Volume 61 1952 > Volume 61, No. 3 + 4 > Sikaiana or Stewart Island, p 209-221
                                                                                             Previous | Next   

- 209
SIKAIANA OR STEWART ISLAND

Being excerpts from a report submitted in 1924 to the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific by H. MacQuarrie, District Officer, British Solonmon Islands Protectorate, and reproduced from the original manuscript in the archives of the High Commissioner in Suva, Fiji, by kind permission of the Chief Secretary.

THE Stewart Islands Atoll lies between longitude 162° 30″ and 163° E. and between latitude 8° 15″ and 9° 30″ S. Owing to its isolated position and its lack of anchorages the atoll is but seldom visited. A trader calls for copra twice a year.

I left Tulagi for the Stewart Islands Atoll on the morning of Thursday, September 18th, 1924, in the auxiliary vessel Vella. The attached map will give an idea of the course taken.

The Vella is a ketch of some thirty-six tons, of barge-like appearance, with normal ability to sail with the wind, with none to beat or tack, which makes much leeway when close-hauled and which has a semi-Diesel engine of 35 h.p.

Since very strong S.E. trade winds had been blowing for some weeks with no sign of slackening, it was decided to sail south to the Guadalcanar coast, to pass along Guadalcanar to Marau Sound, from thence to the leeward side of South Malaita and then to the island of Ulawa, an outlying island of the San Cristoval Group, which could be made a good starting point for the open ocean journey to Sikaiana. This scheme would reduce beating against the wind to a minimum.

Unfortunately the scheme had to be modified owing to the necessity of calling at Sandfly Harbour at the westerly end of M'Gela to pick up Mr. Buchanan who holds the Trading License on Sikaiana and who was travelling with us.

Sikaiana lies some 95 miles N.E. of Ulawa and no land intervenes. The islands may be sighted from the mast-head of a vessel at perhaps eight miles distance. The atoll is not more than eight miles at its greatest length.

A mile off Ulawa we entered a tide rip. As is well known a tide rip is caused by the sub-division of the tides by the long islands which form the Solomon Group coming - 210 into contact with water pushed forward by the wind and impelled by ocean currents. The waves in a tide-rip follow no natural law and seem to rise and fall at will. They generally break, and an inexperienced person would expect a reef or land of some kind. The general effect is a mass of troubled and white-flecked water stretching in a long line from a few hundred yards to a mile in width. Seas arose in mountains around us, and had it been possible, the captain would have gone about and returned to Ulawa, but to have done this would have risked the ship's boats which were swung over on the davits. We therefore carried on.

At this point one must pay a tribute to the Vella's Captain. In a peculiarly unpleasant old barge which had spent the night heaving to leeward, with an uncertain engine and without log, sextant or chronometer, his calculations had been sufficiently nice to enable him to find a small island which has been missed many times in the past. At 9 a.m. the Vella was anchored off the island of Motu-ave with her anchor just holding on to the outer reef at its extreme edge.

There is no entirely safe anchorage at Sikaiana. During the S.E. season vessels of small draft may, with some risk of losing their anchors, anchor on parts of the reef where it shelves gradually on the leeward side. With the exception of a small cleft in the outer reef which forms a boat passage, the lagoon at Sikaiana is entirely reef-locked. Mr. Buchanan's store being on the island of Motu-ave at the S.W. end of the lagoon, the Vella was forced to anchor barely within shelter and where a heavy swell caused her to roll a great deal. Sikaiana appeared like all collections of reef islands—large and small areas of coconut palms emerging from a ring surrounding turquoise and dark blue water and surrounded by the more sombre ocean.

There are four islands on the reef. Sikaiana which lies at the easterly end of the reef is the largest, having a length of three-quarters of a mile and a half a mile in width. The greatest number of people live here. While hardly a few feet above the water level of the lagoon, it yet is something more than the ordinary coral island, since tall trees grow well and the natives can have something approaching a garden. Faore is next in size and apart from pandanus and low lying scrub it bears nothing beyond coconuts. Motueloto is circular and is not more than five hundred - 211 yards in diameter. A fair number of tall trees, in addition to coconut palms, grow well. Motu-ave is perhaps the smallest island and confines itself to scrub, pandanus and coconut palms. I was told of another island which had stood on the reef near Sikaiana, but beyond a few coral clumps upon which stood a disused fishing house there is now nothing left of it.

