CHAPTER XIV. AT TAHITI.
I had a long talk with one of the natives, who arrived to-day from Flint Island - a most picturesque-looking individual, dressed in scarlet and orange-coloured flannel, and a mass of black, shiny, curly hair. Flint Island is a place whose existence has been disputed, it having been more than once searched for by ships in vain. It was, therefore, particularly interesting to meet some one who had actually visited, and had just returned from, the spot in question. That islands do occasionally disappear entirely in these parts there can be little doubt. The Tahitian schooners were formerly in the habit of trading with a small island close to Rarotonga, whose name I forget; but about four years ago, when proceeding thither with the usual three-monthly cargo of provisions, prints, &c., they failed to find the island, of which no trace has since been seen. Two missionaries from Rarotonga are believed to have been on it at the time of its disappearance, and to have shared its mysterious fate.
Thursday, December 7th. - At eight o'clock I took Mabelle and Muriel for a drive in a pony-carriage which had been kindly lent me, but with a hint that the horse was rather mechant sometimes. He behaved well on the present occasion, however, and we had a pleasant drive in the outskirts of the town for a couple of hours.
Just as we returned, a gentleman came and asked me if I should like to see some remarkably fine pearls, and on my gladly consenting, he took me to his house, where I saw some pearls certainly worth going to look at, but too expensive for me, one pear-shaped gem alone having been valued at 1,000_l. I was told they came from a neighbouring island, and I was given two shells containing pearls in various stages of formation.
It was now time to go on board to receive some friends whom we had invited to breakfast, and who arrived at about half-past eleven.
After breakfast, and a chat, and an examination of the photograph books, &c., we all landed, and went to see Messrs. Brander's stores, where all sorts of requisites for fitting out ships and their crews can be procured. It is surprising to find how plentiful are the supplies of the necessaries and even the luxuries of civilised life in this far-away corner of the globe. You can even get ice here, for the manufacture of which a retired English infantry officer has set up an establishment with great success. But what interested me most were the products of this and the neighbouring islands. There were tons of exquisitely tinted pearl shells, six or eight inches in diameter, formerly a valuable article of commerce, but now worth comparatively little. The pearls that came out of them had unfortunately been sent away to Liverpool - 1,000_l. worth by this morning's, and 5,000_l by the last mail-ship. Then there was vanilla, a most precarious crop, which needs to be carefully watered and shaded from the first moment it is planted, and which must be gathered before it is ripe, and dried and matured in a moist heat, between blankets and feather-beds, in order that the pods may not crack and allow the essence to escape. We saw also edible fungus, exported to San Francisco, and thence to Hong Kong, solely for the use of the Chinese; tripang, or beche-de-mer, a sort of sea-slug or holothuria, which, either living or dead, fresh or dried, looks equally untempting, but is highly esteemed by the Celestials; coprah, or dried cocoa-nut kernels, broken into small pieces in order that they may stow better, and exported to England and other parts, where the oil is expressed and oil-cake formed; and various other articles of commerce. The trade of the island is fast increasing, the average invoice value of the exports having risen from 8,400_l in 1845 to 98,000_l in 1874. These totals are exclusive of the value of the pearls, which would increase it by at least another 3,000_l or 4,000_l.
I speak from personal experience when I say that every necessary of life on board ship, and many luxuries, can be procured at Tahiti. American tinned fruits and vegetables beat English ones hollow. Preserved milk is uncertain - sometimes better, sometimes worse, than what one buys at home. Tinned salmon is much better. Australian mutton, New Zealand beef, and South Sea pork, leave nothing to be desired in the way of preserved meat. Fresh beef, mutton, and butter are hardly procurable, and the latter, when preserved, is uneatable. I can never understand why they don't take to potting and salting down for export the best butter, at some large Irish or Devonshire farm, instead of reserving that process for butter which is just on the turn and is already almost unfit to eat; the result being that, long before it has reached a hot climate, it is only fit to grease carriage-wheels with. It could be done, and I feel sure it would pay, as good butter would fetch almost any price in many places. Some Devonshire butter, which we brought with us from England, is as good now, after ten thousand miles in the tropics, as it was when first put on board; but a considerable proportion is very bad, and was evidently not in proper condition in the first instance.