Picturesque New Guinea/Chapter 14




NEW Guinea has a peculiar fascination for the traveller although it is said to be sickly, and in the uttermost degree detrimental to European constitutions; in which statements it is to be feared there is a great deal of truth. Yet New Guinea possesses such a charm, or magnetic force, that a traveller who has once been there is sure to be drawn back.

There is a serenity and solemn grandeur in those primitive forests, untrodden by civilized man; danger and climatic troubles are never thought of by the true traveller, but onward is his sole aim, and the further he plunges into the woods in New Guinea the greater becomes his desire to penetrate into the unknown regions of this beautiful island; it is the naturalist's paradise, where his labours will be amply rewarded and every anticipation fully gratified.

At the same time I am sorry to confess my own labours in New Guinea were not crowned with that success as anticipated, but this was owing to various circumstances which other travellers can avoid.

I shall now proceed to give a short narrative of a trip up the Hilda river. In November, 1884, I set out from Port Moresby for Maiva, a coast village about ten miles west of Yule Island, and in 140° 40′ east and 8° 40′ south latitude.

For the reason that it was rumoured that Mr. Forbes had chosen Mount Owen Stanley as his field of operation, I directed my attention






Black and white photograph of a man with a long white beard wearing a suit.
Black and white photograph of a man with a long white beard wearing a suit.
Black and white photograph of a man with a short white beard wearing a uniform.
Black and white photograph of a man with a short white beard wearing a uniform.
to Mount Yule, where I expected great results in floral discoveries; and on the suggestion of Mr. Chalmers and Captain Liljeblad, made Maiva my headquarters, as from here it was thought I should have easy access to Mount Yule. After a fortnight's stay at Maiva I had so far gained the confidence of the natives that they undertook to pilot me part of the way towards Mount Yule, and I set out with ten native carriers. Travelling about two miles in an east-south-easterly direction through low country dotted with mangrove swamps, and bearing the appearance of being subjected to heavy floods, as flood-marks appeared on the trees in every direction, I soon arrived at a village called Paihana, about five miles in a direct line north of the coast, nearly opposite Hall Sound. The village contained about thirty houses mostly poorly built and situated in a dense wood, intermixed with cocoa-nut palms, and distant about one mile south of the Hilda river. The natives were friendly and offered us cocoa-nuts and betel-nuts, the former welcome to me and the latter to my Maiva friends. Here I observed a custom among the natives not seen by me anywhere else in New Guinea, every male native carried a bark blanket on his shoulder, and before seating himself would first spread this blanket on the ground.

After having a chat, through an interpreter, with the chief, he promised to supply me with carriers the next morning to take me away to the next village, and moreover the old chief, Aruoba, would accompany me himself, and I rejoiced over my success so far; but when evening came, the worthy chief had got lame on one foot in some mysterious way, and of course could not accompany me, nor give me men, he said none would undertake the journey. However, the next morning I mustered a small party and crossed the Hilda River in order to reach a path about a mile up the other side, where we entered, and walked under a complete archway of tall rank grass extending for about three-quarters of a mile, when we came to an open forest country admirably suited for stock. Here we met a number of natives, men and women carrying fruit and vegetables in netted bags, to be bartered with the people on the other side of the river, where they had a proper marketplace and three or four tribes met on certain days for exchange of goods, which are mostly food and fruit; those who are badly off, barter ornaments or war implements for food. On seeing me the people got greatly excited, as I was the first European they had seen, but they soon became calm, and most of the men conducted us to their village, Nauea, and on entering this village the inhabitants raised their voices to the highest note in astonishment at seeing such a party carrying articles incomprehensible to them. After a formal introduction to the chief, and my name ascertained—it is always a custom amongst the Papuans to ask a stranger's name, where he comes from, where going to, and his errand amongst them—a house was placed at my disposal, and food was brought for us all. I say the house was placed at my disposal, but I feared every minute the frail structure would give way under its burden, for every available space was occupied by inquisitive natives to see the wonderful Albus man, the first one who had visited them. These people conversed at the very top of their voices; frequently my own voice was not audible, and to amuse myself while they were talking over all the wonderful things they saw of mine, I commenced to whistle, and before long found myself singing an operatic song, and the natives were as quiet as if a wonderful charm had acted upon them, with their mouths wide open, and staring at me. I had found the secret how to subdue their deafening conversation; I always applied the same means when I desired quietness, and it never failed to produce effect.

Every day, during my stay amongst them, I was requested to sit on the verandah of the house I occupied, and exhibit my white skin; it took place as near as possible between 4 and 5 p.m.; at this hour the people came in from their plantations or hunting excursions, and they appeared never to get tired of looking at me, and feeling every part of the body, and to all this I had to submit with a gracious smiling face.

