Read CHAPTER I of Two Years with the Natives in the Western Pacific , free online book, by Felix Speiser, on ReadCentral.com.

NOUMEA AND PORT VILA

On April 26, 1910, I arrived at Nouméa by the large and very old mail-steamer of the Messageries Maritimes, plying between Marseilles and Nouméa, which I had boarded at Sydney.

Nouméa impresses one very unfavourably. A time of rapid development has been followed by a period of stagnation, increased by the suppression of the penitentiary, the principal source of income to the town. The latter has never grown to the size originally planned and laid out, and its desolate squares and decayed houses are a depressing sight. Two or three steamers and a few sailing-vessels are all the craft the harbour contains; a few customs officers and discharged convicts loaf on the pier, where some natives from the Loyalty Islands sleep or shout.

Parallel streets lead from the harbour to the hills that fence the town to the landward. Under roofs of corrugated sheet-iron run the sidewalks, along dark stores displaying unappetizing food, curios and cheap millinery. At each corner is a dismal sailors’ bar, smelling of absinthe. Then we come to an empty, decayed square, where a crippled, noseless “Gallia” stands on a fountain; some half-drunk coachmen lounge dreaming on antediluvian cabs, and a few old convicts sprawl on benches.

Along the hillside are the houses of the high officials and the better class of people. There is a club, where fat officials gather to play cards and drink absinthe and champagne; they go to the barber’s, roll cigarettes, drink some more absinthe and go to bed early, after having visited a music-hall, in which monstrous dancing-girls from Sydney display their charms and moving-picture shows present blood-curdling dramas. Then there is the Governor’s residence, the town hall, etc., and the only event in this quiet city of officials is the arrival of the mail-steamer, when all the “beau-monde” gathers on the pier to welcome the few passengers, whether known or unknown.

In Nouméa itself there is no industry, and the great export of minerals does not touch the town. Once, Nouméa was meant to form a base of naval operations, and strongly fortified. But after a few years this idea was abandoned, after having cost large sums, and now the fortifications are left to decay and the heavy, modern guns to rust.

In spite of a prohibition, one may climb up to the forts, and be rewarded by a beautiful view of the island, which does not impress one as tropical. The rounded hills are covered with shrubs, and only in the valleys are there a few trees; we are surprised by the strong colouring of the distant mountains, shining purple through the violet atmosphere.

Seaward, we see the white line of the breakers, indicating the great barrier-reef which surrounds the isle with an almost impenetrable belt; a few channels only lead from the shore to the open ocean.

On the 1st of May the Pacific arrived at Nouméa, and her departure for Vila, next day, ended a most tiresome stay.

It was a sad, rainy day when we left. Impatiently the passengers waited till the freight was loaded, houses, iron, horses, cases of tins, etc. Of course we were six hours late, and all the whites were angry, while the few natives did not care, but found a dry corner, rolled themselves up in their blankets and dozed. When we finally left, heavy squalls were rushing over the sea; in the darkness a fog came on, so that we had soon to come to anchor. But next morning we had passed the Loyalty Islands and were rolling in the heavy swell the south-east trade raises on the endless surface of the Pacific.

Next day, through the light mist of a summer morning, the forms of islands appeared, flat, bluish-grey lines, crowned with rounded hills. Slowly finer points appeared, the ridge of mountains showed details and we could recognize the tops of the giant banyan trees, towering above the forest as a cathedral does over the houses of a city. We saw the surf, breaking in the coral cliffs of flat shores, found the entrance to the wide bay, noticed the palms with elegantly curved trunks bending over the beach, and unexpectedly entered the lagoon, that shone in the bright sun like a glittering sapphire.

We had passed the flat cliffs, covered only with iron-wood trees, and now the water was bordered by high coral plateaux, from which a luxuriant forest fell down in heavy cascades, in a thickness almost alarming, like the eruption of a volcano, when one cloud pushes the other before it and new ones are ever behind. It seemed as if each tree were trying to strangle the others in a fight for life, while the weakest, deprived of their ground, clung frantically to the shore and would soon be pushed far out over the smooth, shining sea. There the last dense crowns formed the beautiful fringe of the green carpet stretched soft and thick over the earth.

Only here and there the shore was free, showing the coral strand as a line of white that separated the blue of the sea from the green of the forest and intensified every colour in the landscape. It was a vision of the most magnificent luxuriance, so different from the view which the barren shores of eastern New Caledonia offer.

The bay became narrower and we approached the port proper. Small islands appeared, between which we had glimpses of cool bays across glassy, deep-green water, and before us lay a broken line of light-coloured houses along the beach, while on the plateau behind we could see the big court-house and some villas.

A little distance off-shore we dropped anchor, and were soon surrounded by boats, from which the inhabitants came on board. A kind planter brought me and my belongings ashore, and I took up my quarters in the only hotel in Port Vila, the so-called “blood-house,” thus named because of its history.

