Read CHAPTER XV of Two Years with the Natives in the Western Pacific , free online book, by Felix Speiser, on


Of the larger inhabited islands of the New Hebrides, only Tanna remained to be visited. Instead of stopping at Vila, I went on to White Sands, Tanna, where the Rev. M. was stationed. The large island of Erromanga has but little native population, and that is all christianized; the same is true of the smaller islands of Aneityum, Aniwa and Futuna. I preferred to study Tanna, as it is characteristic of all the southern part of the archipelago. The population is quite different from that in the north, and one would call it Polynesian, were it not for the curly hair which shows Melanesian admixture. Light-coloured, tall, strong, with the fleshy body that is often a feature of the Polynesian, the people have, not infrequently, fine open features, small noses and intelligent faces of oval outline. They are more energetic, warlike and independent than those up north, and their mode of life is different, the Suque and everything connected with it being entirely absent. Instead, we find hereditary chieftainship, as in all Polynesia, and the chiefs are held in the highest veneration by their subjects. This state of things was greatly to the advantage of the missions, as the chiefs, even if converted, retained their authority, whereas in the north the high castes, on their conversion, lost all influence and position, as these only depended on the Suque. The brilliant results of the missions in Tanna are due, apart from the splendid work of the two Presbyterian missionaries, chiefly to this fact. If the missionaries and the authorities would join forces for the preservation of the native race, great good might be done. Intelligent efforts along this line ought to comprise the following features: revival of the wish to live and the belief in a future for the race, increase in the birth-rate, rational distribution of the women, abolition of the present recruiting system, compulsory medical treatment, creation of law and order, and restoration of old customs as to daily life and food.

The houses on Tanna are poor huts of reed-grass, probably because the perpetual wars discouraged the people from building good dwellings. The principal weapons are the spear and club, the arrow, as elsewhere in Polynesia, playing a subordinate part. A weapon which is probably peculiar to Tanna are throwing-stones, carefully made stone cylinders, which were hurled in battle. If a man had not time to procure one of these granite cylinders, a branch of coral or a slab of stone, hewn into serviceable shape, would serve his turn; and these instruments are not very different from our oldest prehistoric stone implements.

Quite a Polynesian art is the manufacture of tapa: bark cloth. The Tannese do not know how to make large pieces, but are satisfied with narrow strips, used as belts by the men, and prettily painted in black and red.

The dress of the men is similar to that of Malekula, that of the women consists of an apron of grass and straw; and they often wear a hat of banana leaves, while the men affect a very complicated coiffure. The hair is divided into strands, each of which is wound with a fibre from the head out. A man may have several hundred of these ropes on his head all tied together behind, giving a somewhat womanish appearance. It takes a long time to dress the hair thus, and the custom is falling into disuse.

On the whole, the culture of the Tannese is low; there is no braiding or carving, and the ornaments worn consist only of a few bracelets and necklaces, with an occasional nose-stick; the only conspicuous feature are ear-rings of tortoise-shell, of which as many as a dozen may hang in one ear.

On the other side of Tanna is Lenakel, where the Rev. W. was working with admirable devotion and success in a hospital. I crossed the island several times, and enjoyed the delightful rides through the shady forest, on very good bridle-paths the natives had made.

Tanna’s most striking sight is its volcano; there is hardly another in the world so easily accessible; for in half an hour from the shore its foot may be reached, and in another half-hour one is at the top. It is about 260 m. high, a miniature volcano, with all its accessories complete, hot springs, lake, desert, etc., always active, rarely destructive, looking like an overgrown molehill. A wide plain stretches inland, utterly deserted owing to the poisonous vapours always carried across it by the south-east trade-wind, and in the centre of the plain is a sweet-water lake.

