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[from the collection of Mr. Walter Reimer]
article from the April, 1934 issue
written by Edward R. Mynah, Jnr.
International Hydrographic Magazine
Vol. LXV, No. Four
Islands of the Nimitz Sea: History and Mystery
Edward R. Mynah, Jnr.
(Author of “Vanirge, Where One Lands in Hot Water”
in The International Hydrographic Magazine.)
Our savage visitor sat on his heels and stared at us.
“I don’t want to go home,” he said to our native host. “I want to stay and look at them. I never saw the like!”
“Tell him to stay,” I said. “We never saw the like either.”
The canine visitor seemed puzzled. Why should we think him strange – comb a foot long projecting from his bushy mop of headfur; coal-black teeth; vermilion lips dripping with betel juice; oiled fur decorated with fanciful whorls and arabesques, all heavy with meaning? He laughed. “Why, everybody looks like me!”
If the natives of this Nimitz Sea isle of Stubatoa were astonished to see us, we were just as surprised to find ourselves there. It had seemed for a while impossible to thread our way through a tangle of varying jurisdictions in order to visit these smaller, less-traveled islands.
ISLANDS RARELY VISITED
Other gems of the Pacific have been placed on tour routes. Tahiti, Samoa and Spontoon are becoming as well known as Hawaii to the diligent traveler. But the smaller islands of this part of the northern Pacific remain a world apart.
The would-be visitor is rarely forbidden by the authorities who hold sway over these tiny bits of land, but they offer him scant encouragement. He is warned that there are no conveniences for travelers, and hotels are nonexistent. Suggestions will not be made as to where he might find food or shelter. His brash ideas that he and his wife might obtain lodging with the natives, or set up a tent under a palm tree, are smiled upon with tolerance, but no open disfavor.
We were advised that a through passage might be preferable, wherein we would live on a ship and view each island only so long as we remained at anchor, comfortably offshore. Our contentions that we could not secure the necessary facts and photographs for the INTERNATIONAL HYDROGRAPHIC by making only a flying visit to each island were recognized; and, as a courtesy to THE HYDROGRAPHIC, permissions were accorded us to sojourn for four months.
The Nimitz Sea is a broad expanse of water, some thousands of miles square, with clusters of tiny islands concentrated toward the center of the area. These islands were raised from the sea floor over millions of years by volcanic activity, and as the centuries passed they subsided, leaving ring-shaped atolls built by coral in their wake. Some of the islands, such as the Spontoon Group and its neighbors, have not yet given themselves back to Neptune and are the most densely populated in the Nimitz Sea.
The islands here have traded paws several times in the recent past, and are now administered jointly by the Spontoon Government and the Rain Island Anarchcracy. So it is from Seathl or Spontoon today, not from New Penzance, Honolulu or Yokohama, that you take off for this adventure.
LIKE STEPPING OFF THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
If it were possible to step off the edge of the world, I believe the sensation would be something like that of embarking for the little-known minor Nimitz Islands. Our ship, the Perambulator, a trim two-masted schooner with a crew of ten, pulled away from the docks at Casino Island and immediately became a world unto itself. We steadfastly maintained that we had left civilization and its comforts, and were not to be returning until we had accomplished our goals.
Our route first took us southeast, past Albert Island and navigating carefully around the shoals and reefs of the Diver’s Atoll. Many ships have foundered here, it is said; therefore we were careful to post two deckpaws in the bows to “swing the leads” and call out the depths to our helmsman. The captain and crew were Rain Islanders, generally taciturn but known for flashes of humor. Their own customs were quaint and dated to us, unremarkable since Rain Island is a very new country compared to the United States.
“THE CENTER OF THE WORLD”
He who wishes to see the Nimitz islands of a hundred years ago, before the tide of modernity washed a litter of tin cans up onto their beaches, should visit Stubatoa in Howes Atoll. Here time has stood still; even, perhaps, gone backward a little. Some of the old arts are lost and the population has dwindled to perhaps half its former size, yet it clings stubbornly to ancient traditions. To the older Stubatoan, their small island is the center of the world, and everyone and everything else is considered “Outside.”
Civilized trappings, such as clothing, are frowned upon as the work of outsiders, and are considered an affront to the native gods. Exceptions must be made for some of the young; one may occasionally see a strapping young cub (amply clothed only in a string of red beads) riding a bicycle. The elders of the villages sternly reprove the young for wearing clothing, as it is considered indecent. Although mission schools have been established, it is still customary to see giggling schoolgirls remove their school uniforms at the door to the building and race home.
We were greeted with wary courtesy, and were offered lodging for our stay. My wife, however, had to stay with the women, and learned that three generations of the family live under the same steeply-pitched thatched roof. She expressed some surprise at how pretty the native girls were, until they smiled to reveal that their teeth were black as pitch. Black teeth, it appears, are a mark of high fashion among the islanders, and everyone who wants to appear attractive must stain their teeth with a paste made up of various fruits and leaves. My wife was offered some, with eager assertions that it would make her beautiful. She politely declined.
That night we had a visitor, the same canine whose words are recorded at the beginning of this article. He was a neighbor to our host, and had expressed a desire to see the strangers from “Outside.” We talked of each others’ customs, and he finally returned to his home shaking his head at the ‘quaint’ ways of Westerners!
A MISCELLANY OF ISLANDS
After departing from Stubatoa, our ship made its way past Caprara Island and through and among the isles of the aptly-named Mare’s Nest Shoals. This hornet swarm of islets range in size from reefs and sandbars barely visible at low tide to small islands of several square miles’ area. Few people live there, although some scattered tribes of fisherfolk do call the Mare’s Nest home. They build their houses on stilts or pilings, and spend much of their lives on the water in boats or diving to harvest the ocean’s bounty.