We had not been anchored more than ten minutes before canoes commenced to appear coming along from the leeward side of the island. These are of the outrigger variety and are comparatively large. They vary in length from twenty-five feet up to thirty-six feet. They are made from the soft wood of a tree which grows best on the island called Sikaiana. A complete tree is cut down and hollowed out leaving but a narrow slit sufficiently wide to permit one foot to pass into what becomes the hull of the canoe. When the outside is shaped, the slit in the hull is flanged with narrow planks and the hull built up perhaps eight inches. From this flange passes the out-rigger. Steel tools are now used in making canoes, but any joinery depends upon sinnet and native twine. The canoes are beautifully made and each conveys an impression of tidiness and cleanliness. The natural colour of the wood is white and any discolouring action by the atmosphere is prevented by a liberal use of coral lime.

One's first impression of the natives was gained in a good setting. A very high rolling swell was bearing down on the Vella and the first canoe to approach appeared as on the top of a turquoise blue hill of clear water. Four natives manned the canoe, three men and one woman. The men were large; the woman was beautiful. The picture created was exquisite—the great blue rollers of shallow water, the white canoes and the literally golden skin and soft brown hair of the natives. They came on board and were very friendly, offering model canoes, mats and fans for sale.

Since my time was limited I decided to visit Faore Island which lies close to the passage. As we approached the beach some dozen women rushed down to the water laughing with delight and calling “Haeremai! Haeremai!” Pussy, the native boy, told them I was “the Government,” at which they promptly disappeared, returning however - 212 when informed that they had nothing to fear. The men and the younger women were concerned with the Vella and were consequently away; those on Faore were older people or young women enceinte.

While I was chatting with the women an old man came down to me and made me welcome in quaint English. He was Takomai, the chief and owner of Faore. Takomai is a prominent prophet in the local heathen church. He said that the people had been told the day before by the twin gods “Te-lagi” that the “Government” would visit the island within two days. He is an intelligent old man. He understood that the Government disapproved of toddy drinking and he wondered whether there would be any prohibition against making molasses. I reassured him. While talking to Takomai, my Lord Howe servant, who is some fifteen years of age came to me and begged that I would take him away at once since the women were kissing him too much. Even as he spoke one lady clasped him to her breast, another stroked his hands while two maidens brushed his hair. The remaining women stood ready with gifts of food and coconut candy. Takomai explained that the people of Sikaiana felt warm friendship for those of Lord Howe since there had been intermarriage between the two atolls.

Word had now been sent throughout the atoll of my arrival and of my desire to meet all the people who could travel conveniently. As the day progressed the entire population gradually collected on Motu-ave. The early part of the evening was devoted to a gramophone concert, the latter part to dancing. I endeavoured to study the people and to gain as much information as possible. For the sake of clarity I will classify this information.

MEN.

The average height of the men is 5 feet 10 inches. The prevailing physique is good but not obviously muscular. While the back is broad and strong, the size of the chest seems modified by a slight tendency towards corpulence. Arms are well formed and apparently strong, but while the thighs tend towards fatness the calves are well developed, descending to not particularly large feet. Hair varies from black to dark brown. The prevailing fashion is to wear the hair only sufficiently long to permit a parting at the side, although some men wear long hair like a European - 213 woman or perhaps more suggestive of a priest of the Eastern or Slavic church. A few men wear moustaches, but most are completely shaven. I noticed that several of the middle aged men were bald. There is the same average curly hair amongst the Sikaiana people as amongst any European community; it is never frizzy. The forehead is broad and well formed. Eyes are large and brown with sometimes a suggestion of blue in them. The average nose is fairly straight with, however, an occasional tendency towards broadening. The mouth is invariably well cut and lips are never thick. A powerful neck passes to broad strong shoulders. The skin is a warm light brown, indeed almost golden in hue. Men wear a lava-lava which on quiet occasions reaches almost to the ankles, but while working they gird it around the hips. A completely dressed man wears an oblong shaped piece of cloth with a neatly hemmed hole cut for the neck, covering his chest and the upper portion of his back. Some men wear quaint hats peaked like a rather distended ice cream cone. The impression gained of the Sikaiana man is one of invincible happiness, glowing health and a not too rigid honesty mentally or morally.

WOMEN.

