Owa raha, 7 June 1893

The tropical rainy season into which we were now re-entering made itself felt more and more in a disagreeable way; very heavy winds alternated with short periods of good weather. Towards noon the heights of the islands of San Cristoval and its offshore islands Owa raha (Santa Anna) and Owa riki (Santa Catalina)at the South-east point appeared out of bank of clouds that had up to now obscured our view.

The group of the Solomon islands forms an arc in the direction of Northwest to South-east across 10 degrees of latitude. The northernmost point of the Solomons, Cape North on Buka island is situated at 5° South latitude and 154° 35′ East longitude. The Southernmost, the already mentioned island of Owa riki, lies at 10° 54′ South latitude and 162° 30′ East longitude. The total area of the Solomon islands is estimated at around 43.900 km2, the number of its inhabitants at around 180.000 persons.

The numerous islands of this archipelago have been discovered for the most part by a Spanish expedition under the command of Alvaro Mendana de Neyras and named the Solomon islands in honor of the Biblical king Solomon in the belief to have discovered a new Ophir as rich in gold. This expedition consisting of the two ships „Almirante“ and „Capitano“ was sent out by Lope Garcia de Castro, governor of Peru, in order to make discoveries in the Pacific Ocean. It had left the port of Callao in 1567, dedicated the year 1568 to the discovery of the Solomon islands and returned to Callao in 1569. In the year 1768, that is exactly two hundred years later, Bougainville rediscovered the Solomon islands on his voyage around the world and renamed the two large North-eastern islands Bougainville and Choiseul.

Even though they had been visited multiple times during our century the Solomon islands are even today still, namely as far as the many small satellite islands are concerned, a fertile because almost completely unknown territory for researchers an especially ethnographers.

The Solomon islands are arranged in two rows. Part of the North-eastern row are the four larger islands of Bougainville, Choiseul, Ysabel — these three are part of a German protectorate — and Malaita, the latter island besides the South-western row of three larger islands of New Georgia, Guadalcanar and San Cristoval being a British protectorate. Both rows are as noted accompanied by numerous small even tiny islands.

The destination of our voyage was at first the island of Ugi, North of San Cristoval. As we were still 70 sea miles away from the coast of Ugi at noon on the 7th and landing in darkness did not seem promising especially as the numerous rain storms were expected to cause difficulties during the landing, the commander decided to steer into a closer bay (Port Mary) on the South-western side of the island of Owa raha to the East of San Cristoval.

As the soundings and coast surveys in the whole area of the Solomon islands are still very unreliable the entrance into the small bay protected by rimmed reefs against the motion of the sea proved both difficult and interesting. Two dinghies were sent out ahead to sound the entrance which was two cables wide and serve as marker points to steer between the two.

The bay itself where we were anchoring has a diameter of only a few hundred meters and is surrounded on the seaside by coral reefs that are visible during low tide. On the landside are dense woods in which numerous palm trees were visible just up to the beach and we could also see huts of a native settlement among the trees. Beautiful peaceful nature was everywhere around us asleep only disturbed by the excitement of the savages of Owa raha about our appearance.

Already during our entrance into the bay we had seen a small canoe in which natives used their primitive paddles to get off the land and discovered, when it had come closer, that a white man sat in it who immediately came on board and was suspicious at first as he suspected „Elisabeth“ to be a French warship. As soon as we had explained the ship’s nationality to him, the white man became more talkative and reported that he had been staying on Owa raha for a few months trading with the natives who by the way had killed some of his predecessors due to differences in opinion but he had good relations with them.

We were much surprised to find a European here as according to all declarations only two or three white people were staying in the South-eastern part of the Solomon islands, namely in Ugi. About the nationality of the man who spoke English we could not precisely determine as he offered no information and did not say much  which made us assume that he might be a deserter or an escaped convict from the colonies.

The inhabitants of the Solomon islands are still savages and cannibals, extremely insidious, deceitful and dangerous especially for whites which may be shown by the fact that from June 1889 to the beginning of1890, that is in only a few months, no fewer than six white persons were murdered in various places by inhabitants of the Solomon islands.

