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Our Australian Cousins
Chapter III


The missionary—New Guinea—Early discoveries—Recent expeditions—General description of the island—Animals—Natives— Curious customs—Deadly climate—Legends—General remarks.

At Somerset we received a considerable accession to our party. Our captain grew more bearish than ever, as the cards at whist seemed ever to go against him. My health and strength were slowly returning, and I entered into all the fun and jollity with a keen zest.

Among the others who had now joined the steamer was also one who was of a higher and nobler type of character than the mere trader. This was the Rev. Mr. Lawes, a clergyman sent out to Papua by the London Missionary Society, and then in charge of the mission in New Guinea. I found him a most con­genial and delightful companion. A tall, dark, comely man, with a soft, gentle eye and pleasant speech; he had the grave, gentle, winning manner of one who had long ago sunk self in his mission, and although I found him full of learning, and a rare knowledge of men and places that I burned to hear about, his singular modesty kept him often silent, when I would have liked to hear him dilate on his experiences and reminiscences. He would talk about anything rather than himself, but I had many an interesting chat with him about that wonderful and almost unknown land, New Guinea.

Perhaps there is no place on earth, not even the fever-haunted shores of Maracaybo, the swamps of Honduras, the dismal lagoons and reeking marshes of the Gold Coast, or the deadly jungles of the Indian terai, that bears such an evil reputation as this huge island does, for general unhealthiness. Next to Australia itself it is the largest island in the world, being 360 miles wide in its broadest part, and about 1300 miles in length. Up to the beginning of the present century it was quite a terra incognita.

Shortly after my arrival in Australia the rumour of gold in New Guinea got about, and several ex­peditions have been fitted out for the purpose of pro­specting for gold in the interior. Goldie's expedition, consisting of some thirty men with horses and various supplies, started in 1878. They penetrated some distance into the interior, finding traces of gold but not in paying quantities, and after braving the deadly climate during the rainy season, the survivors came back disappointed and disheartened. Another expe­dition of gold-seekers started in the end of the same year from New Zealand, but their attempt to explore the unknown recesses of this land of mystery also ended in failure. An attempt was made to stir up public feeling in Victoria to annex the island to that colony, but beyond a deal of declamation nothing was done. Fired by the discoveries of Signor d'Alberti, the Italians seemed to have formed the idea of colo­nizing the island, and it was rumoured that Menotti Garibaldi and 5000 Italians were about to transfer themselves to its fever-stricken shores, and there found a new Italian colony. That also fell through : but while writing, it is again rumoured that an Italian expedition on a smaller scale is being fitted out. Meantime the missionaries Messrs. Lawes, Chalmers, MacFarland, and other's, succeeded in establishing numerous mission stations in the villages along the coast. In the early- months of 1879 troubles broke out. Several runaway desperadoes from the fishing-stations, possessed of arms, took possession of a small island on the southern coast, and began aggressions on the natives. This led to retaliation. Several crews of trading and fishing vessels have been murdered. Native teachers have in some cases been poisoned, and collisions between the natives and exploring foreigners have become frequent. Mr. Chester made a tour unmolested through part of the island, and embodied his discoveries and observa­tions in an interesting report to the Queensland Govern­ment, but now while I am writing, the natives seem to have become bitterly hostile to all white visitors, and several brutal murders and cannibal atrocities have lately been reported. Public opinion in Australia is awakening to the fact, that stern reprisals are become necessary, if this mighty unknown land is ever to be­come unlocked to the advance of commerce, civilization, and Christianity. It is still believed payable gold and rich minerals abound, and several expeditions are even now projected, as soon as prospects of successful exploration appear more favourable than they certainly are at present.

Mr. Lawes' chief experiences had been confined to the Western coast, and I took copious notes of the conversations I had with him. The natives round the coast, and to the east, are evidently, he thinks, of Malay origin ; and probably in some remote age over­ran the country and forced the aborigines into the interior. They are split up into innumerable tribes, all speaking different dialects, and at war with each other. The tribal quarrels and dissensions are frequent and fierce. To the west, and in the interior, we have what Mr. Lawes calls the original Papuans, with frizzled wooly hair like the Polynesians, and being darker, sturdier, and more ferocious than the Malayan stock.

The coast-tribes live in long narrow houses, which are built on light wooden piles on the beach; and extend in some cases a little distance out into the water—a precaution evidently prompted by the fear of a hostile incursion by the tribes of the interior. Some of their customs are very curious. Those relating to the disposal of the dead are especially so. When any man of consequence dies amongst them, the body is neither buried nor burned, but is laid out on the bare ground, and a frail canopy of grass and bamboos is erected over it. Beside this extemporised shelter for the dead, the nearest relation of the deceased watches day and night. When the dead body has reached an advanced stage of decomposition, it is taken to the sea and washed, and the skull, with the bones of the knees, arms, hips, and other large joints, are then daubed over with red clay and buried. In the interior, the custom varies somewhat. The body is first exposed on a platform, something after the Parsee fashion, till the bones and frame are entirely denuded of flesh. The bones are then collected, dried, and hung up as relics, in the habitation of the survivors.

