Luigi Maria d’Albertis (1841-1901) was my great-grand-father Bartolomeo’s cousin. His life was not an easy one; his father died when he was only nine and his mother quickly remarried a music teacher. Soon she moved to Naples with her new husband and Enrichetta, Luigi’s little sister, leaving her son behind under an uncle’s charge. This fellow was a strict catholic priest living with a grim housekeeper, who sent Luigi to college first in Savona and later Turin. Luigi was not a model student. But under the teaching of Armand David, a renowned Jesuit scholar and traveller, he became very fond of natural sciences.
At the age of 19 years, he sailed from Genoa to Sicily with 1000 Garibaldi’s volunteers, the well known “red shirts”, who marched on Rome to make Italy a united nation. In the following years, he developed a passion for sport hunting and travelled all over Europe in pursuit of the hunt. Luigi could be characterized as a gentleman of leisure since he never needed to earn a living, but he was not really rich, and always had to take money into account.
Never having lost his affinity for natural sciences, Luigi corresponded with the most renowned Italian naturalists such as the Marquis Giacomo Doria, Raffaello Gestro, and Odoardo Beccari. He was basically an autodidact, and became an expert in fields of botany, zoology, geology, anthropology, ethnography. Along the way Luigi mastered the skills of taxidermy which proved quite helpful for his scholarly endeavours and hunting expeditions.
In 1871, he sailed to New Guinea with Beccari, the famous Florentine botanist. Travels of this kind required not only courage and passion, but also an outstanding physical strength for the danger of endemic diseases that Europeans could seldom endure. The consequences of a diet scarce in vitamins were not yet known and Quinine was the only treatment for these ailments. His health was badly affected by this travel, and he was forced to settle in Sydney to recover. It was during this time, that he got acquainted with George Bennett, who put him in touch with the British Museum in London. Luigi sent most of his paradise bird specimens to the museum for further study.
He returned to New Guinea twice more, and sailed the Fly River for 580 miles, charting the places and terrifying the natives.
Of the 505 species of birds indexed and brought from New Guinea, 50 were new discoveries. Let us not forget to mention the insects, snakes and plants he collected along the way.
Luigi, during his second voyage to the Fly River, employed Mr. Lawrence Hargrave as an engineer. Hargrave was well known in Australia, if for no other reason than because his face was featured on the reverse of the Australian $20 banknote from 1966 to 1994, but elsewhere he is more or less unknown. He was born in England in 1850 and he immigrated to Australia with his family in 1865. There he joined a few expeditions to New Guinea. Later he became an astronomical observer at the Sydney Observatory. A few years later he concentrated his research on flight. He invented many flight devices, the most famous of which is the “box kite”. This remarkable invention proved useful in meteorological surveys due to its capability to lift great weight. He designed several models of aircraft as well. Many were propelled by fanciful devices, such as clockwork, compressed air, or vapour engines.
His models were offered to New South Wales as a gift, but there were delays in accepting them, so they were given to the Munich museum.
It is beyond question that Hargrave was instrumental in the success of the expedition, but he and Luigi didn’t get along very well, and Hargrave was dismissed without regret.
“New Guinea: what I did and what I saw” is the diary of his travels. It was translated in English and published in London around 1880. It was a best-seller in Italy, England, and France.
It is true that he took everything he needed from the deserted houses (food, artifacts and even human skulls), but as far as food is concerned he and his companions were at risk of dying from hunger, and he always left what he considered a reasonable payment.
In his book, Luigi describes the places, people, plants, and animals minutely, meticulously and enthusiastically, but these descriptions may turn out to be soporific for readers who are not particularly interested in sciences.
Since the original publication was for academia, I have ommited the sections that I have deemed boring, the minutest descriptions and the anthropological dissertations, but I have left untouched the parts describing his behaviour or his comments in respect to natives and everything that may be important to understand his attitude towards them.
He had maximum interest in approaching the natives, so he always tried to gain their confidence. This was not just for humanitarian reasons; he needed to get in touch with them on a social level to barter for artefacts and food, and assist in collecting specimens.
His interest was always naturalistic, and he did not want to interfere with local culture and had no interest in territory, even if they say he offered New Guinea to the Savoia family, which a wise decision, was refused.
After his third voyage Luigi was forced to return to Europe to recover his health. He resided in the country near Rome and then in Sassari (Sardinia), where he lived with only the company of his old maid Gesuina, a dog and a fox. The only person who was in touch with him on a regular basis was his cousin Enrico d’Albertis. After Luigi’s death, his cousin took charge of his collections and exhibited them in the family’s castle/museum in Genoa.
