Under the Southern Cross
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The tedium of the voyage was beguiled by watching critically the graceful movements of the wandering albatross, the fateful bird of nautical romance, which is seen in large numbers below the thirtieth parallel of south latitude. The peculiarities of this sea-bird's flight are a constant marvel, for it scarcely ever plies its wings, but literally sails upon the wind in any desired direction. What secret power, we wondered, could so propel him for hundreds of rods, with an upward trend at the close? If for a single moment he partially lights upon the water to seize some object of prey, there is a trifling exertion evinced in rising again until he is a few feet above the waves, when once more he sails, with or against the wind, upon outspread, immovable wings. With no apparent inclination or occasion for pugnacity, the albatross is yet armed with a tremendous beak, certainly the most terrible of its kind attached to any of the feathered tribe. It is from six to eight inches long, and ends in a sharp-pointed hook of extreme strength and hardness.
A preserved specimen of the albatross was mounted in the saloon of the "Mararoa," as an ornament appropriate for a vessel sailing in the latitudes where this bird-monarch roams. This was easily measured, and though not of the largest size reached by them, its dimensions seemed to us extraordinary. The body measured three feet in length, from the beak to the end of the short tail; the spread of wing from tip to tip was ten feet eight inches. The web-feet were seven inches across, and armed with three sharp claws an inch and a quarter long; these were very strong, and capable of sustaining twenty or thirty pounds. The prevailing color of the albatross is a slate-white over the upper part of the body and wings; but the breast and under surface generally are of pure white. Of course the birds vary in color, but this is the most common description. Ermine itself is not whiter than the breast of the albatross; living in the air and bathing constantly in the sea, there is no encounter liable to soil its purity. The feathers are pearl-like in their lustre. It has been said that if he pleased, the albatross might breakfast at the Cape of Good Hope and dine in New York, so swift is it in flight and so powerful on the wing.
While we were watching from the ship's deck the tireless movements of these birds, an officer of the "Mararoa" told us that on the previous voyage some English passengers who had rifles with them shot at the graceful creatures, but found it almost impossible to hit them. The deck of a vessel in motion was under any circumstances an uncertain base from which to take aim; moreover, the birds were always on the wing; and again, the missiles were bullets, not shot. It is particularly difficult to calculate distances under such circumstances, and so these marksmen found it. An albatross was sometimes barely touched by the leaden messenger, so that the tip of its wing perhaps shed a few feathers, or a similar effect was produced upon some part of its body; but this did not serve to frighten them, as the detonation of fire-arms was so unusual a circumstance at sea.They had not learned the trick of the rifle, and would require to see the fall of more than one of their number following its report, before they would connect cause and effect in such a way as to be a warning to them. These birds are hardy, and must be touched in some vital point in order to disable them; a slight wound would not affect them any more than the partial hooking of a fish affects it, – failing, as is often the case, to prevent it from again biting at the fatal barb. At last one of the birds at which the Englishmen of the "Mararoa" were firing was struck in the body, and fell headlong into the sea. Then it was demonstrated that albatross nature is as cannibalistic as that of the Russian wolf. The wounded, bleeding, and helpless bird was almost instantly fallen upon by its late companions and torn quickly to pieces to fill their greedy crops. "That," said a lady passenger who had overheard the officer's story, "was not only cruel, but terribly unnatural." The officer's respectful answer was very significant. "Nay, madam," said he, "it was only too natural!"
While dreamily watching the throbbing surface of this mystery of waters through which our good ship steadily ploughed her way, the thought occurred to us of how many uses the various seas and oceans were to man besides forming the great pathway of commerce reaching to the uttermost parts of the globe. The animals it produces are among the mightiest and the smallest, from monstrous whales and walruses down to the tiny animalcules. What an inexhaustible supply of food it yields for the support of man! Its contributions to various industries are almost limitless, while the treasuries of art are enriched by the abundance of tortoise-shell, mother-of-pearl, and the lovely pearl gem itself, with delicate shells, coral, amber, and other choice articles of decoration. A very interesting chapter might be written upon the prolific yield of the sea in the various departments of food, industry, and art. While we were musing thus, a school of dolphins, as they are often called, appeared on the surface near the ship's side. The proper name of this fish is the porpoise. The dolphin belongs to the whale family, breathing atmospheric air; while the porpoise has no blow-holes, but receives the water into its mouth to be thrown out at the gills. Porpoises seem to be the most sportive fish that swim in the sea, and while they remained in their playful mood near our ship, it was amusing to watch their gambols.
