Art. XVIII.—On the Chatham Islands.
[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury.]
[With a Map.]
The following letter addressed to Mr. W. T. L. Travers, F.L.S., by his son, Mr. Henry H. Travers, on the return of the latter from a Phytological exploration of the Chatham Islands, was read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, and is now published as part of their Transactions:—
“In accordance with your instructions, I proceeded to the Chatham Island group, in a schooner, the “Cecilia,” of 40 tons, which sailed from Lyttelton on the 12th of October last. Our voyage was slow and somewhat uninteresting, and it was not until the 19th that we sighted the Horns, two conical-shaped hills at the south-western extremity of Chatham Island. On the way down, we met large numbers of right whales, humpbacks and porpoises, and were, as usual, accompanied by Albatrosses and Cape pigeons. After sighting the main island we proceeded directly to Pitt's Island, and came to anchor off a rocky point forming the eastern extremity of a small bay, at the north end of the island, and at the head of which, is the residence of Mr. Frederick Hunt, an Englishman, who has been settled there for nearly twenty years. Immediately opposite Mr. Hunt's house is a rock called the Flower-pot, which forms a shelter for boats engaged in landing or shipping goods. Mr. Hunt's house is close to the beach, and is surrounded by about two hundred and fifty acres of cleared land, mostly laid down to English grasses, and divided into paddocks, forming a very compact and well cultivated farm. With the exception of these clearings, and of insignificant patches of open land in various parts of the island, the whole of Pitt's Island is covered with bush. I was received with much civility by Mr. Hunt and his family, who invited me to stay with them during the time I should be engaged in collecting plants, etc. On this occasion, however, I remained on Pitt's Island for a week only, having been detained by a tremendous gale from the north-west.
“We left on the 26th, and reached Waitangi (a Maori settlement on Chatham Island) on the following day. Here I presented my letters to Captain Thomas, the Collector of Customs, by whom I was treated most courteously, and who promised to give me every assistance in his power in carrying out the objects of my journey. Waitangi is the chief Maori settlement on the Chatham Island, and is situated at the south-eastern extremity of Petre Bay, which forms an indentation some forty miles broad on the south-west side of the island. But for this bay, the shape
of the island would have been nearly that of an isosceles triangle, of which the south-western side would have formed the base. A small, but deep river flows into the bay close to Waitangi, washing, on its western side, the foot of some low ridges of reddish sandstone. The river drains a considerable tract of hilly ground on the south side of the bay, and is also fed by a stream running from a lagoon close to the settlement. Were it not for a bar at its mouth, vessels of from forty to fifty tons burthen might enter it, as, inside the bar, the water is deep for a considerable distance inland.
“The huts of the Maories and the residence of Captain Thomas, are situated on low ground on the east side of the river. The Maori huts are built of fern posts, lashed together with supple-jacks, and thatched with Toi grass, resembling in all respects those found in the old pahs in New Zealand. Captain Thomas's residence is built in the same way, with the exception of the roof, which is shingled, but it is plastered inside and out with clay, and whitewashed. A chapel belonging to the Church of England natives is a very handsome specimen of their style of building; the inside walls are lined with fronds of tree ferns, from which the pinnules have been stripped, and which are interwoven in a curious manner with leaves of Phormium tenax. The roof is braced with boards having white scrolls painted on a red ground. The outside walls and roof are closely and smoothly thatched with Toi grass. The building is about fifty feet long, and nearly thirty broad, and about the same height to the top of the roof. There is a smaller building used as a church by the Roman Catholic natives, built in the same style, but more highly decorated and more neatly kept.
