Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/January 1882/New Guinea and its People
|NEW GUINEA AND ITS PEOPLE.|
THAT part of the coast-region of New Guinea extending from Yule Island to its eastern extremity presents a striking contrast to the central part of the island, or that lying to the west of the Gulf of Papua. There all is lowland, not visible at sea a few miles distant. Here, farther east, we have a lofty mountain-range running all along the southeastern peninsula, and reaching in Mount Owen-Stanley the height of thirteen thousand feet. Variety and beauty are given to the landscape by hills of every imaginable shape, which appear gray and barren, or green and fertile, according to the season. Only a few of the rivers in this part of New Guinea are of considerable size, but some fine harbors have been found, and the voyages of the mission-steamer Ellengowan have resulted in the marking of many reefs, bays, creeks, headlands, and islands on the chart, to the increased safety of navigation. The flora and fauna are to a great extent Australian. Coarse kangaroo-grass covers much of the land, and the open forest country is studded with white-gum, wattle, and other Australian trees. It is only near the water-courses and rivers, or in the gorges and ravines of the hills, that the vegetation is luxuriantly tropical. Here are the areca-palm, the bread-fruit, wild mango, and chestnut, the pandanus in several varieties, crotons of variegated leaf, crimson Dracænæ, orchids and creepers in great variety, and ferns in abundance. Near the coast, and especially about Hood Bay, groves of cocoa-nut trees, miles in extent, cast their grateful shade. Some districts are hungry and barren, while in others food is plentiful, yet in all the bill of fare lacks variety. Every traveler makes the acquaintance of the palm called the "lawyer." It has received its name, I suppose, from the fact that at the back of its fronds are double rows of hooked thorns. These lay hold of any unwary passer-by, and the more he struggles to escape the tighter he is held. It is only by going back and patiently unhooking, that escape from its grasp is possible.
The fauna is also to a great extent Australian. Flocks of small kangaroos, or wallabies, rush away from one's path in journeying in-land. The opossum, cuscus, flying phalanger, and bandicoot, are other representatives of the marsupials. I have had the honor of discovering an echidna, or prickly ant-eater; also an animal of the marsupial order, closely allied to the North Australian species.
There are no large quadrupeds in this part of New Guinea. The largest known at present is the pig. This is found wild in the bush, and is also domesticated. Fat pork is to the natives of New Guinea a dish deemed worthy of the gods, but not often conceded to mortals. We introduced a new species of hog, which is greatly prized.
Many of the birds are of Australian species—such as the "magpie," "laughing jackass," and "leatherhead," of the Australian colonists, which are very common everywhere along the coast, and parrots, paroquets, and cockatoos are very numerous. There are other birds, however, peculiar to the island. New Guinea is particularly rich in birds-of-paradise, of which beautiful and characteristic group no fewer than twenty different species have been found. Only two are, however, known in the Port Moresby district. One of these, the Paradisea Raggiana, is comparatively new, and peculiar to the south coast; while the other, the king bird-of-paradise, has been long known to naturalists. They are very shy, difficult to see, and more so to shoot. I have had the honor of making and eating bird-of-paradise soup. It is very unparadisaical in its flavor. The cry of the bird-of-paradise is something between the quacking of a duck and the cawing of a crow. The mound-building fowl and the bush-turkey are common, and so on the river-banks is the magnificent crowned pigeon, the Goura coronata. This is not to be despised by the sportsman. The bird is as large as a small turkey, and the flesh white and delicate in flavor. The bower-bird is peculiar, making a bower to play in and adorning it every morning. Other birds are the hornbills, which make a great noise while flying, and the cassowaries, which are the fleetest and strongest animals the natives axe acquainted with.
The climate has hitherto been very trying, both to Europeans and Polynesians. The average maximum temperature for the year at Port Moresby was 86.71°. Foreigners suffer from malarial fevers, but the natives are healthy, though suffering slightly from fever, and wonderfully free from European diseases, except the small-pox.
Although Mr. Wallace has spoken of the natives as one race, those who have seen the inhabitants in the southeast find greater difficulty in classifying them. All agree in testifying to the great variety of physiognomy and the apparent difference in shape of skull in almost every district. Whatever the true typical Papuan may be, I have seen natives who possess many of the characteristics said to be distinctive, with others quite at variance with them. In a letter I recently received from Professor Giglioli of Florence, he speaks of having seen the large collection of skulls made by Signor D'Albertis in his voyage up the Fly River, and says: "The great variety in the shape of the crania of some of the inland natives has sorely puzzled me. Indeed, the only feasible explanation is, that there has been a great mingling of races in that great island."
