John MacGillivray.

Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, Commanded By the Late Captain Owen Stanley, R.N., F.R.S. Etc. During the Years 1846-1850. Including Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea, the Louisiade online

. (page 5 of 24)
Online LibraryJohn MacGillivrayNarrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, Commanded By the Late Captain Owen Stanley, R.N., F.R.S. Etc. During the Years 1846-1850. Including Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea, the Louisiade → online text (page 5 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

intervals and ending in a hurried tremulous cry repeated five or six
times. The noise made by this megapodius while scratching among the dead
leaves for food may sometimes be imitated with such success as to bring
the bird running up within gunshot. When suddenly forced to rise from the
ground it flies up into a tree, and remains there motionless, but
exceedingly vigilant, ready to start on the approach of anyone, but on
other occasions it trusts to its legs to escape. Its food is entirely
procured on the ground, and consists of insects and their larvae
(especially the pupae of ants) small snails, and various fallen seeds and
fruits. Although a great number of the Nicobar pigeons had left, many yet
remained, and the whole island resounded with their cry mixed up with the
cooing of the Nutmeg pigeon. Little skill is required in shooting these
birds, for they generally admit of very close approach, as if trusting to
the chance of being overlooked among the dense foliage.


January 8th.

During the night a party of natives in five canoes came over from the
Calvados Group, and first attracted our attention by making several fires
on the middle and easternmost islands. Soon after daybreak they came
alongside in their usual boisterous manner. A few words of their language
which were procured proved to be of great interest by agreeing generally
with those formerly obtained at Brierly Island, while the numerals were
quite different and corresponded somewhat with those of my Brumer Island
vocabulary. Two of the canoes - one of which carried sixteen people - were
large and heavy and came off under sail, tacking outside of us and
fetching under the ship's stern. In these large canoes the paddles are of
proportionate size and very clumsy - they are worked as oars with the aid
of cane grommets - the sail is of the large oblong shape formerly
described. One of the canoes was furnished with a small stage above the
platform for the reception of a large bundle of coarse mats, six feet
long and two and a half broad, made by interlacing the leaflets of the
cocoa-palm; these mats are probably used in the construction of temporary
huts when upon a cruise.

Although rather a better sample of the Papuan race than that which we had
lately seen at Redscar Bay, there was no marked physical distinction
between these inhabitants of the Louisiade and the New Guinea men. The
canoes, however, are as different as the language; here, as throughout
the Archipelago, the canoes have the semblance of a narrow coffin-like
box, resting upon a hollowed-out log, the bow having the two
characteristic ornaments of the tabura, or head-board, and the crest-like
carved woodwork running out along the beak. Some of the natives were
recognised as former visitors to the ship. Nearly all were painted,
chiefly on the face, the favourite pattern being series of white bars and
spots on a black ground. Except their ornaments and weapons, they had
little to give us for the iron hoop so much in request with them; only a
few coconuts, and scarcely any yams were obtained, and to the latter they
attached a much higher value than formerly.


At length the natives left us, three canoes making to the northward, and
two returning to the Duchateau Isles. Morning observations for rating the
chronometers having been obtained, we got underweigh soon afterwards,
and, bidding farewell to the Louisiade Archipelago, commenced our voyage
to Sydney.

Our daily average progress during the passage to Sydney (which occupied a
period of twenty-eight days) was less than fifty miles. The winds for the
first few days, or until beyond the influence of the land, were light and
variable, shifting between South-West and North-East by the northward,
and accompanied by occasional squalls and rain. It became a matter of
difficulty to determine when we got into the south-east trade; it was not
until we had reached latitude 20 degrees South that the wind - light on
the preceding day, but on this strong, with squalls and rain - appeared
steady between East-South-East and South-South-East and this carried us
down to Sandy Cape.


