Marshall Islands History Sources No. 19
Brig Vision at Mile Atoll (1876)

by James Lyle Young

Brig Vision at Mile Atoll (1876)

Mille atoll (Mulgrave Islands) is the most South Eastern of the Marshall Group which extends between Latitudes 4-00 and 12-00 North and between Longitudes 172-00 and 160-00 East, and like all the other islands of this group is of the atoll or low coral island, form no part of the land being elevated more than 15 feet above the level of the sea.

In form it is in irregular parallelogram 25 miles in length from E. to W. and 10 miles in width from N. to S. composed of a large number of small islets on the reef and enclosing a very large lagoon with an average depth of 30 fathoms, studded here and there with shoals. The principal islets are on the South side but none exceed 500 yards in width. All the islets are thickly covered with cocoanut and pandanus trees; breadfruit and jackfruit (a small sweet kind of breadfruit) are also numerous. There are also some large trees of a very hard wood and some large sofwood trees and I am told that on the islet at the S.W. point of atoll (Mille proper) there are some large "tamanu" trees, (Polynesian teak). Paper mulberry (Fau of Samoa) is found here it is only a very small tree, the bark is used by the one in making dresses. A kind of Arum called "yarij" here, ("papai" of Gilbert Isles) is cultivated and the roof eaten, it is not plentiful. Cocoanuts are abundant the nut small, but the "meat" thick.

The land on the S. and W. sides of atoll has fewer and narrower breaks than on the N. and E. sides, the two latter are composed of small islets with considerable intervals of reef.

The canoes here are of a different character to any of those of the people South of the Equator; they resemble those of the Gilbert Islanders in having the side furthest from the outrigger viz. the side which is always to leeward - flat, while that next the outrigger is rounded, but they are not like the Gilbert Island canoes, built of narrow planks of uniform width, but large irregularly shaped pieces of wood (breadfruit timber) like the Fijian or Tongan canoes. Their sails are like those of Polynesian canoes and are made of pandanus matting, in narrower breadths than those of the latter; their mast is stepped in the usual manner; but it is supported by a number of stays, (in the large canoes 10 and 12) leading from the masthead to the sticks which connect the outrigger and the hull. (The Southern canoes have generally only one stay to the outrigger from the masthead). The small spars which connect the hull and outrigger, do no as in the canoes of the Southern groups, project horizontally from the hull and fasten at right angles to short uprights driven into the outrigger, but are curved and insert directly into the centre of the outrigger proper.

But the most noticeable difference between them and the ordinary Polynesian canoe, is the remarkable platform which is raised in the centre of the canoe some two feet above the hull and projects 3 or 4 feet to leeward and nearly the same distance to windward, the mast being stepped in the centre. This arrangement gives the canoes the appearance of a Malay "prod" and raises the mast and sail at least two feet higher from the water than it would be in a Fijian canoe of the same size.

On the whole, although these canoes are not so handsome and do not draw so much water as the Gilbert Island canoes, and are never made of so large a size as those of Fiji, they are probably safer and faster and better adapted for sea voyages than any I have seen; they have one great advantage which I am surprised has never been adopted by Southern natives, viz. a system of reefing a brailing up their sail, by means of a line from the masterhead to the lower boom; by hauling up on this they can at once reduce their sail by half (or more if necessary) in a squall, or, when running dead before the wind, and by keeping it fast, when they let go their halliards [halyards] the sail is held up clear of the deck. The people are very careful of their sails having covers for them, made of matting, and on the approach of a shower they lower away and cover them up until it has passed over.

They make voyages to the Northern and Western Islands at intervals and it is quite wonderful how they manage to find these low coral atolls, considering the squally weather and strong currents of these latitudes.

The people are of a little darker colour than the Gilbert Islanders, but of a different cast of countenance and shorter in stature; their long faces, broad across the cheek bones their eyes, and their long straight black hair and beards give them a Malayan appearance. Both men and women are tattooed, the men with a pattern like a triangle, the apex over the umbilicus, and the base from shoulder to shoulder, the sides just passing outside the nipples. The women have a kind of necklace tattooed on them and are also marked on the arms.

Chiefs have the cheeks tattooed, this seems to be a distinctive mark of nobility. The ears are disfigured by large holes through them, the lower lobe being in some instances 8 or 10 inches in circumference distended by a ring of pandanus leaf, causing the ears to stand out on either side like those of an elephant! This custom somewhat resembles that of Western Polynesians, Fiji, New Hebrides, etc.

