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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/August 1889/Life in the Solomon Islands

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 35‎ | August 1889


IN October, 1885, I left England with the object of paying a visit to the group of islands known as the "Solomon Islands," for the purpose of making collections of the fauna, and, if possible, penetrating to the mountains of the interior of some of the larger islands, which had not yet been visited by white men. The Solomon Islands are a group lying about five hundred miles to the eastward of New Guinea. They extend for six hundred miles in a northwest and southeast direction, and are situated between the parallels of 5° and 11° south latitude, and the meridians of 154° and 163° east longitude. They were first discovered by Mendana, the Spaniard, in 1507, who gave them the name of the Islands of Solomon, in order that his countrymen, supposing them to be the islands whence King Solomon got his gold, might be induced to colonize them. There are seven principal islands and numerous smaller ones. The total land area of the group I estimate at fifteen thousand square miles, or considerably more than twice the area of Wales. They present evidences of recent volcanic activity. The island of Savo was an active volcano at the time the Spaniards discovered the group in 1567. There is an active volcano near the center of the island of Bougainville; hot springs and sulphur are found at Savo, Simbo, and Vella Lavella, while Kulambangara is an extinct volcano. During my residence of six weeks at Alu I experienced frequent shocks of earthquake, but of no great violence. The mountains of Bougainville rise to a height of 10,000 feet, and those of the other large islands to from 3,000 to 5,000 feet, except on Guadalcanar, where they reach an elevation of 8,000 feet. I made three attempts to reach the interior of this island, but was prevented by the hostility of the mountain tribes and the timidity of my guides. The highest point which I attained on Guadalcanar was 1,140 feet. Tin and copper have been found in small quantities on the island of San Cristoval, while I myself discovered copper on the island of Guadalcanar, and from the northwest end of the island of Malayta I obtained a mineral from the natives which proves to be iron pyrites. The people told me they used it for staining their teeth. The coast natives buy it from the bushmen in bamboos, at the fair that takes place on the coast every two or three days. The islands are for the most part clothed from the coast to the mountain-tops with the densest tropical forest, in which the immense ficus-trees, of several species, are often conspicuous objects, their trunks covered with creepers and ferns; the undergrowth consisting of small palms of many species, among which and over the trees the immensely long rattans or climbing canes twine in and out in inextricable confusion. In the neighborhood of native villages the beach will be found fringed with cocoanut palms, but my observation tends to prove that the cocoanut rarely grows unless planted. I know, however, that this is opposed to the opinions of some.

[Mr. Woodford made two or three visits to the Solomon Islands, by means of the schooners engaged in recruiting boys to work upon the plantations at Fiji, and returning them to their homes at the expiration of their terms of service; and by trading-vessels from Sydney. It is not necessary to follow the author in the details of his journeying from place to place, and of bargainings with the natives. We present the more striking incidents of life in this region.]

From the trading station at Rubiana, which is the center of the head-hunting district, our first visit was to a small island occupied by another trader. This island he is allowed to occupy on sufferance only. It belongs to the natives of Sisieta; they will not sell it, as they use it for their cannibal feasts. I was told that six bodies were eaten here a fortnight before my visit. From here we went to a town called Oneavesi, and thence crossed to the small island of Rubiana proper, where we found nearly all the men away on a head-hunting expedition to the island of Isabel. I here photographed the interior of a tambu house, the post of which was carved to represent a crocodile. Along the rafters was a row of heads. I also took a photograph of a collection of sacred images, near to which was a heap of skulls, upon every one of which I

PSM V35 D500 Sacred image at rubiana.jpg
Fig. 1.—Sacred Image at Rubiana.

noticed the mark of the tomahawk. These collections of images are to be found in nearly every town throughout the lagoon, and are strictly tambu (Fig. 1). I found out afterward that the natives strongly objected to my photographing them, or indeed approaching them at all. At another village close by on the same island we again found nearly all the male population absent on the same expedition. The women and those left at home were preparing a feast for them on their return. At the principal canoe-house in another village we visited there were five large head-hunting canoes, profusely ornamented and inlaid with pearl-shell. The house was about eighty feet long, with a high-pitched roof, the end being closed in, but two narrow slits being left for the high prows of the canoes to pass through (Fig. 2). In this house there were eight heads; I recognized among them the straight hair of natives

