From Marist Studies
Fr Xavier Montrouzier to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, 1846
Translation by Charles Girard and Brenda Holden
Text of the Letter
- All for Mary
- My very reverend father
- When I left France, you instructed me to tell you, as well as I could from a scientific point of view, about the various islands I would happen to travel through. To satisfy your request and also to complement the notes which the Reverend Father Rougeyron sent you on the mores, government and language of New Caledonia, I am going to give you a general idea of what would be more interesting about this country in the field of natural history.
- New Caledonia, when seen from afar, appears arid and severe, but when examined in detail it offers the naturalist a thousand objects, each one more interesting than the others. Zoology, although it is barely represented in the large class of mammals and in the no less extended class of insects, shows an astonishing richness in the classes of birds, fish, Mollusca and in that mass of imperfectly known beings called zoophytes which are still largely without description. The botany of New Caledonia, although lacking in what in Europe form the magnificent families of Rosaceae, Renunculaceae, and Cruciferae, compensates with the multitude of species which it offers in Leguminosae, Compositae, Convolvulacae, Proteaceae, Myrtaceae, amoma, and ferns. Mineralogy seems to offer here all the riches to be found in mountainous countries. Let us turn to the details.
- Flying-foxes, bats, rats and whales are the only mammals which I noticed in New Caledonia. Because they are so numerous, it is true, they make up for the lack of other animals in the same class. Flying-foxes are found in profusion and, although they fly quite well and fast with their long wings, sometimes big enough to stretch five feet wide, there are so many of them that they meet and pass each other in their aerial courses, and so it is not rare to see the natives knock down some of them with skillfully thrown sticks. For a description of the animal, I will be content with telling you, Very Reverend Father, that it is an enormous bat whose head bears a close resemblance with that of a fox, so that it was first called a flying-fox. Its mouth is armed with thirty-two or thirty-four teeth, and its feet are adorned with hooked and sharply-pointed nails which inflict deep wounds on any imprudent hand which grabs them before they are killed. Their fur, gray-brown below and russet-black above, provides the indigenous people with a long and furry hair which they weave artfully and dye red and with which they are pleased to adorn themselves. Moreover, that is not the only use that can be made of the flying-fox. Its flesh is excellent and the natives are happy when they can feast on it.
- Here, ornithology offers more of interest than mammalogy. The variety of species combines with a vividness and beauty of colors, and no one can remain indifferent at the sight of a landscape filled here with an ash-gray pigeon and a dove, there with a pomatorhin and a parakeet with a thousand brilliant shades; on one side, a quail; on the other side, a mound bird. Nothing is as beautiful as the purple gallinule, a bird about the size of a large rooster; its long red feet and its glossy black plumage contrast admirably well with the sky-blue shield which it wears on its breast, the red caruncle which it wears on its head, and the tender rose shading of its beak. But that is not the only magnificent bird in New Caledonia. This island also has a kingfisher with a collar, differing a little from the one in France by the absence of any color except white and blue and by the presence of a white necktie – a humming-bird with a ruby-red neck – a sparrow with a green throat and with red cap and tail – a sparrow-hawk, a jack-snipe, several ducks, several crows, an ordinary heron, a white egret, a heron-bittern, another bittern which can be described approximately this way: characteristics of the genus, black top of the head, deep green sides of the eyes, white underside of the body, reddish back, yellow feet, yellow and black eyes; there are some swallows, some robins, and a dove which naturalists call the golden-rumped dove, with violet head and throat, green wings, a white shield on the breast, a violet underside of the stomach, and a golden yellow rump; there is another green dove which has a white stripe going from beneath its throat until it is lost in the breast, a white and black shield on the breast, a golden yellow rump; and finally there is a last dove, bronze colored.
- The variety of fish is no less than that of the birds in New Caledonia. So, without speaking of the horse-mackerel, the bass, the mullets and the red-fish which are abundant and which furnish the natives with healthy and agreeable food, I will tell you about the horned box-fish, a curious fish armed with two horns in front and two others to the rear, and whose body, because of a shell and breast-plate, is analogous to a turtle’s shell and is divided into regular white hexagons, with a blue point in the middle on the back side and yellow point on the lower side, leaving only the animal’s mouth, fins and tail uncovered – the globe-fish which has the unusual ability of filling itself with air so as to resemble a balloon, but a balloon bristling with sharply-pointed and fearful needles, and this phenomenon can be easily observed, since to make it produce this bloating, it is enough to tickle it with a rough prod – the chaetodon on which stripes of azure, black, gold and silver can be seen to reflect a thousand different nuances, and whose small protruding mouth somewhat resembles a beak, while the first stripe is prolonged in a way as to resemble the cord of a whip, from which the fish has been given the name of coach-whip – the triggerfish which has on its back a very strong bone which it can raise or lower at will, and which has the distinguishing features of sky-blue stripes on its head and muzzle and three rows of spikes on the sides of its tail; – the shark, the ray-fish, the angler-fish, the sardine, the picarel, the girella, the pipe-fish, and the sea-horse.
