Volume 67 1958 > Volume 67, No. 3 > The Pukupukans on Nassau Island, by A. P. Vayda, p 256-265
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- 256

[See also photographs in the middle of the previous article]


PERMANENT RE-SETTLEMENT of people on previously uninhabited islands has been one solution that has been attempted to relieve the pressure of population on some of the coral atolls of Oceania. The details of one such settlement venture, the colonization of the Phoenix Islands, have been provided by Maude 1 and constitute a record of great potential utility to administrators confronted with overpopulation problems similar to those that had faced Maude in the Gilbert Islands. In this article, I want to record some details of a somewhat different answer to problems of coral atoll overpopulation in the hope that the different solution may be applicable in some other places besides Pukapuka in the Northern Cook Islands, with which the article will be concerned. The article should have interest also for its record of the early stages in a society's adaptation to a new ecological niche or environment.

The Pukapukan solution had this in common with Maude's Gilbert Islands one: that it also involved making the land of a previously uninhabited (or irregularly inhabited) atoll available to people experiencing the strain of overpopulation. But in the Pukapukan case, unlike the Gilbertese one, transient rather than permanent groups settled the new land.

The new land was Nassau, a 300-acre coral atoll without an interior lagoon. Its distance from Pukapuka is forty miles. The Cook Islands Administration bought the island from a private European trading firm in 1945 for £2,000. Five years later, arrangements were finalised for the purchase of Nassau from the Administration by the Pukapukans. On August 1, 1950, the Island Councillors and chiefs of Pukapuka, acting on behalf of all the people, met with the Rarotongan Resident Agent of the island and made an agreement to pay the £2,000 for Nassau on an instalment plan. 2 For the first instalment, twelve shillings were to be collected from every man, woman, and child in Pukapuka and to be given to the Resident Agent after the next visit of a ship to uplift copra, which is the only regular commercial product of Pukapuka. One-third of the net proceeds from the copra uplifted on subsequent shipping calls was to be used to pay the other instalments, except that if the Administration were to allow Nassau to be worked after payment of the first two instalments then one-half of the net proceeds would be given in payment thereafter until the entire purchase price was paid. The fact that Pukapukan copra is prepared and marketed communally facilitated the payments. Indeed the continuing existence of a Pukapukan village organization with far-reaching functions was an important factor determining the kind of use to which - 257 Nassau was put. One of the themes in my concluding remarks will be the influence of this organization.

Pukapuka in 1950 had some 700 people living on a total land area of 1,250 acres. 3 It was on June 2, 1951, that the first party of about a hundred Pukapukans of both sexes, including some twenty-five children and infants, went to Nassau. 4 They made the voyage in a motor vessel trading in the Cook Islands at the time. People from all three of Pukapuka's villages were in the party. They took with them a supply of food that included coconuts for drinking, coconut apples or uto, arrowroot, taro, puraka (Cyrtosperma chamissonis), and fish, but no pigs or fowls. The party had two leaders: one of Pukapuka's six elected Island Councillors and a “foreman” who had been picked in Pukapuka by the people. A Pukapukan policeman in the employ of the Cook Islands Administration also went along. At first all the people stayed in the large European-style house that had belonged to the European managers of the private trading firm's coconut plantations on Nassau. The party soon applied itself to the tasks of making roads and wells. In the midst of this work, some people found the time to make small temporary sleeping houses for themselves. Others, however, continued to live in the European house. The next communal projects were building the London Missionary Society and Roman Catholic churches and a copra shed. Soon a Roman Catholic service was being held every afternoon and a London Missionary Society service every night. Since there were no Seventh Day Adventists in the group, it was not until some years later that a Seventh Day Adventist church also was built on Nassau. When the copra shed and two churches were completed, work was begun on erecting proper dwelling-houses and on manufacturing copra. By the time that a ship called again at Nassau—six months after the group's arrival—all the houses had been completed.

