The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 146 of 164

After several tedious delays from clouded weather, on the 14th of March we gladly stood out of King George’s Sound on our course to Keeling Island. Farewell, Australia! you are a rising child, and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the South; but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.

Australian group of weapons and throwing sticks Inside an atoll, Keeling Island

Chapter XX–Keeling Island:—Coral Formations

Keeling Island—Singular appearance—Scanty Flora—Transport of seeds—Birds and insects—Ebbing and flowing springs—Fields of dead coral—Stones transported in the roots of trees—Great crab—Stinging corals—Coral-eating fish—Coral formations—Lagoon islands or atolls—Depth at which reef-building corals can live—Vast areas interspersed with low coral islands—Subsidence of their foundations—Barrier reefs—Fringing reefs—Conversion of fringing-reefs into barrier-reefs, and into atolls—Evidence of changes in level—Breaches in barrier-reefs—Maldiva atolls; their peculiar structure—Dead and submerged reefs—Areas of subsidence and elevation—Distribution of volcanoes—Subsidence slow and vast in amount.

April 1st.—We arrived in view of the Keeling or Cocos Islands, situated in the Indian Ocean, and about six hundred miles distant from the coast of Sumatra. This is one of the lagoon-islands (or atolls) of coral formation similar to those in the Low Archipelago which we passed near. When the ship was in the channel at the entrance, Mr. Liesk, an English resident, came off in his boat. The history of the inhabitants of this place, in as few words as possible, is as follows. About nine years ago, Mr. Hare, a worthless character, brought from the East Indian archipelago a number of Malay slaves, which now, including children, amount to more than a hundred. Shortly afterwards Captain Ross, who had before visited these islands in his merchant-ship, arrived from England, bringing with him his family and goods for settlement: along with him came Mr. Liesk, who had been a mate in his vessel. The Malay slaves soon ran away from the islet on which Mr. Hare was settled, and joined Captain Ross’s party. Mr. Hare upon this was ultimately obliged to leave the place.

The Malays are now nominally in a state of freedom, and certainly are so as far as regards their personal treatment; but in most other points they are considered as slaves. From their discontented state, from the repeated removals from islet to islet, and perhaps also from a little mismanagement, things are not very prosperous. The island has no domestic quadruped excepting the pig, and the main vegetable production is the cocoa-nut. The whole prosperity of the place depends on this tree; the only exports being oil from the nut, and the nuts themselves, which are taken to Singapore and Mauritius, where they are chiefly used, when grated, in making curries. On the cocoa-nut, also, the pigs, which are loaded with fat, almost entirely subsist, as do the ducks and poultry. Even a huge land-crab is furnished by nature with the means to open and feed on this most useful production.

The ring-formed reef of the lagoon-island is surmounted in the greater part of its length by linear islets. On the northern or leeward side there is an opening through which vessels can pass to the anchorage within. On entering, the scene was very curious and rather pretty; its beauty, however, entirely depended on the brilliancy of the surrounding colours. The shallow, clear, and still water of the lagoon, resting in its greater part on white sand, is, when illumined by a vertical sun, of the most vivid green. This brilliant expanse, several miles in width, is on all sides divided, either by a line of snow-white breakers from the dark heaving waters of the ocean, or from the blue vault of heaven by the strips of land, crowned by the level tops of the cocoa-nut trees. As a white cloud here and there affords a pleasing contrast with the azure sky, so in the lagoon bands of living coral darken the emerald green water.

The next morning after anchoring I went on shore on Direction Island. The strip of dry land is only a few hundred yards in width; on the lagoon side there is a white calcareous beach, the radiation from which under this sultry climate was very oppressive; and on the outer coast a solid broad flat of coral-rock served to break the violence of the open sea. Excepting near the lagoon, where there is some sand, the land is entirely composed of rounded fragments of coral. In such a loose, dry, stony soil, the climate of the intertropical regions alone could produce a vigorous vegetation. On some of the smaller islets nothing could be more elegant than the manner in which the young and full-grown cocoa-nut trees, without destroying each other’s symmetry, were mingled into one wood. A beach of glittering white sand formed a border to these fairy spots.

162. These plants are described in the Annals of Nat. Hist. vol. i 1838, p. 337.

I will now give a sketch of the natural history of these islands, which, from its very paucity, possesses a peculiar interest. The cocoa-nut tree, at first glance, seems to compose the whole wood; there are however, five or six other trees. One of these grows to a very large size, but, from the extreme softness of its wood, is useless; another sort affords excellent timber for ship-building. Besides the trees the number of plants is exceedingly limited and consists of insignificant weeds. In my collection, which includes, I believe, nearly the perfect Flora, there are twenty species without reckoning a moss, lichen, and fungus. To this number two trees must be added; one of which was not in flower, and the other I only heard of. The latter is a solitary tree of its kind, and grows near the beach, where, without doubt, the one seed was thrown up by the waves. A Guilandina also grows on only one of the islets. I do not include in the above list the sugar-cane, banana, some other vegetables, fruit-trees, and imported grasses. As the islands consist entirely of coral, and at one time must have existed as mere water-washed reefs, all their terrestrial productions must have been transported here by the waves of the sea. In accordance with this, the Florula has quite the character of a refuge for the destitute: Professor Henslow informs me that of the twenty species nineteen belong to different genera, and these again to no less than sixteen families!162

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