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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 17 - The South Pacific

There was then, as there is now, no place known on earth that even began to compete with these islands in their capacity to encourage natural life to develop freely and radically up to its own best potential.  More than nine out of ten things that grew here, grew nowhere else on earth.  …  Whatever the reason, the fact remains: In these islands new breeds developed, and they prospered, and they grew strong, and they multiplied.  For these islands were a crucible of exploration and development.

James A. Michener           Hawaii

                                    The first experience can never be repeated.  The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart, and touch a virginity of sense. … Ua-huna appeared upon the starboard bow.  Nuka-hiva was whelmed in cloud.  The needles of Ua-pu stood there on the horizon, in the sparkling brightness of the morning, the fit signboard of a world of wonders. …


On our port beam we heard the explosions of the surf.  A few birds flew fishing under the prow.  The Casco skimmed under cliffs, opened out a cove, and began to slide into the bay of Anaho.  The cocoa palm, [“Cocoa palm” – the earlier name for the coconut palm.] that giraffe of vegetables, so graceful, … was seen crowding the beach and fringing the sides of the mountains.  The scent of a hundred fruits or flowers flowed forth to meet us. 


We spied a native village standing close upon a curve of beach, under a grove of palms.  The sea in front growled and whitened on a concave arc of reef.  The cocoa tree and the island man are both lovers and neighbours of the surf.  “The coral waxes, the palm grows, but man departs,” says the sad Tahitian proverb.  But they are, all three, so long as they endure, co-haunters of the beach.

                                                                        Robert Louis Stevenson      In the South Seas 

As a seaman myself, and an avid reader of the accounts of global explorers from Marco Polo, to Columbus, to Magellan, and on to Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, I consider the finest navigator and expedition leader of his time, to have been James Cook.  That remarkable seaman from Marton near Whitby in Yorkshire, England, was largely self-taught, and joined the British Navy without any commission or sponsorship, at a time when men had to be press-ganged into service.  He was soon given recognition for his skills in navigation and charting, and these were put to the test in Canada in 1759, where he plotted the route up the St. Lawrence river for the British fleet that mounted a successful attack on Quebec under General Wolfe.  He was made marine surveyor of the coast of Newfoundland in 1763, and in the course of those duties published an account of a solar eclipse that took place in 1766.  So it was not surprising that when the Admiralty needed a competent Captain to lead a scientific expedition to the uncharted seas of the southern Pacific Ocean, Cook was selected for the job and given a lieutenant’s commission.  He rejected the offer of a lightly constructed but speedy naval ship for a former Whitby collier that Cook felt had the strength and seaworthiness necessary for such a voyage.  It was largely due to that decision the Endeavour survived its grounding on the Great Barrier Reef.  The ship was a barque of 370 tons, carried a crew of 85 persons, and among its distinguished expedition scientists was the naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks.

Cook’s first Pacific voyage of 1769 – 1771, took him to Tahiti and the South Pacific, and on the New Zealand and Australia.  During that voyage he charted and named much of the coast of Australia and New Zealand, and successfully demonstrated how to prevent scurvy by ensuring that crewmen had a regular diet of fresh fruit and vegetables.  On his return he was promoted to Commander and put in charge of the HMS Resolution for a second expedition, this time to explore Antarctic waters, and additional regions of the South Pacific.  Captain Cook was given charge of a third expedition in the Resolution, to search for a north-west passage through Arctic waters from the Pacific side, and to undertake further explorations in that ocean.  It was there in 1778 he met his death in Hawaii.

Captain James Cook, - possibly the greatest of the marine navigators

So, when I was privileged to travel throughout the south Pacific in the 1990’s for both the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, and the Asian Development Bank, I took with me a copy of the journals of Cook’s voyages.  I also took with me Robert Louis Stevenson’s book “In the South Seas”.  The Scottish writer and poet ended his days in that part of the world which he visited partly for health reasons.  Cook’s voyages took place in the mid-18th century, and Stevenson’s in the later 19th century.  My visits were in the late 20th century, so I had a first-hand picture of the region, complemented by the two historical accounts, one a hundred years before, and one over two hundred years earlier.  The similarities were surprising, and the contrasts, fascinating. 