For a landing on Owa raha an expedition was immediately organized that left in two parties: One of which under my leadership consisted of a few gentlemen plus the white man whose task it was to serve as an interpreter had the purpose of examining the settlement. The other consisting of Mallinarich and two sailors was tasked to fish and collect as many corals and other sea animals as possible.

Only a few strokes with the oars were required for our boat to come close to the settlement on land but we had hardly set foot on land when a truly tropical rainfall poured down that completely soaked us to the skin. As the wild inhabitants had the lovely custom to rob unattended boats of the whites landing without protecting their boats and then cutting off the retreat of those landed, we left behind a party under the command of a cadet to protect the boat while four sailors armed with Mannlicher rifles accompanied us on land.

First we visited the house of the white man, a quite nicely furnished and comfortable hut which had a veranda around it on whose rear wall hung cages with colorful parrots. The interior had multiple rooms that served partly for living partly for storage of the supplies. In the kitchen we were kindly greeted with a friendly handshake of a Melanesian woman of pitch-black color, apparently the wife of the settler to whim we gallantly offered a cigar which she accepted and immediately lighted and started to smoke. The clothing of the dark lady was scanty but appropriate to the climate and the local customs and consisted in the main of a tiny skirt. Thanks to this clothing we could examine her figure. She was of middle stature, slim and well-proportioned.  Her face however was not an attractive sight as it showed a flat protruding front  and a broad Semitic-formed nose and large thick-lipped mouth.  The already ugly face was further defaced by the Melanesian woman keen on trappings as all the Oceanic race generally seemed to be nose rings as well as hangers consisting of wooden pieces of considerable size on long nails in her pierced ears.

Our ethnographic studies about the female part of the population was limited to that woman which we considered the wife of the settler. She was the only female being which we could see as the black beauties hid themselves in the interior of their huts, closed off the doors with mats and stayed out of view when we arrived in the village.

Next to the hut of the white man rose another tall hut, a holy site called taboo in which the natives kept their war canoes and also buried their chiefs and nobles of their tribe. Of such places we identified four in the village which are original enough to merit a closer description: Each of these huts formed a kind of large barn whose front was open. The roof was covered with bark and the support columns and crossbeams and rafters, in sum the total frame of joints, was covered with carvings and colorfully painted with red, white and black colors dominating.  These ornaments represent grotesque images of idols in most horrible forms and in a most horrible style, mostly humans with very short feet, long straight bodies and hideous faces surrounded by the usual high headgear. One of these wooden images carved out of a single pillar caught my special attention as it was a caricature of an English missionary  clutching the bible in his hand and wearing a tropical helmet and veil. These fetishes are said to be inhabited by demons, Ataro, that had a special role in ancestor worship. As decorations used here were hundreds of lower jaws of pigs. On the floor in the barn and on racks lay the war canoes notable by their slim form, their lightness and rich decorations. Especially the aft of the vehicles but also the sides were covered with many carvings but also mother of pearl inlays of truly artistic taste whose motives were animal figures and flowers. The boats are constructed out of thin boards and glued together with resin and up to 7 m long and barely 1/2 m wide, but there are also some very small vehicles intended apparently for a single man.

In the middle of the „holy hall“ stands a rack or actually a catafalque on which sits a wooden box with the bones of the most recently deceased chief. Surrounding this catalfalque are truly strange coffins up to the ceiling which namely form large dolphins carved out of wood of surprisingly realistic nature that contain the skull and the bones of the tribe’s dignitaries in their hollow space. Each of these wooden dolphins is attached on a different level so that the distance from the hut’s ceiling marks the number of humans the deceased had killed in his lifetime. The higher that is closer to the ceiling a coffin is hanging, the larger is the number of slain enemies by the deceased. The lower the coffin is placed the lower the number of slain.

