SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
July 26, 2014
4° 24’ 48.00” S x 172° 11’ 07.20” W
Anchored off Orona
Orona is one of the more recently occupied Phoenix Islands, abandoned as recently as 2002. As far as the crew knows, the occupants left primarily due to mass reef fish poisoning and lack of copra (dried coconut), their primary export and source of income. The settlement initiative reflected a venture by the British Empire commenced some sixty years earlier. Sensing an imminent overpopulation crisis in the Gilbert Islands, British colonial officials planned to resettle as many as 1,100 Gilbertese to Orona once the initial pioneer settlement had become self-sufficient. All in all, the British hoped to establish a self-sufficient native population of more than 4,000 across four of the Phoenix Islands, including two other destinations of the Seamans, Nikumaroro and Kanton. However, the British never fully realized their goals, and the settlement initiative remains an exception in Western interactions with these peripheral islands.
Early Polynesians did not miss the Phoenix Islands in their defiant voyages, but the archaeological evidence indicates that they found them unfit for permanent habitation. The islands truly entered Western cognizance with the discovery of massive guano deposits in the 1850s. American corporations scoured the islands of their guano until the invention of synthetic fertilizers, abandoning them again in the 1870s. Then followed the period of British management and Gilbertese settlement, during which PanAm used Kanton lagoon as a stop for their transpacific seaplanes. The U.S. military appropriated Kanton during WWII, after which PanAm returned, at most shuttling 12,000 passengers through the island per year. With the advent of non-stop Pacific flights, the islands stood empty until the 1960s when NASA established a monitoring station on Kanton, which the U.S. military eventually replaced with a missile monitoring station. American interests retreated in advance of Kiribati independence in 1979, and the caretakers on Kanton have comprised the main presence in the archipelago ever since.
In many ways, the history of the Phoenix Islands mirrors that of innumerable other places distant to European and American centers of power. It is a history written in rust and ruin across the archipelago, with shipwrecks below and all manner of detritus above. Walking along the main road of Kanton you see evidence of American indifference to the fate of the island. Aviators, soldiers, and engineers alike seem to have left every piece of failed or rendered useless equipment exactly where they tired of it. Any partially dismantled buildings were likely scavenged for useful materials by current inhabitants or merely collapsed after decades of unmitigated exposure. In short, like so many other peripheral places, the Phoenix Islands were used, abused, and discarded without any consideration paid to those who would inherit them.
Abused though they may be, damage visited directly upon the Phoenix Islands by humans remains small. Most of the metal will rust away, and the caretakers on Kanton cleverly incorporate American leftovers into their daily lives. Moreover, the people of Kiribati have rejected the heritage of exploitation, instead opting for the longer view by creating PIPA and the Pacific Oceanscape. Our survey of this unique place continues as we set out for Winslow and Nikumaroro tomorrow.
P.S. Special shout-out to my undeniable Fasta and everyone else Stateside. Varma hälsningar till folket i hembygden och intilliggande socknar. Ni vet vilka ni är!