PSM V35 D501 Head hunting canoe and canoe house at rubiana.jpg
Fig. 2.—Head-Hunting Canoe and Canoe-House at Rubiana.

of the Lord Howe's group, and was told that a year or so previously a canoe containing sixteen of them had been driven from Lord Howe's group to Isabel, where they have been caught from time to time by the head-hunters. In another canoe-house in the same town I counted thirteen heads. After some persuasion they carried out the largest canoe for me to photograph. The Rubiana men returned next day from Isabel with five heads, from three men and two women; they also brought five prisoners alive. During the fortnight that I spent in the lagoon I heard of no less than thirty-one heads being brought home, as follows: Rubiana village, five; Sisieta, six; Kokorapa, three; Lokorokongo, seventeen.

I, for the second time, spent a fortnight at this place; and having on my previous visit gained the confidence of the two chiefs of Sisieta, named Wange and Ingova, I went frequently ashore at their town. On one occasion I saw the inauguration of a large trough for preparing and-pounding food, the ceremony taking place in the chief canoe-house of the town, I was assigned a seat next to Ingova, while above my head were the eight heads previously mentioned. The trough was about thirty feet long, and carved to represent a crocodile. Twenty-two men were seated on each side of the trough, and an old man at either end. They had all their ornaments on and wore their shields over their shoulders, while their spears and tomahawks were close behind them. The food, consisting of taro, yams, and nuts, was placed in the trough, and the men sat ready. An old man in full fighting rig was then seen advancing toward the house. Walking up to the entrance, he suddenly started back and raised his spear, exclaiming, "Basioto!" ("A crocodile!") and standing on the defensive. Ingova then advanced from the interior of the house, and, placing one hand on the crocodile's head, began a speech which lasted about ten minutes. At a given signal the men began pounding the food, all of them keeping excellent time. When they got tired or hot they were relieved by others, and the pounding was continued for over half an hour. I was then asked to go, and, not wishing to offend them, I did so.

[On another occasion the author had walked with some natives from Aola, on the coast of Guadalcanar, to a town called Kobua, situated on the river of that name, and about four miles inland.] While walking along the river-bank with my men we heard a number of natives approaching, shouting and making a great noise. I was told they were coast natives returning from a raid upon a mountain town. My men all stood on the defensive with their spears ready poised, and I got my revolver ready, but they proved to be friends. They were very proud of their victory, and told me that they had killed one man and got one alive. I saw the dead man's hand and a piece of flesh carried in triumph by one of them on his spear. I did not see the prisoner, and I was glad to hear afterward that he had escaped. It is these constant raids of the coast natives upon the bushmen, and retaliatory ones on the part of the bushmen upon the coast natives, that render it difficult and dangerous to penetrate any distance into the interior. I had been over three months at Aola before I could induce the natives to accompany me into the interior, during which time I had surveyed all the lower coast of the rivers in the neighborhood.

[A typical illustration of the vegetation of the islands is furnished in the picture of the sago palms (Fig. 3) on the Bokokimbo River, a stream which runs down from the mountains of the interior.] The vegetation [the author says] is here most luxuriant, and composed of large ficus and other large forest trees, with occasional clumps of sago and areca palms, but few cocoanuts. The river was ascended and surveyed for about ten miles, for the whole of which it runs through a rich alluvial flat, densely wooded.

[Valemanga, where the author stopped in an attempt to make the ascent of Mount Vatupusau (4,360 feet high), was situated at the height of 800 feet on the top of a narrow ridge, sloping abruptly down on the eastern and western sides], and was surrounded with a stockade about seven feet high, with a narrow opening, closed at night, through which we squeezed one by one. In

PSM V35 D503 Sago palms and nuts on the bokorimbo river guadalcanar.jpg
Fig. 3.—Sago Palms and Nuts—View on the Bokokimbo River, Guadalcanar.

