Category Archives: Pacific

Kubary: From Naturalist to Land Grabber in the German Pacific

From Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871–1883, trans. & ed. by C.L. Sentinella (Madang, PNG: Kristen Pres, 1975), pp. 324-329:

The administration of the Kompanie on the Maclay Coast was put in the hands of a certain Herr Kubary, a Polish national of Hungarian origin with a British passport which he had acquired while on a brief visit to Sydney. He had spent many years in Micronesia as an ornithologist and naturalist collecting for German museums. He had been collecting very successfully in the Caroline Islands for the Museum fuer Voelkerkunde in Berlin when in September, 1885, his contract with the museum was suddenly terminated for the flimsiest of reasons, leaving him stranded on the island of Yap. It is difficult to believe that this sudden loss of his livelihood was accidental. It seems more probably that this was manipulated by the German foreign office. The dismissal notice had come with the visit to Yap of a German warship, the Albatross, which was in the Pacific for the specific purpose of planting the German flag on the various islands of the Carolines. Kubary was offered employment as interpreter and guide on the Albatross, and for this he was ideally suited as there was no one with a more intimate knowledge of this area of the Pacific. Stranded in Yap as he was, he had little choice but to accept.

After the islands had been formally annexed by Germany, Kubary and his family, consisting of a half-caste wife and two children, were landed at Matupit [Rabaul] in New Britain, where he was put in charge of a plantation. After a time, he was transferred to take charge of the Neu Guinea Kompanie possessions in Astrolabe Bay [now in Madang Province] and he established himself in Bongu. Later he was transferred a few miles up the coast to Bogatim when the administration headquarters was transferred from Finschhafen. The latter had been abandoned, more or less in panic, as a result of the fearful mortality from tropical diseases among the Kompanie officials there.

Herr Kubary, who boasted that he was “the Lord God of Astrolabe Bay,” proceeded ruthlessly with the acquisition of land in pursuance of the policy of the Neu Guinea Kompanie for the expansion of plantations. The Kompanie was quite unscrupulous in its methods of acquiring land. The officials superficially inspected large areas which appeared suitable, sometimes merely climbing a tree and inspecting with binoculars, and then displaying a quantity of European goods — axes, knives, beads, cloth, etc. — they offered to purchase the land. The natives, not understanding what was really involved, appeared to agree, and a document was drawn up only vaguely defining the area and magnanimously excluding the village and an undefined piece of land for native cultivation. Each adult male member of the village or villages was required to touch the pen before his name was appended to the document. By such methods the Kompanie became the “legal” owners of vast areas of land, although it was many years before any actual survey was made. In a similar way Kubary acquired large areas around Bogadjim for a few axes and some tobacco. The level fertile land behind Gorendu and Gumbu was soon taken from the natives right up to the Gabenau River, leaving the natives of those villages without land for cultivation. Bongu was somewhat more fortunate in that the land was not so level but had a series of rather steep ridges running down in the direction of the sea and was therefore not so acceptable for Kompanie plantations. The Gorendu and Gumbu people, face with lack of garden land, had to turn to Bongu land and ultimately were compelled to be aggregated with Bongu village, where their descendants live to the present day, still retaining their Gorendu and Gumbu identity.

The concept of individual ownership and free disposal of land was quite an alien one to the natives, and, in any case, they themselves did not own this land. They had been granted the right to use it for cultivation purposes and to dig for clay for pottery-making for which they were famous.

Kubary was discharged from the Kompanie in 1895 and went back to Ponape in the Caroline Islands. It seems to be in the nature of poetic justice that the right to his own plantation on Ponape was disputed, and while on a visit to the Spanish authorities in Manila to appeal for his rights, the plantation was completely devastated in a native uprising against the Spaniards.

In Astrolabe Bay, Kubary left a legacy that was the cause of unending trouble for the German authorities. The natives had been warned by Maclay that white men might come who would not be like him and were not to be trusted, but he also warned that to resist them by force would be hopeless and would only invite disaster. Now, faced with white men whose behaviour at best was unpredictable and often baleful, the only alternative seemed to be to offer as little cooperation as possible without displaying any open hostility.

