Volume 61 1952 > Volume 61, No. 1 + 2 > The colonization of the Phoenix Islands, by H. E. Maude, p 62-89
THE COLONIZATION OF THE PHOENIX ISLANDS
[Mr. Maude was formerly Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony and is now Member for Social Development on the South Pacific Commission Research Council.]
In his recent report on research needs in Polynesia and Micronesia, Dr. F. M. Keesing emphasizes the importance of recording details of the various colonization experiments which have taken place in the area, since the experience gained is likely to prove of practical value to other administrations faced with similar re-settlement problems. 1 Attention has also been drawn to the subject of population displacement by Dr. Leonard Mason's authoritative article on the migrations of the Bikini Islanders, 2 and by the Society for Applied Anthropology, which held a special symposium on the subject at their annual meeting last year.
Having pioneered more than one experiment in folk migration in the Central Pacific region during the years 1935–1945, I feel that I should give some account of a page of Pacific history which has its own intrinsic interest as well as showing how former traditions of race migration, common to all peoples of Polynesia and Micronesia, can be successfully revived, even at this late stage, leading to the re-drawing of racial maps.
During these ten years I visited most of the uninhabited British islands in the Central and Eastern Pacific and was instrumental in purchasing or otherwise acquiring no less than 14 islands for colonization purposes, thus commencing a revolutionary trend which I believe will result, before the present decade is over, in virtually all European-owned or leased land in the region reverting to native ownership and user.
The present article tells the story of the first of our colonization ventures—the Phoenix Islands Settlement - 63 Scheme—and has been divided into three rather distinct parts:—
It is, I am afraid, inevitable that the account should consist, to a large degree, of personal narrative: the transplantation of a native community from their ancestral homes to a new land cannot be successfully accomplished by secretariat direction, but only by enthusiasm and an absolute trust between the leaders and those who follow. In these enlightened times we call such schemes by the term “community development,” and special techniques have been developed for creating and maintaining group enthusiasm. I have yet to learn, however, of a venture which did not, in the long run, depend for its success on the twin factors of leadership and affectionate trust. In the case of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, that quality of leadership was provided, particularly in the later stages, by G. B. Gallagher, a young cadet in the Colonial Service, whose devotion to duty led to his own death on the islands to which he had brought his people. 3
THE INCEPTION OF THE SETTLEMENT SCHEME.
Shortly after the main voyages of discovery in the Pacific it became apparent that most, if not all, the island peoples then in contact with Europeans were in process of more or less rapid numerical decline. In the years which followed, much thought was devoted by missionaries, sociologists and Governments to this problem of depopulation and a variety of convincing reasons were advanced as to the cause underlying it: in general, the gradual disappearance of the Polynesian and Micronesian peoples was considered to be as inevitable as it was regrettable and the - 64 task of the missionary and administrator was essentially to smooth the pillows of dying races.
In the year 1927, however, Dr. S. H. Roberts showed, in his Population Problems of the Pacific, 4 that earlier predictions had been too pessimistic. The islanders had, for the most part, survived the dislocation caused by their early contacts with European civilization and were now well on the way to racial regeneration. Dr. Roberts showed that, of the then total native population of 315,105 in Polynesia and Micronesia, no less than 300,395 were increasing, 9,562 were stationary, 3,398 decreasing, and only 1,750 regarded as hopeless. Since that time, moreover, the entire population has moved into the category labelled “increasing” and some, for example the Samoans, should be in a special class marked “multiplying rapidly”: even the two former hopeless cases, the Marquesans and Easter Islanders, are showing unmistakeable signs that they have passed their population nadir. 5
This statistical vindication of the effectiveness of their several policies was naturally one on which the various Governments of the Pacific could afford to congratulate themselves. Practically every administration possessed a number of “high” (or volcanic) islands; and where there were “high” islands there was reasonable room, in the mountainous interiors, for future population expansion. What need had Samoa to worry, for example, even if her population graphs did bear an ominous resemblance to those of Java in the early days of European administration, for surely her mountain valleys could take many times her present numbers.
In one Pacific administration, however, this resurgence of native life was a problem from the very start, whether it was recognized at the time or not. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony comprised Ocean Island (the administrative headquarters), the 16 islands of the Gilbert Group, 9 in the Ellice, and Fanning, Washington and Christmas in the Northern Line: of the 29, 4 were owned or leased to European- i
Top: McKean: “We did not omit the ceremony of hoisting the flag.”, Bottom: Water is found—Sydney Island., Top: Karaka—the first village to be built on Gardner Island., Middle: The first house is built on Sydney Is., Bottom: An emergency cistern built for the colonists—Hull Island.
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firms, leaving 25 inhabited by the indigenous population. Here were no fertile volcanic islands, but low and flat coral atolls; barren as sandbanks and minute in size. Ocean Island, the one exception, certainly rose to the towering eminence of 300 feet but compensated for it by being in many ways the most barren of the lot. Virtually nothing edible grew from end to end of the Colony except the coconut, the pandanus (or screw pine) and a coarse calladium termed “babai”: this, with fish, constituting the native diet from infancy to death. It required no gift of second sight to predict, then, that these 25 islands had either been considerably under-peopled during recent decades or else would exemplify, long before the rest of the South Seas, the problem of over-population.
In the event we had not long to wait for an answer. In 1931 I took the first detailed census of the Gilbert and Ellice Groups, which showed, when compared with previous estimates and counts, that the population of the 7 Southern Gilbert Islands (by far the most thickly-inhabited part of the Colony) had scarcely altered throughout the present century, whereas the rest of the Colony had witnessed increases, in some cases of a substantial nature.
Subsequent investigations made among the natives of these islands, where, incidentally, my wife and I had our permanent home, showed that they had always been unconscious exemplifiers of Mendelian laws, in so much as the total numbers on each island had to be kept strictly within the fixed limit set by the local means of subsistence. The optimum population density on each island had been reached by the year 1840, if not long before, and since then the natives had been relying on the population checks of infanticide, warfare, compulsory emigration and abortion to prevent their natural prolificity outrunning their food resources. The position was, however, fast becoming serious: firstly, because the Government had successfully prohibited all the controls with the exception of abortion, which it discouraged without being able to prevent, and, secondly, since the effects of the Medical Department in reducing the infant morality rate had resulted in a larger percentage of the population than hitherto being young people who would later be marrying. Furthermore, owing to a variety of fortunate circumstances, the shock of European - 66 contact in the Gilberts had passed off with less effect than usual.
