Stories of the sea: travellers across the Pacific
Deveni Temu, Prue Ahrens and Sioana Faupula, 16 September 2009
JENNY NEWELL: Welcome to our final session in the Vaka Moana seminar series. I am Jenny Newell and I work at the Centre for Historical Research here at the National Museum of Australia. I also want to thank Adam Blackshaw and Leanne Dempsey of public programs, co-convenors of this program. In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge that we are on the land for which the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people have been custodians for many centuries. We acknowledge their living culture and give thanks for their contribution to and support of the Museum’s enterprises.
This series has drawn on the themes of the Voyages of the Pacific ancestors Vaka Moana exhibition which is next door and which is still open until 18 October. The speakers within this series, from universities and museums around Australia, have taken us from the techniques of traditional voyaging, to the history of Australian traders and travellers around the Pacific, to contemporary ways that museums are engaging with presenting and documenting Pacific seafaring.
One of the key points this exhibition makes very clearly is the way Pacific Islanders have always, and continue, to lead lives intimately intertwined with the Pacific Ocean. One of the things I was particularly looking forward to in designing these seminars was the chance to have some personal stories that would give us, here in our land-locked location, insights into the deep and abiding ways that others have lived with the sea. How people living and travelling across the Pacific have relied upon the ocean for day-to-day survival, had it as the foundation of their cultural and spiritual life, and drawn upon it for their livelihoods.
Today’s speakers - Deveni Temu and Sioana Faupula from The Australian National University and Prue Ahrens from the University of Queensland - will provide us with three unique perspectives: from family stories to views from travellers and tourists. Their accounts will add life and spice to the more static displays next door, and Sioana has a particularly lively treat for us at the conclusion. We will be recording today’s session so at question time following each speaker, please wait for the microphone and also say who you are before asking a question. Accounts of travels and life on the water, coastal Papua New Guinea by Deveni Temu
JENNY NEWELL: I will now introduce our first speaker, Deveni Temu. Temu Deveni was born and raised in Papua New Guinean coastal fishing village about 220 kilometres east of Port Moresby. After qualifying and working as a high school teacher, he became one of Papua New Guinea Canberra’s first qualified librarians with a post graduate diploma from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He gained a master’s degree from Monash University and went on to become the chief librarian at the Papua New Guinea University of Technology and then at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in Noumea. He moved in Canberra in 1999 to manage the library at the School of Theology in Barton. He is currently the ANU Pacific Librarian based in the Menzies Library.
Deveni is passionate about Papua New Guinean art and culture and is, with colleagues here at the Museum and in Papua New Guinea, involved in the Living Art exhibition planned for 2013. He participates actively in promoting Papua New Guinea culture through song and dance in Canberra. We are fortunate to have him here today to enlighten us about coastal life in Papua New Guinea. Please welcome Deveni Temu.
DEVENI TEMU: Thank you Jenny. I would like to begin by paying homage to my maternal uncles Pokana Vekwala, Walokamu Tauvauand my maternal aunt, Samoa. These three great seafarers were the ones who introduced me to the sea and they were the ones who told me a great saying in that part of Papua New Guinea I come from, because when I took my trip with them in a canoe I was so terrified that they thought I wasn’t going to survive. So they told me this quote and it’s always said to children or people that they take on board, and this is roughly what it says in English: ‘A true seaman is one whose loincloth is permanently damp.’ That stuck with me for a long time. Those three great maternal uncles and aunt were the ones who introduced me to the sea. It is their story as much as mine.
Before I go on to the personal stories I would like to show you where exactly where I am from. You can see on the map of the Cape Rodney area. That is the name given to the area that I come from where these villages are that I will cover in my talk. The names of these two villages are called Kapari and Viriolo. Kapari is an Aroma speaking village and Viriolo is Hula speaking. These two villages are unusual in their locations. That is where these villages are.
About 100 years ago in the Viriolo village a family - what I was going to say was a clan - a small family that had a dispute with the rest of the village people. And then they decided to leave to move west. I will just bring up the next slide to show you where the location of these other villages are where they moved. You can see on that map, this is where they moved from Alukuni which is a Hula speaking village and shifted right down to the Aroma area. This is about 100 years ago.
As far as I am aware from oral sources my ancestors told me, they came on a canoe this particular family and settled on a beach close to where Kapari is currently located. They were there for about four years. During those four years the Kapari who lived inland saw these people. They had these wonderful skills of building canoes and fishing. When the Kapari saw this, they decided that they would try to befriend them and that is exactly what happened.
So today we have these two villages existing side by side. As you can see on that map, the coastal area right down to Port Moresby and the inset there of the map of Papua New Guinea, the coastal area the location of these villages is about 220 kilometres east of Port Moresby. It is almost midway between Port Moresby and the very eastern tip Milne Bay. Then there, as I said, nearly 100 years now developed this wonderful bartering system.