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Filed under Australia, disease, economics, Germany, Micronesia, migration, Papua New Guinea, science

Russian–Papuan First Encounter, 1871

From Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871–1883, trans. & ed. by C.L. Sentinella (Madang, PNG: Kristen Pres, 1975), pp. 17-20:

As I was approaching the hut I heard a rustle and, on glancing round in the direction from which it came, some paces away I saw a man standing as if rooted to the ground. He glanced for a second in my direction and then dashed into the bushes. I went after him, almost at a run, waving a piece of red cloth which I found in my pocket. Looking back, seeing that I was alone and completely unarmed, and that I was making signs to him to approach, he stopped. I slowly approached the savage, silently offering him the red cloth, which he took with obvious pleasure and bound round his head.

He was a Papuan of medium size, of a dark chocolate colour with dull black somewhat curly hair, short like a negro’s, with a broad flat nose, and eyes looking out from under overhanging brow ridges, and a large mouth, almost, however, covered by a bristling moustache and beard. His entire costume consisted of a rag about 8 inches wide, tied firstly in a kind of girdle and drawn down between the legs and attached to the girdle from behind. Two lightly-bound bands of plaited dry grass were placed above the elbows. On one of these bands or bracelets was stuck a green leaf of Piper betel, in the other on the left side was a kind of knife, made of a smooth sharpened piece of bone (a cassowary bone, as I afterwards found out). The savage was well-built, and with a well-built musculature. The facial expression of this, the first of my new acquaintances, seemed quite engaging. I somehow thought that he would obey me, and I took him by the hand, and not without some resistance led him back to the village. At the open space I found my servants Ohlsen and Boy, who were looking for me, and were at a loss as to where I had gone. Ohlsen presented my Papuan with a piece of tobacco—which, however, be did not know what to do with—and silently taking it he thrust it behind the bracelet on his right arm, beside the betel leaf.

Whilst we were standing in the middle of the village, from amongst the trees and bushes, savages began to appear, uncertain whether to approach, and ready at any minute to turn in flight. They were silent and stationary, remaining at a respectful distance but closely watching our movements. Since they would not move, I had to take each one separately by the hand and, in the full sense of the word, drag them into our circle. Finally, having gathered them all in one place, tired out, I sat down among them on a stone, and proceeded to distribute various trifles—beads, nails, fish hooks, and strips of red cloth. They obviously did not know the significance of the nails and hooks, but not one of them refused to accept them.

Around me were gathered eight Papuans. They were of varying sire and showed some, although very insignificant, differences. The colour of the skin did not vary much. The sharpest contrast with the type of my first acquaintance was a man, rather taller than the average size, lean, with a hook-shaped prominent nose and a very narrow forehead pressed in on the sides. His beard and moustache were shaved, and on his head towered a sort of hat of reddish-brown hair, from under which, hanging down on the neck, were twisted plaits of hair, exactly like the tube-shaped curls of the inhabitants of New Ireland. These curls hung behind the ears, down onto the shoulders. Two bamboo combs were sticking out of the hair, one of which, thrust into the back of his head, was decorated with some black and white feathers (cassowary and cockatoo) in the shape of a fan. Some large tortoise shell rings were inserted in his ears, and in the nasal partition a bamboo rod was inserted; the thickness of a very large pencil, it had a pattern carved on it. On his neck, in addition to the necklace of the teeth of dogs and other animals and shells, hung a small bag. On the left shoulder hung another bag reaching down to the waist and filled with various articles.

The upper part of the arm of this native, as of all those present, was tightly bound with plaited bracelets in which were thrust various objects, some of bone, others were leaves or flowers. Some of them had a stone axe slung on their shoulder, some were holding a bow in their hands of considerable size (almost the length of a man) and an arrow more than a metre long. Their hair styles were also different with different colours of the hair, some completely black, others decorated with red clay, some had the hair worn like a hat on the head, and others had it cropped short, while still others had the previously described ringlets hanging round their neck—but all were curly like a negro’s. The hair on the chin was wound in small spirals. There were minor differences in the skin colour. The younger were lighter than the old.