The average young woman of Sikaiana is physically perfect. The hair is sometimes bobbed as in the recent European fashion, and it frames a face with good features, yet of a charming vivacity. Often the hair is worn long, but it is never permitted to remain long, the woman depending upon her tonsorial crop for hair necklets and fishing lines. The greatest charm of the Sikaiana woman lies in her eyes and mouth, capable of a wide variety of expression, the latter exposing truly beautiful teeth. The skin is very light coloured, but misses the negative expression of the half-caste through its warm golden glow. Feminine dress differs in no way from that of the male, except that the peaked hat is apparently not worn. Women are treated with respect and seem to be equal with the men in community. They are not forced to work. Indeed a too energetic woman is prohibited from working after noon by a strong tamboo, the breaking of which, she believes, will result in blindness. Since her chief work is at the native loom the tamboo is reasonable and its penalty for violation obvious. Judging from the census I took the average woman bears one child, - 214 and either infanticide or abortion is practised to prevent over-population. The women are naturally coquettish, and having no illusions about their charm find no difficulty in attracting visiting white men. The motives of the white men may not be above suspicion, but it is honestly admitted by schooner seamen and traders that their coquetry goes no further than honest interest with a desire to awaken the generosity of their victims who often give up everything asked for, and with negative results. I have, however, heard of an exception when a resident trader was given a mature woman of uncertain virtue to be his temporary wife. On the whole it is puzzling and perhaps annoying to the average trader whose moral standards, owing to the life he is compelled to lead, have not been forced up to a high level, to find himself being treated as an affectionate and well-loved brother by beautiful native women whom he more than half suspects to be wanton in their own community. Feminine beauty does not fade, for the most part, with approaching age; the compelling youthful charm gives place to a sedate and kindly beauty, even in the very aged. An exception may be found in the old Queen, who is extremely ugly, yet even her wizened up face has something quaintly whimsical about it. Women's work consists of cooking, making molasses, plaiting mats and weaving at the loom. Unfortunately there was not time to see a weaver at work, and while they promised to produce a loom for my inspection it was forgotten in the hurry of departure. Cloth, manufactured from the fibre in the bark of a local shrub, is never more than six to eight feet in length and at its widest it is not quite a yard. This native cloth was originally worn as a girdle or loin cloth, but European cloth is found more comfortable to the skin and the native cloth is manufactured for barter. It is very finely woven, but it is now almost impossible to obtain one not spoilt by the introduction of coloured cotton or wool forming either long lines or tartan-like squares. Ordinary flax mats for bedding are plaited and while they are better than anything found in the Solomons, they are rather small and not finely plaited.

CUSTOMS.

The natives of Sikaiana are heathen. Attempts to introduce Christianity have not been successful. Religion plays a very important part in the lives of the people. There - 215 would seem to be a wide and ill-defined belief in various gods towards whom the people stretch out not over anxious, yet nervous and rather naive hands. Religion as such is something of a family matter and a household head's ability to discipline his people depends upon his skill as a wizard or medium for the gods. In old days, the most clever minister of religion gained the greatest temporal power, and even today there is a permanent competition existing between old men of the community who spend much time in working out new ceremonial and giving concrete form to the local gods. The present king was chosen to be such through his ability as a medium and the second best wizard was made his permanent counsellor. Takomai of Faore, who is a famous wizard, gladly agreed to call up his familiar “devil-devil,” and while I have no doubt of his normal ability I am convinced that the cold eye of my camera and my own European presence and gubernatorial suggestion must have acted as a deterrent to the appearance of the best “devil-devils.” He sat before two rudely carved idols and immediately commenced to shake. Finally he developed a condition of convulsions and the god spoke through his lips. This god offered respectful salutations to the “Government” and became deeply apologetic regarding toddy drinking, remarking that had he known of the Government's dislike of bibbing he would never have permitted the people to indulge in coconut toddy. He agreed to still the wind and to calm the seas for the return journey. Having said which, the god released Takomai from his convulsions and disappeared. I purchased him for the sum of one pound. Takomai explained that I would find this god very useful for sickness but not so strong as “salt medicine”! Gods are represented in different guises. Some are conventional enough looking idols while others are a system of strings and wooden framework.

As a society Sikaiana is theocratic. The king's power depends upon his ability to make tamboo, frankly to frighten the people into obedience. The tamboos are never frivolous; their action is bland and reasonable. Canoe making is tamboo except during one year in eight when it is tamboo to do anything else. This makes the scanty supply of timber adequate. When dancing becomes too much of an obsession and the health of the people would seem to be - 216 affected, dancing is tambooed. And the breaking of a tamboo is unthinkable. The penalties are too dreaded to be risked. The great tamboos which affect the people as a whole are only issued by the king and his permanent counsellor. A man may, however, issue family tamboos to keep his wife and family in good order.

