Tanna – First Port of Call

Captain Cook was the first Westerner to alight on Tanna. He arrived on his second Pacific voyage, in 1774, aboard the H.M.S. Resolution, determined to seek out the source of strange flares he had spotted in the night sky. He was greeted by the islanders in the fashion that seemed to typify most of his first encounters — with a tense blend of curiosity and hostility. He was not a god on Tanna. More likely, Cook and his men were regarded as ghosts, spirits returning from where the dead reside — a hypothesis that would explain why islanders were keen both not to offend him and to see him on his way. Before leaving, though, one of Cook’s men, pointing to the ground, asked an islander what this place was called. “Tanna” was the reply.

Kanaka Blackbirding

Recruitment of migrant Pacific Island labour for use on European plantations in Australia, Fiji and Samoa during the 19th century. Opponents called it slavery. At that time, Pacific Islanders were more commonly called Kanakas (from Hawaiian for ‘man’, cf. Maori ‘tangata’), South Sea Islanders or even Polynesians. ‘Some 57 000 Pacific Islanders were brought to Queensland and northern New South Wales between 1863 and 1904, mainly from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and the Solomon Islands. Most worked on sugar plantations, although a few worked on stations and cotton plantations. Their wages were low. In theory, they voluntarily entered into contracts to work in Australia for fixed terms. In practice, they were subjected to abuses that included kidnapping, slavery, and murder.’ An early attempt in 1847 to use Pacific Islanders on New South Wales sheep stations was short-lived. In that year some 65 young men were brought to NSW by the banker and entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd who was going to use them as shepherds on the banks of the Murray. Far from forcing the men to come the skipper said he had trouble restricting the number to 65, because so many more wanted to make the journey. Boyd’s ventures included banking, a coastal steamer service, squatting stations, wool stores, and the Twofold Bay township where the men were landed.

Having been some hours in close proximity to the coast of Tanna, we find ourselves at our first point of call. The boat was accordingly lowered and one Tanna man disembarked. She returned after an interval of three hours with a few bananas and coconuts, exchanged for trade. When on shore she gained intelligence that a schooner had been taken at Apii by the natives, and her crew murdered. As we ourselves were bound for Apii, the intelligence respecting that part of the world might appear startling, if we were assured of having received authentic particulars. The South Sea Island traders in those days had not matriculated as doctors of divinity, and were not above circulating fiction if the doing so would divert a competitor from profitable fields.

At the time we left Australia the Franco-Prussian war was raging in all its fury, and whatever expectations might have been anticipated by us as the outcome of the strife, we were unprepared to hear, as we did, from the same authentic (?) source that acquainted us of the massacre at Apii, that England was at war with Russia and that Prussia had purchased the iconclad fleet of America. these tidings were communicated by a European engaged on shore in making coconut oil. We bore up along the coast until we came abreast of Port Resolution, for which locality and its vicinity we had two passengers, who were forthwith put into the boat and landed at that place without any special occurrence.

The sight of Port Resolution and the historical events from which it derived its name, inspired the scene with a degree of recognition, that although nearly one hundred years had elapsed since the immortal Cook had photographed upon the retina of his mind the same landscape which we were now beholding, we for the time being, although separated by a century, where in the same world of imagery as our illustrious countryman, whose path we were now following, for his eyes had rested on the same scenes. Whatever may have been the depth of sensitiveness which led to such discrimination, the practical experiences of the next few hours turn our thoughts in other directions.

The ship’s boat, after landing the passengers, proceeded along the coast to a village some few miles north of Port Resolution, to where the other of the two passengers was to disembark; it was met by the tribe in considerable numbers of men, women, and children. Here evident hostility was betokened to the boat, but happily not before it had landed the native and shoved off. It seemed a variety of causes were operating amongst this tribe. Some were friendly disposed, others the reverse; of a sudden the women and children scampered off, and some of the natives on the shore, in friendliness, signalled the boat to get away, pointing in the direction for it to steer out clear of the reef, but the others opened fire upon the crew with a few volleys of musket balls.