An anecdote in passing :  I happened to be examining some of the relics of Captain Cook in the navigation section of the Greenwich Maritime Museum in London, with my younger brother who was in the metropolitan police at the time, when he recognized another visitor there.  It was Sir Francis Chichester, the solo voyager who had sailed around the world alone in 1967 in his yacht, Gypsy Moth IV.  James went across to him and politely requested if he could have an autograph which Chichester readily granted.  But he then made a remark that seemed to place himself on a par with James Cook.  Perhaps that impression was not intended, but that was how it struck us.  To me, Cook was head and shoulders above most navigators, even the intrepid modern solo ones.  Incidentally, Sir Francis was not the world’s first solo round-the world sailor.  Joshua Slocum of Boston performed the feat around 1890 in his yacht, the Spray, though in more leisurely fashion. I guess Chichester was the first to accomplish the solo trip without stopping en route.  But I should not detract from his truly amazing voyage, or from those of other remarkably brave and determined men and women solo sailors who have followed in his wake.

Robert Louis Stevenson

I was fortunate that my work took me to most of the Pacific islands, - Guam, Yap, Micronesia, the Marshalls, Kiribati, Fiji, the Solomons, Vanuatu, Tonga, the Cook Islands, and West Samoa.  One cannot help liking the Polynesian and Melanesian peoples.  I also enjoyed the range of Pacific foods and fishes, including the now scarce but delicious coconut crab; - yes, - a crab that eats coconuts !  If I had a disappointment in the Pacific, it was that with the advent of western technologies, they have largely lost their traditional boat-building and sailing skills.  Instead of beautiful sailing canoes longboats and schooners, the islanders have gone for fiberglass runabouts and fuel-expensive outboard motors.  There are attempts to retain and resurrect the skills involved in the design, construction and operation of the old outrigger boats, but they have been limited in number and scope.  Few of the islands now have a genuine coastal fishery, apart from those who harvest the reefs with spear-guns and drive-in gill nets.

Map of the South Pacific

On several occasions I visited Hawaii, and the larger west Pacific islands of Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.  Pacific islands are in two types; - the larger volcanic islands, examples of which are Hawaii, the Solomons, and Raratonga in the Cooks; and the atoll islands like the Marshalls, Kiribati, (the former Gilbert and Ellis Islands), most of the Cooks, and much of Micronesia.  Majuro in the Marshalls where I spent more than a year, was typical.  The island was in a rough horse-shoe shape, 26 miles long and from 50 to 300 yards wide.  No part of the land was more than 3 metres above sea level.  We used to joke of a bridge that joined two parts, that if global warming caused the ocean to rise by just over two metres, - there would be 10,000 persons on that bridge! 

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea I was to visit four times.  The first occasion was in 1981 on behalf of IFAD the International Fund for Agriculture Development, which was established to provide poor countries with investment to assist small farmers, foresters and fishers.   The next two assignments were in the 1990’s for the Asian Development Bank, through a New Zealand company, and the final one was on behalf of FAO.  On these occasions I was to visit the south-west and north-east coasts of the country, plus many of the islands, from Milne Bay to the south, to New Ireland and New Britain in what used to be called the Bismark Archipelago. 

the flag of Papua New Guinea

PNG people are friendly and hospitable like are most Pacific islanders.  They are also a proud and sometimes combative people.  The government unfortunately suffers from the lack of national unity.  Most New Guineans have a strong loyalty to their community and their clan, - what are known there as their “wantoks” (one-talk’s).   In contrast, their loyalty to central government is quite weak.  The impact of this attitude affects society at all levels, and can compromise the administration of justice and law and order at times.  Many a time, when a Prime Minister or Department Head, has tried to discipline an offending MP or civil servant, he has had to back down in the face of fierce and united protest by the man’s wantoks.  In the long term, that cultural propensity has prevented the beautiful and wealthy country from achieving its full potential.    