“The population of Waitangi, including a few Moriori slaves, numbers about one hundred and fifty, all told. Their huts are surrounded by well-fenced paddocks, laid down to English grasses, but now almost smothered by the common daisy, mustard, and dock, which are spreading rapidly over the whole island. The natives generally possess considerable numbers of horses, cattle, and pigs, which run, in common, on the open lands and in the bush. They cultivate large quantities of potatoes, maize, pumpkins, and onions, which they supply to American whaling ships resorting to the islands, and occasionally export to New Zealand. I did not find that they cultivated any European fruits, but they use largely that of a small species of Solanum indigenous to New Zealand, and which they had introduced to the Chathams. There are also Maori settlements at Tubong, on the western side of the island, and at Warikauri, Taupeka, and Kaiangaroa, on the north side, having altogether a population of some four hundred souls, all told. The remnant of the Morioris (the name given to the aboriginal inhabitants) exclusive of the few who are still retained in slavery, is settled at Ohangi, on the south-eastern side of the island. They do not exceed two hundred in number, and are said to be rapidly decreasing. I believe this to be the case, for during my six months' stay, not less than eight deaths occurred amongst them. In their habits of living they now assimilate to the Maoris, and speak a language compounded of their own original language and that of the New Zealanders. Before the invasion of the islands by the New Zealanders, which took place about the year 1832 or 1833, the Morioris were very numerous, numbering little short of fifteen hundred
people. They are much shorter, but stouter built, than the New Zealanders, and have darker skins, but the same straight coarse hair. Their faces are rounder, and more pleasing in expression. Their noses are Roman in shape, resembling those of the Jews. They never tattooed, and although they originally practised cannibalism, they had discontinued it before the arrival of the New Zealanders. They appear to have been a very cheerful people, fond of singing, and of telling laughable stories. Their habits of living however, were originally very rude and improvident. They built no huts, merely using a few branches of trees, stuck in the ground, as a shelter from the wind. Their chief food consisted of fish, birds, shell-fish, and fern root, which latter they prepared in the same manner as the New Zealanders, but the women always eat apart from the men.
“Like many other savage tribes they were very indolent, seldom seeking food until pressed by hunger. They had no canoes, there being no timber on the islands sufficiently large for constructing them; but they formed rafts of the flower stalks of the Phormium tenax, lashed together, and having an upright wooden stem ingeniously carved. The paddles were shaped like a spade, and were used at the stern, very much in the same manner as a spade would be used in digging. They made stone axes, similar so those of the New Zealanders; and these, with clubs, etc., constructed from the harder woods growing on the islands, formed their weapons. In their own quarrels it was understood that the first blood drawn terminated the battle. Such fights were uncommon, and were generally for the possession of a seal carcase, or of some mass of whaleblubber which happened to be cast ashore, both of which were esteemed choice luxuries. They had no hereditary chiefs, the most successful fisherman, or bird-catcher, or any member of the tribe distinguished by extraordinary stature, being looked upon as an authorised leader. They had no idea of a God in our sense of the term; nor, so far as I could learn, of evil spirits; but they looked upon a good fishing or birding ground as being the gift, or rather under the charge, of an “Atua,” or good spirit. Their mode of disposing of their dead had special reference to the particular vocation or fancy of the living subjects. If the dead person had been a good fisherman, for example, his body was lashed in a sitting posture to a raft, and sent adrift with a baited line in his hand. If he had been a noted bird-catcher, he was fixed in a stooping position between two trees facing the particular hill, or other spot, which he usually frequented. If he had no particular vocation, he was put, in a sitting posture, into an open hole in the ground, generally about eighteen inches deep, with any favorite piece of carved wood stuck up before him. Mr. Alexander Shand, son of the late Collector of Customs at Waitangi, is, I believe, well acquainted with their traditions and customs, and will no doubt be able to give you full information upon the various subjects to which I have thus shortly referred.
“So far as I could learn, their chronology, unlike that of the New Zealanders, is very defective, and consequently they are unable to fix, even proximately, the date of their first arrival in the islands. They say, however, that they came in two canoes, one of which drifted to sea again, but the other was preserved for a considerable period. They are quite in the dark as to where they came from originally, but as they resemble
the Mangaia Kanakas, who form a large proportion of the crews of the American whaling vessels, I conceive it not improbable that they have the same origin.