I climbed the volcano for the first time on a rainy day. On top, I suddenly found myself at the end of the world; it was the edge of the crater, completely filled with steam. As I walked along the precipice, such an infernal thundering began just under my feet as it seemed, that I thought best to retire. My next ascent took place on a clear, bright day; but the wind drove sand and ashes along the desert, and dimmed the sunshine to a yellowish gloomy light. I traversed the desert to the foot of the crater, where the cone rose gradually out of brownish sand, in a beautiful curve, to an angle of 45 deg.. The lack of all vegetation or other point of comparison made it impossible to judge whether the mountain was 100 or 1000 m. high. The silence was oppressive, and sand columns danced and whirled up and down, to and fro, like goblins. A smell of sulphur was in the air, the heat was torturing, the ground burnt one’s feet, and the climb in the loose sand was trying. But farther up the sea-breeze cooled the air deliciously, and stone blocks afforded a foothold. Soon I was on top, and the sight I saw seemed one that only the fancy of a morbid, melancholy genius could have invented, an ugly fever dream turned real, and no description could do it justice.

In front of me the ground fell down steeply, and the torn sides of the crater formed a funnel-shaped cavity, a dark, yawning depth. There were jagged rocks, fantastic, wild ridges, crevices, fearful depths, from which issued steam and smoke. Poisonous vapour poured out of the rocks in white and brownish clouds that waved to and fro, slowly rising, until a breeze caught and carried them away. The sight alone would suffice to inspire terror, without the oppressive smoke and the uncanny noise far down in the depths. Dull and regular, it sounded like the piston of an engine or a great drum, heard through the noises of a factory. Presently there was silence, and then, without any warning, came a tearing crack, the thunder as of 100 heavy guns, a metallic din, and a cloud of smoke rose; and while we forced ourselves to stay and watch, the inferno below thundered a roaring echo, the walls shook, and a thousand dark specks flew up like a swarm of frightened birds. They were lava blocks, and they fell back from the height of the crater, rattling on the rocks, or were swallowed up by the invisible gorge. Then a thick cloud surrounded everything, and we realized that our post at the mouth of the crater, on an overhanging ridge, was dangerous; indeed, a part of the edge, not far off, broke down and was lost in the depths. Another and another explosion followed; but when we turned, we overlooked a peaceful landscape, green forests, palms bending over the bright blue water, and far off the islands of Erromanga, Futuna and Aniwa.

A visit to the volcano at night was a unique experience. Across the desert the darkness glided, and as we climbed upward, we felt and heard the metallic explosions through the flanks of the mountain, and the cloud over the crater shone in dull red. Cautiously we approached the edge, just near enough to look down. The bottom of the crater seemed lifted, the walls were almost invisible, and the uncertain glare played lightly over some theatrical-looking rocks. We could see three orifices; steam poured out of one, in the other the liquid lava boiled and bubbled, of the third there was nothing to be seen but a glow; but underneath this some force was at work. Did we hear or feel it? We were not sure; sometimes it sounded like shrill cries of despair, sometimes all was still, and the rocks seemed to shake. Then suddenly it boiled up, hissing as if a thousand steam-pipes had burst, something unspeakable seemed preparing, yet nothing happened. Some lava lumps were thrown out, to fall back or stick to the rocks, where they slowly died out. All at once a sheaf of fire shot up, tall and glowing, an explosion of incredible fury followed; the sheaf dispersed and fell down in marvellous fireworks and thousands of sparks. Slowly, in a fiery stream the lava flowed back to the bottom. Then another explosion and another, the thumping increased, one of the other openings worked, spitting viciously in all directions, the noise became unbearable. All one’s senses were affected, for the din was too violent to touch one’s hearing only. Then there was silence; the cloud rose, and beside it we saw the stars in the pure sky, and heard the surf beat peacefully, consolingly, as if there were no volcano and no glowing lava anywhere near.

While we were standing on the brink as if fascinated, the silver moon rose behind us, spread a broad road of light on the quiet sea, played round us with her cool light, shone on the opposite wall of the crater, and caressed the sulphurous cloud. It was a magical sight, the contrast of the pure moonlight and the dirty glare of the volcano; an effect indescribably grand and peculiar, a gala performance of nature, the elements of heaven and hell side by side.

At last we left. Behind and above us thundered the volcano, below us lay the desert, silvery in the moonlight, in quiet, simple lines; far away rolled the sea, and in the silence the moon rose higher and higher, and our shadows followed us as we traversed the plain and gained the friendly shade of the palm grove.