The natives of the Solomon islands are said to be ardent cannibals so that the capture of human bodies to cook and eat their meat accounts for the main purpose of the perennial fights and campaigns of the islanders. As the inhabitants of each of these islands and on these individual tribes again and even the inhabitants of neighboring villages are living together in constant feuds one may think how often the cannibals have the opportunity to satisfy their abhorrent cravings. Mendana, the discoverer of the Solomon islands, was already offered cooked human meat on 15 March 1568 on Santa Ysabel. 1872 and still even later English sailors found cooked bodies and remains of such on Santa Ysabel and San Cristoval, and even today this horrible barbarism mocking all higher sentiments is continuing in the same vein. Our friends on Owa raha drive as we were assured quite often to the neighboring San Cristoval to raid and kill their enemies and bring back their bodies in order to eat them with gusto!

The huts of the natives between the holy halls are small but relatively well built. Each has a widely protruding roof made out of bark, palm leaves or grass.On one of the walls made out of canes extends a porch on whose one-meter-high base the family of the house is crouching during leisure time and smoking tobacco which had been introduced to the Solomon islands by the Europeans. The rear wall of the porch or balcony is decorated with clubs, spears, bows, arrows and shields of the occupants and also the carved sticks that the natives tend to carry in their hands during their festive dances are stored here. Below the balcony is some kind of barn for the tame pigs which are missing in no hut and are considered like housemates. Such a balcony with its decorations, the camped smoking natives and the pigs in the lower part adding to the entertainment of their „masters“ by grunting delivered a strange genre painting.

The interior of the huts which are closed by a low door covered by bast mats consists as well as we were able to see from the outside of a large room on whose walls hang all kind of tools and an open fire in a round pit surrounded by stones where they cook. Some kind of folding screen made out of raw netting divides the room in some of these huts into smaller compartments into which the women seem to have fled at our arrival, while the men, during our visit, either came up to us without inhibitions or stood on the threshold of their home and looked astonished at the strange intruders.

As in New Caledonia, the inhabitants of Owa raha are conspicuous for their muscular, strong build but their facial features, especially in the case of old people, are consistently very ugly. The curly, incredibly thick hair is combed upwards and tied together in a tuft.  In general, however, the inhabitants of the Solomon islands tend to cut their hair or to wear it hanging down or in small braids. In some individuals I noticed the strange appearance of flaccid hairs pasted together into bushels so that the whole looked like the coat of a fuzzy poodle. Some of the natives have a somewhat lighter skin color and are different from their comrades whose color is dark coffee brown almost black. The clothing is limited to almost only decorative objects. Above all, the natives of Owa raha pin the most various things in their ears whose earlobes are pierced and artifically enlarged so that pieces of wood multiple centimeters in size can be wedged in. As another kind of ornament we see objects made out of glass pearls or dog teeth or rows upon rows of tiny shells on the neck and the front. Arm and foot rings are mostly made out of netting into which also are woven shells or snails. Nose rings are often made out of tortoiseshell. Very popular are European hats and it offers a very funny sight to see such a black guy wearing only an old top hat or straw hat coming out of his hut.

Nature here offers so much voluntarily that the natives do not have to toil much. Their sustenance is provided by the sea rich in fish and by the inexhaustible plant cover of the land. Pigs, poultry, fish, tortoises, mussels provide the meat in their food. Overall, though, they are vegetarians and eat mostly roots of all kind produced in fields and gardens such as yam and taro which are cultivated in places cleared by fire. Then there are fruits of the areca  and sago palm tree, Musa sapientium and Musa paradisiaca etc. As stimulants serve, as already reported by Mendana, betel and stimulating but also intoxicating beverage called kawa made out of the roots of Piper methysticum.

The great pleasure of the islanders is smoking and chewing betel. Never one sees a male native without tobacco which they procure through trade nor without a betel box, even most women were used to smoke short pipes. The present of a few cigars made the men who we met immediately more forthcoming. The original timidity left them and one of them showed his pleasure, thanks to a cigar offered, by beginning some sort of dance throwing his arms into the air which he accompanied with shouts and comical gesturing.