“The islands were invaded in 1832 or 1833 by the New Zealanders, by whom large numbers of the aborigines were killed and eaten. In fact, their expedition may be said to have been undertaken solely for the latter purpose, as a Maori who happened to have visited the Islands, whilst engaged as a seaman in a vessel trading from Sydney, having reported the aborigines as a plump, well-fed race, who would fall easy victims to the prowess of his countrymen. By a refinement of cannibal cruelty, the unfortunate wretches were compelled to carry the wood and prepare the ovens in which they were to be cooked. Such of them as were destined to be eaten, were then laid in a row upon the ground adjoining the ovens, and were killed by blows from a méré, by one of the Maori chiefs. It is not more than twenty years since the Maories gave up these feasts. Although I found the remains of numerous skeletons in the woods in Pitt's Island, I was unable to get one in good condition, I have, however, brought over several authentic skulls, which will probably be interesting for ethnological purposes.
“As I had determined to make Pitt's Island my head-quarters, in consequence of its offering greater advantages as a collecting ground, I took the opportunity of my first visit to Chatham Island, to travel round it. Accordingly, on the 2nd November, accompanied by Mr. Hunt (who had come over with me from Pitt's Island), I started for the Red Bluff, about twelve miles from Waitangi. The road led partly through a belt of bush, which for a depth of two or three miles, forms a fringe round a large portion of the island, and partly along the sea shore. The weather unfortunately, was extremely wet, as indeed, it was during the whole of my stay on the Chatham. The bush consisted principally of Eurybia, Coprosma, Laurus Karaka, Dracophyllum, etc., with tree ferns, amongst which were Cyathea dealbata, the whole so interwoven with our old friend the supple-jack, as to be almost impenetrable. In this bush I found a Lomaria, closely allied to, if not identical with, Lomaria discolor, Polypodium Billardieri, and several other ferns. On the beach the Myosotidium nobile grew with rank luxuriance, where not invaded by the pigs, which fed upon the roots. The Maoris dry the leaves, and use them as tobacco. Where the sea shore is sandy, I noticed a sand grass, identical with one of those which occurs upon the sand-hills near Christchurch.
“From the Red Bluff we proceeded to Wangaroa, on the north side of Petre Bay; and from thence, leaving a large tract of sand-hills between that place and Tubong, on our left, we crossed to Warikauri, on the north side of the island. This route led us past three small lagoons, destitute of water plants, but fringed, in part, with rushes, and in part with bush, similar to that before described. The country here is low, and is now covered with a young growth of grasses, and sedges, mixed with the common Pteris esculenta, and with occasional patches of Phormium tenax. On the sandy tract before alluded to, between Wangaroa and Tubong, I noticed large quantities of a small but beautiful shrub, apparently belonging to the Epacrideœ (Leucopogon Richei) the sand grass above referred to, and fern. From Warikauri we proceeded to Taupeka, where we slept.
“From thence, on the next day, we proceeded to Kaingaroa, travelling along a sandy beach fringed with bush, into which we occasionally passed, in order to avoid rocky places projecting into the sea. With the exception of a Eurybia and Dracophyllum, I found no plants in flower, and the weather was so extremely wet, that I was unable to enter the bush. We remained at Kaingaroa three or four days, one of which I spent at the residence of Mr. Shand, at Wakuru, by whose family I was hospitably entertained. From Kaingaroa we went to Okawa, formerly the principal Maori settlement, and the chief scene of their cannibal festivities; and from thence we returned to the Red Bluff, passing across the great lagoon, along a reef, which lies about a foot below the surface of the water, and intersects the lagoon from east to west. This reef is generally from twenty to thirty yards broad, but occasionally narrows to less than ten, with a sloping bank on each side. The lagoon is nearly forty miles in length from north to south, and from eighteen to twenty broad at the north end, narrowing to five or six at its southern extremity. It almost intersects the island, the space between the north bank and the sea shore, being little more than three or four miles, whilst at the south end it is only separated from the sea by a sand bank a hundred or a hundred and fifty yards wide. This sand bank is periodically broken through by the accumulated waters of the lagoon; the beach, after the lagoon has sunk to high-water mark, being repaired by the wash of the sea from the southeast. The lagoon is, in some places, bordered by extensive spongy tracts, in others, by grasses, sedges, and rushes, and in others by bush similar to that which occurs on the sea shore. I did not notice any water plants such as Potamogeton, etc., in any of the lagoons; though in the centre of one of the smaller lagoons, on the north side of the island, I saw some plants spread upon the surface of the water. In consequence, however, of the depth of the water, and of their distance from the edge of the lagoon, I was unable to obtain any specimens.