At night the phosphorescence of these lonely waters lying just north of the Antarctic Circle, between southern Tasmania and New Zealand, was indeed marvellous. Liquid fire is the only term which will properly express its flame-like appearance. A bucketful was drawn and deposited upon deck; while it remained still it appeared dark and like any other water, but when agitated it emitted scintillations of light like the stars. A drop of this water placed under the microscope was found to be teeming with living and active organisms. A muslin bag was suspended for a few moments over the ship's side and then drawn up, and after being permitted to drip for a few seconds the contents left in the bag were placed in a glass tumbler, when the quantity of living forms was found to be so great and abundant as to be visible to the naked eye. No two of these minute creatures seemed to be of similar form; the variety was infinite, and their activity incessant. Most of these animalcules are so small that if it were not for the microscope we should never even know of their existence.
One day at table a lady passenger complained of the dust of the sea, which she said got into her eyes and caused them to smart severely, and also soiled her clothing. Others laughed at her, and declared that there could be no dust at sea; but they were mistaken. There is a salt dust which rises from the spray and impregnates everything, even filling one's mouth with a saline taste. While the sun shines, this deposit, like the dew on land, is less active and perceptible; but to walk the deck at night is to become covered with a thin coating of salt dust, so fine indeed as to be hardly noticeable, but which in time becomes sufficiently crystallized to be obvious to the eye. The dust of the sea is no fable. The officer who stands his night-watch on the bridge will testify to this fact; and his cabin steward will tell you that he has often to resort to something more potent than a whisk-broom to cleanse clothing which has been exposed to sea-dust.
Winter upon the sea and winter upon the land in this extreme southern region are two very different things. On shore (save on the mountain-tops) there is scarcely any snow, the climate being mild and equable; but upon the ocean the fickle element does not forget boldly to assert itself. Three uneventful days carried us nearly a thousand miles upon our way toward New Zealand; but as night came on at the close of the third day, the barometer – which had been falling ominously for some time, after reaching a most significant figure – suddenly jumped several points, foretelling the heavy weather into which we were now rapidly driven. Everything had been made as snug on board the "Mararoa" as was possible, which was only the part of prudence, for the ship began to waltz in the wildest fashion to the hoarse music of the on-coming storm. It was a dismal and trying night, the raging sea breaking over and about the ship, drenching everything fore and aft, and causing the stout iron hull to tremble all over like a delicate fern in the wind. It was so cold that it seemed strange that the water did not freeze where it struck the deck and the rigging. There were no means provided for heating the cabins or the saloon, and the result was that a shivering discomfort was realized everywhere. On, on we drove into the dense darkness, with extra lookouts stationed forward, although it was impossible to see half a ship's length ahead. Timid passengers blanched with fear, and most of those who had thus far escaped sea-sickness now succumbed to that dismal disorder. "He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea," says George Herbert. To undress before taking to one's berth was quite impossible, since both hands were required to keep the body from being thrown thither and hither like a ball; but once fairly in the berth, the friendly brace of the lee-board and the firm gripe of the metallic bars united, served to keep one in position. Sleep was out of the question, and so one was forced to exercise as much patience and philosophy as possible under the circumstances.
Sailing-vessels making this voyage, as we were told, carry casks of cheap oil, which in some cases they use to still the boisterous sea about them when "God maketh the deep to boil like a pot." Is it generally known that our own Benjamin Franklin first suggested, about a century ago, the carrying of oil to sea by vessels for this purpose? Our shrewd American philosopher was also the first to propose, about the same period, that ship-builders should construct the hulls of vessels in water-tight compartments, thus affording them sufficient sustaining power to float when by accident portions of the hull became leaky or broken in. After the lapse of a century both precautions have been generally adopted. If oil can be used to good effect anywhere upon troubled waters, we should judge that it might be on the track of vessels between Tasmania and South New Zealand.