Investigations in the villages showed a hitherto unsuspected degree of poverty among certain families, resulting in minute subdivisions of inherited land and continual litigation on land matters. So great was the land hunger that there was an estimated 76,000 pending land cases among a population of under 27,000. Matters were not improved by the fact that since the advent of the Government and Missions the native could not longer consume the entire produce of his lands: he had now to have a surplus to pay his Government tax, the various mission subscriptions, for clothing himself and his family, as well as for the numberless other necessities of modern life. With what might be described as a rising standard of living, the islands could naturally support an even smaller population than before.
Here, then, was a clear call for Government action. We ourselves had largely created the problem and the native, prevented from solving it in his customary manner, looked to us for a solution. Migration seemed the obvious answer, and from 1931 onwards we combed the Central and Eastern Pacific for suitable uninhabited islands. High islands there were a-plenty in Fiji, Tonga, and elsewhere—but the Gilbertese are one of the most highly-specialized races on earth and, even had any been available for colonization purposes, it seemed a pity to settle them on fertile volcanic islands when they would far rather live on the barren sandbanks they were accustomed to.
Confining our quest to coral islands, therefore, and to these included in the British Empire—for the Gilbertese strenuously declined to consider any migration project which involved a change of allegiance—we found our choice limited to a grand total of 22. Apart from the 8 Phoenix Islands these included Howland and Baker, slightly to the north of this Group; Fanning, Washington and Christmas in the Northern, Malden, Starbuck and Jarvis in the Central, and Flint, Caroline and Vostok in the Southern Line Group; and Nassau, Suwarrow and the Herveys in the Cook Group. We were in any case in no position to pick or choose, as most of the Islands were in the freehold or leasehold possession of some European firm, while Howland, Baker and Jarvis were claimed, and later taken over, - 67 by the United States. From the very start the Phoenix Islands seemed the best Group to commence operations on, since they were the nearest and had a soil and climate markedly similar to the Gilberts; and in the 1931 Census Report I wrote that “these Islands, with their comparatively fertile soil and abundant supply of fish, may well become of great value in the not-distant future as an outlet for the population of the Gilbert Islands, which threatens to increase rapidly beyond the slender means of subsistence afforded by the inhospitable environment.” 6
Convinced of the problem and its solution, my wife and I embarked on a campaign to persuade the authorities that a migration scheme was a practical proposition, and a succession of letters, interviews and petitions (the island of Beru sent one signed by no less than 750 intending colonists) finally led to the local administration recommending in 1936 that the possibility of colonizing the Phoenix Islands should be officially investigated. We were working in Hawaii at the time but unfortunately the news had hardly reached us when we also heard that I was to be transferred to Africa, on health grounds: as no one else at that time was sufficiently au fait with the project, its realization thus seemed as far off as ever.
But to cut a long story short my health had so far improved by July, 1937, that we were able to return to the Gilbert Islands, and in the following September I was directed by Sir Arthur Richards, then High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, to lead a pioneering expedition to the Phoenix Group to report on the suitability of the various islands for permanent colonization, the Colony Schooner “Nimanoa” 7 being assigned to me for the projected work, together with Mr. E. R. Bevington, a Cadet newly arrived from England who was to act as Assistant.
On 18 September I said good-bye to my wife, who was off for three months' work collecting string figures on - 68 Nauru, and set sail for the Southern Gilberts and Northern Ellice, where we spent some time conducting a first-hand investigation into the extent of the over-population problem and collecting delegates to accompany the expedition to the Phoenix. At each island visited we called a meeting of the people at which the aim of the expedition was explained and the island invited to choose delegates to accompany it and assist in the work. In all 16 delegates were taken: 5 from Beru, 2 from Onotoa and 3 from Arorae in the Gilberts; and 2 from Nanumea and 4 from Nuitao in the Ellice. Despite the intense excitement evinced at each of our meetings, somewhat natural under the novel circumstances which occasioned them, the island delegates were chosen from among the more cautious elements in the population and at the outset none of them were particularly prepossessed in favour of the scheme. We were pleasurably surprised by the business-like way in which they set about their work and by the concise and accurate manner in which they summed up the merits and disadvantages of each island. Good though the delegates were, however, the mainstay of the expedition was undoubtedly my own personal staff, consisting of Tem Mautake, the first Assistant to the Native Lands Commission and an acknowledged expert on all aspects of native custom; Teng Koata, the Magistrate of Onotoa, whose exceptional qualities of loyalty and leadership had been proved in the Onotoa religious troubles of 1931; and Tutu, the doyen of the Colony Native Medical Practitioner Service. A finer trio it would be hard to find in the Central Pacific.
Leaving Nuitao on 9 October we set sail due east for McKean and Canton and the following day crossed the International Date Line which, to the astonishment of the delegates, gave us a couple of Sundays. And at this stage of the narrative it would seem desirable to give an account of what little was known at the time about that most remote of Pacific Groups and its history.
THE PHOENIX ISLANDS.
The Phoenix Group is situated just south of the equator in the centre of a horse-shoe shaped ring of similar coral - 69 islands which together comprise the Central Equatorial Islands of the Pacific. To the west lie the Gilberts and Ellice, to the south the Tokelaus and Northern Cooks, and to the east the Line Group, the north being open sea. The islands are 8 in number and fall into 3 clearly-defined subgroups; the comparatively fertile islands of Sydney, Hull and Gardner to the south, the three minute satellite islets of Phoenix, Birnie and McKean, which match them in the centre, and the “dry” islands of Canton and Enderbury in the north. All being of coralline structure, their most marked differences are as regards size and lagoon formation. Canton, Hull and Gardner are typical lagoon islands; Sydney is an “intermediate” type island where the access between the lagoon and the sea has become blocked up, though the channel is still discernible, leaving a large and intensely salt lake in the centre; while the remainder have only small depressions, usually filled with salt water to show where the lagoons once lay. I would observe, in passing, that, although the geological formation of all the 57 Central Pacific Equatorial Islands is similar, the question of what happens to a lagoon, once its access to the sea has been cut off, appears to depend on the rainfall of the area where the particular island lies. If it is a “wet” island, like Washington, the lagoon will become a fresh-water lake; if a “dry” island, like Jarvis or Enderbury, the lagoon will tend to disappear altogether, leaving a deposit of salt and gypsum; and if an “intermediate” island, like Sydney, the lagoon will remain, though with diminished size and increased salinity.