The IFAD mission was led by Francois Bourgeois, a pleasant Frenchman who had fought on the losing side in 3 wars, and had no wish to fight in any others.  (I believe they were the French military actions in the first year of WW2, plus Vietnam, and Algeria.)  We had a decent economist, but were saddled with a credit specialist from the sub-continent who had a bureaucrat’s obsession with petty rules, real ones and imagined ones.  When the fishermen declared their total disgust with the national development bank which though it offered slightly lower rates than the commercial banks, was absolutely hamstrung with red tape and paperwork, - he insisted that the IFAD funds could not possibly be handled by any other lending body.  One progressive coastal village asked for a loan for a fishing boat which the officer was ready to agree to, until they mentioned that at harvest time, they would use the same vessel to transport coconuts to market in Lae.  “Absolutely not !”, insisted this inflexible consultant, “this is a fishery loan, and if you are going to use that boat for any other purpose, I will not approve it”.  Over the years I have lost count of the number of occasions when I have despaired of such pig-headed development ‘experts’ !   As I often suggest, more harm is done to the development process by stupidity and incompetence than by corruption. 

One of the highlights of my first visit was a fresh encounter with one of the finest of Britain’s fishery technologists.  John Garner of Grimsby who wrote some classic textbooks on nets and gear, was then teaching in the PNG National Fishery college in Kavieng.  I had devoured all of his books and papers back in the 1960’s, and was instrumental in having him address fishery conferences in Canada and the USA.  Later we were to obtain his assistance for the FAO fisheries publications programmes.  John was a true gentleman, with a Yorkshireman’s wry sense of humour.  He and his wife eventually retired to Portugal. 

On the subsequent assignments in PNG, I was to work with esteemed colleagues who became long time friends.  Our national counterparts were with few exceptions, men and women of ability and commitment.  One of the team members was Sir Mekere Morauta former head of the central bank, who went on to become Prime Minister a few years later.  His Australian wife ran a local fishing company with vision and efficiency.  The Head of the Fish Industry Association was a fine former fishery officer from UK, Maurice Brownjohn OBE.  

Sir Mekere Morauta, former Prime Minister of PNG.  I had the pleasure of working with him and his wife on fishery development projects for that country, before he was overwhelmingly elected to head the government.

PNG then still had a huge store of wildlife, and many yet unspoiled coral reefs and mangrove forests.  At Madang on the northern coast, it was a delight to breakfast in the garden of a pleasant hotel and watch the tree kangaroos, monkeys, and parrots that lived there in semi-liberty.  One particularly aggressive toucan struck fear in the hearts of some guests when it boldly attacked their papaya fruit at the table !   During my stay in the country there was one alarming volcanic eruption at Rabaul on the eastern end of the island of New Britain, and an escalation of conflict with the break-away province of Bougainville in the northern part of the Solomons archipelago.   The Rabaul eruption of September 1994 came from 2 volcanic peaks, Tavurvur and Vulcan, which showered the lovely coastal bay town of Rabaul in a blanket of white ash, displacing 50,000 inhabitants. Fortunately casualties were only 5 deaths. 

Port Moresby is an attractive town, with a number of WW2 sites nearby, still containing the remains of ships, planes or military vehicles from that conflict.  It can be dangerous place at night, and is not a place where women can wander freely on their own.  I knew missionary girls who were respected and protected in the villages and communities where they worked, but who would not travel unescorted to places where they were not known, as that would invite unwelcome attention.  Moresby also has its bright side, with many good amenities, scenic places, churches, schools and sports facilities.  The PNG people have a love-hate relationship with Australia which has tended to be paternalistic if not overbearing in the way it treats its nearest foreign neighbour.  The New Guineans in return enjoy the benefit of Australian tourism and investments by Australian business.  

While in the Pacific I met one of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers.  Nig Kay Brown was from Pitcairn Island where he acted as policeman, harbour master, radio-telephone operator, postman, and customs officer, for the 50 plus inhabitants.  He gave us an interesting account of the people, their culture, and their aspirations.  The only income that island community had was from sale of their postage stamps as collector’s items.  They had to pay $ 20,000 for a ship from New Zealand to California to stop en route and drop off groceries and essential goods to a small local tender boat.  The cost of the goods was on top of the $ 20,000.  Nig had been sent abroad by the community to try to obtain or charter a refrigerated steel long line vessel that would fish around the island and take the catch to Tahiti for sale.  At the same time it could carry any islanders who needed medical attention or wanted to travel to New Zealand.  As far as I know he was unsuccessful in the quest. 