weak places, sharpened bamboos were stuck in the ground on the inside of the fence to transfix any one breaking through. Walking into the center of the town, I inquired for the head man, and when he appeared I held out my hand to him, which he took, and then he put his arms round me and embraced me. The settlement consisted of ten or a dozen houses and thirty inhabitants. . . . At dusk we were conducted to a perfectly clean new house, with, as usual, the bare ground for floor, and were supplied with cooked yams. After we had finished our meal, the whole town crowded into the house, and my men sang a song, and when they had finished the women of the town sang one of their dismal chants. In the midst of the performance, Sosoni, one of my men, suddenly sprang to his feet, and, after a short speech, presented the chief man of the town with three or four sticks of tobacco. I had not intended to make my present before morning; but, as I thought the opportunity a good one, I gave Beta an axe, a knife, and some pipes, matches, and a quantity of tobacco, and told him to present them with a suitable speech. Shortly afterward one of the men of the town stood up, and, leaning his two hands upon his tomahawk, returned thanks. Each man before commencing his speech gave a shrill scream, I suppose to attract attention, but the singing went on all the time. [A few days after this, eleven natives, consisting of six men, three women, two little girls, and a baby, arrived at Aola, being the sole survivors out of the thirty inhabitants. The town had been attacked at daylight two days after the author's visit, and the old chief, Tambougi, who had given the traveler the affectionate embrace, was among the killed.]

Natives of different parts of the group differ considerably from one another, but they belong to the Melanesian or Papuan type. The natives of Buka and Bougainville and of the islands of Bougainville Straits and of Choiseul are intensely black in color, but as one journeys eastward the color changes to a dark brown. They have woolly hair, but occasionally natives are met with wavy and in some cases straight hair. The men wear no clothes beyond the T-bandage usually met with among savage races, but frequently men are seen without even this. The natives of Alu, however, wear a small piece of calico round the waist. On San Cristoval and the more eastern islands the women wear a small plaited square of grass fiber, about six inches by four, which is suspended round the waist by a string and hangs down the front. Upon Malayta they wear the same, but one frequently sees women without even this. On Guadalcanar the women wear a series of fringes, one over the other, made out of some vegetable fiber resembling hemp. For working in they wear a similar fringe made out of a shredded banana-leaf. The dress of the women of Rubiana and the neighboring district was declared by Captain Cheyne, who visited the islands in 1846, to be indescribable. At Alu the women wore pieces of calico bought from the traders. These Solomon natives are not so addicted to the practice of tattooing as the lighter-colored Polynesians, probably because the pattern would not show so conspicuously upon their dusky skins. In San Cristoval, however, both men and women have frequently the face cut all over with a pattern of chevron-shaped cicatrices; and on Guadalcanar the same practice is in vogue, but the pattern takes the form of small circles, which are traced by a sharpened bone from the wing of the flying fox, and a small bamboo with the edge sharpened. The operation, which is completed at one sitting, is a particularly painful one, and the operator is highly paid for his trouble, tattooing being a profession.

Many of these natives pierce and gradually distend the lobe of the ear, and enlarge it by degrees until at length it attains an enormous size. On San Cristoval a circular disk of soft, white

PSM V35 D505 Natives of aola guadalcanar.jpg
Fig. 4.—Natives of Aola, Guadalcanar.

wood, from two inches to two inches and a half in diameter, is carried in the hole, but at Rubiana the hole was kept stretched by pieces of sago-palm leaf, or pandanus leaf, which were bent into a hoop, and, by constantly exerting a pressure, tended to enlarge the hole. A boy, whose photograph I took at Rubiana, had the hole in his ears enlarged to a diameter of at least four inches. They are excessively fond of and prize highly armlets made from the shell of the giant clam (Tridacna gigas). A native chief, whom I saw at Santa Anna with a remarkably fine pair, told me he had given a boy for each. At Guadalcanar, Rubiana, and to the westward they take rather the form of bangles, and as many as eight or ten are frequently worn on each arm. Large crescents cut out of pearl-shell are frequently worn round the neck, and, especially on Malayta, frontlets of a white cowry. Perhaps, however, the ornament most highly prized is a necklace of dogs' teeth. A good necklace will consist of five hundred teeth, each one being carefully bored and mounted with great ingenuity. As only two teeth are available from each dog, it would require two hundred and fifty dogs to make a necklace such as I refer to. On San Cristoval, where most of the dogs' teeth come from, I am told that they extract the teeth from live dogs, burying them up to the neck in the ground for the purpose. Porpoise teeth, cuscus teeth, and the teeth of the flying fox are also used, but are not so highly valued as dogs' teeth.

