1836 - Robert FitzRoy
The Beagle on Cocos Keeling: Unusual Animals
Early next morning (after making but little way during a fine night) saw the Keelings right ahead, about sixteen miles distant.
A long but broken line of cocoa-palm trees, and a heavy surf breaking upon a low white beach, nowhere rising many feet above the foaming water, was all we could discern till within five miles of the larger Keeling, (there are two distinct groups) and then we made out a number of low islets, nowhere more than thirty feet above the sea, covered with palm-trees, and encircling a large shallow lagoon.
We picked our way into Port Refuge (the only harbour), passing cautiously between patches of coral rock, clearly visible to an eye at the mast-head, and anchored in a safe, though not the best berth. An Englishman (Mr. Leisk) came on board, and, guided by him, we moved into a small but secure cove close to Direction Island.
Many reasons had induced me to select this group of coral islets for such an examination as our time and means would admit of; and, as the tides were to be an object of especial attention in a spot so favourably situated for observing them, a tide-gauge was immediately placed. Its construction was then new, and, being found to answer, I will describe it briefly. Two poles were fixed upright, one on shore (above high water mark, and sheltered from wind), the other in the sea beyond the surf at low water. A block was fastened to the top of each pole, and a piece of well-stretched log-line 'rove' through them. One end of the line was attached to a board that floated on the water; the other suspended a leaden weight, which traversed up and down the pole, on shore, as the float fell or rose with the tide. Simple as this contrivance was, and useful as we should have found it in many places where the surf or swell made it difficult to measure tides at night, without using a boat, I never thought of it till after we left King George Sound.
Until the 12th every one was actively occupied; our boats were sent in all directions, though there was so much wind almost each day as materially to impede surveying. Soundings on the seaward sides of the islands could seldom be obtained; but two moderate days were eagerly taken advantage of to go round the whole group in a boat, and get the few deep soundings which are given in the plan. The two principal islands (considering the whole southern group as one island,) lie north and south of each other, fifteen miles apart; and as soundings were obtained two miles north of the large island, it may be inferred, I think, that the sea is not so deep between the two as it is in other directions. Only a mile from the southern extreme of the South Keeling, I could get no bottom with more than a thousand fathoms of line.
The southern cluster of islets encircle a shallow lagoon, of an oval form, about nine miles long, and six wide. The islets are mere skeletons—little better than coral reefs, on which broken coral and dust have been driven by sea and wind till enough has been accumulated to afford place and nourishment for thousands of cocoa-palms. The outer edges of the islands are considerably higher than the inner, but nowhere exceed about thirty feet above the mean level of the sea. The lagoon is shallow, almost filled with branching corals and coral sand. The small northern island is about a mile in diameter; a strip of low coral land, almost surrounding a small lagoon, and thickly covered with cocoa-nut trees.
These lonely islands (also called Cocos,) were discovered in 1608-9 by Captain William Keeling, who was in the East India Company's service, and held a commission from King James I. Little or no notice was taken of them from that time till 1823, when one Alexander Hare, a British subject, established himself and a small party of Malays, upon the Southern Keeling Island, which he thought a favourable place for commerce, and for maintaining a seraglio of Malay women, whom he confined to one island, - almost to one house.
In 1826, or within a year of that time, Mr. J. C. Ross, some time master of a merchant ship, took up his abode on the south-eastern islet of the group; and in a very short time Hare's Malay slaves, aggrieved by his harsh treatment of them, especially by his taking away the women, and shutting them up on an island which the Malay men might not approach, deserted in a body, and claimed protection from Mr. Ross. Hare then left the Keelings, and about a year afterwards was arrested in his lawless career by death, while establishing another harem at Batavia.
From that time Mr. Ross and the Malays lived peaceably, collecting cocoa-nut oil, turtle, tortoise-shell, and bicho do mar; and occasionally sailing to the Mauritius, Singapore, or Batavia, to dispose of them, and buy necessaries with their produce. Another Englishman, Mr. C. Leisk, who had served as mate of Mr. Ross's ship, lived with him, and they both had wives (English) and children, the whole party residing together in a large house of Malay build—just such a structure as one sees represented upon old japanned work. At the time of our visit Mr. Ross was absent on one of their trading excursions, and his deputy, Leisk, was left in charge of everything.
By some strange misconception, not intentional act of injustice, Mr. Ross had refused to give Hare's slaves their freedom, for fear that the executors of that man should demand their value from him; but he paid them each two rupees a week, in goods (at his own valuation), provided that they worked for him, both men and women, as he thought proper. Mr. Leisk told me this, and said that "many of the Malays were very discontented, and wanted to leave the island." "No wonder," thought I, "for they are still slaves, and only less ill-used than they were by the man who purchased them."
These Malays were allowed to rear poultry, which they sometimes sold to shipping. They were also allowed to have the produce of a certain number of cocoa-nut trees, and might catch fish and turtle for their own use; but the sale of turtle to shipping, when they touched there, and the immense crops of cocoa-nuts which are produced annually on all the islets of the group were monopolized by Mr. Ross for his sole advantage. One daily task imposed upon the Malay women was to "husk" a hundred nuts, collected for them by the men, who extract a gallon of oil from every ten.
Another kind of oil, said to be very good, is derived from the fat tail of a large land-crab, which feeds on cocoa-nuts. About a pint and a half may be obtained from one crab. The manner in which these creatures - nearly the size of a large cray-fish - tap the nuts in order to get at their contents is curious. Numbers of windfall nuts, in a comparatively soft state, are always to be found lying about under the trees: a crab seizes one of these, and pegs away at the eyes (each nut has three eyes) with one of its claws, that is long and sharp, purposely, it would seem, until it opens a hole, through which the crab extracts the juice, and some of the solid part.
