Research Document #29
“Nikumaroro” by P. B. Laxton
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“Nikumaroro” appears in the June/September 1951 issue of The Journal of the Polynesian Society. Paul Laxton was the Assistant Lands Commissioner for the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony in the years following World War II. This is his account of his visit to Nikumaroro to re-energize the settlement.

NIKUMARORO

Midway on their run from Fiji to Hawaii trans-Pacific airliners touch down at Canton Island to refuel. On this airstrip some two hundred cosmopolites, under Anglo-American joint administration, service fifteen airliners a week. Among the highly skilled Australian, New Zealand, American technicians live and work fifty native Gilbertese islanders. In many cases they have their homes in three tiny atolls lying to the south and south-west of Canton Island, named Sydney, Hull and Gardner Islands to the mapmakers, Manra, Orona and Nikumaroro to their inhabitants. These atolls are the scene of an interesting and successful colonization plan initiated just before World War II and now largely complete. Previously uninhabited, the islands were settled by a thousand or so immigrants from the over-crowded Gilbert Islands, and now form happy, thriving communities, contributing their mite of copra to the world supply.

Gardner Island, or Nikumaroro, the southernmost of the three, is of particular interest. Rather less than an hour by plane from Canton Island (two hundred and twenty miles), it is in fact isolated and difficult to reach by rare shipping. We went on the motor vessel Margaret. Built in New Zealand in 1940 as one of eight wooden-hulled vessels for inter-island service, the Margaret is sixty feet long, carries some thirty tons of cargo and does six knots on the flat and in still air. Rugged little craft, they are yet too small for these seas, and trips are no pleasure except to the very hardy. However, we took passage from Canton to Gardner Island, leaving airlines, schedules and modernity for an atoll, close in space, but far removed in time, and on the first day of the year we stood by the young coconut palms of Gardner Island and watched the little Margaret clear for her next distant landfall, while the tired island boatboys competently swung their whalers through the surf, over the reef and up the high sandy beach.

Gardner Island is two hundred and eighty miles south of the Equator, approximately on the one hundred and seventy-fourth meridian of longitude. The nearest island of the Ellice group lies 450 miles to the south-west, and of the Gilberts group 530 miles to the west-north-west. It is a pear-shaped atoll, three and three-quarter miles in length, the lagoon about a mile across its widest part. At the northeastern end there is a mass of land, egg-shaped, half a mile by a mile long, with an area of tidal flats separating it from the land to the east except for a narrow neck-like rim. The land widens again from this rim to form a wedge-shaped block, then narrows until it joins another wedge which forms the eastern tip. The south-eastern rim is again narrow, and is broken by a shallow tidal passage. After this passage the land again widens, and turns north to form a long narrow wedge, the broad base of which faces the broader base of the main block across another tidal passage which is from four to six feet deep at high tide. This passage is named Taziman, and the larger land area Nuziran; the land for New Zealand because a survey party of New Zealanders lived there for some time when the island was settled, and the passage for the Tasman Sea.

On the ocean side of Nuziran lies the wreck of the vessel Norwich City, which was driven ashore in a gale in 1931. The anchorage and boat-passage are situate about half a mile to the south of this wreck. The island is covered, except where cleared for coconut, with the giant buka tree (pisonia grandis) and these, vast for a coral atoll with their eighty, sometimes ninety feet of height, are visible from the sea for fifteen miles or more.

The island was sighted by whalers between 1800 and 1825 but was listed as doubtful and variously named Kemin’s Island or Mary Letitia’s Island until 1840. On August nineteenth of that year it was visited by the U.S.S. Vincennes whose commander, Charles Wilkes, recorded that he had landed a party through the dangerous surf, and that he believed the island to be that discovered by Captain Joshua Coffin, of the ship Ganges of Nantucket, being named for Gideon Gardner, the agent for, or owner of, the vessel.

Islanders from Niue who planted coconuts there in 1880 named it “Motu oonga,” the island of coconut crabs on account of the great numbers of these to be found. The present settlers from the Gilbert Islands name it “Nikumaroro,” the legendary home of the goddess Nei Manganibuka, who first taught the Gilbertese canoe-craft and the lore of ocean navigation.

In 1881 Mr. John T. Arundel was granted an occupation licence for twenty years, and coconut planting was commenced under his direction; on May 28, 1892, H.M.S. Curaçoa visited the island and found planting in progress. The warship formally raised the British flag, thereby causing an office tiff, since it was held that the grant of the licence to Mr. Arundel was ipso facto evidence of annexation, and the subsequent flag-raising superfluous and, in fact, practically a breach of inter-departmental etiquette. A Captain Allen was interested in the island in 1916, but war conditions prevented any continuous development and the atoll slept in isolation until it was included within the boundaries of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony by Order in Council of March 18, 1937, and included also in the plans for settlement from the land-hungry Gilbert Islands.

The Gilbertese are a tough attractive people. Golden skinned, straight hair always black, more than a trace of the slant Mongol eye; smaller than the hefty Polynesians, but perfectly proportioned and very strong; keen alert brains and excellent memories; fully master of their environment, physically unafraid, with a native dignity and good manners which put many a civilised man to shame. “Aomata” they call themselves, the free folk. And yet these excellent, lovable people find the challenge of the white man’s world very difficult to meet. They are, perhaps, too bound by their environment and their intimate inbred knowledge of the seas. Their answers to their problems seem to be found by them in terms of the detailed legendary lore based on and interpreting their dependence on the tides and winds that dominate their tiny atolls. So often, the problems that we pose them cannot easily be rendered into these terms, and then, faced with the inexplicable, they turn their back if they can, or, like children, try to smother their difficulty with irrational emotional appeals, acting in ways that drive to distraction those charged to help them.