In traversing the Coral Sea, the numerous detached reefs were so
carefully avoided that we saw none of them - thus in one sense it is to be
regretted that the passage through them of a surveying vessel, with
seventeen chronometers on board, was productive of no beneficial result
by determining the exact position of any one of these dangerous reefs,
most of which are only approximately laid down upon the charts.*

(*Footnote. About this time a new reef was discovered during the passage
from Cape Deliverance to Sydney of H.M.S. Meander, Captain the Honourable
H. Keppel. While this sheet was passing through the press, I saw an
announcement of the total wreck upon Kenn Reef - one of those the position
of which is uncertain - of a large merchant ship, the passengers and crew
of which, 33 in number, fortunately however, succeeded in reaching
Moreton Bay in their boat - a distance of 400 miles.)


The most important practical result of Captain Stanley's survey of the
Louisiade Archipelago and the south coast of New Guinea, was the
ascertaining the existence of a clear channel of at least 30 miles in
width along the southern shores of these islands, stretching east and
west between Cape Deliverance and the north-east entrance to Torres
Strait - a distance of about 600 miles. This space was so traversed by the
two vessels of the expedition without any detached reefs being
discovered, that it does not seem probable that any such exist there,
with the exception of the Eastern Fields of Flinders, the position and
extent of which may be regarded as determined with sufficient accuracy
for the purposes of navigation, and the reefs alluded to in Volume 1,
which, if they exist at all, and are not merely the Eastern Fields laid
down far to the eastward of their true position, must be sought for
further to the southward. The shores in question may now be approached
with safety, and vessels may run along them either by day or night under
the guidance of the chart - without incurring the risk of coming upon
unknown reefs, such as doubtless exist in other parts of the Coral Sea
further to the southward - judging from the occasional discovery of a new
one by some vessel which had got out of the beaten track. Whalers will no
doubt find it worth their while - with the characteristic enterprise of
their class - to push into those parts of the Coral Sea now first thrown
open to them, and, although we have not as yet sufficient grounds to
warrant the probability of success in the fishery, yet I may mention that
whales were seen on several occasions from both of our vessels.


This naturally originates the question - to what extent do the Louisiade
Archipelago and the south-east coast of New Guinea afford a field for
commercial enterprise? What description of trade can be established there
by bartering European goods for the productions of these countries?
Unfortunately at present most of the evidence on this point is of a
negative kind. Besides articles of food, such as pigs, yams, and
coconuts, and weapons and ornaments of no marketable
value - tortoise-shell, flax, arrowroot, massoy bark, and feathers of the
birds of paradise were seen by us, it is true, but in such small
quantities as to hold out at present no inducement for traders to resort
to these coasts for the purpose of procuring them. That gold exists in
the western and northern portions of New Guinea has long been known, that
it exists also on the south-eastern shores of that great island is
equally true, as a specimen of pottery procured at Redscar Bay contained
a few small laminar grains of this precious metal. The clay in which the
gold is embedded was probably part of the great alluvial deposit on the
banks of the rivers, the mouths of which we saw in that neighbourhood,
doubtless originating in the high mountains behind, part of the Owen
Stanley Range.

It is evident, however, that our acquaintance with the productions of a
great extent of coastline upon which we never once landed must be very
slight, but with that little we must be content until some more complete
exploration of the shores, which were only cursorily examined, and
especially of the rivers of the Great Bight - which seem to offer a ready
means of penetrating far into the interior of New Guinea - shall have been
effected. That an expedition with this end in view will soon be
undertaken is, however, highly improbable, the survey of the Rattlesnake
having completed all that was requisite for the immediate purposes of
navigation in those parts.


The fact of the existence of several active volcanoes on islands
immediately adjacent to the north coast of New Guinea (first made known
by Dampier) and the circumstance of volcanic bands traversing the length
of many of the great islands of the Malayan Archipelago, and others as
far to the southward as New Caledonia and New Zealand, rendered it
extremely probable that we should have found indisputable signs of
comparatively recent volcanic action in the south-east part of New
Guinea. We saw no volcanoes, however, and the great central mountain
chain appeared to me to be probably granitic. The large Brumer Island is
composed of igneous rocks as formerly mentioned; and at Dufaure Island I
obtained from some canoes which came off to us a few smooth water-worn
pieces of hornblendic porphyry. Some specimens of obsidian, or volcanic
glass, were also procured from the natives at the latter place, where
sharp-edged fragments are used for shaving with; one variety is black,
another of a light reddish-brown, with dark streaks. Mount Astrolabe is
apparently of trap formation, as I have already stated. Some conical
hills scattered along the coast may possibly be of volcanic origin,
especially one of that form rising to the height of 645 feet from the
lowland behind Redscar Head. It is in this neighbourhood also that we
find the upraised calcareous rocks of modern date exhibited by the
Pariwara Islands and the neighbouring headland, with which they were
probably once continuous; near this, too, the barrier reef of the coast
ceases at Low Island, which it encloses, although its line is continued
under water, as a ridge of coral, as far as the South-west Cape, where
the coral ends, unless the shoals apparently blocking up the channel
south of Yule Island are of the same formation.


