Oceans and Seas

the work of author Michael Krieger

Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 37

Posted by on Apr 10, 2017

Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 37

“I remember the great day [we opened the shop]. For the past month we’d been out fishing [to feed their families], looking ‘round for [machinery] and we’d been working pretty long hours to get this workshop going. Then an old man that was… he was a jeweler in New Zealand and retired and came here, and he used to come around and talk to us, and we learned quite a lot from him. Friendly old bird. One day he came in and I had this lathe spinning, and I’d never done any wood turning before, but I had a nice piece of tamanu on the base plate, and it was spinning, and I turned it out and it was gradually taking shape, and I began polishing it, and he came in and he said, ‘Hey, what’re ya gonna do with that?’ I said, ‘Well, when I get it finished, I’m gonna try and sell it.’ ‘Oh,” he said, ‘I’d like to buy that from ya. Here, I’ll give you ten shillings.’ That was a dollar. So I said, ‘Well, lord, sold, you got yourself a sale.’ I took it off the base plate and he gave me ten bob.”

“I remember coming home to Liz and saying, ‘Right, we’re really in the money. We’ve passed the corner. Now we’re on the up and up. Now we’re really gonna be rich. We got ten shillings.’ She said, ‘Well, that’s right. What’re we gonna do with it?’ I says, ‘Well, I hadn’t thought about that. You better buy yourself some clothes. Your clothes are tearing to pieces, all in rags.’ She said, ‘Mine are all right, but what about yours?’ I said, “Mine’ll last another week or two with a bit of luck.’ ‘Well,’ Liz said, ‘then what are we gonna buy?’ ‘We’ll buy some food, ‘ I said. ‘We’ll buy some bread and we’ll buy butter. We’ll have some bread and butter.’ ‘Do you want some bread and butter?’ Elizabeth asked me. I said, ‘Not unless you do.’ ‘We got plenty to eat,” she said, ‘What do we need bread and butter for?’ ‘Well, what else’re we gonna do with it?’ I asked. ‘We gotta think of something we can spend it on.’”

By this time both Ron and Elizabeth are laughing with tears in their eyes. “But we couldn’t think what to spend it on. We only got in a quarrel over it, and so we saved our ten shillings. I guess we eventually spent it, but looking back, I don’t know what we spent it on. And that was the first money I’d earned in two or three years.”

“There weren’t any tourists here then, so we sold the curios we made mainly to local people. In those days, more than today, the local people were always indebted to somebody coming or going and they had to give presents. We filled a gap there. There wasn’t very much that people could buy for presents. They’d come along and say, ‘Can you make us something for a present like this or that?’ Then once in a while an old DC-3 would come in, and that was the big heyday of the week. There would be half a dozen passengers and others on the crew, generally. They would buy a lot. From one thing we slowly, slowly built up the business. It was an interesting trade. And gradually we got a few fellows working for us and made a few more things. We never really expected much. We found we could never keep up with the local trade here. We stored up local timber and got some pearl shell and did a bit more carving, and gradually hired more people. Finally, when we had real power tools, we became much more profitable. We made Polynesian tikis, and we converted tikis into little odds and ends. We made bookends, and trays to carry glasses, and, oh, things of that kind; boxes inlaid with pearl shell. We made brooches and costume jewelry. We made a lot of costume jewelry, the sort of thing you see in the island craft store down here now. That kept us going. We kept on building up the business and never looked back.”[1]

Even though Ron had developed a good business, it didn’t seem too important to him. After we move into the shade of a big tamanu tree to enjoy the late afternoon, Ron reflects further on times past, when money was not a major concern of the local society.

“If ever I had to live again without money, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than these islands. People say you can’t live off the land. I don’t think many Europeans could, but Polynesians would live off the land. I think they’d be happier, simply because they’ve got that ability to relax, to enjoy, to share what they’ve got, and there isn’t the tension in a Polynesian society that there is in a European society. I read a few articles about how grim it would be in a big city in America if the monetary system collapsed. I’m sure it would be. If people hadn’t got money, it wouldn’t be too long before they were rioting in the streets and looting. But you wouldn’t have that [here]. It would be pretty hard for people to adapt to it [no money] suddenly, because there isn’t a lot of vegetables being planted and not a lot growing. Those first six months’d be pretty hard, but once Polynesians knew there was no more money and they’d gotta depend on their own resources, I don’t think it would worry people unduly. If anything happened and the money system collapsed it wouldn’t worry me. I’d put my boat back in the water and get a few fish, and when we came back with some fish we’d find someone who was growing some taro. You’d simply go over and give him some fish. Somebody got some vegetables, he’d go give a few vegetables to someone that happened to have something. And somebody’d come and leave something on your doorstep. And you’d get by.”

I ask Ron if people trading whatever they had had been the economic basis of the Polynesian community. He replies, “No, you wouldn’t trade with someone. You’d simply go over and give him a part of whatever you had. I remember when I lived on the other side of the island. I had a good friend out there. I used to go fishing with him, and he had a wife,” he continues, “three or four children. And he was one of those men who was a good fisherman, but he wasn’t the sort of person that ever did much work with his hands to build a canoe, and he never owned a canoe, but it didn’t worry him unduly. He’d go down to the beach, look around and say, ‘Oh, come on, we’ll go fishing tonight.’ ‘With whose canoe?’ I asked him. ‘These people don’t like you taking their canoes. They’ve got their canoes tied up or they’ve taken the outrigger off so no one’ll take their canoe.’ He said, “Never mind. There’s someone’s canoe here. We’ll take that down to the edge of the water, and then I’ll go along the beach. There’s someone that’s got an outrigger, I think, that’ll fit this canoe.’ So between us we’d get a canoe together and put it down in the water. Well off we’d go fishing, and we’d fish all night perhaps.”