These Gilbertese are Micronesians – people of the Little Islands. Their origins, like those of the Polynesians, are not established in our terms, but Sir Arthur Grimble, friend and confidant of the native wise men, scholar and Resident Commissioner, showed the strong likelihood that they flowed from the Malayan peninsula and archipelago, from the island of Gilolo, over-running the Gilbert Islands, reaching Samoa and, after initial success, being flung back to settle, this time finally, in the Gilbert Islands about 1100 A.D. Tough and warlike, these people kept their place against whaler, trader and blackbirder. Many a white man found a native wife, but many another found a fish-spear in his guts or waited, perhaps for years, before a daughter of the aomata agreed to take him. Free of disease, sturdy and fertile, they yet found their own way to control population – how, exactly, we do not yet know. Maybe war, famine, reckless canoe voyaging aided methods of birth control. Whatever it was, the advent of British law and mission teaching upset the balance, and the new generation sprawled happily, healthily but in too great numbers, pressing ever harder on the limited land. And land the Gilbertese must have. Perhaps the tiny atolls in the ever-present ocean intensify the need, perhaps it is bred in the race, but no Gilbertese can be a tenant; if he does not own land he has no “boti” (pronounce the “ti” as in “nation”), no place, and he is no freeman but can only be a slave, as little regarded as the dogs that exist around the village street.

The problem set by this population pressure was stated lucidly by Mr. H. E. Maude, O.B.E., an administrative officer who devoted his life to the problems of the Pacific Islands and peoples and to the Gilbertese in particular. Working with Grimble, he succeeded him as Lands Commissioner, later as Resident Commissioner. In 1937, on the 13th October, he reached Gardner Island on the Royal Colony Ship Nimanoa in the course of a survey of the Phoenix Islands designed to determine their suitability for colonization by volunteers from the Gilberts. Hull and Sydney Islands had been partly developed by commercial copra plantation interests, and could be settled forthwith, but on Gardner Island the great buka trees were everywhere dominant and there were only a few hundred coconuts. Water was found however, and the fertile soil and sheltered lagoon with plentiful fish, appeared to recommend an attempt at settlement. Also, most important, the native elders who accompanied the survey party were enthusiastic. The difficulties were clearly stated: the first working parties would need rations to supplement their food supply until new trees came into bearing, the island lies within the isoyet marking variable rainfall, and authorities were divided on the question of whether soil on which the buka (pisonia grandis) tree flourished would prove suitable for coconuts. On the facts available, however, it was decided to go ahead, and on 8 December, 1938, the first development party left Ocean Island. It was led by Mr. Maude, his assistant Gerald B. Gallagher, a fine and promising young officer whose enthusiasm and devoted leadership proved of prime importance. He was later to die on Gardner Island, tragically when the fruits of his excellent work were coming to hand. With them were Assistant Medical Practitioner Tutu, one of the first of Gilbertese to receive medical training at Suva under the South Pacific Medical Organization, and Tem Mautake Maeke. Tem Mautake is one of the unimane or patriarchs of Tarawa. Heir to one of the kingly families whose bid for supremacy was stopped by the Pax Brittanica in 1892 when the islands came under British protection, he is one of the few living Gilbertese to have received full instruction in their ancient semi-secret lore and in the ramifications of their genealogy which still dominate land-ownership, and therefore politics, in this generation. Trusted assistant of Sir Arthur Grimble for many years, he is wise equally in the ways of the foreign “I-matang” administrators. With them were Jack Kima Pedro, carpenter and mechanic. Working parties were picked up from Nonouti, Nikunau, Onotoa, Beru, Tamana and Arorae, and on 20 December, 1938, the R.C.S. Nimanoa reached Gardner Island at ten o’clock in the evening.

The pioneers disembarked next day, using the stern of the wreck of the Norwich City for their wharf, and under Teng Koata of Onotoa a temporary camp was established to the south of the Taziman passage.

The old men and the people named the island. Home of Nei Manganibuka they called it, the tall fair-skinned goddess who came from Samoa to teach canoe-craft and the lore of ocean navigation. Nikumaroro is the home of Nei Manganibuka, and in the intervals of their work and in the evening a song was made christening the island surf boat to her name so that the crew should be skilful and ride their craft easily and swiftly through the reef surf.

Nikumaroro did not welcome the settlers with any smile. The baneful isoyet which indicated variable rainfall had been active, the test-wells dug by the survey party were brackish and undrinkable, and the luxuriant vegetation dry and desiccated. The pioneers ranged widely in their search for sweet wells, making a song as they went about their work, while mechanic Jack Kima landed two condenser plants from the ship and set them up. The Nimanoa left for Hull and Sydney Islands on the afternoon of 24 December, returning on 2 January, 1939, and leaving for Ocean Island on the fourth. No water had been found.

On 28 April the S.S. Moamoa returned with materials for a cistern to find that heavy rains had fallen, the trees again green, and water no anxiety. The material was put ashore, nevertheless, and construction commenced, and when the vessel returned on 17 June the cistern was half full. Further settlers and their families landed, raising the population to fifty-eight. On 23 January, 1940, it was reported that water continued good and that 8,000 coconuts were above ground. Gallagher had been on the island for nearly a year, and in addition to the clearing and planting the village had been built along the lagoon shore on the south of the Taziman passage. This land was named Ritiati, a rendering of Richards, for the then High Commissioner of the Western Pacific.

They rose before dawn each day, and after the early light meal, went out under the leadership of Tem Mautake to the bush for clearing and planting. Gallagher would make his radio schedule, deal with the little office work, and follow the working parties with the native leader and acting Magistrate, Teng Koata and with his personal “boy,” young Ten Aram Tamia, a Gilbertese educated under Major Holland, G.C., at the Colony’s King George V school at Tarawa. All worked to daily set tasks and often they would come on the bush party, their stint complete, sitting with old Mautake singing the traditional ruoia songs and composing new themes for their island. After the midday meal some would fish, improve their houses or work on pits for babai (the coarse taro root which grows in the Gilberts only if planted within reach of the subsoil water); and some would accompany Gallagher on exploratory forays through the thick bush.

