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WHAT BÊCHE-DE-MER IS, HOW IT IS CAUGHT, AND
WHAT IS DONE WITH IT.
All the lagoon islands of the Coral Seas are famous for the production of bêche-de-mer, which is one of the most important articles of commerce obtained in the Pacific.
Bêche-de-mer, called by the Chinese Tripang, by the Polynesians Rodi in the South Sea, and in the Caroline Group Menika, is that species of mollusc classed as the Holothurides. It has the appearance of a great slug or leech, and like most other marine animals of the same type, lives upon suction, and upon microscopic animalculæ. Its anatomical structure is simple. It has the form of an elongated sac, of a gristly consistence, traversed internally by strong muscles; the rest consists of intestines, which are perfectly transparent, and, on close examination, appear to contain nothing but water and sand-of the latter a very large proportion, although what part so indigestible a substance can play in the economy of its organism may be known to the creature itself, but certainly is a puzzle to me.
When disturbed he swells himself up very considerably, and takes in a great quantity of water, which much increases his size. He is so elastic, that if slung by the middle across a pole he will, by his own weight, stretch to several times his normal length.
The mouth of the bêche-de-mer is triangular, with three teeth like those of a leech. It has no appearance of eyes. Its powers of locomotion are somewhat limited, so much so, that one could not perceive it move except by observing its relative distance from any neighbouring object. Its normal condition is that of repose ; perhaps it is a very harmless creature, but its degree of usefulness when alive seems very circumscribed. It has few enemies, with the exception of the turtle, which only molests it in the days of its youth, and at certain seasons of the year. Crawling along the mossy coral of the snow-white bottom of the lagoon, it leads a curious sort of life of passive enjoyment, which, as far as I could ever make out, seems to consist in taking water and sand in at one end, and squirting it out at the other.
There are four kinds of bêche-de-mer—the grey, the Llack, the red, and the leopard. The grey kind is the most valuable, but it is only found where the hawksbill turtle is found ; that is to say, not much to windward (eastward) of the 180th meridian. It reaches usually when at maturity to about eighteen inches long, and somewhat less in circumference. The colour is a slatey grey, and it is distinguished from the other species by having upon either side a row of little protuberances like teats. It frequents the flat reef and the sandy bottom of shallow lagoons.
The black bêche-de-mer lives only on clean sandy bottoms, at a depth from knee-deep at low-water down to ten fathoms. It grows large sometimes, as long as thirty inches, and as thick as a man's leg. On the back and sides it is jet black, smooth and bright like enamelled leather ; the underside is a bluish, slatey grey. When very old it becomes encrusted with small shells. The red kind is the smallest, and of least value ; it seldom attains more than a foot in length, usually less. It lives upon the coral reef, in the greatest profusion towards the outer edge, where the surf is continuously breaking. In this respect it differs essentially from the beach kind, which delights in quiet waters and smooth sand, and will not live either near noisy waves nor on rough coral rocks. The leopard kind grows as large as the largest of the black ; it is of an olive-green colour, variegated with green spots, surrounded by an orange-coloured rim, hence its name. It has another peculiarity : all bêche-de-mer are harmless when laid hold of but this one. On these occasions he vomits a quantity of slender filaments, something like white cotton lamp-wick ; he can produce several hanks of it, so to speak. It is glutinous, and whatever it touches, it attaches itself to in the most tenacious manner. This would not signify if it were merely satisfied with sticking fast, but wherever it clings it burns like a blister ; and upon any part of the human skin produces immediate and painful inflammation. Yet this hideous slug is worth in China from £80 to £100 a ton. The other varieties of this remarkable inhabitant of the deep content themselves with squirting out the water from their intestines. From their way of living, one would expect this to be perfectly harmless, but if a drop of this liquid enters the human eye, it produces a sensation like contact with red-hot coal, resulting in a violent and dangerous inflammation. If inoculated into any abrasion of the skin, the consequences are still more serious Cases are known in the Pacific of men very nearly losing their eyesight and suffering weeks of pain through this cause. It has been generally supposed that this mollusc is of slow growth. The bêche-de-mer fishers that I came across are of a contrary opinion. They will increase from an inch in length to nearly nine inches in almost less than three months. They have other peculiarities besides these I have enumerated. For instance, they are not found everywhere upon a coral reef or lagoon bottom, but in great patches, which proves the bêche-de-mer to be a gregarious and sociable animal. They undoubtedly possess also a certain degree of intelligence which is evident from existing facts, but which seems very hard to explain.
These creatures, which, as far as we can make out, have no eyes, have some means of communicating with each other, and a very exact knowledge of one another's proximity. Often, for instance, fishers, after having discovered in any place a greater multitude of these slugs than it was possible at once to carry home to the curing-houses, would lay them down separately far apart from one other, with the intent of coming for them on the morrow. When they did so, they would find them all in batches as they were originally discovered. Again, if a fisher stripped all the visible bêche-de-mer from a coral reef, in stormy weather, after the wind's subsidence, the place would be found as thickly crowded with these molluscs as it had been before the storm. From this I gather that they had shifted their quarters during the bad weather to crevices in the coral.
The wealthy classes of China exhibit such a remarkable fondness for the gelatinous flesh (if flesh it may be called) of this fish, that they are willing to pay very high prices for the luxury. They are reasons very powerful indeed with the Mongolian mind for this curious fancy of theirs for bêche-de-mer.
For centuries past Chinese mariners have frequented the coasts of the Indian Archipelago, New Guinea, and New Holland, and it was from this course that the northern shores of that great island were as well known to them before the days of Marco Polo as they are to ourselves at the present time. When Captain Flinders was engaged in the first exploration of that locality, he encountered in one of the harbours a fleet of vessels which he first supposed to be pirates. On closer examination they turned out to be Chinese tripang fishers, with whom be became very friendly. He received some valuable information from their intelligent commodore, and was shown by him a chart showing the principal features of the coast, and their relative positions to New Guinea and Tinsor. There can be no doubt, that it was from this source that the Dutch navigators of former days derived the information which directed them to the discovery of New Holland, and set the Spaniards speculating upon the