The people's main food during these first months was uto, the spongy absorbing organ which develops inside germinating coconuts. The old taro swamps on the island were cleared and taro shoots brought from Pukapuka were planted. However, some eight months elapsed before any of the tubers were ready to be harvested. The people also planted sugar cane and puraka shoots that had been brought from Pukapuka, although about a hundred shoots of puraka were still grow- - 258 ing in the old swamps at the time of the group's arrival. Some small bananas also were growing on the island. Fish were plentiful, probably because nobody had been fishing from the island for a long time. However, fishing provided a not very important part of subsistence, as the people had only a single vessel—a flat-bottomed boat that had been made in Pukapuka and paid for by all the Pukapukans. The amount of off-shore fishing that can be done at Nassau is severely restricted in any case by the fact that the two passages through the reef are unusually difficult and dangerous. The available food supply had to be husbanded carefully. Maude, who visited Nassau in 1944, estimated that the island had 25,000 bearing coconut trees, 5 but the Pukapukans had to reserve a large part of the coconuts for copra manufacture. They instituted a rule that people would be allowed to go to the bush to get coconuts on only three days of the week—on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Two drinking nuts per person (adult or child) were allowed on Mondays and Wednesdays and six were allowed on Fridays. Ten uto nuts per person were allowed on every one of the three days. In Pukapuka, too, coconuts could be obtained from the communal (village) lands only on certain days, but these days did not recur as regularly there as in Nassau. The people had non-communally owned coconut trees near their house sites in Pukapuka, while in Nassau they depended entirely on trees that belonged to the community.

The foreman and the Island Councillor in Nassau had the jobs of telling the people what work they should do. Certain days were devoted to gathering ripe fallen coconuts for copra manufacture. After the nuts were gathered, each adult would be allotted a certain number from which he had to prepare copra. When ready, the copra was brought to the communal shed. The same system was being followed for village copra production in Pukapuka.

Just as commercial production was communal work in Nassau, so was much of subsistence production. Everybody joined in the work of taro and puraka cultivation. The swamps belonged to the whole community and were used communally by them. Two persons were chosen in Nassau by the people to be in charge of distributing foods from communal harvests or catches to the community. The office of “food-divider” exists also in Pukapuka, where some of the village taro and puraka swamps are worked communally and village-wide food distributions are frequent.

Rats were a problem. Informants said that when they were having their meals, the rats would come and eat with them. They were almost too numerous to be chased, but many of them were killed. They ate about two ton of copra from the copra shed in six months.

In spite of the rats, the first party of Pukapukans in Nassau made and marketed some fifty tons of copra. It took them twenty months to do this. It had been intended for each group to stay for only about one year in Nassau and then to return to Pukapuka, but lack of shipping compelled the first group to stay longer. Upon the group's return to - 259 their home island, they presented the people who had remained in Pukapuka with six barrels (400 lbs.) of salt beef that had been ordered from Rarotonga, twelve large tins of cabin bread, and the money to buy timber, nails, and other materials for a new boat for Nassau. From the proceeds from the copra made by the first group in Nassau and the copra made in Pukapuka during the first group's Nassau sojourn, the final payments were made to the Administration for the purchase of Nassau. Completion of the payments was celebrated in Pukapuka with a day of sports, singing, and dancing.

My own visit to Nassau was made on the m.v. Charlotte Donald in 1957. The ship was transporting the sixth party to go to Nassau since the island had been taken over by the Pukapukans. 113 people, including forty-four infants and children, comprised the party. 6 Each adult was paying £1 (New Zealand currency) for deck passage. There were people from all three of Pukapuka's villages: fifty-five persons from Ngake village, forty-two from Roto, and sixteen from Yato. The method of picking the people to go to Nassau had not changed from the time of the first group: at a general meeting in Pukapuka it would be decided how many people from each village should go; then each village would have its own meeting, at which the villagers to go would be selected. Up to the time of my visit, all those going had been volunteers. There was a common understanding that people who had already been to Nassau with a group should volunteer again only if there were not enough people who wanted to go and had not been there previously.