“The general surface of Chatham Island, except of that part which lies to the south of Petre Bay, is low and slightly undulating, with occasional hills. For example, on the tract to the north of the Bay, there are three or four conical hills attaining an elevation of five or six hundred feet, and composed of volcanic or igneous rock. These hills are clothed with bush from top to bottom. The country to the eastward of the Great Lagoon is very low, scarcely rising in any part more than fifty feet above sea level.
“The peninsula to the south of Petre Bay, is more hilly, the hills presenting abrupt escarpments to the sea. The soil is peaty, and often fifty feet deep. In several parts of the island this peat has been on fire for years, burning at a considerable depth below the surface, which when sufficiently undermined, caves in, and is consumed. I have seen the loose ashes arising from these fires, upwards of thirty feet deep. In one place I noticed, in the burning peat, at a depth of six or seven feet from the surface, trunks of trees of a growth evidently far exceeding any that are now to be found on the islands. I was, I am sorry to say, unable to obtain any specimens, in consequence of the great height of the wall of peat, and the mass of ashes below. The surface growth (exclusive of bush), consists principally of grasses and sedges, with small patches of fern, but I have little doubt that large numbers of indigenous herbaceous
plants have been destroyed, partly by the constant firing of the surface by the natives, and partly by the pigs, cattle and horses. Nearly the whole country had, in fact, been burnt shortly before my arrival.
“There are, at present, but few land birds either on this or on Pitt's Island. Formerly the White Crane (Herodias flavirostris), the Bittern (Botaurus poicilopterus), an Apteryx, said by the Maoris to have been identical with a New Zealand species, and also according to their accounts, a smaller species of the same bird, the weka (Ocydromus Australis) and the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) were found on both islands, but have become extinct since their invasion by the New Zealanders. Mr. Hunt informed me that the last time he saw the Bittern was about three years ago. The land birds now found are a large Kite, the Pigeon, the Tui or Parson Bird (Prosthemadera Novœ Zelandiœ), the Pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus), the Parakeet (Platycercus, Sp.), the Fan-tail (Rhipidura), the Lark, and a small Titmouse, all identical with the birds of the same genera found on New Zealand. I was told by Mr. Hunt, that the Pigeon was first seen on the islands within the last eight years, and that the Titmouse appeared shortly after the occurrence of the great fires in Australia, known as the Black Thursday fires. Mr. Hunt is a very careful and trustworthy person, and as his statement relative to the Pigeon was confirmed by the Maoris, I have full reason for believing what he told me in regard to both birds. Of aquatic birds I saw the Grey Duck, Brown Teal, and two species of Shag, common in New Zealand, and a large number of gulls and other sea birds similar to those which frequent the coast of that country. Mutton-birds were extraordinarily numerous on a rock known as the Fort, lying between Chatham and Pitt's Island. During my journey round Chatham Island, of which I have given an account above, I saw a peculiar teal on one of the lagoons, near the Red Bluff. This bird had bright scarlet markings on the wings. I fired at it, but owing to the great dampness of the weather, the gun I had with me hung fire, and I missed the bird. I never saw another specimen and was informed that it is very uncommon. The number of land birds of all kinds, however, is extremely limited. Indeed, it is rare to meet with any at all during a whole day's walk in the bush. I attribute their destruction principally to wild cats, the progeny of imported animals, although I was informed that a species of Gull, also attacks the land birds and is especially destructive to poultry.