In early 1941, Gerald Gallagher went on leave, and while returning on the ship Viti became seriously ill. He was taken ashore at 5 p.m. on 24 September, 1941, under the care of Dr. D. C. M. Macpherson but, in spite of all that medical skill could do, died just after midnight on the twenty-seventh. His grave, marked by concrete plinth and bronze memorial plaque, is near the flag mast on the land “Ritiati” from which the Union Jack flies daily. Recently the islanders built and dedicated their permanent maneaba, that combination of assembly hall and shrine of tradition which is the centre of Gilbertese community life, and named it “Uen Maungan i Karaka,” an idiomatic phrase which may be equally translated “Flower to the Memory of Gallagher” and “The Flowering of Gallagher’s Achievement.” Thus they commemorate the English gentleman whose devotion and leadership made their new home possible.

The terrific impact of German and Japanese aggression and global war threw Nikumaroro into the background, and no resident officer replaced Mr. Gallagher. In 1943, however, a survey party came, and thereafter a radio navigation station was set up by the United States Forces. It stands on the south-eastern tip of the atoll, steel Quonset huts and tall radio antennae now abandoned, in lonely comment, jetsam of World War II. While manned, the Americans made great friends with the settlers. Time had been found to build sailing canoes. On the sheltered waters of Nikumaroro lagoon these could be fine, swift racing craft and the visitors learned the unrivalled thrill of racing these twenty-knot, knife-edge fliers. The women, with such a market at their doors took up their handicrafts, and produced mats and fans of unrivalled quality and design.

This radio installation closed down at the end of the war. In such an easy atmosphere the pioneer industry of the early days had been, perhaps, forgotten, and visiting District Officers found a clean, well-kept village but little work on felling bush and planting new areas; also, with the departure of the Americans a certain feeling of temporary despondency arose among the weaker members, a feeling of being botu, or cut-off, abandoned. Shipping difficulties had prevented relatives and friends from joining the settlers, the future seemed doubtful. In 1947, also, that black augury, the isoyet of doubtful rainfall had again been ascendant, and only 19.13 inches of rain had fallen. In these difficult circumstances the tonic of positive, realistic leadership was needed once more, and this was forthcoming in the visit of the new Chief Lands Commissioner, Mr. B.C. Cartland, from Tarawa.

From West Africa, Mr. Cartland arrived at Tarawa in April, 1947, and early noted that the young settlement in the Phoenix Islands was not making the progress toward providing space for further settlers that had been hoped. In September he toured the group in the vessel Kiakia, spending three days at Nikumaroro. He summarized the position he found with welcome, antiseptic realizm. Only two resolute and five dubious intending settlers could be found: the rest wanted to go back to their ancestral homes. The rainfall was doubtful, the soil suitable for buka might not suit coconut; the atoll was isolated making shipping visits difficult, and the settler population was too small for healthy community life. The island was also the cause of unnecessary expense because the settlers were still receiving wages for clearing plantations which they had not, in fact, cleared. If successful and expanding settlement was not possible the island should become a copra plantation managed by the Native Co-operative Society of some other island, and the present settlers should give up and leave.

A Lands Commissioner from Mr. Cartland’s staff arrived on 1 January, 1949, and flatly presented this hard, realistic, Gideon-like policy. The weaker members should pack up and go: if they proved to be a great proportion of the island community then the whole settlement would be given up and a copra plantation formed. Otherwise, new blood would come in on a system of leaseholds, receiving a block of planted land in return for which they should clear and plant specified areas for government. After three years the future of the pioneer settlement would be reviewed. This brusque challenge is what Nikumaroro needed, and the practical scientific realizm of Mr. Cartland joins with the vision of Mr. Maude and the devotion of Mr. Gallagher in establishing the community.

We turned away from the landing, which lies perhaps a mile by track from the visiting officer's house near the Taziman passage. Running back at right angles from the beach is a traverse track straight through to the lagoon. It was overgrown with burr grass with myriad sharply hooked seeds ready to catch in trousers or stockings, and for that reason called “foreigner’s grass” by the Gilbertese since it does not cling in the same way to their bare legs and is not spread by them. It was brought by some enthusiast of the past to feed sheep and goats; now, mutated, the sharp burrs are beyond even a goat’s digestion, and the grass is a pest. Beneficial to the soil however, forming an excellent light mould where it flourishes, showing in the greener vigour of young coconut around which it grows.

To left and right crowded secondary bush. The light sea-sick green of young buka (pisonia grandis), the near silver of the ren (tournefortia argenta), and the hard hollygreen of te mao (scaevola) with occasional kanawa (cordia subcordata) and non (merinda citrifolia), made confused bush. But a second glance showed neglected but strongly growing coconut to the left and through this we turned, as we progressed coming into the well-tended village plantation, and then to the village. This had been beautifully laid out by Gallagher and cleanly kept. A half-mile avenue, edged with coral stones, passed the neat houses along the lagoon shore on our right, the whole area planted with fine flourishing young coconuts in straight lines plantation fashion. At the end of the avenue an archway emblazoned with the Union Jack greeted us with “Welcome to Gardner” in red, white and blue paint. Beyond it the house already showed glimmering lights, and we found our baggage sprawled around while our house-girls made friends with the grinning island boys.

The girls were Nei (or Miss) Temoua, Nei Terenga and Nei Teukinnang. My wife had chosen them from Sydney Island en route for Nikumaroro. The village there had entertained her and the baby while I went about various chores, and had danced and sung and sat cross-legged showing their skill at te wau, the cat’s cradle string figures at which they were adept. Molly chose two of the girls on the basis of their dancing skill, and one because she could keep the baby quiet. None had worked for white skinned people before, or, for that matter, seen more than two or three since their childhood. The eldest was Miss Temoua, aged perhaps twenty-four, with a husband — she seemed vague about this — on Wake Island working for Pan-American Airways. We appointed her as cook. She was a very bad cook and never learnt but she had a kind, patient smile and was a great dancer, expressing a caustic sense of humour in mime to the discomfiture of the victim and the joy of the beholders. Miss Terenga stood five feet two inches, with an impish, jolly smile; she became a first-class nursemaid, and our two-year-old son observed a schedule of clockwork regularity and spotless cleanliness under her care. He was also thoroughly spoilt. Miss Teukinnang was commonly called Miss Morning, to our early confusion. She is the daughter of the Island Magistrate of Sydney Island. She was very fat and a very good laundress. The girls’ wages were a mere gesture; they deigned to accept also their food and clothing. We gave them a schedule of duties to guide them, and thereafter really had little say, or at any rate little effective say in the running of the household.

