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Cook Islands - Recollections of Penrhyn (Tongareva Island)


Recollections Of An Early Visitor To Penrhyn


It was certainly a long way from Liverpool, England and the muddy Mersey River to the sparkling blue waters of the Pacific. The following observations about Penrhyn, including the leper colony, were made at the turn of the twentieth century by an English lady travelling the South Seas.



A day or two after leaving Malden we sighted Penrhyn (Tongareva), lying five degrees further south, but for some unexplained reason a very much hotter place than Malden. Penrhyn is an island that is famous all over the South Sea world, and not unknown even in Europe. Its pearl-shell and pearls, its strange, wild, semi-amphibious natives, and its melancholy leper station, make it a marked spot upon the Pacific map; and a certain rather fictitious value attaching to its stamps has made the name of the island familiar to all stamp collectors in England. The general impression conveyed to the voyager from kinder and fairer islands is that Penrhyn is a place "at the back of God-speed," a lonely, sultry, windy, eerie spot, desolate and remote beyond description.

It is an atoll island, consisting merely of a strip of land some couple of hundred yards in width, enclosing a splendid lagoon nine miles long. The land is white coral gravel; nothing grows on it but coconut and pandanus and a few insignificant creepers. Fruit, vegetables, flowers, there are none. The natives live entirely on coconut and fish. They are nominally Christianized, but the veneer of Christianity is wearing uncommonly thin in places. They are reckless and daring to a degree, notable even among Pacific Islanders. Any Penrhyn man will attack a shark single-handed in its own element, and kill it with the big knife he usually carries. They are, beyond comparison, the finest swimmers in the world; it is almost impossible to drown a Penrhyn Islander. He will swim all day as easily as he will walk. You may often meet him out fishing, miles from shore, without a boat, pushing in front of him a small plant that carries his bait, lines, and catch. Some of the fish he most fancies seldom come to the surface. To catch these he baits his line, dives, and swims about underneath the water for a minute or two at a time, trailing the bait after him, and rising to the surface as often as a fish takes it.

The deadly surf that breaks upon the outer reef has no terrors for him. Among the small boys of the island there is a favourite feat known as "crossing a hundred waves," which consists in diving through ninety-nine great rollers, just as they are about to break, and rushing triumphantly to shore on the back of the hundredth. The old warlike, quarrelsome character of the islanders - no doubt originally due to scarcity of food - still lurks concealed under an outward show of civility. Penrhyn was the only south Pacific Island I have visited where I did not care to walk alone in the bush without my little American revolver. The four or five white traders all keep firearms ready to hand in their stores. There has been no actual trouble of recent years, but there are narrow escapes from a free fight every now and then, and every man must hold himself ready for emergencies. It is only eight years since there was such an outbreak of hostilities in Penrhyn that a man-of-war had to be sent up to protect the traders.

I was kindly offered the use of a house during the week the Duchess spent in Penrhyn lagoon repairing sails and rigging, and generally refitting after the stormy weather that we had experienced on several occasions. But Penrhyn is rotten with undeclared leprosy, the water is not above suspicion, and flies abound in myriads. So I slept on the ship, and by day wandered about the desolate, thin, sun-smitten woods of the island, or flew over the green lagoon in one of the marvellously speedy pearling sloops of the traders. They are as manageable as a motor car, and faster than most yachts. It is a wonderful sight to see them taking cargo out to the schooners, speeding like gulls over the water, and turning round in their tracks to fly back again as easily as any gull might do. Pearling was almost "off" at the time of the Duchess's visit, since a good part of the lagoon was tabooed to allow the beds to recover.

The pearls are rather a minor consideration at Penrhyn. The shell is of beautiful quality, large and thick, with the much-valued golden edge; but pearls are not plentiful in it, and they are generally of moderate size. Some very fine ones have been found, however; and gems of ordinary value can always be picked up fairly cheaply from the divers. The Penrhyn lagoon is the property of the natives themselves, who sell the shell and the pearls to white traders. Christmas Island and some other Pacific pearling grounds are privately owned, and in these places there is a great deal of poaching done by the divers.