With the exception of human hair necklets, little or no ornamentation is worn. The shoulders and upper arms are tattooed in faint lines, the rest of the body and face remaining clear.

I gained no reliable information regarding child-birth but the infants I saw were very healthy and actually white. At the death of a man his widow remains inside her house during the day for a space of six months. The dead are sometimes interred, but occasionally a body is wrapped in cloth, placed in a small canoe and allowed to drift off with the wind. Sometimes the body is weighted and sent to sea in a roughly made canoe which cannot float for long.

Cheap tobacco and trade goods which might attract natives of the Solomons proper have no sale on Sikaiana. The better brands of tobacco are bought; no one will look at cheap perfume and therefore only the better perfumes are sold; cloth is bought in fifteen and twenty fathom lots and must be strong and serviceable. To a European, a false note is struck in this sybaritic trait by the fact that some of the more modish young men wore mattress ticking lava-lavas, which is of course very strong. Only the best brand of safety razors find a sale. For the trader, it is an unfortunate fact that the natives' passion for buying the best goods is much stronger than their desire to pay for them. And owing to the tamboos, which are concerned with the well-being of the community much more than with the accumulation of what is really not necessary, credit must be given. (It is said that not one of the long list of traders who have worked Sikaiana have made money.) During the canoe-making year, no copra is made, and copra is the chief means of barter.

FOOD.

Native food consists of coconut, taro, fish, chicken and pork. A few bananas, yams and sugar cane may be found, but they are not in sufficient quantity to be regarded as - 217 general food. In every village one finds a nursery of sprouting nuts, the soft kernel from which forms the food of the children and the very aged and sick. Coconuts, apart from its plain condition, appears in various guises, but the chief and most interesting is molasses. It is during the process of making molasses, that weak men are tempted to allow the sap to ferment and to generate much alcohol. Certain of the lower coconut palms are set apart near the village for the manufacture of molasses. Steps are cut in the trunk so that a man may ascend and descend with gourds made from mature coconuts. When the flower stem is beginning to produce small nuts, it is cut off at a point nearest to the fruit branch. Into the soft pulpy flesh is pressed a funnel of pandanus leaf which permits the sap to flow into the coconut gourd suspended from above. Twice in twenty-four hours the gourds are removed and replaced by empty ones. About a further inch of the stem is cut off to prevent normal healing and a consequent drying up of the sap. The sap is poured into a large cauldron and permitted to boil. This process continues until the cauldron, which generally holds five gallons, is full. Something approaching charcoal is now made from burnt coconut shell and a large area of glowing coals prepared. Upon this is placed half coconut shells and the sap is ladled into these from the cauldron and permitted to simmer. As the volume of water is reduced by evaporation, more of the sap is ladled in and well stirred until finally there is a deposit of thick black fluid. It tastes a trifle like ordinary treacle, but it is more like good honey. Molasses is eaten in its plain state, but more often it is kneaded into mashed taro, forming a kind of ginger bread and which tastes like an excellent coconut nougat. It has the great advantage of keeping indefinitely.

Fish abound in the lagoon and both pigs and chickens roam at will.

I noticed some rather poor breadfruit trees and a few paw-paws. Tobacco grows well enough, but as a smoking mixture it is the last resort of the natives, since it is very strong and overpowering. Taro grows chiefly on the largest island called Sikaiana in a vast swamp which is also the home of many mosquitoes including Anopheles.

The Sikaiana dances are perhaps more amusing and of a greater variety than those observed anywhere else in the - 218 Protectorate. They are lewd and sensuous even in the purified form shown to me. The male dances gibed at woman's part in conjugal enterprise, that of the female returned the compliment. Both dances are very much the same except that in that of the female there was a definite hip movement, absent from that of the male. One dance was proudly announced to be English and while energetic and joyful it was merely a combination of ill-assorted sexual expletives with “Tipperlarly.”

