Marshall Islands History Sources No. 24
Brig Vision at Ebon Atoll (1876)

by James Lyle Young

(by Dirk H.R. Spennemann)

Accounts of the first impressions of visitors are always revealing, both as to the attitude of the visitor and as to the people visited. The diaries and logbooks of many traders and whalers contain very detailed entries the first time a new location is visited, only to become very laconic on the next occasion. The diary of the trader James Lyle Young is no different in that regard.

Brig Vision at Ebon Atoll (1876)
(by James Lyle Young)

1876 Ebon Ebon atoll, also called "Boston" and Covill Islands is the most Southwestern of the Marshall Group and the nearest to the equator of the group. Although small when compared with some of the other atolls yet from its fertility and its being the head-quarters of the American mission, as well as it having been for several years the centre of the oil trade carried on by Capelle and Co. it may be justly considered as the principal island in the Marshall Group. Ebon is of circular shape and is composed of islands and islets enclosing a lagoon, the circumference of the whole being about 20 miles. The East and South sides of atoll are a continuous belt of land of about the usual breadth 200 to 600 yards, the W and N.W. sides are composed of small islets as is also the N.E. side, while there is a large space on the North side some miles in width without any islets on reef.

The only entrance into the lagoon is on the S.W. side, between the islets of Mej and Jurij, it is long and has a sharp bend in it and is dangerous on account of the strong tides and eddies. The first part of the passage (from outside to the inner ends of Mej and Jurij, is about 600 yards in length and from 200 to 300 yards in width, the course through this part is N. by E. 1/4 E. On reaching this spot Í the inner ends of the two islands Í the passage narrows to 150 yards in width and the channel divides with two Í one branch running off to the North West round Mej islet (this branch is not practicable owing to its crookedness) and the other running E. N. E. into lagoon. Following this channel for about 1200 yards on an E. N. E course the deep open water of the lagoon is reached. This part of passage is of an average width of 150 yards or perhaps 170 yards and at the inner end it is 120 yards only. About 300 yards from the inner end a branch goes off to the Northward which may be followed but it is better to keep the straight channel if possible.

Throughout the whole length of the passage very strong eddies prevail; the tides running quite 8 knots on Springs. 3 to 4 knots on neap tides. There is 15 to 25 fathoms of water in the passage but hardly room to anchor in case of wind failing or heading ship off. Anchorage is formed inside in 15 fathoms off mission station, on a lee-shore however with the prevailing winds (N.E.) There the "Maria" schooner was wrecked on getting under way.

There is anchorage outside off the S.W. point, just abreast off mission station close to reef if the N.E. wind is steadily but it is not to be recommended, here the "Glencoe" schooner was captured and all hands murdered in 1852.

Small vessels anchor off Jurij island on the East side of passage, about 300 yards inside the mouth, in 7 fathoms coral bottom with two anchors out close to the shore. This anchorage is safe enough in Easterly or S.E. weather but only for vessels under 100 tons, and it is desirable to bring up on it at slack water as it is on the edge of the tide way. There is a considerable amount of current 4 Í 5 knots on springs on this anchorage and even a small vessel has barely room to swing when the tide turns, if she swings round inshore. The best way is to come in at slack water and drop one anchor then when the tide begins to run pay out say 30 to 35 fathoms and when the vessel tautens the chain under the influence of the current, drop the second anchor and haul in on the first one, until there is about 20 fathoms out on each anchor. If a vessel is anchored in the proper spot she will generally swing round at the turn of the tide out shore, but it is advisable to have a kedge and line ready to cause her to do so, should she incline to swing around inshore, as there is very little room. The depth of water in centre of passage should the anchors drag off the ledge is from 17 to 25 fathoms but the current is too strong to lie there with safety. No vessel should lie here, even in steady trade-wind season, a moment longer than is absolutely necessary.