The great buyers of pearls are the schooner captains. There are three or four schooners that call at Penrhyn now and then for cargo and every captain has a nose for pearls like that of a trained hound for truffles. In the Paumotus, about Penrhyn, Christmas Island, and the Scillies (the Pacific Scillies not those that are so familiarly known to English readers), they flit from island to island, following up the vagrant rumours of a fine pearl with infinite tact and patience, until they run it to ground at last, and (perhaps) clear a year's income in a day by a lucky deal. San Francisco and Sydney are always ready to buy, and the typical Pacific captain, if he is just a bit of buccaneer, is also a very keen man of business in the most modern sense of the word, and not at all likely to be cheated. Three native divers famous for their deep-water feats came out in a pearling sloop with us one afternoon, and gave a fine exhibition.

The bed over which we halted was about ninety feet under the surface. Our three divers stripped to a "pareo" apiece, and then, squatting down on the gunwale of the boat with their hands hanging over their knees, appeared to meditate. They were "taking their wind," the white steerman informed me. After about five minutes of perfect stillness they suddenly got up and dived off the thwart. The rest of us fidgeted up and down the tiny deck, talked, speculated, and passed away the time for what seemed an extraordinarily long period. No one, unfortunately, had brought a watch; but the traders and schooner captains all agree in saying that the Penrhyn diver can stay under water for full three minutes; and it was quite evident that our men were showing off for the benefit of that almost unknown bird, the "wahine papa." At last, one after another, the dark heads popped up again, and the divers, each carrying a shell or two, swam back to the boat, got on board, and presented their catch to me with the easy grace and high-bred courtesy that are the birthright of all Pacific islanders - not at all embarrassed by the fact that all the clothes they wore would hardly have sufficed to make a Sunday suit for an equal number of pigeons.

As a general rule, the divers carry baskets, and fill them before coming up. Each man opens his own catch at once, and hunts through the shell for pearls. Usually he does not find any; now and then he gets a small grey pearl, or a decent white one, or a big irregular "baroque" pearl of the "new art" variety, and once in a month of Sundays he is rewarded by a large gleaming gem worth several hundred pounds, for which he will probably get only twenty or thirty.

Diving dresses are sometimes used in Penrhyn; but in such an irregular and risky manner that they are really more dangerous than the ordinary method. The suit is nothing but a helmet and jumper. No boots are worn, no clothing whatever on the legs, and there are no weights to preserve the diver's balance. It sometimes happens - though wonderfully seldom - that the diver trips, falls, and turns upside down, the heavy helmet keeping him head-downwards until the air all rushes out under the jumper, and he is miserably suffocated. The air, pump above is often carelessly worked in any case, and there is no recognised system of signals, except the jerk that means "Pull up."

"They're the most reckless devils on the face of the earth," said a local trader. "Once let a man strike a good bed of shell, and he won't leave go of it, not for Father Peter. He'll stick down there all day, grabbin' away in twenty fathom or more till he feels paralysis comin' on---"


"Yes - they gets it, lots of 'em. If you was to go down in twenty fathom - they can do five and twenty, but anything over is touch and go - and stay 'alf the day, you'd come up 'owling like anything, and not able to move. That's the way it catches them; and then they must get some one to come and rub them with sea water all night long, and maybe they dies, and maybe they're all right by morning. So then down they goes again, just the same as ever. Sometimes a man'll be pulled up dead at the end of a day. How does that happen? Well, I allow it's because he's been workin' at a big depth all day, and feels all right; and then, do you see, he'll find somethin' a bit extra below of him, in a holler like, and down he'll go after it; and the extra fathom or two does the trick.

"Sharks? Well, I've seen you poppin' at them from the deck of the Duchess, so you know as well as I do how many there are. Didn't 'it them, even when the fin was up? That's because you 'aven't your bullet, I suppose. You want to, if the water isn't to turn it aside. But about the divers? Oh! they don't mind sharks, none of them, when they've got the dress on. Sharks is easy scared. You've only got to pull up your jumper a bit, and the air bubbles out and frightens them to fits. If you meet a big sting-ray, it'll run its spine into you, and send the dress all to - I mean, spoil the dress, so's the water comes in, and maybe it'll stick the diver too. And the big devilfish is nasty; he'll 'old you down to a rock; but you use your knife on him. The kara mauaa is the worst; the divers don't like him. He's not as big as a shark, but he's downright wicked, and he's a mouth on him as big as 'alf his body. If one comes along, he'll bit an arm or leg off the man anyways, and eat 'im outright if he's big enough to do it. Swordfish? Well, they don't often come into the lagoon; it's the fishing canoes outside they'll go for. Yes, they'll run a canoe and a man through at a blow easy enough; but they don't often do it. If you wants a canoe, I'll get you one; and you needn't mind about the swordfish. As like as not they'll never come near you.

