Volume 1 1892 > Volume 1, No. 2, 1892 > Easter Island, by E. Tregear, p 95-102
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BEARING in view the great scientific importance of the paper printed in this issue by Dr. Carroll, on “The Easter Island Inscriptions,” it may perhaps be well that the most interesting points of our knowledge concerning Easter Island should be brought together and presented to the members of this Society. To some the information may be almost new, and to others a refreshing of the memory and collection of references will not perhaps be considered useless.

Easter Island is situated in lat. 27° 15′ S. and long. 109° 39′ W. It is approximately about 1,800 miles from America, 1,500 miles from nearest Polynesian islands, 4,500 miles from New Zealand, and 2,400 miles from Tahiti. It is about ten miles long by six miles broad at its widest part.

On Easter Day, 1722, Commodore Roggewein, with his small Dutch squadron of three ships, first discovered Easter Island, calling it for this reason Pasch or Paaschen (the French Ile de Pâques). Roggewein's vessels were the Eagle, of 36 guns and 111 men; the Tienhoven, of 28 guns and 100 men; and the African, galley, of 14 guns and 60 men. The African, being the lightest ship, was ordered towards the island to report, and was soon followed by her consorts. Many thousands of the natives (according to the Dutch record) crowded to the beach, bearing vast quantities of fowls and edible roots. Roggewein landed 150 armed soldiers and seamen, who began pushing their way through the crowd. The inhabitants, tempted doubtless by insatiable curiosity, thronged on the strangers and impeded their way, but the Dutch relieved themselves from the difficulty by firing their muskets among the poor simple creatures, and thus killed a great number. The natives only retaliated by renewed offerings of provisions, and by all, men, women, and children, offering the palm-branch of peace. They also, by the most humble and suppliant postures, entreated the forbearance of these strange and wrathful superhuman creatures (as doubtless they considered them). The Dutch, being appeased by this humility, gave the “Indians” a few presents, in return for which they were offered 500 more fowls, and many potatoes,1 sugar-canes, &c.

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The Dutch saw no animals, but the natives when shown pigs made signs that they had known these animals at some previous time. Earthen pots were used in which to dress food. There was little furniture in any of the houses; red and white coverlets for sleeping purposes were seen. The bodies of the natives were painted over with figures of birds, &c.; the women having a very vivid artificial colouring on their cheeks, a bloom produced by some pigment the origin of which the sailors could not discover. Each house was presided over by the oldest man in the family, and these old men generally wore a bonnet of black and white feathers, the bonnet resembling in shape and appearance the head of a stork. Some, supposed to be priests, had shaven heads and balls of white feathers in their ears. Whenever the islanders were attacked they fled to some huge stone idols for protection. These are the most noticeable points in the narrative of Roggewein's visit.

Thus, in the dawn of South Sea discovery, commenced, in the murder of the islanders by the Dutch, the long series of outrages, which has ended by almost exterminating this innocent and most unhappy people.

The next visit was that made by the Peruvian war-ships S. Lorenzo and Sa Rosalia in 1770. Captain Don Phelipe Gonzalez, S.N., took possession of the island in the name of H.C.M. Carlos III., and gave it the name of S. Carlos. A deed of possession was signed by the chiefs (called by the Spaniards Caciques), and the signatures of these chiefs were made in a rudely hieroglyphic style.2

On Friday, 11th March, 1774, Captain Cook first saw Easter Island, or, as he called it, Davis's land, he supposing it to be a certain island mentioned by Davis as discovered by him in that locality in 1686. The island was visited by La Perouse on the 9th of April, 1786. Kotzebue arrived there in 1816; Capt. Beechey, of the Blossom, in 1826; followed by whalers; by the Chilian warship the O'Higgins; by Capt. Powell, in H.M.S. Topaze (1868); and by the French man-of-war Flore, in 1872, under Admiral Lapelin. A French Mission was early established, under Pére Eyraud.

