Suvarov atoll, also spelled Suwarrow, lies 703 nautical miles south of the equator. It is 170 miles S.E. of Nassau Island, 210 miles S.W. of Manihiki, about 450 miles eastward of Pago Pago, and 513 miles N.W. of Rarotonga, from which it is administered.
Suvarov Island from An Island To Oneself by Tom Neale
It is an irregularly circular atoll, a ring of coral reef, enclosing a lagoon with one entrance toward the north. It measures 9.1/4 sea miles east and west by 8.1/4 miles north and south. On the reef are about twenty-five small islets, only five of them as much as half a mile long, the rest very small. The total land area is about 600 acres.
Some of the islets are covered with coconut palms and tall trees, which reach a height of 60 to 100 feet above sea level. Other islets lack coconut palms and their scrub and low trees reach a total height of only 15 to 30 feet.
There is no native population, but from time to time some of the islets are occupied by copra harvesters and collectors of pearl shell, which is plentiful in the lagoon. Sea birds are very abundant, and some of the islets have been made into a sanctuary for them There is good fishing in the lagoon and around the coat.
Vessels drawing less than 25 feet may pass through the entrance and find safe anchorage in the lagoon. The islet which forms the west side of the entrance, called Anchorage Islet, has an area of about 80 acres, and is covered with trees and coconut palms. It has a small jetty across its fringing reef on the west side. Its south-eastern part has been set aside by the British Admiralty as a naval reserve.
Deserted building on Suvarov Island
The atoll was discovered September 27, 1814, by Lieutenant Lazareff, commanding a vessel of the Russian-American Company, for which the island was named. Different authorities give different spellings for this name; in addition to the two given above. Findlay spells it Souwaroff. Both ship and island bear the name of a Muscovite general, famed for his siege of Ismael. Lazareff records finding no sign of inhabitants, but states that the islets were overrun by crabs, rats, and large flocks of birds. He does not mention coconut palms nor entrance through the reef, which makes one believe that he did not visit the northern islets.
H.B. Sterndale, in a Wellington (N.Z.) journal for 1890, gives an entertaining account of the island, including stories of shipwreck, murder, buried treasure, and ruins of a former population who built cement walls and had iron tools and weapons.
In 1855 the American whale ship Gem, loaded with oil, ran ashore. The captain and crew made their way safely to Samoa and later to Tahiti. Here the wreck was sold to Messrs. Hort Brothers, who sent one of their vessels, the Caroline Hort, to salvage the cargo. The supercargo, named Livington Evans, not only did this to the considerable profit of his employers, but also dug up a chest containing coins estimated to be worth $15,000. Later, another man from Tahiti, acting on some sort of information, dug up an additional $2,400, buried at the foot of a tree.
In 1860, a canoe containing seven natives (four men and three women) and an Englishman, Tom Charlton, attempting passage from Rakahanga to Manihiki, drifted to Suvarov. They lived on the island three months, eating coconuts, fish, birds' eggs, and turtle. Then they were joined by Joseph Bird and thirty Penrhyn islanders, landed from the Dart by Captain Samuel S. Sustenance, to collect pearl shell. He was to return in six months and pick up the lot. A short time later, the armed schooner Tickler, Captain Thomas F. Martin, from San Francisco, came by and landed one Jules Tirel, to see how the pearl diving progressed, while the ship went to Niue Island for a load of yams. Because of trouble between Bird and the natives, all three white men were murdered.
Sterndale's description of massive stone walls in the forest, rusted muskets, lime kilns, and buried treasure, if true, suggests that prior to the Russian discovery the atoll had been utilised by Spanish or other foreign visitors.
As early as 1876 the atoll was leased to an Auckland firm, Messrs. Henderson and Macfarlane, who built a wharf, installed a light on a wooden pyramid, and commenced to gather pearl shell. British sovereignty was proclaimed April 22, 1889. The Pacific Trading Co. obtained large quantity of pearl shell of excellent quality.
Beach scene, Suvarov Island from An Island To Oneself by Tom Neale
In 1903 the atoll was leased to Lever Brothers, "for the purpose of removing guano or other fertilising substances therefrom, and of planting the land with coconuts, and for collecting pearl-shells, and for other purposes of a like nature." They tried to introduce and plant gold-lipped shells from Torres Strait, but without success. They maintained about thirty persons on the island. The hurricane of 1914 both spoiled pearl-shell operations in the lagoon and damaged the coconut plantation. In 1916 there were seven persons living on the island.
The lease has passed to Messrs. A. B. Donald, Ltd., of Auckland, who are producing a little copra on the island, according to last reports. There is still good pearl shell in the lagoon but it is being given a long rest.
The history of Suvarov Island would not be complete without making mention of Mr. Tom Neale who lived in solitude on Suvarov Island between October 1952 and June 1954. He later returned in April of 1960 and stayed until December 1963. Tom Neale recorded his experiences on Suvarov Island in his book An Island To Oneself published by Collins, London, 1966.
I would like to thank Fred Ruckser for making available a copy of this most interesting book. Extracts from this book has been added to the Suvarov Island Web site: