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Yap - Recollections of Andrew Cheyne



The Island of Yap is about ten miles in length, in a north and south direction, and seven or eight miles in breadth, surrounded by a coral reef, which extends from its southern end, two or three miles. It has an excellent harbour on the southeast side, formed by reefs. The entrance is about 200 yards wide, and can only be discerned from the mast head, when standing along the reef. After getting inside, the channel widens a little, and trends to N.N.W. In some places, it is nearly one third of a mile in width. The anchorage off the village of Tomal is quite safe; the holding ground is good, and the depth of water moderate.

This island is moderately elevated in the centre, and slopes gradually, towards the shore all round. It can be seen about 25 miles in clear weather, and makes in three hummocks, which would lead a stranger passing to mistake it for three small islands. The centre of the island is situated in Latitude 9 degrees 35.1/2'N. Long. 138 degrees 8'E. A shoal is said to lie 15 or 20 miles to the northward of Yap. This is the only danger near it that I know of. 

Very little timber grow inland, but the shores are lined with mangroves; and the coast between the villages, in some places, is covered with small wood. In consequence of the scarcity of large timber on this island, the natives get all their proas built at the Pallou Islands, which they frequently visit.

The villages are all situated near the shore, amongst groves of coconut trees, of which they have an abundance. The natives are an able bodied race, well formed, and similar in complexion to the Caroline islanders. Many of the women are handsome, and of a much lighter colour than males, owing I presume to their not being so much exposed to the weather, and to their wearing, when out of doors, a Mantilla, or upper article of dress. Both sexes allow their hair to grow to a great length, and wear it tucked up, in the form of a knot, on one side of the head.

With regard to the character of these people, little can be said in their favour. They are exceedingly treacherous, and should an opportunity offer, would not hesitate to cut off any vessel which might visit the island. Foreign finery however is a great temptation to savages and excites their covetous disposition to attempt obtaining by force, what their indolent habits prevents them from procuring by a fair and honest traffic.

The dress of the males, if such it may be called, is slovenly in the extreme. They wear the maro (loin-cloth) next to them, and by way of improvement, a bunch of bark fibres over it, dyed red; the ends of which hang down as low as their knees before and behind. The females are more decently clad. Their dress consists of the Oung or grass petticoat, which is formed of long grass or banana fibres braided round a string at the upper part, and made broad enough to meet when tied round the loins.

Interior of a traditional Yap house

The women when dressed have several of these tied round them, one above another, which forms a bushy petticoat. These dresses are dyed of various colours, and are worn of different lengths; the dress of the unmarried girl hardly reaching to the knees, while that of the married woman hangs down to the ankles. They have also an upper article of dress, which they wear when out of doors, or when exposed to the sun, as before mentioned.

Both sexes wear conical hats, formed of palm leaves sewed together. They are similar in shape to the hats of the Chinese, and protect their heads effectually from both rain and sun. Many of the men are handsomely tattooed on the breast, arms, and shoulders; but tattooing does not appear to be much practised among the women. Their houses form an oblong square, and are well constructed. The roof is thatched with palm leaves sewed to reeds, and neatly seized to bamboo rafters; and the sides are covered in with wicker work. The canoes and proas of these islanders, are formed of planks sewed together, and are similar in shape to the flying proa of the Ladrone Islands (Marianas. The islands were, in fact, first named after the fine sailing canoes of the inhabitants. When Magellan arrived there on 6th March 1521, he named the group "Islands of the Lateen Sails", but on further acquaintance with the people he changed the name to "Ladrones" (the Islands of Thieves). The bottoms of these proas are formed like a wedge, and being similar in shape to a crescent, they draw a good deal of water. Those in which they perform their voyages to the  other islands, are of a large size, rigged with a triangular sail, and generally have a small house built amidships on the platform. They are weatherly, and sail exceedingly fast in smooth water.

The implements of warfare in use among these people are spears, clubs, Spanish knives, slings and stones. The spears are made of hard wood, jagged at the points, and in consequence are very dangerous weapons. Their food consists of taro, bananas, breadfruit, sugar cane, fish, turtle, and coconuts. They catch the turtle when small, and feed them in a pen at the north end of the island, until they get fat and reach their full growth. They have also a few pigs and fowls, but they are only eaten on rare occasions.

The betel-nut tree is cultivated with the greatest care at this island. It is a beautiful slender palm; and grows amongst the coconut trees, which it resembles in appearance. The nuts are pulled before they are ripe, and are chewed, with the usual condiments - lime and Aromatic leaves - by both sexes.

The yap women enjoy greater privileges and exemptions from labour, than most of the women at other islands. They seldom do any outdoor work, but merely manage their household affairs, and on the whole appear to be well treated by the men. It would appear that the males outnumber the females at this island, as it is quite common, in regard to concubines, for a dozen men to have only one paramour amongst them.

I found traces of the Mosaic law in force among these people, a better description of which I cannot give than by referring my readers to the 15th chapter of Leviticus, commencing at the 19th verse, and reading to the end.

These people like all savages are exceedingly superstitious, one of which is their mode of procuring a light for their cigars. I have often wondered when sitting in their houses - where they generally have good fires - at seeing both men and women labouring away to procure a light by the friction of two sticks, and they sitting close to the fire at the time. On enquiring their reason for this unnecessary labour, their reply was, that were they to light their cigars from the fire, some calamity would be sure to happen. They do not smoke their tobacco in pipes, but roll it up in leaves, similar to the paper cigars of the Portuguese and Spaniards.

In concluding these remarks, I may observe that the inhabitants of Yap resemble more the Malays in their general character than any of the other islanders I have seen, being exceedingly cunning, although wanting that ferocity which specially characterize the Inhabitants of the South sea islands.

Having failed in my expectations of procuring biche de mer at this place, we now bade adieu to Yap, and made all sail to the S.E. for the island of Ascension with a fresh breeze from W.N.W.

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