When I was growing up, the Viriolo fishermen provided fish, the Kapari who are the agriculturalists developed this bartering system of exchange of fish and vegetables. That trade has continued. But like everything else in Papua New Guinea these days, it has now become - how can I say - obsolete in that money has taken over this trade so fish is exchanged for money, no longer food. But there are within individual households exchanges.
One of the most important things with these special villages is that it explained this whole ethos we have in our coastal villages that any stranger that comes past your village or your place should be made welcome by offering them food or fish. This is what happened with Kapari and the Viriolo people. This tradition has continued. For example, if there is a Mailucanoe which is further east travelling to Port Moresby and with rough weather they stop by along our coast and in our villages, our people are always ready to help if they are in need of water or food or things like that. It’s a wonderful tradition that has been maintained, apart from the vegetable and fish bartering system which has now been taken over by money.
As I said, to the Kapari and Viriolo, the sea is important, a part of the environment as the land. The reef reefs and banks are also a source of food and the beaches provide major walking tracks. They also provide a place to locate their villages. On that map there is situated at the eastern end of the chain of Hula speaking villages. And as I have already said, approximately 200 kilometres from Port Moresby, Kapari and Viriolo are unusual in their proximity to each other.
Kapari stands on a small sandy peninsula formed by the Auro River. Today some of the houses are placed well back on the firm ground behind the village forming the northern edge. The rest and in traditional manner close to the sea on the bank which shelves into the water. At high tide the sea laps beneath the floors of the nearest row. Viriolo is only 20 metres away across a strip of water where the river joins the Coral Sea. Its houses are built above a sand bank whose boundaries constantly shift, which even at high tide affords dry ground in the centre of the village. This is a shot of Virioloat high tide. Here you can see the village at high tide [slide shown]. This was taken in 2003.
As you can see these houses are now made of modern European style materials. This is a result of the skills they had in fishing. Some of you probably will know that the Hula people who used to come and sell fish at Koki in Port Moresby, some of those people were from Viriolo. When Viriolopeople discovered that they could make money and build permanent houses, they got on their canoes and travelled to Port Moresby and set up in Port Moresby. Some of them came for a few months; sometimes they stayed for two or three years making money. When they made enough money they bought their corrugated iron roofing, fibro and went back and built their houses.
It is interesting in 1971 when I took a high school teacher home, there were several traditional houses still there in the village. He said, ‘Oh those things, the traditional houses, look much more romantic and more suitable for the climate than these.’ But then you see my uncles told him these are permanent constructions. We don’t want to reconstruct them every five or ten years. They were smart in that when they saw the opportunity to make money they got on their canoes, came down to Port Moresby, made their money and went and built these houses.
The next shot is Viriolo in the 1950s. That is the same shot taken of the village in 2003 and this is the old traditional houses. A big, big change. We can talk about this too. The Viriolopeople we saw at high tide, the sea went right up. This is after church they are returning home to their villages and this house with the fibro sheet they were walking past, is a Kapari house. The Kapari house had shifted out to Viriolo because they now prefer living close to the sea near the beach because it is much cleaner, the sea comes and washes away all the rubbish. It is also cool and airy.
I paid homage to my uncle and aunt. There are two gentlemen there, my uncle Pokana and uncle Walo. This is the canoe that he built. In 1985 I was at Monash and went home on field work. Because I had saved quite a bit of money, my Mum said, ‘Your uncle has built a canoe. He doesn’t use the sails so can you get him an outboard motor?’ It is their tradition that the sister’s children help out the uncle. This is what I did. I bought an outboard motor for him.
It’s a custom that when the canoe and the outboard motor or the new sail is put to sea, there has to be certain protocols followed. One of these is that the house must not be swept because the fishermen leave about 6 in the morning and food must not be cooked for the whole day until they return. But the whole village knows that this outboard motor and this canoe are going on their first trip. So at the end of the day when the fishermen return everybody will come with cooked food as the canoe comes in. When the canoe pulls in onto the beach, the fish is taken out and distributed and given to every individual person who comes with their food to celebrate.
This one was taken by Bill Standish in 2003. I selected this because it shows you the banana boat and the traditional double-hulled little river canoes. This is on the other side of the river. If you remember the map, the Maowai is the river that separates the village. Some of the Viriolo houses are built right into the sea, literally over the Coral Sea. This river runs right out into the Coral Sea. This river is also infested with crocodiles but, you know, these village people are very smart. They live side by side with them. I’m nearly 60 now and in that lifetime there has never been a single crocodile attack on any human being.
This is an interesting one. I wanted to show you this because it shows you how the traditional double-hulled canoes have been taken over by these banana boats. You will see these all along now, which is in many ways very sad, because in 1991 when I went from Lae with my Irish wife, we both went to visit my mother. There was not a single banana boat in the village. That is 1991. We visited again in 2003 and this is what we saw. They are gradually being replaced. That is another shot.