"About the divin'? - well, I think the naked divin' is very near as safe as the machine, takin' all things. Worst of it is, if a kara mauaa comes along, the diver can't wait his time till it goes. No, he doesn't stab it - not inside the lagoon, because there's too many of them there, and the blood would bring a whole pack about. He gets under a ledge of rock, and 'opes it'll go away before his wind gives out. If he doesn't, he gets eat."

Did Schiller, or Edgar Allan Poe ever conjure up a picture more ghastly than that of a Penrhyn diver, caught like a rat in a trap by some huge, man-eating shark, or fierce kara mauaa - crouching in a cleft of the over-hanging coral, under the dark green gloom of a hundred feet of water, with bursting lungs and cracking eyeballs, while the threatening bulk of his terrible enemy looms dark and steady, full in the road to life and air? A minute or more has been spent in the downward journey; another minute has passed in the agonised wait under the rock. Has he been seen? Will the creature move away now, while there is still time to return? The diver knows to a second how much time has passed; the third minute is on its way; but one goes up quicker than one comes down, and there is still hope. Two minutes and a half; it is barely possible now, but --- The sentinel of death glides forward; his cruel eyes, phosphorescent in the gloom, look right into the cleft where the wretched creature is crushing, with almost twenty seconds of life still left, but now not a shred of hope. A few more beats of the labouring pulse, a gasp from the tortured lungs, a sudden rush of silvery air bubbles, and the brown limbs collapse down out of the cleft like wreaths of seaweed. The shark has his own.

Corner pillar of Rauhara temple,
Tongareva (Penrhyn)

There is a "Molokai," or Leper Island, some two miles out in the lagoon, where natives afflicted with leprosy are confined. The Resident Agent - one of the traders - broke the rigid quarantine of the Molokai one day so far as to let me land upon the island, although he did not allow me to approach nearer than ten or twelve yards to the lepers, or to leave the beach and go inland to the houses that were visible in the distance.

Our boatmen ran the sloop close inshore, and carried the captain and myself through the shallow water, carefully setting us down on dry stones, but remaining in the sea themselves.

A little dog that had come with the party sprang overboard, and began swimming to the shore. It was hurriedly seized by the scruff of its neck, and flung back into the boat. If it had set paw on the beach it could never had returned, but would have had to stay on the island for good.

Very lovely is the Molokai of Penrhyn; sadly beautiful this spot where so many wretched creatures have passed away from death in life to life in death. As we landed, the low golden rays of the afternoon sun were slanting through the pillared palm stems and quaintly beautiful pandanus fronds, across the snowy beach, and its trailing gold-flowered vines. The water of the lagoon, coloured like the gems in the gates of the Heavenly City, lapped softly on the shore; the perpetual trade wind poured through the swaying trees, shaking silvery gleams from the lacquered crests of the palms. In the distance, shadowed by a heavy pandanus grove, stood a few low brown huts. From the direction of these there came, hurrying down to the beach as we landed, four figures - three men and a woman. They had put on their best clothes when they saw the sloop making for the island. The woman wore a gaudy scarlet cotton frock; two of the men had white shirts and sailor's trousers of blue dungaree - relics of a happier day, these, telling their own melancholy tale of bygone years of freedom on the wide Pacific. The third man wore a shirt and scarlet "pareo." or kilt. Every face was lit up with delight at the sight of strangers from the schooner; above all, at the marvellous view of the wonderful "wahine papa." Why, even the men who lived free and happy on Penrhyn mainland did not get the chance of seeing such a show once in a lifetime! There she was, with two arms, and two legs, and a head, and a funny gown fastened in about the middle, and the most remarkable yellow shoes, and a ring, and a watch, which showed her to be extraordinarily wealthy, and a pale smooth face, not at all like a man's, and hair that was brown, not black - how odd! It was evidently as good as a theatre, to the lonely prisoners!