“By morning we’d come back with a lot of fish in the canoe. As we came in, he’d say, ‘Uhhh.” I’d say, ‘What’s the matter, Tom?’ He’d say, ‘Well, you see that woman coming down the beach?’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Well that the wife of the man who this canoe belongs to.’ I said, ‘Um, what’re ya gonna do?’ ‘Oh, ‘ he said, ‘nothing. You’ll see.’ So we come on the beach and haul the canoe up, start washing it down, pick our fish out. She’d come along and she’s say, ‘Ah, you been fishing. I think I’ll take that one and that one.’ She’d reach in the canoe, pick up two or three fish, and feel ‘em with her fingers, and probably go along the beach and clean ‘em, and carry ‘em off. And a minute or two later someone else would come down and say, ‘Hey, you guys been fishing?’ Well, they’d take a few fish, and someone else’d come down and someone else’d come down and pretty soon there weren’t very much fish left in the canoe.”

“Tom would take what few fish were left and he’d disappear in to the bush where he lived. He’d worked all night and he’d got nothing, next to nothing. Well, a bit later on in the day, you’d go along and you’d see they [Tom’s family] were sittin’ down and the family had got something to eat and you wonder how. Well, his wife would send the children out and say, ‘Hey, those people down there have got some coombers [cucumbers]. You go along and dig along the road and bring a few coombers back.’ So the children’d come back with a few coombers. Bit later someone else’d go along and they’d come back with a coconut they’d picked up, and someone else’d bring a breadfruit back, and by the time they sat down he’d lost all his fish, but never mind, they’d [the people who took his fish] lost their vegetables. Everybody was happy. No big deal. Well, then it goes, at the end of the day somebody’d come along and say, ‘Hey, there’s an umukai [feast] down in the village.’ ‘An umukai?’ I’d say. They’d say, ‘They [the feast givers] said, Tell you to come down and eat at five or six o’clock.’ ‘Well what’s all this for?’ I’d ask. They said, ‘Well, you know, their daughter—they’ve got a daughter.’ Yeah, vaguely,’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, is that right? I didn’t know she was married.” ‘No, she isn’t married. But she’s got a baby and they’re gonna christen him.’ ‘Who’s the father of the baby?’ I’d ask. ‘Oh I don’t know… Nobody cares particularly. But never mind, the baby’s there and they’re all gonna have an umukai, and we gotta christen the baby and have a big umukai and invite everybody from the village to come down.’ That was good enough excuse.”

“A bit later on, somebody might have been getting married or somebody wasn’t, but what does it matter? It’s a good enough excuse, they got a new partner; they got something, somebody’s relatives are coming. No big deal. Anything was a good enough excuse. They’d kill a pig, perhaps they’d fed the pig and it was a big pig, and you couldn’t dream of eating it all. It was only sensible to kill the pig and invite everybody in the area to come and eat it. You couldn’t keep it. There was no refrigeration. So that was fine. Well, they had their pig on, and people came in and ate it, and someone else would find some excuse to have another feast. Didn’t matter what it was, somebody’s birthday or marriage, all the things people have in the big city, that was a good enough excuse – they’d kill a pig and invite everyone in the village. People would come in and they in turn became indebted to someone, and I s’pose you could say everybody was indebted to everybody in the village. But it was a pretty nice way to be. Kept the village together, and I’m sure if we ever had to, we’d go back to the same way of living and it’d still be pretty nice.”

[1]           The family still operates two craft shops that Ron started, one of which is on the main street of Avarua, Rarotonga’s only town. Ron bought out his Tahitian partner, and the shops were run by Ron and Elizabeth’s grown children until 2010, when the shops were sold by the family.



I wish to thank Vern and Lynda Ellenden, son and daughter-in-law of Elvin Ellenden, the radio operator.  They provided not only “El’s” journals but a great many photos that were taken on Suwarrow prior to the hurricane.  I would also like to thank Peter Cooke of the Defense of New Zealand Study Group, a government organization, who provided invaluable information from NZ Government archives.

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Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 36

Posted by on Apr 6, 2017

Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 36

“We left Palmerston in 1943, the year following the hurricane. There was nothing to eat on the island. We were very, very hungry and there was not likely to be coconuts for another year. We decided that things were going to be pretty grim, so we came back to Rarotonga.”

“Well, when we got in, of course, Rarotonga was paradise. After being on an atoll for a couple of years without much in the way of food or flowers or anything green, to come in to Rarotonga was a real paradise. It smelled absolutely marvelous. Everywhere you went there were flowers. I always remember, your sense of smell gets very sharp if you live on an atoll a long time. You become very conscious of different smells, especially flowers and fruits. Rarotonga smelled of papaya flowers. Oh, everywhere you went there were coconuts and there were bananas. There was everything here. This was a paradise. You couldn’t believe that the world could have so much food as Rarotonga had. At that time, I don’t think Rarotonga was much different from Palmerston. There were only six cars on Rarotonga then, six old bombs that were just running. But almost every family had the remains of a buggy, and there were a lot of horses on the island. The horses, according to local legend, came out here from the French island Rurutu, when the schooners were running to and fro. And when the engines in the trucks couldn’t be kept running—no parts and no mechanics—then they were converted to horse-drawn buggies, which were very practical.”

Avarua, Rarotonga’s only town, sits on the most northern part of this circular island. To its west lies the airport. In the early 1940’s the airport was just a dirt strip with a few military planes, where an occasional flight from New Zealand might land. In between the town and the airfield was the postage-stamp port, where the coral reef had been blasted to permit a ship-sized entry somewhat sheltered from heavy seas. The business district was one block long, and that block was not even paved. On each side were a few wooden two-story buildings. The commissioner’s office was there, as was a public works building and a grocery store. A few other retail shops rounded out the main street businesses. In front of town was the ocean, and only a few miles away towered the beautiful peaks of Te Manga and Te Kau, in the center of the island. The dirt road running around the perimeter of the island was so untraveled that often a dog could have slept all day on it without being disturbed.