This is again taken in 2003. At least there are still individuals who are able to make these canoes. This is a new canoe being constructed by these two men. The next one should show the finished product. The canoe is finished. You can see it’s under this house and these two cousins are cooking the fish that their father has caught from the river. This particular shot - you will recall the shot of my uncles going on the fishing expedition. It’s the same kind of canoe but this one has been built up with the timber surroundings. This was my uncle’s nephew’s canoe. This canoe was used in the 1960s. When I finished grade 6 from the village and I was selected to go to boarding school to Sogeri, which is up from Port Moresby. My cousin who owned this boat took about 12 of us plus four crew members. It’s a distance of 220 kilometres travelling from Kapari Viriolo to Port Moresby along the coast line. It was quite a load because we had food, we had all of us, about 20 of us, packed into a boat like this. One of my responsibilities because I was a family member, was to keep bailing any water that came into the canoe. This trip, during that time when we were using the sails, would take about five to seven days but with outboard motors if the weather was good, it was two or three days. So you can imagine we just kept travelling out in the sea quite far away from the coast. So you are constantly standing there in the canoe bailing. It was interesting with some of the students that came with us, because they were from the hill tribes, had never been to the sea before. They found travel on the sea quite bad in that of course they became sea sick. They were just so terrified sitting right in the centre of the canoe huddled together. Here was us bailing trying to keep the boat afloat so that we would reach Port Moresby. There is always a saying in the Viriolo people that never take the mountain people with you because they will not help if the canoe capsizes.
In this particular shot, you can see the name up there, Karolua. Karolua was our ancestral ocean-going canoe my father built in the 1950s. Because he was orphaned at a very young age, he didn’t have any family to help him to build his house, so he built his great big canoe. This canoe was provided by the person who named me Deveni. He was the chief of a village from the mountain tribes and of course in the mountains they have the great big logs and trees to make this canoe, so he provided the canoes for my father and built his canoe. And Karolua - Karo is language, lua, rua in some of the Pacific languages is two, so it’s bilingual. It’s because when one of the elders of the village was walking past while my uncles and family were building the canoe, he heard one of us speak Hula and then switch to Aroma. He said these children speak two languages Karolua, that is why my father called our canoe Karolua. But this particular sail, again I provided for my brother. This is my elder brother’s canoe. It took part in a race in 2003.
This is just a shot of a family setting out on their double-hulled river canoe. You can see there is quite a lot of them. They are just setting out to the gardens. When they come back, there is going to be lots of vegetables and things to put on the canoes. So the canoes go right down but they really manage how to get home without getting water and capsizing. But they really know how to manoeuvre them.
These are some more shots of the 1950s canoe races in the area that we come from. These are outrigger canoe races. More shots of them. I thought I should put this in very quickly: These are some of the village women. It again demonstrates the traditional and the new. These women are wearing skirts made out of rice bags which they made. I wanted to illustrate the point about their preference for opting for something permanent. The traditional grass skirts wear out very quickly so this is a modern way of making use of somebody’s rubbish. It’s wonderful dress for them.
This is a very old shot of the village Kapari village which is the agricultural village. This is their traditional house. You can’t see those any more. The last that I saw was in 1972. They are all gone. You can’t see them now. With this image I will finish off now. Thank you very much.
JENNY NEWELL: Any questions?
QUESTION: Thank you for such a lovely talk, Deveni. I have a question about your crocodiles. What was the relationship between the people and the crocodiles was the arrangement that the crocodiles wouldn’t eat the people? How did you work that one out?
DEVENI TEMU: I think again it’s another saying, they say you have to respect the sea and what’s in it and the sea will respect you. I suppose a lot of people go by that saying within the village and also people they know what time to go out and wash in the sea. Literally we do live side by side with the crocodiles because the houses really are built into the sand banks. When I was little sometimes the crocodiles would come up under the houses of my uncles. You knew them. You could see them and you would always avoid them. But of course they would go and attack the pigs and dogs that were wandering around the village. But as I said, I have never heard stories of people being taken. They coexist quite happily.
QUESTION: Foreign language spoken. What is the main source of income for this village when those houses were built and contemporary?
DEVENI TEMU: There are two villages. Kapari are the agriculturalists and they produce root crops, banana, sugarcane, water melons, pineapples, papaws and all those things. They have a local market within the area that they are in. There’s about five or six villages that come to do a weekend market. But they also travel to Port Moresby now the road is through, the Magi highway. Some of you probably have heard of that, that connects the village. And of course like everything else in Papua New Guinea it is quite tough because the road is not that well maintained.
