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Vikings of the Sunrise

11. The Northern Equatorial Islands

page 141

11. The Northern Equatorial Islands

Sail out and sail whither?
Sail north beneath Orion's Belt.

Between the centre and the northern angle of the Polynesian triangle there is a stretch of 2400 miles. On this northern radial, the modern chart shows a number of small islands that would have formed useful ports of call had the Polynesian voyagers been able to sail directly north. Bruce Cartwright suggests that the Polynesians, who were practical naturalists, may have followed the flight of the golden plover, land birds that migrate south from Alaska in winter and return in summer, to lands which they knew awaited their coming in the northern seas. Whether or not the prevailing winds would have allowed sailing canoes to follow the direct route of the birds, I do not know, but certain it is that explorers reached the Hawaiian islands of the northern angle and made permanent settlements upon them. It is also certain that the Polynesians discovered the intervening islands and, though they passed on, they planted coconut palms and left enduring monuments composed of coral rock to bear witness to their discovery and temporary occupation.

The islands on the northern radial are Christmas, Fanning, page 142 Washington, and Palmyra, lying just north of the Equator on a southeast to northwest line, covering a stretch of about 400 nautical miles, with Palmyra, the most northerly, about 1000 nautical miles from Hawai‘i. Fanning is important today as a cable station, and Christmas, with an area of 300,000 acres is said to be the largest of all atolls. South of the Equator and 250 miles southwest of Christmas is Jarvis Island which, though not an atoll, has a desert climate. Farther south are Maiden and Starbuck. Not so very far southwest from Starbuck is Tongareva, already referred to as the most northerly atoll on the northwest radial.

These islands situated north and south of the Equator have been termed collectively the Line Islands, but of late years, they have been referred to as the Equatorial Islands. Howland and Baker Islands, lying farther to the west, are included in the term. Howland has kou trees and a depression which may have been excavated by Polynesians to grow taro. Though the two islands were probably not touched by the Polynesians travelling to the northwest, they are now of practical importance to the United States as bases for air service across the Pacific. Among the colonists sent down recently by the United States to take possession of Howland and Baker were young Hawaiians from the Kamehameha Boys' School in Honolulu. It is interesting that today Polynesians should become pioneers in reoccupying Pacific atolls undoubtedly discovered by their remote ancestors.

When first visited by European ships, the Equatorial Islands were uninhabited. There are no myths or legends which might connect them with other phases of the great Polynesian adventure. So their brief history must be reconstructed from material traces of human occupancy. On lone islands the outstanding signs of previous habitation are the page 143 presence of coconut trees and coral temples erected to their gods by Polynesian navigators after landing. One or both of these traces have been found on all the Equatorial Islands except Howland, Baker, and Jarvis.

Coconut trees were seen by Captain Fanning on Washington and Fanning Islands in 1798 and by Captain Cook on Christmas Island in 1777. Both captains remained ashore for so brief a time that they did not see the archaeological remains and concluded that these islands had never been inhabited. Botanists now hold that coconuts are not endemic to atoll islands and must have been transported and planted by early Polynesian mariners. Those who remained for any length of time on these northern atolls adjusted themselves to the changed environment and made use of local materials much as do the present Tongarevans.

How these atolls were discovered we shall never know. They may have been touched during the course of longer expeditions to the north, following the flight of the golden plover, or winds and currents may have blown ships upon them during storms. They may have been visited during short voyages between neighbouring atoll groups, or by turtle-catching and fishing expeditions. Even today uninhabited islands of the Tuamotus are visited to catch turtle, a great delicacy, which may be found in abundance near atolls not permanently settled.

The early visitors to the atolls made themselves as comfortable as circumstances permitted. Their primary needs, apart from food that teemed in the sea and lagoon, were water and shelter. The need for water was not so pressing to the Polynesian as it is to a present-day European. Western civilization with its improvement of sanitary conditions and refinements of living has required more and more water. A page 144 European uses water to wash his food, his clothing, and himself. He needs water to cook his food and to drink either by itself or in combination with other beverages. He requires it to water his garden and his crops, to flush out his water closets, to wash down streets, to use in various manufactures, and in a host of ways unknown to his own ancestors. On seeing an atoll without rivers or streams, he is likely to assume that life would be untenable owing to lack of water supplies.

