The Pacific islands are so abundant and generous in wonders and stories!
It seems that the long and difficult explorations of this ocean and
the challenges that those explorations represent have contributed rather
to nurture than to satisfy curiosity, maybe due to the fabulous dimensions
of the largest extension of water known to us, or maybe due to the multitude
of archipelagos rooted among its waves and also to the variety of its
people. The Pacific sparks adventures and dreams as vast as itself.
Its waters seem to be able to hold all the joys and all the fantasies,
a thousand paradises and treasures. Melville, Stevenson, MacOrland loved
this sea, its winds and its prolonged silences. What a sad world without
these ships and these sailors!
The mild blue weather we enjoyed after leaving the Marquesas gradually
changed as we ran farther south and approached Tahiti. In these generally
tranquil seas, the wind sometimes blows with great violence; though,
as every sailor knows, a spicy gale in the tropic latitudes of the Pacific
is far different from a tempest in the howling North Atlantic. We soon
found ourselves battling with the waves, while the before mild Trades,
like a woman roused, blew fiercely, but still warmly, in our face.
For all this, the mate carried sail without stint; and as for brave little
Jule, she stood up to it well; and though once in a while floored in
the trough of a sea, sprang to her keel again and showed play. Every
old timber groaned, every spar buckled, every chafed cord strained;
and yet, spite of all, she plunged on her way like a racer. Jermin,
sea-jockey that he was, sometimes stood in the forechains, with the
spray every now and then dashing over him, and shouting out, “Well
done, Jule; dive into it, sweetheart. Hurrah!”
One afternoon there was a mighty queer noise aloft, which set the men
running in every direction. It was the main—t’—gallant—mast.
Crash! it broke off just above the cap, and held there by the rigging,
dashed with every roll from side to side, with all the hamper that belonged
to it. The yard hung by a hair, and at every pitch, thumped against
the cross-trees; while the sail streamed in ribbons, and the loose ropes
coiled, and thrashed the air, like whip-lashes. “Stand from under!”
and down came the rattling blocks, like so many shot. The yard, with
a snap and a plunge, went hissing into the sea, disappeared, and shot
its full length out again. The crest of a great wave then broke over
it – the ship rushed by – and we saw the stick no more.
While this lively breeze continued, Baltimore, our old black cook, was
in great tribulation.
Like most South Seamen, the Julia’s “caboose,” or cook-house,
was planted on the larboard side of the forecastle. Under such a press
of canvas, and with the heavy sea running the barque, diving her bows
under, now and then shipped green glassy waves, which, breaking over
the headrails, fairly deluged that part of the ship, and washed clean
aft. The caboose house – thought to be fairly lashed down to its
place – served as a sort of breakwater to the inundation.
About these times, Baltimore always wore what he called his “gale
suit,” among other things comprising a Sou’wester and a
huge pair of well-anointed sea-boots, reaching almost to his knees.
Thus equipped for a ducking or a drowning, as the case might be, our
culinary highpriest drew to the slides of his temple, and performed
his sooty rites in secret.
So afraid was the old man of being washed overboard that he actually
fastened one end of a small line to his waistbands, and coiling the
rest about him, made use of it as occasion required. When engaged outside,
he unwound the cord, and secured one end to a ring-bolt in the deck;
so that if a chance sea washed him off his feet, it could do nothing
One evening just as he was getting supper, the Julia reared up on her
stern like a vicious colt, and when she settled again forward, fairly
dished a tremendous sea. Nothing could withstand it. One side of the
rotten head-bulwarks came in with a crash; it smote the caboose, tore
it from its moorings, can after boxing it about, dashed it against the
windlass, where it stranded. The water then poured along the deck like
a flood rolling over and over, pots, pans, and kettles, and even old
Baltimore himself, who went breaching along like a porpoise.
Striking the taffrail, the wave subsided, and washing from side to side,
left the drowning cook high and dry on the after—hatch: his extinguished
pipe still between his teeth, and almost bitten in two.
The few men on deck having sprung into the mainrigging, sailor—like,
did nothing but roar at his calamity.
The same night, our flying—jib—boom snapped off like a pipe—stem,
and our spanker—gaff came down by the run.
By the following morning, the wind in a great measure had gone down;
the sea with it; and by noon we had repaired our damages as well as
we could, and were sailing along as pleasantly as ever.
But there was no help for the demolished bulwarks; we had nothing to
replace them; and so, whenever it breezed again, our dauntless craft
went along with her splintered prow dripping, but kicking up her fleet
heels just as high as before.
How far we sailed to the westward after leaving the Marquesas, or what
might have been our latitude and longitude at any particular time, or
how many leagues we voyaged on our passage to Tahiti, are matters about
which, I am sorry to say, I cannot with any accuracy enlighten the reader.
Jermin, as navigator, kept our reckoning; and, as hinted before, kept
it all to himself. At noon, he brought out his quadrant, a rusty old
thing, so odd-looking that it might have belonged to an astrologer.
Sometimes, when rather flustered from his potations, he went staggering
about deck, instrument to eye, looking all over for the sun--a phenomenon
which any sober observer might have seen right overhead. How upon earth
he contrived, on some occasions, to settle his latitude, is more than
I can tell. The longitude he must either have obtained by the Rule of
Three, or else by special revelation. Not that the chronometer in the
cabin was seldom to be relied on, or was any ways fidgety; quite the
contrary; it stood stock-still; and by that means, no doubt, the true
Greenwich time – at the period of stopping, at least – was
preserved to a second.