But the interesting thing is that the Viriolo people don’t market their fish by sailing down. They use the outboard - they use the motor vehicles to travel down to Port Moresby so they still sell their fish and they still are very affluent because the fish is in high demand by almost every village along that coast. So they do pretty well with fish and agricultural products. But there is also commercial rubber plantations that were introduced in the 1960s. Some families opted to take this over. It is mostly the agriculturalists who have taken them on and some have stayed on working with the rubber plantations. The Viriolo people as far as I know, three of them took them up in the 1960s but they just couldn’t cope. They missed the sea so much they gave it up and came back to the village.
QUESTION: Thanks very much Deveni. Margaret Jolly from the ANU. I was just wondering if you could tell us the reasons why people built houses over the sea and also if there is any fear about threat from climate change and sea levels rising?
DEVENI TEMU: Yes, that’s a good question. It’s a big, big problem for the Viriolo people as you saw in one of those shots the sea, because the populations have increased so they are building out almost out to the outer reefs. At king tides as far as I can tell last year some of them came right up and washed on the floors and they had to shift everything and put them up on beds and things. They are now beginning to negotiate with the Kapari, the Viriolo people. They have given them land where they want to rebuild. But it is still along the coast. I was back there in July and when I was a child there was a big tree that used to stand there which was a landmark for this area that has been given for the Viriolo people to build their new village and it’s been taken away and coconuts have been taken away. They say it is still not a safe place to rebuild. So they are still building over the sea. I suppose for the Viriolo, it is in your psyche. It is in my psyche so much the sea that even here when I meet Hula speaking - there are only three of us here. And if we are travelling and we go to some place and I want to ask for a lift back and I ask with whose canoe did you come in - it never occurred to me until somebody overheard me and asked why are you referring to your car as a canoe. That is probably it. And for me personally here in Canberra, I have this yearning and longing every time to go out to the sea. I suppose it’s the connection. It’s a difficult thing for Viriolo people whether they will shift to the main land.
JENNY NEWELL: Please join me in thanking Deveni. Coast to coast: visual histories of modern Pacific crossings from the Kemble Collection, Huntington Library by Prue Ahrens
JENNY NEWELL: I was very pleased to have been able to entice Dr Prue Ahrens down from Brisbane to join us here today to add her perspectives on Pacific travels through an exciting range of visual and ephemeral sources. I am also glad that Canberra has put on a bit of warming for her. Prue is a lecturer in art history at the University of Queensland. Her publications and curated exhibitions interrogate case studies of colonial modernity in the South Pacific. The most recent example of this is the book she has just finished co-editing titled Coast to Coast: case histories in modern Pacific crossings. I can vouch for her being an excellent editor as she has very kindly let me be one of the contributors.
Prue is a fellow of the Yale University Centre for Studies in British Art and Universitas 21. In 199 she was awarded the John Haskell Kemble Fellowship to investigate Pacific maritime archives at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, Los Angeles. These research findings will be published in her forthcoming volume and also inform her paper today: ‘Coast to coast: Visual histories of modern Pacific crossings from the Kemble collection, Huntington Library’. Please welcome Prue Ahrens.
PRUE AHRENS: Thank you Jenny and thank you Deveni for a lovely talk. You’re a hard act to follow. I thought about how I might best contribute to today’s panel. The modern histories of Pacific maritime crossings have been the focus of some excellent scholarship just in recent years. Dr Frances Steel who is now at the University of Wollongong has published a very detailed and complex history of the Union Steamship Company and the Trans-Pacific Mail Lines operating from the 1880s to 1910. Dr Jenny Newell has published histories of the collecting practices of trans-Pacific voyages. Specifically Jenny looks at souvenir collecting of the Dauntless cruise of the 1820s and the exchanges between naval officers and Pacific communities. As Jenny mentioned, I am very pleased to be co-editing a volume that will feature her work and Frances Steel’s work in a collection entitled Coast to Coast: case histories in modern Pacific crossings, which will be published by CSP in the coming months.
Rather than repeat or summarise those histories that have been well documented, I thought what I might do in this short session is to introduce you to a collection over at the Huntington Library in Pasedena, California, which has recently become available to researchers of Pacific history. That is the Kemble collection of maritime ephemera. This is a very large and significant collection of archival material dating from the nineteenth and twentieth century. The collection as a whole offers a fantastic insight into the ways in which links were forged across the Pacific in the modern period, mainly through commercial vessels. The ephemera was produced during crossings from the United States to the coast of Australia, and also across networks in the Pacific, and it demonstrates how vessels, human labour and capital really created a network across the Pacific in transporting goods and people.
In January and February of this year I was very grateful to be in residence at the Huntington Library, which is in San Marino in California outside Los Angeles. The Kemble collection was bequeathed to the library by John Haskell Kemble who was a professor at Pomona College. He spent his lifetime collecting maritime related materials which were primarily but not exclusively focused on the Pacific. Mainly Kemble purchased the materials from travel agencies and from other collectors. He also collected ephemeral material from his own travels.