The natives of Rubiana and New Georgia also wear a neck ornament known by them as a buckea. This is a ring cut from the solid shell of the Tridacna gigas, and suspended round the neck by a sort of plaited red straw. The buckea is more highly prized if it possesses a peculiar yellow stain, and I am told that the best are made from shells that are found as fossils in the bush in regions of coral upheaval.

I must not forget to mention the strings of bead-money, generally about a fathom in length, which are made from shells at the expense of great labor. It is of two kinds, red and white, the red being more highly prized by them.

Their weapons are bows and arrows, spears, clubs, tomahawks, and defensive shields. But, while the natives of San Cristoval and Malayta use the arrow, spear, and tomahawk, I never saw on Guadalcanar any arrows or bows except those used for bird-shooting. At Rubiana and New Georgia also arrows are not used, the tomahawk and spear being preferred. But it is on Bougainville that the finest specimens of arrows and spears are found. In fact, the latter, barbed with the wing-bones of the flying fox, are eagerly sought after and bought by the natives of the more eastern islands, the Alu natives paying two or three visits a year to Bougainville for the purpose of buying spears, arrows, baskets, and other things in the manufacture of which the Bougainville natives excel.

Perhaps the thing that most strikes a stranger visiting the group is the beauty of shape and decoration of the canoes. These vary in size from the tiny thing just able to support a boy of twelve, to the great head-hunting canoes, capable of carrying fifty or sixty men. They are built of planks laboriously adzed down from the solid tree, and are sewn together with a tough vegetable fiber, the seams being calked with a sort of putty scraped from the kernel of a nut (Parinarium laurinum) that grows plentifully in the bush. This vegetable putty sets perfectly hard in a few hours and is quite water-tight. The canoes are ornamented exteriorly at bow and stern with white cowry shells and inlaid with pieces of pearl-shell cut into patterns, and at the bow end, just above the water-line, is often a small human-shaped figure-head. These canoes are propelled solely by paddles, being unadapted to sailing, and, being long, narrow, and light for their size, they travel at a great rate.

Except perhaps on Bougainville, the use of stone implements has gone out among these natives, but while at Guadalcanar I obtained more than two hundred stone adzes. These were brought me by the natives, and were for the most part dug up by boys upon the sites of old houses. I asked an old man to mount me one upon a wooden handle in the correct way. The same form of handle is still used, but a plane-iron is now employed instead of the stone axe. With these they cut out their canoe-planks and fashion the wooden bowls in which they serve their food.

The houses vary in shape somewhat in different parts of the group, and in Florida and Fauro houses built on posts may be seen. On Guadalcanar the eaves of the roof come right down to the ground. The material is always the same, the leaf of the sago palm, which makes a durable and dry roof. There is no floor but the bare ground, but rough couches are made of palm-stems laid side by side, and raised from a few inches to a couple of feet from the ground. They are most uncomfortable to sleep upon, being very hard and rough and invariably too short. A fireplace is made in the center of the house, and the smoke finds its way out through the door, or through the roof or sides of the house. Strings of pigs' jaw-bones, cuscus and flying-fox skulls, fishes' bones, turtles' heads, and sometimes human jaw-bones may be seen strung on strings along the rafters as mementoes of former feasts; but the human heads, at least in the head-hunting districts, are reserved for the canoe-houses. These are larger and better built than the ordinary dwelling-houses, and are tambu (tabooed) for women—i. e., a woman is not allowed to enter them, or indeed to pass in front of them.