The house had been built by Jack Kima in the early days of the settlement. It has a concrete floor throughout, and is perhaps twenty-five by sixty feet, the whole under a tall thatched roof carried on te non and pandanus poles. The centre space is divided into three rooms of approximately equal size by partitions eight feet high made of the centre ribs of coconut leaves, called te ba, leaving a four foot verandah all round. An office stood off the west side on the north end, and a balancing structure on the southern end housed the bathroom, lavatory and washbasin. An American lady who had visited with us earlier when the house had been unoccupied for some time, had proceeded to the lavatory, which is of the “thunder-box” variety and found it full of dynamite, having been allocated by the island government as an explosive store. This adjusted, she later washed in the neat and impressive handbasin, with tap, plug and all, mentally apologising for reproaching the British with lack of push-pull sanitation; on removing the plug the water gurgled happily away, emerging immediately around her feet. A bucket should stand below to receive the waste. These and similar details had been squared away before our arrival, and the kitchen too, a corrugated iron roof outhouse, was ready for action. Under the bright glare of Tilley lamps we allocated rooms, sorted out baggage, saw our staff properly housed and settled, and ate a picnic supper.

The acting Island Magistrate was that same Aram Tamia who had accompanied Gallagher as his houseboy. Next day I set out with him on a tour of inspection. A hundred yards from the house to the north was the radio station, under charge of Ten (or Mr.) Tekautu, a skillful, English-speaking, Gilbertese wireless operator. He kept a daily “Met. log” which he transmitted to Canton Island, making also two other daily schedules for official business and private telegrams. His equipment, old and needing replacement, was well and intelligently maintained. Tekautu was unmarried and a little lonely, since he was not a Nikumaroro man. Nearby stood the carpenter’s shop of old Teng Kirata, a man of some fifty-five years of age. He was an early settler, but was one of those dissatisfied; he claimed that in spite of hard work on his piece of land it remained infertile, and he and his wife Kinaai wished to return to their home island of Onotoa with their four young children. Beyond stands the boatshed which houses the whale boat, “Nei Manganibuka”; on the sandy steep beach of the Taziman Passage it faces north toward the wide expanse of Nuziran. Teng Kirata was boat builder too, and we noted that the false keel was torn by the coral and needed renewing, a damaged strake needed replacement and the whole boat painting. Somewhat shamefacedly he put the work in hand. Continuing toward the west we arrived next at the mission school and compound, presided over by Ten Rereia of the London Missionary Society, trained at the mission schools at Bern in the Gilberts. Ten Rereia is over sixty and with his wife Naomi also wished to return to the Gilberts: but he was, he explained, “a mission thing,” and his life was at the mission’s disposal, and he would return on the mission ship when his successor was sent. Of the forty-seven children on the island, most of the younger were at school, and they seemed to have learnt well under old Rereia’s teaching. The Gilbertese people, with very few exceptions, are literate in their own language and leave the mission schools having mastered the three R’s and some elementary geography. The mission compound was well marked out, the straight line of the boundaries having been made with regularly spaced posts of the non tree, which had taken root and grown bushy tops of fresh green leaves.

Beyond the mission is the dispensary and hospital, served by Medical Dresser Totanga, trained at Tarawa. The dispensary is clean and neat, and carries the list of drugs specified by the Senior Medical Officer. Totanga is responsible for asking for replacements when he needs them, and keeps also record books of treatments given, reporting infectious diseases by radio. The hospital is an adjacent native-type house designed to accommodate patients whom the Dresser deems should be in-patients. It is empty. The records show that the island as a whole is very healthy except for a recent epidemic of influenza, brought by our ship on its first visit. These islands are free of disease and each visit by a ship sweeps them with some germ to which we are indifferent by long familiarity; fortunately, efficient control has prevented deadly epidemics since many years past.

We have described a semicircle in reaching the dispensary and are now facing south, with the village houses a hundred yards away on our left. Between is the temporary maneaba used also as a court house. We cross, and walk through the village, greeting the smiling women and talking to the old men, the unimane or patriarchs, who play an influential part in community life. Old Kamarie, whose married son Akura is one of the island workers, is perhaps the leader; Tern Bonibai, grandfather of Aram, the island Magistrate who accompanies us, ranks close, with Uriam and Iobi. The two first named are in the village, and talk of island affairs; the two latter are with the working party.

A Gilbertese village has three buildings to each bata or household. The sleeping and living quarter fronts the village street: behind it is the eating room, about twelve feet away, and behind again the cookhouse. It would be a poor village indeed which was not scrupulously clean, and Nikumaroro prides itself, and is as good as the best. Forty yards away are the village canoe sheds, each household owning at least one of the beautifully made canoes, built up by slim planks sewn together onto a knife-edge keel, which, set slightly askew by the skilful designer, imparts to the hull a built-in bias which compensates for the drag of the streamlined outrigger. Sails are neatly rolled and tidily kept under the roofs. The two village lagoon latrines stand well out on the edge of the flats, reached by long raised walks borne on poles of the non tree, crossed with pathway of te ba, or coconut midrib.

We follow a footpath away to the south through a clump of fifty-year-old coconuts, very tall, bearing heavily, planted long ago by John Arundel’s workers. Quite close we come on an open sandy flat among the trees, three hundred yards long by seventy or eighty wide. Aram tells us that it is flooded on the spring tides from the lagoon, and shows us how, nevertheless, fresh drinkable water may be had by scooping holes a foot or so deep in the sand. He explains how the lagoon, because of its shallow entrances, does not respond to each tide, but rises and falls two feet or so between the neap and spring tides each fortnight. On the comparatively narrow strip between these flats and the lagoon, among tall, old coconut trees, Aram has established his seed-beds for planting, and several thousand of young uto – sprouting coconuts –- stand crowded in a series of oblong beds. When required they will be planted out on newly cleared land, and replaced with fresh seed nuts. They are thriving blocks of bright fresh green.

