The pirate captain was gone when the schooner reappeared off Niue, and a certain ancient mariner had taken his place. things were not quite so exciting on the Duchess under the new regime, but the order which reigned on board was something awful; for the ancient mariner had been a whaling captain in his day, and on whaling ships it is more than on any others a case of "Growl you my, but go you must," for all the crew. The ancient mariner was as salty a salt as ever sailed the ocean. He had never been on anything with steam in it, he was as tough as ship-yard teak, and as strong as a bear, though he was a grandfather of some years' standing, and he was full of strange wild stories about the whaling grounds, and odd happenings in out-of-the-way corners of the Pacific - most of which he seemed to consider the merest commonplaces of a prosaic existence.
Click here for Jane's Oceania Home Page Newsletter for September/October 2011, November/December 2011, January/February 2012, and including our Special Christmas/New Year Edition!
Thank you so much for visiting the above five Domains. I am very pleased to be able to share with you that further limited advertising on our About Malden Island Home Page, along with other Web Pages within the above five Domains, are now available. Potential advertisers are cordially invited to choose from several thousand Web sites available for placement of your important advertisements. For further information, please contact me at:
We suffered many things from the cook, in the course of that long burning voyage towards the Line. The Duchess's stores were none of the best, and the cook dealt with them after a fashion that made me understand once for all the sailor saying: "God sends meat, and the devil sends cooks." Pea-soup, salt pork and beef, plum duff, ship's biscuit, sea-pie-this was the sort of food that, in the days before I set foot on the Duchess, I had supposed to form the usual table of sailing vessels. I fear it was a case of sea-story-books, over again. What we did get was "tinned rag" of a peculiarly dam and viscous quality, tea that usually tasted of cockroaches, biscuit that was so full of copra bugs we had to hammer it on the table before eating it, an occasional tin of tasteless fruit (it ran out very soon), and bread that was a nightmare, for the flour went musty before we were out a week, and the unspeakable cook tried to disguise its taste with sugar. Board-of-trade limejuice, which is a nauseous dose at beast, we were obliged by law to carry, and I think we must have run rather near scurvy in the course of that long trip, for the amount of the oily, drug-flavoured liquid that the mates and myself used to drink at times, seemed to argue a special craving at nature. But a la guerre comme a la guerre - and one does not take ship on a Pacific wind-jammer expecting the luxuries of a P. and O.
We were not going direct to Malden, having to call first at Samoa and Mangaia. three days of rough rolling weather saw us in Apia, about which I have nothing to say at present, since I paid a longer visit to Stevenson's country later on. We had about forty native passengers to take on here for the cook Islands and Malden. there was nowhere to put them, but in the South Seas each small inconveniences trouble nobody. I am very strongly tempted here to tell about the big gale that caught us the first night out, carried away our lifeboat, topsail, topgallant, and man gaff, swamped the unlucky passengers' cabin, and caused the Cingalese steward to compose and chant all night long a litany containing three mournful versicles: "O my God, this is too much terrible! O my God, why I ever go to sea! O my God, I never go to sea again!" But in the Pacific one soon learns that sea etiquette makes light of such matters. So the wonderful and terrible nights which I saw once or twice that night, clinging precariously to anything solid near the door of my cabin, and hoping that the captain would not catch me out on deck, must remain undescribed. Nearly seven weeks were occupied by this northern trip - time for a mail steamer to go out from London to New Zealand, and get well started on the way home again. We were, of course, entirely isolated from news and letters; indeed, the mails and papers that we carried conveyed the very latest intelligence to islands that had not had a word from the outer world for many months. Our native passengers who were mostly going up to Malden Island guano works as paid labourers, evidently considered the trip one wild scene of excitement and luxury. The South Sea Islander loves nothing more than change, and every new island we touched at was a Paris or an Ostend to these (mostly) untravelled natives. Their accommodation on the ship was not unlike that complained of by the waiter in "David Copperfield." They "lived on broken wittles and they slept on the coals." The Duchess carried benzoline tins for the feeding of the futile little motor that worked her in and out of port, and the native sleeping place was merely the hold, on top of the tins.