The sixty-nine adults who were volunteer members of the sixth group included seventeen married men and their wives, three married men without their wives, two married women without their husbands, eleven never-married men, eleven never-married women, four widows, and four divorced women. Fifteen of the adults had been in Nassau with previous groups. The average age of the thirty-one adult men in the group was thirty-eight years and that of the thirty-eight adult women was thirty-four years. All but nine of the forty-four infants and children were of pre-school age. 7 Four couples, one widow, and one unwed mother had left children with relatives' households in Pukapuka in order not to keep them from school there. Nassau had no school.

Our ship had left Pukapuka at 11 a.m. on July 28th, and the passengers went ashore at Nassau on the following morning. They were met by friends and relatives in the outgoing fifth group and were taken to their houses. The village had been built near the boat passage on the north-eastern point of the island and contained some twenty-four sleeping houses, mainly of the wood-and-thatch types of construction - 260 described in the Beagleholes' ethnological study of Pukapuka. 8 It was a compact settlement. The European house on the western side of the island had been reserved for the use of the Administration and was being occupied by the policeman and his family and the wireless operator. The Administration had installed radio equipment in the house during the first group's sojourn.

Nassau's only rainwater storage tank was attached to this house, and the people got drinking water from it. Bathing and laundering was with water from the island's two surface wells, which were a few yards apart from each other at a distance of about 450 yards from the village. The water from them was not considered potable. By the wells were two bathing sheds, one for men and one for women.

Five new sleeping houses had been built in the village by members of the fifth group who had found living conditions overcrowded. At the end of its stay the group had 116 members living in twenty-five separate households. This meant that the average household size was 4.6, about two persons less than I had found to be contained in the average household in Pukapuka in 1957. The fifth group included forty-one adult men and thirty-seven adult women. The average age of the adult men was forty-two years and that of the adult women was thirty years. There were twenty married couples among the seventy-eight adults.

Distribution of the new arrivals among the available houses was no problem to the Pukapukans in Nassau. All of the sixth-group people had fifth-group friends or relatives with whom they could stay. The people from the two groups would share the houses for the one or two days until the ship's sailing. Then, with the return of the fifth group to Pukapuka, the members of the sixth group would come into exclusive possession of the houses. Property attached to the houses would pass with the houses themselves from fifth-group to sixth-group households. In most cases, there was not a great deal of such property. Nevertheless, the kinds of things that were regarded such property may be indicated. For example, if some people in the outgoing household had been industrious (maroroi) and had planted breadfruit, bananas, arrowroot, or certain other crops, these plants would be pointed out to members of the incoming household as belonging to them for the duration of their stay in Nassau. It was permissible to plant breadfruit, bananas, and similar crops anywhere on the island—just as in Pukapuka it was permissible to plant them anywhere in the villages' reserve lands. I found only four breadfruit trees in Nassau. They had all been planted by the policeman, who kept them supplied with rubbish in the surrounding pits. None of the trees had yet borne fruit. The banana plants were somewhat more numerous.

Chickens, which had been brought to Nassau by groups following the first one, were also regarded as going with the house. There was a common understanding, based on an agreement made by all the people in Pukapuka, that chickens could be brought from Pukapuka but they should not be taken back there. It had also been agreed that no pigs should be brought to Nassau, as they might damage the taro. So there - 261 was no problem of succeeding to the ownership of pigs. The ban on pigs had been in force since the time of the first group's sojourn. Some members of the sixth group talked of revoking the ban, as protein foods were scarce in Nassau.

There were some usages that had been changed since the first group's time. For example, as taro and other foods had become available in quantity, the weekly shares of coconuts allowed per person for food had been reduced in order to have more nuts for manufacture into copra. Other changes concerned the use of the taro swamps. The third group, in Nassau from May, 1954, to April, 1955, had made individual plots from two of the three swamps, which had previously been worked only collectively. The Island Councillor with the third group told me that the change had been made in order to give more play to individual initiative. The fifth group had divided all three of the swamps.

