In 1857 the Sydney Morning Herald published a series of articles on ‘Central Polynesia.’ A number of these articles present in instalments a ‘Gazetteer of Central Polynesia.’ The entry for the Fijian Archipelago includes lists of the inedible and edible products of those islands. Among the inedible is ‘sandal-wood or yasi, now very scarce.’
Scanning the shipping news in early nineteenth-century newspapers, one can readily appreciate why sandalwood in Fiji had become scarce by the middle of the century. Ships had been carrying the wood away in enormous quantities for decades.
The Herald’s list of departures from the port of Sydney for 20 April 1860 includes ‘John Wesley, for South Sea Islands.’ The boat, which was used for missionary purposes, had been held back for some days to allow the German botanist Dr. Berthold Seemann, who had been offered free passage, time to collect what he needed for an extended stay in Fiji. He had been commissioned by the British Government to participate in a ‘Mission to Fiji’ under Colonel William James Smythe, R.A. This was an information-gathering exercise to help in determining whether Britain should accept an offer of cession by Fijian chiefs. Dr. Seemann tells the story of his trip via Sydney to Fiji in his book Viti: An Account of a Government Mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands in the Years 1860-61 (pp. 1-8).
Later that year the Herald carried a couple of reports about the Fijian question which refer to the work of Dr. Seemann in Fiji, including his experiments in growing cotton. Dr. Seemann acknowledges in his book that his work was not exhaustive, but it was certainly extensive and detailed. His task was to observe the resources and vegetable products of the island. Chapter XVII of the book discusses various aspects of the flora, including details of vegetable poisons, medicinal plants, scents and perfumes, materials for clothing, mats and baskets, fibres used for cordage, timber, palms and ornamental plants.
The section on Scents and Perfumes includes a description of sandal-wood (pp. 343-346). Dr. Seemann says that, ‘The Yasi or sandal-wood (Santalum Yasi, Seem.) is confined to the south-western parts of Vanua Levu, and formerly abounded near Bua or Sandal-wood Bay’ (p. 343). The wood of the yasi was used for perfuming coconut oil, and was much prized for that purpose not only in Fiji but by the islanders of Tonga, who conducted regular trading voyages to obtain it long before Europeans arrived on the scene. The wood of transplanted trees reportedly failed to produce an adequate strength of scent.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century ships from Manila were carrying the wood to China. ‘However, so great was the demand for this article, both in the Chinese and Polynesian markets, that about the year 1816 there was scarcely enough left for home consumption several thousand tons having probably been exported’ (pp. 344-345). As yasi ‘has very much the appearance of a Myrtaceous plant,’ the Fijians also applied the term yasi to some species of Eugenia, thus speaking of Yasi ni wai, Yasi dravu and so on (p. 345). Polynesians grate the wood on mushroom coral and mix it with coconut oil. The Chinese use larger pieces for ornamental purposes, and remnants and sawdust for joss-sticks (p. 346).
The modern system of identifying cyclones by personal names depends on finding enough names for the purpose. Sequences of some twenty-four names are reserved in advance, the letters Q and X posing particular difficulties. In the course of nominations to the World Meteorological Organisation, the Fijian tree-name Yasi was suggested to supply a name for the letter Y. The name, having been accepted some time ago, was applied in its turn to the recent cyclone in Queensland.
‘Central Polynesia, No. 12. A Gazetteer of Central Polynesia (continued)’, Sydney Morning Herald 29/5/1857, p. 2. Departure from Sydney: Sydney Morning Herald 21/4/1860, p. 6. Berthold Seemann, Viti: An Account of a Government Mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands in the Years 1860-61, London, Macmillan, 1862. Appendix III gives a ‘Systematic List of all the Fijian Plants at present known’ (pp. 431-447; a number of the plants are newly identified and assigned a scientific name with ‘Seem.’ appended). Reports about work in progress: Sydney Morning Herald 8/11/1860, p. 7 (repeated 21/11/1860, p. 6); ‘Fiji’, Sydney Morning Herald 21/12/1860, p. 3. Rowan Callick, ‘Fragrant tree link to mighty tempest’s name’, The Australian 4/2/2011 (online). Isaac Davison, ‘Storm names follow strict alphabetical order’, New Zealand Herald 5/2/2011 (online). The Australian Sandalwood Network has a website.