All the Phoenix Group are low and flat, nowhere more than 20 feet in height. Those with lagoons are of typical atoll formation; mere ribbons of land, averaging about 300 yards in width, surrounding a central lagoon, which in the case of Canton Island, the largest, covers an area approximately 9 miles by 4½. Apart from rectangular Enderbury, the others are saucer-shaped, the land rising abruptly from the shore to a beach crest (which is naturally highest on the weather side) and then sinking gently to the central depression.
Being nowhere more than 5 degrees south of the equator, the climate of all the islands is naturally warm, but tempered by the almost constant trade winds which - 70 blow throughout the year. The general direction of wind is east, usually south-east, and occasionally the west, which brings rain and rough weather (the “Westerlies” of the Gilberts). The temperature averages about 82 degrees, with maxima and minima varying only a few degrees above and below this figure, and a variation of less than 3 degrees between the monthly means.
The rainfall of each island varies roughly in proportion to its distance from the equator, and its fertility, where all have a similar geological structure, is dependent almost entirely on its rainfall. Gardner, the furthest south, has the greatest rainfall and is by far the most fertile; after Gardner follows Hull and then Sydney; next, the three central islets, Phoenix, Birnie and McKean; and, finally, the dry and barren northern islands of Canton and Enderbury. The rainfall is, in any case, extremely variable as between one month and another or one year and another, dependent on changes in the trade winds: at a guess I would estimate that the northern islands average about 25 inches and Gardner up to 100 inches.
The soil throughout the group—if you can call it soil—is a light brown coral sand with a low percentage of organic matter: on Gardner alone it has a darker and moister appearance, at times resembling the peat bogs of Washington Island in the northern wet belt. It supports a somewhat sparse flora consisting of some 20 to 30 species, of which the principal are the “Ren” (Tournefortia argentea) and “Mao” (Scaevola frutescens), growing immediately behind the beach crest; followed by the “Non” (Morinda citrifolia), “Buka” (Pisonia grandis) and “Kanawa” (Cordia subcordata). Underfoot, the main grass is the tufty Lepturus repens, interspersed with thickets of the “Koura” bush (Sida fallax), while the lagoon shores and salt flats are covered with the fleshy green pigweed or “Boi” (Sesuvium portulacastrum), which was found to be an invaluable emergency food during the early days of settlement. This vegetation is seen ideally only on Gardner, since Canton and Enderbury are too rainless to support any “buka,” or indeed any trees at all except a few stunted “kanawa,” “ren” or “mao”; the three central islets are too small to support any but procumbent grasses and pigweed, with an occasional windswept - 71 “koura” plant; while on Hull and Sydney coconut plantations have largely taken the place of the former “buka” forest.
The fauna of the Group can be dismissed briefly as consisting of seabirds by the million, who breed there; and in particular the frigate bird, boobies or gannets, the red-tailed tropic bird and the white and sooty terns, with lizards, rats and crabs. Phoenix Island has a large number of very poor-looking rabbits, released many years ago by a visiting ship, of which more anon; and Gardner some of the largest coconut, or robber, crabs in the Pacific.
To turn now to the history of the Phoenix Islands; the archaeological evidence, as examined by the Bishop Museum Templeton Crocker Expedition, indicates that Sydney Island at one time supported a considerable population, while both Hull and Gardner were occupied for at any rate a short period in their history. According to Emory, the remains found are definitely Polynesian and closely related to marae and house foundations on Necker, Nihoa, Malden and some of the Tuamotuan Islands. The islands must have been either temporary resting-places for voyagers between the high and fertile islands, as in the case of Fanning and Christmas, or else abandoned as unsuitable, for when first discovered they were in every case uninhabited.
The question of the actual discovery of each island by Europeans is still unsettled and the subject of considerable controversy. Let it suffice here that they were almost certainly all discovered by British or American whaling skippers between 1820 and 1830. The seas round the Phoenix Group were much frequented by whalers between 1820 and 1850, but the masters of whaling vessels were not explorers and anything but punctilious in reporting their discoveries when they got home, especially as theirs was a secretive trade and they were reluctant to disclose where they obtained their catches. Furthermore, they regarded the islands as little more than obstructions to navigation and landings were seldom made except to collect seabirds' eggs.
The islands first became known to the outside world through the accidental discovery of their phosphate-guano deposits by the master of one of the later whaling ships, a - 72 Captain M. Baker, who landed on the island to the north of the Phoenix Group proper bearing his name, in 1839, for the purpose of burying a member of his crew. Baker's enterprise led to the formation of the American Guano Company in New York, to whom he sold his claim to the island. Samples of what later came to be known as “American Guano” were sent to the States in 1855 and the following year the American Guano Act was passed by Congress, by which islands containing phosphate deposits discovered by American Citizens might, if not within the jurisdiction of any other Power, be declared by the President to be “appertaining to the United States”. The island could then be “bonded” and exclusive extraction rights granted to the discoverer of the deposits.
With the exception of Hull, all the islands of the Phoenix Group were “bonded” under the American Guano Act, usually by persons representing the American Guano Company, or its subsidiary, the Phoenix Guano Company. Only three islands, however, were actually worked: McKean, from 1859 to 1870; Phoenix, from 1860 to 1871; and Enderbury, from 1862 to 1877. Supplies and workers were taken to the islands about four times a year by schooner from Honolulu, while a large number of vessels of various nationalities loaded the phosphate-guano for American and foreign ports.
From 1877 to 1881 the Group remained uninhabited, and probably unvisited. In the latter year, however, Mr. John T. Arundel, a British subject with large guano-mining and coconut-planting interests, landed on Sydney, and the permanent exploitation of the islands began. John T. Arundel's name is comparatively unknown to the general public and yet he is undoubtedly one of the greatest men who have influenced the history of the Central Pacific: a true Empire-builder, his pioneering work has never received proper recognition and a biography of him is, I suggest, long overdue.