During these performances the Petrel was standing off and on the coast, and having plenty of sea room and bold water close in shore, Captain Helmsman would occaisonally wear ship instead of going about; in one of our boards going within rifle range of shore some bullets came whizzing around us. It must, however, be recorded to the credit of the man landed, that so soon as he saw his countrymen display hostility to the boat, he seized his musket, pointing it at the assailants saying – “What for you shoot white man? white man very good. Suppose you shoot ’em, me shoot you.” This circumstance aided the co-operation of his friends, doubtless saving the crew from massacre. While the vessel was lying off this village, a dingy came alongside, manned by two lads, one of whom was a half-casted and spoke very good English. He informed us that those shore tribes were so madly at war with another that no boat was safe in communicating with them, as they would doubtless suppose it to belong to an enemy. In evidence he showed where a musket ball had grazed the side of his head, fired at him as he was passing along the shore. This lad was in the employ of some European in the vicinity of Port Resolution.

There are several European settlers in various parts of the coast where the natives are sufficiently tractable to permit their residence. The half caste lad to whom I have referred, evidently the progeny of some enterprising trader, was one of the most splendid specimens of physical development that a physiologist could have felt interested in witnessing. The remembrance of him sets in motion a train of thoughts representing the decay, death and resurrection of nations, as well as another aspect whether such decay cannot be arrested. The history of the Pitcairn Islanders should prove a decisive exemplification of what may be acknowledged as a law with a relative bearing. In the Pitcairn Islanders may be witnessed a remarkable illustration, through the admixture of Anglo-Saxon stamina with the Polynesian race, producing a progeny, under an effective moral and religious training, founding a colony, which, upon discovery and recognition, spread the world-wide fame of what the Englishmen can accomplish in perpetuating his name by the elevation of the race with which he blends, actually elevating the savage into a capacity for the highest forms of civilization and the truths of religion.

In our contact with the natives of Tanna we have ample evidence of brain, indicating latent capacity which needs direction, as expressed in an old Greek hymn, which runs thus-

Eternal mind, thy seeding spark
Through this thin vase of clay
Athwart the waves of chaos dark
Emits a timorous ray.
This mind enfolding soul is sown
Incarnate germ on earth
In pity, blessed Lord then own
What claims in Thee its birth
Far forth from Thee its central fire
To earth’s sad bondage cast
Let not the trembling spark expire
Absorb Thine own at last

These impressive lines call to mind another passage- “What is man that Thou art mindful of him? or Son of Man that Thou visitest Him? And herin we come face to face with an immense subject.

Man being what is defined as a living soul: manifested consciousness imparted from a Supreme Being: a Supreme Life. That which claims regard as Man proper is a complex organization of Body, Soul, and Spirit, the latter being the “seeding spark”, the “incarnate germ” which has fallen into matter wherein to acquire consciousness as a soul. The Pitcairn Islanders, in their marvelous history, exemplify the attainment of degree of consciousness through the “knowledge” of righteousness brought to their savage progenitors by an English sailor. In decaying nations, of which the Spaniards furnish ample evidence, we have the sure and certain testimony that so far as Spain has withheld the “key of knowledge” so far has she descended on to the “downgrade of decay”. The merciless cruelty of a bull fight being their standard of holiness, the only means of arresting her further decay would be the restoration of the key of knowledge to the seedling spark – the incarnate germ within them. There is however a dual aspect of human immortality, wherein the incarnate germ manifests consciousness; the law of decay of consciousness has an opposite in the awakening of consciousness within savagedom. In the practical cannibalism of Polynesia, and the merciless bull-baiting of European refined cruelty, the latency of the incarnate germ is on the same stage of dormancy, equally remote from God-consciousness; in one case through non-development from “want” of knowledge, in the other case by “loss” of knowledge. Such are a few preliminary reflections awakened through a conversation with an intelligent half-caste on the coast of Tanna.