Mej islet on E. side of passage is the residence of Kaibuke and some young chiefs while Kabua or Lebon the "King" of the Ralik Group (or rather one of the Kings, Loiak being the other) lives on the largest island, "Ebon proper". Loiak is also here on a visit but is preparing to leave for the Northern Islands. Th system of Chieftainship in this Western end of the Marshall Group is very puzzling even to the older white residents, all the chiefs being related to each other in someway. As far as I can, learn from the missionaries it seams that Kabua and Loiak have always been considered the two "Kings" or supreme chiefs having jurisdiction over the whole Ralik Group, they have pieces of land in different islands which are peculiarly their own but have no settled place of residence, they travel about from place to place leaving as soon as food grows scarce and when they have collected as much money as they can from their people. Kabua derives some of his power through his stepson Lomorro who lives with him, Lornorro being the son of "old Kaibuke" who died in 1864, and who was the supreme chief of Ebon. Kabua who is a man of some 50 years of age, has been a famous warrier and sailor, having been once drifted away to Pingelap 500 miles to the Westward and having with his crews fought and defeated the natives there who endevoured to kill him, they also took a ship in Jaluij [Jaluit] lagoon in 1859 and killed the captain (MacKenzie) with his own hand. Lorak is a good sailor but an arrant coward very treacherous however and incites others to mischief.

The resident chiefs here are Kaibuke, Lejebirik, Loiuj, Legenuk, Lavakai and Josua. Kaibuke who claims to be "King" of Ebon is blind, he seems quiet enough now, but has murdered two of his wives and several of his men.

Josua is a very quiet man and does not assume much authority. Legenuk who is a young fellow is a chief of the rank of Kabua and Loiak. He is a quiet friend of Loiaks and has murdered two men lately by Loiaks orders. The other young chiefs have equal powers with Kaibuke but he being older assumes the direction of affairs. All these chiefs can read and write but are not under missionary influence to any great extent. It is said that Kabua intends residing permanently on Ebon as he is ill and growing old and does not care about travelling about any more. These chiefs are very independent having taken several vessels and murdered many whites even during the last 25 years (a vessel, the "Franz" was taken at Rongerik in 1862) and having never been punished for these crimes (some of them murders of ship-wrecked crews who arrived in a helpless condition at Ebon they imagine that no one dare punish them. They think nothing of threatening a foreigners life, they have even threatened the missionaries, and they are quite surprised to hear that an English gunboat put the murders of Sto John Kese to death at Apiang in May last. They will kill a white man here sooner or later and will then, it is to be hoped, receive a lesson. The mission was established here in 1857, and has a large number of church members, Sunday is carefully observed and the people all dress repectably, all the young people can read and write, but the evil conduct of the chiefs, who follow their own inclinations, is a serious drawback to the success of the mission work. The missionaries here at present are Rev. B.S. Snow and wife and Rev. J.F. Whitney and wife. The former is in ill health and intends leaving for America shortly. They belong to the American Board of Missions (Congregationalists), and seem to do a great deal of work in a quiet unassuming manner and with but small expenditure of money.

This Island was for several years the head-station of A.Capelle and Co. and they have now two traders residing here, one a native of Hawaii, and ex-missionary who was expelled the society for killing a native of Nonouti Gilbert Group where he was stationed, in 1872 (his name is Kaehuaea) and the other a Hawaiian half-caste named Thos. Goddard.

Ebon is very fertile having many large breadfruit trees and cocoanuts, its annual production of copra is at least 350,000 lbs. There is of course no other industry. The population is about 800, certainly not more, but there are just now a number of strangers here with Kabua and Loiak.

The natives are active and intelligent and much more industrious than Southern Polynesians, but they are on the whole a much smaller race of people, this not doubt is owing to the quality of their food and the not infrequent times of scarcity. When breadfruit and pandanus fruit, then staple articles of diet, are out of season, they have to Ísubsist on cocoanuts and such fish as they can catch. They fish almost entirely with hook and line and fish for bonits with pearl shell hooks like Samoans. They have a little arum "jarij" and some bananas and papaw apples (the two latter introduced). Although very little ceremonial respect is paid to chiefs (iroij) they have the most absolute power and do not hesitate to kill the common people who offend them.

Source: James Lyle Young, Private Journal, 6 January 1875 - 31 December 1877. Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, Microfilm no 21. Entry for 25 Jult 1876.

[History Sources ToC]

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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