When the war came, the local people realized that there was no way that they could defend themselves in case of an enemy attack. From time to time a New Zealand Air Force or Navy patrol plane might land on the air field, but there were never any Allied troops stationed on the island. Nor were any large warships in the harbor for the simple reason that it was too small to hold them. But besides their fear of an enemy attack, the islanders were never much affected by the war—except for rationing.

Ron Powell describes the rationing scheme. “The New Zealand Resident Commissioner called all the people to attend a meeting at the picture show. He told them that war was on, and this was desperate, and they were fighting for their lives, and all the usual things that wars generate, and that the Cook Islands would have to help the war effort by economizing on food. The New Zealand government[1] said that, with the war effort on, they could no longer supply them with sugar and flour and rice. It had to be rationed, and they must realize that the island would only be allowed, I think, three tons of butter and ten tons of rice and two tons of sugar a year. So everyone said, ‘Well, that’s pretty grim. We’ll all tighten up our belts and we’ll all live within these rations.’ So everyone felt very morally uplifted at the wonderful effort they were going to achieve on rationing. Then one of the traders came back and sat down in his office and said, ‘Wait a minute, three tons of butter and ten tons of rice? Hey, we’ve only been using a half ton of butter and three tons of rice. Who’s going to buy all this stuff? Who’s going to pay for it?’”

“But morale was high amongst people. I don’t remember what the population was, but it wasn’t very high[2]. You knew everybody in Rarotonga. Relations between Europeans and island people were good. You were welcome everywhere. In those days people were friendly. You would see someone and you are eating, you call, you don’t know who, but when they’re passing, you call out, ‘Iar mai Kaikai’—‘Come and eat.’ But these days,” Ron laughs, “you don’t call anybody to come and eat unless you know who it is.”

“You’ve gotta look back and realize that there was practically no money on the island, and when there’s no money, of course, you’ve got such a different way of valuing things. Nobody had money in those days. Nobody wanted any money.” Well, I won’t say no one wanted it. There was always some things that a little money was handy with, but if you hadn’t got any money, it didn’t make much difference. When we came back [to Rarotonga], we had no money. There were very few stores or businesses then, and as I say, it was very hard making money, but it was pleasant, the people were good, people were generous, people shared freely. We all went fishing together. We all did community work together. And it was a delightful place to live. Nobody had any money, so nobody was any better than anyone else.”

“Well, when we came back, we found an old house, and we patched it up and moved in. No, that’s not right. We lived in Louis’s place, didn’t we?” he asks Elizabeth. “One of the family had a little house on the waterfront. And we must have lived there for… looking back, how long did we live there? A year? Because, let’s see, we came back in December, and by January we had a second hurricane in Rarotonga, in ’43. And I remember that particularly, because we were living in this old house made out of packing cases, packing boards. We had a few bits of iron for the roof, and the kitchen at the back was made with these, what we call koro sticks. It was common then. They were nice, long, straight sticks that you can build a wall with, and we used to nail them on, as the sides of the house. And we were living there when the hurricane came, and that was a very devastating hurricane. It blew everything loose in Rarotonga. A.B. Donald’s, that’s where CITC [Cook Islands Trading Co.] is, that store blew to pieces. The roof came off, and it all went up in the air and fluttered around like birds, these sheets of roofing iron. Liz was pregnant with the second, that was Joan, and she was about eight months pregnant then. And a sheet of roofing iron came down out of the sky and went right through the wall of the house and struck her in the stomach. And fortunately she survived it. When Joan was born, Joan had a dent in her head for two or three years before it sort of went down.”

“When we came back here to Rarotonga, I did a little bit of boat building and repair work for a while. Then I met a Tahitian. He was a French Tahitian and he’d got a young wife and baby, much like I had. Neither of us had any money. We got along pretty well, and we said, ‘Well, look, we can go on working for someone forever, but why don’t we try and set up our own business and be independent?’ What could we do? He’d learned to handle pearl shell and make a few things. I’d learned something about local timber and local wood. I said, ‘Why don’t we build a machine shop and see whether we can’t bring some power tools to make curios?’ Of course there wasn’t any woodworking machinery here then. We found a couple of old engines, old copper, water-cooled engines that were left around, and we managed to get those operating. From one of the engines we managed to bolt a piece of timber on the flywheel to make a pulley, and we got a bit of fish line. Then we found an old Ford car, the first one that had come and had been abandoned. We took a piston from that and put a shaft through and put some old blocks on it. Pretty soon we had a grinder going. Then we made a lathe and then a drillpress—and most all the tools we needed.”

Final Post (37) >>

[1]           The Cook Islands were made a British protectorate in 1888 and were annexed by New Zealand in 1900.

[2]           The population of the entire island was between 3,000 and 4,000 at that time.

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Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 35

Posted by on Apr 3, 2017

Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 35


Rarotonga is one of the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific. It is only nineteen miles around, but it is spectacular. At the island’s center green volcanic crags tower above the surrounding palms.  Avarua, Rarotonga’s picturesque village, faces the sea. On one of Avarua’s shaded residential streets, set back a quarter mile from the water, Ron and Elizabeth Powell quietly enjoy their retirement.

Alongside their immaculate two-story Dutch Colonial home sits a lovely eighteen-foot lapstrike skiff. Ron built both the house and the boat himself. For years he supplemented his income by fishing for tuna. He manufactured and sold curios and worked as a fishery officer, photographer, sailor, house builder, boat builder, and plumber. He also was employed by the United States government and the United Nations in Micronesia, teaching the local people how to fish commercially.