 Pitcairn Island where most of the Bounty mutineers settled

Strangely, Nig did not appreciate questions or comments about the Bounty mutiny.  There was almost a sense of embarrassment about that aspect of their past. I have noticed similar reluctance towards unhappy past memories on the part of indigenous peoples from Africa to the Hebrides.  I was glad Nig was not among those islanders charged with sexual offences in 2004 when some cases of under-age sex came to the attention of the authorities in New Zealand.  Offences like that, while deplorable, are not unusual in a small isolated community.

Captain Bligh and the HMS Bounty

The story of HMS Bounty is fascinating.  Captain Bligh had been a junior officer on James Cook’s ship.  He was a determined man, a competent seaman, and an expert navigator.  But he had character flaws, and was over-bearing and insufferable as a commander.  The Bounty mutiny was not the only one he provoked.  16 years after the mutiny he was made Governor of New South Wales, Britain’s colony in Australia.  The colonists, no strangers to strict regimes, found Bligh intolerable, and they revolted against his rule after 3 years.  Bligh was imprisoned and sent back to England.  But he had friends in high places and was eventually promoted to Vice-Admiral. 

However, Bligh’s greatest achievement was the incredible 3,600 mile voyage in a 23 foot open sail-boat with 18 sailors.  The journey took 7 weeks, from the vicinity of the island of Tonga, to the eventual destination, the closest outpost of European civilization they knew of, in the island of Timor in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago.    In some ways, Bligh’s undoubted courage and determination, and his obstinate character flaws, resemble another British expedition leader, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who succeeded in reaching the South Pole in 1911 but lost his life and those of his men in the process, largely due to his stubborn refusal to use sleigh dogs.

Captain William Bligh, former mate to Capt. James Cook, who proved himself to be incapable of leading and handling men, both on the Bounty, and later as a Governor in New South Wales, Australia

I am amazed at how the British Navy reacted to the Bounty mutiny.  The Admiralty would not rest till it had hounded down all 25 of the mutineers, and pursued them to the ends of the earth.  Pitcairn, that lonely rock, less than 2 square miles in size, in the vast South Pacific was one such place, - one of the most isolated places on earth. In today’s terms it would be like NASA sending a spaceship to the back of the moon to locate a crew that had mutinied on a spaceship !  Such was the Navy’s determination.  They captured ten of the mutineers on Tahiti and brought them back to England where three of them were hanged.  But those on Pitcairn (including John Adams and Fletcher Christian) were not discovered till 1825 when an amnesty was granted.

The mutineers had salvaged a Bible from the Bounty before they set it on fire.  The Bible led to John Adams’ conversion and to his personal transformation.  The islanders adopted Seventh Day Adventism as their denomination following the arrival of an American missionary in 1886.

For me, the most beautiful and most pristine part of the Pacific was the Cook Islands.  This remote group of islands spread over thousands of miles of ocean, is populated by handsome Polynesians who are related by language and kinship to the Maoris of New Zealand, but who have no sympathy for the negative aspects of Maori culture there where there is a high level of unemployment, alcoholism and social misbehaviour. In contrast, the Cook Islands communities are well organized, hard working, disciplined and respectful to elders and traditions.  One of the national practices is to say grace at every meal.  There are also prayers and thanks offered by government officials before and after air flights and sea travel.  I have been in a restaurant in the Aitutaki atoll where the waiter, assuming that we as foreigners did not know what was expected of us, came across and respectfully said grace at our table.  Perhaps one reason Cook Islanders have avoided the failings of Maori culture, is that they have been relatively isolated from western social influences !  Sometimes the interaction between cultures within a single country, has a malign effect on the weaker and poorer or disadvantaged groups.  Examples of this would be seen in black ghettos and Indian reservations in America, and in communities of Slavs in Germany or Austria, and Arabs in the south of France.

Cook Islands scene, - they are among the most beautiful and pristine of all the South Pacific islands.