Reference to the outline chart will enable the reader to follow me in
some general remarks which did not properly enter into the narrative. The
Louisiade Archipelago, reduced to what I conceive to be its natural
limits, includes that extensive group of islands comprised between the
parallels of 10 degrees 40 minutes and 11 degrees 40 minutes South
latitude, and the meridians of 151 degrees and 154 degrees 30 minutes
East longitude. About eighty are already known, and probably many others
remain yet to be discovered in the north-west, a large space there being
as yet a blank upon the chart. All the islands of the group, with the
exception of the low ones of coral formation to the westward, appear to
be inhabited, but probably nowhere very densely, judging from the
comparatively small number of natives which we saw, and the circumstance
of the patches of cultivation being small and scattered, while the
greater part of the large islands is either covered with dense forest, or
exhibits extensive grassy tracts with lines and clumps of trees. Such of
the islands as were examined consisted of mica slate, the line of
direction of the beds of which is nearly the same as that of the
Archipelago itself, and the physical appearance of the other islands
leads me to believe that the same rock prevails there also.


One of the most remarkable features connected with the Louisiade
Archipelago is the manner in which its shores are protected by the coral
reefs which have frequently been alluded to above. The principal of these
are good examples of that kind distinguished by the name of barrier
reefs. Rossel Reef has already been described, and the only other large
one of this description which we saw more than a portion of, is that
partially encircling South-east Island at a variable distance from the
land, then passing to the westward as far as longitude 152 degrees 40
minutes, where it ceases to show itself above water; thence, however, the
edge of a bank of soundings (represented on the chart by a dotted line)
which is suddenly met with in coming from the deep blue unfathomed water
to the southward, can be traced in a continued line to the westward as
far as the Jomard Isles, whence it turns round to the northward for ten
miles further, where our examination ended. This last may be considered
as a submarine extension of the barrier, which probably reappears again
above water, and passing to the northward of the Calvados Group, reaches
as far as the northern entrance to Coral Haven, enclosing nearly all the
high islands of the Archipelago. The expanse of water inside when not
occupied by land usually exhibits a depth of from 15 to 30 fathoms, with
numerous sunken patches of coral, and several reefs which partially dry
at low-water. The shores of the islands also are generally protected by
fringing coral reefs, the largest of which is that extending off the west
and south side of Piron Island to a distance of seven or eight miles,
with a well defined border towards Coral Haven.

At the western portion of the Louisiade Archipelago the reefs seen by us
exhibit great irregularity of outline, continuity, and width. Some are
linear reefs, others atolls* more or less distinct in character, and the
remainder are usually round or oval. Viewed as a whole they form an
interrupted chain, with numerous deepwater channels, which terminates in
the West Barrier Reef of the chart but is connected with the coast of New
Guinea by a bank of soundings, with, probably, a well-defined margin.
Many low, wooded islands are scattered along this line. I know of no
distinguishing feature presented by the coral reefs of the Louisiade
compared with those which I have seen elsewhere. One remarkable
occurrence, however, connected with them, may be mentioned. While passing
in the ship the most northern point of Rossel Island, I observed upon the
reef, about a hundred yards inside its outer border, a series of enormous
insulated masses of dead coral rising like rocks from the shallow water.
The largest of these, examined through a good telescope from the distance
of half a mile, was about twenty feet in length and twelve in height,
with a well-defined high-water mark. It formed quite a miniature island,
with tufts of herbage growing in the clefts of its rugged sides, and a
little colony of black-naped terns perched upon the top as if incubating.