Of these eight Papuans of my first meeting, four appeared sick. Two had legs disfigured by elephantiasis, and one was an interesting case of psoriasis, which had spread over his entire body. The back and neck of the fourth was studded with boils, which formed large, hard protuberances and on his face were several scars, probably of previous such boils.

As the sun was already setting I decided, in spite of the interest of my first observations, to return to the corvette. The whole crowd accompanied me to the beach carrying presents; coconuts, bananas and two very wild piglets, whose legs were tightly bound and who squealed untiringly, all were placed in the boat. In the hope of more firmly strengthening the good relations with the natives and also with the idea of showing my new acquaintances to the officers of the corvette, I suggested to those surrounding me to accompany me to the corvette in their pirogues. After prolonged discussion five men got into two pirogues, the others remained and even, it seemed, strenuously tried to dissuade the courageous ones from their bold and risky undertaking. One of the pirogues I took in tow and we made towards the Vityaz. Halfway, however, the bolder ones had thought it over, and by signs indicated that they did not wish to go further and tried to release the tow rope. At the same time the other pirogue quickly turned back to the shore. One of the men sitting in the pirogue which we were towing behind us even tried to cut through the tow-line with his stone axe. It was only with extreme difficulty that we succeeded in dragging them on deck. Ohlsen and Boy took them up the ship’s ladder practically by force. On deck I took the “prisoners” by the arm and led them down to the quarter-deck. Their whole bodies trembled with fear, and it was only with my support that I could keep them on their legs, supposing, probably, that I was going to murder them. Meanwhile it had grown quite dark and lamps were brought and gradually the savages grew calm. They even brightened up when the officers brought them various objects and treated them to tea, which they drank up straight away. In spite of such a friendly reception they were obviously pleased to go, and went down the ladder with great haste to their pirogue, and quickly rowed back to the village.

On the corvette they told me that, in my absence, natives again appeared and brought with them two dogs, which they killed and whose carcasses they left as a kind of gift on the beach.

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Spain and Russia as Frontier Empires

From Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, 2013), Kindle Loc. 418-486:

Spain and Russia were medieval Europe’s marcher kingdoms. Spain held the North African Moors at bay in the west, while in the east Russia battled the Mongols and their successors, the Muslim Tatars. Both Spain and Russia, as a result of the demands of centuries of military effort, remained more autocratic, more religious and more deeply feudal than their less-threatened continental neighbours. But both Madrid and Muscovy were richly rewarded for their struggles against the infidel in the form of vast unexplored lands full of worldly riches. Divine providence gave Spain the New World – or so Spain’s Most Catholic monarchs believed. Likewise Russia’s most Orthodox Tsars were convinced that their divine reward was Siberia, whose boundless natural resources funded the emergence of Muscovy as a European power, and forms the foundation of Russia’s oil wealth today.

The grand princes of Muscovy had had dreams of empire since 1472, when Ivan III married Zoë Paleologina, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XII. Zoë brought not only her double-headed eagle coat of arms to Muscovy but also the idea that Moscow could be the successor to her fallen Byzantine homeland – a third Rome. Russia’s expansion to the west was blocked by the powerful kingdom of Poland-Lithuania and the Baltic trading cities of the Hanseatic League. But to the east the power of the Mongol-Tatars was weakening.

It was Zoë’s grandson Ivan the Terrible who decisively turned the balance of power on Christendom’s eastern flank when he took the Tatar capital of Kazan in 1553. Ivan crowned himself caesar – in Russian, tsar – in recognition of his conquest. In 1556 he pushed his armies south along the Volga and annihilated the southern Tatars in their stronghold at Astrakhan. At a stroke Ivan had made the Volga, the great southern artery of European Russia, into a Muscovite river, opening trade to the Caspian and beyond to Persia.

The capture of Kazan had also given Muscovy easy access to the Kama River, the Urals and the riches of Siberia itself. At the same time Europeans in search of furs and a north-east passage to China began arriving at the Arctic village of Kholmogory – later known as Arkhangelsk – at the mouth of the Northern Dvina River. The first was Richard Chancellor, head of the English Muscovy Company, London’s first chartered company of merchant adventurers, who visited in 1553.