Myself with mission team in Rarotonga

The Island communities are as attractive as the people.  You can drive around Rarotonga or any of the atolls, and you will see no litter or rubbish.  Roads, gardens and beaches are well maintained and free of pollution.  The crystal waters and corals of the coastal areas have no plastic bags, oil slicks or debris.  The whole country is a picture of what most people imagine when they think of the south Pacific.  As in most small Pacific states, the resources are scattered and industries are small scale.  The islands have albacore tuna and there are black pearl oysters in the north.  Reef fish abound, and there is ample fruit grown to supply the tourist trade and some niche export markets.  Banana, pawpaw, coconut, pineapple, orange and breadfruit are grown.  As in other parts of the Pacific there are taro tubers and sweet potato.  An inspiring experience for me in the Cooks, was to stand on the beach at Raratonga, any hour of the day or night, and listed to the roar of the ocean seas pounding the reef offshore.  The Victoria Falls in Africa was called “the smoke that thunders” by local natives in Livingstone’s time.  The roar of the surf striking the reefs at Rarotonga is even louder.

Map of the Cook Islands

One of my best Pacific friends was a Cook-islander.  Tom Marsters was a tall handsome Polynesian who had played rugby as a student, and later excelled in golf.  He was one of a class of fishery officers I taught in Grimsby one year.  (He was later to give his son the name “Cleethorpes” in honour of the Lincolnshire port).  When I arrived in Rarotonga, Tom and Tuene his wife were at the airport to meet me, and garland me with flowers in a typical Pacific welcome.

Another friend from Pacific days was Simon Waters, a remarkable young New Zealand fishing skipper who had excelled at that profession.  Working a relatively small line-fishing boat for hoki and snapper, and other species, he landed large amounts of fish the year before quotas were introduced in New Zealand’s fishery.  As a result he was awarded a big quota for the years to come.  Two years later he sold most of the quota for NZ$ 2 million, effectively making himself a millionaire at around 29 years of age.  But he had no wish to settle down and enjoy the money.  Instead he took his latest vessel around the Pacific, and sought to assist small island fishers to improve their operations and catches.  This he did very successfully in Vanuatu, teaching them to catch deep water fish by long-line.  The long-lines were cleverly rigged so their hooks hung just above the sea-bed, otherwise the line would snag and be lost on the rough rocks and corals.  His boat, the “Pandora”, was as beautiful a fishing vessel as I have ever seen.  More like a motor yacht than a fishing boat, it was varnished, had an auxiliary sail, and was powered by a Gardner engine.  Later, Simon was to fish a stern trawler off Australia’s rugged north-west coast. 

Simon Waters, intrepid young New Zealand fisherman,
with myself and my wife when he visited us in Scotland.

Simon’s beautiful fishing vessel, the Pandora, which he fished from
New Zealand to the South Pacific islands.

The modern Pacific states are at a crucial cross-roads in their history.  They were the focus of attention by the USA, Japan, and Australia / New Zealand, during the war years, and some of them suffered considerably in consequence.  Apart from the fighting that took place on many islands, there were the tests of nuclear weapons that contaminated some atolls for a generation and more.  The American military exploded 66 nuclear bombs and missiles in the Marshall Islands, - 43 at Eniwetok and 23 at Bikini.  In the Gilbert and Ellis Islands (now the state of Kiribati), 24 were detonated in the vicinity of Christmas Island.  Johnson Island, a U.S. possession west of Hawaii saw the test of 12 nuclear weapons, and, some say, though I have not seen it corroborated, production of germ warfare material.  The French also undertook a number of nuclear tests in the Pacific, off Tahiti and other French territories.  They said these posed no threat to the people or the environment, but of course, they would not have dared to test them in the Bay of Biscay.

Map of the Marshall islands

                             Explosion of an atom bomb                          Majuro airport, - a landing strip
                              on Bikini in the Marshalls                           on a beach in the ocean

I spent 15 months in the Marshall Islands, and so had opportunity to assess the effects of the atomic tests there.  It was many years before the people of Bikini or Eniwetok could return to their island home, or eat the fish and fruit there.  The islands had so little prospect of a contamination-free future, some politicians even spoke of making the best of a bad situation by permitting the dumping of waste on the radio-active atolls.  Fortunately wiser minds prevailed, and to date that has not happened.

