Visit from the Natives
May 25th.-As soon as the Antarctic was moored and the sails furled, the natives, nearly as dark-skinned as Africans, and almost totally naked, began to assemble round her, at a respectful distance, in their light canoes, evincing the usual symptoms of curiosity, wonder, and timidity. They came within about a hundred yards of the vessel, and then lay on their oars, or rather paddles, as if afraid to approach any nearer. On observing this I displayed a white flag, as a token of amity on our part, and held up to their view several strings of beads, and other articles which glittered in the sun. This finally induced them to venture alongside, when they appeared to be struck with astonishment and awe, on surveying the vessel's hull, spars, rigging, &c. But nothing, for some time, would induce them to ascend her side.
I soon distinguished one among their number, whom I set down as a chief or ruler; and whom, for the want of a more appropriate name, I shall call Nero. He was most splendidly, or rather fantastically, ornamented with rows of shells and wreaths of flowers, about his ebony head, neck, and waist; while his arms and legs were adorned with rings or bracelets of the richest tortoise-shell. After a long time, I succeeded in persuading him, with a few of his followers, to venture on board ; but not without considerable doubt and hesitancy on their part. But who can accurately depict their astonishment when they first stepped upon deck! They seemed to be struck dumb and stupid with amazement ; nor would they advance a step from the gangway, until I took Nero by the arm, and with due demonstrations of courtesy led him aft.
A little reassured by the friendliness of my deportment, and the cordiality of his reception, he began, by degrees, to recover from his astonishment, and to become curiously inquisitive. He examined, in rapid succession, the masts, rigging, sails, deck, hatches, pump, binacle, cables, anchors, whale-boats, and every thing that met his eye; flying from one object to another, feeling them with both hands, inquiring the use of every thing, but never waiting for an answer, immediately laying hold of something else. He at last jumped about the deck like a madman, alternately laughing and uttering exclamations of astollishillent. When any thing struck him in a peculiar manner, he would instantly cry out " Rett-stiller!" signifying fine! His sable attendants also took great interest in the objects around them but did not presume to give their feelings utterance in the presence of their chief; who ultimately proved to be the grand chief, or emperor of the whole group.
I invited Nero to descend with me into the cabin; but he declined, until three of his people should have first tried the hazardous experiment, and gave his orders accordingly, which they obeyed with evident reluctance, descending the stairs after me with the greatest caution and timidity. Their feet had scarcely touched the floor, however, when their fears gave place to surprise and admiration, at the great number of shining muskets, bright brass-barrelled pistols, and glittering cutlasses, which decorated almost every part of the cabin. They covered their dazzled eyes with their hands, and exclaimed Rett- Stiller! which was instantly echoed by their companions on deck. I then showed them a mirror, which at first struck them with terror; so that for some minutes they seemed bewildered with astonishment, gazing alternately at each other, and at the image in the glass : but as soon as they recognised their own ebony features, they embraced each other, made the most ridiculous grimaces, laughed immoderately, and shouted with joy.
Nero, on hearing this, could no longer resist his own desire and their solicitations for him to descend, and with one leap he was in the cabin; on looking around which, his exclamations of surprise and pleasure surpassed all bounds. Indeed, they all looked and acted like wild, frantic children, although more than one of them bore evident marks of old age.
On our returning to the deck, we found several more canoes alongside, with natives equally dark and naked, from the other islands, who appeared incredulous to the marvellous stories which their friends on board were telling them; but they were soon convinced, by ocular demonstration, that "the half was not told" them. They were then shown the cook's house, and offered some bread and meat, but declined tasting it, with all expression of some feeling analogous to loathing.
The guns next excited the attention of the sable chief, who expressed great solicitude to know their nature and use; but it was neither convenient nor politic at that time to gratify his curiosity on this subject. I took a little powder, however, and flashed it before them on the deek, which so terrified them that they fell flat on their faces. On finding themselves unhurt, they soon recovered their feet and their composure, and intimated that I must possess the power of making thunder and lightning, which sometimes terrified them in the clouds.
When their curiosity had at length become somewhat gratified, and the ardour of excitement had subsided, I distributed a few presents to Nero and his principal attendants, for which they expressed no little gratitude. Nero scorned to be outdone in acts of civility, and therefore sent off the canoes immediately ashore, which soon returned, loaded with cocoanuts and other fruits, which he begged me to accept. I then, at his request, accompanied him on shore, in his own canoe, while Mr. Wallace followed me in the Antarctic's boat, well manned and armed.