(*Footnote. "An atoll differs from an encircling barrier reef only in the
absence of land within its central expanse; and a barrier reef differs
from a fringing reef in being placed at a much greater distance from the
land with reference to the probable inclination of its submarine
foundation, and in the presence of a deep water lagoon-like space or moat
within the reef." The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs by
Charles Darwin page 146.)


I had only once before seen a similar exhibition of such great and
permanently elevated masses of dead coral upon a living reef - a
phenomenon of much interest in connection with Mr. Darwin's theory of the
mode of formation of coral reefs. This was on a portion of the Great
Barrier Reef of Australia, visited in company with Mr. Jukes, who has
published a detailed account of it.* In both cases the only obvious
explanation is that these huge blocks - too massive to have been hove up
from deep water into their present position by any storm - reached their
present level by the elevation of the sea bottom on which they were

(*Footnote. Voyage of H.M.S. Fly by J.B. Jukes volume 1 page 340.)

Before quitting the subject of the coral reefs of the Louisiade I may be
permitted to express my conviction of the perfect manner in which many,
perhaps all of the appearances which they present may be satisfactorily
accounted for by the application of Mr. Darwin's theory. We have only to
presume the whole of the Archipelago to have once formed part of New
Guinea - a supposition highly probable in itself (suggested even by a
careful examination of the large charts) and strengthened by the total
absence of signs of volcanic agency in what the theory in question would
require to be an area of subsidence as opposed to those of elevation,
such as are known to exist in parts of New Guinea.


The ethnology of New Guinea is involved in so much confusion and
obscurity for the want of sufficient data, that even with the aid of some
additional recently acquired information bearing upon the subject, I wish
the following brief remarks to be regarded more as probable assumptions
than as views the correctness of which admits of demonstration. Besides,
to give all the proofs, such as they are, would cause much repetition of
what has been already stated above.

I must premise that most of our previous definite information regarding
the inhabitants of New Guinea applies only to a small portion of the
north-west coast of that great island in the neighbourhood of Port Dorey,
which is known to be peopled by several distinct varieties of mankind, of
which one (with which, as occupying the coast, we are best acquainted) is
designated the Papuan, or Papua, as generally understood by that
appellation when used in its restricted signification. These Papuans,
according to Dumont D'Urville,* compose the principal part of the
population of Port Dorey, and, judging from his description, I have no
hesitation in referring to them also the inhabitants of the Louisiade
Archipelago and the South-East coast of New Guinea, and agree with
Prichard (in opposition to the views of others) that they "constitute a
genuine and peculiar tribe."**

(*Footnote. Voyage de l'Astrolabe tome 4 page 603.)

(**Footnote. Researches into the Physical History of Mankind volume 5
page 227.)


Another variety among the inhabitants of Port Dorey, spoken of by M.
d'Urville as the Harfours, is supposed by him to include, along with
another race of which little is known - named Arfaki - the indigenous
inhabitants of the north-west part of New Guinea. The Harfours,
Haraforas, or Alforas, for they have been thus variously named, have
often been described as inhabiting the interior of many of the large
islands of the Malayan Archipelago, but, as Prichard remarks, "nothing
can be more puzzling than the contradictory accounts which are given of
their physical characters and manners. The only point of agreement
between different writers respecting them is the circumstance that all
represent them as very low in civilisation and of fierce and sanguinary
habits."* Their distinctness as a race has been denied with much apparent
reason by Mr. Earl, and they are considered by Prichard to be merely
various tribes of the Malayo-Polynesian race retaining their uncivilised
and primitive state. Be this as it may, of these Harfours D'Urville
states, that they reminded him of the ordinary type of the Australians,
New Caledonians, and the black race of Oceania, from their sooty colour,
coarse but not woolly hair, thick beards, and habit of scarifying the
body. I mention these Harfours for the purpose of stating that no people
answering to the description of them given above were seen by us in New
Guinea or the Louisiade Archipelago.

(*Footnote. Ibid page 255.)