Besides wild cats, which are common on both islands, there are on Chatham Island, swarms of the Norway rat, and English mouse. I believe there were no indigenous terrestrial mammals, on either island, not even a bat, but seals of several kinds, and whales, and porpoises are abundant on the coasts, the former frequenting reefs at some distance from the shore. In connection with the recent introduction of the New Zealand Pigeon, I may mention, that in a small tract of bush on the margin of the great lagoon, I found three trees of the Edwardsia microphylla, all growing close together, and being the only specimens of that plant which I saw on either island. They were not in flower or fruit at the time. They were apparently all of equal age, and were about five inches in diameter and fifteen feet high. Mr. Hunt, to whom I pointed them out, stated that he had never seen the plant before. During my residence at Pitt's Island I was in the habit of examining the coast of
the Bay, in which Mr. Hunt's house is situated, twice a day, for some months, and on one occasion I found a sawn plank of Totara, and on another a seed of the Edwardsia, which had evidently been washed from New Zealand. The seed was hard and apparently sound. I gave it to Mr. Hunt, who sowed it, but I have not yet learnt the result. I also saw on the beach, logs of White and Red Pine, and of the Totara, which had been washed ashore some time previously.
“I left Chatham Island about the 20th November, and proceeded to Pitt's Island, and took up my residence with Mr. Hunt. As I have before mentioned, the whole of Pitt's Island, with but a very trifling exception, is covered with bush. I was struck with the perfect identity of the great majority of the plants with those of New Zealand, but, as you will observe, from the collections I made, I felt it my duty to take even those about which I had no doubt whatsoever. There is but one hill on the island which exceeds six hundred feet in height. It is perfectly flat topped, the summit having an area of about eighty acres. This is covered with peat to the depth of five or six feet, supporting a mixed growth of grass, fern, Phormium tenax, and shrubs. From the summit of this hill a good view of the whole group of islands is obtained.
“I was unfortunately unable to visit South-East Island, which appears to be the highest land in the group, and which, I was informed, contained several plants not to be found either on Chatham or Pitt's Islands. I had one opportunity of visiting it, but, owing to the great dampness of the season, I was afraid to leave my collections, which required unremitting attention. During one short absence, I lost a very large collection of plants (including my only specimens of Euphorbia glauca, Edwardsia microphylla, and Mesembryanthemum Australe), which, on my return, I found to be one mass of mildew. The several members of Mr. Hunt's family were, during the whole time of my stay, so busily employed in their various duties, that I felt I could not impose upon them the extra task of attending to the plants, and this prevented me from visiting the various outposts and reefs.
“In regard to insects, etc., my knowledge is too limited for me to venture upon any detailed observations respecting those which occur in the islands. I noticed, amongst others, the common New Zealand bluebottle, and yellow flesh flies, and the European house fly. Mosquitoes and sandflies were abundant. In the bush I saw a considerable number of spiders, including one very large Mygale, which also frequented buildings, making its nest in the thatch. I found several beetles, but moths and butterflies were rare, the few I met with being apparently identical with New Zealand species.
“Several introduced plants are spreading rapidly, for example, white clover, the English daisy, the dock, the mustard (Sinapis arvensis), the English burr, (which grows with the utmost rankness in the bush on Pitt's Island, often to the height of three feet and upwards), the Polygonum (? aviculare), found on the Canterbury plains, the wild strawberry, and others. Indeed, from the luxuriance and rapidity with which those plants grow I have little doubt, that, if not checked, they would soon overcome and replace the indigenous herbaceous vegetation. Since the introduction of bees, European fruit trees have produced freely, and all kinds of vegetables grow with great vigour.
“Should any other person be tempted to visit the islands for botanizing purposes, I recommend the months from December to April inclusive, as the best season.”