As far as the Phoenix were concerned, Mr. Arundel soon obtained control of the whole Group, with the possible exception of McKean, apparently acting either as an agent of the former American companies, as on Canton and Enderbury, or as the direct transferee of any shadowy interests they might still be considered to have, as on Hull, - 73 Sydney, Gardner and Phoenix. During the course of the next decade, Messrs. John T. Arundel and Company proceeded to work the phosphate-guano deposits on Canton and Sydney; completed the working of those on Enderbury; and planted coconut trees on each of these islands, as well as on Hull, Gardner and probably Phoenix. In each case, with the exception of Enderbury, Mr. Arundel acted under Guano and Coconut Planting Licences granted by the British Government. I should add that the planting operations on Hull were in charge of Mr. James Ellis, of Auckland, and his brother, the late Sir Albert Ellis, who was also associated with the phosphate working on Canton. 8
The activities of Mr. Arundel were in marked contrast with those of the Americans who had preceded him, since it was his fixed policy to turn the islands into permanent assets by developing plantations which would come into bearing as the guano deposits became exhausted. However, on only two islands, Hull and Sydney, have the plantations survived to the present day, the rest dying in the exceptionally severe drought which affected the whole area from 1890 to 1894.
During the year 1889, Phoenix, Birnie, Sydney and Hull were placed under British protection by Commander Oldham, of H.M.S. “Egeria,” as it was thought at the time that one of them would probably be required in connexion with the then proposed trans-Pacific Cable. In 1892 Captain Gibson, of H.M.S. “Curaçoa,” similarly annexed Gardner, presumably owing to the activities of Mr. Arundel, who had already commenced planting there. In March, 1937, or shortly before my first visit, the whole Group was included, as a new District, within the boundaries of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, by Order in Council.
No purpose would be served in detailing the transactions by which the islands passed through the successive hands of John T. Arundel and Co.; the Pacific Islands Co. Ltd.; Lever's Pacific Plantations Ltd.; and the Samoa Shipping and Trading Co. Ltd.; to Messrs. Burns, Philp (South - 74 Sea) Co. Ltd., who were the lessees from the British Government at the time of my first visit. Suffice it to say that after 1893 the only islands exploited in any way were Hull and Sydney. Although even these plantations had been abandoned for some years, we found a Mr. J. W. Jones working them again in 1937 with a few labourers from the Tokelau Islands.
THE PHOENIX ISLANDS SETTLEMENT SCHEME.
After this digression, which I hope will have conveyed an impression of the locale of the colonization experiment, we can now resume the main thread of the narrative where we left off: making in the “Nimanoa” for McKean and Canton. We did not reach either island, however, for contrary winds forced our little under-powered schooner to make across the wind to Gardner. We arrived at this atoll on 13 October and tied up to the wreck of the “Norwich City,” near the main lagoon entrance. I remember stepping out of the canoe into the shallow water on the edge of the reef with a feeling of pride at being the first to land on this remote shore for many years; but this was soon cured by a young lagoon shark, which knocked me over in its pursuit of a school of fish. The lagoon and shore waters of Gardner teemed with fish, like those of all uninhabited coral islands, and in the hold of the “Norwich City” they were swimming around in thousands: the officers of the “Nimanoa” used to shoot them by torch-light with revolvers.
Once ashore, we proceeded on the work of the expedition: the island was thoroughly explored from end to end; holes were dug and the soil examined; wells were sunk and the water tasted; the flora, fauna and fish were studied from the point of view of future settlers; the lagoon was explored in the canoes which we had brought with us and anchorages and landing facilities discussed and recorded. We soon found that the Admiralty chart of the island was quite inaccurate, and those of the delegates who had volunteered to walk round the lagoon on the first day ashore, on the strength of it, had to be rescued by canoe during the night.- 75
I shall always remember that first night in the Phoenix Islands. We lay in a circle under the shade of the giant “buka” trees by the lagoon, ringed by fires as a protection against the giant robber crabs, who stalked about in the half-light or hung to the branches staring balefully at us. 9 Birds were everywhere and for the most part quite tame, and the noise they made until well into the night was deafening. Unfortunately for them, both the crabs and birds were very good eating and we gorged ourselves on a diet of crabs, boobies and fish. Until I stopped them, the delegates would walk up to the boobies, seize them by the neck and crack them like a whip before roasting them on one of the fires. The fish were so plentiful and unaccustomed to man that they were literally scooped out of the water by hand.
We spent three days on Gardner and then proceeded on our tour; visiting Canton, Enderbury, Phoenix, Birnie, Sydney, Hull and McKean in turn and spending from one to three days on each island. There is no necessity to give an account of our work island by island, as it was essentially little different from that on Gardner. Thanks to Captain M. L. Singleton, known throughout the islands as the “Admiral,” who was a real master of the very specialized art of coral sea navigation, we discovered an anchorage of sorts off each island, a feat of considerable importance to any settlement project. On most islands the relics of the old phosphate-guano days were very much in evidence, and disused tramways and ruined houses kept one's imagination busy trying to recapture bygone scenes.
The only human beings we found in the eight islands were Messrs. F. H. Rostier and G. V. Langdale, two European wireless operators who, with their Fijian servant, had been placed on Canton a couple of months previously by the British Government; and Mr. Jones, with his 30 Tokelau labourers (including 9 women) on Hull and 11 on Sydney. The Group had therefore achieved the very respectable population of 45, all of whom were, however, strictly temporary residents: a year previously there had been none.- 76
One of our most important duties was that of christening the islands found suitable for colonization, since obviously the European names would not do for what were to become purely native islands: for one thing they could not even be pronounced by the Gilbertese. Fortunately, the islands almost christened themselves: Hull was called “Orona,” the old Polynesian name by which it was known to the Niue Islanders who worked there for Mr. Arundel. Sydney was called “Manra,” the name of one of the Gilbertese ancestral homelands in Indonesia whence they had migrated many generations previously—Manra was known to have possessed a lake similar to Sydney's lagoon. 10 Canton was called “Aba Riringa,” the land of sunshine, which all who know the island will admit to being appropriate. Gardner was even more inevitably called “Niku-maroro,” after the home island of a Gilbertese ancestress Nei Manganibuka, who swam from her land “i-an Tamoa” (under the lee of Samoa) to Nikunau in the Southern Gilberts, bearing the branch of the first “buka” tree in her mouth. Nikumaroro was known to have been covered with “buka” trees and the delegates were firmly of the opinion that it was none other than Gardner, now re-discovered by her descendants.