Bright as all the faces of the lepers were at that exciting moment, one could not mistake the traces left by a more habitual expression of heavy sadness. The terrible disease, too, had set its well-known marks upon every countenance. None of those who came out to see us had lost any feature; but all the faces had the gross, thickened, unhuman look that leprosy stamps upon its victims. The woman kept her arm up over her head, to hide some sad disfigurement about her neck. One of the men walked slowly and painfully, through an affection of the hip and leg. There were nine lepers in all upon the island; but the other five either could not, or did not wish to leave their huts, and the agent refused to break the quarantine any further than he had already done. What care the wretched creatures are able to give one another, therefore, what their homes are like, and how their lives are passed, I cannot tell. Three of the lepers were accompanied by their faithful dogs. They are all fond of pets, and must have either a dog or a cat. Of course the animals never leave the island. We exchanged a few remarks at the top of our voices, left a case of oranges (brought up from the Cook Islands, a thousand miles away), and returned to our boat. The case of oranges was eagerly seized upon, and conveyed into the bush.

"They will eat them up at once," I said.

"Not they," said one of our white men. "They'll make them into orange beer tonight, and get jolly well drunk for once in their miserable lives. Glad to see the poor devils get a chance, say I." And so - most immorally, no doubt - said the "wahine papa" as well.

The lepers are fed from stores furnished by a small Government fund; and the trader who fulfils the very light duties of Resident Government Agent generally sends them over a share of any little luxury, in the way of oranges, limes, or yams, that may reach the island. None the less, their condition is most miserable, and one cannot but regard it as a crying scandal upon the great missionary organisations of the Pacific that nothing whatever is done for the lepers of these northern groups. The noble example of the late Father Damien, of Hawaii, and of the Franciscan Sisters who still live upon the Hawaiian Molokai, courting a martyr's death to serve the victims of this terrible disease, seems to find no imitators in the islands evangelised by British missionaries. Godless, hopeless, and friendless, the lepers live and die alone. That their lives are immoral in the last degree, their religion, in spite of early teaching, almost a dead letter, is only to be expected. Penrhyn is not alone in this terrible scourge. Rakahanga, Manihiki, and Palmerston - all in the same part of the Pacific - are seriously affected by the disease. Palmerston I did not see; but I heard that there is one whole family of lepers there, and some stray cases as well.

The island belongs to the half-caste descendants (about 150 in number) of Masters, a "beachcomber" of the early days, who died a few years ago. These people are much alarmed at the appearance of leprosy, and have segregated the lepers on an island in the lagoon. They are anxious to have them removed to the Molokai at Penrhyn, since the family came originally from that island; but no schooner will undertake to carry them. In Rakahanga, the lepers are not quarantined in any way, but wander about among the people. There are only a few cases as yet; but the number will certainly increase. This may also be said to Manihiki, for although very serious cases are isolated there, the lepers are allowed, in the earlier stages, to mix freely with every one else, and even to prepare the food of a whole family. The New Zealand Government, it is believed, will shortly pass a law compelling the removal of all these cases to the Molokai at Penrhyn. No Government, however, can alleviate the wretched condition of these unfortunate prisoners, once sent to the island. That remains for private charity and devotion.

A God-forsaken, God-forgotten-looking place is Penrhyn, all in all. When sunset falls upon the great desolate lagoon, and the tall coconuts of the island stand up jet black against the stormy yellow sky in one unbroken rampart of tossing spears, and the endless sweep of shadowy beach is empty of all human life, and clear of every sound save the long, monotonous, never-ceasing cry of the trade wind in the trees, it needs but little imagination to fancy strange creatures creeping through the gloom of the forest - strange, ghastly stories of murder and despair whispering in the gathering night. Death in every form is always near to Penrhyn; death in the dark waters of the lagoon, death from the white terror of leprosy, and death of the hands of men but quarter civilised, whose fingers are always itching for the ready knife. And at the lonely sunset hour, when old memories of the life and light of great cities, of welcoming windows shining red and warm through grey, cold northern gloamings come back to the wanderer's mind in vivid contrast, the very wings of the "Shadow cloaked from head to foot" seem to shake in full sight above these desolate shores. Yet, perhaps, the intolerable blaze of full noon upon the windward beaches strikes a note of even deeper loneliness and distance. The windward side of Penrhyn is uninhabited; the sea that breaks in blinding white foam upon the untrodden strand, wreathed with trailing vines of vivid green, is never broken by a sail. The sun beats down through the palm and pandanus leaves so fiercely that the whole of the seaward bush is but a shadeless blaze of green fire. Nothing stirs, nothing cries; the earth is silent, the sea empty; and a barrier of thousands of long sea miles, steadily built up, day by day, through many weeks, and only to be passed again by the slow demolishing, brick by brick, of the same great wall, lies between us and the world where people live. Here there is no life, only an endless dream; not as in the happy southern islands, a gentle sunrise dream of such surpassing sweetness that the sleeper asks nothing more than to dream on thus for ever; but a dark-hour dream of loneliness, desolation, and utter remoteness, from which the dreamer cannot awaken, even if he would. Why do men - white men, with some ability and some education - live in these far-away infertile islands? There is no answer to the problem, even from the men themselves. They came, they stayed, they do not go away - why, they do not know. That is all. 