Roggewein described the soil as fertile, but Cook says that it was rather barren, being of dry, hard clay, and covered with stones except towards the south end of the island, where there was a fine red soil and good grass. There was no timber of any value, the principal plant being the toromiro (called by Cook torromedo), a wood of a reddish colour, hard, heavy, but crooked and small, not exceeding 6 or 7 feet high. There was another shrub with white, brittle wood, and a few specimens of the Tahitian cloth-plant. Toromiro is also called amae; it resembles the Edwardsia macrophylla growing in New - 97 Zealand. The natives had plantations of sugar-cane, plantains and potatoes.3

The general account of the appearance of the natives is that they were a people of fairly tall stature (about 5ft. 7½in.), but there were no exceptionally large men among them compared with the ruling families in other Polynesian islands. They were of a light bronze colour, as of Spaniards; alert, vigorous, of gentle manners, and almost timid. Captain Beechey calls them a “beautiful race—the women especially beautiful.” He speaks of “their fine oval faces, regular features, high foreheads, black eyes, and small rows of teeth,” and notes their resemblance to the Maori of New Zealand. Their noses were aquiline. The men let their black beards grow thickly. The women wore their hair long. The ear-lobes were enormously enlarged, the lower part touching the shoulder. The holes in the ear-lobes were kept in full distension by some elastic substance coiled as a spring.

Some of the women were very little marked by tattooing, preferring an adornment of red and white paint. Two of the men seen by Beechey were painted entirely black. The men were tattooed in curved lines of dark blue, the face being almost covered with lines except in two broad stripes at right angles to each other, the lines being drawn from the ear, and sloping round under the jaw; the lips were also stained. The body was covered with tattooing continued down to the feet, this being executed with much taste. Many of the women were tattooed from waist to knee, so as to appear as if clothed in breeches; some were also tattooed on forehead, on edge of ears, and on fleshy part of lips.

The clothing of the natives consisted invariably of the maro, the Polynesian girdle or breech-cloth; but this was supplemented in some cases by garments of native cloth. The women wore two pieces of tapa, each about 6ft. by 4ft. One of these was wrapped about the loins, the other round the shoulders. These garments were made from the beaten bark of the paper-mulberry (used for the same purpose in Tahiti); but it became very scarce. In Beechey's time some of the men were naked, and a pretty girl swam off to the ship wearing only a small triangular maro of grass or rushes. They were clever at making nets, and at plaiting. The coverlets used as sleeping wrappers were also of tapa. The paper-mulberry was here a stunted plant about 3ft. high, never growing above the height of the shelter-wall.

Their houses were very poor structures made of sticks stuck in the ground about 6ft. or 8ft apart, and bent over at the top in the form of an arch. The longest sticks were in the middle, so that the house was smaller at each end than in the middle, and appeared “hog-backed.” A doorway, so small that a person entering had to crawl on all fours, - 98 was placed in the middle of one side. The largest houses noticed by Cook were about 60ft. long, but Beechey saw one 310ft. in length, 10ft. in breadth, and 10ft. high in the middle. Its shape was that of an inverted canoe, and it was entered by two doors only 2ft. high.

Cook heard that there were stone houses on the island, but did not see them. At the south-west end of the island is a collection of ruins of nearly a hundred stone houses4 built in regular lines and facing the sea. They are generally about 40ft. long by 13ft. wide, roofed over with slabs overlapping like tiles. The walls are 5ft. thick, about 5ft. high, and consist of layers of flat stones faced inside with flat slabs. The inside walls are painted in black, white, and red, with figures of mythical beasts and birds, and with geometrical figures. The stone houses were called Taura Renga. In one of these houses was found a stone statue about 8ft. high, and weighing four tons, now in the Cnidus shed at the British Museum. On the back of the head of the statue is carved a bird, over which is a solar crown, and on either side a rapa (a steering paddle or club) with a human face on the spade-shaped blade.

