps goats, which abound, and are to be seen everywhere, delighting in the most inaccessible places, where, with a glass, their forms moving to and fro on some razor-edged mountain, stand out in relief against the sky. Small vessels occasionally take a cargo of them away to Tahiti. I was told that the Governor of that Island had ordered the French Resident at Rápa to have them all des troyed; upon what enlightened principle it is difficult to say; but the Resident had too much good sense to comply with the order. The “Ruahine” had, the previous voyage, landed on trial, some sheep, but they did not seem to thrive. A few pigs are procurable—good, but dear. There are a few fowls wild in the bush; some widgeon, and of course sea-gulls. There are no reptiles, although one of our passengers told me he had been in bodily fear of them all day; and his enjoyment had thus been very unnecessarily marred. Rats are very numerous. It is curious that when our coal ship first went there, they were troubled with mos quitoes, though none were found on shore. They were in fact taken there in the ship, and have now disappeared. There is an abundance of fish, some very beautiful, especially the parrot and gold and silver fish; good mullet and some other kinds are readily procurable; of sharks, plenty.

The taro root, the chief support of the inhabitants, grows abundantly, but requires attention to its culture, as it will not grow without plenty of water. We left a quantity of English vegetable seeds, and we hope they will do well Water melons are plentiful and cheap; bananas grow well and are very good; oranges are produced but of very poor quality; pine-apples also very inferior. The sugar cane likewise grows well, and there were cocoa-nuts formerly on the Island, but a blight destroyed them all some years ago. I could not ascertain if they throve well; but, I believe the cocoa-nut tree is a great discerner of latitude, and will not flourish out of the tropics. Our representative told me he was very successful with his cabbages; tolerably so with maize; less so with his potatoes, doubtless owing, as he said, “to his ignorance of gardening.”

Coal, of a very inferior quality, has been found in the interior; the

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Birds Eye View of Rapa.

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natives use it occasionally for cooking, etc., but it is useless for steam purposes.

The land is generally covered with thick scrub and fern, showing here and there clear spaces of a kind of coarse grass which grows five or six feet high. There are a few beautiful flowering shrubs, and whilst the tree and smaller ferns abound, trees of tolerable size are found in the northern part of the Island, but only small ones near the harbour. The cultivationuis limited because the requirements are so small; still, vegetation is most luxuriant, and the soil appeared to me of the richest kind. True, the level ground is comparatively of small extent, but there are many hundreds of acres which might readily be cultivated.

Religion.—Captain M'Kellar, our representative there, in one of his letters to me, says:—“They are good Protestants, and firm haters of the French, or the ‘Wee-wees’ as they call them, and only await the arrival of a British ship of war to surrender their island to England. However, the French have been beforehand, and will stick to their protectorate, as they term it, but, which in plain English means, taking what they like, and compelling the natives to work without paying for either. They have a king and half a dozen chiefs, but with little authority—in short, they live like one happy family, or did so before the French came.”

In the “Ruahine” we were at Rapa two days nearly—the second of which being Sunday, it was not without interest to find the day strictly kept, and that, in that quiet place, it was sensibly quieter than the previous day—women and men donned their best attire, and the former what little fineries they had to display. There is a building set apart as a church at each village—that at the larger one being in very good condition; but at our village as per chart, of thirty-one inhabitants, it was in a sadly dilapidated state. Being on shore close to this, about seven in the morning, I heard some singing inside, and at once entered (stooping under the projecting thatch) by one of the numerous breaches —only too practicable—in the walls. At a sort of rude reading desk, was a native conducting the singing—he only having a book—a dull monotonous chant, in which the congregation (seated crouchingly on the rush covered ground) joined. The congregation consisted of thirteen females of all ages, and two men, and although in the census of Rapa women are sadly in the minority, yet they have the advantage of being at a premium, and, as it seemed to me, had the privilege of doing the religion for their husbands. The service was very simple, consisting of reading, singing, prayer, and an address. The Bible used, was that translated by the missionaries at Tahiti, and printed in England. I was told that the people of the larger village had, not long ago, managed to purchase an harmonium for their church, and waited for the lucky chance of some one coming, in due time, to play it.

In the afternoon I was on shore again near the same spot, and hearing a bell ringing continuously, I found it was the summons for church. Almost at the same time, a horn was blown at the opposite village—the capital—as their summons also to afternoon service.

There are curious remains of apparently fortified places at Rapa, said to be the defences of the earlier warlike times. On the summits of many of the steep hills are to be seen these square fortresses, some of very elaborate construction. But what is very singular, they are mostly solid

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within. The stones are well squared, of very large size, and well cemented. Around, or on the top of, one in the interior are still the bones and skulls of a number of warriors to be found, who, they say, were starved out by their opponents, I regretted much that I had not time to make an exploration of those and other places myself. I felt I could have readily staid a week on the Island, with plenty of interest and amusement. Indeed, one enthusiastic young lady, to whom, before our arrival, I was jokingly suggesting the possibility of being wrecked going in, with the alternative of living in tents, and doing a little of primitive life while waiting for the next steamer, said, “she should enjoy it beyond measure.” However, we were not indulged in this, but our visit was a great break to the voyage, and I think we all enjoyed the novelty of the scene and the quiet retreat, very much.

I may just mention that the remarkable group of rocks called the “Four Crowns,” and which on many charts are marked doubtful, not only exist, but may be seen on a clear day from Rapa, some 40 miles off.

The French Resident, Mons. Caillet, gave me one piece of information which is generally interesting, and to navigators, valuable. It is that, Easter Island, the natives of which have hitherto been found fierce and treacherous, rendering any attempt at communication dangerous, may now be visited without apprehension, and supplies obtained. This happy change has only recently been effected by the influence of some courageous and benevolent French priests, who ventured upon the difficult task of endeavouring to civilize these, hitherto, savages.

But the coaling is done, the signal gun is fired, and the “Ruahine,” by the fiercely blowing off steam, seems impatient to be away again; so the stragglers get on board, with their spoils of coral and fern, etc.; we cast off from the hulk, and with captain and pilots once more at their posts, we move slowly ahead towards the sinuous pathway amid the reefs and which, at a distance, is only indicated by the buoys on either side of it, looking like small red spots on the north of the channel, whilst black ones mark the limit of safety on the south side,

I took my post in the fore-top, that I might the better see the reefs mapped out, as they beautifully were, below and around us. The light gleams again on the scarcely covered rocks, here and there, which we have to pass, and the general interest in this short but intricate bit of navigation is greater than ever. We at length pass between the last of the black and red buoys, and are once more in clear water. We bid adieu to our skilful pilots, their boat returns to the harbour; we again go “full speed ahead,” and then have a capital view of this interesting little island as we sail and steam round it.

It was a beautiful sight watching the many varied and varying forms, and tints of colour, too, of the needle-like peaks and crags, and deep valleys, with their exuberant vegetation, and here and there a dark precipitous cliff, having a sparkling stream of water, like a silver thread, running down its face. But we rapidly left behind, this, our last stopping place, becoming very soon too distant for us to admire any more; and Rapa at length melted away from our view, absorbed in the purple haze of sunset, leaving us to turn our thoughts, hopes, and expectations, exclusively, to New Zealand.