Meanwhile Spain’s conquests in distant America were transforming the economy of Europe with a huge influx of gold. Northern Europe was also undergoing a boom in trade and manufacture centered on wool-cloth. With this new prosperity came a burgeoning demand for luxury goods from the East, particularly for the sixteenth century’s two greatest luxuries – spices and furs. Portuguese and English seafarers were driven to prodigies of navigation and discovery by the search for high-value spices – particularly peppercorns, nutmeg and allspice – to flavour the foods of the wealthy. In the same way Russian adventurers drove ever deeper into Siberia in search of the fox, sable and marten with which the rising merchant classes of Europe trimmed their clothes.

Fur, in a cold and poorly heated world, was not only a symbol of wealth but also a bringer of comfort and, in the case of Russia, literally a lifesaver. Fine furs were staggeringly valuable. In 1623 one Siberian official reported the theft of ‘two black fox pelts, one worth 30 rubles the other 80’. The thief could have bought himself fifty Siberian acres, a cabin, five good horses, ten cows and twenty sheep on the proceeds, and still have had some of his ill-gotten money left over. No wonder painters of the new bourgeoisie, from Jan van Eyck in the Netherlands to Sebastiano del Piombo in Rome, painted their subjects’ sable collars in such loving detail. They were often worth more than the artist could hope to make in years.

Siberian fur transformed Muscovy from a minor principality on the fringes of Europe into a great power. In 1595 Tsar Boris Godunov had so much of it that he sent Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II fur in lieu of military assistance against the Turks. Boris’s tribute was a dazzling show of Russia’s new wealth. The 337,235 squirrel skins and 40,360 sables, as well as marten, beaver and wolf skins Boris sent took up twenty rooms of Prague Castle. At the beginning of the seventeenth century ‘soft gold’ accounted for up to a third of Muscovy’s revenues. Without the Siberian fur rush, the wealth it brought and the vertiginous territorial expansion that it drove, the Russia of Peter the Great would have been unimaginable.

Like the Spanish captains of the New World or the seafarers of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the conquistadors of Siberia were essentially pirates licensed by the Russian crown. The Stroganovs, a trading dynasty from the Hanseatic city-state of Novgorod, which had been incorporated into Muscovy in 1478, financed the first fur-trapping expeditions into the uplands of the Urals and pioneered the use of licensed privateers. In April 1558 Ivan the Terrible gave Anikei Stroganov rights over five million acres of Urals forest, effectively making him viceroy of the unexplored territory responsible for its development and security. Beyond the Urals, however, lay the Tatar khanate of Sibir, an obstacle both to obtaining furs and to the expansion of the Tsar’s dominion.

In 1577 the Stroganovs recruited a young buccaneer named Yermak Timofeyevich. Yermak was a scion of a family of notorious river pirates who had plied the middle Volga but had found themselves out of business with the fall of Kazan and the establishment of Muscovite control over the great river. With his band of professional – and temporarily jobless – marauders Yermak headed eastwards, pushed deep into Tatar territory and in 1580 took Sibir. To placate the Tsar for taking such a step without royal permission, Yermak sent a vast haul of 2,500 sables to Moscow. Ivan was suitably impressed. In return for his gift, he made Yermak Muscovy’s viceroy in Siberia – just as Yermak’s former employer Stroganov had become lord of the Urals. Yermak also received a handsome suit of armour from the Tsar, which was to prove his undoing five years later as he attempted to swim away from a Tatar ambush but was drowned by his heavy breastplate.

Yermak was a Cossack, one of a growing community of men who had fled serfdom in Poland, Livonia and Muscovy and sought freedom in the no-man’s-land of the mid-Volga and the south-east steppes of European Russia. Cossacks were a social caste, not a racial or national group. Their freedom was a precarious one because of the regular Tatar slaving expeditions which filled the markets of Constantinople with hundreds of thousands of new Slavic captives every year. Moscow itself had been raided and burned by Khan Devlet Giray of Crimea as recently as 1571, and the Crimean Khanate would not be finally subdued until the reign of Catherine the Great in 1783. Ivan the Terrible, borrowing the Stroganovs’ methods, was the first tsar to harness these outlaws to the service of the state. In the absence of any natural boundaries to his fledging empire, Ivan offered the Cossacks freedom from serfdom and a licence to exploit native peoples in exchange for their service as guardians of Russia’s eastern and southern borderlands.

