Picturesque New Guinea/Chapter 3



First View of Papua—Breakers Ahead—Haven of Safety reached—First Welcome—The Missionary and his Wife—Excursion to Rano Falls planned—Native villages on the Littoral—Frolicsome Young Savages—A Degraded Race—A Tribe of Potters—A Strange Flotilla—Preparations for Excursion—A Christian Sabbath in a Savage Land—Elevating Influence of Christianity—A Photographer's Impedimenta—First Landing—Religious Service in the Motu Language—"Granny" the Prime Minister—A Start resolved on—A Guide and Carriers engaged—Also a Native Head Cook.

THE south-east trade winds were blowing when we first sighted the shores of New Guinea; and as, during their prevalence, a mist more or less dense hangs about the mountain tops, we caught only a short glimpse of the towering heights of the magnificent Owen Stanley Ranges. About noon the low-lying lands of the fore-shore came distinctly into view. Stationed at his post of observation on the fore-crosstrees, our skilful commander gave forth his directions for steering the little craft securely through the labyrinth of coral reefs. Abreast of Fisherman Island we could clearly discern the breakers flashing and foaming on the shallows, and at one time we seemed to be in the very midst of them. At this moment our course was easterly, and dead in the face of the heavy swell of the ocean. Although our prudent skipper slackened speed by a full half, before we had passed the narrows abreast of Pyramid Point the waves dashed in glittering cascades over our bows continuously for about an hour. It was a very wonderful sight to observe the beautiful rainbows woven by the dazzling sun-rays upon the mounting and falling sprays, each in succession appearing and vanishing with the speed of light. At length Paga Point was passed, we were in smooth water, and our vessel came to anchor in the land-locked harbour of Port Moresby. We had reached our destination.

Our position was about a mile from the Mission Station, and close by us lay anchored H. M. Surveying Ship the "Lark." The time being about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, it was decided that none of the party should go ashore till next morning. Speedily there came to welcome us Mr. Musgrave, Assistant Deputy Commissioner, and Mr. Frank Lawes, eldest son of the missionary. News was mutually exchanged, and Mr. Musgrave stayed to dine with the Commissioner. Next morning our feet trod for the first time the soil of New Guinea, and we had a very cordial welcome from the missionary and his amiable wife. Arrangements were made by the Commissioner for an excursion on the following Monday up the Laloki River, as far as the Rano Falls, the photographer being in charge of the party. Then we took a first look at the native villages standing close by the shore. They reminded us somewhat of those ancient cranoges, or lake dwellings, once common in Scotland, Ireland, and various parts of Continental Europe. Built upon mangrove stakes, planted something below low-water mark, each hut is connected by a sort of rude bridge with the shelly beach. Troops of naked Papuan children, some so young as to be barely able to stand on their tiny limbs, frolicked fearlessly about the ricketty stages upon which the huts stood. They had evidently no apprehension of danger from falling overboard. We could imagine the feelings of a civilized mother at seeing her offspring diverting themselves in such a situation: the savage matrons appeared to regard the scene with the tranquil satisfaction of a motherly old duck which sees her young brood taking for the first time to the water! The natives hereabouts are an indolent and filthy race, many of them being disfigured by ugly sores on their faces and bodies—the effects of bad and insufficient food, combined with carelessness of the primary laws of health. This foul disease is, however, not contagious; if it were so, the whole race would speedily perish of scorbutic and scrofulous epidemics.

Plate XI.


Reference page 38.

