Abstract of Lecture on New Guinea.
[Read before the New Zealand Institute, 20th September, 1873.]
The lecturer first pointed out that though New Guinea had been discovered prior to any other island in the Australasian seas—no less than 347 years ago—yet it still remained almost the only terra incognita of the inhabited world, and said he should show geographical features and national characteristics wholly at variance with all preconceived opinions of the shores and people of that great island. He then gave an historical sketch of the different visits made to New Guinea from the year 1526 to the present time, including an outline of the encroachments of the Dutch on the western shores, and illustrated, by an account of the cruel massacre of the crew of the German schooner Franz in last March by the natives under the Dutch rule, how little that nation had done to civilize the western races of New Guinea. Before describing the cruise of the “Basilisk,” the lecturer called attention to the fact that two distinct races inhabit the southern shores of New Guinea—the black Papuans and the light-coloured Malay race. The former occupy the low, swampy, malarious coast from the head of the Gulf of Papua for nearly 1,000 miles to the west. They are perfect savages, the males going entirely naked, and are only elevated above the degraded Australian natives in having fixed homes and in slightly cultivating the land. The latter occupy the southern shores from the head of the same gulf to the extreme east, and are much higher in the scale of civilization, being all decently clothed, good agriculturists, and well acquainted with the art of rude pottery.
The “Basilisk” left Sydney in December, 1872, for the purpose of suppressing the illegal practices against the Polynesians on the pearl shell and běche-de-mer fisheries in Torres Strait. Having made prizes of several vessels which had taken natives from the Polynesian Islands without a license, she proceeded to the S.E. coast of New Guinea, the first point touched at being Yule Island. Between Yule Island and Hood Point—120 miles—the whole of the coast line was laid down by Captain Stanley, of H.M.S. “Rattlesnake,” in 1849; but the only point landed on was Redscar Bay, where, after a very brief intercourse with the natives, hostilities were anticipated, and the party at once returned to the ship.
When about twenty-five miles E.N.E. of Yule Island, the “Basilisk” found herself, at daylight, off a vast extent of drift-wood and uprooted trees of great size. They were first reported as reefs, causing considerable anxiety until daylight revealed their real nature. This led them to suppose that inside Yule Island they would find a large river which might prove a road to
the interior of New Guinea. Yule Island lies off the entrance to a large, well-sheltered sheet of water, now named Robert Hall Sound, where the “Basilisk” remained several days. The island is about 550 feet in height, well cultivated, and fertile. The mainland, excepting some bold headlands, is one vast extent of flat swampy-ground, extending six or eight miles inland to a low range of hills, which are backed up by range after range until they culminate in the magnificent Owen Stanley Mountains, 12,000 to 13,000 feet high. They were not successful in finding a river leading to these high lands. One river, which looked capacious enough to raise their hopes greatly, proved, after its sluggish course had been followed for many miles, to lead nowhere, and to be merely the drainage of the immense surrounding fresh-water swamps. A rapid river emptied itself into that just referred to, but its current was too powerful to admit of the captain's six-oared galley ascending its course far. It was from this latter river probably that the drift-wood seen at sea was derived. The scenery on the banks was monotonous in the extreme. There was a dense growth of mangroves and other moisture-loving trees. With the exception of flying-foxes and screaming, gaudy-coloured birds, there was an entire absence of animal life. Occasionally they came to ill-made native huts, from which a track through the swamp led to some acres of raised ground like an oasis in a desert; these were carefully cleared, and cultivated with yams, taros, bananas, etc. Here also were permanent houses, built, as usual, on poles some eight feet from the ground, with one room only, common to the whole family. Immediately on their appearance the natives hid themselves in the swamp. It appeared marvellous how human life could exist in such a malarious place. Even in the glare of a noon-day sun the air was thick with mosquitoes.