Luigi died in 1901, the following year his body was transferred to Genoa and was the first to use the services of the new crematorium in Staglieno Cemetery. Ironically Luigi financed the construction of the facility that bears his name today.
The local authorities deserted his funeral and the press just published a very short note on his death; since refusing a traditional burial was still considered a religious offence and hence not accepted by the orthodox and conformist society.
I would like to thank Mike Cookson of the Australian National University of Canberra who supplied me with the full text of the book in a modifiable file, saving me from the enormous task of scanning two remarkable volumes and Phillip N. d’Albertis who gallantly translated this preface from my pidgin into proper English.
At 9 p.m. on the 25th of November, 1871, the steamer “Arabia”, bound for Bombay, sailed from Genoa. Among the passengers were Doctor Beccari, the well-known traveller and botanist, and myself. Some friends had accompanied us on board in order to see the last of us, and wish us a pleasant journey and success in our undertaking. This was no less than the exploration of the savage, distant, and unknown country of Papua. This word had an unknown sound in my ears. The idea of journeying to a land of ever verdant primeval forests, a region of perpetual ecstasy where I should find man the unspoiled son of nature, the free savage in his primitive state, had taken such possession of my mind, and so fired my imagination, that even the few minutes requisite for the steamer to leave the harbour seemed an eternity. Before arriving at New Guinea we were to visit certain Eastern lands, where the modes and customs of life are as different from ours as the physical appearance of the various races. This prospect also set my fancy stirring, and I could dream only of the fiery horses of Arabia, of the camels of the desert, of temples and pagodas, sultans and odalisques. I beheld in my mind’s eye cloudless skies, golden horizons, and glorious sunsets; while in the far distance, and at the extreme point of the vast prospect loomed Papua, the land of primeval forests, of primitive man - the land of the bird of paradise.
The night of the 25th of November was dark, and at a distance of but three or four miles from the harbour all we could see of Genoa was a crowd of little lights, which looked like glow-worms in the clouds. A few miles farther, and only the revolving lantern of the lighthouse pointed out to us the place where we had spoken our last words of affection to a few dear friends.
From Genoa we made Naples, from Naples, Messina.
We arrived at last at Port Said, visited the tanks of Aden, and climbed its bare, black heights. I saw camels and horses, not Arabian, though belonging to the Arab. I saw the Arab himself, squalid and ragged; women who looked like phantoms; misery and vice under the same roof; and men and animals living together like brothers, and I asked myself, “Is this the East?” I saw the devout Arab prostrate himself to salute the rising sun; but he prostrated himself in dirt, and I asked myself, “Is it not possible that he should be religious and cleanly at the same time? Of what use can religion be to the Arab if it do not take him out of the filth, moral and physical, in which he lives?”
In Bombay my former enthusiasm on the subject of the East was partially rekindled. I saw the Towers of Silence, with the flocks of vultures circling in the air and watching for their daily food. My fancy showed me the bones, the heads, and the flesh of the Parsees, rent by those powerful claws and beaks; and I pictured to myself the horrible spectacle of blood-stained limbs, until it seemed to me that I could actually behold the vultures picking from the orbits of a skull a pair of eyes, which had grown dim in study of the books of a religion which condemned them to become the prey of a foul bird.
We visited the island of Elephanta, and its ancient temples, majestic witnesses, in ruin, to the life of a former age.
At Point de Galle we explored the palm groves, the plains, and the marshes; and for the first time I beheld monkeys in a free and independent state, living at the cost of man, who tills the soil while they plunder its fruits. We saw the laborious and industrious inhabitants; but among them, also, vice and misery stalked in close companionship.
From Singapore we went to Java, from Batavia to Beutenzorg, from Beutenzorg to Sinanlaya and Pangarango, an extinct volcano. Here I began to comprehend the meaning of primeval forests; here I first felt the strange impression they produce. I was struck with astonishment at the agility of hundreds of apes, who fled screaming at our approach.
From Java we went to Macassar; and in passing Timor Dely and Timor Coupang, by the Flores Straits, we had a view of one of the most picturesque landscapes I have ever seen.
From Timor we made Banda, a volcanic island where the nutmeg abounds; from Banda we reached Amboyna, the capital of the Moluccas, and our starting-point for New Guinea. While we were making preparations for the voyage we determined to visit the island of Bouro, and Wahai in the island of Ceram. We left Amboyna on board the “Dasson,” a steamer belonging to the Dutch fleet, on the 10th of March, and landed at a village, which we had descried at a great distance by the aid of its many mosques. This village, whose houses are built of wood and covered with palm-leaves, is called Kaieli. Entering the bay, we saw on the right a plain, on the left and in the background a range of hills, forming an amphitheatre. In the lower part grows a plant called the kaju-puti, from which an oil, of great virtue in the cure of rheumatism, is expressed. Tobacco, which is, probably, sold as pure Virginian, is grown here by some American settlers.