On some of the walls of the cliffs are carved huge faces,5 and on each headland of the island stand enormous stone statues. On one platform fifteen images were found, ranging from 3ft. to 35ft. in height. They are of human shape as to the upper part of the figure and have crowns of a different kind of stone (red tufa) to the rest of the figures, which are made of grey lava. So celebrated are these statues that I will not attempt to more particularly describe them,6 but will leave those interested to seek details in the references at end of this article. The platforms are built of sea-worn stones bedded in guano, the rocks composing the outer faces being hewn and fitted with the greatest nicety, without cement, mortised and tenoned together. They are built on sloping ground, presenting a seaward face of 20ft. or 30ft. high and from 200ft. to 300ft. long; on the landward side a wall of about 3ft. high rises from a levelled terrace.

The working tools were made of stone, which appeared to have superseded other tools of bone and shell, but the islanders displayed a singular indifference to iron, sought for generally with avidity by other Polynesians. The canoes were few, and were very poor structures; to be accounted for by the lack of large timber on the island. Narrow strips of wood were carefully sewn together with small cord to form vessels about 18ft. or 20ft. long. They were very narrow, with carved bows and sterns somewhat elevated, were fitted with outriggers, and capable of carrying about four persons in each canoe.

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The natives dressed their food in pottery vessels, but also used the ordinary Polynesian steaming-oven—a hole being dug in the ground, was heated by fire among hot stones, on which water was poured, and then the whole covered in. The fuel consisted of tops of sugar-canes, plantain-heads, &c. The only utensils were gourds, and the natives prized exceedingly any cocoanut-shells they were able to procure from their European visitors.

It is probable that the palm trees and woods seen by Roggewein perished from want of water, as none of these were observed by Cook half a century later. So also doubtless the animals had perished, for although none were seen by Roggewein, he perceived the figures of hogs tattooed on the arms and breasts of the men. One very remarkable fact is well attested by several visitors—that is, that the natives were in the habit of drinking salt water instead of fresh.

The customs of the people have not been observed and described so minutely as those of other Pacific islands. The women were by no means of a virtuous character, they seem to have understood little of modesty, and are stated by one narrator to have had sexual intercourse in a promiscuous manner. Something of this perhaps may be allowed for by remembering the time of license provoked by the excitement attending the visit of Europeans. A feast was the only marriage ceremony; marriage between relations was unknown. The early marriages of the girls (generally at about ten years old) probably accounts greatly for the decline of the race. The girls were usually sequestered from the rest of the family until married. Wives (according to Polynesian custom) ate apart from their husbands.

Human flesh was eaten, but only that of captives; the bones after being divested of flesh were taken to Utuitu.

The natives fought among themselves with stones and with clubs; they also used a spear made of the crooked stem of the toromiro; this spear was headed with a flake of flint or obsidian. Some of the clubs were shaped like the mere or flat battledore weapon of the New Zealander. They fought at close quarters, and the vanquished became slaves to the victors; the lands being the property of the families dwelling on them. The chiefs carried staffs or batons of wood having double or bi-fronted faces upon them. Crescent-shaped shields having human faces on the cusps were also carried, but it is believed were only used in dances.

They had but one king at a time, and the monarch abdicated on the marriage of his son, who was not allowed to marry early. The king was regarded as a divine being, his person was sacred, his hair was never cut, and no one was allowed to touch him. He had absolute power over the lives and property of his subjects, who paid him tribute of labour and presents of food. His viceroy or lieutenant was a military chief elected annually.

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Their religious belief is difficult to define, but they had gods of War, Love, Theft, Harvest, &c. They also had small wooden images in which the ribs, vertebræ, &c., are very prominent (these are called “squelettes” by La Perouse); the images have strongly marked Semitic features, with a tuft on the chin and short legs, but although they have the extended ear-lobes of the huge statues, they are ugly,7 and the faces have none of the solemn repose of the mighty features sculptured in the great carvings. One of these may be seen in the Ethnological Room of the British Museum, and it apparently represents a person with shaven head, probably one of the priests noticed by early voyagers. The islanders are said by Gonzalez not to have used fire except for purposes of religion or superstition—this fire was kept underground. The use of fire for cooking was, however, general.

