Royal Anthropological Institute
The arrival of the gigantic ‘devils canoe’ at the northern tip of the Tufi fjords, 1874
In long, slender canoes, dangerous looking warriors came paddling out towards the ’Basilisk’. They were many, but they were of course totally bewildered be the enormous monster of a vessel that towered before them. The tall masts; smoke coming out of its gut; the huge wheel moving slowly by the ship’s side pushing it forward; and then the people aboard – white skinned, and with clothes and ornaments that must have come from another world.
The ship had stopped at the small islands – hardly more than grassy rocks – by the end of the long ridge pointing out towards the open sea. It would stay the night at this anchorage. The men in the canoes, some sitting and some standing on the platforms, were naked except for some shell and feather ornaments. Their hair was tied in long ringlets, like a bundle of firm braids hanging over their shoulders. Their bodies and faces were painted black.
They looked fierce, but this was nothing compared to what the ship looked like to them. The sailors aboard waved with objects for trading – axes, iron hoop and cloths – and a few of the canoes dared to come a bit closer. Then a sudden movement by one of the sailors had them paddle off again – fast, driven by the suspense of this surreal encounter.
The captain and some of his men went ashore to try to make contact in the village they had spotted, but they found the place deserted. All the villagers had taken to the bush, and they had even emptied their houses for many of their belongings. The waitmen looked around in the well-kept houses, with neat State Library of New South Wales fireplaces in the middle, and outside and around they saw pretty gardens.
Back on the ship they were told that a couple of canoes had returned, and this time the men had come along-side the ship. Pieces of cloth had been traded with vegetables and shells. By the point an officer who attempted to map their exact position had a spear thrown at him. They therefore named the place Spear Islets.
The captain’s name was John Moresby, and he was one of the most honorable explorers who have travelled the seas. All certainly weren’t. With this journey he mapped the last unexplored coastline in the entire world – a true feat for the history books. I will return to him and this extraordinary journey in a later posting.
Next morning, from their hiding places in the bush, the villagers saw new smoke come out of Basilisk’s chimney, slowly shoveling the ship into motion. It headed out across the bay aiming for the shores of the Kaiva people further north. After some hours it was lost out of sight and it would take more than fifteen years before the next ship manned by waitmen would pass Spear Islets.
Royal Anthropological Institute
Did this really happen, they asked themselves, while looking towards the horizon. They were holding the red fabric in their hands, but still finding it almost impossible to believe.
Some facts: Natural land alterations have made the islets land-fast since long, so now this place is called Spear Point. The people living around the point today belong to both Arifama, Mokoroa and Miniafia clans, but it’s not clear who the warriors that met the Basilisk were. They could have been Mokoroa, Okeina or even belonging to the now lost Foyogha tribe. The little beach on the point’s eastern side is still a favored place for a break for passing canoes and dinghies.
The lion profile of Spear Point’s tip
Do you have another first-contact story form New Guinea or the South Pacific? Please post or link!
Many thanks to the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, and to the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, for letting me use the historic photos.
– RAI 20709. Canoes assembled for a celebration at Cape Nelson, with the government boat the “Merrie England” in the background. Francis R. Barton, c.1900 © RAI (detail)
– SLNSW; ON3Box22_272-2; Mokoroa men at Tufi Station
RAI 20583. Kaili-kaili natives. Francis R. Barton, c. 1900 © RAI
Reference: John Moresby, New Guinea and Polynesia, London 1876