The Resident of Amboyna was a passenger on board the “Dasson”, and a number of people were waiting to meet him at the landing-place, and pay their compliments. When he disembarked music struck up - of a curious sort, as may be imagined - for the instruments were all gongs of various dimensions. Three or four dozen warrior-dancers, or dancer-warriors, dressed after the fashion of the East, in white tunics and red turbans, and with naked feet, formed an escort. Each of these held in his right hand a large knife called a parang, in his left a small shield. Brandishing their knives and shields, and twisting their bodies into a thousand contortions, they preceded the great man. The scene was at once striking and grotesque, and to me, as I was quite unaccustomed to such sights, the mixture of brilliant colours, and the extraordinary motions and gestures, had something most fantastic, singular, and novel.
Fourteen rajas of the tribes of which the village was composed, followed the Resident, who, when he arrived at a house situated at the end of a long street, sat down on a kind of throne, surrounded by all the notabilities of the country. The music continued until a sign from the Resident put a stop to it, and also to the dancing. Besides these rajas there were people of all ranks. Some were dressed half in Turkish, half in European style; some had shoes, others had none; most of the garments had once been black, but were now reddish and greenish in colour, and had never been made for the wearers. I remarked, however, that the people were cleanly in their persons and attire. Sundry tall hats, which presented every gradation of colour, and which, from their shape, might claim an antiquity greater, perhaps, than that of the celebrated Iron Crown, attracted my notice. They, like the crown of Italy, had certainly passed from generation to generation.
After a voyage of twenty-four hours, under a deluge of rain, we arrived at Wahai. From the sea only a few houses were visible, most of them being concealed by the vegetation at the foot of the hills. A little fort stands close to the sea shore, and in it are stationed fifty soldiers and two officers. A military doctor and five or six white soldiers form the whole European population, who naturally live the life of anchorites. We had a letter of introduction to the Commandant of the little fort, and on our presenting it he received us with all the politeness of the Dutch. He had been there for three years. He offered us his house, but he received us in the verandah. A shooting expedition was arranged for the next day: there are deer and wild boar in the island. We were much vexed at our failure to obtain any information about Outanata, a point of New Guinea which we had fixed upon as our goal.
At last, on the 21st of March, the Italian colours were flying at the mast of a little schooner, which we had hired to take us to Outanata. It was called “Burong Laut”, or Sea Bird.
I had also hoisted a second flag; it was white, with a red cross. This had been my companion on the snowy steeps of the Alps; now it accompanied me on the deep.
Some gentlemen and ladies of Amboyna accompanied us on board to wish us a prosperous voyage. A few bottles of champagne were produced to drink to the safety and welfare of the ship, and then, after much hand-shaking, we took our departure. Signora Kraal, an Italian by birth, and married to a Dutchman, Captain Kraal, bade us a last farewell in the name of our country. On the 25th, at 9 a.m., after having passed to the south of the island of Ceram, we arrived at the little islands of Ghesser and Kalvari, where we found a schooner from Macassar and two praus at anchor. It appears that they visit this island - which is a commercial emporium in these seas - to obtain slaves, skins of the bird of paradise, a small quantity of tripang, mother-of-pearl, and tortoise-shell. Besides the birds of paradise, the houses are full of cockatoos, lories, and other birds of brilliant plumage, which are taken alive to Macassar. I also saw two young cassowaries, free, but quite tame. Nearly all these articles of commerce come from New Guinea, especially the slaves.
The island is simply a vast sandbank, covered with scanty vegetation, and for the most part inundated at high tide. In the centre, however, the inhabitants grow a few bananas and yams. In this cultivation the women, who are Papuan slaves, and the children, are employed. These degraded creatures fled at my approach, and the impression they made upon me was a painful one. I have never seen a lower type of humanity. They present only a coarse physical resemblance to man, but seem to be totally without the spirit characteristic of the human race - to be, indeed, reduced to the condition of beasts of burden.
At Ghesser we hoped to obtain information, and perhaps interpreters for Outanata or Lakaia, by opening communications with a chief or raja. I had my doubts, however, as to the success of our attempt.
