Oceans and Seas

the work of author Michael Krieger

Covered by the Sea: Surviving a Hurricane – Part 37

Posted 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.