When I left university I spent six months before the mast, working on a yacht crossing the Pacific. Except this was in 1988 and times had changed. With two small children on the boat, my role was that of both deckhand and nanny. As the ketch fell off a wave and Barbie’s head became detached from her neck for the second time that watch, I longed for gales so that I might be called urgently on deck.
The children’s mother had, in a former life, been an editor, and the ketch was equipped with that item as essential on sailing boats as sails: a good library. Gales turned out to be less frequent at sea than they are in books so I pulled a battered hardback from the shelf and started to read. A European man arrives on a tiny Pacific island and sets about making a home. The story was superficially similar to other accounts from the early 1900s: Arthur Grimble in the Gilbert Islands, Tom Harrisson in the New Hebrides. But We the Tikopia, by the New Zealand-born anthropologist Raymond Firth, turned out to be something else again.
Tikopia is an island apart. It lies 1,500 miles east of Australia in that part of the Pacific known as Melanesia. But culturally Tikopia’s population is Polynesian. For reasons that are not entirely clear the Tikopia ‘back-migrated’ from the Polynesian heartlands in Samoa and Tonga, sailing west against the general flow of migration about a thousand years ago. Today the island is technically part of the Solomons, but it is largely autonomous. Its inhabitants, whose skin is the colour of copper, are quite alone in a black-skinned Melanesian sea. It is this combination of isolation and insularity that has made Tikopia a favourite subject for anthropologists.
After reading Firth’s book I longed to visit the island, but this same isolation made such a possibility seem unlikely. Eventually, however, in July 2003, I anchored my 28-foot sloop in a bight in Tikopia’s fringing reef. On the beach I was mobbed. The islande
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