And at midnight, when I slip out of my bunk to look on and see what the weather is like (it has been threatening all day) a faint hot unmistakable odour of island tobacco greets my nose, from the opening of the main hatch ! Benzoline, dynamite, natives ;smoking in the hold one big boat smashed, one small one left, forty native passengers, five whites, and three hundred miles to the nearest land! Well, a la guerre, and one must not tell tales at sea. So I don't tell any, though tempted. But I am very glad, a week later, to see the cook Islands rising up out of the empty blue again. We have had head winds, we have been allowanced as to water, we are all pleased to have a chance of taking in some fruit before we start on the thousand miles' run to Malden - and above all, we leave that dynamite here, which is a good thing; for really we have been putting rather too much strain on the good nature of the "Sweet little cherub that sits up aloft, to keep guard o'er the life of poor Jack," this last week or two.
If proof were wanted that the cherub's patience is about at an end, our arrival at Mangaia furnishes it - for we do take fire after all, just a couple of hundred yards from shore! It does not matter now, since half the natives of the island are about the ship, and the case of explosives has just been rowed off in our only boat, and the blaze is put out without much trouble. But, two days ago! Well, the sweet little cherub certainly deserved a rest.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Now the Duchess's bowsprit was pointed northwards, and we set out on a thousand miles' unbroken run up to Malden Island, only four degrees south of the Line. for nine days we ploughed across the same monotonous plain of lonely sea, growing a little duller every day, as our stores of reading matter dwindled away, and our fruit and vegetables ran out, and the memory of our last fresh mess became only a haunting, far-off regret. Squatting or lying about the white-hot cotton clothing, and scorched the skin underneath, but was at least a degree better than the choking Hades of a cabin below - we used to torture each other with reminiscences and speculations, such as "They have real salt beef and sea-pie and lobscouse and pea-soup, and thing like that, every day on Robinson's schooner; no tinned rag and musty flour"; or "How many thousand miles are we now from an iced drink?" This last problem occupied the mates and myself for half a morning, and made us all a great deal hotter than we were before Auckland was about 2,300 miles away. San Francisco about 3,000 as far as we could guess. We decided for Auckland, and discussed the best place to buy the drink, being somewhat limit4ed in choice by the passenger's selfish insistence on a place where she could get really good iced coffee. b the tune this was settled, the captain joined in, and informed us that we could get all we wanted, and fresh limes into the bargain, only a thousand miles away, at Tahiti, which every one had somehow overlooked. Only a thousand! It seemed nothing, and we all felt (illogically) cheered up at the thought.
Late in the afternoon we came near attaining our which for a temperature of thirty-two degrees is rather an unexpected way. The bottom of the Pacific generally hovers about this figure, some miles below the burning surface, which often reaches the temperature of an ordinary warm bath; and the Duchess had a fairly narrow escape of going down to look for a cool spot without a return ticket. A giant waterspout suddenly formed out of the low-hanging, angry sky that had replaced the clear heat of the morning. First of all, a black trunk like an elephant's began to feel blindly about in mid-air, hanging from a cloud. It came nearer and nearer with uncanny speed, drawing up to itself as it came a colossal cone of turbulent sea, until the two joined together in one enormous black pillar, some quarter of a mile broad at the base, and probably a good thousand feet high, uniting as it did the clouds and the sea below. Across the darkening sea, against the threatening, copper-crimson sunset, came this gigantic horror, waltzing over leagues of turn-up; water in a veritable dance of death, like something blind but mad and cruel, trying to find and shatter our fragile little ship. Happily, the dark was only coming, not yet come, happily, too, the wind favoured us, and we were able to tack about and keep out of the way, dodging the strangely human rushes and advances of the water-giant with smartness and skill. At one time it came so close that the elephant trunk - now separately visible again - seemed feeling about over our heads, although the captain afterwards said it had been more than three hundred yards away - and the immense maelstrom underneath showed us the great wall of whirling spindrift that edged its deadly circle as plain as the foam about our own bows. Every one was quiet, cool, and ready; but no one was sorry when the threatening monster finally spun away to leeward and melted into air once more. A water-spout of this enormous size, striking a small vessel, would snap off her masts like sticks of candy, kill any one who happened to be on deck, and most probably sink the ship with the very impact of the terrible shock.