The Kemble collection contains material from 925 maritime shipping companies and includes shipping histories, travel brochures, schedules and passenger lists. In total there are over 24,000 items in the Kemble collection. Throughout his lifetime he donated books and paintings to the Huntington Library and upon his death the ephemera collection was donated to the Huntington by his family.
The curators and archivists at the Huntington Library, who are led by Mario Einaudi, have been processing this massive collection since 1999. It has become available to researchers just in the past two years. Mario advises there is still work to be done on the collection, but a database that contains a company and folder list is available for researchers.
This is a very typical entry from the Kemble catalogue [slide shown]. The catalogue isn’t available online. It is only available in hard copy from the curator. What I want to point out is firstly the way in which the collection is catalogued under company name, the shipping company name. So in this case we see the Australian Oriental Line. The way in which it is cross referenced is crucial, because I very quickly learnt that shipping companies changed frequently in terms of their administrations – they have very complex administrative histories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. So the cross referencing is quite crucial.
I would like to also point out the diverse material that is contained in this ephemera collection. For example, this folder, as it says, contains brochures, schedules, menus and other items including a wine list and stationery. Folder one contains the brochures which have rate and schedule information, deck plans for the companies’ two ships and images of those ships. There is also a stand alone schedule from 1933 and a wine list from 1960. The wine list includes a letter from the AO line to a Mr Crane who is seeking copies of the company’s wine lists and menus. The majority of items are the menus found in folders two and three. Menus from the two ships cover the end of the company’s operations, although there are two menus from 1932. The menus have some interesting covers but are standard for late 1950s.
So the holdings are diverse and quite eclectic. For example, there is one folder which contains a face washer from an early oceanic cruise ship. But importantly the assortment of items are organised around the Pacific maritime company they relate to and in many cases the specific ship and vessel from which they came.
My background is art history and my concern was with the visual material. So in a collection of 24,000 items I was firstly looking for maritime companies that had a trans-Pacific service, either they were connected to a trans-Pacific service or had connections with Australia and the West Coast of North America. There are some obvious companies, the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company, the Canadian Australasian Line and the Oceanic Steamship Company. There are also not so obvious companies, for example some of the Japanese shipping companies which had ties to both the West Coast of the United States and to Australia.
In order to include within my investigation a broader sampling of maritime companies, I widened my search to include companies that carried passengers to a certain point and then connected to another company which completed the crossing between the United States and Australia. So that would include the Los Angeles Steamship Company, which was LA to Hawaii, and the Matson line, which was San Francisco to Hawaii and then later to Australia.
Really my interest in this material was to investigate how a modernist rhetoric comes through early twentieth commercial imagery in visual ephemera produced by passenger ships. I wouldn’t really call them cruise ships at this stage. They were referred to as passenger ships. This investigation is feeding into a larger project that is focused on painting, film documentary and ephemera that picture Pacific Islands through a Euro-American lens of modernity as opposed to primitivism and exoticism. What I found was interesting within this visual ephemera was the picturing of these unlikely bedfellows - exoticism with an associated primitivism - and modernity with an associated claim to luxury. It’s an unlikely pairing of the modern and the exotic and it does come through the passenger ship ephemera as these passenger ships attempt to find their position or their niche in a very competitive Euro American tourist market. This modernist vision of trans-Pacific travel really isn’t limited to the south seas - the China Mail Company, for example, sold their voyage on the twin promise of modernity and its associated luxury and the exoticism of the orient.
The ephemera could be investigated in multiple multidisciplinary ways and certainly not solely for information on the operations of the early passenger ships. Say for example constructions of the east and west and stereotypical imagery of their inhabitants, constructions of for example Australia and Australian-ness. This image is quite curious: Australia is being pictured here for its ski resorts. Within the material you could pick up on the recurrence of the flag within the early twentieth advertising, the use of the map and the connotations of imperialism, or the evocation of classical myths surrounding ancient voyage being re-interpreted for modern commercial passenger ship travel. So clearly for the researcher of visual histories at the very least, there is really a wealth of information within the Kemble collection that could be interpreted through multiple perspectives. Simply what I have tried to introduce you to here is the potential of this archive for further scholarship and perhaps highlight the contribution that printed ephemera can make to our understandings of modern Pacific voyaging, modern crossings of the Pacific. So really the archive offers endless opportunities for the historian, or the writer or indeed the exhibition curator.
QUESTION: I am curious as to why you think he did it, why did he collect so many things?
PRUE AHRENS: That is a very good question because at the time they might have been considered rubbish. What he collected: boarding cards, menus, he had a tremendous amount of foresight to see that this ephemera would become historically important. Certainly the rest of the passengers threw them out. Why he collected them? As an historian himself perhaps he figured that one day these things would become important and could give us some insight into attitudes towards voyaging across the Pacific. That is all I can suggest, a bit of a Boyer bird.
JENNY NEWELL: Is there any sense that he went on a voyage himself at some point and that started off his interest?
