FRENCH NAVIGATORS, I
In fact, a pirogue soon after approaching the Saint-Jean Baptiste, the men who were in it, seeing what they took to be two of their own people trafficking with the strangers, drew nearer. So soon as the French imagined they were at a fair distance, they launched two boats in pursuit. The natives gained ground; it was then decided to fire, in order to stop them. One of the natives was killed at once, and, his boat capsizing, he fell into the sea, and the other, who was only fourteen or fifteen years of age, endeavoured to reach the shore by swimming.
"He defended himself most courageously," says the narrative, "sometimes making believe to bite himself, but really biting those who held him. His hands and feet were tied, and he was taken on board. He counterfeited death for an hour, but when he was made to sit up, and he fell back on deck, he took good care to fall on his shoulders instead of his head. When he was tired of playing this game he opened his eyes, and, seeing that the crew were eating, he asked for a biscuit, ate it with a good appetite, and made many expressive signs. He was bound securely, so that he might not throw himself overboard."
During the night, it was necessary to resort to firing, to disperse the pirogues, which approached with a view to surprising the ship. Next day, the native was taken in a boat to a small islet, since called Aiguade Island. Scarcely had he landed when it was perceived that he had almost cut through the ropes with a sharp shell.
The young savage was taken by a different route to the shore; when he perceived that he was to re-embark, he rolled upon the ground, shrieking, and biting the sand in his fury.
The sailors succeeded at last in finding an abundant spring, and plenty of wood. One of the trees they cut appeared to have dyeing properties, for it tinged the sea with red. Some of the bark was boiled, and pieces of cotton steeped in the decoction turned deep red.
Welcome refreshment was afforded to the crew by the palm cabbages, good oysters, and various shell-fish which abounded. There were indeed many sufferers from scurvy on board the Saint-Jean Baptiste. Surville had looked forward to this stay to cure them, but the rain, which fell ceaselessly for six days, aggravated their complaint to such a degree that three of them died before they left the anchorage.
This port was named Praslin, and the large island or archipelago, to which it belonged, Arsacides, in reference to the deceitful nature of its inhabitants.
"Port Praslin," says Fleurien, "would be one of the finest ports in the world, if the bottom were better. It is of circular shape, reckoning all the islands discovered from the spot where the Saint-Jean Baptiste cast anchor. The ferocity of the people inhabiting the islands of Port Praslin was such that it was impossible to penetrate into the interior, and it was only possible to examine the sea-coast. We perceived no cultivated ground, either in the trip we made to the further end of the port, nor upon Aiguade Island, which was explored throughout."
Such are the superficial particulars which Surville and his crew were able to collect. Fortunately, they were supplemented by those furnished by the captive native, whose name was Lova-Salega, and who possessed a great faculty for learning languages.
According to his account, the island produced palms, cocoa-nut trees, various almond trees, wild coffee, the ebony tree, the tacamahac, as well as numerous resinous or gum trees, the banana, sugar-cane, yams, aniseed, and lastly a plant called "Binao," which is used by the natives as bread. Cockatoos, wood pigeons, lories, and black-birds, somewhat larger than those of Europe, abounded in the woods. In the marshes the curlew, sea lark, a species of snipe, and ducks were to be found. The only quadrupeds the country produced were goats and half-wild pigs.
"The natives of Port Praslin," says Fleurien, quoting from the manuscripts in his possession, "are of ordinary height, but strong and muscular. They do not appear to be all of one origin (a valuable remark), for some are perfectly black, whilst others are copper-coloured. The former have woolly hair, which is very soft to the touch, their foreheads are small, their eyes slightly sunken, whilst the lower part of their face is pointed, and adorned with a small beard; their expression is fierce. Some of the copper-coloured natives have smooth hair. They usually cut it round the head as high as the ear. A few only retain a little, shaped like a cap, on the top of the head, shaving off the remainder with a sharp stone, and leaving only a circular fringe about an inch deep at the bottom. Their hair and eyebrows are powdered with lime, which gives them a yellowish hue.
"Both men and women are stark naked; but it must be allowed that their nudity is not so startling as would be that of an European without clothes, for the faces, arms, and generally every part of their bodies are tattooed. Sometimes the taste of these designs is really wonderful. They pierce their ears and the cartilage of their nose, and the nostrils often hang down, from the weight of the ornaments, to the upper lip."
The commonest ornament worn by the natives of Port Praslin is a necklace made of men's teeth. It was at once concluded that they were cannibals, although the same customs had been met with among people who were not. Lova's confused replies, and the half-broiled head of a man, found by Bougainville in a pirogue in Choiseul Island, placed the existence of this barbarous practice beyond the possibility of doubt.