In Robert Hall Sound the ship was always crowded with natives, fresh parties from distant parts of the coast arriving each day. They are a dark copper-coloured race, combining both dark and light shades, decently clothed—the men wearing a breech cloth, the women the usual ti-ti, or South Sea petticoat. The men have their hair frizzled out in a mop, but the women cut theirs short, and tattoo their bodies extensively, which the men never do. They ornament themselves with black, white, and red pigments, variously laid on, and fasten bunches of bright flowers and the plumes of the Birds of Paradise to their heads and shoulders. Occasionally the great beak of the Toucan was worn as horns on each side of the head. The men's mouths were all much disfigured from the excessive use of the betel-nut. Their weapons are bows, arrows, spears, and clubs made of wood and stone. They were totally unacquainted with the use of iron, and infinitely preferred their own stone hatchets to our axes. The barter they most liked was the polished pearl-shells of Torres Strait.
None of their villages are visible from the sea, being placed in the bush in cleared spaces, which are very neat and cleanly kept. In the rear of the villages are generally extensive, well-fenced plantations of yams, bananas, etc. They gladly received their white visitors at the villages. No signs of cannibalism were visible, and they appeared to be a friendly, intelligent people.
Being so distinct a race from the black, naked New Guinea men of Torres Strait, it will be very interesting to ascertain where the line of demarcation occurs. It is, however, probably not far to the west of Yule Island, for at Cape Possession (25 miles to the west), in 1846, Lieut. Yule remarks that the natives varied in shade from nearly black to a light copper colour. Perhaps it is at some spot where the betel-nut first grows to the east of Torres Strait, for the black race never use this, while the light race always do. Some fine specimens of steel sand were found on the mainland near the sea.
During the south-east monsoon Redscar Bay is a wild, exposed anchorage, the surrounding country low, swampy, and malarious, and intersected by many large streams flowing from the Owen Stanley range. Four or five days were spent in vain efforts to reach the mountains by means of these rivers, but in every case after ascending 12 or 14 miles, where the country began to be somewhat open, the current was so rapid, and snags and uprooted trees so numerous, that it was impossible to go further. The river banks are very similar to those at Robert Hall Sound, but are more frequently fringed with a kind of palm without any trunk, but with gigantic leaf-branches forty or fifty feet arching across the river. Some smaller species were armed with innumerable hooks on the edges of the leaves, which lacerated the explorers when, trying to avoid the current, they kept close to the bank. When clear of the swamp the rivers ran between dense tropical forests, the trees of no great girth, but towering to almost fabulous heights—200 to 250 feet—but even this height could not save them from the destructive climbing parasites, which, reaching to the loftiest branches, destroyed their life and hung round the dead limbs in most weird and fantastic shapes.
The largest of the rivers was blocked by an accumulation of logs and snags, which, having become interlaced, formed a bridge over the river, and being continually added to from above had assumed the shape of large vegetated islands, under which the river rushed and foamed furiously. Just below these islands the river was about 80 yards broad, 20 feet deep, and very rapid. At night they suffered terribly from mosquitoes. Not a sign of natives was anywhere seen, but the natives at Redscar Bay said a powerful tribe lived inland, of whom they were much afraid.
Redscar Bay is the ill-chosen site of a Polynesian native mission, belonging
to the London Missionary Society, where the unfortunate teachers, little better than children themselves, are left to their own resources, and are dying off rapidly.
Immediately to the east of Redscar Head the outlying Barrier reef rears itself to the surface of the water, at a distance varying from three to eight miles from the shore, and guards the coast uninterruptedly as far as Hood Point from any rough seas. Simultaneously with the appearance of this guarding reef the entire features of the country change. The whole coast between Torres Strait and Redscar Head is, as a rule, low and swampy, and has probably been formed during the course of ages by the alluvial deposits of the numberless large streams that descend from the great Owen Stanley range. Here precipitous, round-topped, grassy hills, openly timbered and bearing a strong family likeness to each other, spring from the white coral and sand beach, and are backed up by higher ranges inland, while fertile valleys lie between. The coast is strewn with villages, always marked by a grove of cocoa-nut trees. The houses are built after the Malay fashion, on poles, some standing far out on the shore reefs in quiet waters, while others cluster among plantations on the hill-sides. Perhaps this singularly sudden change from a low, muddy, mangrove-bound coast, to boldness, coral, shells, and white sand is caused by the courses which the rivers from the mountains take. From Redscar Head to Hood Point not a single stream was seen emptying itself into the sea; small trickling rivulets and water-holes were found, but no clear, running stream. The soil is of a peaty, black, spongy nature, and probably absorbs the rain as it falls.