The difference in color is very marked. To the west, black natives are found, while from Redscar Bay eastward a light-brown race inhabits the coast. On the mountains, in the interior, are people intermediate between these two in color, and essentially different in all their habits. I should say these are the true aborigines of this part of New Guinea, while the coast tribes, black and brown, are probably settlers. The light-haired natives belong undoubtedly to the same
race as the New-Zealanders, Tahitians, Samoans, etc., but are so split up and divided that every few miles of coast brings you to a people speaking a different language from those you have just left. These are often dialects, but are quite as dissimilar as those spoken in the various islands of Eastern Polynesia. Altogether, I know of twenty-five different languages spoken in the three hundred miles of coast I am personally acquainted with. My previous acquaintance with several languages of Eastern Polynesia was a great help in acquiring that of the people among whom I was living in New Guinea. I had the pleasure of reducing two of these to a written form, and getting books printed in them, and before I left New Guinea I had the greater pleasure of hearing some of the native children read fluently in their own language.
The men are of a warm brown color, muscular and well developed, straight and agile, with fairly well-formed noses, and lips neither protruding nor thick. Many have intelligent faces, and all glory in their huge mop of hair. They carefully pull out every hair from their beards, and at times shave off their eyebrows and the hair from their temples; and most wear ornaments in their noses and tightly plaited armlets, which they make to serve them as pockets. The women wear a decent girdle or petticoat, reaching from the hips to the knees, are tattooed very closely, pierce their ears with many holes, load them down with ornaments, and shave their heads when they are married. All their muscles and limbs have free action, they are stately and graceful in all their movements, and their use of colored leaves and flowers no rules of art could improve. The position of the women is not so low and degraded as it often is among barbarous races.
The houses are built on piles, and we are everywhere reminded of the prehistoric lake villages of Europe. Port Moresby consists of two villages standing on the beach just below high-water mark. The houses are not built on a platform, as they are often represented, but the piles also form the posts of the houses. The natives live, as we should say, in the roof. The huts are made of thatch and wood, and floored with the sides of old canoes, which are adzed down to some approach to flatness. In the interior the floor is made of the mid-rib of the sago-palm fronds. It is light and springy, but not good to sleep on, as I can testify from experience. There is always a square fire-place, made with earth, in the center of the house. You are a fortunate visitor if you go when the fire is out, and thus escape being blinded by the smoke. All along the coast the houses are built in the same way, with slight variations in the shape of the roofs. Some look like a whale-boat, depressed in the center, while others resemble the keel of a boat turned upside down. In many cases the village stands a good way out to sea, and is surrounded by water even at low tide. We could steam down the street of many of them in our little mission steamer, and in several cases we used to anchor alongside the houses. The boys and girls can sit in the door-way and fish. The houses are detached, but are generally connected by a pole laid from one veranda to another. The shoeless feet of the people enable them to run along these, and they laugh at our objection to so round and slippery a bridge.The canoes of the Papuans furnish an interesting illustration of the earliest styles of naval architecture. As the people are largely dependent on the sea for means of subsistence and transport, every village has its fleet of canoes, of all sizes. Those at Port Moresby consist simply of a hollowed log, pointed at each end, and attached to an outrigger. All are propelled by paddles, or by mat-sails whenever there is any wind. When longer voyages are undertaken, four or five, and even ten, canoes are lashed together. These are decked over with poles, houses are built at each end, covered with thatch, and a sort of bulwarks made of the same material all round the side<. A mast is raised, consisting of the stem of a small tree with its principal roots, which latter are lashed to the deck, and then a huge mat-sail, crab-claw
shape, is hoisted by a rope passed over a fork at the top of the mast. A more unwieldy, unseaworthy-looking craft it is impossible to conceive, and yet they make long voyages in such a vessel to places two hundred miles distant. They have been aptly described as huge floating hay-stacks. As they can only run before the wind, the crew choose the end of one monsoon to go to their destination, waiting the setting in of the other to return. Farther to the east the style of the canoes improves. At Orangerie Bay they are adorned with elegant and elaborate earrings, and are often very well shaped, with scats for as many as eighteen paddlers. Sometimes two or three are lashed together, while the captain sits on a raised deck between them. The war-canoes of this kind are elaborately ornamented with carved figureheads, painted black and white, and decorated with many streamers. The women can paddle their canoes quite as well as the men; and I have seen a double canoe, propelled by twenty-four women, flying over the water, the women keeping perfect time with their paddles.
The people are still in the stone age, for iron and its uses are unknown among them. They are all gardeners, and cultivate the soil carefully, with a set of agricultural implements consisting of two pointed sticks, which serve them for plow and harrow, spade and rake. One stick is inserted five or six inches into the soil, and then the other at an angle with it; with the leverage thus obtained a sod is turned, and, this being done in regular order, a field looks, when finished, almost as if it had been plowed. Bananas are planted in these furrowed gardens. In other cases the large sods are broken up, the weeds picked out, and the whole smoothed over by the stick, until it has the appearance of a well-raked, carefully cultivated English garden. The men do the heavier work of digging, while the women plant and weed. All their gardens are inclosed by well-made fences.
Hunting the wild-pig and kangaroo are favorite sports. With no other weapon than a smooth-pointed spear and a coarse net, they obtain enormous quantities of kangaroo-meat. All the men and boys join in the grand hunts. A tract of land is selected on a day when the trade-wind is blowing steady and strong. The hunters pull up the dry grass in a narrow belt to leeward, and place their nets along the strip, each man's net being joined to his neighbor's, so that a continuous fence of nets is formed across one side of the hunting-ground. The men stand behind this barrier, with their spears and dogs, and the grass is set fire to all along the line to windward. The animals are driven, by the fire and smoke and boys, up to the nets, where their chances for escape are very small. The fishing is all done with nets.