On reaching the island, Nero conducted us to his house, as we then understood it to be, which was only distinguished from the others by its superior size and capacity. Here we partook of refreshments, consisting of various sorts of fruits and fish, which we found very palatable. We were seated on mats, with which the floor was covered, while the rest of the chiefs, with some very pretty women, almost entirely naked, with infants in their arms, formed a circle around us; but the centre point of attraction was evidently myself, they, no doubt, considering me as the chief of some mighty tribe of a distant island.
Having finished our repast, I presented the queen with a pair of scissors, a small knife, and a few beads, which her majesty most graciously deigned to accept, and appeared to be in an ecstasy of delight, especially with the scissors, of which I quickly taught her the use. The knife and the scissors excited universal admiration, which was quite natural in a group of beings who had never before seen a piece of iron or steel, and whose best tools were made of a shell or a piece of stone.
The sensation which these treasures produced having somewhat subsided, their curiosity was again directed to my goodly person. No one, however, with the exception of King Nero himself, ventured to touch me; and he performed the feat with as much tremulous caution as the novice evinces when for the first time he applies a lighted match to the priming of a cannon. Having satisfied himself that I was constructed of bones and flesh, like his own race, and that the white paint could not be rubbed off my ebony skin, he turned to his chiefs and counsellors in great astonishment, and harangued them at some length, on so wonderful a phenomenon. The whole company listened to him with less reverence than amazement - remaining motionless as statues, with straining eyes and gaping mouths.
His majesty then wished me to open my vest and shirt-bosom, that he might try the same test on the colour of my body; but the result only increased his astonishment. Every one of the men, by turns, now approached, and satisfied thernselves that my skin was neither a white well-fitted garment, nor its colour the effect of artificial means. But not one of the females would venture to touch my bosom, and I was inclined to attribute this shyness more to modesty and feminine delicacy, than to personal fear.
When their curiosity had been sufficiently satisfied in this particular, I was presented by the females with several neat rows of shells, which they took off their necks, arms, and legs, and put them on my own. This act of courtesy was immediately copied by the chiefs, who took off and presented their feather bonnets or chaplets, which were very ingeniously put together, and tastefully ornamented with red coral. From some of the young girls I received several neatly-worked mats, which they gave me to understand were intended for me to sleep on.
By this time our party had increased to about four hundred natives when suddenly, to my great surprise, a song was struck up, in which they all joined their voices; old and young men, women, and children. From the manner and gestures of the vocalists, this was evidently addressed to me, and intended as an expression of gratitude for the presents they had received. Taking this for granted, I endeavoured by appropriate signs, gestures, bows, and smiles, to return my thanks for the compliment. Politeness is a universal language, and is instantly comprehended and appreciated by every class of people, from the courtly Frenchman to the poor despised Hottentot.
At the close of this concert I gave Nero to understand that I wished to take a view of the island, and requested the honour of his company, to which he cheerfully assented, taking with him several of his principal courtiers, of both sexes. Six men, by their chief's direction, walked on before us as guides and pioneers. I was unarmed, aware that the best security for my personal safety was the implicit confidence I placed in my conductors, who certainly appeared to be the most harmless, innocent, and inoffensive race of mortals I had ever met with. As we proceeded through the forest, they tried every artifice to amuse me, playing, and jumping, and running, and capering about, like so many "children, just let loose from school."
Every thing that came under my observation, during this excursion, wore the appearance of youth and freshness, as if the whole island was a modern creation. All the trees were quite young, and most of the fruit trees had been recently planted. In passing through the woods I saw some plants bearing a profusion of beautiful red blossoms, which Nero informed me were cultivated expressly for personal ornaments. Near the centre of the island, my attention was arrested by small heaps of coral, piled up in regular rows, with only footpaths between them, and enclosed with a kind of fence, formed by pickets or stakes driven into the earth. This, Nero informed me, was their royal burying- ground, and the piles of coral were the tombs. None but chiefs and warriors of distinction were buried here, or permitted to pass within the fence. The bodies of the common people were thrown into the sea. A coral tomb--the maw of sharks!
"While I was meditating on the distinctions of worldly rank, which extend thus down to the very dust" (Washington Irving), we reached the south-west point of the island, where I selected a beautiful spot for my intended purpose; which was to erect a suitable building for curing biche-de-mer; for unless this valuable production of the ocean be timely and preoperly cured, it is good for nothing. I selected this spot as being convenient to our anchorage, and at the same time surrounded by the necessary fuel, of an excellent quality. I had contemplated this point from the Antarctic's deck, and my principal object in going on shore was to inspect it more closely, and to claim permission from the chief and his counsellors to prosecute my design.