Pacific islands and their coral reefs are a most fragile environment, and any thought of making them radio-active for generations, is downright criminal.  It is hard to believe, but there are agents for those seeking to dispose of the colossal amounts of sludge and contaminated waste generated by American industry and American cities, who ply the Pacific offering millions of dollars to any who can persuade a small island country to accept the stuff !   This is not hearsay.  I have met those agents, and have been offered such sums more than once, if I would use my position to persuade a naïve government to let their small pristine territories become a dumping ground. 

A peculiarity of the small Pacific states was that nearly all of them had some foreign consultants advising the government.  They were rather seedy characters on the whole, - ex-CIA officers, beach combers, or opportunists.  Mostly they acted like go-betweens with foreign businessmen, and set up aspects of deals that the Government Ministers did not want to be seen to be involved in.  Sometimes their influence had nasty results as in the case of an Australian businessman I became friends with while in the Marshall Islands.  Greg Simmonds was then under virtual house arrest for suspected fraud.  He had been asked by the government to seek investment in the country from businessmen in Taiwan and elsewhere.  One of the inducements the government could offer was the possibility of a Marshallese passport, which effectively gave the holder long term access to the USA. 

Majuro town, Marshall Islands capital

A number of businessmen expressed interest, and they indicated that investments in new local hotels and tourist resorts could mount to several million dollars.  At that point other sharks got interested, and those foreign advisers to the government asked Simmonds to allow Larry Mahau of Honolulu to become manager of the project.  Well, Mahau was the reputed head of the Hawaiian mafia (and had been a long-term business contact in Hawaii of President Marcos of the Philippines), so Greg said in effect, “no way”!.  When he refused to budge on the point after prolonged negotiations, he received a message dropping the condition, and asking him to come to Majuro to sign the project contract.  On arrival at the airport his passport was taken from him, and next day he was charged with seven counts of fraud.   This was all in an apparent attempt to put further pressure on him so he would hand the project over the parties named.

Things went from bad to worse when a distant relative of Simmonds, Senator Graham Richardson, Prime Minister Keating’s senior supporter, telephoned President Kabau and asked what was happening.  Apart from the Senator and the President, the only two others who knew of the call were Simmonds and his assistant.  Within two days, Australian tabloid papers were running headlines like – “Australian Senator interferes in multi-million dollar fraud case in the Marshall Islands”.  Only later did Greg discover that his loyal assistant was working with those seeking to take over the project, and that the man’s girl friend worked in the office of the then opposition Liberal party in Australia. 

That the government itself was not fully involved in the actions I can confirm since President Kabau often came to his daughter’s hotel where I was staying, and when Greg and I were dining would come over and sympathise with Greg, and say he would try to find a way out of the mess.  It was to take over a year, but those ‘advisers’ who concocted the charges were eventually dismissed, and Simmonds was allowed home after pleading guilty to a technicality to save the government’s face.  But in that period he had been vilified in the Australian press, and his family had suffered dreadfully.  My own conclusion which I mentioned to Greg several times was that he was an innocent victim, but also that he had contributed to the situation by being over-trusting with certain persons, and by being rather cavalier in his business style when a degree of prudent caution could have protected him.

A footnote to the story is that Mahau eventually became involved in a Marshallese project, this one being for tuna long line fishing for the lucrative Japanese sashimi market.  His son was sent over to run the business, but died shortly after it got under way.  The tuna fleet was composed of a few Marshallese vessels, and a larger number of mostly Taiwanese boats.  Some of the captains and engineers on the vessels were not well qualified, and some of the boats were barely seaworthy. One boat went missing while I was there.  We began to think it had been lost, but after several months it was located at Christmas Island. The engine had broken down and with no electrical power the radio could not be used.  The crewmen had no food for several weeks, and were fortunate to survive.  But one crew member was missing, - a fact for which none of the survivors could provide a reasonable explanation. 