The longest night must have an end. The half-hour strokes of the sonorous ship's-bell rang upon the ear through the fierce howling of the gale, until the morning light finally broke, which seemed to be a signal for the abating of the storm, as by and by the sun rose bright and clear from behind the yet mountainous waves. No observation had been obtained on the previous day owing to the cloudy condition of the sky, so that it was impossible exactly to define our position; but dead reckoning showed we must be nearing the land, and as the sea began rapidly to subside, it was evident that we were under the lee of the shore. As the day advanced, the sun burned away the mist and revealed to us the mountains of the southern coast of New Zealand, with their tops clad in virgin white. Midway between summit and base cloud-wreaths decked the range of hills, which in the sun's rays seemed struggling with one another for precedence. We skirted the mainland for hours, encountering numerous islands, now and again opening dark mountain gorges which came down to the very shore, enabling one to look deep into the mysterious heart of the hills and discover new peaks extending far inland. Clouds of sea-martins wheeled about the ship, saluting us with strange cries, some alighting upon our very topmasts, where they paused for a moment and then launched into the air again. This sea-bird, in size between the common gull and the Cape-pigeon, is peculiar to this coast; we had never seen a live specimen before. As they settle upon the water or rise from it, their red legs become conspicuous, and are in singular contrast to their soft white bodies and light slate-colored wings. They are a tame and fearless bird, flying about the ship almost within arm's reach. One was secured by a foremast hand and brought aft, seeming to care no more for his temporary captivity than a domestic fowl would have done. Their feathery covering is exquisitely soft and glossy, the under part of the wings and the body having a covering as delicate as the downy plumage of young goslings. Our feathery captive when released joined his companions, and was saluted by loud cries of welcome.
The west and southwest coasts of New Zealand, which we were skirting, are indented with deep fjords almost precisely like the coast of Norway from Bergen to Hammerfest; and singular to say, these arms of the sea, like those of the far north, are much deeper than the contiguous ocean, – a practical evidence of their being of similar original formation. While we were remarking upon these peculiarities, the captain of the "Mararoa" recalled the fact that it is always the west coast of any land which is indented in this remarkable manner, let the cause be what it may.
Just as the sun set like a blazing fire-ball in the sea upon the western horizon, the ship rounded the bold promontory known as "the Bluff," and winding up the narrow channel into the harbor was soon moored to the one pier of the place. This was none too promptly done, for no sooner was the ship made fast than the darkness of night enshrouded both land and water.
A woman who had anticipated the arrival of the "Mararoa" had set up a temporary oyster-stand on the pier, by placing a couple of boards across two barrels, beside which she had raised a powerful blazing flambeau. Here she opened and dispensed fresh bivalves. And such oysters we have rarely seen; they were in their prime, large, full, and perfect in flavor. Blue Points could not excel them. It seems that oysters are a specialty here, whence they are shipped in large quantities to Tasmania and Australia. It was a weird and curious picture presented by the group on the pier, – the blazing, flickering flambeau casting flashes upon the many faces, and all surrounded by deep shadows and darkness. Among the spectators of the ship's arrival who had come to the pier were a score of half-breeds, – Maori girls and men, laughing and chattering like monkeys. A night's sleep, a quiet night in harbor and on board ship, was a needful process of recuperation after the experience of the previous one on a raging sea, and we rose wonderfully refreshed the next morning. At breakfast we were regaled with New Zealand oysters and fresh fish.
The Bluff – also known as Campbelltown – is located in the very track of storms, and is open to the entire sweep of the great Antarctic Ocean. Its shelving side, sloping toward the harbor, forms a sort of lee, – a sheltered position which is occupied by a pretty little fishing village of some sixty houses, with a population of less than a thousand. These people gain their living mostly from the neighboring sea, and from such labor as is consequent upon the occasional arrival of steamships on their way to the north. Here we took refreshment at the Golden Age Hotel, – a primitive little inn, quaint to the last degree, its reception-room ornamented with many species of stuffed birds, mostly sea-fowls, among which was a preserved specimen of the albatross even larger than the one whose dimensions we have already given. There was a well-preserved seal hanging from a hook in the wall; also a sword-fish, and a young shark of the man-eating species. On one side of this room was a glass case of curious shells, large and small; and on the opposite side was an open bar presided over by a ruby-nosed Bardolph.