Following Aram, whose bare feet move easily over the sand while we break through and flounder in the land-crab holes, we reach the area toward the landing place where bush has been allowed to encroach on and choke the growing coconuts, and here we find the working party, engaged in hacking it clear again under the burly Tem Buake, Island Chief of Police. It is tough discouraging work in the heat and we laugh with them at their feckless neglect which has made it necessary. The soil here differs from the coarse white sand or coral fragments over which we have thus far travelled, and is darker, brownish, with occasional patches of the gay yellow-flowered kaura (sida fallax Walp) a small-leaved, heather-like bush prized because its leaves make the best compost for culturing the babai pits. Its presence, too, shows good fertile soil.

This is the end of the Ritiati land, and we come into the area of “Neriti” named for the wreck of the Norwich City on the northern reef. Here, neglect has left tangled bush thriving and dominant: it may not be strictly impenetrable, but it is tough enough to discourage us, and we turn back, leaving the area for survey by canoes from the lagoon shore, and fetch a long detour out to the ocean beach to the west, and make our way slowly back. The wreck of the Norwich City rears up a mile away along the reef to the north, and a mass of coral boulders thrown up by storm or quake lie between. In the afternoon we make our way to them, sending water-snakes or eels skittering, and reach the outer reef, water to our ankles only, but dropping cliff-like to the offshore deeps. Three or four small sharks prowl the crevasses: Aram assures us that they do not eat men, and are easy to catch on handline when their teeth are required to decorate ceremonial swords, or their fins needed for export through the Co-op. Trading Society. Zigzagging through the coconut and bush we reach home with the westering sun behind us, finding the village gay with children's voices after school, and the busyness of the evening meal for the returned men of the working party. The sun sinks with the high singing of the toddy cutters; this practice of cutting toddy marks the boundary between Polynesian and Micronesian. The latter northern peoples select coconut trees coming into bearing and cut the young fruit bearing spathe. It is bound, and hung with a weight adjusted to the weight of the fruit which would be developing, and the ibu, or coconut shell cup is placed to catch the dripping sap. More often in these days a Coca-Cola bottle does duty for ibu. Each morning and evening the full container is replaced by an empty, and a wafer thin slice cut with razor-edge knife from the open end of the spathe to maintain the dripping karewe. This karewe is sweet and very nourishing, and one tree giving well will keep a family from starvation with no other food. Often a working-man will drink a draught at dawn and work vigorously all day without further nourishment. It is full of ferment, and in twelve hours tiny bubbles rise, making it taste of ginger beer and buttermilk. Forty-eight hours after cutting, fermentation is in full progress, and the liquid is called te okitai, then te katukaki, and, when fermentation is complete and the liquid is still, te katikutiku. At this stage it has the alcohol content of strong ale, and is commonly known as te mangingi, the word for intoxicant. Intoxicating it is too, with a wild, quarrelsome, sleepless intoxication if over-indulged which has brought the practice into disrepute. On Nikumaroro the community has long since decided to forswear the use of the fermented form, and the karewe is drunk fresh, or boiled to give a sweet and pleasant cordial.

The sun rises at precisely six every morning at Nikumaroro, year in and year out. We could not understand this at first for the island is appreciably south of the equator, until we found that at sunrise the island clocks are set at six. Our own watches, at zone time, did not correlate very well with this, while the radio shack meanly observed Greenwich time. After a few weeks Nikumaroro won and we lived by the sun. Just before sunrise Nei Temoua would bring tea, at first with Aram vigilantly in the background, determined that on his island things would be done as he, one-time houseboy, knew they should be. The sun would be glowing behind the tall buka trees across the still lagoon, and would then lift yellowly and pour soft golden light across the water from the violet-dark shadows of the profiled buka forest to the rustling coconut heads above us. Following it, a light dawn breeze would disturb the water, cat's-pawing here and there before settling to steady ripples. We would drink tea, and our off spring, washed and dressed, would appear for inspection. Then we rose for our own ablutions. Thus far the days varied only with infrequent rain, and were perfect; after our rising the seeming monotony changed with daily detail giving character. My wife would concern herself with conjuring variety from non-varying tinned foods, at first seeking to bend island environment to our comfort, later and wiser, adapting our idea of comfort to the island. I went about, exploring, questioning and discussing, while the people considered their future and made their decision. We built a flat scow, some twenty-two feet long to help lagoon transport, and from a small petrol pumping engine Ten Rereia constructed a marine conversion job to motorize it, never quite overcoming the various technical hitches involved. In the scow Aram and I, and the young Ellice Island Colony policeman Talesi, went from point to point of the lagoon shore and ferreted and fossicked in the bush by criss-cross paths. Beyond Noriti, where we had turned back because of the thick bush we found patches of coconut jungle where the young nuts, falling and taking root, drove out all other plants. Beyond here, on a lagoon peninsula, Ten Aram showed the site of the “ghost maneaba.” The wife of Teng Koata, the first island leader, had been walking one afternoon and saw a great and perfect maneaba, and sitting under its high thatched roof, Nei Manganibuka, a tall fair woman with long dark hair falling to the ground about her, with two children: she conversed with three ancients, talking of her island of Nikumaroro, and its happy future when it would surely grow to support thousands of inhabitants. Nearby, on either side of the peninsula two large pools form on the lagoon flats, filling on the high springs, when tens of thousands of tiny young baneawa fish take refuge in them from the ravenous ulua which prey on them in the deep water. As the tide falls, the fish crowd ever more closely and the seabirds, particularly the great black frigate birds sweep and dive in hundreds, screaming and crying with frenzied joy at the succulent dish below them: unless indeed the Gilbertese come, and driving away the birds, scoop up the fish for their own food. A rich and tasty dish too, resembling whitebait.

