LAST year, while travelling over Australasia collecting material for a work then being prepared, I thought to score a point for my firm while up in Northern Queensland by visiting that as yet considerably dark island, New Guinea.
The Melbourne editor and agent at once consented to my proposal, and considered, with me, that it would be of great advantage to the work if I could make my notes and sketches from the savages and their land direct, if I thought it was worth risking my life for; but was it after all worth the risk?
In Australia, New Guinea is a name to inspire fear and trembling; they are much nearer to the dreaded cannibals, and hear more of their deeds of atrocity than we in England are and do. Tales of death from fever to those who luckily escape the spears and poisoned arrows float down monthly.
"God help you if you go to that fever-stricken land," wrote a Victorian friend, by way of farewell.
I considered it worth the risk, and as I had in former years lived with the cannibals of New Zealand, besides having had some distant relations wolfed amongst them in the good old days, I did not feel quite the same shrinking as a new chum might.
It was rather amusing to hear the sad forebodings of casual friends whom I picked up as I progressed towards my destination; the nearer I drew to it, the sadder became the gloomy farewells.
"You are too plump to escape the natives."
"Just the temperament to catch the fever quickly." And so on.
I made friends at Thursday Island, and was fortunate enough to find the mail-steamer going, not only to Moresby, but round the coast as far as Teste Island; so Mr. Vivian Bowden, the plucky manager of the enterprising firm of Messrs. Burns, Philip, and Co., made up his mind to take a little holiday and accompany me on the voyage round the British part of the island.
I am indebted to his kindness in many ways; not less to his great patience, allowing me to use their vessel pretty much as I liked, but in giving me time to take as many sketches as I wished, besides introducing me to the genial and generous traders throughout the islands of the Torres Straits, and where they had ventured to establish stations in New Guinea.
I met with no mishaps from natives, nor did I catch the fever. Everywhere I was cordially received and overpowered with kindness: by the Governor, his Excellency Sir John Douglas, the missionaries, white and coloured, the traders, and those splendid man-eaters, the natives; so that now I can hardly know which to admire or regret the most, since fate has forced me to say "adieu."
I mixed with the traders and listened to their thrilling tales night after night; I went amongst the natives, who gave me presents, looked wonderingly upon my sketches, and treated me like a friend and brother, acting with scrupulous honesty, and feeling my arms and legs with apparent pleasure, but without desire.
The Kanaka teachers whom I met astonished me, without exception, by their patience under no ordinary sufferings and their Christian heroism; they had come to the land to lay down their lives, and went with contented faces about their daily sacrifices.
With the missionaries it was the same, Protestant and Catholic; it was not only a question of giving up the necessities of civilization, but the yielding up of their lives.
To write a story about New Guinea and introduce fictitious characters I found to be one of the most distasteful tasks I have ever attempted, as the number of white men who have as yet been there are so few that they are all known, with their characteristics, as well as the names of the islands, with their differences of outline, which lie about the coast.
Again, when I tried to work out my characters, the men I had known came up so vividly before me that I found it next to impossible to resist describing some peculiarity when building up my heroes.
Therefore, if any one is inclined to take umbrage, or fancy himself to be the person I describe, because in some points he may trace a resemblance, I trust he will exonerate me entirely as he reads, and believe me when I tell him that "It is not you I mean."
There are no such characters in reality as Niggeree, Carolina Joe, General Flagcroucher, or Professor Killmann—remember that always as you read; they are entirely imaginary characters, or, rather, embodied principles of what might influence the future of this great island, if lawlessness was allowed to run riot and religion and order were not in the majority.
Yet I will, however, admit that there was a Toto at Hula. He may be known to those who have been there, particularly to those who may have been unjustly blamed for his iniquities.
Regarding the geographical correctness of locality, however, the truth of colouring, and the habits and customs of the people, I have been most rigid, and never for a moment permitted myself a licence; also I do not think that I have exaggerated the murders. If the incidents did not happen while I was there, that they have taken place, and are taking place weekly, a glance at the Government records of massacres and atrocities will convince any one; so that, although I escaped hurtless, it might have been otherwise I will at once admit.
Besides my own observations, I was indebted while in the Papuan Gulf for much information from Mr. Andrew Golchi, botanist and naturalist at Port Moresby, who placed his diaries and experiences of ten years at my disposal; Mr. Cuthbertson and party of surveyors; Mr. Bruce and the young missionary, Mr. Savage, at Murray Island; Father Virgirce at Yule Island; Messrs. Gerise and Moresby, of York Island; Mr. Kissick, of Teste Island; and Mr. A. Morton, Curator of the Museum, Hobart, a New Guinea traveller; besides many of the native teachers and traders with whom I sojourned.
His Excellency Sir John Douglas and his representative, Mr. Milman, at Thursday Island, also gave me the benefit of their experiences, and authenticated the sketches and notes which I had taken.
The Rev. Mr. and Mrs. Lawes I only saw for a few minutes at Port Moresby, as they had just returned from a coasting cruise; but when I reached England I had the benefit of many hints and suggestions from the Rev. James Chalmers, whom I met in London; also a very great amount of valuable information from my lately-gained friend, the Rev. Dr. S. Macfarlane, LL.D., whose long experience in the South Seas and New Guinea fully warrants the trust which I place in his criticisms.
Details of the discovery of two important rivers since I left the Papuan coast I received from my friend James Burns—to whom I beg to dedicate my story—Mr. Theodore Burns being the explorer, for particulars of which discovery see note on New Rivers.
I admire the missionaries, as I admire the traders, when I can place myself on their different platforms and look as they do; they are working faithfully and well in their different ways to civilize the savages. Yet this is not a missionary tale, but the words of one who believes as Professor John Ruskin believes, that what the savage gains from religion and civilization is not equivalent to his own benefits when left alone.
On the whole, I think we civilized savages murder as much and as atrociously as the so-called savages do in dark lands, even though we may not eat our victims; and, aside from this evil, I fancy that they are happier in their simplicity than we are with our vaunted civilization.
Still, since we have souls to be redeemed, and if the penalty of ignorance is damnation, then it is the duty of the missionary to enlighten the dark races, and ours as Christians, to help them to our utmost in their noble work.
Looking on the savages of New Guinea from a material standpoint, I think that they are much more comfortable as they now are than are our English poor—indeed, than many of our English middle-classes—who are fighting so madly for an existence, while they, the natives, bask away luxuriously on their coral-fringed and sunny strands.
Professor John Ruskin, the philanthropist and friend of mankind in general, wrote to me on my arrival in England, saying, "I hope you intend to print some record of the kindness of the native race, whom I suppose our Christianity will now soon extinguish with gunpowder and brandy."
I have endeavoured to give a faithful record of the natives and their kindness, when not abused, towards strangers; and I trust to be able to tell further, at some future time, of their traits. As yet I can vouch that I never saw a native of New Guinea touch intoxicants; they are simple in their diet and drink, and have no more taken to our firewater than they have taken to our other habits. But how long it will be before they lose their simplicity, become converts, and finally are extinguished, is but a question of time.
We who are the favoured ones of earth teach the naked races how to dress themselves before we bury them. It is the legend of the devil and Adam being constantly enacted under the specious title, Civilization.