The skin disease so prevalent among Gilbert Islanders ("Lafa Tokelau" of Samoans) also exists here to a slight extent. The women wear their hair long, but seems to bestow some care on it and on their persons generally, unlike the Gilbert Islanders. The hair of the men is of equal length with that of the women (two or three feet in some instances) but they wear it tied up in a knot on the top of the head, a thoroughly Malayan custom. Those natives who are Christianized cut their hair short. Some of the men have long beards, but they are never thick and whiskers are rarely seen.

These people have peculiar custom of purifying their women, (as the Hawaiians formerly had), they are compelled to retire for three days each month to small hovels just on the outskirts of the villages.

Here, as throughout Polynesia, Chiefs to a great extent @@@

The Chief or King of Mille is a man of about 40 years of age, named "Kaibuke" he resides at present on Tokowa Islet on the North side of atoll, there are also several minor chiefs of nearly as much power as his, but although the power is divided among the chiefs, there is a very distinct line drawn between them and the common people. Although chiefs exact but little ceremonial respect, their rule is absolute when they like to exert their authority. The King is a quiet unassuming man and under missionary influence, as are many of the people. A Hawaiian teacher named Kahelemauna lived on the S.W. end of atoll, but he died some months back and his wife is still there.

The population is about 1000; there are a number (about 60) natives of Arorae, Gilbert Group here, whom the notorious Captain Hayes imported to make copra for him, but they are now living among the natives.

There are two white traders, Giles Willaims, an American trading in Capelle (residing on Anil Islet, on North side of atoll) and "Jack" a German or Dutchman (residing on Tokowa Islet, next to Anil) "Jack" is trading for Captain Hernsheim, schooner " Coeran," and Williams for Messrs A. Capelle Co. of this group.

Many of the natives wear foreign clothing and hats (the latter of their own manufacture) and on the whole they are a much more civilized race than the GilberT Islanders, in fact there is no comparison. These people have one curious trait of character in that, contrary to the habits of most savage tribes they prefer those articles of foreign manufacture which are dull in colour and serviceable, rather than those of gaudy hue, this is an interesting circumstance and reasons which lead them to this practice are worth consideration. Is it from want of appreciation of beauty in form or colour, or is it from a thrifty, discerning character? Perhaps somewhat of both.

Houses are poor and small, posts of pandanus and roofs and sides of pandanus leaf thatch, generally floored with cocoanut matting (cocaoanut leaves plaited). Water (slightly brackish) is obtained in small quantities in holes in the ground.

There are no entrances into Mille lagoon on the south or Western sides but on the North and North East sides there are four or five passages (the most Easterly is described on page 14) the most Westerly is situated on the North side of atoll about 5 miles from the N.W. point of atoll (see pp. 14) and is immediately to the E. of Tokowa Islet, and between it and Barr Islet. It is 200 yards wide, 10-15 fathoms in centre, the course in is about S.E., it should not be attempted against the tide as it runs strongly here 5 to 6 knots on springs and 2 to 3 on neaps , the reef off Tokowa makes off a good way inside lagoon, therefore keep well up towards the E. side of passage and look out sharp for small shoals inside, good anchorage off the South side of Tokowa in 15 fathoms 1/2 a mile off shore.

There is a passage about 4 miles to the Eastward of Tokowa said to be 200 yards wide with 15 fathoms in it, has been used by ships of war, the course in is about S.

About two miles more to the E. from last mentioned passage, and about 6 mile E. of Tokowa there is a passage half a mile in width with 5 to 6 fathoms (perhaps more in the centre) course in about S.W. but plenty of room to beat out with a good breeze, and ebb tide, its is not safe to attempt any of these passages against the tide except with a stiff fair wind).

After entering Laggon anchorage can be obtained nearly anywhere under the islets, in 15 to 20 fathoms, a sharp lookout is necessary to avoid shoal patches.

There is but poor holding ground for an anchor anywhere, and the anchor is liable to foul, bottom being broken coral and sand. Very heavy squalls are often experienced, more particularly at night.

Source: James Lyle Young, Private Journal, 6 January 1875 - 31 December 1877. Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, Microfilm no 21. Entry for 14 June 1876.

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