Further along the atoll’s southern rim is the land known as Tekibeia and then, beyond the shallow reef passage of Bauareke the land called Aukaraime. On either side of the passage coconut plantations have been started on land granted to the settlers by Gallagher, and here also are their week-end cottages, built close on the lagoon, which shelves steeply go that canoes can run in to the house entrances on all tides. To the west of the passage lies a piece of land granted in perpetuity to visitors from neighbouring Sydney Island. Further east from the end of Aukaraime the atoll rim narrows, the soil is less fertile, supporting only buka, and that reaching no great size. At the eastern tip the wedge-shaped area is taken up partly by great pools, set in the coral and rain filled. The buka trees rise here sixty feet high, and were partly cleared to accommodate the neat grey iron Quonset huts of the U.S. radio installation, neatly sealed, awaiting dismantling and transportation. Turning the tip to return along the northern rim, narrow, thundering with surf driven by the north-east trade winds, the path ends in a house built for Gallagher on a strip of land cleared from lagoon to ocean beach so that the fresh winds blow easily through. Beyond this there is no path, save along the steeply sloping, sandy ocean beach. At night we came along this beach looking for turtle, catching one fat victim during our stay to make luscious steaks and soups for all the village. Crayfish too, abound on the right tides, caught easily by hand in knee-deep water by torchlight. One day, while returning by canoe we turned in to look over a projecting point of land which faced our house across the lagoon. Some coconut palms grew near the lagoon, and tall, flame-coloured kanawa (cordia subcordata) behind them, yielding excellent well-grained timber for building or furniture. They named this point “Taraia” when we landed — the Gilbertese word for “to look at it” and the word being formed from the initial syllables of the names of the members of our party.

As we settled in the island's quiet routine we appreciated its intensely individual charm and fascination. With its acres of tall, untouched bush and few score inhabitants, its enclosed, calm lagoon deep and fairly free of coral heads, its steady pounding surf falling on the steep-shelving reef with deeper than common boom – the island has upon it a strangely Shangri La quality. The buka forest grows tallest on Nuziran, and the entry to this forest from blinding sun always brought home, with sense of shock, this eerie feeling. Under foot the soil is dark brown, damp and silent with leaves. The great grey-brown fluted trunks of fifty feet high buka trees stand pillared, excluding undergrowth. Through it all a complete silence hard to break: and white fairy terns flutter, rising in scores about and above as one walks gingerly, careful of coconut crabs. After moments the strangeness of the silence is realised as due to the absence of even the sound of the roaring ocean surf, elsewhere omnipresent.

The people of the island went about thoughtfully, considering in their minds the decision they had to take whether to abandon their island and accept the government's offer of a free return passage to their old homes, or whether to stay. There was much talk at nights in the village houses, and the working parties too, spent more time arguing than working. Then, one day, I thought I noticed a lighter, less troubled atmosphere, franker smiles, easier talk; it was confirmed during the days following and I was sure that among themselves they had taken their decision, though as yet they would say nothing outright. They came now with many questions. If they left could they return again: if they stayed could they leave on long visits to their relatives in their home islands: what land grant would be given, and on what terms: what opportunities for wage earning would there be, and so on. These queries had to be answered frankly and fairly, and then we met in the maneaba and talked again lengthily, going over the same ground, until the whole was clear.

They asked us to come to an amarake, a feast, and a dance in their maneaba. We came, bringing our small gifts and sat down in the place allotted for visitors, the food already prepared, spread on green leaves, arranged on three sides of a square. We sat at one end of the floor, and from the opposite right-hand side of the open end of the displayed food, old Kamarie rose to speak for the people, deprecating the poor unworthy meal they laid before us, apologizing for their small maneaba and few numbers, thanking us for being with them and for the time we had spent and the help we had given on their many difficult problems, and making us welcome. The old man’s voice, cracked and weak at first in that shabby hutment, gathered force as he called out the sonorous rolling language of his proud tradition, while over his listening audience gathered all the gods and heroes who shaped this people, implicit in every fibre of the maneaba building and strong in its vigilantly guarded ritual. Since their self-respect and dignity was formed in a hard school in a poverty-stricken environment, it in no way depends on show of material wealth; when the old man was finished we rose to say haltingly of our sincere pleasure, and to lay our gifts before them. Then a younger man stood up from the left-hand side, speaking also in welcome, using the clipped and quicker modern phrases which we followed easily, bringing forward at conclusion a green drinking coconut. Each family spoke in turn, laying their drinking nut in the centre to show that all in the community had shared in preparing the occasion according to their means, and that all had part in the welcome given us. Then their women passed along handicrafts which they had made, beautifully woven feathered fans and small mats, and a man of each household brought these forward, together with a small ceremonial sword edged with shark’s teeth given to show that there could be no quarrel between us. We thanked each donor, admiring the fine gifts, and then passing them behind us to Talesi, the Colony policeman who acted as our orderly; showing that we valued, not the gifts themselves, but the spirit in which they were given. This completed, Ten Rereia, the mission pastor, rose from the old men’s corner to lead a Christian grace before the meal, speaking impressively in well-balanced words. An old man picked up a piece of food, called out that it was good, and popped it in his mouth. We turned to our companions speaking laughingly, and fell to. Chicken cooked in coconut milk, five or six varieties of coconut and babai pudding, rice from the store, bread and doughnuts, fish fried and again, cooked in coconut milk, sweets from pandanus sugar, draughts of sweet kamimi and delicious fresh oimoto, the green coconut, to drink. We ate slowly and well, being careful to leave plenty in spite of protest, for the Gilbertese do not waste food. Then we excused ourselves for a walk in the fresh air before returning for the dance in the evening.