As soon as Nero was able to comprehend my intentions and wishes, he not only readily granted my request, but even promised the assistance of his people; and it was agreed that the work should be commenced on the following morning. This arrangement being completed, and mutually understood, we returned to the village by a nearer route than the former; and at about 7, P.M., I parted from my supposed freinds, who had accompanied me to the boat, where my return was anxiously waited for. Before we shoved off, however, Nero sent us some more cocoanuts, plantains, bananas, rutt-steller, and several fine fish of a very good size. We now took our leave, shoved off, and were soon on board the Antarctic.
We now turned-to and got the boarding-nettings up, set quarter-watches, and retired to rest; congratulating ourselves and each other on the valuable discovery of these islands with their inexhaustible rich productions, and the friendly disposition of the natives, of whose personal appearance I shall now attempt to give a brief description. The men, in height, are generally about six feet, and well proportioned, with straight bodies and full chests; being strong, muscular, stout, and somewhat portly, but extremely active. Their limbs are well moulded; and, like most islanders of the Pacific, their hands and feet are small in proportion to other parts of the body. Their heads are handsomely shaped, very different from an African's. The skin of both sexes is very soft and delieate to the touch, and not quite so dark in complexion as that of the Madagascar natives. Their hair is moderately crisped, but soft and silky, and much longer than that of an African. Their eyes are large, black, lively, and brilliant, beaming beneath a prominent forehead, which is naturally smooth and well proportioned. Their nose is finely shaped; and so are the lips, being moderately thick, and just parted enough to display two rows of ivory - sound, even, and beautifully set, in what might easily be mistaken for red coral from their own reef. The expression of their countenance, however, when not softened by pleasure, or distorted by mirth, is extremely savage and ferocious, combined with an indication of firmness and resolution. They are extravagantly tattooed about the limbs, chest, shoulders, and face; often in a most frightful manner, which increases the expression of ferocity to hideousness.
The women are nearly as large as the men, have the same dark complexion, and are equally well formed; with straight backs, exuberant chests, slender waists, and narrow hips. Their limbs are beautifully proportioned, and the formation of the head is very much like that of our fourth-blooded mulattoes. They have large black eyes, small round faces, slender necks, and exquisite teeth, of the purest whiteness.
During my visit on shore, I saw enough of their war implements to convince me that they would be, in case of hostilities, very formidable enemies. These consist of bows, arrows, spears, war-clubs, and battle-axes. The bows are about eight feet in length, being made of the outer part of the cocoanut-tree; they are light, strong, and very elastic. The inner bark of the same tree furnishes the bowstrings. The arrows are made of a small reed that grows in abundance on one of the islands; it being very straight, and about the thickness of a lady's ring-finger. These fatal shafts are about five feet in length, and pointed with hard wood.
Their spears are made of the same material as their bows, and are about sixteen feet in length, handsomely tapered off to a point at each end, elegantly carved in the centre, and finished and polished with so much care and taste, that they have the appearance of black ebony. Their war-clubs are also made of the same material; and are four feet in length, with a flat blade at one end, five inches wide, and sharp edges. The other end, which is the handle, is nearly round, and just large enough to fit the hand. The extremity of this end is a round ball or knob, corresponding to the pommel of a sword, on which are carved the head, face, and features of a ferocious negro. Their battle-axes are about eighteen inches long, with one end just large enough to grasp conveniently in the hand; while on the other end they have a carved figure, the size of a cocoanut-shell, representing the ferocious aspect of a tattooed warrior, painted for the battle.
The canoes of these islanders are constructed of a solid log, about twenty feet in length, two feet wide, and about two feet in depth. They are made of a very light buoyant wood, something like the cabbage tree. Their paddles are four feet long, and six inches wide at the blade; being made of the same kind of wood as the battle-axes, which resembles our live oak.
Such is a brief description of the people (and their means of annoying intruders) among which we had now fallen, and with whose chief I had entered into a sort of treaty of amity in commerce, with the utmost good faith on my part. How well this implied contract was fulfilled on the part of his sable majesty yet remains to be seen.
The natives later betray Morrell's "good faith." They steal from him and ultimately massacre sixteen of his men.
The selections from Pym, for the most part, disresemble Morrell's descriptions of the natives. Poe adds a second mirror to the ship's cabin, thereby doubling the terror of reflection and making Too-wit his appearance(s).
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