"One doesn't hear much about ships being sunk by waterspouts," objected the sceptical passenger to this last statement. "Ships that's sunk by waterspouts doesn't come back to tell the newspapers about it," said the captain darkly. Life on a South Sea schooner is not all romance. For the officers of the ship it is a very hard life indeed. Native crews are the rule in the South Seas, and native crews make work for every one, including themselves. Absolutely fearless is the Kanaka, active as a monkey aloft, good-natured and jolly to the last degree, but perfectly unreliable in any matter requiring an ounce of thought or a pennyworth of discretion, and, moreover, given to shirk work in a variety of ingenious ways that pass the wit of the white man to circumvent. constant and keen supervision while at sea, unremitting hurry and drive in port, are the duties of a South Sea mate, coupled with plenty of actual hard work on his own account. I have known a case where a small schooner was leaking badly, many days from port, and almost constant pumping was required. the pump broke while in use; and the watch, delighted to be released, turned in at eight bells without having done their spell, and without reporting he accident. The water gained steadily, but that did not trouble them; and when the mate discovered the accident, and set them to mend the pump at once, they were both surprised and grieved!
"Watch and watch" is the rule on small sailing-vessels; four hours on and four hours off, day and night, except for the "dog watches," four to six and six to eight in the evening, which create a daily shift in order that each man may be on watch at a different time on successive days. Always provided, of course, that the ship has any watches at all! I have sailed in a Pacific schooner where the crew spent most of their time playing the accordion and the Jew's harp, and slept peacefully all night. In the daytime there was generally some one at the wheel; but at night it was usually lashed, and the ship was let run, with all sails set, taking her chances of what might come, every soul on board being asleep. One night the cook came out of his bunk to get a drink from the tank, and found the vessel taken aback. The whole spirit of South Sea life breathes from the sequel. He told nobody! The galley was his department, not the sails; so he simply went back to the bunk. In the morning we fetched up off the northern side of an island we had intendd to approach from the south; having strange to say, somehow escaped piling our bones on the encircling reef, and also avoided the misfortune of losinhg our masts and getting sunk.
If there is a good deal of hard work on most schooners, and something of risk on all, there is also plenty of adventure and romance, for those who care about it. One seldom meets an island skipper whose life would not furnish materials for a dozen exciting books. Being cut off and attacked by cannibals down in the dangerous western groups swimming for dear life away from a boat just bitten in two by an infuriated whale; driving one native king off his throne, putting another on, and acting as prime minister to the nation; hunting up a rumour of a splendid pearl among the pearling islands, and tracking down the gem, until found and ceased away from the careless owner of one-tenth Sydney market prices - these are incidents that the typical schooner captain regards as merely the ordinary kind of break to be expected in his rather monotonous life. He does not think them very interesting as a rule, and dismisses them somewhat briefly, in a yarn. What does excite him, cause him to raise his voice and gesticulate freely, and induce him to "yarn" relentlessly for half a watch, is the recital of some thrilling incident connected with the price of cargo or the claims made for damaged stuff by some abandoned villain of a trader. there is something worth relating in a tale like that, to his mind!