- The reptiles are far from offering the same rich variety, for here we have only the coral snake, a pretty animal, with red and black rings, very rare in the country; a more common snake with black and white rings, which is amphibious and which differs from the hydrophilus only in that it has no narrowing at the neck; a sea turtle, a skink, a lizard, and a few geckos. But by contrast, what a variety of shell-fish, what a richness in the Mollusca! These are: among the bivalves, the common arca, twisted arca, venus, heart cockle, capsa, cames, spondylus, pearl oyster, mussel, scallops, marine pennate, black horse mussel, and giant clams. In the univalves there are four varieties of cones, three of cowries, two of ovules, three of olive shells, the harpidae, the “toune,” the voluta; at least five species of mitre shells, a beautiful tubular, two varieties of drills, among which I thought I had found the animal unknown until now and which I liken, except for the width of the cap, to the scarpion shell; two spindles, four varities of screws, two of trochi, to which we must join a small freshwater mollusc, analogous to the trochus agglomeratus; three strombs, a “ptervière,” the turban shell, two “rostellaires,” several winkles among which the “tête de bécasse,” chicory and sting winkile, an enormous triton shell, a solarium, an abalone, the “pleurotorne,” several whelks, several nerita and neritina, four varities of bulimi, the truncated bulimus and the hemastome bulimus, the scarab, a helix, the common limpet, the “emargnule,” the navicellae, the chiton and the “oscabrelle,” finally the nautilus and the spirula which the sea casts on its shore, and the calamaries, the “dolabelles,” and the sea-leamons which live close by.
- Yet another word about the zoology of New Caledonia. The sea is full of medusas, among which can be noticed Dubreuil’s “cephee” with its azure color and its yellow banderolle, some Turbellaria which are sometimes white, sometimes with brown and yellow spots; some sea urchins, among which can be distinguished the echinometra mamillatus with its beautiful red triangular rays; some crabs, among which can be distinguished a “callape” which is sometimes five inches wide, an enormous edible crab and a “matute”; some star-fish colored blue, red, yellow punctuated with carmine, or black punctuated with white, having four, five or six rays; some cassiopeia and sea spiders and sea slugs. The last-named animal, also called trepang and beche-de-mer, could become a useful type of commerce for our people, if they were more industrious and less indolent. Indeed, the Chinese and all the peoples under Malayan influence are very fond of these animals and pay high prices for their preparation, which is nonetheless quite simple, since it is only a matter of boiling the sea slug, after having emptied and dried it until it acquires a rock-like consistancy. Finally the corals are covered with worms and zoophytes, while amphitrites show their beautiful spangles of gold on the sand and small crabs swarm around the mangroves.
- I have said a lot to you, my Very Reverend Father, of the zoology of New Caledonia. Let us now pass to botany, which I have still not studied in detail but I will nevertheless present you with a general survey.
- The first plant that I will speak to you about is the coconut. This tree, which the Caledonians call “Nou” ressembles a tall column, crowned by a panache of falling branches, but it is far from being what the travel accounts say about it! Rarely is it straight and even more rarely still does it attain the excessive height that they ascribe to it. Besides that, it is for the indigenous people, as for all the peoples of Oceania, one of their principal resources. They quench their thirst with the abundant water enclosed within the fruit, which it produces when this latter is young, and nourish themselves on the solid pulp which the same fruit contains when it reaches its perfect maturity. That is only some of the advantages that the coconut offers: mature, the flesh is nice enough but unhealthy for the Europeans that it is provided to, it also gives many filaments which are used for making cables, when it is ripe, they leave it under the press to seep an oil which has the grave inconvenience of going off very quickly and of congealing at a reasonably high temperature but, apart from that, can be put to good use for lighting and even for the table. On this subject, I will make to you the observation that the best way to extract this oil is to dry the threadbare coconuts in the sun, then heat them and then press them at once. By this process, you can get much more oil that when it is cold and of a superior quality. Finally, when the coconuts sprout, they produce a material with a buttery consistency which the locals are very partial to, which, in my opinion, proves that their taste is not too bad.
- The banana grows very well in New Caledonia and the fruits that it gives and its large, fleshy root both enter into the natives’ diet. Unfortunately each plant only produces one bunch a year and it is not possible to multiply them except by the shoots. Apart from that, this plant has none of the majesty and grace that it has been ascribed. I have still not seen one exceed two metres in height and all it has ever presented to me are leaves torn by the wind; but on the other hand the fruit that it produces is, because of their delicacy, a good substitute for those that are found in Europe.
