FRENCH CIRCUMNAVIGATORS, I

After leaving Timor the Uranie proceeded towards the Strait of Bourou, and in passing between the islands of Wetter and Roma got sight of the picturesque island of Gasses, clothed in the brightest and thickest verdure imaginable. The corvette was then drifted by currents almost as far as the island of Pisang, near which she fell in with three dhows, manned by natives of the island of Gueby. These people have an olive complexion, broad flat noses, and thick lips; some are strong, looking robust and athletic, others are slender and weakly in appearance; and others, again, thickset and repulsive-looking. The only clothing worn by the majority at this time was a pair of drawers fastened with a handkerchief round the waist.

A landing was effected on the little island of Pisang. It was found to be of volcanic origin, and the soil, formed from the decomposition of trachytic lava, was evidently very fertile. From Pisang the corvette made her way among islands, till then scarcely known, to Rawak, where she cast anchor at noon on the 16th of December. This island, though small, is inhabited; but though our navigators were often visited by the natives of Waigiou, opportunities for studying this species of the human family have been rare. Moreover, it ought to be mentioned that through ignorance of the language of the indigenous tribes, and the difficulty of making them understand through the medium of Malayan, of which they know only a few words, even those few opportunities have not been turned to much account. As soon as a suitable position was found, the instruments were set up, and the usual physical and astronomical observations were made in conjunction with geographical researches.

Rawak hut on piles
Rawak hut on piles.
(Fac-simile of early engraving.)

The islands which Freycinet calls the islands of the Papuans are Rawak, Boni, Waigiou, and Manouran, which are situated almost immediately below the equator. The largest of these, Waigiou, is not less than seventy-two miles from one side to the other; the low shorage consists mainly of swamp and morass, while the banks, which run up steeply, are surrounded by coral reefs, and are full of small caves hollowed out by the waves. All the islets are clothed with vegetation of surprising beauty. They abound with magnificent trees, amongst which the "Barringtonia" may be recognized, with its voluminous trunk always leaning towards the sea, allowing the tips of the branches to touch the water; the "scoevola lobelia," fig-trees, mangroves, the casuarinæ, with their straight and slender stems shooting up to the height of forty feet, the rima, the takanahaka, with its trunk more than twenty feet in circumference; the cynometer, belonging to the family of leguminous plants, bright from its topmost to its lowest branches with pale red flowers and golden fruits; and besides these rarer trees, palms, nutmeg-trees, roseapple-trees, banana-trees, flourish in the low and moist ground.

The luxuriant vegetation of the Papuan Islands
The luxuriant vegetation of the Papuan Islands.

The fauna, however, has not attained to the same exceptionally fine development as the flora. At Rawak the phalanger and the sheepdog in a wild state were the only quadrupeds met with. In Waigiou, the boar called barberossa, and a diminutive of the same race were found. But as to the feathered tribe, they were not so numerous as one might have supposed; the plants yielding grain necessary for the sustenance of birds not being able to thrive in the dense shade of the forests. Hornbills are here met with, whose wings, furnished with long feathers separated at the tips, make a very loud noise when they fly; great quantities of parrots, kingfishers, turtle-doves, piping-crows, brown hawks, crested pigeons, and possibly also birds of paradise, though the travellers did not see any specimens.

The Papuans themselves are positively repulsively ugly. To quote the words of Odet-Pellion, "a flat skull, a facial angle of 75°, a large mouth, eyes small and sunken, a thick nose, flat at the end and pressed down on the upper lip, a scanty beard, a peculiarity of the people of those regions already noticed, shoulders of a moderate size, a prominent belly, and slight lower limbs; these are the chief characteristics of the Papuans. Their hair both in its nature and mode of arrangement varies a good deal. Most commonly it is dressed with great pains into a matted structure not less than eight inches in height; composed of a mass of soft downy hair curling naturally; or it is frizzed up, till it positively bristles, and with the assistance of a coating of grease, is plastered round the skull in the shape of a globe. A long wooden comb of six or seven teeth is also often stuck in, not so much to aid in keeping the mass together as to give a finishing touch of ornament."

These unfortunate people are afflicted with the terrible scourge of leprosy, which is so prevalent that at least a tenth part of the population are infested with the disease. The cause of this dreadful malady must be sought in the insalubrity of the climate, the miasma from the marshes, which are overflowed with sea-water every flood tide, the neighbourhood of the burial-places, which are badly kept, and perhaps also to the consumption of shell-fish which these natives devour greedily.