The Tsar organized the Cossacks into ‘hosts’, a military and administrative term for a tribe of armed colonists who could be instantly turned into a military force. The names of the successive hosts is a chronicle of Russia’s growing empire – Don, Kuban, Terek, Asktakhan, Ural, Orenburg, Siberian, Turkestan, Transbaikal, Amur, Ussuri. The Cossack sotni, or hundreds, elected leaders known as atamany, and when the host was not in state service it was free to explore – and maraud – on its own account.

These Cossacks were tough men. ‘I believe such men for hard living are not under the Sunne, for no cold will hurt them,’ wrote Richard Chancellor of the men he saw on the northern Dvina in 1553. ‘Yea and though they lye in the field two monthes at such times as it shal freeze more than a yard thicke the common soldier hath neither tent nor anything else over his head.’ Of the three drivers of Russia’s eastward expansion – the quest for security against the Tatars, a consciousness of its imperial destiny as the inheritor of Byzantium and the adventurous avarice of Cossacks – it was the last which was by far the most potent.

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Filed under economics, Latin America, migration, military, North America, Pacific, religion, Russia, Spain

Okinawans Before the Battle, 1945

From Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, by George Feifer (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 63-64, 74-75:

Okinawa’s problems included an internal caste system and vigorous snobbery. As most Japanese looked down at most Okinawans, rich Okinawans, especially from the cities, tended to look down at farming villagers, who did the same to inhabitants of the smaller Ryukyu islands. More painfully, there was overcrowding. The island’s southern third, where by far the hardest fighting would take place, was over four times more densely populated than Rhode Island. This would contribute to the coming battle’s extraordinary toll in civilian deaths, as it had contributed to centuries of poverty. “When you come to Okinawa,” a folk song advised, “please wear straw shoes” – for the coral was as hard on bare feet as it was to cultivation. The majority of the population eked out their existence on thin, harsh soil. Nature took away almost as much as it gave. The chronicle of natural disasters, especially crop-ruining, house-flattening typhoons, reads like the drum rolls of a dirge to a little people also regularly decimated by drought, plague and famine. “The whole fragile, minuscule structure survived throughout the centuries at bare subsistence level,” a Western historian summarized. No threat to anyone, the patch of meager land would never be a prize, except for its strategic position in other nations’ plans.

Poverty remained widespread in 1944. It was rooted in subtropical lassitude, agricultural backwardness and the typhoons that regularly ravaged housing and crops. The 1940 population, about 475,000 before the battle in 1945, owned 250 motor vehicles, one to every two thousand persons. A quarter were busses. In “poor” Japan, which felt compelled to seize other people’s land, the average farmer farmed five tan, about one and a quarter acres. It was two tan on Okinawa, and per capita income was about half the mainland average.

Farmers usually went without shoes. They planted their tiny fields chiefly with sugar cane, most of the crop now going to the mainland’s war-economy alcohol, and with sweet potatoes. The blessed sweet potato, which had arrived on a seventeenth-century ship returning from delivering tribute to the Chinese court, remained the mainstay of the “poor man’s” diet. A naval research unit that would analyze soil samples after the American landing first discovered that “Okinawa’s earth was made of sweet potatoes – everywhere we dug.” Next, it found the fields were “generously fertilized with nightsoil – a rich source … of typhoid and paratyphoid bacilli, which a month later [in May 1945, when the fighting was most severe] produced a mild outbreak among our troops.”

Despite great hunger for farmland, much of the island remained untilled. The mountain soil was too thin, large tracts wre covered with sand and thousands of coral escarpments had no covering at all – thus an even more intense cultivation of the arable land. Although private ownership had replaced an ancient system of common ownership, a long history of village responsibility for the common welfare bound the little hamlets, also tightly linked by family ties, in a deep sense of cooperation and community obligation.