The Nauea village contains about 1,500 inhabitants, with fairly good houses and small enclosures where variegated plants grew. The people are of a small stature, healthy and industrious, clean and orderly, well fed, and mostly of a light colour, even as light as many half castes of a Tahitian origin, with bright intelligent faces. Tattooing was not much practised, and the string used by the natives at Port Moresby and in the Astrolabe ranges is dispensed with here and replaced by a wide fibre cloth fastened like a suspender at the back, terminating in a long pendant ribbon-like tail. The women wear a short petticoat dyed black, and seldom more than one, but at Port Moresby, Hulu, Kerepunu, and other places the women generally wear two or three; at every house I saw hammocks made of bark cord, on the same principle as our European hammocks.

I stayed at Nauea for several days, and explored the locality, and found it most valuable for pastural and agricultural purposes. It will no doubt in time to come play an important part as a European settlement, and I have every reason to suppose the climate is salubrious, as all the people here looked exceptionally healthy.

There is one thing about the Papuan all over New Guinea that I am sorry I cannot record favourably on, that is, their statements and promises cannot be relied upon. When it came to the day of my departure to proceed on my journey towards Mount Yule—from Nauea about two days' march—here also I was refused assistance, on the ground that the Nauea people feared that the mountain people would kill me; but on investigation I found it was nothing but jealousy of my trade, as they did not wish it to pass into the hands of other tribes. Notwithstanding my remonstrances, I could not induce them to take me beyond their own district, and I with sorrow and dismay had to return to the coast, and leave Mount Yule unexplored for the present by me.

The Nauea natives gave many interesting narratives relating to the people on the other side of Mount Yule, such as the existence of a tribe with long tails. The natives in the Astrolabe ranges have the same story about Mount Owen Stanley; although I did not attach much importance to these wonderful tales, what I saw and heard greatly stimulated my desire to visit Mount Yule.

In reference to the Hilda River, whether it will be of any practical navigable service to future settlers is more than I can say. The natives say the river always contains plenty of water; at the time of my visit the wet season had already set in, and the river banks were overflowing, with a strong current which prevented my progress; but as far as I ascended the stream, it was not less than two chains wide, and in some places much more, and with almost perpendicular banks. The Hilda river flows into the Ethel river near the coast, and empties itself into the sea.

I am of opinion that the Hilda derives its source from the interior, immediately at the back of Mount Yule, and as the western side of the mountain terminates very abruptly, and apparently almost forms a perpendicular wall, I do believe the river has its source under this wall, or within a short distance of it. If this be correct, and the river proves navigable at all seasons of the year, it will be a most important route for future explorers, as this route would bring them into the centre of the south-easterly portion of the island. And as the western side of Mount Owen Stanley range gently slopes into the eastern side of Mount Yule, and forms a saddle between the two mountains, I believe from this centre the Mount Owen Stanley ranges can easily be explored, and probably from this point the summit of the mountain itself can be reached.

As it appears to me that Mount Yule terminates very abruptly when it meets the Hilda river, I have every reason to think my supposition is correct, and from that point a vast extent of level country extends in a north-westerly course for many miles, and will, beyond doubt, eventually be one of the localities for European settlements.

In retracing my steps to the coast, I passed through several villages, and was astonished to find a number of fowls cooped up in true European style; the birds are merely kept for the feathers of the male, which are particularly bright and used for ornaments; they are similar to the Malay fowls, with the exception of being a shade bigger.

On my return to Maiva I again stayed there a few days, and made a small collection of botanical specimens. The Maiva district is dry, consisting of a series of hills, up to 600 feet above sea level, with slate and ironstone; the vegetation is mostly a stunted eucalypti growth, and the natives are compelled to have their plantations in the valleys where there is more moisture and shelter for the fruit trees and vegetables. I found several quartz pebbles of a very good quality, water-worn, which in all probability had been washed down from the hills. The natives used large brilliant crystals as charms when hunting or courting; these crystals were found in the Maiva district.

On the hills, a mile from the village, I discovered in calcareous beds a number of marine fossils of a recent formation, I venture to think that gold will also be discovered in the Maiva district, but in what quantity I do not venture to predict.

The Maiva district has a large population with apparently abundance of food of every description. The people are kind and friendly disposed towards strangers, and intelligent; the men are full of conceit, and pay great attention to their scanty attire. Many of them are handsome, and have an aristocratic bearing. The women, who have sharp masculine features, and much tatooed, are less pleasing than the men.

The marriage custom at Maiva, unlike all the places I have seen in New Guinea, where, when a woman is married, she is deprived of all her hair and ornaments, differs in this that she retains them at Maiva, being allowed to keep her pretty hair. As a young girl she is tattooed all over her body, with the exception of her face, which is left to be done when she is married, to indicate that the woman has entered into the matrimonial union. At the marriage ceremony the bride and bridegroom are dressed in their best, ornamented with feathers, shells, and bright foliage plants; friends and relatives are invited, all giving presents, chiefly food. After the feasting is at an end, the marriage ceremony is considered legal, and the young couple are left to struggle for themselves. Each wife is bought from the parents, or from relatives, should the girl's parents be dead. The payment usually consists of pigs, food, and ornaments, tomahawks, and pearl shells, with calico, beads, &c., if any articles of European manufacture have found their way to the villages; but the pig is on no account omitted.