We found the hall brightly lit in the dusk, the food cleared, the people waiting. After some nudging one of the men rose and apologized for the paucity of talent and the few people; they would do their best. They moved about, arranging themselves without rising, or, if they rose, moving with bent head, for it is bad manners indeed for the head to be held above the heads of an assembly, or to intercept the direct glance between other people. When ready a dozen men in trident form faced us, bare to the waist, with delicately woven mats covering their khaki shorts as they sat cross-legged. Old Uriam at the head of the centre line was the leader in the ruoia te bino that had been made in the first days of the pioneer settlement, calling on the goddess Nei Manganibuka. Iobi seated on the right lateral prong as the trident-form faced us called a high rising “A ka-ke-ia,” repeated after an interval; then, on the third repetition of the cry the song started, the deep resonant voices striking in perfect timing, at first almost a monotone, then rising but a few notes and falling, in close vibrant harmonies, pause and stress combining with melody to re-create the sea surges, while extended arms, and delicately moving fingers and gesture of head and eye told the story with the balanced syllables of the words. On a perfect climax the verse ceased, clean-cut and final as though cymbals had crashed. The singers re-arranged themselves. The new leader of the centre took place — our cook, Miss Temoua: no trace of our sometimes sloppy servant-girl in her demeanour now, but authority and confidence as she took the place of honour to which her skill and knowledge entitled her. Seated, she drew the dancing mat over her crossed legs, settled the wreaths of flowers on her breast, lifted her glowing, golden-skinned arms slowly and at a slight lift of her head the verse started, precisely, moving a little more quickly with sharp introduced overtones. The girl, as she sat there leading the strong voices was timeless, universal, with the gift of the great dancer she identified in the mind of the onlooker the music, the story of the song and her own flowing movements in one perfect artistry. A younger man led the third verse to its vigorous, triumphant conclusion, carrying the listeners so that the end followed into clapping and congratulations.

Then after a pause the hum of conversation ceased as four younger men rose to sing the song of the first search for water. In simple, vivid, repetitious pantomime they looked, searching here and there, digging and failing and searching again, then triumphantly finding and drinking the sweet water and giving thanks for it. Followed other standing dances, all in the form of the fatere, an Ellice Island traditional dance-form spread long since among the Gilbertese, the performers increasing in numbers, the women rising to join in until all subsided after a rousing leaping number, laughing and out of breath, to talk, and smoke the black, strong plug tobacco we had given with our presents. They sang when their breath returned, hymn melodies and dance tunes picked up by travelers, transmuted by their own harmonies. Then the younger folk played the dance game, the faka samoa, a courtship dance in which couples mime the challenge, rebuff and encouragement of flirtatious sex, with short graceful steps to match the swing of the grass skirts, and lilting insistent guitar rhythm. We went home, sooner than we would have wished, but later than we had intended, escorted by our friend and interpreter Itibwinnang, with swinging lantern, leaving the people to round out the evening with those songs and that gossip which the presence of even the most friendly stranger inhibits.

Nothing had been said overtly, but it was understood that the island would not be abandoned; some would return, but the majority intended to stay. Next morning, therefore, we put the working party on to clearing and making development roads which had been surveyed during the preceding days. We went to the landing-place, and cleared the cross-track from there to the lagoon. On the north side, toward the village, much of the secondary bush had been cleared, showing a fairly healthy coconut plantation, with gaps where trees had been choked by bush or had for some other reason not developed. To the south, the land Noriti was still dense bush jungle. Through this we cut our way, choosing a line some forty feet from the lagoon. Aram the Magistrate and Buake the Chief of Police led the way, swinging cane knives, guided by compass, slowly forming a footpath, while behind us the main gang widened it to some four feet. It was hot stifling work, with the bush on either side cutting off every breath of air while the sun beat into the narrow track. As we progressed we came to patches of the yellow kaura here and there. At the end of the day we had cut a mile of rough track, reaching the nearer baneawa flat on the north of the peninsula of Nei Manganibuka’s ghost maneaba. Next day we returned, rectifying our trace here and there to give a smoothly curving road alignment. We could see now that substantial areas of coconut had survived, and the rank fertility gave good promise for the whole area. By the end of the day the road was pegged out and the gang started in to widen it to eighteen feet, digging up roots, transplanting young coconut trees, smoothing the surface. The pace of work was very different from the previous days, and soon the whole was clear right through.

We declared a picnic in celebration. This was the area that Gallagher had promised for the kainga lands of the permanent village. The Gilbertese kainga, or family unit, hold their clan lands in strict male primogeniture; other lands acquired by marriage or gift are devised in accordance with strict rule, but may pass to younger children or relatives. The kainga land is therefore of importance apart from its productive value as giving the boti or place in the home maneaba. There was long talk among the people to determine the measurement to be adopted for their kainga lands here, and after much discussion all agreed that they should be one hundred feet in width and run in strips from lagoon to sea. These then were carefully measured out and pegged, all being present at the driving of each peg to minimize the chance of later dispute. It was dusk before the work was complete, and we returned, slowly, singing or talking, the children carried or trotting solemnly in the procession. Next day commenced the erection of the boundary marks. We allotted some spoilt cement and damaged piping and old paint from the U.S. radio site stores, title in which had passed to the British Government. Old Kirata and assistants cut the pipe into four-foot lengths; the cement was mixed, pits dug under each peg, part filled with clean rubble, the length of pipe driven in erect and its foot bound with cement. A number was given to each plot and engraved in the wet cement. Later they returned and filled the engraved numbers with pitch, painted the projecting pipes, topping them with scarlet for gay effect. The completion of this merited another picnic during which the lines of the plots were carried from lagoon to sea, marked with stones and small boulders. Each landowner, sure of his lines, then threw himself and his family enthusiastically into the work of clearing. No more clock-watching. In the grey dawn they would be there, men working, women preparing food or washing the family laundry, children making heaps of the cut for burning. After a while we suggested that the children return to their schooling, and they did, but the work did not slacken, and in a very short time the mile long area was clear from beach to beach, the fresh wind blowing across rustling leaves of near a thousand strong healthy young coconut, many near bearing, which were previously choked and concealed by the bush.