March 26th - This morning, taking one of my men, I landed at the island of Ceram Laut, and remained there until eleven, collecting insects. The island is covered with vegetation and partly cultivated. Those hills which I ascended are of coralline formation. I observed some gigantic fig-trees, which, with their mighty aerial roots, inspire every traveller in these regions with admiration. All round the island extends a bar of coral, where one may see countless varieties of living polyps. The raja, who yesterday promised to give us guides for Outanata, came on board to-day, accompanied by another man; the difficulties, far from diminishing, had increased, so that it looked as if we should have to go by ourselves. It occurred to me that they were doing all in their power to hinder us from going to Outanata; and as, after much talking, we were convinced that this really was the case, we determined to go alone. We weighed anchor in the afternoon, hoping to find guides at Goram Island.
March 27th - This morning I looked for the island of Goram, which we sighted last night, and to which we were then apparently near. But Goram was now very far off; during the night the current had drifted us farther away. A light breeze, however, carried us forward in the early morning, and at last we could distinguish the houses of a village on the island; but at five o’clock we were completely becalmed, and lay motionless on the waters. The monotony of a day’s calm was pleasantly broken by the gambols of a shoal of “Ikan babi,” or dolphins, which surrounded our ship; and the time passed pleasantly while we watched their prodigious leaps out of the sea, and their agile movements in the calm and transparent water. Countless thousands of sea birds followed them, and these creatures of the heights and the depths lent an aspect full of life, and which could not fail to interest for hours the most ennuyé traveller to the lonely scene.
March 28th - At 1 a.m. I went upon deck, and saw Goram still farther off than last night. Our sails were hanging idly from the masts, the sea was apparently motionless, but, nevertheless, it was drawing us back. I saw some sea birds perched on bits of wood, passing by us; they were carried along by the current. At 6 a.m. we were still farther from Goram. At midday we were nearer to Ceram than the island for which we were bound. At 5 p.m. the thunder growled to the north of the island of Ceram, and we could see that rain was falling there. At length the storm reached us, the sails filled, and our “Sea Bird” began to fly. To-day, also, I have to return thanks to the flying fish and dolphins and sea birds, who by their gambols broke the monotony of a second day of calm.
March 29th - It is 6 a.m., and Goram is farther from us than the first morning when we sighted it after leaving Ghesser. The hopes which we entertained last night died away with the wind. Now the lightest of breezes hardly flutters the sails. Is it the strong current only that is carrying us from Goram? I have my suspicions that the current is only an accomplice of the ill-will and the negligence of the captain. At midnight I found the men at the wheel sleeping soundly. I returned at 3 a.m.; they were still sleeping; and at last, at half-past 5 a.m., I found them for the third time sleeping, like the Apostles in the Garden. This evening, towards six, we had changed our course, and lost sight of Goram. “All roads lead to Rome”, says the proverb; and an old Sardinian taught me, one morning while I was hunting in the island of Sardinia, that the direct road is not always the shortest. We shall see whether we get any nearer to the island of Goram by the new route.
April 1st - The 30th and 31st March were merely repetitions of the preceding day. We drew somewhat nearer to Goram by day, and by night lost all the way we had made. This morning, at sunrise, we were once more farther away than the night before, and in my vexation I wondered whether Telemachus was more hindered in his adventurous journey than we, and hoped that Goram might not prove Circe’s island to us.
At eight o’clock a light breeze sprang up, accompanied by slight rain; this sent us along several miles an hour. At three we prepared to cast anchor, but for reasons best known to the captain we were not fairly anchored in front of the village until nearly six o’clock. A little prau with three men hailed us, and they were at once led to talk about Outanata. They offered us a man for Lakaia; I have, however, great doubts of their fine promises. It appears that in these regions lying is one of the highest virtues; it is certainly one of the commonest. We had anchored opposite the house where Wallace lived. Low hills, covered with vegetation, rising in the rear of a small plain, are charming features of this locality. On some of the hills a little farther to the south we saw some kaju-puti trees. A crowd of people ran to the shore to see us; but their curiosity was not gratified: we did not land on that occasion.
April 2nd - While Dr. Beccari was arranging with the natives how we were to be supplied with guides, I, with one of my hunters, followed by a goodly crowd of boys belonging to the place, went on a shooting expedition. In this new country every bird was a novelty to me, and even the white cockatoos were sufficient to excite my enthusiasm; yet I did not fire my first shots at these poor birds, with their white feathers and yellow diadems, without remorse. Fortunately, cockatoos in their wild state cannot talk, and they did not reproach me with my cruelty; but the blood which stained their white plumage bore eloquent witness against me. After the cockatoos came pigeons, and I esteemed myself most fortunate in procuring some fine specimens of a large pigeon (Carpophaga concinna), the entire back a glittering metallic green, and also of a smaller but most beautiful species (Ptilopus prasinorrhous). I found some gigantic bats (Pteropus) hanging on a tree, and these also fell victims to my greedy gun.