Abortion is doubtlessly practised, and is perhaps the only obnoxious trait in the native character. It is said that an enceinte woman dislikes it intensely and has to be inveigled into the scrub where those interested roll on her and knead her abdomen until something happens. Marriages are arranged during the infancy of the contracting parties when money and presents are exchanged. It is before the consummation of marriage that abortion is practised, since a girl, who has been obviously wanton will not be accepted by the relations of her prospective husband who demand repayment of the money given, but who seldom get it.

While I believe that Mr. Buchanan's fears regarding toddy drinking are ill-founded, it is impossible to dismiss the practice as being harmless and not fraught with mischevious possibilities. I therefore decided to make an attempt to have it stopped by the best means at my disposal—to induce the king to issue a solemn and fast tamboo against it. As an added guarantee, I appointed Village Constables on each island.

The king, Sai'marlui of Sikaiana, arrived during the evening and hearing of his great age, I sent word to him with a greeting, requesting that he would see me in the morning. The entire population with a few exceptions had now gathered on Motu-ave. They were much too excited to sleep and spent the greater part of the night dancing.

I noticed, the following morning, that a large and very old Union Jack was flying in front of the house where the king slept. At nine a.m., attended by his counsellor Takalou, his queen Koutehe and his two sons Tuane and Tatuke, King Sai'marlui came to my house. The king is at least eighty years of age. He told me of the day when Captain Pollard, R.N., of H.M.S. Wallaroo arrived and annexed the - 219 atoll and he permitted me to read a copy of the Proclamation. 1 He kept the original in a small bottle, and when I observed through the glass that it was decaying, he gladly consented to my taking it to Headquarters to be repaired.

He gladly agreed to issue the tamboos I wanted, and a throne manufactured from a biscuit box having been erected while the entire population gathered before it, he made the tamboo. The ceremonial was simple enough. He told the people that toddy drinking was tamboo and then explained the results of violation. A man who from that moment drank fermented coconut juice would promptly die and become a fish which would be caught off the island and eaten by the entire population. He also tambooed abortion. Anyone aiding or abetting abortion would at once become enceinte and give birth to twin sharks which rushed into the sea would await the chance to eat their progenitor. At the end of his speech, the king developed convulsions and as he collapsed on his throne the people made a long wailing scream which ended in a shout.

After the ceremony, which I photographed several times, and having but a short time at my disposal, I took the king in my launch to his home on Sikaiana, some seven miles across the lagoon. A swift and surprising high lagoon sea was running and this allied to the fresh wind made our progress slow and made the king's pyjamas wet. He promptly took them off. At Sikaiana I rested in the king's house made with coconut leaves like all Sikaiana houses and after a few minutes' chat and a walk through the island I left for Motu-ave. With a fair breeze and the engine running, we soon accomplished the return journey.

SUMMARY.

I believe that the mission will prove successful although this will best be judged at the next official visit.

I regard labour recruiting on Sikaiana as out of the question. The census I took showed that there were eighty-nine men, ninety-nine women and eighty children, making a total of two hundred and sixty-eight souls. The people of the island enjoy perfect health and it would seem a pity to

- 220
Illustration
- 221

risk this by the introduction of venereal disease which actually occurred during the time that boat's crew recruiting was permitted. It is now safely stamped out.

I think it would be a good idea if an officer could visit Sikaiana twice a year. Careful and tactful treatment is necessary and since the people have adequate laws of their own I should think that criminal action of any kind should be discouraged.

PROCLAMATION.

In the name of Her Majesty Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India.

By George Northmore Arthur Pollard, Captain in the Royal Navy commanding Her Majesty's Ship Wallaroo.

Whereas I have it in command from Her Majesty Queen Victoria, through Her principal Secretary of State for the Colonies to declare that Her Majesty has this day assumed a Protectorate over the group of islands known as the Stewart Islands and named separately Sikaiana, Faore, Manduilotu, Barina and Motuave with the surrounding reefs situated within the following limits, latitude 8.21 S. and 8.24 S. Longitude 162.55 E. and 163.1 E. from Greenwich.

Now therefore I George Northmore Pollard Captain in Her Majesty's Ship Wallaroo do hereby declare and proclaim to all men that from and after the date of these presents the above-mentioned islands of the Stewart Group have been placed under the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, under the jurisdiction of Her Majesty's High Commissioner for the Western Pacific.

Given under my hand at Sikaiana this 21st day of June, 1897.

(Signed) G. N. A. POLLARD,
Captain.
Witness:
E. G. Chamberlain,
Clerk, H.M.S. Wallaroo.
1   This is printed at the end of the article.