Ron and Elizabeth sit together on a settee in their cool, high-ceilinged living room. In through the open windows a breeze from the sea ruffles the curtains. “When I came to the South Pacific in 1938, during the Depression,” Ron says, “there were no jobs; there wasn’t anything to make a dollar with. It was living off the land, and you had to be good at a lot of things to make do. Fortunately, Elizabeth was pretty wealthy. She was earning fifty dollars a year as a schoolteacher. Fifty dollars a year!” Ron hugs frail Elizabeth and they both laugh as he says, “So I married her for her money!”

Elizabeth, in her seventies, is still a pretty woman. Her dark hair is now tinged with gray, but like most Polynesians, she has not lost her ability to laugh and enjoy life. She was born on tiny Palmerston Island, a granddaughter of William Marsters, the English carpenter who, with his three Polynesian wives, created the first permanent settlement there. Two hundred and fifty miles northwest of Rarotonga, even today remote Palmerston has a population of only sixty people. When Elizabeth and Ron were married, they moved there from Rarotonga, where they had met. Ron planned to build a schooner on Palmerston so he could earn a living carrying passengers and freight between the islands. Little Palmerston, only ninety-two acres in size, at that time was (and still is) virtually isolated from the outside world.

“When we got to Palmerston, “Ron says, “they hadn’t seen a ship in four years. It is very hard to realize how primitive the island was then [in 1940]. There was virtually no money, and nothing coming from the outer world. There was practically no steel or iron. There was practically nothing on the island you could convert to make into anything. People had no sails for the canoes. We had to make sails out of palm or pandanus  mats. The people lived completely off the land and the lagoon. It’s a pretty limited diet. On those small northern atolls, you’ve got unlimited fish and you’ve got unlimited coconuts, and that’s about all. On some of them you can’t even grow taro or vegetables. We did pretty well, though, and I liked living on Palmerston; I enjoyed it very much. I think probably the happiest years I ever had were there, when we were first there.”

“I always remember one day on Palmerston. We’d been there a little while, and we had a few things. I’d made a good garden, was growing a few vegetables. Liz had a lot of chickens. We had some pigs, and the island had seabirds, which we liked and which we hunted; there was tons of fish and seafood, of course, and I remember one morning getting up at just the first light of dawn and going out with the village men. We went across the lagoon, we caught a boatload of fish, and came back. We were back ashore by about eleven o’clock, I s’pose; it was just getting warm. That was with a sailboat, of course, which we used in the lagoon. And when I came back, I had a bath, and Liz set a tablecloth under the trees down by the beach and we had a roast chicken and some fish and I think we had… probably she’d baked a loaf of bread, and I don’t remember what all the things were—there were a few vegetables. And we sat down and had a good brunch, I s’pose you’d call it at that time of the morning. And when we’d finished eating, we stretched out on the sand under these trees with a nice cool breeze, a beautiful warm day, and I thought, ‘Great, this has gotta be one of the best days in my life.’”

“I worked, always, but no matter at what you worked or what you did in the outside world there was always a certain amount of insecurity over your head. Somebody could sack you. Somebody could fire you. You could lose a job. You never had total security, no matter where you lived in the world. And here I was with everything I could ask for. I couldn’t wish or ask for anything more than that. I could relax on the beach, and I could go on doing it for as far as long as I could see, forever and ever. I got total security for all time. Mind you, it didn’t last too long,” Ron chuckles. “Before twelve months was up, we were strapped with a hurricane, and from being in total security we were down to sheer starvation.”

When Ron returned to Palmerston after surviving the hurricane on Suwarrow, he and Elizabeth were faced with almost equal devastation at home. “The same hurricane we were in on Suwarrow had also hit Palmerston. The sea went right through Palmerston and damaged all the trees. There wasn’t a coconut or a green leaf on a single tree. Liz had a house at that time, a good house, on the beach. And the seas came and washed her house down and knocked everything down, and we lost everything we had. And then of course for a month or two after a hurricane it’s not too bad, because there’s all the coconuts that have fallen on the ground. The old coconuts were still good to eat, but there were no green ones, of course, nothing in the in-between stage. And it would be pretty nearly eighteen months before the trees began to bear coconuts again after a hurricane. As we got on towards the end of the year, it was getting harder and harder to find coconuts. The whole island[1] used to have to go out, all the young people, with axes and spades. We found where the coconut trees had been knocked down, then we’d dig all the way ‘round them, hoping there’s be some coconuts underneath them. We’d find what we could and bring them back to the village.”

“And as I say, towards the end of the year the coconuts were getting so scarce that we couldn’t keep our pigs alive or our chickens alive, and we were down to five coconuts for each family member to eat. Like with us, there was, I think, four or five of us in the family. So we had twenty-five coconuts on which we tried to keep our animals alive and tried to live, but there was nothing else to eat with them except fish. And, of course, by the time Wednesday came, the coconuts were finished and Thursday and Friday you had fish three times a day if you felt like it. Absolutely nothing to go with it. And strangely enough, one of the interesting things, looking back on it afterwards, was that people did keep well. There wasn’t any sickness on the island. You’d think that you would die of scurvy. I’m sure most people in what we call civilization, most people in a literate society, would say, ‘Well, hell; you can’t live like that. What about vitamin deficiency? You’ve gotta have vitamins to live.’”

“Of course we had unlimited protein. There was all the fish you could eat, and a lot more than you could eat. But strangely enough, Liz had been through this in a hurricane in ’36, and when they’d been through that, they knew they could live through it. In ’42, when I was there, I know I was getting really worried as to whether we could live, whether we could stay alive without vitamins—you hear so many stories of sailors at sea dying with scurvy. And I thought we were going to suffer from the same thing. But strangely enough, the people there didn’t worry about it. They didn’t know what vitamins were anyway, and when they didn’t know what they were, well, then there wasn’t any problem about it. It’s as simple as it came down to. And we didn’t get sick. We didn’t get anything. I don’t know whether I even lost a great deal of weight. We had an awful lot of fish, but it’s amazing how much fish you can eat.”