The passenger on an island schooner learns very early to cultivate a humble frame of mind. On a great steam lines he is all in all. It is for him almost entirely that the ships are built and run; his favour is life or death to the company. He is handled like eggs, and petted like a canary bird. Every one runs to do his bidding; he is one of a small but precious aristocracy waited on hand and foot by the humblest of serfs. On a schooner, however, he is ousted from his pride of place most completely by the cargo, which takes precedence of him at every point; so that he rapidly learns he is not of nearly so much value as a fat sack of copra, and he becomes lowlier in mind than he ever was before. There is no special accommodation for him, as a rule; he must go where he can, and take what he gets. If he can make himself useful about the ship, so much the better; every one will think more of him, and he will get some useful exercise by working his passage in addition to paying for it.
Here is a typical day on the Duchess.
At eight bells (8 a.m.) breakfast is served in the cabin. The passenger's own cabin is a small deck-home placed amidships on the main deck. The deck is filled up with masses of cargo, interposing a perfect Himalayan chain of mountains between the main deck and the poop. It is pouring with tropical rain, but the big main hatch yawns half open on one side, because of the native passengers in the hold. On the other side foams a squally sea, unguarded by either rail or bulwark, since the cargo is almost overflowing out of the ship. The duchess is rolling like a porpoise, and the passenger's hands are full of mackintosh and hat-brim. It seems impossible to reach the poop alive; but the verb "have to" is to constant use on a sailing-ship, and it does not fail of its magical effect on this occasion. Clawing like a parrot, the passenger reaches the cabin, and finds the bare-armed, bare-footed mates and the captain engaged on the inevitable "tin" and biscuits. There is no tea this morning, because the cockroaches have managed to get into and flavour the brew; and the cabin will none of it. The captain has sent word by the native steward that he will "learn" the cook - a strange threat that usually brings about at least a temporary reform - and is now engaged in knocking the copra-bugs out of a piece of biscuit and brushing a colony of ants off his plate. Our cargo is copra, and in consequence the ship resembles an entomological museum more than anything else. No centipedes have been found this trip so far; but the mate stabled a big scorpion with a sail-needle yesterday - as it was walking across the deck; and the cockroaches - as large as mice, and much bolder - have fairly "taken charge." The captain says he does not know whether he is sleeping in the cockroaches' bunk, or they in his, but he rather thinks the former, since the brutes made a determined effort to throw him out on the deck last night, and nearly succeeded!
it grows very warm after breakfast, for we are far within the tropics, and the Duchess has no awnings to protect her deck. The rail is almost hot enough to blister an unwary hand, and the great sails cast little shade, as the sun climbs higher to the zenith. The pitch does not, however, bubble in the seams of the deck, after the well-known fashion of stories, because the Duchess, like most other tropical ships, has her decks caulked with putty. A calm has fallen - a Pacific calm, which is not as highly distinguished for calmness as the stay-at-home reader might suppose. There is no wind, and the island we are trying to reach remains tantalisingly perched on the extreme edge of the horizon, like a little blue flower on the rim of a crystal dish. but there is plenty of sea - long glittering hills of water, rising and falling, smooth and foamless, under the ship, which they fling from side to side with cruel violence. The great booms swing and slam, the blocks clatter, the masts creak. Everything loose in the cabins toboggans wildly up and down the floor. At dinner, the soup which the cook has struggled to produce, lest he should be "learned," has to be drunk out of tin mugs for safety. Every one is sad and silent, for the sailor hates a calm even more than a gale.
Bonitos come round the ship in a glittering shoal by-and-by, and there is a rush for hooks and lines. One of our native A.B.s produces a huge pearl hook, unbaited, and begins to skim it lightly along the water at the end of its line, mimicking the exact motions of a flying-fish with a cleverness that no white man can approach. Hurrah! a catch! A mass of sparkling silver, blue, and green, nearly twenty pounds weight, is swung through the air, and tumbled on deck. Another and another follows; we have over a hundred pounds weight of fish in half an hour. The cr4w shout and sing for delight. There are only seven of them and five of us, but here will not be a scrap of that fish left by to-morrow, for all the forecastle hands will turn to and cook and eat without ceasing until it is gone; after which they will probably dance for an hour or two.
