Jungle Islands

Men of Wala in outrigger canoe, from Jungle Islands

Source: Sidney Nichols Shurcliff, Jungle Islands: The “Illyria” in the South Seas (New York/London: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1930), pp. 148-150

Text: That evening we tried an experiment to which we had long looked forward. We gave the natives their first motion picture show. A screen was fastened on the boat-boom at right angles to the side of the ship and the electrically operated projector was placed on the gangway. By this arrangement we could see the screen from the deck, while our audience also had a good view from their canoes in the water. They had promised “to come along sip when sun he go finish,” but for half an hour after dark we saw not a sign of one. Finally the Captain gave a few blasts on his whistle and within five minutes our audience arrived. There were about thirty-five canoes from different islands, each loaded with men, women and children, and as the title of the picture flashed onto the screen they gasped with amazement.

The first scene, which showed an African native beating a drum, met with great approval. Then an audible murmur went over the audience as a group of natives was shown and when these began a war dance the excitement was terrific; our spectators gave vent to excited war whoops and made stabbing motions with their paddles. The excitement changed to disapprobation when a white man was seen in charge of the Africans. An aeroplane was viewed with complete indifference, but an automobile was considered highly amusing. I deduced from these and other reactions that the natives had the ability to see and appreciate only the simpler things which were going on. Of course they could not understand the story at all but they were not surprised at the closeups and they seemed to grasp any representation of objects with which they were familiar. This was especially interesting because the reactions of the natives of New Guinea were in exact contrast when later they saw the same picture. They showed
no interest in the automobile but were very excited by the aeroplane (perhaps because one had flown over them at some time.) They were bored with the African natives but burst into roars of laughter at a close-up of the heroine. At one point the audience was nearly stampeded. Schmidty took a flashlight picture of them from the bridge, just above the screen, and by a queer coincidence he exploded the powder at exactly the same instant a man on the screen aimed a rifle at the audience. The brilliant flash momentarily blinded everyone and no doubt our audience thought they had been shot and killed for they were paralyzed with fright and did not utter a sound. Then, finding that everything was continuing as before, they concluded it was “something belong white man” and roared with laughter. They watched five reels with close attention and at the close of the performance thanked us with an assortment of bloodcurdling war whoops.

Comments: Sidney Nichols Shurcliff (1906-1981) was an American landscape architect and town planner. On a break from his studies at Harvard, Shurcliff took part in the Cornelius Crane Pacific Expedition, sponsored by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, 1928-1929. Shurcliff took part as a Harvard friend of Crane and ‘semi-seriously’ as expedition cinematographer. The Illyria was the name of their yacht. This extract refers to their visit to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), specifically the island of Wala. The language employed to describes the ‘natives’ and their reactions is symptomatic of its period.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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