The manner of ascending tall palm-trees is similar to that described at Otaheite, and requires strength as well as agility: both which are also shown by these Malays in their chases after turtle among the shallows and coral 'thickets' of the lagoon, where they abound. A party of men go in a light boat and look for a fine turtle in some shallow place. Directly one is seen, they give chase in the boat, endeavouring to keep it in a shallow, and tolerably clear place, till it begins to be tired by its exertions to escape; then, watching a favourable moment, a man jumps out of the boat and seizes the turtle. Away it darts, with the man on its back grasping its neck until he can get an opportunity, by touching ground with his feet, to turn it over, and secure his prize. Only the more active men can succeed well in this sort of fishing.
Other unusual things were seen by us at this place, one or two of which I will mention. There are fish that live by feeding upon small branches of the coral, which grows in such profusion in the lagoon. One species of these fish is about two feet and a half long, of a beautiful green colour about the head and tail, with a hump on its head, and a bony kind of mouth, almost like that of a turtle, within which are two rows of saw-like teeth. - Mr. Stokes saw a dog, (bred on the island), catch three such fish in the course of a few hours by chasing them in shallow water, springing after them, almost as a kangaroo springs on land. Sometimes one would take shelter under a rock, when the dog would drive it out with his paw, and seize it with his mouth as it bolted.
Among the great variety of corals forming the walls around the immediately visible basement, and the under-water forests of the Keeling islands, there is more difference than between a lily of the valley and a gnarled oak. Some are fragile and delicate, of various colours, and just like vegetables to the eye, others are of a solid description, like petrified tropical plants; but all these grow within the outer reef, and chiefly in the lagoons.
The wall, or outer reef, about which so much has been said and thought, by able men, without their having arrived at any definite conclusion, is solid and rock-like, with a smooth surface; and where the surf is most violent, there the coral is fullest of animated matter. I was anxious to ascertain if possible, to what depth the living coral extended, but my efforts were almost in vain, on account of a surf always violent, and because the outer wall is so solid that I could not detach pieces from it lower down than five fathoms. Small anchors, hooks, grappling irons, and chains were all tried - and one after another broken by the swell almost as soon as we 'hove a strain' upon them with a 'purchase' in our largest boats. Judging however, from impressions made upon a large lead, the end of which was widened, and covered with tallow hardened with lime, and from such small fragments as we could raise, I concluded that the coral was not alive at a depth exceeding seven fathoms below low water. But this subject has been, or will be, fully discussed by Mr. Darwin, therefore I need say no more.
As if in speaking of these singular, though so small islands, where crabs eat cocoa-nuts, fish eat coral, dogs catch fish, men ride on turtle, and shells are dangerous man-traps,- any thing more were necessary to ensure the voyager's being treated like the old woman's son who talked to her about flying-fish, - it must yet be said that the greater part of the sea-fowl roost on branches, and that many rats make their nests at the top of high palm-trees.
Except sea-fowl and the domestic creatures which have accompanied man to the Keelings, there is no bird or animal; but a kind of land-rail, which is numerous. Besides the palm there are upon the largest islets other trees, particularly a kind of teak, and some less valuable wood, from which a vessel was built.
Fresh water is not scarce on the larger islets of the group, but it is only to be got by digging wells in the coral foundation, covered as it is by vegetation. In these wells, about six feet deep, the water rises and falls as the tide of the ocean flows and ebbs; which I believe to be the case at most other coral islands where there is fresh water. It appears that the fresh water of heavy rains is held in the loose soil, (a mixture of coral, sand, and decayed vegetable substances,) and does not mix with the salt water which surrounds it, except at the edges of the land. The flowing tide pushes on every side, the mixed soil being very porous, and causes the fresh water to rise: when the tide falls the fresh water sinks also. A sponge full of fresh water placed gently in a basin of salt water, will not part with its contents for a length of time if left untouched. The water in the middle of the sponge will be found untainted by salt for many days; perhaps much longer, if tried.
A word about the inhabitants, and I leave the Keelings. No material difference was detected by me between the Malays on these islands, and the natives of Otaheite or New Zealand. I do not mean to assert that there were not numbers of men at each of those islands to whom I could not trace resemblances (setting individual features aside,) at the Keelings; I merely say that there was not one individual among the two hundred Malays I saw there whom I could have distinguished from a Polynesian Islander, had I seen him in the Pacific.
Two boys attracted my notice particularly, because their colour was of a brighter red than that of any South American or Polynesian whom I had seen, and upon enquiry I found that these two boys were sons of Alexander Hare and a Malay woman.
Excepting the two English families I have mentioned, all on the Keelings in 1836, were Mahometans. One of their number officiated as priest; but exclusive of an extreme dislike to pigs, they showed little outward attention to his injunctions. As no Christian minister had ever visited the place, and there was no immediate prospect of one coming there, I was asked to baptize the children of Mrs. Leisk. So unusual a demand occasioned some scruples on my part, but at last I complied, and performed the appointed service in Mr. Ross's house; where six children of various ages were christened in succession. This and other facts I have mentioned respecting these sequestered islands shew the necessity that exists for some inspecting influence being exercised at every place where British subjects are settled. A visit from a man of war, even once only in a year, is sufficient (merely in prospect) to keep bad characters in tolerable check, and would make known at headquarters the more urgent wants of the settlers.
Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle
Vol. II, London 1839