- The Lime-Leafed Ketmie (Hibiscus Tiliaceus), called “Paoui” by the natives, features well in their plantations. It gives a yellow flower similar to a large mallow, and heart-shaped leaves of a pale green colour. They cultivate it, not to eat the young shoots as some voyageurs have seen, but to chew on the bark, which, when cooked, releases a gummy material with a sweet flavour, whose only defect is that it is not nourishing.
- Finally, God has been very considerate to our poor islanders here in so far as dietary substances go: the igname, the two species of taro called in this country “coboni” and “pera”, the difference between them being the size of the leaves, of the root and the taste; nightshade, which the indigenous people eat the young shoots of; the dolie, whose long, running roots contain a sap that is pretty good but not very abundant, the mangrove tree, whose shoots, which bud right on the flower, are avidly gathered, grilled and eaten; a little iridée, whose root, both by its form and taste, ressembles the oyster-plant; finally a convolvulus which I find to be not dissimilar to the convolvulus pescaproe and which offers the unique quality that from the axil of the leaves comes out a little tuber, a bit like a potato, from which the natives make some rather less than tasty patés.
- As for the other useful plants in New Caledonia, I will cite, my Very Reverend Father, the hardwood whose leaf is quite similar to that of our pines and which grows alongside streams. The wood needs to be worked in the green state and even then, such is its hardness that it will blunt even the most well tempered steel, but, on the other hand, it lasts for centuries, which is a precious quality, especially in the tropics where so often flaws develop after several months of use. The Norfolk Pine, gigantic and majestic tree which grows very tall and which shows a ravishing symmetry in its branches, which are all parallel with each other. The imitation cedar, whose red wood can be used to make beautiful furniture. A sumach which, even without incision, releases a white, inflammable, scented essence which makes a beautiful, natural varnish and another tree which produces a resin which can be used as incense and which, treated by alcohol or ether, also makes a beautiful varnish. The maranta indrea, which has for roots two tubers as large as half a fist, very bitter when they are not prepared but which, peeled and washed several times in water, produce the excellent starch known under the name of arrowroot and is used in soup in place of bread – the wild orange tree and finally the turmeric, which we will use a lot later on to dye yellow the fabric that we will have made for our neophytes.
- To finish what I have said to you, my Very Reverend Father, on the botany of this country, I will add that everywhere here, one meets the melalengue leucodendron with its white wood completely smothered in a thick, foliated bark, with its myrtle green leaves, scented when you rub them, and its plumes of white scented flowers, with an endless flutter of moths about them and the white, red and purple bindweeds with their climbing stems and heart-shaped leaves. Then on the mountains there are the orchids, with their beautiful, red grevillea, whose scarlet stamens are tipped with yellow anther like a gland of silk embellished with gold; the lycopod, always green, and the severe ferns. In the plains, there are the leguminous plants, at the head of which is the corocolle bean and the little plant that produces the red and black seeds that they use to make rosaries and which is called arbrus precatorius; the fig trees, which produce a very small, flavourless fruit, with several mimosas and several proteas, and finally, next to the sea or the streams, are the pandanus whose fruit tastes like a pear and whose shoots come out from the stem, inclined towards the ground, where they take root and so seem to be a trunk of such strength that they are destined to hold the tree up; and right by the huts is the rose of China, which is a scarlet red and the natives indulge themselves by wearing it over the ear.
- On several of my walks I have seen some beautiful Liliaceae, white and yellow cirtées but I simply passed on by. I did not observe them with precision, it was just a plant that struck me more than usual and I studied it. And here is the description. This plant, which the botanists call Nepenthe has nothing in particular about its flower, I don’t think, which places it in the family of the aristoloclines but it stands out because of its leaf. This leaf, similar to that of the bay tree, extends in a filament which itself is terminated by a kind of cavity absolutely similar to a long pipe. This cavity has a cover over it and, extraordinary thing, it fills itself and empties itself each day. When it is full of its water, which is delicious to drink, the lid lowers over it to cover it and when it is empty, the cover remains up. The nepenthe which I have observed is, I believe, the nepenthes cristatus.
- We have now, my very Reverend Father, arrived at the last branch of natural history. But the field that we have to cover is even more vast still. Mica, quartz, tale[?] and garnet abound in New Caledonia; iron covers vast plains, copper mixed with sulphur and the equally suplured lead are frequently seen. There are mineral waters on our island and I have already noted well the existence of a sulphury spring from which the natives derive the profit of its medical virtue. There are numerous traces of carbon and finally there is also limestone, from the most coarse to beautiful green marble and alabaster, flint and amphiboles, proving that our island is essentially a country of mines. But to be convinced of that, listen to the outcome of a trip I made inland with Monsignor d’Amata and Fr Junillon. We were absent for six days; we did ten to twelve leagues per day and we recognized at least three important mines. What is more, we saw a cave that was not remarkable for its stalactites and stalagmites but was very interesting because of the variety of rocks that could be found there, such as sandstone, clay, alabaster and quartz.
- I announced to you at the beginning of my letter that I would give a general overview of