Black and white photograph of a group of nearly naked men with spears standing in the open on a river bank.
Black and white photograph of a group of nearly naked men with spears standing in the open on a river bank.
Nevertheless, the Papuan natives of the littoral are not wanting in industry and ingenuity. The Motu tribe is celebrated all along the coast for skill in the manufacture of pottery, and they carry on a large trade in cooking utensils and water jugs with the tribes living farther to the west. We saw them fitting up their large trading canoes, or Lakatois, as they call them, which are, in fact, a species of raft formed of five or more large trunks of the buoyant pencil-cedar tree, hollowed out and lashed skilfully together. These huge rafts were in various stages of completion; from twenty to forty busy workmen were in each, fixing the lashings, and making splash-boards of lengths of thatch composed of pandanus leaves. These leaves are gathered at certain periods when they have attained their full growth, and are strung together in lengths varying from 9 to 12 feet. A framework of strong saplings is first lashed right across the huge trading vessel, projecting fore and aft about 8 feet, and 3 feet over the sides, forming, when covered with the leaves, a gangway all round. Huts of the same tough material are erected on this base, and last of all the mast is shipped, carrying a neat sail of a peculiar shape, like the claw of a crab. Of course, naval structures of this kind are not well calculated for sailing close to the wind; but the astute natives get the better of Neptune and his laws, by taking advantage of the prevailing winds to make their voyages annually. With the last of the south-east trades they sail westward to the villages on the coast, and to the rivers of the Papuan Gulf, exchanging their pottery for the rabia (sago) and other products of the region; and after several weeks of feasting, they catch the north-west monsoons to return homewards with their deeply laden vessels. Sometimes, on the return voyage, half a dozen or more of the family trading canoes are lashed together, thus forming quite a floating village, swarming with a joyous population. M. D'Albertis mentions in his book the astonishment which these strange flotillas caused in him. In anticipation of witnessing the starting of the Port Moresby Armada in a few days, I made my arrangements for taking instantaneous photographs of the Lakatois, and also of the singular mystic ceremonies which precede the event. Meantime I was occupied with preparations for the inland excursion. The good missionaries promised to furnish horses for the party, and Mrs. Lawes kindly offered me her favourite mare, a handsome chestnut, with silver mane and tail, the offspring of stock brought over by the prospecting party some years ago.

The Sunday was spent quietly on board, and as the ship's bell was summoning the voyagers to Divine service on the quarter-deck, we could hear the faint tinkling of the bell at the Missionary Station similarly calling the dusky worshippers to prayers. Even in savage New Guinea the blessed light of the Word of God is gradually dispelling the darkness of barbarism and cannibalism. It is amid such scenes as this that the Divine power of Christianity, to elevate and dignify humanity, is most fully apprehended. Only to think of the immense arc of moral ascent there is between a cannibal feast and a Christian Communion!

Although my apparatus and weapons of defence were always at hand, I had much trouble in making these up into portable packages for the native carriers, the impedimenta required for even a few nights of camping out being both bulky and heavy.

My assistant and myself were put on shore on Sunday afternoon, and took up our quarters at the hospitable Mission House, prepared to make an early start next morning. After tea, a religious service was held on the broad verandah, for the benefit of the pupils and servants at the station. Books containing the Gospels were handed round to the dusky worshippers, and some hymns, translated into Motu, which was the language used in the service, by Mr. Lawes. The Motu, like all other southern dialects, has a liquid softness and euphony of expression that reminds one of the Malayian tongue. While Mr. Chalmers read the prayers, the native boys and girls squatted around him, were very attentive and decorous in their bearing, and all joined devoutly in reading the responses. Their singing was notable for the careful manner in which they kept time and tune together, and though the melodies chosen were of the simplest kind, they well became the lips of those unsophisticated children of nature. Amongst the servants, it should be mentioned, was an old native woman, whom every one called Granny. Mrs. Lawes introduced this ancient dame to us as her Prime Minister,

Plate XII.
Reference page 39.

Black and white photograph of a village of huts, some on the ground and some in trees.
Black and white photograph of a village of huts, some on the ground and some in trees.
without whose valuable aid and assistance the good lady would not manage to get on very well. Granny "bosses" all hands with a wonderful amount of tact and firmness. I presented the old dame with a gorgeous brooch, which delighted her immensely; we shook hands, and I was repaid for my gift by a smile that quite lighted up the grim and wrinkled face of the New Guinea grandame.

Anxiety about the weather, which was changeable, with sudden gusts of rain, disturbed my rest through the night. Towards daybreak the rain abated, and although the weather still wore an unsettled look, we resolved on making a start, our genial host being of opinion that we should have clear skies and gentle airs after passing the coast-range. Seated at our early breakfast, under the verandah, the troop of native boys, who were to act as porters for the party, made their appearance. Being a "New Chum" myself, I had left the task of engaging these carriers, and arranging the commissariat department, to Mr. Lawes, junior; but almost at the last moment this young gentleman was called away on some Government service, and Mr. Hunter took his place as guide. An experienced leader of expeditionary parties is Mr. Hunter, and was right hand man to Captain Armit, when engaged in explorations here. There was, therefore, every reason to place entire confidence in our new guide. Our packages were equally distributed amongst the boys, some of whom were of the Motuan and the others of the Koiari tribe. One of the boys at the mission station had been told off to act as our head cook, and in virtue of this superior station he was accorded a lighter burden than the rest.