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An Island Apart

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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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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 islanders hoisted my canoe on to their shoulders and, singing and chanting, carried it up the sand in accordance with Polynesian custom. Beneath the casuarinas I found the site of the house where Raymond Firth had lived in the 1920s, and nearby stood the house of Ariki Tafua, the chief of the district. My sloop’s anchor was sunk in Ariki Tafua’s lagoon and I owed him tribute. I crawled on hands and knees through the doorway of his house. Inside, three elderly women, their chins and chests tattooed, were smoking pipes. Ariki Tafua lay sprawled on his side. Firth described the incumbent chief in the 1920s as a ‘strong willed old man with an eye for the main chance’. His great-grandson had clearly inherited the same characteristics. He showed little enthusiasm for the gift I had brought. Instead, he told me he had a severe headache, a boil and a sore knee. Did I have any aspirin on the boat? I brought him half a dozen Codeine and a brace of Valium. After that Ariki Tafua was always pleased to see me. Certainly, there have been some changes on the island since Firth’s day. The men have swapped their bark-cloth girdles for shorts and T-shirts; only the older women go bare-breasted. And since the island converted to Christianity in 1956, tattooing has become rare among the younger generation – in Firth’s day most adults had full body and face tattoos. But in many other respects it is remarkable how little has changed. There is still no shop, airstrip, wharf or phone, and a ship calls only every four to six months. The method of constructing the grass houses has also barely changed. The lozenge-shaped roofs are low-slung, the sago thatch eaves touching the sand, to withstand the destructive cyclones that threaten the region every year. The lives of the islanders are also still governed by the daily imperative of procuring food. With a guide I climbed to Te Uru o te Fenua – the Head of the Land – a 1,000-foot peak on the crater rim at the island’s centre. From here it was clear that the island was a monstrously impractical place for human beings to live. Its total land area is less than three square miles and much of that is precipitous. The Tikopia literally swarm all over their blue-bordered rock, digging gardens in which to grow taro or yams on any ledge where soil has formed. From the summit I occasionally caught sight of them, stick figures glued to the emerald volcano’s outer flanks with breakers foaming on the reef beneath their heels. The task of feeding the population occupies the Tikopia every day and often through the night. Riches are only described in terms of food. A wealthy man is tanata kai kai lasi – a man who eats greatly. After ten centuries of scratching the barest of livings from this volcanic pile, the Tikopia have learnt that it will support a population of 1,200 and no more. In the past, therefore, nature was ruthlessly controlled. Only eldest sons were permitted to marry. Others were free to take as many lovers as they liked, but any progeny were killed. Firth recalls how one chief, in the course of a famine, took his young sons out to sea in a canoe so as not to be a burden on precious food supplies. An ancient song of Tikopia refers to drowning at sea as ‘sweet burial’. The surrounding ocean is an ever-present force. The massive posts which support the houses against ocean storms are whole tree trunks, the roots buried in the ground, just as a ship’s mast is stepped below the deck. The posts divide each house into two parts: inland/profane; seaward/sacred. The terms ‘inland’ and ‘seaward’ are used for all sorts of spatial references on the island. Firth was once with a group of men working in the gardens when one said to another, ‘Friend, there is a spot of mud on your seaward cheek.’ In We the Tikopia the islanders prefix almost every statement with ‘friend’, especially when they are addressing Firth himself. I must admit, I was suspicious when I read this. Europeans in the South Pacific have been all too inclined to impose their own imagery. Arthur Grimble in the Gilbert Islands (today’s Kiribati) translated the Gilbertese language as a form of quaint Olde English: ‘Thou comest . . .’; ‘Behold!’ But I was wrong. In the five days I spent on Tikopia I was never once called by name, only ‘friend’ or ‘brother’. Firth came to Tikopia to study kinship. He found that, ultimately, the island operates as one interdependent kinship group. The title of his book is itself a phrase that was constantly on the islanders’ lips: an individual would reply on behalf of the entire population, ‘We the Tikopia believe that.’ The features one might expect to find in a work of anthropology are of course present in the book: social structure, ceremonial traditions, pagan beliefs, building methods, crops, prehistory. But it is Firth’s account of the people themselves that makes his work unique. The island characters he introduces are the antithesis of Robinson Crusoe’s compliant slave Man Friday. Firth’s Tikopia are bitchy, proud, passionate, confident and clever. It takes him months of painstaking diplomacy to win their trust, but when he has done so they hide nothing from him and he diligently records it all: marriages, affairs, elopements, love triangles, modes of sexual gratification, lechery, lewd behaviour and feuds. He also provides characterization and dialogue to flesh out his examples. Indeed, his supporting evidence is so detailed and fulsome it is surely more than is strictly necessary in the name of academic enquiry. But then that is the great beauty of the book. In cool, dry prose Firth relates how the islanders curse and make love, dance and die, dress their hair and smother their unwanted children. The result is a rounded and complete insight into the workings of a pre-literate culture. Firth captures the sometimes suffocating intensity created by 1,200 people living cheek-by-jowl on an ocean-girt precipice where the only means of escape is death. He records several incidents of suicide, particularly among those disappointed in love, usually achieved by swimming alone out to sea. The tensions that are sometimes apparent among the Tikopia are understandable. But their labyrinthine code of taboos can be baffling. This is never more the case than in the story Firth tells regarding Pu Sao, a commoner who made the mistake of breaking wind in the presence of several chiefs and other men of rank. Pu Sao was so overcome with shame that he climbed a nearby coconut tree to escape the humiliation. His lifeless body was found in the crown of the tree several days later. He had committed suicide by ‘impaling himself through the fundament on one of the hard dry spathes, sharply pointed, which are usually to be found there.’ We the Tikopia has sometimes been compared to the novels of Dickens or Eliot because it captures the whole gamut of life. But perhaps a better comparison would be with Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s portrait of life aboard a whaler. Just as in Moby-Dick, in We the Tikopia the reader enters a self-contained world bounded by the ocean, one that is at once familiar and alien, claustrophobic and vital, fascinating and appalling. Raymond Firth was professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics from 1944 to 1968. He returned to Tikopia many times and wrote a total of ten books about the island. The last, Tikopia Songs, was published in 1990, when he was 90 years old. The island today is one of the most comprehensively documented societies in the ethnographic record. When Firth died in 2002 his official obituary described him as the father of modern British anthropology. To mark his death Routledge have reissued a limited edition of We the Tikopia. In view of its price, I don’t imagine you will rush out to buy a copy, but I do urge you to borrow one, if you can, from that much underrated institution, the public library.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 5 © Miles Hordern 2005


About the contributor

Miles Hordern mostly sails alone, accompanied only by a good library. His book of voyages to Tikopia and beyond was published in 2005.

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