The people have no metallic vessels, or ovens of any kind. Most of the food is boiled, and, before it can be cooked, the women have to make the pot to boil it in. They make very good pottery, which is slightly burned after being dried in the sun. They use no wheel, and yet they make well-shaped globular vessels. Roasting over a slow lire is also often practiced, and the South-Sea Island mode of cooking with hot stones is employed by the inland tribes. All the food is well cooked; and they look upon us as barbarous for eating our meat, as they say, half raw. This does away altogether with the idea of gnawing and tearing which we generally associate with eating without knives and forks. The water in which food has been boiled is generally drunk, even when it is fish-broth. This is their only warm drink. Tea and coffee are unknown. They have no intoxicant, and are content and healthy with no stronger beverage than the fresh cocoa-nut and running stream afford.
The women excel in making netted bags of all sizes. The large bags, which are used by the women to carry their burdens in, and also as cradles, were interesting as the only article I had met which was also made by the aborigines of Australia. The women are charged with the bartering, and are skillful at driving a bargain; and they have the Eastern custom of going for water at daybreak, carrying the water on the head or shoulder, and meeting for gossip at the well.
When food is plentiful, the day is generally closed with a ball in the open air under the cocoa-nut trees. The young people dance, while their seniors look on and criticise or commend. They will often keep up the dancing, to the monotonous music of their drums, until the small hours of the morning.
Strangers are saluted by putting the hand to the nose and then to the stomach. Shaking hands and kissing are alike unknown; but many among the inland tribes welcome their friends by chucking them under the chin. It is considered bad manners to omit, on meeting a friend, to ask him where he is going, or to deliver a message to a superior standing. Among some of the inland tribes the custom prevails
of smoking, instead of drinking to one's health. When the bamboo pipe is filled with smoke and ready for inhaling, the man shouts out the name of the friend he wishes to honor, before taking a whiff; he then passes it on to the next, and he shouts out in the same way, and so on all round the circle. The habit of smoking seems to be original, not borrowed. The practice of chewing the betel-nut is still more prevalent.
The government is patriarchal, the chiefs ruling over villages which are independent of each other, holding their office by inheritance, but having to maintain themselves in it by their energy and force of character. The son of a chief who is weak-minded and a fool soon sinks to the common level; while a commoner, who is strong and brave, with greater mental power than his fellows, comes to the front and is soon recognized as a chief. The moral condition of the people is deplorably low. All are thieves, seeming to feel no sense of shame in stealing; and we were looked upon as great wonders by the natives because we did not steal, and our honesty was always mentioned, in any description of us, as one of our peculiarities. Human life is invested with no sanctity, but the distinction the men are most proud of is that of having shed human blood. No one has a right to be tattooed until he has killed some one, and the right is sought as a privilege.
The natives are not often on peaceful terms with their neighbors, though their warfare is not deadly. They are exceedingly suspicious and distrustful. They never sleep without their weapons within reach, and never go out without spear or club. They came to our house readily enough at first, but the slamming of a door or any unexpected noise was enough to bring them to their feet.
The family tie is strong and lasting. Men live virtuously with their wives and children. Polygamy is not common, although it is thought to be proper for chiefs. The burden of labor is fairly divided between the men and the women; and the women insist upon carrying wood, water, and burdens, as of their rights.
The people seem to have no religious ideas, no idols, no idea of a God as a supreme being or a good being. Their only religious ideas consist in a belief in evil spirits, toward whom they live in slavish fear, but without any idea of propitiating them by sacrifice or prayer. They believe also in the deathlessness of the soul, without having any definite ideas as to its abode or condition. Much difference, however, prevails among the different tribes as to the development of ideas of this character. Among some there seems to be a vague recognition of a Great Spirit who gives them plenty and other blessings; and to the west of Port Moresby, in the district of Elema, are idols and idol-temples, but the natives there belong to the darker-colored race. I was glad to read, in the report of the Geographical Section of the British Association meeting at Sheffield, that several travelers from Africa had said a good word for the cannibals. I should like to do the same for the cannibals and non-cannibals of New Guinea. I have visited a great many villages, in most of which no white man had been before; my wife and I were for a time the only Europeans living on the island, but I have never been molested anywhere. We are known along the coast as the bearers of peace. As I went through one of the villages for the first time, a native from another ran before us and shouted, "These are the maino taunas (the peace-men), who bring and make peace everywhere!" Confidence begets confidence, and there is a wondrous power in human kindness.
- Abstract of an address before the Royal Geographical Society of London. The statements here given are the result of observations made by the author during three years' residence, from 1874 to 1877, as a missionary of the London Missionary Society, on the southeast coast of New Guinea. During the period named, he made several journeys into the interior, and more than one voyage along the coast to the east.