Close to the Fisherman Islands of Captain Stanley, the “Basilisk” passed inside the Barrier reef by one of those narrow bottomless openings peculiar to these seas, and anchored in a fine roomy harbour within a harbour (now named Port Moresby and Fairfax Harbour), previously discovered by the boats. The ship remained here some days whilst running surveys were made and the coast explored. In the neighbourhood of Port Moresby the valleys are intensely rich and tropical in their vegetation, but the hills, of which the greater part of the country consisted, were perfectly Australian in their appearance. They had very poor soil, covered with large stones, scattered gum trees, and grass. On some of the hills large quantities of quartz were found, some specimens being impregnated with gold, but no trace of gold was ever discovered among the natives.
The description of the Yule Island natives may generally be applied to the natives of this part of the coast, but they appear even a more harmless and inoffensive race, only one having been seen armed during the month spent amongst them. The canoes, which trade up and down the coast for long distances, calling at different villages, were frequently examined and found to
be equally destitute of weapons. Many of their canoes were of the kind described by Lieut. Yule, of H.M.S. “Bramble,” in 1846, viz., double canoes with a cane deck or platform passing over all and fastening the canoes together. They are propelled by large mat-sails spread between two poles in the shape of the letter V, and steered with long paddles. Their length was about 40 feet, and extreme beam about 8 feet. No treble or quadruple canoes of this description were seen.
In their houses these natives had rough wood spears, and occasionally stone clubs, but no bows. “We roamed over the country and visited their villages as freely as if they were English people. If any of our fellows got lost in the bush the natives took them to their villages, fed them, and offered every hospitality before bringing them back to the ship. Apparently they had never before seen a white man, and their curiosity was great to see and touch our white skins.” From their proximity to Redscar Bay they had learnt the use of iron, and eagerly took axes in barter. Their fishing nets, made from the fibre of a small nettle-like plant, are precisely similar to an English seine, quite as strong, and are universally used from Yule Island to East Cape. Wallabies were the only wild animals; pigs and dogs, the domesticated ones, seen.
Commencing at Heath Point—where Captain Stanley began his running survey of New Guinea—distant about 40 miles from the then supposed south-eastern extremity, the chart shows an unbroken continuation of the Owen Stanley Range to near the supposed South-East Cape. The north-east shores of New Guinea had never been examined, but all the charts agree in representing its eastern termination to be in the shape of a wedge, with D'Entrecasteaux Island on its north-east board. “The reality we have found to be very different, as the rough tracing will show. You will observe that New Guinea finishes its enormous length to the eastward in the form of a broad fork. Heath Point of Captain Stanley is a lofty island lying off the mainland. Thus Captain Stanley, in reality, commenced his survey at the extreme south-east point of New Guinea without being aware of it. It was probably thick weather when his soundings were taken within two miles of Heath Island. Under any circumstances, from the westward, Heath Island shuts out all view of the strait named by me ‘China Strait.’ The tracing will obviate my making any lengthened remarks on the unexpected configuration of the land which it has been our lot to discover. I will briefly say that the south-east extremity of New Guinea sweeps precipitously down from a height of about 2,000 feet to the tranquil shores of China Strait.” On the opposite side is Hayter Island, irregularly shaped, rising to a height of about 800 feet. Hayter Island is separated by a narrow pass (riven asunder by some mighty convulsion of nature) from Mourilyan Island. The latter is of a moderate
height on its southern board, but to the north-east rises to about 1,200 feet, and is separated by Fortescue Strait from Moresby Island, a noble island with peaks nearly 2,000 feet high.
“It is a curious question how it has come about that the mistake of supposing New Guinea to end in a wedge-like shape should have occurred. It may have been that D'Entrecasteaux and the old navigators knew of the existence of the north-east fork, and placed their discoveries relatively correct with regard to it, while they knew nothing of the south-east fork. Modern navigators—making the land from the south—knowing nothing of the north-east fork, and seeing high land of that part of New Guinea over the low land of Mourilyan Island, hastily jumped to the conclusion that it must be D'Entrecasteaux Island. Thus confusion arose and the fork was shut up. It is clear enough now.
