In July 1837, a ship sailed into Ngatik atoll near Pohnpei on a nefarious mission.
The ship was the trading cutter Lambton, out of Sydney, Australia, manned by the classic motley crew of runaways, villains, adventurers, and entrepreneurs–the sort who abounded in the European population of the Pacific in the early nineteenth century. Any of those words could describe the Lambton’s master, C. H. Hart. Hart had roamed the Western Pacific for years, making his way by a mix of fair trade and sly schemes. Hart traded Islanders beads and knives, guns and ammunition, tobacco, cloth, and rum, driving a hard bargain for the bêche-de-mer, pearl shell, and tortoiseshell that he loaded aboard the Lambton. Bêche-de-mer, sea cucumber, went to China for soup. The Chinese paid well for it, but it had to be boiled and cured in a foul, messy job. Collecting pearl shell, like processing bêche-de-mer, was labor intensive…. Tortoiseshell, from hawksbill turtles–that was the stuff. It was made into ladies’ combs and mirrors, decorated boxes, and knickknacks. The Victorian world, Far East and West, was wild for it, and hawksbill turtles were being decimated to fill the demand.
It took time and hard work to find the turtles, though they were easy enough to kill once you located them. But what Hart had, or thought he had, on the atoll called by its inhabitants Sapwuahfik (but by Hart “Ngatik,” and on navigational charts by a dozen other names) was a hoard of tortoiseshell without the trouble of work–except the work of taking it from the island’s people, who would, no doubt, object. They had objected when Hart’s crew first found the treasure trove of shell, more than a year earlier. Two of the Lambton’s men had gone inland and discovered a cache of turtle shell, but the Islanders would not sell and resisted theft. In fact, a group of men chased the sailors down to the beach, and the crew escaped by quick oar strokes. The Lambton returned to island trading and a trip to New South Wales, but Hart did not forget the shell, nor the close call he and his crew had experienced. Greed and revenge took root, and in Hart’s mind he marked Sapwuahfik for a return trip.
The Lambton sailed to the region again in mid-1836, arriving at Pohnpei Island in August, just after a group of whalers from the ship Falcon had been killed following an altercation with Pohnpei men. The Europeans in the area, Hart among the leaders, joined forces to take revenge, culminating in the murder of a Pohnpei nobleman. (By involving himself with these events, Hart made sure that his name went down on the list of persons to be investigated two years later by a British warship, HMS Larne, under Commander P. L. Blake. Blake was a thorough and principled investigator, cautious but relentless in his pursuit of evidence of criminal activity. Because of Blake we have a historical record of Hart’s crimes.)
After the Falcon incident, Hart went back to business, sailing between Guam, Manila, and Pohnpei. Then, on the last days of June or the first days of July 1837, he made ready for his return to Sapwuahfik–where, he said, he wished to “trade quietly” with the natives–by making cartridges and taking on extra hands from Pohnpei.
When he arrived at the atoll, Hart tried to land where he had landed before, but this time he was met with hostility. Sapwuahfik men beckoned them ashore, indicating their intentions with a display of their own weapons. The people of Sapwuahfik had known from divination when the ship would return; they had been watching, and when they saw it appear on the horizon, they prepared for war, readying clubs and slings.
Hart thought better of an immediate landing, taking the crew to spend the night on another islet of the atoll. The next day he loaded them into the ship’s boats for a straightforward assault. Despite the defenders’ preparations, the battle turned against them. In two days of fighting, every Sapwuahfik man but one was killed or fled by canoe. Though one woman was accidentally wounded, the invaders did not make targets of women and children.
Soon after the Lambton sailed from the atoll–which, now that the native voices were stilled, would be called Ngatik for more than a century–it returned to leave a group of Pohnpeians and a European in charge of what Hart saw as his conquered domain. The plan was to operate Ngatik as a business, producing tortoiseshell. They would bring in more settlers, marry the widows and girls of old Sapwuahfik, and see how much money they could make in this pretty place. So survivors and murderers began a curious interaction that would eventually produce a new population and a unique culture [and language]. Sapwuahfik’s history had come to an end. The story of Ngatik had just begun.
SOURCE: The Ngatik Massacre: History and Identity on a Micronesian Atoll, by Lin Poyer (Smithsonian, 1993), pp. 1-3