One Pacific Island Sailor’s World

From Sailors and Traders: A Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples, by Alastair Couper (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009), pp. 6-7:

THE PACIFIC SAILOR who is waiting for a jumbo jet at Nadi International Airport in Fiji has been in transit for almost three days. He has travelled by local boat from his home island of Nanouti in Kiribati to Tarawa, the principal island of Kiribati, and from there by small plane to Fiji. He is bound for Townsville, Australia, via another flight from Sydney to rejoin a large bulk carrier as an AB (able-bodied seaman). The ship will probably be heading next for the United States. It is owned by a German company in Hamburg and flies the Liberian flag. This ship once again will be his home and workplace for the next twelve months.

A similar procedure is repeated in various ways throughout Oceania. Some eight thousand or so young men, and a very few young women, move from their home islands to world ports to join foreign-going ships. They are recruited as sailors by agencies of the global labor market and will be sailing worldwide on vessels carrying cargoes of raw materials, oil, chemicals, and consumer goods in containers. Rarely, if ever, will they sight their home islands during these trips.

The sailor from Kiribati was born on a small, flat coral atoll close to the equator (0°40′ S). The atoll is remote and only twenty-four miles long and ten miles wide. There are nine villages, with a total population of about 3,200. These are subject to drought conditions, when water and island foods are scarce, and survival has depended on sea resources. When growing up, the future sailor was never beyond the sound of the wind and sea, and at an early age he learned to swim, dive, sail, and fish. Few strangers would have come to his village. Only when an interisland vessel came through the boat pass and anchored in the lagoon to unload flour and other goods by workboat would there be any significant changes in the repetitive rhythm of daily life. The boat would load copra off the beach, which is the only cash product on Nanouti and can be depleted during droughts.

As a youngster, the I-Kiribati sailor would have known male relatives who returned on leave from foreign-going ships. They would tell sailors’ yarns and bring money, radios, perfumes, toys, and other attractive items. These were soon distributed within the extended family through the social obligations of bubuti (sharing on request). Some of the younger unmarried sailors would spend only the minimum time on leave at home. They preferred to return to the company of mariners from other islands who congregated in South Tarawa, with its cinema, cafes, bars, and girls and its distance from the rule of the old men and the eyes of the clergy on their home islands.

The Nanouti sailor is following in the footsteps of the itinerant sailors of the past. He is twenty-nine, has qualified at the Marine Training Centre in Tarawa, and has already served three years at sea. He is now a well-paid (by island standards) AB. His young wife and baby daughter have been left on Nanouti, where he has also left part of his personality. From now on, he will adapt to the ways of shipboard life, with its terminology known only to fellow seafarers, its discipline, and its food and customs. He has likewise been transformed in appearance. While on leave on his home island, he lived the relaxed life of a bare-bodied, barefoot villager in a wraparound lavalava. He is now wearing a T-shirt, blue jeans, a baseball cap, sunglasses, and an outsize pair of trainers. He carries a case and a bag, which contain shirts, pullover, socks, underwear, a woollen cap, a boilersuit, boots, shoes, hard hat, oilskins, and a knife, all previously supplied by the company.

Onboard discipline is exercised by a German captain and, on deck, three Polish officers. The engine room has similar numbers and nationalities in charge. The cook is from the Philippines; consequently, for the next twelve months he will not eat the “true food” of Kiribati—fish, coconut, and taro, supplemented by bread, rice, tinned meat, and on occasion pig and fowl. Instead the daily diet will be German and Polish dishes cooked by a Filipino. But he is happy that at least six other ratings [see nautical glossary entry below—J.] will be from the islands of Kiribati. He could of course have found himself in a much more ethnically diverse seagoing community. In any event he will be different in many respects from what he was on his home island.

The front matter includes a brief nautical glossary, which defines ratings thus:

Usually there are three departments on a cargo vessel: deck, engine, and catering. Each has three levels of crewings: officers, petty officers, and ratings. On-deck ratings comprise mainly ordinary seamen (OS) and able-bodied seamen (AB); in the engine room they are mainly motormen (MM), firemen, and greasers; and in catering, various assistants. Some of these designations have changed with technology and minimal crewing, but AB and MM have been retained.

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Filed under economics, migration, Pacific, travel

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