The land extent of Penrhyn is only three square miles, though the enclosed lagoon is a hundred. The population is little over four hundred souls; there are three or four white traders, as a rule. There is no resident white missionary. The island is one of those that have been annexed by New Zealand, and is therefore British property. It is governed by the Resident Commissioner of the Cook group, who visits it about once a year.

Until two or three years ago, the Penrhyn Islanders used to keep their dead in the houses, hanging up the corpse, wrapped in matting, until it was completely decayed. This hideous practice was put an end to by the Representatives of British Government, much to the grief of the natives, who found it hard to part with the bodies of their friends, and leave them away in the graveyard they were bidden to choose. As the best substitute for the old practices they now build little houses, some four feet high, over the tombs of their friends, and live in these houses for many months after a death, sitting and sleeping and even eating on the tomb that is covered by the thatch or iron roof of the grave-house. The grave-yard is in consequence a strange and picturesque sight, almost like a village of some pigmy folk. A few plain concrete graves stand above the remains of white men who have died in the island, and one headstone is carved with the initials - not the name - of a woman. There is a story about that lonely grave; it was told to me as I lingered in the little "God's Acre" at sunset, with the light falling low between the palms and the lonely evening wind beginning to wail from the sea. 

The woman was the wife of a schooner captain, a man of good family and connections, who liked the wild roving life of the Pacific, yet managed to retain a number of acquaintances of his own class in Auckland and Tahiti. His wife was young and handsome, and had many friends of her own. On one of the schooner's visits to Penrhyn, the man was taken suddenly ill, and died in a very short time, leaving his wife alone. It seems that at first she was bewildered by her loss, and stayed on in the island, not knowing what to do, but before many months she had solved the problem after a fashion that horrified all the whites - she married a Penrhyn native! good-looking and attractive, but three-quarters savage, and left the island with him.

Several children were born to the pair, but they were given to the husband's people. At last he took a native partner, and deserted his English wife. She left the islands, and went down to Auckland; but her story had travelled before her, and Auckland society closed its doors. To Tahiti, where morals are easy, and no one frowns upon the union, temporary or permanent, of the white man and the brown woman, she went, hoping to be received as in former days. But even Papeete, "the sink of the Pacific," would have none of the white woman who had married a brown man. Northwards once more, to lonely Penrhyn, the broken-hearted woman went, wishing only to die, far from the eyes of her own world that had driven her out. A schooner captain, who called there now and then, cast eyes upon her - for she was still young, and retained much of her beauty - and asked her, at last, if she would become his wife, and so redeem in some degree her position; but she had neither heart nor wish to live longer, so she sent the kindly sailor away, and soon afterwards closed her eyes for ever on the blue Pacific and the burning sands, the brown lover who had betrayed her, and the white lover who came too late. The traders buried her, and kindly left her grave without a name; only the initials of that which she had borne in her first marriage, and the date of her death. So, quiet and forgotten at last, lies in lonely Penrhyn the woman who sinned against her race and found no forgiveness.

It was a relief to leave Penrhyn, with all its gloomy associations, and see the schooner's head set for the open sea and merry Manihiki. But we seemed to have brought ill-luck away with us, for there was what the captain called "mean weather" before we came within hail of land again.

An extract from IN THE STRANGE SOUTH SEAS by BEATRICE GRIMSHAW, published in London by Hutchinson & Co., 1908.  

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