After being on an atoll and entering into the everyday life of its inhabitants, I was amazed to find that under the old conditions water was not so vitally important as I imagined. The coral islander cleaned his fish and shellfish in sea water and did not need to wash coconuts and pandanus fruit. He replaced his simple garments with new ones when they became soiled, and washed his body daily in the sea. In volcanic islands, where streams or springs abound, the inhabitants washed themselves in fresh water after swimming in the sea. One of the perquisites of a high chief was a fresh-water pool reserved to his own use and named in the recital of his chiefly possessions. It is said that the fresh water removes the itchy feeling left by salt water. On atolls, however, the people spent so much of their time in salt water that their skins became inured to what was unpleasant to others. When rains occurred, they availed themselves of a natural shower bath and, at times, a scooped-out excavation in a fresh-water seepage on the beach with a coconut-shell dipper provided all the necessities for bodily ablution.

The earth oven, with its heated coral or shells, did not require water for cooking purposes. The beverage required by man was supplied by the coconut. During the time we spent on the atolls of Rakahanga and Tongareva, we were provided with a constant supply of drinking nuts which, for page 145 drinking purposes, were much superior to tepid water. When a person called for ‘vai’ (water), he was brought a coconut.

However, on atolls without a luxuriant growth of coconuts, water was a necessity. It was obtained by digging shallow wells. Even though the water on the lower rock stratum was brackish, it was not unpalatable to those who had become accustomed to it. In post-European times, Polynesian labourers on Maiden Island preferred the well water to rain water caught in tanks because they attributed medicinal properties to it. On this island, there are a number of shallow wells lined with coral limestone slabs. At the bottom of the wells, shells were found that had been used as dippers.

The inhabitants of these atolls built houses with poles procured from local plants and roofed them over with pandanus leaves or coconut leaves when coconuts had been planted. In order to have a smooth surface upon which to sleep, the floor was carpeted with a layer of coral gravel, which the ceaseless wash of the waves had smoothed on the beach. To prevent the gravel from being scattered, a low curb was constructed of flat slabs of coral or of low blocks of coral limestone. The curb was rectangular, conforming to the dimensions of the house and about six or ten inches high. When the temporary settlers sailed away, the framework and roofs of their houses crumbled to decay, but the rectangular curbs having been embedded on edge in the ground, remained as permanent witnesses of previous occupation.

On Washington Island, a coral enclosure was reported of indefinite shape, but on Fanning, Christmas and Maiden Islands, they were of the characteristic rectangular form. In Fanning, the coral limestone curbstones were worked with an inner step and a few were shaped with an upper ornamental projection which rose a few inches above the general page 146 level of the curb. Two corner stones were L-shaped, a form described only in Tonga. Emory, in his study of the archaeology of these atolls, rightly, I think, pictures the builders of the Fanning Island structure as having come from Tonga. As the structure in Tonga is dated by the Tongan lineages as having been built in the sixteenth century, it is apparent that the Fanning Island structure cannot antedate that. The Tongan origin of the structure is further supported by the discovery of some bonito hooks in an old grave. Polynesian hooks for bonito trolling are made in two parts: a shank of pearl shell which resembles a small fish when trolled and a curved piece which forms the point to hook the fish. The point pieces differ in the various groups, and the Fanning hooks, which are now in Bishop Museum, resemble more' closely those of Tonga than any other group. Also, some basaltic adzes have been discovered which are shaped like those of Tonga. Porpoise teeth with holes drilled through them have been found in a grave, but though our present knowledge would attribute these to the Marquesas, we cannot be dogmatic about them.

In both Christmas and Maiden Islands, there are raised rectangular platforms with walls defined by coral slabs 2 to 3.5 feet high and with the interior filled with coral rocks. The platforms of Maiden Island are definitely associated with curbed rectangular courts. These platforms resemble the maraes described for Tongareva and were used for religious purposes.

On Fanning, Christmas and Maiden Islands, there are small rectangular enclosures about six feet long by three feet wide or larger, defined by coral limestone slabs from one to two feet high and covered in the interior with a layer of coral gravel. Similar structures were made in Tongareva and other page 147 atolls for the burial of the dead. Instead of digging a hole down into crumbling coral with inadequate tools, the atoll dwellers found it easier to build upwards with the easily accessible limestone slabs and then to cover the dead with a layer of coral gravel. This technique shows a perfect adjustment to local conditions.

Other signs of Polynesian occupation are given by the discovery of tools or implements. The basaltic adze found on Fanning and one on Christmas indicate that the early settlers came from a volcanic island. When they moved on again, they generally took their stone tools with them, but an occasional one may have been mislaid or purposely left as a funeral offering. Those who remained on atolls for any appreciable time were forced to use tridacna-shell tools; the number of these found on Christmas and Maiden indicates a settled occupation for some time. Starbuck Island has no archaeological remains.