The ocean swimming tunas are the most plentiful fish in the Pacific.  Yellowfin tuna, albacore and skipjack are the ones mostly used in canning.  They are caught by pole and line, or by purse seine, - the latter method being much controlled now as dolphins were often captured in the nets as they tended to swim near schools of yellowfin.  Bluefin tuna are the most expensive, and are highly prized in Japan where the flesh is eaten raw as sashimi.   The fish must be very fresh and of excellent quality, but if so, they can command market prices per kilo, higher than quality shrimp.  Fleets of medium sized long liners fish for the bluefin all over the Pacific.  The fish are packed in dry ice and flown to Tokyo for sale in the immense Japanese market.

Apart from tuna, the Pacific has an abundance of reef fish, and of mollusks ranging from conical trochus valued for their shells, to oysters, to giant clams.  Other edible creatures include sea urchins and beche de mer, a kind of sea slug that when boiled and dried, is a valued commodity in Chinese markets. Sadly, the destruction of coral reefs is reducing the habitat for many of these fascinating forms of marine life.      Below : Three of the many wonderful marine creatures of the Pacific:

A giant clam, - this beautiful but vulnerable mollusc does not deserve its
Hollywood film reputation for trapping people.

A coconut crab, - this fascinating creature, born in the sea, lives mostly on coconut meat. 
They are excellent eating, but are presently over-harvested.

A trochus shell.  This much valued species is a major source of shell buttons and shell jewellery

The Island of Tonga had its own unique culture.  Its people were prone to obesity, the king being a leading example of heaviness.  He wielded almost total control, like a benevolent dictator, through a semblance of democracy.  There were 14 seats in the parliament, 7 for commoners, and 7 for the local nobility.  But the king had the casting vote, and what the king decreed was not challenged by the elected representatives.  The people were friendly as Captain Cook had noted, though somewhat sensitive, and one had to exercise care to avoid hurt or misunderstanding.  Sunday on Tonga resembled the western isles of Scotland in some ways.  Church attendance was expected of the people who had to dress appropriately and largely abstain from work and irreverent activities. 

Moral codes are strong in the Pacific (which may surprise casual observers), but they owe their origins to traditional rules rather than to the influence of Christian missionaries.  Most Pacific societies live by taboo structures which were established centuries before explorers first encountered Polynesian peoples.  Modern missionaries are disappointed when Pacific converts or applicants ask them “what are the taboos?”  Religion for many is seen only in that light.  James Michener described how it all began :

            “The days of the moon, the turning of the season and the planting of crops were all placed under tabu.  So were laughing at improper moments, certain sex habits, the eating of certain fish and the ridicule of either gods or nobles.  Tabu was the temple, tabu were the rock gods, tabu was the growing coconut tree.  At some seasons, even the ocean itself was tabu, on pain of death.

            In this manner, and with the approval of the people, who wanted to be organized within established levels, the tabus were promulgated and patterns were developed whereby each man would know his level and none would transgress.  What had been a free volcanic island, explosive with force, now became a rigidly determined island, and all men liked it better, for the unknown was made known.” [From the sun-swept lagoon, in Hawaii, James A. Michener, Ballantine Books, Random House, New York, 1959.]

James A. Michener

Michener’s description of the Polynesian moral codes, sets the background to the arrival of traders and missionaries in the Pacific.  Some, like explorer James Cook and missionaries John Williams (1796 – 1839), and James Chalmers (1841 – 1901), were men of integrity and of sincere concern and respect for the native peoples and their culture.  Others were more inclined to exploit and to impose foreign cultures in the name of Christ.  A sad and poignant illustration of what happened in much of the Pacific is evident in the experience of Hawaii in the later 19th century.  That lovely group of scenic islands, which were first populated by Polynesian sailors, was cruelly afflicted by foreign diseases, and had oriental labour brought in to augment the diminished local population on sugar farms.