They waited on us, asking that the house plots be now demarcated. This was done by the Magistrate Aram and the old men while we watched. The houses stood back a uniform distance from the road, each a uniform size and in the centre of its plot. The area in which the houses stood was to be bare-clean, even of grass; the strip between road and lagoon to be equally clean and kept for canoe houses. Behind the dwellings, the eating and cook-houses, to leeward in the prevailing trade winds, were also to be uniform. They showed me a deep well, dug by Gallagher and Jack Kima with dynamite, twenty and more feet deep, giving always pure water. Near it was the site of the permanent maneaba in the approximate centre of the village. At the northern end of the village would be the Protestant mission school, at the southern end the Catholic, under Ten Teibi, a fine man in high regard of the community. The cooperative store was allotted a site near the landing-place, but still convenient to the village. The planning complete, the erection of houses commenced with the same speed and drive as had characterized the clearing. Some built new houses, driving the four corner posts of stout pandanus or of te non tree, prefabricating the roof and calling on friends to raise it on to the corner posts. Returning one evening we met a house walking along from the old village, chanting, while forty bare feet below its skirting indicated its means of propulsion. Next day a small regatta of houses came sailing down the lagoon, brought from the week-end cottages on the Aukaraime land; after beaching themselves opposite the new village they too walked, centipedally, up the beach to the site. Within a week the move was complete, the old village area now inhabited only by those who would return, the new by the majority who were to remain.

We now compiled lists of each party, taking their signatures to statements of their intentions. Those who were to return continued to work for government until the arrival of a ship, spending their time maintaining the Ritiati plantation. This area, the most fully developed on the island, was now free to divide into leasehold plots which would be offered to the new intake of settlers, and the Magistrate and old men helped to mark it out accordingly. Also we marked out in the bushland beyond Noriti, called Tekibeia, the areas which the leaseholders would clear for Government, for allocation in turn to later immigration parties. The whole Sector to the south of the Taziman passage was now surveyed and allocated, with a clear road running four miles through it. First the plantation area of Ritiati, fertile and well-established, then, past the landing-place through the new village on Noriti, then past Nei Manganibuka's spirit maneaba through the Tekibeia leasehold development plots into the week-end lands of Aukaraime on either side of the smaller Bauareke passage, in all over two hundred acres of good coconut land.

Until now the island had been without formal local authority. It was time to form the Island Government, and this was done. Ten Aram Tamaia, Works Supervisor and acting Magistrate, did not wish to remain longer, looking for more highly paid work at Canton Island or elsewhere. Tem Buake replaced him, making a substantial and dignified magistrate whose personality gave him natural authority in the community. Appointed too were the kaubure, the Island Police, the Boat Captain and the Scribe, while the “old men” selected their members of the all-important Island Land’s Court. Much time, too, was spent on the Cooperative Society which, strictly speaking, did not exist, for the vacuum left by Gallagher's death stunted development of the workmen's ration store which existed in his time. The accounts had been squarely kept by the island Scribe. A small committee of younger men and women were encouraged to take a direct interest in a comprehensive stock-taking and audit, and the principles of cooperative trading explained to them. Their propaganda spread among the people; a young storekeeper, trained in double entry book-keeping in the mission school at Beru, named Moriti (anglice Maurice) was a welcome surprise find. Everyone who remained to settle decided to join and promised to contribute their share of trading capital. Many handicrafts were brought in, bought, and neatly packed and labelled with the maker’s name for sale on Canton Island to airways passengers. The proceeds would pay for the next shipment of flour, rice and trade goods, the presence of which in the store on sale would in turn stimulate copra production and set up the economic cycle necessary to financial solvency. Later, the Cooperative Societies Officer from Tarawa would visit them and help them further; in the meantime they would learn by mistakes, and government would see that their cash was safeguarded.

The pattern of living now shaped itself toward the arrival of the next ship, due shortly, and while waiting we turned to complete the clarification of land-holdings on the area reserved for the coarse taro-root, the babai (alocasia indica). This was on Nuziran, on the fringe of the great buka forest. The tenure is different from that of ordinary land. The babai grows well only if a pit is dug down to the subsoil water and this digging is a great work. The pit then belongs to the man who has dug it, not the landowner, and the rules of inheritance and devise bear more similarity to those used for canoes and other valued possessions than to the rules for land. On Nikumaroro, however, there was no ownership of the land on which the pits had been dug. This complication was therefore absent. We had merely to establish a road, set-off from it the area to be reserved for babai pits, and subdivide this according to the requirements of the people. While working on this area we drove a twelve-foot road through the thick buka jungle, bringing down several sixty-foot giants, linking with a survey crosstrack that came out to the ocean beach opposite the wreck of the Norwich City. This established cross-bearings for future check, should it be needed. We crossed to and from Nutiran by water, sailing our five-knot scow with leeboards while the canoes swooped and circled round; the family craft sedate but still swift, the young men swankily riding with outriggers lifted clear so that the slim hull offered minimum resistance, the V-shaped sails catching even the lightest wind.

Now, while expecting our relief ship, the wireless broke down. For many days we were without contact; it is a curious feeling for a civilized man, and one to which we never became used. One morning, with the dawn cup of tea, they said: “There is a ship.”

We leapt briskly up. “What, the Colony ship?” we said, preparing to rush out. “No,” they replied, “a big ship.”

We rushed away and, briskly shaved and dressed, reached the landing beacon. A United States Navy L.S.T. was offshore, had very kindly called in when they heard that our radio had gone off the air. Courteously, they offered us passage to Canton Island, which we took, and welcomed our own M.V. Maureen there a few days afterward.

It was months later before we visited Nikumaroro, this time on a British warship, H.M.N.Z.S. Kaniere. We made landfall shortly after dawn, but the Magistrate Tem Buake, warned by radio, was out ready for us, lying off shore in the whaleboat Nei Manganibuka, smart, with the members of his Island Government, a quick-moving and willing team. During the interchange of visits we found Nikumaroro fulfilling all its promise, and toward evening the people gathered on the beach, singing the Gilbertese Song of Farewell, a beautiful, plaintive melody, as their boat ferried the members of the landing party through the surf to the ship's launch waiting offshore. Their easy confident voices improvized harmonic variations during the wait, and as we left their cheery “Ti a kabo” (We shall meet again), rang out. As the ship drew away their figures grew smaller under the coconut palms, the coconut in turn shrinking to a strip between the darker still untamed buka, the whole atoll blending to a line on the ocean horizon, then disappearing, leaving them to face the age-old, if now infrequent, problems of bringing untouched, isolated land into man’s usage.

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