Both men and women take their parts in the gardens; felling the trees and fencing against wild pigs being men's work, while the actual gardening—planting, weeding, and digging—is done by the women. Having few wants, blest with a climate in which the rudest methods of cultivation produce abundance of food for their use, they ought to be a happy and contented race, and no doubt, were security to life more assured, they would be. But a man would as soon think of going to his garden of a morning without his spear and tomahawk as an Englishman would of wearing his hat in church. The greatest distinction a native can earn is to have taken a life, and it matters not whether it is an old woman surprised working in her yam-patch, or a man surprised and killed in the bush, the glory is just as great. Such a thing as a square, stand-up fight between equal numbers I never heard of. This renders them suspicious in the presence of strangers; always ready for treachery themselves, they are constantly suspecting it in others. Having given them a bad character in their dealings with one another, I must in justice say that my own relations with them were throughout of the most friendly character.

The shark is held in high veneration among certain of these natives, and notably upon the island of Savo. The Savo natives say that their island was made by the shark, who carried the stones there and planted yams and cocoanuts, and put upon it men and women, and the bird known as the megapode. The megapodes increased so rapidly that they began to make havoc by digging in the yam-patches. The men went to the shark and asked him to take the megapodes away. This was done, but now the men missed the megapode's eggs, which are a favorite article of food with them. They accordingly went again to the shark and asked him to bring the birds back, but to confine them to one place. This request was also complied with. The result may be now seen: the megapodes lay their eggs on two large open patches of sandy ground, which are several acres in extent, and nowhere else on the island. These laying-grounds are fenced off into small divisions for different owners, and I am told that several thousands a day are taken out of them. I myself bought eighteen eggs for the value of three-halfpence when calling there.

The sharks at Savo grow to a great size and are extremely bold. At the time of a child's birth the mother decides whether it belongs to the land or the water. If to the latter, it is thrown into the sea at death, with all the property it may have accumulated during life. If the mother declares it belongs to the land, it is buried ashore, the property also being buried with it, which, strange to say, is always found to have been stolen a few days afterward by the devil.

These natives believe in the power of some of their number to produce rain, while I met with a belief in the existence of a man in the moon, which was related to me by a native of Aola, named Muri Lau.

I can not conclude my description of the natives and their customs without some reference to cannibalism and head-hunting. I may state that very few white men have ever had the good fortune to see a cannibal feast, as the natives, knowing the detestation in which the practice is held by white men, always keep the occurrence as quiet as possible. On one occasion only did I ever see human flesh, and the owner assured me he was not going to eat it. I never heard of cannibalism the whole (six months) time I was living at Aola on Guadalcanar, and the natives, in answer to my inquiries, most strenuously denied the practice, but this, of course, they would do. On San Cristoval it is said to be common, and bodies are hawked about for sale from town to town, and the same is the case on Malayta. The head-hunters of New Georgia and the neighboring islands are also notorious cannibals, while my own boy, Hogare, who was a native of the island of Buka, confessed to me that the practice was common there. Not only will the New Georgian natives eat the bodies of those killed in battle, or prisoners, but they will exhume the bodies of people recently buried for their disgusting purpose.

Throughout the group one constantly sees human skulls hung up either in or outside the houses, but it is from New Georgia and the adjacent islands that head-hunting is carried on to its fullest extent. Among these natives it appears to be a perfect passion. No canoe-house can be completed and no canoe launched without a head being obtained. They make long voyages in their large tomakos, or head-hunting canoes, for the purpose of securing heads, the chief hunting-ground at the present time being the two islands of Choiseul and Isabel, ninety to one hundred miles away, which, however, are becoming somewhat "worked out." The basest treachery is often employed. They will at times visit a village as friends, and, after staying for a day or two, at a given signal turn upon their hosts, and either kill them or take them alive. Such a case occurred while I was at Rubiana. At other times they will surprise or cut off a party fishing on the reef, and no matter whether they are men, women, or children, the heads count. The heads, after being slightly smoked, are stuck up along the rafters of the roof in the canoe-houses, and I have myself counted thirteen recent heads in a house at Sisieta. Occasionally the headhunters themselves meet with reverses; and while at Rubiana I inquired the reason of some particularly fine cocoanut-trees having been cut down; I was told that it was in consequence of the death of a chief who was killed on a head-hunting expedition to Isabel.

  1. From a paper read before the Royal Geographical Society, March 26, 1888.