It appears to me that there are two distinct varieties of the Papuan race
inhabiting the south-east portion of New Guinea. The first occupies the
western shores of the Great Bight, and probably extends over the whole of
the adjacent country, along the banks of Aird River, and the other great
freshwater channels. Judging from the little that was seen of them during
the voyage of the Fly, these people appear to agree with the Torres
Strait Islanders - an offshoot, there is reason to believe, of the same
stock - in being a dark and savage race, the males of which go entirely

The second variety occupies the remainder of the south-east coast of New
Guinea and the Louisiade Archipelago. Their characteristics have already
been given in this work, as seen at intermediate points between Cape
Possession and Coral Haven; they agree in being a lighter-coloured people
than the preceding, and more advanced in civilisation: mop-headed,
practising betel-chewing, and wearing the breech-cloth. Without entering
into the question of their supposed origin, I may state that, in some of
their physical, intellectual, and moral characters, and also partially in
their language, they seem to me to show indications of a
Malayo-Polynesian influence, probably acquired before their arrival in
New Guinea, along the shores of which they seem to have extended,
colonising the Louisiade during their progress, which at Cape Possession
was finally arrested by their meeting with the other section of the race
alluded to in the preceding paragraph.

It would be curious to see the effects produced at the point of junction
of these two sections of the same race, probably somewhere between Aird
River and Cape Possession. It is not unlikely that the Papuans of Redscar
Bay and its vicinity derived the use of the bow and arrow from their
neighbours to the westward - and that the kind of canoe in use in Torres
Strait was an introduction from the eastward, is rendered
probable - setting aside other considerations - by a circumstance suggested
by the vocabularies, i.e. that the name for the most characteristic part
of the canoe in question - the outrigger float - is essentially the same
from the Louisiade to Cape York.*

Louisiade: Sama.
Darnley Island: Charima.
Dufaure Island: Sarima.
Prince of Wales Islands: Sarima.
Redscar Bay: Darima.
Cape York: Charima.)

I have alluded in a preceding part of this work (Volume 1) to the
circumstance that the small vocabulary obtained at the Louisiade may,
along with others, throw some light upon the question: whence has
Australia been peopled?


It may safely be assumed that the aborigines of the whole of Australia
(exclusive of Van Diemen's Land) have had one common origin; in physical
character the natives of Cape York seem to me to differ in no material
respect from those of New South Wales, South or Western Australia, or
Port Essington,* and, I believe I am borne out by facts in stating that
an examination of vocabularies and grammars (more or less complete) from
widely remote localities, still further tends to prove the unity of the
Australian tribes as a race.

(*Footnote. M. Hombron (attached to D'Urville's last expedition as
surgeon and naturalist) considers - as the result of personal
observation - that the aborigines of New South Wales exhibit certain
points of physical difference from those of the North Coast of Australia,
meaning, I suppose, by the latter, those natives seen by him at Raffles
Bay and Port Essington. I may also mention that M. Hombron considers the
Northern Australians to be a distinct subdivision of the Australian race,
in which he also classes the inhabitants of the smaller islands of Torres
Strait (as Warrior Island for instance) attributing the physical
amelioration of the latter people to the fact of their possessing
abundant means of subsistence afforded by the reefs among which they
live, and the necessity of possessing well constructed canoes as their
only means of procuring fish and dugong, stated by him to constitute the
chief food of the Torres Strait islanders. Voyage au Pole Sud, etc.
Zoologie tome 1 par M. Hombron pages 313, 314 et 317.)

The two places from one of which the Australian population may be
supposed to have been more IMMEDIATELY derived, are Timor on the one hand
and New Guinea on the other: in the former case the first settlers would
probably have landed somewhere on the north-west coast, in the latter, at
Cape York.

Mr. Eyre believes that there are "grounds sufficient to hazard the
opinion that Australia was first peopled on its north-western coast,

Online LibraryJohn MacGillivrayNarrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, Commanded By the Late Captain Owen Stanley, R.N., F.R.S. Etc. During the Years 1846-1850. Including Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea, the Louisiade → online text (page 5 of 24)