During the first week of the group's stay in Nassau, three men had been chosen as pule, persons with certain duties for safeguarding the communal interests in land. The office exists also in Pukapuka and has been described by the Beagleholes. 9 During the second week, the pule, under the direction of the foreman who had been chosen by the group in Pukapuka, had taken coconut branches and used them for measuring off the taro plots for the 116 people in the group. The plots were four yards by two yards for each adult without a spouse, eight yards by four yards for each man and wife, and two yards by one and a half yards for each child. The plots of couples were contiguous with those of their children. The method of dividing the swamps was the same as the one followed in the annual redistributions of parts of the village lands in Pukapuka. All work on Nassau's single puraka swamp had remained communal under the fifth group.

The method of choosing leaders had changed somewhat since the first group's time. The fifth group included an Island Councillor and three men who had the position of chiefs, a position attained mainly through hereditary rights and now largely supplanted in functional significance by the elected office of Island Councillor. 10 Before going to Nassau, the people in the group had met and said that the only leaders in Nassau should be the foreman they had chosen and a particular one of the chiefs. People in the group said to me that having more leaders (e.g., the Island Councillor and the other two chiefs) would have caused trouble. No Island Councillor had had rights of leadership in Nassau after the third group's sojourn.

Although chosen sometimes in new ways, the leaders continued to have the jobs of telling the people what communal work to do and when to do it. This was the case not only with the use of the land for commercial and subsistence production but also the use of the waters about Nassau. During the fifth group's stay, there were two communally owned vessels in Nassau: a canoe and boat that had been built in Pukapuka at the expense of all the Pukapukans and were said to “belong to Nassau.” The foreman or the pule of the fifth group sometimes - 262 assigned men to go fishing in these vessels. Any fish caught were distributed among all the people by the two food-dividers that the group had chosen during its first week in Nassau. Sometimes instead of waiting to be assigned to go fishing, men went to their leaders to ask for the use of the boat or canoe. Permission would be given, but, in such cases too, the catch would belong to the entire community. There were also two canoes owned privately by members of the fifth group. The fish caught from these were as a rule distributed only among the fishermen and the canoe-owners.

Another responsibility of the leaders was to see that each household planted taro that could be harvested by members of the succeeding group in Nassau. The obvious purpose of this was to ensure a continuity of food supply on the island in spite of the transience of the groups occupying it. Those failing to do their part would be admonished by the leaders, and, if this produced no results, the matter would be brought before a general meeting upon the group's return to Pukapuka. The offenders might then be punished by being denied a chance to return to Nassau. Informants told me that there had been such cases.

The sixth group entirely dispensed, at least initially, with having even more than one leader. At a general meeting held in Pukapuka before the group's departure, it was decided that the only leader should be the man who had been chosen as foreman by the people.

Some changes that followed the first group's sojourn concerned retail trading. After a member of the second group had started a store in Nassau, the third group, before leaving Pukapuka, had a meeting and made a rule that Nassau was to have no retail trading. This was to prevent people from squandering their shares of the proceeds from copra. The fifth group again permitted retail trading, but nobody in either that group or the sixth one undertook it.

On the first night that we were ashore in Nassau, a joint meeting of the fifth and sixth groups was held outdoors by the light of coconut-husk fires. The two groups were seated separately. Speeches welcoming the sixth group and explaining Nassau conditions were made by some members of the fifth group and a present of three sacks of flour was given to the sixth group. The two parties took turns at singing. The departing group entertained also with drum-dances that it had been practicing for performance in Pukapuka. The only discordant note at the meeting came when one of the fifth-group speakers mentioned that his contingent was being recalled to Pukapuka prematurely, as they had been in Nassau for less than ten months. The decision to recall a group at the time of a particular shipping call is made by a general meeting in Pukapuka and then communicated by radio to Nassau; the decision to recall the fifth group at this time was understood to have been made because of certain offences alleged to have been committed by members of the group. Other speakers at the meeting did not, however, pursue the topic, and the meeting went on harmoniously until 2 a.m. On the next two days, members of the sixth group voluntarily helped the fifth group load its ten tons of copra aboard the ship.