It is of frequent occurrence that the lady leaves her husband three or four times during life, and vice versa in each case always taking a fresh partner. At each such mishap cocoa-nut trees and vegetable gardens belonging to the peccant wife or husband, as the case may be, or co-respondent, are destroyed by the injured party, a severe fight being usually the result. I saw in Maiva many marks of the infringement of the marriage law, such as half the trunk of a beautiful cocoa-nut palm standing as a monument of the unlawful event.

The only drawback to Maiva ever becoming a European Settlement is the heavy surf on the coast, which makes it very difficult to effect a landing even with a canoe, but I dare say when Europeans are allowed to settle in New Guinea, and should Maiva ever become a European Settlement, civilization will devise some means of approaching it.


Motu-Motu is situated on the eastern bank at the entrance of Williams River, in longitude 146° 9' east, and latitude 8° 13' south; the district is an immense extent of sago country, very humid, and beyond doubt the fever-bed of New Guinea.

The population here I should estimate at 1,500; the people are as a rule of tall stature, well built, and in good condition, as here is no lack of food; considering the humidity of the district they keep in excellent health. Smallpox has at some time or other visited this district, as unmistakable evidences show on middle-aged men who say they had a great sickness when they were boys, and many people died.

These people have many interesting customs; for instance, at a certain time of the year, usually September and October, when vegetables are abundant, youths are sent into the Elamos, or sacred houses, as Mr. Chalmers calls them, but this word is a misnomer, as my readers will see further on. The youths having reached the age of fourteen or fifteen, all the hair is shaved off their heads. On the day of their entering the Elamo all the people feast on pigs, yams, taros, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, cocoa-nuts, and betel-nuts, &c. All this food is collected and placed in huge heaps outside each Elamo where a boy or several is to be imprisoned, as I call it; it is distributed amongst the people, then cooked and consumed; singing and dancing follow. These boys remain in the Elamo for eight or nine months, or until such time as the hair is completely grown over the head, so that when they marry—which they are at liberty to do when they come out—it can be tied in a mop at the back of the head. All the time they remain in the Elamo they are allowed to communicate with none but men, who bring them food, &c. They take outdoor exercise at night, as they must avoid all contact with women, and not even be seen by old or young, sister or mother. When the hair is grown to the required length they are set free; they are then considered men, and allowed to take part in matters concerning the tribe.

The Elamos, it is said, are sacred houses, but I am sorry to say these people have nothing sacred; all married and single men sleep in these so-called sacred houses; here they gossip, eat, drink, and create mischief of every description. If a sanctuary is used for such debasing work it cannot justly be called a sanctuary. Death sentences have been passed upon many innocent men from these so-called sacred houses.

I said married men slept in the Elamos; yes, this is rather a peculiar custom in the matrimonial union amongst these people; every night the husband leaves his wife and family and betakes himself to the house of mischief, there to sleep. Not unfrequently when the husband leaves his wife in the evening, some single man will go to the wife, give the name of her husband, and have a little love adventure—the readers will wonder how this can be done, but it is easy enough, as there is no light in the houses; sometimes the woman will find out the mistake and give alarm, and the intruder will find himself in a serious trouble, which frequently is fatal to him.

The images of birds, fishes, pigs, and men are kept in these houses only as ornaments, as these people acknowledge no deities.

On the whole these people are very egotistic, and not easy to deal with; they are by nature rowdy and quarrelsome, and were at one time considered the warriors of the coast; and even at the time when Messrs. Lawes and Chalmers took up their residence at Port Moresby, they threatened to go and fight them. And for my own part I have not met a more selfish lot of people than the Motu-Motuans. The Aroma and Motu-Motu people are certainly the most noisy folks I have met in New Guinea as yet, and my wife has named them the Irish of New Guinea. They will receive strangers very kindly, but this is policy, as they know strangers are generally liberal with their tobacco, &c.; but were the young people taken in hand and taught what is right and wrong—for at present they don't know what is right, except from their own point of view—they could be made a useful people; they possess intelligence, and are quick of comprehension. They are independent, because nature is kind to them; they need not worry for to-morrow, and when their larder is exhausted they need only to go into the bush, cut down a sago tree, which will supply a family with food for weeks; cocoa-nuts they also have in abundance, and on the whole the Papuans are the happiest people on earth, the country supplies them with all their wants, without much exertion on their part; poor mortals in civilization have to toil and struggle all their life long, and in most cases only for a miserable existence. The savage is indolent, blood-thirsty, and in every way opposed to the moral laws laid down for the guidance of humanity, yet the Creator provides more readily for the savage in New Guinea than for the civilized man.