They have two traditions of origin. One is that their ancestors arrived from Oparo (now called Rapa) under a king who built the statues. The other is that two large vessels, high at prow and stern, arrived under command of King Tocuyo8 with four hundred men and women. The land was divided among his followers.

The following genealogies are given:—

    Kings—[By Dr. Lesson.]
  • Hotu-motua
  • Tu-ma-heke
  • Miru-otu-ma heke
  • Lata-miru
  • 5 Miru-ohata
  • Mitiake
  • Ataraka-a-Miru
  • Atuu-Reraka
  • Uraki-Kekana
  • 10 Kahui-tuhuka
  • Te tuhuka roa
  • Marakapau
  • Ahurihao
  • Nui te patu
  • 15 Hirakau-tehito
  • Tupu-i-te-Toki
  • Kura-ta-toki
  • Hiti-rua-anea
  • Havi-nikiro
  • 20 Te Ravarava
  • Te Rehai
  • Koroharua
  • Te Rika atea
  • Kai-makoi
  • 25 Tehetu Karakura
  • Huero
  • Kaimakoi
    Queens?—[By Dr. Lesson.]
  • 1 Hotu
  • Inumeke
  • Vakai
  • Maramaroa
  • 5 Mitiake
  • Inukura
  • Mira
  • Oturaka
  • Inuiku
  • 10 Iku Kanae
  • Tuku ia ia
  • Au moa mana
  • Tupai riki
  • Mataipi
  • 15 Terakai
  • Raimokaki
  • Kopara
  • 18 Tepito
    Kings—[By Capt. Gana, Chilian Navy.]
  • Inumike
  • Vakai
  • Marama
  • Roa
  • 5 Mitiake
  • Utuiti
  • Inukura
  • Mira
  • Oturaga
  • 10 Inu
  • Iku
  • Iku-Kanae
  • Ineujaja
  • Tuku-itu
  • 15 Au moa mana
  • Tupu-iriki
  • Mataibi
  • Te Rakey
  • Raimokaki
  • 20 Gobara
  • Te Pito
  • 22 Gregorio (a child, since dead)
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If we allow 20 years for a generation (the people married young) the longest of these genealogies only allows us about five centuries. This appears to bear out the legend that the Easter Islanders were immigrants, and not the aboriginal inhabitants, as the pedigrees probably represent their generations on the island.

The tradition that the islanders came from Rapa-iti is curious, as that island contains also huge platforms and a five-tiered fort of solid stone. Figures resembling the smaller statues of Easter Island were found by Moerenhout on the little island of Raivavai, and also at Pitcairn, Tupuai, and other places. They were called Tii one and Tii papa,9 “guardians of earth and rock,” that is, Termini. Against the legend of the islanders having come from Rapa (2,200 miles to the west of Easter Island) is the fact that the inhabitants of Rapa speak a dialect of the Society Islanders, while the tongue of the natives of Easter Island is the Maori of New Zealand. The physical likeness of the Easter Islander to the Maori was also remarked by several voyagers. M. Topinard (“Revue d'Anthropologie,” p. 371) says that the skulls of the Easter Islanders are distinctly Polynesian. Cook gives the native names of the island as Tamareki, Whyhu, and Teapij; Beechy says it is Waihu; and Lesson that it is Matakiteragi.

The most valuable productions of Easter Island are the celebrated tablets of wood, carved with figures until the present day undeciphered. The tablets are of hard wood, about fourteen inches by five inches, and about an inch thick. The wood is apparently the toromiro of Easter Island. The signs are incised or sunk in the wood and the lines of writing are alternately reversed—the engraving accompanying Dr. Carroll's paper herewith being exceptional.10 Two of these tablets were taken by the captain of a Chilian corvette and lodged in the National Museum at Santiago de Chili in 1870, one was taken by the mate of a ship to San Francisco, and three others are in Tahiti. The engraving accompanying Dr. Carroll's paper is from one of the Santiago tablets.