This was the third time during the fifth group's Nassau sojourn that copra was being uplifted by a ship. The group had manufactured - 263 a total of approximately thirty-eight tons of copra. Each adult in the group earned £12 2s 0d as his share of the proceeds, and each child got £5. While the group was in Nassau, the three villages in Pukapuka had manufactured a total of only about seventy tons of copra. The individual earnings from this production were considerably smaller than those received by members of the fifth group in Nassau. The following figures 11 show how the tons of copra produced in Nassau since 1951 have compared with the tonnages in Pukapuka:

  1951-52 1952-53 1953-54 1954-55 1955-56 1956-57
Nassau 15 44 30 46 25 47
Pukapuka 103 109 85 137 48 166

Although the people on Nassau usually numbered only very slightly more than one-sixth of the population in Pukapuka, the figures show that during all the years except the first one the Nassau groups were producing considerably more than one-sixth the amount of copra being made in Pukapuka. This has meant that appreciably higher earnings from copra production were to be gained by being a member of a Nassau group than by being a member of a Pukapukan village. This economic advantage has been a main incentive for volunteering to go to Nassau. I was told precisely this by many of the Nassau volunteers.

It was on July 31st that the fifth group and myself took leave of the sixth group. We arrived back in Pukapuka on the morning of August 1st. Every man, woman, and child in Pukapuka belongs to one or another of the three villages, and upon their return to their home island the members of the fifth group automatically affiliated with the villages to which they had belonged before leaving for Nassau. They joined immediately in the various communal jobs (e.g., building new schoolhouses) that their respective villages were doing, and, in a week or two, their village leaders assigned plots to them in the village-controlled taro swamps. These were plots that had been allotted at the beginning of the year to people who had gone to Nassau with the sixth group. Only in sports and singing competitions and at the welcoming feasts prepared in turn by all three of the villages did the group from Nassau maintain any separate identity. 12 It maintained it only until the beginning of September. After then, it was as members of their respective villages that the people of the fifth group took part in feasts and competitions as well as in other communal activities.


My purpose in giving this rather fragmentary account of the Pukapukans on Nassau island has been twofold. On the one hand, I have sought simply to place on record some of the cultural experimentation that occurs when a society spreads to a new environment and avails - 264 itself of new ecological opportunities. I have shown, for example, that certain important changes in the bases of land use and leadership among the transient Pukapukan groups in Nassau took place in a period of no more than six years. Further changes before some stable arrangements come into force are probable. The record of the changes should have value to students of cultural evolution for showing the kinds of steps by which the stable arrangements may come about.

My purpose has also been practical. I have sought to show a solution to problems of coral atoll population pressure somewhat different from the solutions hitherto recorded and to show something about the kinds of conditions under which this solution, the settlement of an uninhabited atoll by transient groups, is applicable. One obvious prerequisite is the existence of a suitable uninhabited atoll that can be reached economically by transient groups from the overpopulated atoll. Indeed this is so obvious that I shall not discuss it here. I do want, however, to make some remarks about what I regard to be possibly another prerequisite: some sort of effective community organization in the atoll from which the transient groups are to be sent out.

Pukapuka had this. It had it in its organization into three villages. I have indicated that the organization functioned smoothly in selecting and recalling the Nassau groups. This has, I think, been a main factor in the success of the Nassau venture.

Pukapukan community organization had certain other implications for Nassau settlement. It provided a model for community organization of the transient groups in Nassau. I have indicated, for example, that the model was followed in the system of copra manufacture, in the communal working of some of the taro and puraka swamps, in the equitable distribution of individual plots in other swamps, and in the distribution of the fruits of communal labour. At the same time there was of course the cultural experimentation in Nassau that I have mentioned. However, this experimentation did not seem capricious; it did not appear to be the kind of playful manipulating of social arrangements which Kroeber has claimed to see in some societies. 13 One gets rather the impression that the Pukapukans tried out new arrangements for Nassau when these gave some promise of greater efficiency to the group. Existing arrangements, such as features in the Pukapukan model of community organization, were accepted when no promising alternatives were in sight. One gets the impression that the community organization in Nassau functioned well.

