New Caledonia And Other French Islands
( Originally Published 1904 )
WE have left Auckland and are on our way to New Caledonia, a large island belonging to France, about seven hundred miles off the eastern coast of Australia. The weather has been growing warmer ever since we left Auckland. We are sailing over summer seas in a climate similar to that inside the Great Barrier Reef. We pass Norfolk Island, an unimportant possession of England, go by atolls with cocoanut palms growing upon them, and as we approach New Caledonia, steam slowly to avoid the coral rocks and reefs which almost surround it. The reefs are a few miles out from the shore, many of them reaching not quite to the surface. The captain consults his chart every few minutes, and he almost stops the engine as we go through an opening in the reef, which leads to the beautiful harbor of Noumea (nou-ma'a), the capital of New Caledonia.
Noumea lies on the western side of the island, right on the sea, with high mountains rising behind it. Its little houses are of wood roofed with galvanized iron; many of them have wide porches and are well shaded by palms and other tropical trees.
The French officers come out to the ship and look us over before giving us permission to go upon shore. New Caledonia is a convict settlement, and visitors are carefully watched. Thieves and other criminals from France are sent here for punishment; they are made to work, guarded by soldiers, and the island is under military rule, The very worst criminals are taken to the Isle of Pines, a little coral spot on the sea about thirty miles southward, where prisoners can not escape except by boat. The other convicts are scattered over New Caledonia, some in penitentiaries, but more at work on farms and in the houses. Many convicts by diligence and good behavior have earned the right to have farms for themselves, and some remain on the island after finishing their sentences.
We spend a while in Noumea practicing our French on the storekeepers, changing our shillings and pence into francs and sous. We buy some of the curious weapons used by the natives, and enjoy the bananas, pineapples, oranges, and cocoanuts, which cost so little that we can get all we want to eat for a very few sous.
We call upon the governor, and by his assistance make a trip into the interior, going from village to village visiting the natives. We learn that New Caledonia is quite large. It is as wide as Puerto Rico, and more than twice as long.
Noumea has many native tribes; some of them are of the Papuan Race, of which we shall see more as we go on with our journey. The Papuans inhabit New Guinea and many of the smaller islands of the Pacific. They are far different from the Australians, and not at all like the Malays, from whom come our little brown cousins of the Philippine Islands. They have dark faces, frizzly hair, and in features are more like negroes than white men. They wear but few clothes, some of them going almost naked.
The different Papuan tribes vary somewhat in appearance and customs. Here in Caledonia they are hospitable and quiet among themselves, although they have frequent wars with their neighbors. Each tribe has its chief who acts as ruler and leads in its wars. The people live in villages of circular houses, each of which has a top like a cone. The houses are made of wood and thatched with grass and leaves. They have narrow doors and no chimneys, so that when we visit them the smoke makes our eyes smart. We ask one of the chiefs why he does not have chimneys ; and he replies that the smoke does no harm, and it keeps out the mosquitoes.
We learn that the island has excellent timber, including the kauri and other pine trees which we saw in New Zealand. There are mines in the mountains not far from the coast, which yield coal, iron, and copper, and also nickel and cobalt used for plating iron and other metals. In the lowlands the French have established sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations, and rice and corn are also grown. They have pretty little one-story houses of wood roofed with galvanized iron. They have large pastures and fine cattle and sheep. The island is healthful, and were it not for the convicts, it might make a pleasant home.
The French own also the Loyalty Islands and some islets not far from New Caledonia ; but their population is small, and they are not of enough importance for us to go out of our way to look at them.
We shall not be able to visit the Society Islands, the Marquesas (mar-ka'sas), and the many other little islands which form the Paumotu (pa-oo-mo'too) and other archipelagoes lying in the Pacific Ocean northeast of New Zealand. These islands all belong to the French, and they are governed by a French governor who lives at Papeiti (pa-pa-e'te) in Tahiti (ta'he-te), the largest of the Society Group.
These French islands are of but little importance. Their only export of value is copra or dried cocoanut meat, which is extensively used in soap making, and their people are few in number and rather lazy than otherwise. They are not unlike the natives of the Samoan and Tongan islands, among whom we shall travel later on. They have dark brown complexions, broad noses, rather thick lips, and beautiful teeth. The men are tall and well formed, and the women are fine looking. They were formerly cannibals, but many of them are now Christians.