The men of Goram, mostly of the Malay type, are nearly naked; but the females, with the exception of some old women, are slightly clothed. The boys are generally naked. Being Mohammedans, they have taken care to instil a holy horror of foreigners into their women, who at our approach fled as though from mad dogs, and hid themselves in their houses or behind the trees. The girls, who up to the age of eight or ten are generally naked, are not so much afraid of us, sometimes they would even draw near to receive presents. This morning, while out shooting, I was ascending a hill by a very narrow path, and suddenly came upon a party of six or seven women, some of them old, the others young. When we met, we were not more than eight or ten paces apart. They stopped instantly on beholding me; and, as a herd of deer, taken by surprise, will pause for an instant and then speed away headlong, so did they. After having looked at me for a few seconds with terrified amazement, they did not retrace their steps, but fled one and all across the ridge of the hill down the slope. But, poor things! Their precipitate flight availed them little; for the second caught her foot in a weed or a stalk of the bamboo with which the ground was covered, and fell; and the others, all except the last, rolled over her. The scene was most comical, and the boys who were following me jeered and laughed at the discomfiture of the women. Although, as a European, I felt that my duty was to give these savages a lesson, and teach them not to laugh at the misfortunes of others, I could not myself refrain from laughing. This incident, however, did not arrest the flight of the women; they scrambled to their feet and ran more swiftly than before; and for some minutes I could trace their course by the noise of broken bamboos and the shaking of the branches. In the stampede some of the women dropped the piece of cloth which forms their only garment - an accident which must have caused them no small embarrassment on re-entering the village. Others left behind them the earthenware pots used for cooking sago. To what sentiment did they yield? Is the white man so hideous in their eyes that he excites such fear as this? It seemed to me that, seeing us accompanied by natives of the country, they ought not to have been so terrified.
April 3rd - Beccari has succeeded in finding two men who say they know the language spoken at Lakaia, and it is arranged that at the rising of the moon to-night we shall set out with them for that country. I went out shooting again, and collected some beautiful insects.
We have to contend with a strong south wind, which, if it continue to blow, will render it very difficult for us to make the point we had fixed upon.
April 5th - To-day, at last, we have sighted New Guinea! After a night of rain, on going on deck this morning I descried mountains, although indeed indistinctly. In the afternoon, we were near enough to the land to distinguish the trees and shrubs on the slopes. This point which we have seen must be the peninsula which is marked on the map as Orange Nassau.
April 6th - As we might have foreseen, we have not made much progress this morning, and it becomes clear to us that the season of the year is too far advanced and the monsoon too strong to allow us to proceed to the southward. At midday we lost sight of New Guinea, and in its place Goram appeared, close at hand. The sea is heavy, and our “Burong Laut,” far from flying, can make no way at all, but rather goes backward than forward. The sailors caught a huge fish with a line which they had thrown out astern, but as they were dragging it on board it managed to get away, leaving them to lament the loss of the good supper they had reckoned upon.
April 7th - We are losing rather than making way; to-day we are farther than ever from New Guinea, and are, instead, close to the island of Manwolka. It is certain that we cannot reach Outanata, so we decide on sailing towards some other point, and change our course to the north-west.
April 8th - This morning we again saw the land of Orange Nassau, which our Goram pilots called Tangion Bair, and at midday we were quite close to it. There was so much sea on that we resolved to anchor in a bay which was sheltered by mountains from the wind. The coast is precipitous, and the sea washes the base of the hills, which extend in an unbroken line, and rise to a height of seven or eight hundred feet. Nothing was to be seen but a mass of vegetation, and the coast appeared to be entirely uninhabited. We did not see either houses or smoke. At sunset we anchored in a lovely bay, at a distance of about one hundred yards from the beach. Although there appeared to be no inhabitants, we took the precaution of keeping our arms and ammunition ready. Our Amboynese were in such terror of the Papuans, that they prepared to sleep with their guns beside them. Fish abound in the bay, and we passed part of the night in fishing, with great success. A sula, attracted by the light of the ship’s lantern, flew against it with such force as to upset it and break it to pieces. The poor bird expiated its rashness, and the trifling damage it had done us, with its life.
April 9th - A memorable day! At last I tread the mysterious land. At last, leaping on shore this morning, I exclaimed, “We are in New Guinea !”