Bean soup, a few garden vegetables and very occasional pork and fish provided relief from the sweet potatoes. Rice was a luxury for many farmers. They considered rain good weather, since water was scarce despite heavy annual rainfall, most of which ran off the coral. But there was much laughter and song. There was an easygoing attitude toward one’s time on earth, far easier than in intense, driven mainland Japan.

Perhaps the most salient contrast with the Japanese was in the attitude toward life and death. Okinawans revered their ancestors but not as warriors. The most noticeable man-made feature of the landscape was the great number of tombs. The earliest had been in caves that honeycombed the island. Later, when aboveground structures were constructed, most families spent as much money and effort as possible on the dwelling place for all eternal spirits. One of the two most prominent designs was shaped like a little house, often built into a hill unsuited for cultivation. The other, probably imported later from China, looked like a turtle’s back, the turtle being a symbol of long life – or, as many had it, a vagina opening into a womb, the idea being that all return to their source after their earthly passage. The Okinawan versions had a oddly gentle beauty. A visiting artist was surprised by the “extraordinary fine shape” of even the poor farmers’ efforts.

The family tomb was the site for picnics and holidays. Three years after death, the bones of the decomposed body were washed, then placed in a beautifully colorful ceramic urn inside the tomb for thirty-three years, when a memorial service was held and the now floating spirits were venerated – but with no glorification of death, let alone hunger to serve or sacrifice for a nationalist cause….

Stunning Japanese victories from 1931 to 1941 did convince many Okinawans that Japan, not Okinawa, was indeed divine and destined to rule the world. Until then, then had long been skeptical of nationalist ambitions and military methods, and had felt much good will toward the United States in particular. Many of the sixty thousand Ryukyuans who emigrated by 1930 were in Argentina, the Japanese mainland and Brazil … But many went to Hawaii and California. The savings sent back from their chiefly laboring wages there represented riches to their families.

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Filed under Argentina, Brazil, food, Japan, migration, military, nationalism, Pacific, religion, U.S., war

Wordcatcher Tales: Babanuki, Shinkan, Yashizake

Initially spurred by finding the names of two couples killed in Saipan during the Pacific War on an Okinawan family tombstone in the Mo‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery, I just finished reading a novelized war story about the Saipan campaign, Oba, the Last Samurai, by Don Jones (Jove, 1988), a book passed on to me by an old friend with long Micronesia ties. It contained a few Japanese words of interest.

ババ抜き babanuki (lit. ‘granny-draw’) ‘Old Maid‘. As soon as I read that this was a children’s card game, I knew it must mean the game called Old Maid in English (and a variety of interesting names in other languages).

神官 shinkan (lit. ‘god-manager’) is an older term for ‘Shinto priest’, the person who serves as caretaker of a Shinto shrine and officiates at Shinto rites there. The more common term nowadays seems to be 神主 (native Japanese) kannushi or (Sino-Japanese) jinshu lit. ‘god-master’, or 神職 shinshoku lit. ‘god-employee’. These days, it is very rarely a full-time job.

椰子酒 yashizake (lit. ‘coconut/palm-sake’) ‘palm wine, coconut toddy’. On Saipan, this would almost certainly be coconut toddy, and not some other kind of palm wine, but the author only describes it as derived from a native plant, without mention of coconuts.

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Era of Maritime Polynesian Pidgin

I’ve lately been reading several books in paper, the most recent being Language Contact in the Early Colonial Pacific: Maritime Polynesian Pidgin before Pidgin English, by Emanuel J. Drechsel (Cambridge U. Press, 2014). When I heard about it, I immediately went to order it from Amazon, but the hardcover is listed at $99 and the Kindle version listed for $79, so I resorted to borrowing a copy from the University of Hawai‘i Library’s Hawaiian & Pacific Collection. However, Cambridge UP’s website does offer a free download of a Maritime Polynesian Pidgin Vocabulary listing (pdf).