To every one's delight, the weather begins to cloud over again after this, and we are soon spinning before a ten-knot breeze towards the island, within eight of which we have been aimlessly beating about for some days, unable to get up. Our crew begin to make preparations. Taputua, who is a great dandy, puts two gold earrings in one ear, and fastens a wreath of cock's feathers about his hat. Koddi (christened George) gets into a thick blue woollen jersey (very suitable for Antarctic weather), a scarlet and yellow pareo or kilt, and a pair of English shoes, which make him limp terribly; but they are splendid squeakers, so Koddi is happy. (The Pacific islander always picks out squeaking shoes if he can get them, and some manufacturers even put special squeakers into goods meant for the island trade.) Ta puts on three different singlets - a pink, a blue, and a yellow - turning up the edges carefully, so as to present a fine display of layered colours, like a Neapolitan ice; and gums the gaudy label off a jam tin about his bare brown arm, thus christening himself with the imposing title of "Our Real Raspberry." Neo is wearing two hats and three neck-handkerchiefs; Oki has a cap with a "P. & O." ribbon, and Union Steamship company's jersey, besides a threepenny-piece in the hollow of each ear. Truly we are a gay party, by the time every one is ready to land.
And now after our thousand mile run, we have arrived at Malden.
Malden Island lies on he border of the Southern Pacific, only four degrees south of the equator. It is beyond the verge of the great Polynesian archipelago, and stands out by itself in a lonely stretch of still blue sea, very seldom visited by ships of any kind. Approaching it one is struck from far away by the glaring barrenness of the bit island, which is thirty-three miles in circumference, and does not possess a single height or solitary tree, save one small clump of recently planted cocoanuts. Nothing more unlike the typical South Sea island could be imagined. Instead of the violet mountain peaks, wreathed with flying vapour, the lowlands rich with pineapple, banana, orange, and mango, the picturesque beach bordered by groves of feathery cocoanuts and quaint heavy-fruited pandanus trees, that one finds in such groups as the Society, Navigator's , Hawaiian, and Cook Islands, Malden consists simply of an immense white beach, a little settlement fronted by a big wooden pier, and a desolate plain of low greyish-green herbage, relieved here and there by small bushes bearing insignificant yellow flowers. Water is provided by great condensers. food is all imported, save for pig and goat flesh. Shade, coolness, refreshing fruit, pleasant sights and sounds, there are none. for those who live on the island, it is the scene of an exile which has to be endured somehow or other, but which drags away with incredible slowness and soul-deadening monotony.
Why does any one live in such a spot? More especially, why should it be tenanted by five or six whites and a couple of hundred Kanakas, when many beautiful and fertile islands cannot show nearly so many of either race; quite a large number, indeed, being altogether uninhabited? One need never look far for an answer in such a case. If there is no comfort on Malden Island, there is something that men value more than comfort - money. For fifty-six years it has been one of the most valuable properties in the Pacific. Out of Malden Island have come horses and carriages, the houses and gorgeous jewellery, rich eating, delicate wines, handsome entertainments, university education and expensive finishing governesses, trips to the Continent, swift white schooners, high places in Society, and all the other desirables of wealth, for two generations of fortunate owners and their families. Half-a-million hard cash has been made out of it in the last thirty years, and it is good for another thirty. All this from a barren rock in mid-ocean! The solution of the problem will at once suggest itself to any reader who has ever sailed the Southern Seas - guano!