“One interesting thing about that is that we had a pig we were hoping to breed from, hoping to keep alive, and I remember Liz saying, ‘Look, this pig’ll die because pigs can’t eat fish,’ and that sounded extraordinary to me at the time, but it was very true. They’d found that a pig will stay alive as long as he’s got some coconut, but people can stay alive without coconut. When I say stay alive without coconut, what I mean is, when you got down to two days a week without coconut, pigs can’t live that way. You’d feed the old pig some fish, cook up some fish, boil it, and give him all the fish in the world, and he’d have a look at it, and in the end he’d say, ‘Ah, ah, ah—it’ll never work.’ Then the pig got sick, and in the end we had to kill him because we couldn’t keep it alive. The pigs were all the same there, they couldn’t live without something to go with the fish.”

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[1]           At that time there might have been about fifty people living on Palmerston.

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Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 34

Posted by on Mar 20, 2017

Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 34

John Pratt emigrated to New Zealand following the Suwarrow hurricane.  Government documents show him as an illustrator working for the Technical Correspondence Institute, a school providing technical training courses to the country’s widespread rural population who would not otherwise be able to receive training.  Courses covered everything from motor mechanics, horticulture and farming, industrial and business management, land surveying and, evidently, commercial illustration.  Pratt’s work as a graphics artist and illustrator in England would certainly have provided the expertise he needed to teach the subject.  According to Ron Powell, Pratt enjoyed a long and successful career in this field.

I ask Powell what happened to Cambridge.

“He died on Manihiki,” Powell replied.  “But the Taipi didn’t make it that far.  She made her last voyage to the Penrhyn atoll and took seventy-three days to do the 736 miles from Rarotonga[1].”  During this trip, the Taipi carted several ton bags of flour and, of course, developed the usual leak en route.  Before she reached Penrhyn, the crew opened the flour bags and attempted to make a paste in hopes of plugging the open seams.  They must have looked like a mime troop by the time they arrived.

Powell elaborates: “The Penrhyn people eventually got the ship ashore [where for the hundredth time it was patched again].  When Cambridge came to sail back to Rarotonga he had only copra as food, which he combined with rainwater caught aboard.  Finally he decided the odds were against him, so he decided to try to make Palmerston using only a latitude sight.  Eventually, after a twenty-day voyage, when he arrived at Palmerston the people finally dragged the Taipi ashore, where she was broken up.  Cambridge did score one last, final distinction.  After the people had fattened him up a bit on island fare, he told old Ned, the headman, he wanted to get married.  The wedding, to quite an attractive young girl, only lasted one night.  In due course the wedding registration and application for divorce both reached Rarotonga in the same mail.”

After Richard Clark returned to New Zealand he went through an extensive examination by the military.  He was given a medical discharge.  On his records were the notes: “Mental Defect – Patient in Mental Hospital.”  Clark was thirty-two years old at the time, and for the next thirteen years of his life he would be in one New Zealand mental hospital or another.

From reading Clark’s and Ellenden’s journals, and in spite of what Ron Powell had to say about him, it does not seem that Clark’s mental condition deteriorated to such a degree that he would need to be hospitalized for thirteen years.  However, the 1940s and early 1950s were an entirely different age when it came to treating emotional problems.  Also, there was a very different philosophy concerning confinement versus the individual’s right to decide whether he or she required hospital treatment.  An individual could be confined against their will and it was not unusual for a spouse to be placed in a mental hospital by their mate, or a child by their parents, or someone in the military by military physicians.  And, certainly, that was what happened to Clark.

Although it is difficult to speculate with any degree of certainty what Clark experienced on Suwarrow, my wife, Susan, who for over thirty years was a mental health professional, working in both hospitals and as a private practitioner, studied all the material presented in the story.  She felt that it was very likely that Clark suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  He, as the leader of the coast watching contingent, felt that he was responsible for everything that took place on the island and for the well-being of everyone there, and he felt an enormous responsibility to the government to succeed in the surveying tasks put before him.

The hurricane eliminated any possibility of Clark completing his survey.  It destroyed or carried away most of the food and other supplies.  It destroyed the water system and it crippled the castaways’ only means of communication with the outside world.  Thus it placed an enormous burden on Clark as the group’s leader (in his eyes) to take charge and to successfully manage their circumstances and to guide them through their desperate situation.

The arrival of the Frisbies, and then of Powell and Pratt, presented Clark with people who were not under his control, who could challenge him and his dictates, and who he could in no way direct.  He could not remove them from the island.  He could not get rid of them.  He could only gnash his teeth and internalize his frustrations.

The new arrivals and then the hurricane turned his orderly world topsy-turvy.  To Clark, the situation probably seemed entirely out of his control.  An obsessive-compulsive personality requires control and order in life; Clark had neither.   Depression is a common side effect of the obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Clark may have felt depressed during his last weeks on Suwarrow when went off by himself for long periods.  It is unclear how much he told the military doctors examining him when he returned to New Zealand, but from their diagnosis of his mental state, and their decision to institutionalize him and give him a medical discharge, it appears that his behavior was such that he had significant emotional problems.

Clark would have been sent to one of two New Zealand psychiatric hospitals, Tokanui or Kingseat, which were both located in the Auckland area.  Both were very large, with one thousand beds at Tokaui and eight hundred at Kingseat.

Treatment for someone with Clark’s problems in the 1940s and early 1950s was very limited.  The only treatments available then were electro-shock and administering the drug, thorazine, both of which had severe side effects and left patients disoriented and in a sedated condition.  One hopes that Clark did not undergo these treatments.  Until the late 1950s there were no medications available which would have helped him.  During the thirteen years he was institutionalized, he would have taken part in group therapy sessions as well as one-on-one counseling sessions. Perhaps these treatments helped him.