The names of Orona, Manra and Nikumaroro have stuck firmly to the three islands with their settlement and indeed are now the only names by which they are known outside a small circle of Europeans. If today one posts a letter addressed to Manra, Phoenix Islands, it will be delivered without question.
Before completing our work on each island we did not omit the ceremony of hoisting the flag. A wooden flagstaff was erected, a substantial cairn built round, and the Union Jack nailed to the top with a notice board commemorating our visit.
On Phoenix we found the only rabbits I have ever met with on any coral island. They appeared to be sharing their burrows with the petrels and shearwaters and one had to step carefully to avoid crushing rabbits and birds - 77 wherever one went. They were in very poor condition and, although when chased they would be off like a rocket for a hundred yards or so, they soon gave a despairing squeak and lay still with their ears back, ready to be captured. The delegates, who had never, of course, seen such animals, called them “pussies” and refused to eat them. We took 25 away with us with a view to breeding them in the Gilberts, but were unsuccessful as they were killed by dogs before they had time to establish themselves. I am told that rabbits never drink, certainly those on Phoenix could not have, for, though we dug 6 wells down to 12 feet, we found nothing but salt water.
We should have liked to have stayed longer in the Phoenix Group, but supplies and water were giving out, so we had perforce to leave McKean on 26 October and make for my home island of Beru. As it was, our diet for the last week consisted almost entirely of boiled rice and tinned pigs' trotters, of which the “Admiral” appeared to have an unlimited supply.
Our welcome from the people of Beru was enthusiastic and the meetings never seemed to tire of hearing over and over again the exploits of the expedition as given by the delegates, who were for the most part enthusiastic boosters of the new land. Though they were told that even if the colonization scheme was eventually approved, it would take months before it could be carried into effect, not a few natives immediately packed their boxes and wound up their affairs, lest they be found not ready when the eagerly-awaited day arrived.
There followed two months on Ocean Island writing up the results of the pioneering expedition and working out the blueprints for the proposed migration. The romance of these little lone islands, lying out under the equatorial sun far to the east, had quite taken possession of me and I felt that I could not rest till I had seen them the home of a contented and prosperous community. All day long I would be busied with the multitudinous details of any colonization experiment: problems connected with the selection of settlers, the basis of land distribution, the social and political organization of the new colonies, administrative control, stages of settlement, and estimates of the costs - 78 and financial provision required; and at night I could still hear the crash of the waves on Sydney's reefs and the cries of the white terns circling over the lagoon at Gardner.
Space does not permit even a brief summary of my conclusions and recommendations, but those interested in the practical side of group migration can read them in detail in my printed Report on the Colonization of the Phoenix Islands by the Surplus Population of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.” 11 The early settlement of Hull and Sydney was recommended, together with the experimental planting of Gardner and Canton with a view to future colonization. It was estimated that Hull would take an immediate population of 350 and Sydney 400, while ultimate maxima, when the islands had been planted and become fully productive, would be Hull 1,100, Sydney 900, Gardner 1,100 and Canton 1,200. The estimated cost of settlement and planting was worked out at £5,660 and a grant requested for that amount.
Having completed this work I once again said good-bye to my long-suffering wife, who went down this time to Auckland, and departed to live on the small island of Tamana, in the extreme Southern Gilberts. One of the most isolated islands in the Pacific, no European had lived there before, and the people certainly took me to their hearts. We had plenty of work to do but made a point of completing it by four o'clock, and after that there was ample time for whatever was the programme for the day—games and contests of all kinds, community singing, canoe racing, or wrestling on the beach in the moonlight. My great achievement was teaching the islanders deck tennis: they simply went mad on it, built six courts side by side, and every evening you would find some 200 young men and girls playing for all they were worth. I could never get them to lose gracefully, however, and one simply had to get used to having the quoit hurled at one's head by some infuriated player or being chased the length of the marae by an excited girl waving a palm frond.
As illustrating their different way of looking at things I may mention that I could get very little fish to eat, - 79 although I paid a good price for it. On mentioning my troubles in the council house an old man got up and informed me with some heat that unless I gave up my revolting habit of paying for things he supposed that I would starve. I gave it up; and the fish never failed. But one should not conclude from this that by adhering to their customs the European can live like a king for nothing. I had to give a series of feasts to the island which cost me double what I would have had to pay for my fish.
While my main task on Tamana was a land settlement of the island, I took advantage of the opportunity to work out the details of the proposed colonization scheme with the islanders and ensure that it was correctly orientated with their own customs and traditions regarding migration. I asked them, for example, what was the first thing to be done when making arrangements for colonizing an island. One would never guess the answer; which was, reasonably enough, the composition of a theme song. We set to work with a will and in a few days had produced a really stirring “Song of the Phoenix Islands Settlers,” based on a Maori tune called, I believe, “The Warriors' Departure”. This song is now sung from end to end of the Central Pacific, a very free rendering of its three verses and chorus being:—
1. We are about to sail for Orona,
good-bye, O people of our homeland;
we have got our lands,
in the new Group of Islands.
2. We shall step ashore at Orona,
we shall dig our wells;
we shall build our dwelling-houses,
so that we may live well.
3. Stand up, O people of the Gilberts,
grasp your working tools;
We shall stand up and clear the undergrowth,
and plant coconut trees.
We are happy, for we shall now live.
Do not forget us, O people of our homeland.
After three months on Tamana, during which I had become quite unaccustomed to speaking or hearing the English language, for I had no wireless set in those days, a warship suddenly appeared off the island and fired three guns. The populace, with one accord, made for the bush, thinking the Japanese were attacking their village. Though they tried to drag me with them, I noted the White Ensign flying and succeeded in reaching the ship, to be greeted by the captain with, “Congratulations, Maude, your wife bore you a son in Auckland—two and a-half months ago.” He also explained that Naval Custom prescribed a 3-gun salute for a boy and 2 for a girl!
The warship stayed only half an hour but a week later a schooner took me back to Ocean Island, where I learned that the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme had been approved, the reversion of Burns, Philp and Co.'s lease purchased from them, and the necessary funds for carrying on the scheme provided by a free grant from the Colonial Development Fund. Sir Arthur had appointed me Officer in Charge of the Scheme, with what he termed “carte blanche” to settle all details as to how it was to be carried out: as far as I remember, his main admonition was the welcome one that there should be the minimum of red tape and paper work!
