Engaging in Trade – Returning Islanders

A few hours sail and we reach our next port of call – the island of Mai, or Three Hills, so called from its being three conical hills united by two saddles. It is distant from Sandwich about twenty miles. We anchored under the western side of it, in a bay well sheltered from the S.W. round easterly to N.E, with a depth of water of thirteen fathoms. Twenty-three natives returned by us to this island, and were received by relatives and friends with much demonstration, rapturous embraces, howlings of joy, excessive weeping, and other exhibitions of welcome according to their customs. The Islanders proved remarkably friendly and peaceable towards us, although their countrymen who returned by the Petrel could not have given them a favorable impression of the Queenslanders’ liberality, inasmuch that amongst the twenty-three of them only six had trunks, the remaining seventeen having little else besides their blankets and a few second hand garments, the most conspicuous amongst them were a number of regimental coats originally worn by soldiers of the 50th Regiment. These had long done service to their first owners and must have been sold to them for little more than the price of old rags; their outside value could not be considered to be worth more than half a crown each, yet they were sold to the Polynesians for 10 shillings each, at least so the men declared on board. It must however, be stated that they were the only ones of our passengers returning with deficient remuneration; they themselves may have received their wages and squandered them, but they would be a remarkable exception to the other islanders, who came back in some cases owning two trunks well stocked with clothing, the proceeds of their term of service in Queensland.

We lay at the Three Hills Island for four days, during which time we obtained a large supply of yams, bananas and coconuts, as well as a replenishment of our wood. The chief of the tribe, from whom the greater part of our supplies were purchased, had but recently returned from Brisbane, where he had been three years; on his return here he found he had by succession inherited a chieftanship; we found him exercising his sway with remarkable dignity: he would receive nothing in the form of tobacco, fish hooks as gifts, but merely as interchanges of compliments, for, upon being presented with any such articles, he would dispatch one of his subjects to bring some fruit, which he presented in exchange. This, however, was an exceptional case, as in other instances we have generally found the chiefs prominent examples of rapacity.The islanders of the Three Hill have a reputation for honesty and friendliness. The only instance tending to an exception in this we found in the case of a chief, one of whose subjects had died at Port Denison, and he became somewhat contentious because his wages were not forthcoming. The objectionable traits of character that are observable are to be seen in those who have returned from the colonies; they teach their untravelled countrymen extortionate greediness, as well as the Australian’s bullock-drivers vocabulary of swearing.

One of the returned islanders was a great nuisance while the boat was engaged in trade, through the display of his proficiency in loquaciously using most profane epithets and menacing gesticulations at what he termed his countrymen’s liberality in dealing.

During the first part of our being here a schooner brought up in another part of the bay; she proved to be a vessel belonging to New Caledonia. Her chief mate happening to meet our shore boat, informed us he had been attacked by natives of Apie whilst trading with them; they had shot him in the leg with an arrow, and in return he had shot four of them. These reports cannot be relied upon generally, but in the present instance the wounded leg of the mate gives an air of veracity to the statement, although he may have aggravated an attack upon himself by attempting to kidnap. We have already found that the New Caledonian and Fiji trading vessels are doing a great deal of injury in these seas, being under no regulations to control their proceedings; in many cases irregularities are committed which are not likely to be retaliated upon by Queensland vessels. Wherever we have hitherto been, no native canoe will approach the vessel within several cables’ lengths; they have so often been intercepted by the boats of cruisers, and their occupants kidnapped, that they have become extremely cautious. It is further to be regretted that the traffic in ardent spirits has been introduced by some of the cruisers visiting these parts, who sometimes succeed in kidnapping those to whom they administer the stimulant. We found natives at Mai have the taste for it, as they sought (but in vain) the Captain to bring them some grog ashore. This is a serious matter, for if extensively adopted it is easy to forsee it will tend to extermination of the islanders of the Pacific, who have been remarkable hitherto for not becoming addicted to the vice of dram-drinking. It must be understood that the conditions developed by Fiji and New Caledonian traders relate to 1870, prior to the annexation of Fiji and the Anglo-French treaty in regard to New Hebrides.