On the other hand, long confinement in a psychiatric hospital often caused patients to lose their ability to live and function well on their own.   Some feared their release.  They developed an institutionalized personality to the point that when they were released, they could no longer function independently until there was no choice but to readmit them.

After Clark was released in 1956, there is no information available about him. It is possible that he went back to his old profession of surveying.  There is no record of him ever marrying.  Nor is there record of any family members.  He died in Napier, New Zealand in 1986 at the age of 75.  Poor Clark did his best during the hurricane but his reward, it seems, was a fairly miserable life.


Upon returning to New Zealand, Elvin Ellenden took a physical at the Navy base in Wellington and was granted thirty days leave.  He wrote of the joy he felt riding the train across the country and then walking down the street to his home knowing that his wife, Beatrice, was inside waiting for him.  After a joyous reunion and thirty days of relaxation, Ellenden went back to work as a radio operator for the New Zealand Navy.  He spent the rest of the war as a telegrapher and radio operator and worked at various bases around the country.

In 1946 Ellenden rejoined the New Zealand Post Office as a radio operator.  His job entailed communicating with the various island outposts in the tiny Commonwealth nations and territories of the South Pacific.  He was also responsible for contacting lighthouse keepers and crews of ships at sea.  Whereas radio communication over long distances had once required a telegrapher to send messages by Morse code, now a radio operator was simply able to speak over single sideband radio.

Ellenden and Beatrice had three children: Vernon, born in 1943; John, born in 1944; and Mary, born in 1949.  Ellenden continued his work for the Post Office Department.  He became a radio inspector, traveling around the country supervising the nation’s wireless communication stations.  His last appointment was as Manager at the Avarua radio station, which was a major radio station on the South Island.  He remained at this post unit he retired in 1970.  Ellenden was a quiet, easy going and well-liked person.  He died of cancer on April 5, 1994.  He was 79 years old.

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[1]           This trip occurred sometime in the early 1950s.

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Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 33

Posted by on Mar 17, 2017

Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 33


After the hurricane, the vessel Tagua picked up the Suwarrow survivors and headed north, stopping for short periods of time at some of the other islands.  While at Manihiki, Frisbie met Esetera, a lovely, carefree, twenty year old island girl.  He was very taken with her and was determined to see her again. Esetera, passed his children’s inspection and after Christmas, Frisbie and the children returned to Manihiki, where Frisbie and Esetera married and enjoyed some months on Manihiki before going back to Rarotonga.

At first all went well with the newlyweds, but it was not long before Esetera started going out at night by herself.  Although Rarotonga in 1943 could not by any standard be called “the bright lights, big city,” there was still a picture show and a few bars that proved irresistible to Esetera.  Some nights she came home drunk, others nights she didn’t come home at all.  Also, she was not at all nice to Frisbie’s children.  Finally in disgust Frisbie divorced Esetara and shipped her back to Manihiki.  Evidently she remarried a local boy there, had his children, and settled down to the peaceful existence afforded by living on an outer island.

Meanwhile, Frisbie’s children went to school for the first time.  They learned English and took care of the house.  While life for his children may not have been easy, Rarotonga did have its pleasures, even for them.  In her book, Johnny mentioned that her family went to the picture show.  The children were enthralled with it except when they first saw the M.G.M. lion.  Nga screamed and tried to hide under her seat, thinking it was going to jump off the screen and attack them.

After divorcing Esetera, Frisbie was not happy on Rarotonga.  Much like Tom Neale, he missed the quiet life of the outer islands.  Eventually he moved his family to Penrhyn, the most northerly of the Cook Islands where Frisbie thought it would cost less to live and it would be easier for him to find work.  Penrhyn was peaceful but while living there Frisbie’s tuberculosis, which had been in remission up to that point, began to threaten his life once again.  He suffered horribly from the disease, and when close to death he was evacuated by an American Navy plane after it landed at the airfield that had been built to help defend the islands.  The plane took Frisbie to the hospital at Pago Pago in American Samoa.  While on board, he met and was befriended by Lieutenant James Al Michener, who had been an editor for Macmillan and who would go on to write Tales of the South Pacific and other books that would make him famous.  During the short time he and Frisbie spent together on the plane, they decided to co-author a book; this project never came to fruition.  Still, their friendship would endure and Michener would become instrumental in helping the Frisbie children after their father’s death.

Amazingly, Frisbie’s tuberculosis went into remission again and he was discharged from the hospital at Pago Pago.  Almost immediately he got a job teaching at a high school for boys in American Samoa.  His children soon took their first airplane ride and joined him there.

By this point, Johnny a teenager and she began helping her father with his classes.  Often she taught while Frisbie relaxed outside.   He also was found hanging out in the bars with sailors, drinking heavily between ferocious bouts of writing.  But he was also experiencing more pain from his filariasis, which may have prompted his increased alcohol consumption.  Even a move to a farm in Western Samoa didn’t help relieve his pain, though it did remove him from the temptations of Pago Pago’s saloons.

By 1947 the Frisbies lived in Tahiti, where Frisbie helped Johnny write and edit her book, Miss Ulysses from Puka Puka, published by Doubleday in 1948.  Then, in the same year the family moved back to Rarotonga.  Frisbie was very ill at this point, his reoccurring filariasis producing intense pain.  Besides sedating the pain with heavy drinking,  Frisbie procured liquid pain killers that he injected himself.  Apparently he used a rusty hypodermic needle because on November 19, 1948, he died of tetanus.  He was fifty-two years old.