It’s a dense work. The author, an expert in two North American trade pidgins, Chinook Jargon in the Northwest and Mobilian Jargon in the Southeast, relies on a combination of ethnohistorical and philological methods to reconstruct Maritime Polynesian Pidgin, which served as a lingua franca during the early period of regular Western trade with islands in the Pacific. During this era, from the 1760s into the 1860s, powerful chiefs controlled critical resources on the larger Pacific Island groups, especially water, food, timber, and manpower. Pacific Islands also supplied bêche-de-mer and sandalwood for the China trade. Polynesians were highly valued as sailors on Western ships, whose crews were frequently depleted by disease and desertion. Polynesians could not only handle boats, they could also swim, unlike many European and American sailors in those days.

Moreover, the Polynesian languages spoken in the principal island groups during the early trading and whaling era—Tahiti, the Marquesas, Hawai‘i, and New Zealand—were similar enough that Polynesians were also recruited as interpreters during negotiations with island chiefs. Their Maritime Polynesian Pidgin was later supplanted by English-based and French-based pidgins during the era of settler colonization and plantation economies.

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Writing Consonant Symbols for Vowels

New orthographies for Pacific Island languages have had very mixed results. I’ve blogged about some of the less successful attempts at new orthographies in Micronesia: for Yapese and Marshallese. By contrast, the first Hawaiian orthography, developed by missionaries, proved enormously successful, leaving a huge legacy of Hawaiian-language publications now being digitized and translated.

I recently came across another new orthography in a Pacific language that looks bizarre to people who read widely in Latin-based alphabets, but that seems to work for the 4,000 or so people who speak Natqgu, a language in the Reefs-Santa Cruz islands off the southeastern end of the Solomon Islands. A local language committee revised an earlier orthography that was difficult to type because it relied on diacritics to distinguish 10 vowel positions, plus distinctive nasalization on a few of them. Fortunately, they didn’t need all the plain consonant symbols on standard keyboards so they decided to substitute consonant symbols for the diacritic-laden vowels and mark nasalization with a trailing apostrophe.

Language Project advisor Brenda Boerger describes the local committee’s thinking in Natqgu literacy: Capturing three domains for written language use in Language Documentation & Conservation 1 (2007): 126–153:

But by the mid-1990s, when Wurm’s [diacritic-dependent] Natqgu orthography had been in use for over ten years, there had still been little increase in vernacular literacy. So the local community was again asked by the Natqgu Language Project to consider modifying the orthography in order to eliminate the diacritics. This time there was sufficient support for it, and with the consent of the leader who had had reservations, the language group decided to change the orthography. Their reasons were primarily two-fold. The first was exactly what was reported above. That is, speakers continued to find it difficult to learn to read and write Natqgu, apparently as a result of their lack of experience in identifying the letters with diacritics as separate symbols and sounds from those without. Their second reason was related to producing printed materials. Typing the diacritics demanded a special typewriter with at least a tilde. The double quote mark was often used in place of the umlaut. For vowels with both an umlaut and a tilde, it was necessary for the typist to scroll the paper slightly, so that the tilde would be over the umlaut (double quote mark). Typing was tedious, and the end result was not the clean copy normally expected for printed texts. Furthermore, no printing business in the Solomons at that time was able to typeset text with the Natqgu diacritics.

Since the earlier language committee had become inactive, an ad hoc orthography committee composed of leaders literate in Natqgu was formed to make the change. They discussed a number of possible ways to modify the alphabet. For each proposal a paragraph was printed so the committee members could see text in the revised orthography. One proposal included using digraphs to replace the letters with diacritics. Another pattern suggested digraphs, which had Natqgu attempting to follow English pronunciation and spelling conventions, by representing /ə/ as uh and /a/ as ah. However, since this went against the convention for most languages in the world, including Pijin and other Solomons vernaculars, all of which represent /a/ as a, this alternative was rejected. As other digraphs were examined, the committee quickly rejected them all. They realized that not only would using digraphs add to the length of words, but that the added length would also make them even more difficult to read, especially since three of the vowels with diacritics occurred most frequently.

