by Kirsten Hilyard (1986 – a school assignment)
The story of Jane Tere Kokaua (nee Marsters)
My grandmother had often spoken of the hurricane that struck the island where she and her family lived when she was young and the hardships that they had to endure for the four years immediately following. And although I had always found the stories interesting, I never actually thought to collect all the facts and record them on paper. So when I learned that we were to do a research project on someone’s childhood, my Grandmother came immediately to mind.
As I have said, she had told us anecdotes of her experiences after the hurricane, but these were just bits and pieces of the whole story, so the first thing I did was to write down some questions to ask her that would cover most of what happened during the four years that was spent on the island from the time of the hurricane to when the first trading boat landed at the island, four years later.
Because my Grandmother and I were very busy we never seemed to have the time to record the interview on tape as I had planned, so instead I gave her my interview questions, and she wrote the answers down for me. She had the questions with her for a few days and added things as she remembered them, and by the time I collected her notes, I had a full account of what had happened.
I was also able to get photographs from a resource book called Sisters in the Sun, written by A.S. Helm and W. H. Percival, which is the story of the Suwarrow and Palmerston atolls.
When I was young, I sometimes used to think that I had it pretty hard. But after hearing my Grandmother’s story, I reckon that my life was a dream in comparison to that which she experienced on a little island in the middle of the Pacific ocean.
My Grandmother’s name is Jane Tere Kokaua (nee Marsters). She was born on the 31st of December, 1926 on Palmerston Island, Cook Islands.
In 1936, when she was about 10 years old, a hurricane struck Palmerston Island. Because there was no way for the island to be contacted, the only warning the islanders had was a barometer, which when it fell, was a fairly reliable warning of stormy weather to come.
When the warning came in 1936, the island population of about 100 people was ordered by Jane’s grandfather, William Masters II, to make their way to ‘refuge hill’.
The ‘Hill’ was a mound about 8 metres high. It had been made with sandy soil which had been dug out of a hole that was made to form a taro patch. The taro patch created a sort of drain around the mound, which kept the waves off the hill.
Palmerston an atoll consisting of a group of small islets which are flat and only just above sea level. Only one of these atolls is inhabited. Because of the high number of storms in their part of the Pacific, this central mound of dirt and sand provided a safe retreat for the island inhabitants in times of flood.
When Jane and her family were told to go to the hill, they, like the other islanders, packed up as many of their belongings as possible to take with them, so that they would not be washed away. Many people gathered stored goods like dried fish and other dried foods that they had prepared for emergencies such as these.
Although they were aware of the coming storm, Jane’s family were slow to finish all their packing. Her Grandparents had already left for the hill, leaving the children and an uncle to finish bundling their goods.
By the time they were ready to leave their beachside house to go to the hill, the big waves were already near to the island.
Seeing that the waves were so close, Jane’s uncle, James Marsters, gathered the children and tied each of them either to himself, or to Jane’s older brother, Carl with one long length of rope. They then proceeded to the hill following a rope that had been tied from their house to the hill.
When they got about half way along the rope, the waves hit the island and rushed over it, but, although it was a struggle, James and Carl got themselves and the children to the hill safely.
Upon reaching the hill, Jane and her family joined her Grandparents and the other islanders to wait out the storm.
The full strength of the hurricane struck in the morning, and the wind, rain and waves pummelled the island all day and through the night. By the next morning everything was calm. Also, everything was gone.
After the storm.
The winds and waves had swept away everything on the beach side of the island (as opposed to the lagoon side), and there were only a few coconut trunks and the church left standing. The church had been carried about twenty metres from it’s original site.
Luckily no one was swept away or injured, but my Grandmother was told that one person had died in a previous big hurricane which occurred just before she was born (1926).
Food and water.
Because everything had been washed away – houses, coconut trees, crops – the only things that the islanders had were what they had taken to the hill with them. Some of what they had taken was food, but they knew that it wouldn’t last long. From the first days after the hurricane they gathered anything that they could find.
Everything that they collected to eat was floating. They got a lot of coconuts and coconut tops and even a crate of oranges once, although they were salty after having been in the sea for a time. But these pickings did not come as frequently, after a couple of months or so.
When the coconuts being washed up on the beach started to become more scarce, any food that was available was carefully rationed within the family.
All of this food that they were eating had been saturated with salt water and therefore had rotted. But they were lucky in one respect because coconut, along with fish of which there were plenty of, was one of the main items of their diet, and coconut, no matter how decayed and possibly not suited to my or your tastebuds, is edible.
There was still taro and other root vegetables in the ground, but that had now become bitter and decayed along with everything else that had once been growing on the island and had not been swept away.
One thing they did have plenty of was water. Palmerston is a deeply religious island, and my Grandmother said that they were blessed with the rain. However they did not use the rain water to wash in. For that purpose, they used water from their well, which was salty, but did the job.
Cooking and building.
This was also no problem. Along with the food that they had collected off the beach, they also gathered coconut branches to make roofs for their houses, and used the fallen coconut trunks to build their houses. Both materials were used to make fires for cooking and warmth.