This is indeed the secret of Malden Island's riches. Better by far than the discovery of a pirate's treasure-cave, that favourite dream of romantic youth, is the discovery of a guano island. There are few genuine treasure romances in the Pacific, but many exciting tales that deal with the finding and disposing of these unromantic mines of wealth. Malden Island itself has had an interesting history enough. In 1848, Captain Chapman, an American whaling captain who still lives in Honolulu, happened to discovere Malden during the course of a long cruise. He landed on the island, found nothing for himself and his crew in the way of fruit or vegetables, but discovered the guano beds, and made up his mind to sell the valuable knowledge as soon as his cruise was over. Then he put to sea again, and did not reach San Francisco for the best part of a year. Meantime, another American, Captain English, had found the island and its treasure. Wiser than Captain Chapman, he abandoned his cruise, and hurried at once to Sydney, where he sold the island for a big price to the trading firm who have owned it ever since.
this is the history of Malden Island's discovery. Time, in the island, has slipped along since the days of the Crimea with never a change. There is a row of little tin-roofed, one-storeyed houses above the beach, tenanted by the half-dozen white men who act as managers; there are big, barn-like shelters for the native labourers. Every three years the managers end their term of service, and joyfully return to the company's great offices in Sydney; where there is life and companionship, pleasant things to see, good things to eat, newspapers every day, and no prison bar of blue relentless ocean cutting off all the outer world. Once or twice in the year one of the pretty white island schooners sails up to Malden, greeted with shrieks and war-dances of joy; discharges her freight of forty or fifty newly indentured labourers, and takes away as many others whose time of one year on the island has expired. On Malden itself nothing changes. close up to the equator, and devoid of mountains or even heights which could attract rain, its climate is unaltered by the passing season. No fruits or flowers mark the year by their ripening and blossoming, no rainy season changes the face of the land. News from the outer world comes rarely; and when it does come, it is so old as to have lost its savour. Life on Malden Island for managers and labourers alike, is work, work, all day long; in the evening, the bare verandah and the copper-crimson sunset, and the empty prisoning sea. That is all.
The guano beds cover practically the whole of the island. The surface on which one walks is hard, white, and rocky. This must be broken through before the guano, which lies a foot or two underneath, is reached. The labourers break away the stony crust with picks, and shovel out the fine, dry, earth-coloured guano that lies beneath, in a stratum varying from one to three feet in thickness. This is piled in great heaps, and sifted through large wire screens. The sifted guano - exactly resembling common sand - is now spread out in small heaps, and left to dry thoroughly in the fierce sun. there must not be any trace of moisture left that can possibly be dispersed; for the price of the guano depends on its absolute purity and extreme concentration, and purchasers generally make careful chemical tests of the stuff they buy.
When dried, the guano is stored away in an immense shed near the settlement. If it has been obtained from the pits at the other side of the island, eight miles away, it will be brought down to the storehouse by means of one of the oddest little railways in the world. The Malden Island railway is worked, not by steam, electricity, or petrol, but by sail! The S.E. trade-wind blows practically all the year round on this island; so the Company keep a little fleet of land-vessels, cross-rigged, with the large sails, to convey the guano down to the settlement. The empty carriages are pushed up to the pits by the workmen, and loaded there. At evening, the labourers climb on the top of the load, set the great sails, and fly down to the settlement as fast as an average train could go. These "land-ships" of Malden are a bit unmanageable at times, and have been known to jump the rails when travelling at high speed, thus causing unpleasant accidents. But the Kanaka labourers do not mind a trifle of that kind, and not even in a S.E. gale would they condescend to take a reef in the sails. As it is necessary to push these railway ships on the outward trip, the managers generally travel on a small railway tricycle of the pattern familiar at home. this can be driven at a fair speed, by means of arm levers. Across the desolate inland plain one clatters, the centre of a disk of shadowless grey-green, drenched clear of drawing and colour by the merciless flood of white fire from above. The sky is of the very thinnest pale blue; the dark, deep sea is out of sight. The world is all dead stillness and the smiting sun, with only the thin rattle of our labouring car, and the vibration of distant dark specks above the rookeries, for relief.