There is another way in which Pukapukan community organization had a bearing upon the nature of the settlement of Nassau. Because all of the Pukapukan land being used for commercial production, i.e., for copra manufacture, and the major part of the land being used for subsistence production was village land, parties of more than a hundred people could leave Pukapuka temporarily for Nassau without any appreciable adverse effect upon the exploitation of the Pukapukan environment. The land would continue to be worked by the villagers left behind. Upon returning from Nassau, the people would have land - 265 ready for use and would resume working it, while another party would leave for Nassau. Occupation of Nassau by transient groups meant that the three Pukapukan villages lost some members to Nassau and regained others from it annually, but it did not necessitate any discontinuities in village land use. Pukapuka did not have that problem of non-exploitation, under-exploitation, or illicit exploitation of absentee-owned land which occurs in some parts of Oceania where land is owned and used less communally. 14

Thus, in a number of ways, Pukapukan village organization has played an important part in the occupation and use of Nassau by transient groups of Pukapukans. Effective community organization in some other atoll might be expected to play a similar part if transient groups are sent out from the atoll to an uninhabited island.

  • BEAGLEHOLE, Ernest and Pearl, 1938. Ethnology of Pukapuka. Honolulu, Bishop Museum, Bulletin No. 150.
  • COULTER, John Wesley, 1957. The Pacific Dependencies of the United States. New York, Macmillan.
  • DANIELSSON, Bengt, 1955. Work and Life on Raroia. Stockholm, Saxon & Lindströms.
  • DEPARTMENT OF ISLAND TERRITORIES, 1950, 1951, 1956, 1957. Cook Islands Annual Reports, in the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives of New Zealand. Wellington, Government Printer.
  • GILSON, R. P., 1955. “The Background of New Zealand's Early Land Policy in Rarotonga.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 64:267-280.
  • KROEBER, A. L., 1948. Anthropology. New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co.
  • MAUDE, H. E., 1952. “The Colonization of the Phoenix Islands.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 61:62-89.
1   Maude 1952:62-89.
2   Copies of the agreement are on file in the Cook Islands Administration's offices in Rarotonga.
3   The estimated population of Pukapuka as at 31st March, 1950, is given as 693 (Department of Island Territories 1950:4), and as at 31st March, 1951, it is given as 701 (Department of Island Territories 1951:4).
4   Memorandum dated June 14, 1951, in the Cook Islands Administration's Pukapuka General (23/1) files in Rarotonga. Most of my information in this article comes from my discussions with people in Nassau in July and in Pukapuka during August and September of 1957. Teinaki, Yala, and Pareura were especially helpful, and I owe particular thanks to them. Obviously it was impossible to get anything resembling a complete record of the Pukapukans' activities in Nassau since 1951. I realized while talking with my informants in Pukapuka that it was especially desirable to get more quantitative data about economic activities in Nassau, but the realization alone was not sufficient to elicit reliable and accurate information. Such information can come only from long and careful field-work in Nassau itself. I hope some student undertakes it soon.
5   Copy of memorandum dated January 1, 1945, in the Cook Islands Administration's Nassau General (24/1) files in Rarotonga.
6   I had the kind co-operation of Captain Andy Thomson and, of course, of the Pukapukans themselves in making a census of the party on board. In distinguishing adults from children, I have followed the Pukapukans' own practice of designating as adults those persons who have been declared as such at the annual village meetings (cf. Beaglehole 1938:221). Most Pukapukans attain adult status at the age of about sixteen years.
7   In 1957, school attendance was compulsory between the ages of six and fourteen in the Cook Islands. Schools were being maintained by the Administration in all islands with permanent populations.
8   Beaglehole 1938:109 ff.
9   Beaglehole 1938:35-40.
10   Pukapuka in 1957 had six Island Councillors and eleven chiefs.
11   From Department of Island Territories 1956:62 and 1957:66. The figures are for the financial year.
12   For an account of the competitions held in August, 1957, between the group from Nassau and the three Pukapukan villages, see Cook Islands Review (Rarotonga), Vol. 3 (1957), No. 7, page 8.
13   Kroeber 1948:395-96, 398.
14   cf. Coulter 1957:333-334; Danielsson 1955:139; Gilson 1955:278.