Having landed the passenger for the south-eastern end of the island we bore up to go round the northern end of it, where the remainder had to be landed. Sailing along the eastern shore, it presents a remarkably volcanic appearance, especially in the southern end, particularly remarkable for a succession of high conical hills, rising as high as 3,000 feet. At about three miles from the coast, in the vicinity of Port Resolution, an active volcano emits vast volumes of smoke, as well as occaisonally a high flame and large discharge of lava, which seem to be forming a spur from the sea coast to the main range of the island, the appearance of the spur already formed seeming to indicate that the volcano is receding from the coast, as between it and the shore there runs a spur, upon which are two extinct craters now covered with soil and luxuriant vegetation. A similar formation is exhibited in all the spurs extending from the coast to the main range. Along the south-eastern end the country appears too rugged to be subjected to the plough, although there can be no question as to its richness from the fact of the soil thereon being decomposed volcanic rock; the luxuriant wild vegetation of dense scrub thereon, as well as the coconut groves and yam patches planted by different tribes, manifest the producing capabilities of the soil. Towards the north-eastern end the land spreads out in more undulating features towards the coast, equally promising fertility. The shores present a marked difference in aspect to those of the southern part, which being the weather end of the island, contains some long lengths of beach. At the northern part limestone cliffs, with vegetation creeping in some places over them to the water’s edge, present no indication whatever of being beaten by the ocean surges; in fact, for several miles their appearance would favor the conjecture that an extensive landslip had taken place and a large extension of the north-eastern end has at some time subsided into the ocean. As we reach other coast lines of distant islands we perceive in similar geological formations the same remnants of the continent, with the ocean now rolling between them. In sailing along we observe the shores were well inhabited, judging by fires made, at very short intervals, as signals for trade. These signals are considered amongst the Polynesian islanders as sacred as a flag of truce between other nations. They are generally speaking a safe sign, although instances are not unknown of them being used as decoys. We, however, were bound to the other side of the island, and as the day was well advanced, had no time to spend in communicating with them.

At 6p.m. the Mystery schooner, a labor recruiting vessel from Rockhampton, passed under our lee, but we were both passing too rapidly through the water to admit of communication with each other, excepting that the sable passengers on board both vessels saluted each other with an exchange and cheers. At 7p.m. we worked up into a small bay, where we let go our anchor in 18 fathoms of water,at the mouth of a ravine, to obtain a supply of fresh water, for the purpose of replenishing our water tanks, which thrity days consumption by 110 people had considerably reduced. We remained here two days and affected our object, as well as disembarked two or three boat loads of natives and their luggage. We then weighed anchor and worked round to the south-western end of the island, where our remaining Tanna passengers had to be landed. This was done with considerable difficulty, owing to a heavy surf (the wind had chopped us around to a stiff south-west breeze), occupying two days to do so. The western side of Tanna has a far more inviting aspect than the conical hills of the eastern side; many extensive slopes spread down to the water’s edge, and are, as regards both position and soil, magnificent sites for cultivation, to which some purpose some of them are already applied as plantations by some few European settlers and traders, who have confidence with the tribes to settle amongst them, and they are engaged in making coconut oil, cultivating farms, and other pursuits of Polynesian trade.

We found no exception in any part of Tanna that we communicated with to the prevalence of tribal fighting, there seeming to be a state of universal war amongst the various tribes, so much so that no trading was practicable. Whenever the boat would approach the shore the tribe would appear painted up in war costume, with muskets, clubs etc all in readiness to encounter the foe; yet although they surrounded the boat they offered us no molestation, a circumstance in some measure explained by their recognition of their own countrymen returning in her to them; what they might have done had she appeared amongst them without such passport is open to conjecture. The Tanna men have the character of being a very brave race, and such of them as have been hired in Queensland have proved very honest, faithful and industrious. At their own island they have long been in contact with Europeans and for many years have been recruited by trading vessels for whaling, procuring of sandal wood, as well as manning them for other objects in Polynesian trade. From Europeans they have obtained muskets and ammunition which we found them so industriously using in exterminating one another, that a European would have extreme difficulty in recruiting any of them, whatever might be his enterprise.