“I am strongly of opinion that the route between China and Australia will eventually lead through China Strait, which is free from danger and has safe anehorage everywhere. A ship leaving Sydney would follow the outside route to the great north-east channel, a clear, free sea from that well-known track leading to China Strait, thence to East Cape is a clear run.” There the “Basilisk” was brought up by reefs. Unfortunately a want of stores and fuel prevented them looking for a passage to the south of Lydia Island, which Captain Moresby thinks will undoubtedly be found. He examined the northern shores of New Guinea for about 25 miles in a boat. “Once round East Cape New Guinea is washed by a grand, clear, reefiess sea. A ship might literally sail with her sides rubbing against the coral wall which binds the shore, and find good anchorage in any of the bays where a beach is seen. How far to the westward this description would apply remains to be proved. Of the beauty and fertility of these islands and shores of New Guinea it is impossible to speak too highly. In its general features it strongly reminded me of Jamaica. The precipitous wooded mountains are to a considerable extent cleared and terraced to their very summits with taro and yam plantations, in a way that even a Chinaman might envy, while the valleys produce cocoa-nuts, sago, palms, bananas, sugar-cane, oranges, guavas, pumpkins, and other tropical productions. Mountain streams abound, and contain a delicious eating fish, almost identical in taste and appearance with the English trout.” The torrents which discharge into Sir Alexander Milne Bay are very numerous and large.
At the head of Sir Alexander Milne Bay fine specimens of steel-sand were obtained. At East Cape the natives possessed large lumps of obsidian, but they did not observe that it was used to barb spears or make knives of, as at the Admiralty Islands.
The whole of these coasts, except where the mountains rise too precipitously
from the sea to give foothold to man, which is often the case, are thickly populated. The natives are of a lighter copper-colour than those previously described, slightly limbed and active, with bright, intelligent features, some of them of a decidedly Jewish cast, with light hair. Many would be good-looking but for the disfigurement caused by the betel-nut. Their taste in painting themselves is peculiar. At one time they make themselves a sooty black with charcoal and oil; at another they will paint black spectacles round their eyes, blacken the nose, and lime their cheeks and chins white, giving themselves a most grotesque appearance. They are fond of wearing bright flowers, birds' plumage, and long ornamented streamers of the Pandanus fastened to their shoulders. In some instances the septum of the nose was perforated and a polished bone thrust through. Occasionally they wore human jaw and spinal bones as bracelets and ornaments. The women wore their hair short and were extensively tattooed, the men never. They are fond of making pets of parrots, cassowaries, and different species of a sloth-like marsupial little animal, which, from being somewhat like the Australian bear, was named the opossum bear. One species, with a soft greyish fur, was very beautiful, but attempts to keep them alive on board ship were unsuccessful. The men appear to do all the canoe work, fishing, etc., leaving the field labour for the women, who, nevertheless, appeared to have their say, and make the men do as they pleased in matters of barter. The men were frequently seen nursing little children with much affection.
A striking distinguishing mark of the superior civilization of the light-coloured race to the black New Guinea men is the acquaintance of the latter with the art of common pottery. At all their villages earthenware pots of various sizes were seen, and others were in process of manufacture. They are neatly moulded by hand to the required shape, and then baked by heaping fire round the clay.
Their weapons are handsomely-carved wooden swords, clubs, and shields, wooden spears and stone tomahawks, but no bows. They were perfectly aware of the value of iron, specimens being found in every village, which were doubtless obtained from the eastern islands, with which constant communication is maintained by means of large trading canoes 40 to 50 feet long. The bottom of the canoes is a hollowed tree, which is built upon, and the top-sides secured by a strong cane lacing and large wooden knees. They are propelled by an oval-shaped mat sail, are very skilfully handled, and quite capable of making long voyages. “Meeting them at sea, the ‘Basilisk’ going five knots, they easily sailed round us, and, luffing up under our lee, were with difficulty prevented from boarding whilst we were under way.” The other canoes are small, and the catamaran is universal. Besides these each village has several long, narrow war canoes, highly ornamented after a barbarous fashion, carved
and painted, which are capable of holding 40 or 50 men. They are kept very carefully hauled up under sheds, and have the appearance of being but seldom used.