All was now bustle in preparation for the first expedition of pioneers, who were to blaze the trail for the main parties of colonists; and on 8 December, 1938, we again set sail from Ocean Island in the “Nimanoa,” with our decks cluttered up with materials for demarcating boundaries, clothing, cooking utensils, fishing equipment, rations, surveying instruments, tools and two locally-made condensing plants for use until we could find drinkable well water. Mr. G. B. Gallagher, another young Cadet from England (or, rather, Ireland) was to be my assistant from now on, and proved to be exactly the right man in the right place. His industry and enthusiasm was phenomenal and infected everyone with whom he came into contact.
We were committed to be in the Phoenix by a certain date and so had to make all haste. I shall never forget how we landed at our first island, Nonouti, at dusk and immediately called a meeting in the council house. About a thousand islanders must have listened while I stated the reason - 81 for our visit and called for volunteers for the first expedition, explaining that the islands were unknown and untested, that, though the descendants of the settlers might possibly achieve prosperity, those that came with us could only expect the toil and hardship of the pioneer. I added that there could be no return and no revisiting of relatives or friends but that the settlers would be treated by native custom as if they had drifted out to sea in canoes and been lost, and their lands on Nonouti would therefore be divided up amongst their next-of-kin. Although no one on Nonouti had ever so much as seen the Phoenix Islands, some five hundred stood up immediately. From these we selected two notoriously poor families and told them to be ready at the boats, with all their goods and chattels, within two hours. Before the appointed time they were all ready and waiting, and out of the 10 leaving only one young woman showed a tendency to tears. She was sternly rebuked by the Native Magistrate of the island, who observed that “this is no time for weeping. This is a time for brave thoughts and brave deeds.” Yet one wonders how many Europeans, leaving all that was near and dear forever—at two hours' notice—would have kept smiling faces?
From Nonouti, we sailed to Beru, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tamana and Arorae, picking up in all 61 pioneer settlers for the three islands—Hull, Sydney and Gardner: Canton was no longer available for settlement. There were 23 men, 13 women, 10 boys and 15 girls; and real pioneers they were too. There must have been close on 80 persons on the little “Nimanoa” and scarcely room to move, let alone to sleep. Some slept by night and some by day, yet we never heard a grumble or complaint the whole voyage. In wet weather they came crowding into our cabins and I remember Gallagher giving up his berth to an old woman and the floor to two others with their children. The Magistrates for the new islands were chosen with especial care: to Sydney and Gardner went our old and tried friends, Tem Mautake and Teng Koata, and to Hull, Ten Eritai, the highly-respected Magistrate of Beru.
After five days at sea we again reached Gardner, and slept our first night under a large tarpaulin, ringed by fires as before. Those who slept at all, that is, for the majority - 82 were too excited by novel sights and sounds, and spent most of the night feasting on the robber crabs and boobies.
Leaving a working party of 10 men on Gardner to commence clearing and planting, we went on to Hull and Sydney. At Hull we left 4 families, totalling 10 persons; and at Sydney 9 families, totalling 41. At each island test lands were demarcated, to ensure that our theoretical methods could be carried out in actual practice. A reserve was marked out for the Island Government station, including sites for the various Government buildings, gaols and Administrative Officers' transit quarters; and further reserves for the hospital, council house, co-operative society and recreation area. Land was allotted for a Church, teacher's house and school for each of the two religious denominations represented. Two village sites were selected on Sydney, the names chosen by the colonists being Mauta, after myself, and Ona, after my wife. I say chosen by the people, for it was certainly through no act of mine that the churches happened to be in Mauta and gaols in Ona. The village in Hull was called Arariki, after our son Alaric, and that on Gardner Karaka, after Mr. Gallagher.
I should explain here that the basis of land allocation finally agreed upon was to give two pieces of land, each containing approximately 25 bearing coconut trees, to every adult, whether male or female; one land to be near the Government station and anchorage. To each child were granted two pieces of unplanted bush land, each 25 fathoms square, on condition that the parents cleared and planted the lands within 5 years of their taking possession. The colonists were also given similar grants of unplanted land on behalf of friends and relations in the Gilberts nominated by them, on the understanding that they guaranteed to support these people until the lands came into bearing and the newcomers undertook to renounce all their lands on their home islands in favour of their next-of-kin. All grants were, of course, freehold.
We opened Post-offices on each island for the settlers' letters. Unfortunately, however, the cancellation stamps did not arrive in time, so for the first few months all letters were pen cancelled and initialled either by myself or the Native Magistrates. I read a learned article on these pen - 83 cancellations in an Australian philatelic journal not along ago, illustrated with actual specimens which, I believe, are now fetching quite a high price. So I can at any rate look forward to a lucrative employment for my old age in pen cancelling Gilbertese stamps for the philatelic market.
Leaving Gallagher to carry on with the land allotment and other work on Sydney, we set sail once more for the Gilberts, calling in at Gardner on our way. Here we found dire trouble among the 10 men left there: the well water was considered undrinkable, one condensing plant had burnt out and they were afraid the other would go too. They demanded to be taken home forthwith. Argument appeared useless and we had a final and sad meeting prior to departure, in which I happened to mention how sorry I was at the turn of events as I was returning to the Gilberts to bring their wives back with me on the next ship. The effect was instantaneous and ludicrous. “Wives, did you say?” said their spokesman. “Why, the water here is not so bad, after all. We're staying on.” And stay they did. Apparently, all that was wrong was that the men had got so homesick for the company of their families that they could not bear the thought of further indefinite separation.
On arrival at Tarawa on 21 January, 1939, I was assigned to accompany an exploratory expedition to Fanning, Washington, and Christmas, in the Line Group, and it was not until March that I was able to continue with the work of selecting the main party of colonists, who were to leave by a small chartered steamer, the M.V. “Moamoa,” at the end of the following month. Leaving Ocean Island on the “Nimanoa,” this time with my wife and infant son, we called at all the Southern Gilbert Islands, taking down the names of volunteer colonists and selecting those who were to go, on a basis of relative poverty. The amount of sheer want this survey disclosed was disconcerting: families of from 7 to 10 children had a total apparent source of food supply consisting of less than 20 coconut trees, supplemented by such fish as they could catch. On asking how one Beru family with six children managed to live I was informed, “by begging in the day and thieving at night”. Altogether, 4,611 applications to migrate were registered on the seven islands visited, making an estimated - 84 total of not less than 6,500 for the whole of the Gilbert Group.