The dark specks grow nearer and more numerous, filling the whole sky at last with the sweep of rushing wings and the screams of angry bird voices. We leave the tricycle on the rails and walk across the thin, coarse grass, tangled with barilla plants, and low-growing yellow-flowered shrubs, towards the spot where the wings flutter thickest, covering many acres of the unlovely, barren land with a perfect canopy of feathered life. this is the bird by which the fortunes of Malden have been made - the smaller man-of-war bird. It is about the size of a duck, though much lighter in build. The back is black, the breast white, the bill long and hooked. The bird has an extraordinarily rapid and powerful flight. It might more appropriately be called the "pirate" than the "man -of-war" or "frigate" bird, since it uses its superior speed to deprive other seabirds of the fish they catch, very seldom indeed exerting itself to make an honest capture on its own account. Strange to say, however, this darting buccaneer is the meekest and most long-suffering of birds where human beings are concerned. It will allow you to walk all through its rookeries, and even to handle the young birds, and eggs, without making any remonstrance other than a petulant squeal. the parents fly about the visitors' heads in a perfect cloud, sweeping their wings within an inch of our faces, screaming harshly, and looking exceedingly fierce, with their ugly hooked bills and sparkling black eyes. but that is their ordinary way of occupying themselves; they wheel and scream above the rookery all day long, visited or let alone. Even if you capture one, by a happy snatch (not at all an impossible feat) you will not alarm the others, and your prisoner will not show much fight.
The eggs lie all over the ground in a mass of broken shells, feathers, and clawed-up earth. Those birds never build nests, and only sit upon one egg, which is dirty white, with brown spots. the native labourers consider frigate-bird eggs good to eat, and devour large numbers, but the white men find them too strong. the birds are also eaten by the labourers, but only on the sly, as this practice is strictly forbidden, for the reason that illness generally follows. The frigate-bird, it seems, is not very wholesome eating. It is not in the insignificant deposits of these modern rookeries that the wealth of the island lies, but in the prehistoric strata underlying the stony surface crust already mentioned. There are three strata composing the island - first the coral rock, secondly the guano, lastly the surface crust. At one time, the island must have been the home of innumerable myriads of frigate-birds, nesting all over its circumference of thirty-three miles. The birds now next only in certain places, and, though exceedingly thick to an unaccustomed eye, cannot compare with their ancestors in number.
The schooner called on a Sunday, and so I could not see the men at work. One of the managers, however, shoed me over the labourers' quarters, and told me all about their life. There is certainly none of the "black-birding" business about Malden. Kidnapping natives for plantation work, under conditions which amount to slavery, is unfortunately still common enough in some parts of the Pacific. But in the Cook Group, and Savage Island, where most of the labourers come from, there is no difficulty in obtaining as many genuine volunteers for Malden as its owners want. The men sign for a year's work, at ten shillings a week, and board and lodging. Their food consists of rice, biscuits, yams, tinned beef, and tea, with a few cocoanuts for those who may fall sick. this is "the hoigth of good 'atin" for a Polynesian, who lives when at home on yams, taro root, and bananas, with an occasional mouthful of fish, and fowl or pig only on high festival days. The labourers' quarters are large, bare, shady buildings fitted with wide shelves, on which the men spread their mats and pillows to sleep. A Polynesian is never to be divorced from his bedding; he always carries it with him when travelling, and the Malden labourers each come to the island provided with beautifully plait4ed pandanus mats and cushions stuffed with the down of the silk-cotton tree. The cushions have covers of "trade" cottons, rudely embroidered by the owner's sweetheart or wife with decorative designs, and affectio0nate mottoes.