We called upon one such family, who at first displayed a remarkable level of hostility until our captain assured us that it was just a welcoming ritual. So fortified, we stood our ground (as it were), and our host’s demeanor changed to one of hospitable affability. After exchanging small gifts we were invited to dinner.
The sea gives those who live on it a rich variety of foods, and I thoroughly enjoyed the taste of the roasted fish that was set before me. Even my wife, who as an equine has little taste for anything other than fruits and grains, ate with unconcealed gusto.
The few trees that gain a roothold on these small bits of terra firma are mainly mangroves, and they hold a profusion of birds who make their living eating fish. Many of them have always called these islands home, and despite a life traveling the winds always find their way back to the trees to mate and lay their eggs.
TO THE PIRATE HAVENS
We bent our course northwestward and after several days on the open water our lookout sighted Blefuscu Island, with its small naval outpost. Blefuscu is the fourth-largest of the Northern Nimitz Group, the largest of which is Cranium Island.
When we described our itinerary, we were advised against landing on Cranium Island, even if our boat encountered a reef and foundered just offshore. “Better swim in the other direction,” we were advised, and we were regaled with tales of dark things that go on there. Since by all accounts the inhabitants of Cranium Island are not native to this region, we resolved that we would not go there.
Not because of the stories told us by our adviser.
Our next stop on our itinerary was Mildendo, an island with an unsavory reputation as a way-station between the piratical Krupmark Island and the more civilized world. Mildendo has a Barbary Coast, ‘wide-open’ feel to it that required us to be on our guard. However, we were assured, the next stop on our voyage would be much closer to the tales of Dodge City in the Wild West, or the old stories of the pirate dens of Jamaica.
The Perambulator raised Krupmark Island on the twenty-fifth of February, and at first we were impressed by the sight of the place. The island is nearly ten miles wide and twice that long, with the lonely peak of Mount Krupp, at fifteen hundred feet the highest point in the area, dominating the northern half of the island.
An arrangement had been struck with a Mildendo agent for those furs who rule the island: we were permitted to sail around the place, and to land at Fort Bob in order to replenish our water if necessary. However, we were only permitted to set foot on the western coast of the island where, our agent assured us, the place was largely unspoiled.
We dropped anchor at a small inlet just north of an extinct caldera known to the locals as Smuggler’s Cove. A small group of us made our way inland in order to observe some of the native flora and fauna.
Krupmark has some native animal species, from the fish living along its barrier reef to small insect-eating voles and a type of marsupial cat. It also hosts a wide profusion of birds, including some that exist nowhere else. The most prolific of these is the Krupmark Island parakeet (Cyanomorphus krupmarkii Manticorio). These birds are roughly eight inches from beak to tail, and are strong and agile fliers. Their acquisitive ways, similar to a jackdaw’s, and the distinctive black and white bars on their wings have given them the unfortunate nickname of ‘jailbirds.’ Occasional expeditions are mounted into the interior of the island to trap some of these birds for export to zoos or collectors.
One of the members of our group fell ill before we could pitch camp for the night. His symptoms told our captain that the unfortunate fur had run afoul of the bogberry, one of the many native plants. The bogberry plant’s fruit may look like a small persimmon, yet it is poisonous, acting as a powerful emetic and purgative. After spending a largely uneventful night ashore, we collected samples of the local flora for study, and headed back to our schooner.
Northwest we sailed until we caught sight of a broad shield of land rising above the horizon. This was Krupmark’s larger neighbor Dioon Island, the home to several small tribes of natives.
Dioon has the misfortune to be on the boundary between several spheres of influence, and thus receives little or no aid from any of the countries in the region. Its people remain largely unspoiled by civilization, and they expressed mild interest to see our ship drop anchor.
We were at first mistaken for smugglers, as those buccaneers will use the island as a way station to unload their wares to other ships, safe from the iron grip of the law. After we reassured them as to our intentions, they welcomed us with greater hospitality. A feast was cooked in our honor, and we sat in honor on mats of plaited banana leaves to dine al fresco on roast suckling pig and a wide assortment of fruits and tubers.
That night we sat with the rest of the tribe and listened as the shaman of the village sat by the fire and told a story. The shaman was a powerfully built otter, perhaps related to one of the Malay tribes in Dutch Indonesia, and with his fur stained red from betel juice and ropes of small charms and amulets dangling from his neck, we found ourselves following his story back into the legends of his people.
To our surprised interest, the story was about a tribe he referred to as the Lost Ones, who reputedly were the first inhabitants of this island. From the fanciful description we were given, these Lost Ones were shorter than average furs, and looked like the reptilian natives who once were the exclusive owners of these islands. Yet, so the shaman said, these reptiles had feathers like birds.
His story went on to relate that there may be some of these strange furs living on Dioon. Long, oddly patterned feathers have been found, and hunters in the jungle have reported seeing large snakelike eyes peering out of the underbrush at them. Children nestled closer to their mothers as the shaman finished his tale, and the village headman dismissed the gathering.
We discussed the story later as we prepared for bed, and agreed that the story was a legend about the first settlers on Dioon. But what had they seen, and was there any credence to the shaman’s story? Another expedition will perhaps be mounted, to prove or disprove the accuracy of these legends.
Although the dwellers of these small islands resist and in many cases resent civilization, in time they will have to bow to the inevitable. Schools will demand students, hospitals will insist on using modern medicine to cure diseases, and industries will disrupt the more leisurely pace of their lives.
For good or ill, then, these isolated Nimitz Sea islands are being swept into the world current of change.
clipping from the collection of Mr. Walter Reimer