The mate, however, in addition to his "Dead Reckoning," pretended
to ascertain his meridian distance from Bow Bells by an occasional lunar
observation. This, I believe, consists in obtaining with the proper
instruments the angular distance between the moon and some one of the
stars. The operation generally requires two observers to take sights,
and at one and the same time.
Now, though the mate alone might have been thought well calculated for
this, inasmuch as he generally saw things double, the doctor was usually
called upon to play a sort of second quadrant to Jermin's first; and
what with the capers of both, they used to furnish a good deal of diversion.
The mate's tremulous attempts to level his instrument at the star he
was after, were comical enough. For my own part, when he did catch sight
of it, I hardly knew how he managed to separate it from the astral host
revolving in his own brain.
However, by hook or by crook, he piloted us along; and before many days,
a fellow sent aloft to darn a rent in the fore-top-sail, threw his hat
into the air, and bawled out "Land, ho!"
Land it was; but in what part of the South Seas, Jermin alone knew, and
some doubted whether even he did. But no sooner was the announcement
made, than he came running on deck, spy-glass in hand, and clapping
it to his eye, turned round with the air of a man receiving indubitable
assurance of something he was quite certain of before. The land was
precisely that for which he had been teering; and, with a wind, in less
than twenty-four hours we would sight Tahiti. What he said was verified.
The island turned out to be one of the Pomotu or Low Group – sometimes
called the Coral Islands – perhaps the most remarkable and interesting
in the Pacific. Lying to the east of Tahiti, the nearest are within
a day's sail of that place.
They are very numerous; mostly small, low, and level; sometimes wooded,
but always covered with verdure. Many are crescent-shaped; others resemble
a horse-shoe in figure. These last are nothing more than narrow circles
of land surrounding a smooth lagoon, connected by a single opening with
the sea. Some of the lagoons, said to have subterranean outlets, have
no visible ones; the inclosing island, in such cases, being a complete
zone of emerald. Other lagoons still, are girdled by numbers of small,
green islets, very near to each other.
The origin of the entire group is generally ascribed to the coral insect.
According to some naturalists, this wonderful little creature, commencing
its erections at the bottom of the sea, after the lapse of centuries,
carries them up to the surface, where its labours cease. Here, the inequalities
of the coral collect all floating bodies; forming, after a time, a soil,
in which the seeds carried thither by birds germinate, and cover the
whole with vegetation. Here and there, all over this archipelago, numberless
naked, detached coral formations are seen, just emerging, as it were
from the ocean. These would appear to be islands in the very process
of creation – at any rate, one involuntarily concludes so, on
As far as I know, there are but few bread-fruit trees in any part of
the Pomotu group. In many places the cocoa-nut even does not grow; though,
in others, it largely flourishes. Consequently, some of the islands
are altogether uninhabited; others support but a single family; and
in no place is the population very large. In some respects the natives
resemble the Tahitians: their language, too, is very similar. The people
of the southeasterly clusters – concerning whom, however, but
little is known – have a bad name as cannibals; and for that reason
their hospitality is seldom taxed by the mariner.
Within a few years past, missionaries from the Society group have settled
among the Leeward Islands, where the natives have treated them kindly.
Indeed, nominally, many of these people are now Christians; and, through
the political influence of their instructors, no doubt, a short time
since came tinder the allegiance of Pomaree, the Queen of Tahiti; with
which island they always carried on considerable intercourse.
The Coral Islands are principally visited by the pearl-shell fishermen,
who arrive in small schooners, carrying not more than five or six men.
For a long while the business was engrossed by Merenhout, the French
Consul at Tahiti, but a Dutchman by birth, who, in one year, is said
to have sent to France fifty thousand dollars' worth of shells. The
oysters are found in the lagoons, and about the reefs; and, for half-a-dozen
nails a day, or a compensation still less, the natives are hired to
dive after them.
A great deal of cocoa-nut oil is also obtained in various places. Some
of the uninhabited islands are covered with dense groves; and the ungathered
nuts which have fallen year after year, lie upon the ground in incredible
quantities. Two or three men, provided with the necessary apparatus
for trying out the oil, will, in the course of a week or two, obtain
enough to load one of the large sea-canoes.
Cocoa-nut oil is now manufactured in different parts of the South Seas,
and forms no small part of the traffic carried on with trading vessels.
A considerable quantity is annually exported from the Society Islands
to Sydney. It is used in lamps and for machinery, being much cheaper
than the sperm, and, for both purposes, better than the right-whale
oil. They bottle it up in large bamboos, six or eight feet long; and
these form part of the circulating medium of Tahiti.
To return to the ship. The wind dying away, evening came on before we
drew near the island. But we had it in view during the whole afternoon.
It was small and round, presenting one enamelled level, free from trees,
and did not seem four feet above the water. Beyond it was another and
larger island, about which a tropical sunset was throwing its glories;
flushing all that part of the heavens, and making it flame like a vast
dyed oriel illuminated.
The Trades scarce filled our swooning sails; the air was languid with
the aroma of a thousand strange, flowering shrubs. Upon inhaling it,
one of the sick, who had recently shown symptoms of scurvy, cried out
in pain, and was carried below. This is no unusual effect in such instances.
On we glided, within less than a cable's length of the shore which was
margined with foam that sparkled all round. Within, nestled the still,
blue lagoon. No living thing was seen, and, for aught we knew, we might
have been the first mortals who had ever beheld the spot. The thought
was quickening to the fancy; nor could I help dreaming of the endless
grottoes and galleries, far below the reach of the mariner's lead.
And what strange shapes were lurking there! Think of those arch creatures,
the mermaids, chasing each other in and out of the coral cells, and
catching their long hair in the coral twigs!
Omú. Herman Melville.