In the twentieth century, Maiden Island was worked by a guano company with labour recruited from the Cook Islands and Niue. I was acting medical officer in Niue in 1912, when a recruiting ship called for labourers. The Island Government, which is under New Zealand, allowed a certain quota to sign on for two years, but half the wages in gold had to be deposited with the Resident Commissioner to be paid to the men on their return. In this way, the wives and families of the labourers were assured of sharing in the benefits of the temporary exile. As medical officer, I had to make a physical examination of each recruit and stamp his pass-card with the Administration rubber stamp. There was great excitement with the recruits and their wives and sweethearts clamouring about the dispensary door.

When I stamped the first man's card, he held his face over the table.

page 148

‘Here,’ he said, pointing to his forehead.

‘What?’ I asked in surprise.

‘The stamp,’ he replied; ‘stamp it here.’

Being affable and quite content to let things explain themselves, I imprinted the Government's ink stamp upon his ample forehead. Immediately he dashed through the doorway and ran, leaping and yelling, among the crowd that had gathered outside.

The examination went on and each man asked to be rubber-stamped. The older married men had it on the back of a hand, but the young, unmarried men preferred a cheek or the forehead. The ship was sailing the next day and, in the festivities of farewell, the young men with stamped faces lorded it over their fellows in the competition for the favours of the opposite sex. I never reached Maiden myself but my rubber stamps did, for no man would attempt to wash off his badge of honour.

Maiden Island was first seen by Europeans in 1825. At that time H.M.S. Blonde, commanded by Lord Byron, was returning to England from the Hawaiian islands after taking back the bodies of the King and Queen of Hawai‘i who had died of measles in London. The atoll was named after Lieutenant Maiden who, with the naturalist, Mr. Bloxam, went ashore to explore.

Mr. Bloxam described the archaeological remains fairly accurately, but the drawing of a temple by Dampier, based on this material, represents it falsely as a truncated pyramid. The late Professor Macmillan Brown used the evidence of Bloxam and the drawings of Dampier as a basis for his theory of drowned archipelagoes. He saw an affinity between the simple Maiden structures and the pyramids of the sun and moon on the coasts of Peru, the teocallis of Mexico, and the page 149 Metalanim structures of Ponape. He concluded that an army of men would be required to build these temples and that men could not possibly live on Maiden; hence Maiden must have been a sacred island of a people who lived on a fertile archipelago near-by which has now sunk below the sea, perhaps carrying with it the entire population.

Accurate knowledge of the Equatorial Islands was obtained by the Whippoorwill and Kaimiloa expeditions directed by Bishop Museum in 1925. On Maiden, K. P. Emory measured the structures seen by Bloxam. The limestone slabs were no larger than those in the temples of Tongareva. Any structure on Maiden could easily be built by a working party of fifty men. ‘Paved roads’ to the sea, mentioned by Brown, are simply paths for fishermen, similar to those in Tongareva, and have no sacred significance. I have already pointed out that the requirements for living on an atoll island were extremely simple. Emory states that Captain Stenbeck and fifty labourers lived on Maiden for six months in 1914 after their imported supplies of food were completely exhausted. They lived on fish, birds' eggs, and imported goats and pigs. Atoll islanders could have subsisted on fish and eggs, purslane (Portulaca lutea), their only vegetable food plant, and perhaps also seaweed. Thus there is no necessity for assuming the existence of a sunken fertile archipelago from which people came to worship at temples constructed on an uninhabitable atoll. In all Polynesia, worship was conducted on temples built close to inhabited villages. Even the great international temple of Taputapu-atea, to which people from surrounding islands came at the height of its fame, was built in a thickly populated district.

The story of Maiden Island is as simple as that of any atoll. Some Polynesians settled upon it, made temples for the page 150 worship of their gods, buried their dead, made paths to the sea, dug wells, and made implements of tridacna shell. They lived on the native plants and animals. It was a hard life and, perhaps after a drought or a bad storm, they migrated elsewhere.

Tempting as it may be to weave mysteries about extinct civilizations that existed on sunken fertile lands, imagination along such lines conflicts with common sense. Geologists have found no evidence to support the theory of extensive lands that have sunk within the Polynesian triangle during the period of man's existence. The material evidences of previous human occupation on uninhabited atolls have nothing mysterious about them and can all be accounted for by temporary Polynesian occupation. Hardy Polynesian ancestors paid their visits, stayed their span, and passed on to return to or to seek more attractive isles. If they were lost on the sea paths of the Ocean Maid, they went down gallantly on their foundered ships and not on a sinking archipelago. Hawaiki, the common fatherland of us all, is not sunk deep beneath the waters of the Pacific, but Havai‘i, the mother of lands, rests serene in the centre of Polynesia and will live on forever though we, her sons, may pass into oblivion.