There was plenty of lighting as well. They had stored coconut oil and kerosene for lamps and had taken it to the hill with them. If this was not available, coconut sheaves were used. These were used anyway to light around the outside of their houses.
When the islanders had gone to the hill, they had taken with them, among other things, clothes to wear. Now this was all well and fine, until their clothing started to wear out.
Under normal circumstances, a schooner would come to the island once a year, bringing with it food supplies for the islanders like flour, sugar, rice, corned beef and other essentials, like cloth and building materials. But after the 1936 hurricane, a ship did not arrive at Palmerston until several months after the disaster, by which time they had completely run out of these essential items.
So, with most of their clothes worn to rags, they instead wore flax skirts, and saved their best frock or pants to wear to church.
With the winds and sea that washed over Palmerston, the whole island had changed. There were no more houses in the little settlement, and no plants or trees left on any of the atolls that made up Palmerston. The only features that the islands had, were sand banks.
As I mentioned earlier, the one other thing that had survived the hurricane, apart from the islanders themselves, was the Church. It had been moved several metres by the sea, so one of the first things that the islanders did, was to move the Church back to its original position by rolling it over the ground on coconut tree trunks.
Once it was in place, the Church services continued as per usual. As my Grandmother said ‘The land may have changed, but the people had not. Their faith in the Lord was still strong’.
Replanting the land.
After a couple of years, things started to grow on the island again. Wild arrowroot, which was grated and strained then left to dry, was mixed with fruit from a tree called Pandana. These, mixed together, made a rather tasty ‘poke’, a starchy dish. This was good to eat with fish.
Around this time, the islanders started to plant the land themselves. There were a few old coconuts that had been saved, so they were put into the ground. However, these trees take five to seven years before they start to bear fruit, so they had to try and grow taro and puraka in the sandy soil, while the coconut was growing.
There was no actual employment on Palmerston, but everyone had jobs to do. They had to build themselves houses, catch fish and collect food to feed their families, and most importantly, plant the land.
They also gathered copra from coconuts (when there were some), because this is what they used to trade for their food and supplies from the schooners and other ships that finally arrived several months later.
My Grandmother, Jane, did not have much schooling. She says that she does remember going to school at the age of five for a short time, but after that, doesn’t remember returning to school until she was about thirteen. Her older brother, Louis, had come to Palmerston from Rarotonga, and was their teacher. She went to school for a year and learned a little writing, maths and reading. The reading was not so bad, because she could read the bible having been taught by her Grandfather and Grandmother.
The best and worst times.
Jane cannot remember being sad at any time after the hurricane. She does however remember being very frightened during the hurricane, of the wind and the high seas. But after everything was over, she felt safe because she had her Grandparents with her.
She does recall one of her happiest times directly after the hurricane:
“My sister, my Grandparents and I had to go down to the beach one day to find food. I remember going out into the water to get a drifting coconut, then we made ourselves a net out of old branches, and brought a little fish that we caught ashore. Then we made ourselves a little fire on the beach to cook the fish on. It was like having a picnic on the beach”.
Palmerston Island belongs to the Marsters family. At the time of the 1936 hurricane the head of the land was William Masters II. He controlled the land, and was also the Minister of their Church.
There are three families on the island, and each has their own leader who works with the head of the land. The head of the land has the final say, so what William Marsters said was law.
William Marsters I (Jane’s Great Grandfather) was the founder of Palmerston. He was married to a lady from Tongareva named Sarah(whom my Grandmother is descended from). He brought Sarah, her cousin Tepou, and his friend’s wife, Matavia to the island. It is from these women the three families of William Marsters are descended.
My Grandmother’s childhood could not have been more different from mine.
I do not remember anything that happened to change my life as drastically as something like a hurricane might have. I mainly worried about things that I wanted, but couldn’t have. So doing this research paper really made me think about how hard some people have it, and I realised just how trivial my problems had been.
Yet, the Palmerston Islanders did not seem to think it was such a big deal. They had storms that wiped out their whole island. They went without many staple foods and were abandoned by the other islands for almost four years. Their life on the island was hard, but they accepted what happened to them, and made the most of what they had.
It makes me wonder what I ever had to worry about.
What year were you born?
Where were you born?
When did the hurricane hit Palmerston?
What did you and your family do when you realised that a hurricane was coming?
How long did the hurricane last?
Did anyone on the island die?
How did the hurricane affect the island itself?
What did you eat and drink?
How did you cook?
After the hurricane, where did you live?
How did you light your home?
What sort of clothes did you wear?
What changes were made in the lifestyle of the islanders after the hurricane?
Who controlled the people on the island?
What sort of jobs did people do on the island to help get things back to normal?
What is your happiest memory of the time after the hurricane?
What is your saddest?
Did you go to school?
How old were you?
How long were you at school?
What were you taught?
A.S. Helm and W. H. Percival
Sisters in the Sun.
Great Britain 1973