Frisbie’s life had been a roller coaster.  He had found the writing success about which he dreamed, he had married Nga, a woman he deeply loved, and he had five children who were his heart and soul.  But he also lost his beloved wife, was afflicted by two debilitating diseases, had fallen out of favor with his book publishers, and worried constantly about money. When he died, Frisbie was deeply in debt and he left his children destitute.  This was something he feared for years, and now it had come to pass.

James Michener, as well as staff at the magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, set out to help Frisbie’s children.  Michener wrote Frisbie’s obituary in Publisher’s Weekly asking for donations.  A large article in The New York Times also portrayed the plight of the children and spread the word in order to seek help for them.  The contributions gathered through these outlets enabled the girls to go to foster homes in the United States.  Jakey and Charles had already moved to New Zealand where they eventually trained to become jockeys.  The girls grew up and married.  Nga became a Hawaiian dancer in Honolulu.  Johnny lived for many years in New Zealand and was a librarian in Avarua, Rarotonga.

Before he died, Frisbie wrote extensively about the Suwarrow hurricane. His account was first serialized in 1943 by The Atlantic Monthly magazine and then became part of his book, The Island of Desire.  Unfortunately, Frisbie’s portrayal of the hurricane and the events surrounding it can most kindly be termed “fiction.”  In this account, he neglects to mention Clark, Ellenden, Jimmy Koteka, Teophilo, Nahora, or Lino as even being on the island.  In place of Teophilo and Nahora helping to save his children, Frisbie becomes the hero. Many of the events that took place during the hurricane were either modified or entirely eliminated.  According to Ron Powell, by not giving the Polynesians credit for what they did, and indeed, by eliminating them completely from the story, Frisbie alienated the Maori community.  Powell later said that Frisbie was not accepted by many the Maori people on Rarotonga after his version of the hurricane became known.

However, in Frisbie’s defense, the reading public in the United States in the 1940s likely would not have accepted brown skinned people as heroes.  Did Frisbie’s editors insist he modify his manuscripts to eliminate the Maori people from his story?  Probably not.  Still, Frisbie desperately needed the income from his writing and likely felt that he could not jeopardize sales of his work by including the Polynesians (and the New Zealanders) in his story.

However, looking beyond the hurricane story, Frisbie was a wonderful writer.  Life springs from nearly every page of his portrayal of life in the South Seas. His earlier works in particular, The Book of Puka Puka[1], for example, are an absolute joy to read.


After leaving Suwarrow, Jimmy Koteka found jobs as a cook both on small vessels and ashore at local restaurants.  According to Ron Powell, Lino and Teophilo both immigrated to New Zealand after the war, though not together or at the same time.  Nahora worked as a seaman on sailing and motorized vessels and also as a pearl diver, mostly offshore of Manihiki.

I met Nahora in Rarotonga in 1987, which was after he had retired. At that time, he was living in a small cottage in a group of cottages on the outskirts of Avarua. Nahora was over six feet tall and weighed, perhaps, 220 pounds. It appeared that he was still in very good physical condition when I met him.  He showed me a gigantic hardhat diving helmet that he had once used.  I could hardly lift it.  He picked it up and cradled it as if it was a plastic toy.  I had just come from interviewing Ron Powell and was interested in hearing his views of the hurricane.  I had expected to gain valuable details, but I was very disappointed in the outcome of my interview. I asked Nahora about the hurricane and, after some thought, he said it was terrible and could not elaborate.  I asked him what he thought about Clark.  He refused to answer; rather, he just shook his head and smiled.  I asked him how he felt about Frisbie and I received the same shake of the head and smile.  I never found out if he was simply shy or if he was shy and also did not want to talk about disagreeable subjects.  After spending an hour smiling at each other, I thanked him for his time and concluded my “interview.”  While I was in Rarotonga I would sometimes see this gentle, quiet man passing by on his motorbike with his tiny granddaughter, she clinging to him like a flea on a bear, as he tooled around the island visiting his many friends.

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[1]           The Century Company, 1929

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Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 32

Posted by on Mar 13, 2017

Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 32

Away from Suwarrow, still, Neale made it clear that Avarua, Rarotonga’s little town, was not a bad place to live.  He found a cheap place to rent that was also close to where he worked.  The work, running the warehouse, was not challenging and took his mind off Suwarrow.  On his days off he bicycled the twenty-mile long road that encircled the island. Still, in place of the pristine quiet of his adopted home, Avarua was noisy, and stinking from automobiles.  Instead of getting up at daylight and going to sleep at dusk, now he lived by the clock.  And instead of being outside fishing or tending his garden, he spent his time in a dusty, dirty warehouse.

He had few friends in Avarua, but they were good friends.  Sometimes he visited Andy Thomson, the schooner captain, or Ron Powell, who now had his own little boat yard where he built and repaired small vessels, mostly little sail boats, fishing vessels and dinghies.  Due to Rarotonga’s isolation and its lack of sheltered harbors, not many small yachts docked there[1], so it was not a huge business.

Tom Neale and Ron Powell had much in common.  Both were free spirits who loved the peace and beauty of the outer islands.  Both were handy with tools and could fend for themselves in nearly any environment.  But while Neale was a dreamer who had difficulty living in civilization, Powell had the ability to adapt to his environment.  It seemed like he could be happy wherever he was.  And while Powell could do equally well alone or in the company of people, Neale never felt really comfortable in the presence of others.  He had the ideal personality to be a hermit.

After work Neale would often go over to Powell’s boat yard and watch him as he worked on his boats.  After expressing his hope to return to Suwarrow, Powell suddenly said, “Well, why don’t we build you a boat to use when you get there!”  So, with Powell’s help, Neale began work on a 12-foot sailing dinghy.

One day Neale received a check in the mail from the New Zealand solicitor who was handling his mother’s estate.  She had died and left him £240.  Immediately he quit work at the warehouse and worked on the construction of his dinghy full-time.  With Powell’s concern for craftsmanship and Neale’s desire for a dream dinghy to use in his dream island’s lagoon, the boat was probably a work of art.  In fact, it took him a year to build it.

