Te Pito Te Henua, or Easter Island, by William J. Thompson, , at sacred-texts.com
The native traditions agree in the statement that the discoverers of the island found it destitute of trees and all vegetation except grasses and a creeping vine bearing a dehiscent fruit to which the name Moki-oo-ne
was given. Hotu-Matua and his followers are believed to have brought with them potatoes, yams, bananas, sugar-cane, and the seed of various plants, including the paper-mulberry and toromiro trees. The newly discovered species of legume, together with fish and turtle, enabled the first settlers to exist while the first crop was being planted and cultivated.
Nothing could be more contradictory than the description which the different voyagers have given of Easter Island. Roggeveen states that it was destitute of trees, but the land was found to be exceptionally fertile, producing bananas, potatoes, and sugar-cane of extraordinary thickness, and concludes by saying that the island, by virtue of its productive soil and salubrious climate, could be made an earthly paradise by careful cultivation. Behrens speaks of trees on the island, but to his romantic eyes the clusters of banana and paper-mulberries were magnified into forests. Captain Cook expresses great disappointment in the expectation that he had formed of this island as a place of refreshment. The only articles of importance obtained were potatoes and yams, and these were only sufficient to serve for a few meals; while the fowls, bananas, and sugar-cane were in such inconsiderable quantities that they were deemed hardly worth mentioning. George Foster writes:
The island is so very barren that the whole number of plants growing upon it does not exceed twenty species, of which the far greater part is cultivated, though the space which the platforms occupy is inconsiderable compared with what lies waste. The soil is altogether stony and parched by the sun, and the water is so scarce that the inhabitants drink it out of wells which have a strong admixture of brine, and some of our people really saw them drink of the sea water when they were thirsty.
Mr. Foster devoted considerable attention to the investigation of indigenous plants, and his report embraces all of the most important varieties. He found the paper-mulberry carefully cultivated for the purpose of making cloth. The stems were from 2 to 4 feet high, and they were planted in rows among the rocks where the rains had washed a little soil together. The Thespesia populnea Carr. (Hibiscus populneus Linn.), was cultivated in the same manner, and likewise a Mimosa, which is referred to as the only shrub that affords the natives sticks for their clubs and pattoo-pattoos, and wood sufficient to patch up a canoe. Wild celery and a few other small plants were identified as the same species is that which he had found growing in abundance on the shores of New Zealand. He also discovered a variety of night-shade, which the Tahitians use as a vulnerary remedy (Solanum nigrum), and speculates as to whether it was used here for the same purpose.
La Pérouse, impressed with a desire to relieve to some extent the destitute condition in which he found the islanders and of contributing to their welfare, had ground prepared in which he sowed various kinds of pulse. Peaches, plums, and cherries were planted, also pips of oranges and lemons. The natives were instructed
as fully as possible in the care and attention the new plants would require, and made to understand the value of this addition to their resources. Not a trace can be found of the things planted by this generous Frenchman, but whether they were suffered to die out through the ignorance or indolence of the natives may never be known.
We found the lapse of a century had made but little improvement in the resources of the islanders. Trees have, been planted around the house of Mr. Brander, at the southwest end of the island, but, with the exception of the fig, acacia, and paper-mulberry, they do not appear to thrive. At various places throughout this land we found small clumps of Edwardsia, Broussonetia, and Hibiscus, but all were dead, having been stripped of their bark by the flocks of sheep, which roam at will over the island. None of these trees were over 10 feet high, and the largest trunk we found would measure about 5 inches in diameter.
The natives are not altogether ignorant of husbandry, though they practice it spasmodically and at a great expense of time and labor, differing in no respect from the customs of their forefathers hundreds of years ago. In the cultivation of yams, potatoes, and taro, the young plants are protected from the fierce heat of the sun by a mulching of dried grass gathered from the uncultivated ground. Bananas are grown in holes a foot or more deep and with sloping sides, designed to catch and bold the rain-water as long as possible about the roots of the plant. Sugar cane is grown in protected spots, and attains the height of about 10 feet. During our peregrinations this succulent plant was extensively used in lieu of something to drink, and proved exceedingly valuable in preventing a parched condition of the throat. The natives have no knowledge of the art of extracting the juice of the cane for the purpose of making sugar.
The sweet potatoes are large and remarkably good. The natives eat them both raw and cooked. Experiments have been made recently with imported white potatoes, but they have been tried in various situations and at different seasons without success. After the first growth they appear like new potatoes, and when planted again they are invariably soft and sweet, and are much less palatable than the indigenous variety. We saw tobacco plants growing in secluded spots, but were unable to determine by whom or when they were introduced. The natives maintain that the seed was included among that which was brought to the island by the first settlers. Tomato plants were also found growing wild, and on several occasions proved a valuable addition to our limited fare.
A wild gourd is common, and constituted the only water-jar and domestic utensil known to the natives. Suitable clay abounds, but the potter's art seems never to have been known on the island. There are two varieties of indigenous hemp.
We saw no flowering plants that are indigenous to the soil. Vervain,
Verbena officinalis and a few others grow in great profusion, but they grew from cuttings obtained from a French vessel of war.
Ferns of many varieties are common, and grow in profusion in the craters of the volcanoes. Except in a few exposed places, the slopes of the bills and the valleys are covered with a perennial grass. It strongly resembles the Jamaica grass (Paspalum) and grows in bunches or tufts, which in the dry season become so slippery as to make the walking both difficult and dangerous. This natural growth supplies ample pasturage for the numerous cattle and sheep owned by Messrs. Salmon and Brander.
To avoid the depredations of the sheep that wander over the island without restraint, the natives are compelled to protect their cultivated patches by stone walls. The volcanic stones furnish the only available material for these barriers, and are thrown loosely together to a height of 5 or 6 feet, and inclose gardens from a few feet square to several acres. The deeply rooted prejudice existing in the native mind against physical exertion that might be avoided, has developed a happy expedient to save labor and at the same time to escape the ravages of the animals lately imported by the foreign residents. Ruins of houses, cairns, platforms, and tombs are thickly scattered over the island; many of the standing walls are sufficiently well preserved and others require but little repair. Within these, ancient foundation walls are raised their limited crops of fruit and vegetables; the only disadvantage being the contracted area available for each plot.