Table 4. Vowel Equivalences in the Old and New Natqgu Orthographies [truncated here]
old = new = IPA
a = a = a
e = e = e
i = i = i
o = o = o
u = u = u
o = c = ɔ (open o)
ü = q = ʉ (barred U)
ö = r = ɞ (close reversed epsilon)
ä = x = æ
ë = z = ə

That situation left the committee with the “one sound, one symbol” alternative. As an advisor to the committee, I showed them orthographic and IPA vowel symbols from other languages in the world to consider as possibilities, some of which had the same disadvantages as the orthography with diacritics. They expressed a strong desire to stick to the letters they already recognized as symbols for written language — those on an English typewriter. As a consequence, they decided to represent the five diacritic vowels by using consonant letters from the English alphabet which were not necessary for writing Natqgu words. The inventory of possible letters was: c, f, h, q, r, x, and z. They rejected the use of f and h because, “Vowels should only be one space high,” leaving only five letters remaining for the five vowels under consideration. They compromised on the descending leg of q because, “Its body has the round shape like most vowels.” Assigning each vowel to a symbol was fairly straightforward. There was already the practice of writing /ɞ/ as ir, so leaving out the i seemed logical. The letter c was the mirror image of the open /o/ which they’d been shown. The pronunciation of the name of the letter q was similar to the sound of /ʉ/. And the name of x sounded almost like axe, which begins with the sound /æ/. That left z to represent /ə/. Thus, the spelling of Natügu became Natqgu, as in the majority of the relevant bibliographical references in this article. They also decided to represent phonemic nasalization with a straight apostrophe following the vowel symbol, so that it could be typed sequentially and no vowel would require a diacritic.

Given that there was little local identification with the old orthography, the new one was easily accepted, even though orthographies have been hotly disputed elsewhere in the Solomon Islands. Occasionally a leader from a more distant village would drop in and say, “I heard you changed our writing.” I countered that a committee of Natqgu speakers had made the change, and gave a quick lesson on how to read the new orthography, complete with a handout delineating the correspondences between the two orthographies and giving key words for each vowel. Each key word used the focus vowel twice. The handout contained the material in Table 4, minus the IPA symbols, and could be used to explain the changes to others.

A side benefit of the orthography change was the continued production of this half-page handout, which over the years took on a life of its own. The team eventually requested that it be the first page in all of our publications. People would regularly come to the door and say, “I want the vowels,” meaning they needed a copy of the pronunciation guide. These copies were simple and cheap to produce, so they could be given without charge. Having a copy of the vowel handout was the starting point for those who decided to informally teach a friend to read, and demonstrated their desire to use Natqgu in its written form, as well as its spoken one. I suggest that the “vowel paper” became so popular because it significantly increased the ease of access to Natqgu literacy using the new orthography, in part by eliminating the need for a teacher on the part of those already literate in English.

As reported in the next section, the most important result of adopting the new orthography has been that speakers are able to learn to read and write in it more easily, apparently because it is more intuitive to them.

The New Testament, Psalms, Ruth, and the Anglican Book of Worship have been translated into Natqgu in its new orthography. Here’s what Psalm 23 looks like in the new orthography.

Sam 23
Kxaolve Sip

Nabz ne Devet

1 Yawe, aolve-zvzq ninge apux sip nem.
X trtxpnz’ngr da kx mnctxpx-ngrneng.

2 Mailz-zvzq ninge me ycngr lue x dakxnzng,
Murde naamax mrgc tqycngr nrwx.

3 Amrnaq nzlu-krnge.
X aelwa-zvz-ngrme lrpzki kxtubq, murde drtqm tr zlwz.

4 Nctrko scm tzmle nzti bange.
X bz scm abrmle drtwrnge mz da kx prtz.

Kxmule-esz’ vztrx mz nzlo, a’ trtxpnz’ngr da kx namwx’lrtix.
Murde nim Yawe, kc tqmncme bange.

5 Alebzme nange dakxnzng,
X aelubzme narnge tolo,

Mz mzlir enqmi rngeng.
X drtwrnge elalzm.

6 Krlz-angidrx kx sa naka-zvzme bange zmrlz x nzokatr-krm,
X namnc-zvzx ma nyz’m.


Filed under language, Pacific, publishing, scholarship