We now asked our European guide to lead us a bit into the interior of the island to which he agreed after a longer discussion and we were led by him first for some time along the coast and then on a small track path into the woods. In this moment everyone shouted in astonishment as the splendor of the plant world which we suddenly saw was almost overwhelming. The narrow gorge which took us in was formed on both sides by porous walls made out of tuft and these and the ground show themselves covered over and over with the most gorgeous palm trees, namely Phytelephas, Pandanus, fern trees to whose tops rose hundreds of growing plants entangling branches and trunks.

Every step made us stop with amazed gaze upon new forms and never before seen strange plants which no greenhouse holds nor no books know. I lamented vividly to know only our local flora and not the flora of tropical countries in order to determine  at least a part of orders, families and species of the plants I met here.

In phytological relations still less well known and incompletely researched Solomon islands seem as far as variety, wealth of forms and luxuriousness are concerned to be of a unique nature. It even pushes the gorgeous vegetation of Java into the background. Humidity, warmth and terrain unite here in the impenetrable jungle to produce tropical plants of all kinds in the greatest luxury from the plain to the highest mountain tops, so that a hike through this fairy tale plant world of Owa raha will amaze every friend of nature with true delight. Every spot we came too seemed to be derived from the richest greenhouses. What we consider the most valuable gifts of the greenhouse, glass box or flower table and admire in miniature grows here as mighty trees, as bushes, herbs, grass, flowers of a giant and luxurious form. The ground — geologically young eruptive stones form the mass of the Solomon islands — offers  the plants in fact in the humous decomposition products of the so nutritive plant substances in connection with the tropical heat and the not permanent but frequent rain in this areas an incomparable basis to grow and set roots.

Here stand ficus trees whose trunks reach probably more than 80 m in height and that cover with their giant branches an area of more than 100 m2. Next to it rise giant Dracaenae, Araliaceae, rubber trees, in between the most beautiful fan palms, and each of the trunks is straight as an arrow and covered with hundreds of parasite plants and orchids, entangled by all kinds of lianas. Everything grows, prospers, sprawls. Where a tree falls to the ground due to the burden of its age or broken by the wind, on its trunk rises within a short delay again trees thick as an arm and airborne roots become individual plants as soon as they touch mother earth. Each plant bears fruit, each semen grows, each seed sprouts buds and leaves. Everywhere there is new life and plants are reborn. Never has a human hand touched the trunks of this jungle. Almost without bound they rise towards the clouds. To determine the height of one of these forest giants approximatively we used the only tool we had. We fired namely with our best rifles some grain at birds that had flown up from a tree top without however the grain reaching there.

Time again the smooth roots and the broken tuft stones were impeding our steps in the virgin forest. But we soon advanced more quickly as in the hitherto visited tropical woods because the lianas do not populate the ground as densely. Even in the most swampy places that often crossed our path and were covered with the most beautiful leaf plants of all sizes and kinds could be crossed without difficulties. Thus we entered deeper admiring and observing constantly until we suddenly stood at the edge of an enchanting lake whose shore trees whose trunks and branches hung in the water and stood so densely that we could see the surface only through the gaps in the green leaf wall. In honor of „Elisabeth“, the first warship of our navy that had visited the Solomon islands I named the beautiful body of water „Lake Elisabeth“ which was not marked on any maps nor in the sailing handbooks. Its width is about 400 m; as we did not have enough time we could not determine its length.

Hunting catches were slim on this expedition. On the one hand, Owa raha did not seem to offer many specialities in its fauna and on the other hand, the birds ha almost all hid themselves in the tree tops due to the pouring rain. Only at the shore of Lake Elisabeth I managed to bag two pigeons (Ptilopus richardsi and Carpophaga pistrinaria).

With time evening approached so that we had to leave the newly baptised lake to return to the village of Owa raha where as the rain had diminished in intensity a vivid trade had developed. Tobacco products, especially Virginia cigars, were in high demand by the natives while toilet articles were not asked for. For two cigarettes I received a beautiful spear but only a woven bag for a colored handkerchief. Thus one of the delicate batiste handkerchiefs bought on Vienna’s Graben was transferred as a decoration and only piece of clothing on the neck of a dark female cannibal! Also many of the gentlemen of my staff could not resist the rich offering of wooden spears, harpoons and decorative objects and paid with all kinds of articles from home until we returned with fully filled boats back on board.