PRUE AHRENS: Yes, he did travel himself. But all the same 24,000 items…
QUESTION: My name is Jennifer Role and can I ask you or Jenny to expand on the notion of ephemera. We have had a little bit touching on that just a moment ago. ephemera is usually termed or related to something that is not very important or has only a short-lived importance. But nevertheless museums and art galleries and other institutions collect it. We are discovers it portrays a certain amount of social history. Is ephemera something that is not much of interest but yet it is?
PRUE AHRENS: If I may, I would like to disagree with the word important. I think ephemera does refer to important things. I think ephemera usually refers to not necessarily work that will last. ephemeral production in my understanding usually refers to dance performance that can’t necessarily be kept. That is my understanding of ephemera. Printed ephemera again I would suggest that really the term refers to something that wasn’t really made to last for a long time. What would you say Jenny?
JENNY NEWELL: Yes, exactly, and that these things can still give us access to the ways that people were experiencing the world and wanting to present their particular enterprises to the world. Useful in all sorts of ways for the historian and others. Does that answer your question?
QUESTION: Shortlived is the -
PRUE AHRENS: Almost, yes.
QUESTION by Isa Menzies from the Museum: I was interested that you said that they were known as passenger ships rather than cruise ships but essentially they did fulfil the role of the cruise ship, didn’t they?
PRUE AHRENS: Not really. Cruise ships as we understand it where the whole idea is as Cunard would create this catch phrase where ‘getting there is half the fun’ - that really didn’t come in until the 1950s and 1960s. These ships were first and foremost transporting goods. They were trade ships. But they took passengers on as well. So they really were passenger ships and this idea of cruising came through the way we understand it in the 1950s and 1960s. But then in the 1930s I suppose the idea of cruising came along but it was very much an upper class activity and in steerage the people who would go on to these ships in the 1930s in steerage were usually immigrants. So they were there to get from A to B. But that idea of Cunard phrase of ‘getting there is half the fun’ was 1950s and 1960s really.
QUESTION: Do you get any sense from the archive of the sorts of experiences that passengers were having when they did stop off in Hawaii or Samoa and the sorts of maybe the encounters they were having with the locals? Were they bringing things back on board? That would give you some insight into that sort of relationship?
PRUE AHRENS: Sadly not, surprisingly, within this archive. There really isn’t the souvenir from the places in which they would stop over. There is more the souvenir from the ship itself. So it’s very much an archive that is about maritime history as opposed to contact with the various ports on the way. Really it is a contribution to maritime history.
QUESTION: Margaret Jolly from the ANU. Thanks very much, Prue. I was really interested in what you were saying about modernity and how you are suggesting that mod modernity actually embraces the Pacific. One of the kind of interesting things in what you have shown us is very often you get this juxtaposition, like this one here, of the very solid almost kind of invasive phallic steamship together with some sort of feminised imagery. Here it’s like the angelic classical or whatever carrying on the wings but there was that other one of the Australian New Zealand line which had a slightly kind of modernised variant of a Maori woman I think. How far do you think the modernity being captured in these images is the modernity of the West Coast of America, emergent Australia and New Zealand and how far the modernity of the peoples of the Pacific themselves?
PRUE AHRENS: I think it’s a great question. It is almost entirely modernity as Europe and America understand it. This is 1928. In the late nineteenth France certainly was trying to position its Pacific colonies in terms of their modernity and this had a government push and economic push behind it. Trying to phrase for example Tahiti as an island of cotton and coffee as a place for export, a place of for investment and a place for immigration and immigration in terms of assimilation to that culture. But it is very much a one-sided tale. These pictures really play out Americans speaking to Americans. It is a commercial basis and really in another sense these pamphlets are an interesting study of the early developments of marketing and advertising and trying to find a hook for the paying customer. I don’t think really there’s any relationship between what’s pictured in these brochures, these advertisements and the reality of life in the islands. I don’t think that was really their concern. I see you are nodding there. Would you agree? I do think it was Americans speaking to Americans.
JENNY NEWELL: Please join me in thanking Prue Ahrens. Tin Can Island volcano eruptions by Sioana Faupula
JENNY NEWELL: Sioana Faupula is a celebrity both here on the airwaves as a story teller and news presenter for SBS Radio and in Tonga where she is frequently called back to take part in major events. Sioana has many interests in the Pacific Islands community here, including Pacific women and cultural heritage of Tonga. She’s been a teacher starting in Sydney, then at the Queen Salote College in Nuku’alofa. She married the Reverend Haloti Faupula in 1966, and since then has been involved in training and community work through the theological colleges, schools and churches in Tonga and Australia.
She and her husband were missionaries in Yirrkala throughout the 1970s. Sioana is now a lay preacher for the Uniting Church here in Canberra. She is also President of the Canberra Tonga Community. She’s been a translator and assistant archivist at the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau at the ANU since 2001. I am sure you are all looking forward as much as I am to her account of the Tin Can Island volcano eruptions.