From 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. are the hours of work, with an hour and three-quarters off for meals. There is nothing unpleasant about the work, as Malden Island guano is absolutely without odour, and apparently so dry and fine when taken from the pits that one wonders at the necessity for further sifting and drying. Occasionally, however, one of the workers develops a peculiar intestinal trouble which is said to be caused by the fine dust of the pits. It is nearly always fatal, by slow degre3es. Our schooner carried away one of these unfortunate - a Savage Island man who had come up to Malden in full health and strength only a few months before. He was the nearest shadow or sketch of a human being - a bundle of bones clad in loose brown skin, with a skull-like face, all teeth and eye-sockets - he could not stand or walk, only creep along the deck; and he was very obviously dying. poor fellow! he longed for his own home above everything - the cool green island, sixteen hundred miles away, where there were fruit and flowers in the shady valleys, and women's and children's voice sounding pleasantly about the grassy village streets, and his own little pandanus-thatched cottage, with his "fafine" and the babies at the door, among the palms and oranges above the sea. but the schooner had a two months' voyage to make yet among the cook and other groups, before Savage Island could be reached; and Death was already lifting his spear to strike. We left the poor fellow as a last chance on Penrhyn Island, a couple of hundred miles away, hoping that the unlimited cocoanuts he could obtain there might do him some good, and that by some fortunate chance he might recover sufficiently to take another ship, and reach Niue at last.
The guano of Malden Island is supposed to be the best in the world. It is extremely rich in superphosphates, and needs no "doctoring" whatever, being ready to apply to the land just as taken from the island. As the company are obliged to guarantee the purity of what they sell, and give an exact analysis of the constituents of every lot, they keep a skilled chemist on the island, and place a fine laboratory at his disposal. These analysis are tedious to make, and require great accuracy, as a mistake might cause a refusal of payment on the part of the purchaser. the post of official chemist, therefore, is no sinecure, especially as it includes the duties of dispenser as well, and not a little rough-and-ready doctoring at times.
The temperature of the island is not so high as might be expected from the latitude. It seldom goes above 90 degrees in the shade, and is generally rendered quite endurable, in spite of the merciless glare and total absence of shade, by the persistent trade-wind. Mosquitoes are unknown, and flies not troublesome. There are no centipedes, scorpions, or other venomous creatures, although the neighbouring islands ("neighbouring" in the Pacific, means anything within three or four hundred miles) have plenty of these unpleasant inhabitants. the white men live on tinned food of various kinds, also bread, rice, fowls, pork, goat, and goat's milk. Vegetables or fruit are a rare and precious luxury, for the nearest island producing either lies a thousand miles away. big yams, weighing a stone or two apiece and whitewashed to prevent decay, are sent up from the cook islands now and then; but the want of really fresh vegetable food is one of the trials of the island. It is not astonishing to hear that the salaries of the Malden officials are very high. A year or two on the island is a good way of accumulating some capital, since it is impossible to spend a penny.
The native labourers generally leave the island with the greatest joy, glad beyond expression to return to their sweet do-nothing lives at home. Why they undertake the work at all is one of the many puzzles presented by the Polynesian character. they have enough to eat and enough to wear, without doing any work to speak of, while they are at home. Usually the motive for going to Malden is the desire of making twenty-five pounds or so in a lump, to buy a bicycle )all South Sea Islanders have bicycles, and ride them splendidly) or to build a stone house. But in most cases the money is "spreed" away to the first two or three days at home, giving presents to everybody, and buying fine clothes at the the trader's store.
So the product of the year's exile and hard work is simply a tour among the islands - in itself a strong attraction - a horribly hot suit of shoddy serge, with a stiff white shirt, red socks, and red tie, bought up in Malden from the company out of the labourers' wages, and proudly worn on the day the schooner brings the wanderer home to the lightly clad relatives - a bicycle, perhaps, which soon becomes a scrap-heap; or, possibly, a stone house which is never lived in. the company has the labour that is wants, and the money that the labour produces. Every one is satisfied with the bargain, doubtless; and the far-away British farmer and market-gardener are the people who are ultimately benefited.
An extract from IN THE STRANGE SOUTH SEAS by BEATRICE GRIMSHAW, published in London by Hutchinson & Co., 1908.
Malden Island, Line Islands, Republic of Kiribati
Pacific Islands Radio Stations