The selected settlers were all brought to Beru, where my wife acted as the receiving end. She had quite an assembly line on the work and each child was paraded and given a good scrub with soap and water, before being passed on for medical inspection and finally presented with a real feast of boiled rice. It was a joy to watch the children getting steadily fatter and fitter as the days went by.
The “Moamoa” arrived on 22 April and by the following day we had embarked the 195 new settlers, with all their personal effects, canoes, etc. The voyage to the Phoenix passed off without incident, though it was full of excitement for the colonists, who were all agog to see their new homes. Stopping at each of the three islands in turn, we landed 12 settlers at Gardner (the long-awaited wives and families of the pioneer party), 75 at Hull, and 108 at Sydney. Everything appeared to be progressing well and at the last island Gallagher was found busy and happy, though he had evidently had a tough time by the standards of civilization. His shoes, to give an example, had long succumbed to the sharp coral rock and his feet were bound up in layers of rags. If I remember rightly he wore size thirteens, so the provision of shoes for him was a perpetual difficulty.
The main trouble of the Sydney settlers appeared to have been fish-poisoning, and most of them had been down with it for varying periods. On coral islands certain of the reef fish tend to be poisonous for portions of the year, the types of fish and times during which they are poisonous changing from island to island. In the Gilberts, of course, these periods are well known to the local inhabitants, but when they reached the Phoenix they had to learn afresh by bitter experience what fish could be eaten and when.
I was very pleased indeed by the way in which the little community on Sydney had developed, led by the enthusiasm of Gallagher. During the three months that had elapsed since I left the whole face of the island had changed. Where before we had to cut our way through thick bush, two prosperous villages were now situated, with neat and attractive homes fronting both sides of the broad road. To - 85 the south of the villages had been built a large school, where over 50 children received daily instruction from a full-time master: to the north lay the Island Government station, with its offices, storehouses, homes for the resident officials, and two small gaols, which still remained happily untenanted. Close to the Government station was the hospital with its resident Native Dresser, facing the sea, and the new transit quarters for the visiting European officers. In the centre was a large cistern, which provided water for the hospital and an emergency supply for the whole island in the unlikely event of the well water supplies failing. All around were evidences of peaceful progress, and the impression of general contented well-being was increased by a walk through the newly-opened bush lands along the “Richards' Highway” (named in honour of Sir Arthur Richards, the sponsor of the settlement scheme), where through the day could be heard on all sides the ring of axes and the cheerful chatter of families engaged in preparing their new lands for planting.
I must confess that I had anticipated that once the novelty of their new homes had worn off, many of the settlers would be seized with a somewhat natural nostalgia for their ancestral lands and I was, accordingly, prepared to face a number of requests for repatriation. That these did not, in fact, eventuate is I think a vindication not only of the natives' claims to be over-crowded and poverty-stricken on their former islands but also of the effectiveness of the settlement scheme in meeting their needs. We were reluctantly compelled, at the request of the entire island, to repatriate one settler with his family, as he had been guilty of several crimes (including adultery, theft, and assault), and his strenuous efforts to escape showed, better than words, how much he valued his new life.
Gallagher characteristically gave all the credit for the good work done to the natives themselves, but it was easy to see his sympathetic guidance underlying it all, ably seconded as he was by Tem Mautake. The pioneers, certainly, were a fine body and I cannot do better than quote this tribute to them from Gallagher's report to me on my arrival:—
“The wonderful spirit of enthusiasm, gratitude and self-sacrifice which has been apparent on Manra during the last - 86 few months has, indeed, been a revelation. It is unhesitatingly stated that this alone has made the whole settlement scheme worth while, without considering any other advantages which have accrued therefrom. These settlers indeed deserve the happiness and prosperity which is now within their grasp, for their lot has been harder, far harder, than will be that of any subsequent settlers who will, at least, land on the island assured of a roof to shelter them and lands to provide for themselves and their children. Although every man who comes to the island must be prepared to face several years of unremitting hard work, it has been the lot of the first settlers only to face the full terrors of an unknown island and take the initial and often wearying and monotonous steps required to pave the way for the establishment of a new home for the Gilbertese race.”
If Hull Island had not achieved the same progress as Sydney, it was only to be expected in view of the smaller number of the pioneering party there and the fact that neither Gallagher nor myself had been able to give it the attention it deserved. However, Mr. Jones, who was, as I have explained, already living in the Phoenix Islands when I first visited the Group, had stayed on there to superintend the settlement and had done all he could to promote the welfare of his little community. Their troubles were fortunately soon ironed out and Hull, with its greater fertility and teeming supply of fish in the lagoon, is now the most prosperous of the three islands.
Steady progress had been made with the clearing and planting of Gardner Island and a pretty little village had been built by the colonists on the shores of the lagoon. Gardner will, of course, long remain a pioneer settlement, as there were no coconut trees there to form the basis of immediate colonization, whereas on Hull we had 15,000 in bearing and on Sydney 7,000 to 8,000. The first lands to be planted are, however, already coming into bearing and the island should now gradually become self-supporting.
I spent over a month in the Phoenix on this visit, much of the time being occupied in organizing the Co-operative Societies, which we established on each island. Owing to the distance of the Phoenix from the main centres of commerce and the small amount of copra available for trade, it was not possible to persuade any commercial firm to include the islands within their sphere of trading activities. As a consequence, we had to establish co-operative societies for the colonists, and stock them with a full range of those - 87 articles, such as soap, kerosene, fish hooks, tobacco, etc., for which they were dependent on the outside world. These societies have up to the present been run as Government undertakings; but the profits made should soon extinguish the original loans for their establishment, when they will be handed over to the natives of each island as debt-free, going concerns.
We were glad to see that the new settlers on the “Moamoa” appeared more than satisfied with their new homes. I had intentionally played down the islands when speaking about them in the Gilberts, for it is far better to give a colonist more than you promise, rather than less. I felt justified, therefore, when one of the leaders of the new party accused me of being a “born liar” in my descriptions of his future home.