SIOANA FAUPULA: Good morning everyone. I would like to pay respect to the traditional owners of this land, academic scholars, organisers of this historic program, my fellow speakers Prue and Deveni, ladies and gentlemen. The story of Tin Can mail and volcano eruptions took place in the most remote island in the Kingdom of Tonga called Niuafo’ou. You can see a glimpse of it as you sail on the fringe of Tongan waters from Samoa to Fiji. It is a volcano on an underwater ridge 190 kilometres west of the line of all the other volcanos of Tonga. The island is a steep side calderas, the rim is over 120 metres high, rising to the peak of Mokotu which is 250 metres. The coastline is rocky and steep with no reef, and the few beaches are stony with some black sand.
Back in 1882 William Travers, a plantation manager, found himself marooned on this tiny doughnut-shaped island. All he could see a couple of miles out to sea is the passenger ship steaming past, but none ever called because the island had no harbour. He was the only white man on the island and he resented being unable to communicate with the outside world.
So when the need to contact his company in Australia became desperate, he came up with an ingenious plan. He wrote to the Tongan postal authorities asking them to seal his mail in a ship’s biscuit tin and arrange for the captain of one of the Union Steamship Company vessels to throw it overboard as they passed the island on their way between Samoa and Fiji.
These ships traded regularly between the islands of the Pacific. If the captain would give a hoot on the ship’s siren, he would send a swimmer out to collect the tin. He wrapped his letter carefully in greaseproof paper and tied it to a short stick. He asked the strongest swimmer on the island to swim out to the next ship and hand his letters to the captain. In this way Tin Can mail was born. However, the strong currents meant that a swimmer often struggled for up to six hours to retrieve a mail tin dropped from a ship only a mile off shore.
In 1921 Charles Ramsay came to Niuafo’ou as a plantation manager. He too needed to communicate with the outside world and took over the task of swimming the mail. He was the only white man to do so. He went out 112 times in all weathers. When a ship came past at night it would blow its siren and the swimmers would go out as a group, one carrying a lamp. Back on shore they would build bonfires to guide the swimmers home. There were times when Ramsay did come close to death. In one incident one of the postmen was attacked by a shark and died. This news upset the Queen and ordered that in future mail was to be collected by outrigger canoe. This was much more difficult because the boats had to be thrown from the cliff top. The crew had to jump into the water and climb aboard.
In 1928 George Quensell arrived on the island and quickly realised that philatelic interest could be generated by this unique method of delivering the mail and so, with a child’s printing set, he produced a rubber stamp which read ‘Tin Can mail’ and stamped it to all outgoing letters.
The total eclipse of the sun in 1930 was best viewed from Niuafo’ou and had a major impact on what was now known as Tin Can Island. Paul Diefenderfer, the Director of Education in Suva, accompanied the American expedition as chief photographer. He liked the idea of cachets, and the scientists were quick to produce one of their own to commemorate the occasion. Paul also persuaded Quensell to develop his idea further and have rubber stamps made in New Zealand.
Quensell arranged with the ship’s captain that if passengers mailed their letters in the tin together with sixpence to cover stamps and costs, he would apply his cachets before posting them on. Captains soon applied rubber stamps of their own, telling the story of Tin Can Island and the ship which carried the letter. The history of these cachets has now become a study in itself. Naturally the passengers loved to watch the natives collecting the mail, and soon most of the cruise liners made a point of calling at Tin Can Island. People wrote from many parts of the world enclosing their sixpence and a self-addressed envelope.
The islanders benefited a lot from the interest that this generated because, instead of a vessel visiting once a year to collect the copra harvest, they now had visits from cruise ships as often as twice a week. These brought not only the mail, newspapers and magazines but also fresh meat and vegetables as well as news of the outside world.
The Tin Can mail is only one part of the story of Niuafo’ou. The heart of it lies in the nature of the island itself and its active volcanic history. Being a volcano, Niuafo’ou was subject to constant tremors but in 1946 there was a huge eruption and half the island was buried under lava. Miraculously no lives were lost, but within 20 minutes Quensell’s house with his entire collection of Tin Can mail were among the casualties. Tin Can mail continued for over 100 years until in 1983 an airfield was built and sadly it all came to an end.
At 7 o’clock on the night of 9 September 1946 from the distance came a faint rumble as of thunder. Ears lifted to the west from where the sound had come. Throughout the night the people of Niuafo’ou shivered and were fearful because some of them were unfamiliar with earthquakes and hurricanes. The dawn came offering little hope and comfort.
