Art. III.—Notes on the Chatham Islands, extracted from Letters from Mr. H. H. Travers.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 25th November, 1871.]
I beg to communicate to the Society the following notes, extracted from letters from my son, who is now on a visit to the Chatham Islands, and is engaged in collecting objects illustrative of their natural history. He started from New Zealand in the beginning of July, experiencing very severe weather on the passage down. During the voyage he saw considerable numbers of Mollymawks (Diomedea melanoptorys), Cape Pigeons (Procellaria capensis), and other kinds of Petrel, but very few Albatrosses. Unfortunately, the want of hooks prevented his obtaining any specimens of these birds. The vessel first made the land near Manganui, the residence of a German family (whose name he does not mention), by whom he was received and treated with great kindness. Their place derives its name from a picturesque volcanic hill, at the foot of which the house is built. This hill is clothed with bush on its lower slopes, from which it emerges, as it were, in nearly perpendicular crags, full of small caves and fissures. He searched these caves for traces of raised beaches, but observed none. He, however, found in them considerable numbers of birds' bones, but whether any of them are of extinct species does not appear from his letter. The beach near the house is strewed with dead shells, chiefly Turbo Cookii, Elenchus, Iris, a large Triton (the specific name of which is not given), with quantities of bivalve shells, which he describes as generally similar to those on the beach at Waikanae heads. Manganui is near Tuponga, which, before the Maoris' late departure from the Chathams for Taranaki, was one of their most flourishing settlements. This settlement appears to have been nearly destroyed by the tidal wave of 15th August, 1868, by which many of the huts were broken to pieces, the fragments being carried for a considerable distance inland. He next visited Wangaroa, the only harbour in the islands. It has the appearance of a small lake, the shores of which were formerly covered with bush, which has since been destroyed. In walking from Manganui to Wangaroa, he passed one of the places in which the peat (which covers a large part of the main island to a considerable depth), has been on fire for time out of mind. Mr. Engst, by whom he was accompanied, pointed out where, thirty years before, the road crossed a place now occupied by a deep hole, resulting from the burning of the peat, and my son observed that, since that time, the entire space burnt does not exceed an acre in extent, showing how very slow is the process of destruction. Some of the burnt-out holes are now filled with water to the depth of ten or twelve feet. From Wangaroa he proceeded to Waitangi, where the late New Zealand convicts were kept. He
expresses little surprise at their escape, and describes the so-called redoubt as a most miserable affair. In every respect the utmost looseness appears to have been observed in regard to them, and their moderation on the occasion of their departure is still a matter of wonder. The tidal wave did much damage to this settlement also, and the sea has since been encroaching rapidly on the narrow strip of level land between the hills and high water mark. He was fortunate enough to obtain here an ancient Moriori stone club, of which he has sent a drawing. These weapons are now extremely rare, only one or two having previously been obtained. He describes it as having been manufactured from stone found on the island, rather rough in finish and peculiar in form. He also obtained one of their primitive fish-hooks, made from the Pope's-eye bone of the seal. These implements are also now very rare. In the latter part of July he left the main island for Pitt's Island, which he reached on the 29th. Here he was most kindly received by Mr. Hunt's family. He noticed that wherever the tidal wave had impinged on the beach the old accumulations of sea-sand had been completely washed away, and that a great number of slips had since taken place in the hills adjoining the shore. At Waikari he found a considerable quantity of fossils and plant impressions, but of what age he does not mention. He has, however, collected largely, and no doubt these collections will enable the age and character of the deposits to be determined. In August he again visited the main island, chiefly for the purpose of inquiring into the traditions of the Moriori inhabitants. They are now very few in number, and he found that, with the exception of four or five old men, they were utterly ignorant on the subject of their origin. The information he obtained leads him to believe that the Morioris are a mixed race, descended from the union of Maoris, who had reached the islands many generations ago from New Zealand, with an aboriginal race by whom they were then occupied. These aboriginal people are represented as having been taller and more robust than the Maoris, but seeing that the latter are themselves a robust and powerful race, I think this may be doubted. As my son is collecting a large number of skulls from old burying places on the islands, no doubt some opinion on this point, and also as to any difference between the aboriginal and the mixed race may be arrived at. He also states that the present people represent that their Maori ancestors came originally to New Zealand from Hawaiki, wherever that may be; that when they came to the Chathams they brought with them the kumera (Iponæa tuberculata), and karaka (Corynocarpus lævigata), but that the former did not thrive, owing to the moistness of the climate. He finds the karaka growing abundantly in the immediate neighbourhood of the various old settlements, but not in the general bush of the islands, which gives colour to the statement of its comparatively recent introduction. They further state that their
Maori progenitors arrived in two separate batches, at considerable intervals of time, and that it was not until the arrival of the second batch that wars and cannibalism were introduced amongst them. These habits, however, were not long persisted in, having been brought to an end through the wisdom of a chief, who saw that the inevitable result would be the extinction of the people. After this they continued to live in profound peace until invaded by the Maoris, as detailed in my son's account of his former visit. At the date of his last letter to me he was still in communication with some of the older people, and hoped to gather fuller accounts than have yet been published of their habits of life before the invasion. I may here mention that the report of Mr. Rolleston on the condition of the existing remnant of the Moriori race indicates that it had undergone great deterioration in physical character, as the result, no doubt, of close inter-breeding for many generations. My son's observations on the general fauna and flora are necessarily at present incomplete, but I gather from his letters that he expects to add largely to the number of plants collected on his former visit, especially amongst the cryptogams, although he has also found several new and interesting phanerogamous plants, all, however, closely allied to, if not idetical with those of New Zealand. As on his former visit, he finds it extremely difficult to preserve his specimens, owing to the dampness of the climate, and he had already lost two large collections of sea-weeds through mildew. He states that the undergrowth on both islands has been greatly destroyed by pigs and other animals, rendering it difficult to obtain specimens of ferns, etc., in anything like good condition, and leading him to suppose that many of the species will soon become extinct. Amongst the birds he has obtained are several which he believes to be new to our fauna. He particularly mentions a large and beautifully crested Cormorant, which he shortly describes as follows: Head and crest jet black; back black, except a patch between the wings, which is pure white; throat, neck, and breast also white, and over the nostrils carunculated patches of naked skin. He also mentions a small bird, entirely black in plumage, and having much the habits of Petroica albifrons; a Dotterel, differing from the common Dotterel of this country, which he also found; a sea-bird, called by the whalers the “Blue Billy,” the beak of which is singularly shaped, and of a blue colour, whence its trivial name; the Nelly (Ossifraga gigantea), of which he has obtained some very large and fine-plumaged specimens, and several other birds which, though not new, are rare and interesting. He has obtained the skeletons of two species of seal, and one of a species of Berardius, of which a tooth is preserved in the Colonial Museum. He noticed a considerable number of peculiar fish, both marine and fresh water, and many beautiful molluscous animals, but was unfortunately short both of bottles and spirits for preserving them. He has not found any lizards on the main island, and has been assured, both by the European residents and by the
natives that they had never seen any. He obtained one specimen at Pitt's Island, and saw several more. He is informed that these reptiles are numerous on the Star Keys, a small rocky islet some few miles from Pitt Island, which he hopes to be able to visit. He mentions, too, the probable existence of a native rat, mentioned by the Morioris, but has not yet seen any specimen. From the tenour of his letters I believe that his collections will add greatly to our knowledge of the fauna and flora of the islands, and may probably help in determining the period at which they were cut off from land communication with New Zealand.