By a Proclamation dated 21 June, 1938, the three small islets of Phoenix, Birnie and McKean had been declared to be sanctuaries for birds. It was realized, however, that they possessed a definite value as tributary islands of Sydney, Hull and Gardner respectively and they were, accordingly, handed over to the colonists of these islands to be held in common. Before leaving the Phoenix we planted 600 nuts on Birnie—it is estimated that the island would support up to 3,500 coconut trees. The others, led by the indefatigable Gallagher, actually did the planting, as it was too rough to go ashore except by swimming through a high surf, and I spent a pleasant day catching sharks by their tails with a rope noose. These islets will in all probability never be permanently inhabited, but should any plantations made on them reach maturity, and a few families elect to make their homes there, there would appear to be no reason against it. Small storage cisterns and catchment areas would provide the necessary water.
Gallagher returned with me to the Gilberts in the “Nimanoa” and proceeded on to Fiji, as he had developed tropical ulcers on his legs as a result of being tipped into the surf on several occasions when trying to get ashore, while his constitution had been undermined by the hardships he had been through. Landings at all the Phoenix Islands, with the exception of Canton, are apt to be dangerous and we were swamped and had to swim for it more - 88 than once. Our final call was at Gardner, where the “Nimanoa's” engines stuck at dead centre while we were anchoring and we gradually drifted on to the reef. We had an exciting quarter of an hour endeavouring to start the engine while the schooner gradually heeled over on her side and the high surf started to break over her counter. However, all was well in the end and we gradually eased off the reef into deep water.
Soon after returning to my home on Beru I also became ill and was unable to return to the Phoenix. The work of managing the settlement scheme passed into the capable hands of Gallagher, and despite temporary difficulties and set-backs too numerous to mention the colonization programme proceeded surely and steadily. During 1940 Gallagher succeeded in again chartering the M.V. “Moamoa,” which took 276 settlers to the islands and, in addition, made two journeys on another chartered vessel, the M.V. “John Bolton,” taking a further 154. On 30 September, 1940, when further settlement was finally suspended owing to the war, a grand total of 729 colonists had been transported to the Phoenix, of whom only 7 had had to be returned. A census taken in the same month showed a total of 727 residents, excluding temporary military and airport personnel.
By the end of 1940, both Sydney and Hull Islands had become normal self-contained island communities. The islands were administered by their own Native Governments, a system to which the colonists were accustomed in their former homes, supplemented by occasional routine visits by the European Administrative Officer in charge of the District. On Sydney Island the villages were completed, the church site prepared, and boat sheds and a copra store erected. A Women's Committee had succeeded in reducing the infant morality rate while the newly-formed Mata-ngarengare Welfare Club was proving a progressive influence in local affairs. Over 1,000 lands had been demarcated for division among the settlers. On Hull, now a populous community, a new suburb of the main village had had to be built and the colonists were reported to be a happy and industrious community, busily engaged in house-building and planting.- 89
Gardner had been chosen by Gallagher as the head-quarters of the new Phoenix Islands District and an excellent headquarters residence had been built by him there from native materials. As a result of the first year's work on the island, some 8,000 trees were found to be in healthy growth and in March, 1941, work was commenced on the demarcation and plotting of land holdings, about 20 lands being taken over by labourers who had elected to remain as settlers.
Gallagher himself returned to the Phoenix on several occasions, but the hardships he had been through proved too much for his indomitable spirit and he finally succumbed and was buried at Gardner on 27 September, 1941, aged 29. Universally beloved by the natives and characteristically cheerful to the last, it can be truly said of him that he gave his life for his people and that in his work and the manner of his death he upheld throughout the best traditions of the British Colonial Service. 12
I think it can be fairly claimed that the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme has proved a success: the settlers themselves would certainly say so. Under commercial exploitation this remote group of islands provided, at best, a precarious livelihood for a single European and a handful of native labourers: now we have a thousand peasant proprietors leading happy and contented lives on their own lands, administered by their own Island Governments, buying their wants and selling their produce in their own Co-operative Societies. This surely is sufficient justification for our efforts and for the money which the Imperial Government has provided to finance the venture.
Whether settlement schemes can provide a permanent solution to the Colony's over-population problems is, of course, another matter. In the period since immigration into the Phoenix Group ceased the population has increased from 724 to over a thousand; that of Hull alone from 394 to about 560. Colonization measures are, in fact, palliatives only and for more permanent means of population control we must look elsewhere.
1 South Pacific Commission, Project S.5 (a), Report No. 1.
2 Mason, Leonard. “The Bikinians: A Transplanted Population.” Human Organization. Vol. IX, No. 1, pp. 5-15.
3 The following pages are based on papers read to the Fiji Society of Science and Industry and the Seventh Pacific Science Congress, to whom acknowledgment is due for permission to reproduce.
4 London, George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1927.
5 See, for example, Valenziani, C. “Enquête démographique en Océanie Française.” Bulletin de la Société d'Etudes Océaniennes, Vol. VII, No. 17-18, pp. 658-685.
6 Maude, H. E. “Report on the 1931 Census of the Gilbert, Ellice and Phoenix Islands.” W.P.H.C., 1932. Tss. The population of the Phoenix then consisted of a European plantation manager and 30 labourers from the Ellice.
7 A wooden ketch-rigged auxiliary vessel, with a length of 108 feet, a beam of 22 feet and a speed, when all went well, of about 8 knots.
8 Sir Albert Ellis has given us a fascinating account of his early work in the Phoenix in his book, Adventuring in Coral Seas. Sydney, Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1936.
9 The Niue Islanders called Gardner by the appropriate name of “Motu Aonga” (the land of coconut crabs). See Ellis, ibid., p. 58.
10 Sir Arthur Grimble, however, considers that Manra was the Banda Sea. See his “From Birth to Death in the Gilbert Islands.” J.R.A.I., Vol. LI, Jan.-June, 1921, p. 54.
11 Suva, Govt. Printer, 1938. This was originally marked confidential, but later derestricted.
12 Mr. P. B. Laxton, who carried on Gallagher's work after the war, has written an admirable account of life on Gardner Island and the history of the settlement there since the war. See “Nikumaroro” in J.P.S., Vol. 60, Nos. 2 and 3, June and September, 1951.