The sons of missionaries joined with American sugar The sons of missionaries joined with American sugar merchants to develop a ruling class that manipulated Hawaian government measures to boost their power and profits.  They displaced the traditional Polynesian structures, and forced the King at bayonet point, to accept a Constitution that deprived natives of the vote, and took effective power away from the monarch.  On the King’s death he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Liliuokalani, a woman of sterling character whose one weakness was her unwillingness to shed blood in defence of her country and her people.  The sugar barons had few such scruples.   They had her overthrown illegally, and even when President Calvin Coolidge’s emissary James Blount, found in favour of the Queen, they managed to petition Congress to reverse the decision.  Queen Liliuokalani could have had the guilty men arrested and incarcerated.  Instead she pardoned them.  Their thanks was to arrest her the year after Congress put them back in power in 1894, and have her sentenced to years of hard labour.  That was how the sons of missionaries behaved.  Fortunately, the sentence was not carried out in full, though the injured Queen was kept in virtual confinement for 12 months.  She died at the age of 79 in 1917.

Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii, a woman of great integrity, who was deposed and imprisoned by a bunch of ruthless American businessmen on the islands (with apparent help and encouragement from some in the U.S. government).

I mention this sad episode to expose the un-christian behaviour of some who professed to follow Christ.  I readily defend the work and character of Christian missionaries.  The vast majority I have known have sacrificed lives and lifetimes to serve others.  They mostly received little recognition and little monetary support.  But there have been some who did otherwise.  And if the best of them behaved circumspectly, sometimes their offspring acted in grossly exploitative ways.  This happened in Hawaii, in South Africa, and in much of South America.  An astonishing thing we see in all three regions, is how the local population came to faith in Christ, and still cling to that faith, despite the despicable behaviour of some of the descendants of those that first brought that message to their forefathers.  “The name of God is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you” said Jesus to the hypocritical Pharisees.  And so it has been with some who used religion as a cloak for their greed, in the Christian era.  The Scots poet, Burns wrote, “All hail Religion, maid divine, pardon a muse so mean as mine, who … daurs to name Thee. To stigmatise false friends of Thine can ne’er defame Thee”. [From the poem to the Rev John M’Math , by Robert Burns.]

Some humanists accuse all missionaries of the vilest of motives and actions, but in my experience, such meanness and hypocrisy is found in very few.  Throughout Africa and Asia I have seen scores of hospitals and orphanages and schools and leper colonies and aids hospices financed and run by Christians.  I have yet to find a single one financed and operated by humanists or Marxists.

Robert Louis Stevenson who lived through the period of Hawaii’s troubles during his last years in the Pacific, foresaw the destruction of Polynesian culture and the corruption of Polynesian society.  He viewed with increasing gloom the growing trend for the traditional Pacific societies to be overwhelmed by western cultures and commercialism. 

Apia, the capital of West Samoa

Tourists wishing to see their ‘Hollywood’ caricature of the Pacific should stop over at West Samoa where the film South Pacific was located, and the Michener story on which it was based.   The most famous hotel in the little capital of Apia is Aggie Grey’s where many of the rich and famous have stayed.  Their names now decorate the individual rooms.  The original Aggie Grey was reputed to have been Michener’s model for “Bloody Mary”,  in the book and the film, but I believe he said that she was just a composite representative character.  Certainly Aggie Grey made her money off the American fleet, but she was a beautiful and cultured woman, and not the rather mercenary amoral type seen in the film.  She had passed away by the time I visited Samoa, but her equally beautiful granddaughter was managing the hotel to which she gave her name.

Aggie Grey of Apia, West Samoa

Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the guests at the wedding of Aggie Grey’s parents around 1894.  And that brings us to West Samoa’s most famous resident.  Stevenson ended his days there after sailing around the Pacific in the chartered yacht “Casco”.  His house Valima, located a few miles behind Apia, is now a tourist visitor attraction.

Louis was known to the Samoans as “Tusitala” – teller of tales, and today that appropriate title is commemorated in the name of another hotel in Apia. RLS was fittingly buried at the top of the steep little Mount Vaea.  His grave is open to the sea and the sky, and surrounded by rhododendrons and flowering shrubs.  From that vantage point there is a magnificent view of the ocean, the island coast, and the mountains behind. I was moved by the sight, and touched afresh by his own obituary, that is inscribed on the side of the grave:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig me the grave and let me lie;
Gladly I live, and gladly die,
So lay me down with a will.

                                    This be the verse that you grave for me;
                                    Here he lies where he longs to be;
                                    Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
                                    And the hunter home from the hill

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