The Golden Age is noticeable as being the most southerly public house of entertainment in the world. Twelve months previous, being exactly one year to a day, we had partaken, at Hammerfest, in Norway, of the hospitality of the most northerly hotel on the globe. When this coincidence was casually mentioned to the host of the Golden Age, he would have immolated us on the altar of his hospitality had we not discreetly retreated to the ship.
A single day was passed at the Bluff, a place so small that one could "do" it in an hour; and yet there was much of interest here to be observed. One is paid for ascending the high point of the Bluff, some nine hundred feet, by the fine view afforded of land and sea. Many half-caste people were observed, born of intermarriage between Europeans and the aborigines. Some of the young women of this descent were remarkable for possessing fine eyes, rich brown complexions, white teeth, clear-cut features, and a great wealth of long black hair. These answer to our quadroons of the Southern States in appearance, having the same dainty touch of color on the cheeks and lips. In figure they were tall and well-formed; but we were told that, like our quadroons, they are a short-lived race. There are a few half-breed men to be seen about the town, mostly engaged in service to the whites as boatmen and fishermen. They are said to make excellent and intelligent seamen.
Taking the cars at the Bluff one can run up to Invercargill, a distance of seventeen miles, consuming, however, a full hour in the transit. This was found to be quite a pleasant and busy town of about eight thousand inhabitants, which has grown to its present condition very rapidly. We were told that twenty-five years ago it had less than a hundred inhabitants. It is now the chief town of what is known as the District of Southland, – a large and fertile district. The town is built upon a perfectly level plain; the streets are unusually wide, and the place is neat and thrifty. The principal thoroughfare is Dee Street, in which are the banks, insurance offices, the Post-Office, and the Athen?um. A liberal provision by those who laid out the town was made for its future growth, which is reasonably expected to be rapid on account of its commercial advantages. The buildings of Invercargill are substantial and handsome, including several fairly good hotels. Some building was observed to be in progress, and other evidences of growth and prosperity were manifest. The town is situated one hundred and fifty miles south of the city of Dunedin, with which it has considerable trade, and is the terminus of the Southern Trunk Line of New Zealand. The neighborhood is mostly taken up for pastoral and agricultural purposes, fruit-raising, and the like. There are valuable coal-fields here, and it is a considerable wool depot. Our visit was of the briefest, as we took the cars the same afternoon back to the Bluff, whence we were to sail northward.
It is a curious fact, probably remembered by few of our readers, that Franklin proposed in a printed article to colonize New Zealand from our own country, so highly did he regard the possible advantages to be thus derived. This plan, if it had been adopted, would have anticipated by nearly a hundred years the action of the English Government in that direction. As early as the year 1800 our whalers had learned to seek the sperm whale in these waters, and to enter the harbors of New Zealand for wood and water and to make necessary repairs. American sailors, as well as others, shipped on board these vessels, and while in port here took Maori mistresses; and the children who sprang from these unions became numerous, their descendants being at once recognized to-day. Such have generally sought European connections, and are occasionally found here and there in all parts of the country, frequently engaged in the walks of business life. It will be remembered that New Zealand did not become a recognized British colony until the year 1840. For three quarters of a century after Cook's first visit the native tribes remained in free possession of their country. It is true that England was constructively mistress of these islands by right of discovery, but she made no formal assumption of political domain until the period already named, when it was formed into a colony subordinate to the Government of New South Wales. Up to the year 1840 English and American trading-vessels and whalers bought and sold articles from the natives, mostly consisting of flax (the wild growth of the country), for which they paid in fire-arms and powder, – though the weapons thus disposed of to the Maoris were such generally as had been condemned as useless in American or European lands. The sale of fire-arms to the islanders was stopped as soon as the English took formal possession; but in the mean time the Maoris had possessed themselves of sufficient weapons to make them dangerous enemies in the warfare which so soon became a settled condition of affairs between them and the white invaders. As early as 1815 white men of a venturous disposition began to settle in small numbers among the natives; but often their fate was to be roasted and eaten by cannibals. Before 1820 missionaries, no doubt influenced by truly Christian motives, came hither and devoted their lives to this people, – in more senses than one, as it is well known that they not infrequently met with a fate similar to that of their secular brethren.
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