THE CORAL ISLANDS
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 steering; 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 beholding them.
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!