The Captain endeavored to recruit some laborers from this place, but they would listen to no proposals of emigration. Mai is an island some four miles long; the three hills which rise within it are conical in shape, about 1,500 feet high. The soil on the island is remarkably fertile – a rich brown mould, impregnated with decomposed limestone. Some splendid sugar plantations might be formed at the base of the hills. The whole island is covered with a dense scrub, a reliable indication of rich mould. On March 20 we weighed anchor and set sail from Mai for some adjoining islands. An Australian. in visiting the New Hebrides, is amazed at the wonderful richness of the soils hitheron. The surprising growth of the sugar cane reduces to insignificance the richest of our Australian plantations.

We stretched over first for Tonga, a small island some four miles long, containing very broken country, but nevertheless exceedingly rich soil; our object in calling there being to procure any recruits that might be willing to come to Queensland. Our mission proved fruitless; the natives were very willing to sell us their yams and other produce, but not to come with us.

Leaving Tonga we shaped our course for the island of Tasikah, to the westward, separated from Tonga by a strait of some four miles, in which are some ugly looking rocks and reefs to pass through in bad weather. Tasika is an island about twenty-five miles long, with an average breadth of eight or ten miles. The eastern end is call Tassowah, the western end Apie. All our passengers returning to this island lived on the north-eastern side. The wind having been blowing from the south-east raised a frightful surf on the beaches upon which they were to be landed, and as far as there were sixteen boys for Tassowah and nine boys for Apie, with a large quantity of luggage belonging to each of them, the disembarkation of them was a difficulty not easy to be surmounted, especially as the wind had shifted to the south-west, adding a lee shore to the other drawbacks. One boat load was disembarked, and at a more sheltered part on the western end we succeeded in landing two natives and their luggage; but when the boat proceeded to the homes of some others, further down the shore, it was not so successful. On approaching the beach it was met by some natives in canoes that came through the surf to aid their returned countrymen coming on shore with their effects, and were partially successful, yet only succeeded in getting two ashore. Of the remaining three out of the five who went into boat to land, they nearly came to grief in getting through the surf. The other one returned to the ship. The remaining Tassowah men on board seeing the risk they ran of losing their luggage in landing through the surf, expressed their readiness to put on shore at a small island about four miles south of Tasikah, from which place, when weather permitted, they would get across to the localities of their own tribes. The vessel went over to the island in question, and on its lee side landed the remainder of them and their belongings. It was then suggested to the Apie men to adopt the same course as the Tassowah men, as it was not improbable they could not be landed when the vessel to to Apie. This is one of the greatest drawbacks to a vessel bringing returned islanders. She may have twenty to one island, but instead of being able to land them all at one place, may have to land them in beaches amongst several tribes and it often happens that where the surf is worst they want to land.

Having, during the night, stood off the land, and worked down abreast of the Apie end of Tasika, the vessel, at daylight, stood in to where it was intended to disembark the Apie men, when the boat was accordingly dispatched with three, the first installment of them. On reaching the shore they were eventually landed, but the surf was so heavy that the boat got swamped and thrown up by the surf high and dry upon the beach. The natives belonging to the shore gathered round, and in a friendly manner launched her again. The circumstance was certainly not corroborative of the reports we heard at Tanna and Mai of the Apie natives committing violence, nevertheless it could not be considered a denial, as there are many tribes of the north-eastern side of the island reported to still be very savage. As the boat narrowly escaped being smashed, and the remaining Apie men were on more exposed parts of the coast, it would have been an unjustifiable risk to attempt to land them; besides which, the weather was so threatening and it would have been too much of a hazard for the safety of the ship to lay-to off the coast – a very dangerous one – with long reefs extending out from points of the land. We saw the wreck of one vessel, which we learned had gone ashore some few months previously, and her crew and Polynesian passengers rescued after an interval of two months. She was a fine, smart looking craft, from what we could see of her model that had gone to pieces. As there was no safe or convenient anchorage at Tasikah to lay at until the weather changed, Captain Helmsman adopted the alternative of proceeding on his voyage, intending to land the remainder of the Apie men after visiting the Northern islands on our route, which it was judged would involve an interval of three or four weeks. This naturally was rather disappointing to the Apie lads; they, however, offered no objection, seeing the difficulties in their landing, and that the Captain had used every effort to put them on shore, as well as made them the offer they had rejected, of landing them on the island with the Tassowah men.

To the north-west of Tasikah are several high islands, in one of which, Ambrym, an active volcano emits a very large body of flame, visible at a distance of fifty miles, a natural lighthouse of no small value to cruisers sailing in the vicinity. Tasikah is not a very hilly island – it cannot be called mountainous.