Two major occurrences took place while Neale was on Rarotonga.  With the guidance of the British author, Noel Barber, Neale began to write a book on his experiences living on Suwarrow.  The second occurrence was that Neale became close to a woman who seemed to take his eccentricities in stride.  Her name was Sarah Haua and she was pretty, with curly dark hair and a ready smile.  She was living on Rarotonga at the time, though she had many family members on Palmerston.  On June 15th, 1956, Neale and Sara Haua married.  Eventually they had two children, Arthur and Stella, although it seems likely that Sarah did most of the family raising).  Much to Sarah’s dismay, Neale was still totally committed to moving back to Suwarrow.  He was turning sixty soon and he felt that if he did not return to the island in the near future, he might never return at all.

Meanwhile, an American, Loren (Smitty) Smith, sailed his yacht into Rarotonga.  While Neale helped Smitty work on his boat, he told Smitty his forlorn hope to return to Suwarrow.  Then one day, Smitty turned to him and said, “I’ll take you there.”

Neale was stunned by the generosity of Smitty’s offer. It was over 500 miles to Suwarrow, and all Neale’s supplies would require two trips.  Once Neale became convinced of the seriousness of the offer, the two men talked long into the night about the practicalities involved.  Although Smitty never asked for payment, Neale gave him all the money he could spare, £50, which would at least pay for gasoline if they were forced to use the motor.  Then Neale began making lists of the items he would need and rushed around to acquire them.

By that time, nearly six years had passed from the time Neale left Suwarrow to the time he took up residence, and after some years of living on Suwarrow once again, Neale realized that he might succumb to another accident or illness due to his aging. He considered the possibility that he could die a very lonely death.  Because of these thoughts, he left Suwarrow on December 27th, 1963 and returned to Rarotonga.

There, Neale continued working on his book with Noel Barber’s help.  Barber also helped him to find a good publisher.  An Island to Oneself was published by Collins in 1966.  It was a wonderful book and sold well.  All of a sudden Neale had more money than he had seen in his entire life.  Besides meeting his financial obligations to his wife and children, his newly found wealth enabled him to expand his horizons. With his family taken care of, he still had the resources to return to Suwarrow once more.

Neale had never been happy since returning to Rarotonga.  Even though it might seem like a quiet backwater place to others, for him it was too crowded and was filled with automobiles and now airplanes (since the local airstrip had been expanded to an actual airport).  He longed for the absolute peace and isolation that only Suwarrow afforded him.  So, in July 1967, Neale one again moved back to his island.

This time Neale knew precisely what equipment and supplies to bring.  This time, he could also afford to hire an interisland trading vessel to go out of its way to deliver him and his supplies “back home.”

Though Neale knew that this time he might die on Suwarrow, he knew this is where he wanted to be.

There is not much record of Neale’s third stay on Suwarrow.  His daughter Stella visited him twice.  During the rest of his life he and his daughter had a close relationship even though they were hundreds of miles apart.  His son Arthur joined Ron Powell’s son operating a black pearl farm on Manihiki.  Stella became a teacher and eventually join Sarah on Palmerston, teaching in the little two-room school house there.  In 1972 after finally coming to the conclusion that it made little sense being married to a man that she almost never saw, Sarah got a divorce from Neale.  Later she married her distant cousin and took up permanent residency on Palmerston.


In 1989 I visited Palmerston, having been dropped off there by an interisland trading vessel.  Sarah and Stella (then called Dawn, her middle name) were both living there.  Stella was still teaching the island children in the dilapidated two-room schoolhouse.  Stella and Sarah were both warm and hospitable and I very much enjoyed the time I spent with them.  While I was aware that Tom Neale had been Sarah’s husband and Stella’s father, at that time I had no intention of writing about him and so we did not discuss him at length.

Palmerston at the time of my visit was probably not much different from what it had been when Ron and Elizabeth Powell lived there in the 1940s.  The lovely old church built from timbers scavenged from Palmerston’s formidable reefs was still standing. Most of the sixty people on the island still lived in little cottages made from coral crushed to form concrete.  There were no wheeled vehicles except for homemade wheelbarrows.  Besides the people’s houses, most of the few other buildings had been built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. There were no roads, only paths, and when the island’s generator wasn’t running, I felt like I was in a pre-machine-age society.  Life on the little island was serene and peaceful, and from morning to night I lived with the lovely metronome of the waves crashing on the reef.  I began to understand the attraction that Suwarrow must have had for Tom Neale.


Neale lived on Suwarrow for nearly ten years although he returned to Rarotonga from time to time to stock up on supplies. Royalties from his book allowed him to pay for an interisland freighter to pick him up and then to return him to his island.  In the fall of 1976 he began experiencing stomach pain.  No matter what he ate or drank or how he medicated himself, the pain continued to worsen.  He had trouble swallowing and felt an almost constant nausea.  Every day he vomited, no matter what he ate or even if he had eaten nothing at all.  He lost his appetite and had no energy.  Often he spent the whole day lying in bed, only to rise to feed his chickens and to gather a few eggs.  When he began vomiting blood, he thought he was dying.  He was right, he was dying.

In early March, a yacht called the Feisty Lady stopped at Suwarrow.  Neale was almost totally bedridden at this time.  The yacht’s owner radioed Rarotonga and on March 11th, 1977 the interisland trading vessel Manuvai took him to Rarotonga, where he died on November 30, 1977 from stomach cancer.

Today the Suwarrow atoll is declared a National Marine Park.  A family of caretakers lives in Neale’s cabin, thus insuring that his island will remain a peaceful sanctuary far into the future.

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[1]           This is still true today.

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