Vila is merely the administration centre, and consists of nothing but a few stores and the houses of the Condominium officials. There is little life, and only the arrival of the ships brings some excitement, so that the stranger feels bored and lonely, especially as the “blood-house " does not offer many comforts and the society there is not of the choicest.

I immediately went to present my letters of introduction to the French Resident. The offices of the British Residence were still on the small island of Iariki, which I could not reach without a boat. The French Residence is a long, flat, unattractive building; the lawn around the house was fairly well kept, but perfectly bare, in accordance with the French idea of salubrity, except for a few straggling bushes near by. Fowls and horses promenaded about. But the view is one of the most charming to be found in the islands. Just opposite is the entrance to the bay, and the two points frame the sea most effectively, numerous smaller capes deepening the perspective. Along their silhouettes the eye glides into far spaces, to dive beyond the horizon into infinity. Iariki is just in front, and we can see the well-kept park around the British Residence, with its mixture of art and wilderness; near by is the smooth sea shining in all colours. While the shores are of a yellowish green, the sea is of every shade of blue, and the green of the depths is saturated with that brilliant turquoise tint which is enough to put one into a light and happy humour. This being my first sight of a tropical landscape, my delight was great, and made up for any disappointment human inefficiency had occasioned.

The French Resident, Mr. C, received me most kindly, and did me the honour of inviting me to be his guest. I had planned to stay in Vila a few weeks, so as to get acquainted with the country and hire boys; but the Resident seemed to think that I only intended a short visit to the islands, and he proposed to take me with him on a cruise through the archipelago and to deposit me at the Segond Channel, an invitation I could not well refuse. My objection of having no servants was overruled by the Resident’s assurance that I could easily find some in Santo. I therefore made my preparations and got my luggage ready.

In the afternoon, Mr. C. lent me his boat to go and pay my respects to Mr. Morton King, the British Resident. The difference between the two residences was striking, but it would be out of place to dwell on it here. It may be caused by the fact that the French Resident is, as a rule, recalled every six months, while the British Resident had been at Vila for more than three years. Mr. King received me most cordially and also offered his hospitality, which, however, I was unable to accept. Later on Mr. King assisted and sheltered me in the most generous manner, so that I shall always remember his help and friendship with sincere gratitude.

I also had the honour of making the acquaintance of the British judge and of most of the Condominium officials.

It was a dull morning when we left Vila on board the French Government yacht. In days gone by she had been an elegant racing-boat, but was now somewhat decayed and none too clean; however, she had been equipped with a motor, so that we were independent of the wind.

Besides the Resident and myself there were on board the French judge, the police commissioner, and a crew of boys from the Loyalty Islands near New Caledonia. These are excellent sailors and are employed in Vila as French policemen. They are very strong and lively and great fighters, and would be perfect material for a police force were they not such confirmed drunkards. Because of this defect they all had to be dismissed soon afterwards and sent back to their own country, as in Vila, instead of arresting drunken natives, they had generally been drunk themselves and were often fighting in the streets. But on board ship, where they had no opportunity to get drunk, they were very willing and always cheerful and ready for sport of any kind.

We did not travel far that first day, but stopped after a few hours’ sail in Port Havannah, north of the Bay of Mele. This port would be one of the best harbours in the group, as it is almost entirely landlocked; only, the water is so deep that small craft cannot anchor. Yet it would be preferable to Port Vila, as the climate is much better, Vila being one of the hottest, stuffiest and rainiest spots in the group, and its harbour is becoming too small for the increased traffic of the last few years. Port Vila only became the capital of the islands when the English influence grew stronger, while all the land round Port Havannah belonged to a French company.

We spent the afternoon on shore shooting pigeons. Besides a few ducks, flying-foxes and wild pigs, pigeons are the only game in the islands; but this pigeon-shooting is a peculiar sport and requires a special enthusiasm to afford pleasure for any length of time. The birds are extremely shy and generally sit on the tops of the highest trees where a European can hardly discover them. The natives, however, are very clever in detecting them, but when they try to show you the pigeon it generally flies off and is lost; and if you shoot it, it is hard to find, even for a native. The natives themselves are capable of approaching the birds noiselessly and unseen, because of their colour, so as to shoot them from a short distance. My pigeon-shooting usually consisted in waiting for several hours in the forest, with very unsatisfactory results, so that I soon gave it up.

We were all unsuccessful on this particular day, but it ended most gaily with a dance at the house of a French planter.

We slept on board, rocked softly by the ship, against which the waves plashed in cosy whispering. The sky was bright with stars, but below decks it was dark and stuffy. Now and then a big fish jumped out of the black sea, otherwise it was quiet, dull and gloomy as a dismal dream.

Next day we rose early and went shooting again. Probably because we had been given the best wishes of an old French lady the result was as unsatisfactory as the evening before. We then resumed our journey in splendid weather, with a stiff breeze, and flying through blue spaces on the bright waves, we rapidly passed several small islands, sighted “Monument Rock,” a lonely cliff that rises abruptly out of the sea to a height of 130 m., and arrived late in the afternoon at Maei, our destination.