Less well than our expedition was what had happened to Mallinarich. He had separated himself with two sailors from us next to the village and had, while we marched East, walked towards the West to collect corals and shells according to my wishes.

Everybody had received the appropriate order to return on board at sunset but that time had already gone without somebody from Mallinarich’s expedition making an appearance. Hour upon hour went until a general commotion reigned on „Elisabeth“. The most adventurous guesses about the expedition’s failure to return were heard, some thought that they had been caught as prisoners others stated that Mallinarich was certainly being cooked as a tasty treat in a large cauldron. As most of us had been of the opinion that the expedition must have lost its way and would not return before dawn next morning. The commander had the whole coast illuminated by the large electric projectors and a boat with armed men was searching the beach but nothing was visible. Finally a large detachment with lanterns and rockets under the command of officers was sent out to search for them and was just on the way to the interior of the island when repeated signal shots were heard from the cape. Immediately a boat was sent there and after 10 o’clock in the evening Mallinarich and the two sailors were back on board, tired but healthy.

Searching on the beach they had drifted too far away in our urge to collect so that dusk surprised them and suddenly when it started to get dark, they noticed about fifteen natives who blocked their way to the beach. Quickly the three decided to turn into the direction they had come but also on that side were natives, five in number, who came out of the wood. Thus our three were almost surrounded by armed savages who took more and more threatening stances. Seeing a gap in the surrounding circle around him and the two sailors, Mallinarich fired a shot on the row of enemies, pushed the closest savage to the ground and escaped with the sailors from the enemy group. As they kept their position between the threatened group and the boats and thus cut off the retreat to the vehicles, our people were forced to undertake a journey around the whole island which meant that naturally the majority of objects collected on the beach had to be left behind as dangerous baggage.

Perhaps Mallinarich had acted a bit too energetically as perhaps the savages might have been cooled down by negotiating. On the other hand the situation he had been could have been quite awkward and also not suitable for a night march. In any case it was reasonable to congratulate those returning home and ourselves that everything went well.

The natives in the village certainly received the news of the incident quickly. Despite having promised during the evening of my arrival to come on board with new trading objects nobody showed up again.

I used the evening to try a new sport in the beautiful calm bay, fish sticking in light in which our brave boatswain Zamberlin was a true master. He equipped with complete skill which distinguishes the inhabitants of the coast in such matters the dinghy by fixing at the fore the necessary most primitive light apparatus. It only contained a pan-like grid in which thanks to tar and dry spruce wood an intense fire was burning so that the sea was clearly illuminated to a considerable depth.

Slowly we drove over the coral banks looking down to the various fantastic forms that appeared in a reddish tint in the shine of our light source. Here Lilliputian woods and flower beds were rising, there starred a small coral island made out of barbs, points and arms.Then the limy mass formed grottos and caves in which all kind of small light red, sky-blue, grass-green and silver-glittering fish shot up and down. In between lay lazy starfish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers or Holothuroidea, and everything shone, glittered, radiated in the brightest colors, the most delicate nuances as soon as light touched them in a manner only sea water with its strange refractive power is able to create.

Large fish we could see only at the beginning of the journey then they disappeared into the deep areas having been frightened by the sound of the rudder and by the lights. Still our boatswain managed like Neptune standing with a harpoon at the fore to catch some strange pieces, such as a fully white ray, some kind of ocean sunfish, multiple eel-like fishes with a heron-like beak and sharp teeth, a rare beautiful crayfish with black-yellow bands on the extremities and a green armored back. Where the sea was undulating, oil was used to markedly improve the certainty of sticking a fish.

The view of the night-time suddenly illuminated depths of the sea, of the coral structures and all these strange inhabitants of the sea, the fish sticking, the strange magic of the whole journey  — everything imprinted itself deeply into my memory.


  • Location: Owa raha, Solomon islands
  • ANNO – on 07.06.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing „Ein Wintermärchen“. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is closed from 1 June to 19 July.

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