The Papuans have no idea of a beneficent deity, but they are firm believers in evil spirits and ghosts, and might almost be described as the congeners of our modern absurd race or sect of Spiritualists. When a man dies, they believe his spirit goes out to sea. They seem to have a vague, dim, hazy idea of a future state, but they have no priesthood. They have exorcists or devil-drivers, who act somewhat after the fashion of the Indian medicine man. "When an evil spirit enters into or possesses a dweller on the coast, and it becomes necessary to propitiate the unwelcome intruder, a man from one of the interior tribes is invariably summoned. In return for various presents which are bestowed upon him, he goes through a variety of antics, and eventu­ally pretends to drive the evil spirit into a hole in the earth, made for the purpose, by a pointed stick.

Polygamy is not common; the chiefs have sometimes more than one wife, but as a rule the marriage tie is very much respected. The great drawback to settle­ment in Papua is the climate. Along the flat densely- wooded, swampy coast this is deadly. Fever is at all times prevalent, the natives suffer a little from it them­selves, while strangers invariably are attacked. The use of tobacco is known among these strange people, and, according to Mr. Lawes, they are inveterate smokers. They have quite a unique custom in this respect. Instead of drinking-healths, as with us, the Papuans smoke healths. The long bamboo pipe is filled, and the toast-master calling out the name of the party whom it is intended to honour, takes a whiff, when the pipe is passed on to the next, who in turn repeats the toast and takes his whiff, and so on, till the pipe has passed round.

Tobacco is cultivated in the interior, but came origi­nally from the west. They have a strange legend about its introduction. A man had a wife called Ava or Eva (strange coincidence in the name, to that of our commonly-accepted first mother), and was expecting a son and heir, but was warned in a dream that she, Eva, would conceive and bring forth certain seeds, which he was to sow, and the leaves thereof were to be col­lected and dried and the smoke from them would be a panacea for all earthly cares. It all turned out as he had dreamt; the seeds were sown; the plant grew, and was called their son. By-and-by the secret of the dream leaked out; other seeds were got from the ori­ginal plant, and the use of the weed became universal. These tribes also chew pan, employing the same ingredients, and using ib exactly as do the Hindus.

Their food is principally bananas and yams. Along the east coast the gardens are neatly fenced in, and at Hood Bay the natives work hard at canoe-building. They are yet in the Stone age, using adzes made of hard greenish stone, with broad sharp edges beautifully curved, and with these they hew out fine roomy canoes, and do all their wood-work. On this coast, too, they all wear the nose-stick, which is a cylinder of ebony or other hard wood, tipped with pearl shell, worn athwart the face through the cartilage between the nostrils, and may be called the distinctive national badge or symbol. That most commonly in vogue, however, is made of part of the clam shell, beautifully polished, with the tips neatly tied and ornamented with plaits of human hair. They have also ornaments of boars' tusks, which they wear in their mouths when going to battle, thinking it makes them brave and enduring. Captain Lawson's book, although many of the papers and magazines at home were hoaxed by it, was entirely a romance, a pure fabrication founded on the baseless experiences of a lively imagination. Captain Moresby has published his experiences; his book is interesting, although it is chiefly a record of nautical discovery. The natives are not naturally inimical to white men, Mr. Lawes thinks, and can be easily won by kindness and a con­fident, firm demeanour.

They used formerly to eat their food raw; indeed, they have a curious legend as to the origin of fire- One day they saw at a vast distance out at sea some­thing smoking, and despatched a snake to bring some of the strange substance to land. The snake went, but came back empty-handed; then they sent the kangaroo, and he also returned unsuccessful. Their next envoy was a dog, and he, more fortunate, brought some fire in his mouth. And fire they have used ever since. Eventually a quarrel arose between the dog and kangaroo, the latter claiming a share of the spoil, and for that reason, they say, the dog attacks the kangaroo whenever he sees him. In the face of such evidence, who could doubt.

The fauna is quite like the Australian, chiefly marsupial mammals, and the birds are of gorgeous plumage. Alligators are very numerous both in salt and fresh water. All tropical products would grow readily, and on the ranges there is splendid grazing- ground; but the climate, as I have said, is deadly, and will probably for long keep this fine island from the colonizing influences of the Anglo-Saxon race.

The very latest reports from the islands disclose an increasing feeling of bitterness against all and sundry foreigners and intruders. Piratical haunts have sprung, up in some of the island fastnesses on the coast, and the recent visit of a British man-of-war has provoked much hostile criticism, the captain, it is alleged, having displayed undue leniency and want of firmness; and his visit has only incited the lawless renegades he was sent to punish to fresh atrocities and bolder deeds of violence. It is not improbable that the state of affairs on the coast will very shortly be forced disagreeably on the attention of the Imperial Government.


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