“With these people our intercourse was of a most satisfactory and pleasant nature. At first they were a little shy, but this was speedily got over, and a free interchange of barter went on, pieces of hoop-iron being the great medium of exchange. They eagerly gave their handsome stone hatchets and other valuables for a piece of the coveted iron, with which many tons of the finest yams were also bought. Looking glasses seemed at first to alarm them. On all possible occasions I gave our ship's company liberty to go on shore and mix freely with the natives, and the results were all I could desire—perfect good feeling and confidence on both sides; nor was there a single instance of our men insulting the women, or of the natives making immoral offers. The greater part of our surveys being done in boats, I had frequent occasion to land in my six-oared galley at large populous villages, 18 or 20 miles from the ship, surrounded by large crowds, yet we were always received in the same friendly, hospitable spirit as if in sight of the ship, nor do I think they had any idea that we possessed weapons more powerful than their own. They would, if possible, pilfer when on board, but in bartering were strictly honest. Taking them altogether they are as genial and pleasant a race of savages as could well be met. At the same time I have no doubt they do a little cannibalism among themselves. They took pains to make us understand, as an event they were proud of, that they had eaten the former owners of the skulls hung up in their villages, and of the human bone ornaments which they wore; but as the skulls are few and apparently of ancient date, and they have superabundance of food, I am inclined to think it is only on very rare occasions that they make a raid or do any fighting among themselves. I never saw a wounded man amongst them. I think it not at all unlikely that the inhabitants of the large outlying islands stand very much in relation to the New Guinea men as the Danes and Norsemen of old did to the ancient Britons. On one occasion, when lying in Fortescue Strait, we were visited by some large island canoes, and immediately they appeared every mother's son of the New Guinea men cleared out, and were seen no more until the strangers had left.
“We could not trace any sign of religious worship amongst any of these copper-coloured races, unless stringing up thousands of cocoa-nuts on poles fixed on the reef in front of their villages—in fact, everywhere—may be regarded as a propitiatory offering. They never were out after dark, and probably, like other savages, have a belief in and dread of devils and evil spirits, but no knowledge of any good spirit. At Killerton Island, before they opened a friendly intercourse, they brought a dog on board and knocked
out its brains on the quarter-deck, looking upon the rite as a ratification or sealing of friendship—at least so we understood it.
“The natives appeared to be subject to a kind of leprosy and other skin diseases, but elephantiasis—so common in Torres Strait as a cause of malformation—was scarcely ever seen.
“The meteorology of the coast of New Guinea, from Yule Island to the eastward, was found—during the months of February, March, April, and May—to differ materially from that of Torres Strait. Leaving Torres Strait the first week in February, when heavy rains and occasional stormy breezes with dirty weather from the north-west prevailed, we remained in the neighbourhood of Redscar Bay until the first week in March, during which time we only had one day's wet weather and strong breeze; all the rest were fine with calms and light variable winds. At Cape York, again, in March, we had a constant succession of heavy rains and dirty weather. On March 30th we were again at New Guinea, with lovely weather, and thus it continued, excepting two days' rain (27th and 28th April), until we finally left China Strait, on 7th May. On 10th May, off Mount Suckling, the south-east monsoon set in strong, with rain. This was immediately following after three days dead calm. At Cape York the south-east monsoon had been blowing steadily since the end of March.
“The barometer had been steady at 29.80, or thereabouts, and the thermometer has ranged between 82° and 88°, but the heat was rarely felt oppressive, and our ship's company—although they have served almost continuously for the last eighteen months in tropical climates, and our boats' crews have been much exposed in surveying the rivers and creeks—have enjoyed general good health.
“Referring again to the natives, I think you will now agree with me that the ferocious character assigned, on no authority, to these poor New Guinea savages may be dropped. Wandering through their peaceful, luxuriantly-planted villages, it often made me sad to think that our discoveries must inevitably, sooner or later, bring white men among these contented creatures, with sin, disease, and misery in their train.”