Over the island’s smouldering ruin hung a film of steam pierced here and there by spirals of blue smoke from lava fires which still burned in the undergrowth. The island itself was a scarred and battered shell and the principal town of Angaha had all but vanished. Here is a quote from one of the men who experienced the eruption:
While I was talking to Antonio there was a fantastically loud explosion and the whole country rumbled terrifying and I heard the people, men and women, burst out shouting. It’s erupting, it’s erupting at Futu. Shortly after the explosion and the rumbling of the craters, a glow appeared in the sky but one couldn’t tell exactly where it was erupting from. At that moment I thought to myself I would never again see such a terrifying thing for the rest of my life. The whole country was lit like daytime. When I looked up at the moon it seemed as if it were floating in a sea of blood. At the moment I looked down to the centre of Angaha it looked to me as though it had been completely covered with flames and smoke and I thought to myself that Angaha had been completely burned up. Not one building was still visible. The waves of lava were breaking in all directions and nothing but the glow and burning rocks could be seen. The continuous rising of the lava was to all appearances like a sea of gold, and again and gain the craters threw up rocks into the sky which destroyed everything they landed on, turning it into a great desert of rocks.
How could it ever fade from memory in the hearts and minds of the Niuafo’ou people, and anyone who were in Niuafo’ou on that night and who saw with their own eyes the astounding events on the ninth day of September 1946? It is impossible to describe the terror of this tragedy experienced by the Queen’s people.
Following the eruption in 1946, the Tongan government decided to evacuate the entire population of the island to Tongatapu. The Tonga Police Magistrate, Salesi Manoa Havea, who was my father, was sent to Niuafo’ou on 22 October 1946 with orders from the Privy Council backed by the Evacuation Ordinance to evacuate the entire population. The members of the Niuafo’ou Evacuation Committee went with him.
He asked Fusitu’a, the noble of Niuafo’ou, to call a meeting so he could inform the people of the evacuation order. Fusitu’a refused. He did not want to leave Niuafo’ou and saw no reason why people living in his village should leave. He did not want to go because it meant that he will lose his home, village, his income and status. He also claimed that the inland villages of Ésia, Kolofoóu, Sapaáta, Fataúlua, Mataáho, Tongamamaó and Petani were in no danger and would never be destroyed by eruption.
Against this background Manoa Havea called a general meeting in Kolofoóu village on 29 October and made the most memorable speech ever given on the island. He first disowned all personal connection with the evacuation order and then claimed that he believed and expected evacuation would take place but that someone would be crucified for it. When he finished his speech, the evacuation was in the hands of the Evacuation Committee on Niuafo’ou and the Privy Council in Nuku’alofa. His public orders were to pull down houses and make sure that they are marked for identification, to make copra for ready cash to assist the migrants in their new homes, to plait sennit from coconut fibre and to weave new mats and generally prepare for evacuation. The Hifofua removed some people and some of their belongings late in October. These are the two boats they used for evacuating the people.
When the Matua arrived on December to take the last group, it was emphasised that only personal effects and goods were to accompany the evacuees on the Matua. This was a mistake. When this last group arrived at Nuku’alofa they had nothing. Most were taken to a hastily prepared camp site at Vaikeli. The Niuafo’ou Evacuation Committee was unprepared for people without basic possessions. There was little shelter and food was in scant supply. Taken from an island where food was plentiful and where their family possessions remained, the evacuees were dependent upon the good will of the people of Tongatapu for everything necessary to keep them alive.
The Queen had personal responsibility for the people. She was not only a descendant of a former Fotofili of Niuafo’ou but she owned the estate of Mataáho on the island. During the preceding ten years, pressure had grown from the Niuafo’ou people for permission to return to their ancestral home - to their ruined houses and gardens, the graveyards of their forebears and, above all, to resume the struggle for survival against the forces of nature. To permit them to return was an agonising decision for Queen Salote and her ministers to take.
In September 1958, the first party of 200 was allowed to go back to their devastated island - an occasion of such sentimental significance that it is not easy for non-Polynesians to fully comprehend. Their island was a history of nine eruptions in the past century. On each occasion villages, paths, houses and gardens had been destroyed. Yet they are there today, fearful but happy, no longer landless exiles but back with their ancestors. This has given me interest because, as you can hear, my father had been ordered to go and evacuate these people.
There was a song composed by him and to save me having to answer questions I have asked my family to help and support me by doing a Tongan dance to end up this session in the Pacific ways. I hope you will bear with us and hope that this story has given you a little bit of our Kingdom of Tonga.
I have to say something about the malau birds. The people have left, the human beings and only the living beings remained because they like the hot sand. That is where they love to lay their eggs. So they couldn’t go to Tonga, they had to live in Niua.
[Tongan song and dance performed].
SIOANA FAUPULA: I am sure that saves me from having to answer your questions. I would like to say thank you to her. It took them a few days to learn this dance. The song is difficult to express and I would like to say thank you to the teacher who has done a very good job for us today.
JENNY NEWELL: Thank you so much everyone for coming today. Thank you very much to Sioana and her wonderful friends and family for helping us to celebrate all that we have been discussing and all that we have been exploring together. Thank you for joining us and being here.
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Date published: 28 October 2009