The number of inhabitants was estimated by Gonzalez as 3,000, by La Perouse as 2,000, by Cook as about 700, of whom two-thirds were males. It is probable that Cook's estimate was much under the real number, as the population diminished fast, and yet M. Eyraud found them as 1,800 people in 1863. In 1868 there were 930, and in 1870 only 600. The island was visited again and again by raiders, who carried off the inhabitants. Most of these kidnapping expeditions were made by Chilian or Peruvian vessels for the supply of workers at the guano islands. As an instance of the cruelty displayed I may cite the case of the American vessel Nancy, of New - 102 London, which, in 1805, carried off many of the Easter Islanders, intending to land them on the uninhabited island of Massafuero, west of Juan Fernandez, in the hope of forming a sealing colony. After a bloody engagement the freebooters secured twelve men and ten women, whom they kept in irons for the first three days, until out of sight of land. When the men were released they all jumped overboard, and the women tried to follow. The captain laid the ship to, and tried to pursue his victims in the boats. When the boats reached the swimmers the poor hunted creatures kept diving until all were drowned.

A few years ago the island was bought by the celebrated trading firm the “Maison Brander,” of Tahiti, as a sheep-run, and occupied by their agent, Mr. Alexander Salmon. It carries about ten thousand sheep, and four hundred head of cattle, which thrive well. The flocks increase rapidly, as there are two, and sometimes three lambing seasons in the year. About eighteen tons of wool per annum are shipped. The great want is, of course, the scarcity of water. The Maison Brander deported about three hundred of the natives to the Gambier Islands, and about five hundred to Tahiti; only about one hundred and fifty are left, and they are decreasing fast. Last year the Chilian flag was again hoisted on Easter Island.

  • Harris's “Collection of Voyages and Travels,” vol. I., p. 266 (Roggewein's Voyage).
  • Dalrymple's “Voyages,” vol. II. (quoted by Cook).
  • Captain Cook's “Voyages.” Original edition.
  • “Voyage de La Perouse Autour du monde,” vol. I., p. 319.
  • Dumont d'Urville's “Voyage Pittoresque.”
  • Admiral Lapelin's Report, “Revue Maritime,” vol. XXXV., p. 106.
  • Dr. Philippi's “Easter Island” (in Spanish, Santiago, 1873).
  • Anthropological Society's “Transactions,” vols. II., III., and IV. (J. Park Harrison and others).
  • Ethnological Society's “Transactions,” 1869.
  • “Globus,” vol. XIII., No. 5, July 1873 (voyage of Flore).
  • De Quatrefages, “Les Polynésiens,” vol. II., p. 290.
  • De Quatrefages, “Hommes fossiles et hommes sauvage,” p. 259.
  • Dr. Lesson, “Les Polynésiens,” vol. II., p. 290.
  • Palmer's “Observations on inhabitants and antiquities of Easter Island,” p. 371 (Trubner).
  • Rev. Dr. Gill's “Jottings from the Pacific,” p. 213.
  • Capt. Beechey's “Voyage of the Blossom.
  • “Nature,” Sept. 17th, 1874 (J. Park Harrison on Easter Island).
1  Sweet potatoes?
2  The signatures, somewhat resembling signs on the wooden tablets hereafter mentioned, are figured in fac-simile on page 528 of Trans. Anthropological Socy., Jan., 1874.
3  Sweet potatoes?
4  See the photograph in Mr. C. Harrison's “Ethnographical Series,” published by Mansell.
5  See frontispiece to Rev. Dr. Gill's “Jottings from the Pacific.”
6  See “Cook's Voyages”; also “Revue Maritime et Coloniale de 1872”; also Dumont d'Urville's “Voyage Pittoresque.”
7  For engraving see Journal of Anthropological Society, vol. II., p. 191.
8  Tuku-iho?
9  Tiki-one and Tiki-papa.—E. T.
10  See photographs of tablets Trans. Anthropological Society, Jan. 1874, p. 370.