Crescent Island

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Crescent Islanders trace their heritage to a select group of British Merchant Ship deck hands and a small group of Mangarevans.

Our history begins around 1760.  According to our oral history, a small party of sailors were left of Mangareva at their own request, after a British vessel visited our homeland, Mangareva, the primary island in the Gambier group, now a part of French Polynesia.

These men quickly befriended several of the young local ladies and a few of the young men.  It is told they became an unruly bunch, usurping the authority of the Chiefs that governed the island.  This became a disruption to the peaceful island community and a decision was made by the island authorities that their very presence threatened the entire community.

The authorities felt there was no other choice except to sacrifice the troublemakers by sending them to sea on a makeshift raft.  This was a death sentence for the accused.  Surely the hot tropical sun and lack of food would spell a certain grim fate for the unlucky party.  With any luck, the raft would suffer from the endless wave motion, sending all into the seas until their lack of strength caused then to suffer their intended fate.

The gods would have none of this, however.  The currents guided the raft safely to a small atoll not far from Mangareva.  Today this island is called Temoe, the nearest neighbor to Mangareva.  The raft broke apart of the sharp coral reef and the lot, clearly near death’s door struggled to find the strength to pull themselves to a small islet in the atoll.  

The book Polynesia Voyagers.  The Maori as a Deep Sea Navigator, Explorer, and Colonizer by Elsdon Best, Dominion Museum, 1923, Wellington states:  

“In this manner was Crescent Island settled by a party of refugees from Mangareva.  Not possessing any canoes, these folks constructed rafts, whereon they trusted themselves to ocean currents. This occurred about one hundred and fifty years ago, and the traditions of Mangareva state that other such parties had left that isle in former times—left it in order to escape death, possibly to find it on the great water wastes of the Pacific.”

As the small group looked about, they found pandanus trees aplenty but nothing else. Still the pandanus nut was a good source of food.  The shallow clear waters of the extensive reef allowed one to pluck fish by hand.  Collecting rainwater would complete the necessities of life.  Thus, the hapless souls, facing certain death in a most gruesome manner, had beat the odds.  Even so, this spot of land was no paradise.

A quick survey of the island clearly demonstrated some of the essentials known to all on Mangareva were not found here.  No grass to weave clothing, no materials to make thatch.  No wood for building shelter or carving outriggers.  Food, water and the clothes on our backs were all our ancestors might claim, however it surely was a celebration compared to what had been the fate of most exiled from their home islands.  

Crescent Island had no name until some thirty years later.  Our oral history clearly recalls a ship flying the British flag attempting to send a party to shore.  The old men at the time feared the British had come to haul them away to be tried for crimes against the Crown as leaving your post on a merchant ship was not viewed in a positive light.  The islanders also knew foreigners brought sickness to many islands, so their appearance was met with an aggressive defense.  

The landing party had second thoughts when met by the full population of Crescent Island prepared for battle against the invaders.  The ship set sail for another locale, never sending the landing party.

From the book “The Universal Navigator and Modern Tourist” published in 1805 contains complete details of the first and second voyage of the S. S. Duff, a London Missionary Society vessel.  An account of the Captain, James Wilson, of the London Missionary Society’s S. S. Duff on May 25, 1797 details the island.  On page 193 the text begins:

On the 23rd of May they discovered land, and saw a low island, distant about five leagues, and a high hummock at a great distance; they made for the former and found it low and in the form of a crescent, with a lagoon in the middle, in which the sea broke in several parts of the south-west side, although no opening appeared that would admit a boat.  Perceiving it was inhabited, they manned the jolly-boat, in which was Otaheitean Tom, who dressed himself in a piece of his new cloth and as a means of ingratiating themselves with the natives, took beads, looking glasses and iron tools; with some English coin.  But on coming near the natives collected themselves in a body as to oppose their landing.  As they walked along the shore, the women followed with spears, which they shook in a threatening manner, and made signs for them to be gone.  Tom stood up, shewed them this skin, his cloth and tattoo marks; and spoke to them in his language, which they seemed not to understand.  Intent on their safety only, and the defence of the barren spot they inhabited, they acted as if their visitors were known enemies, and viewed them without curiosity and astonishment.  Finding all attempts to conciliate them had no effect, they returned to the ship, and hoisting up the boat, steered for the higher island, which bears from this W. N. W. about nine or ten leagues.

This was named Crescent Island on account of its form; it is six or seven miles in circumference and lies in lat. 23° 22’ S. long. 225° 30’ E.

There were many of the wharra trees upon it, and some others of a useless kind.  The shore is grey coral sand and stones thrown up by the violent sea, forming a wall at the south-east point, about twenty to thirty feet above the surface: on this point there were three piles of coral stones, two were built round and small, and one square, the sides of which might be twelve feet and six in height, with a hole at one end side seeming to creep in at.  

They counted twenty-five persons, including three or four women carrying children on their backs; and they supposed there were no more on the island.  They are of a light copper colour and of middling stature; they appeared to be a similarity in the accent of their language to the Otaheiteans, but the dashing of the sea against the shore prevented Tom from hearing so distinctly to understand them.  Some were quite naked, except for a cloth ‘round their middle; others had a large piece of cloth thrown across their shoulders, and reaching half way down the leg; one, perhaps was the chief, wore a piece of very white cloth round his head in the form of a turban.

It was difficult to imagine of what they subsisted,  as there was neither bread-fruit, cocoa-nuts, nor any fruit-tree, nor could they with the whole island in view, see one canoe wherewith to fish.”

It would be a few years before another group would challenge Crescent Islanders from the sea.  This would be the vessel aboard which Pastor Nobbs of Pircairn Island was a passenger.  This visitor would be met on friendly terms.

Pastor Nobbs recorded in his diary this expert found in the book Pitacirn Island by David Silverman published by World Publishing Company in 1967:

“a small lagoon sand bank called Crescent Island…we learned their ancestors had been forced from Mangareva on a raft some 50 or 60 years previous.  “They seemed quite satisfied with their lot, although the only articles of food they could obtain were squid, and small fish taken in the holes of the coral reef, and the kernels of the nut of the pandanus or screw-palm, which is the only tree or vegetable growing on their sand bank.”  

As Pastor Nobbs journeyed on to Mangareva, he related the visit to the Chiefs on Mangareva and was requested to fetch the Crescent Islanders so they might be reunited with their ancestors.  A huge feast was awaiting the Crescent Islanders and they consumed so much that one actually died and others would have surely suffered the same fate had they not been purged from their over consumption.  

It is here the oral history of Crescent Island becomes blurred.  We know by the written historical record the islanders joined as one community but it seems the pressures of the larger society had many of Crescent Island longing for their home.  

We know two Catholic Missionaries had or would shortly arrive.  These men were seen as gods by the Mangarevans.  First, a woman known to predict future events through her dreams had told of men with pale skin, being gods, would come to the island. Long after her demise this did happen and her dream was recalled by the Chiefs who chose to test the pale skinned men by threatening them with certain death.  The pale skinned men then prayed, putting up no defense, leading the Chiefs to conclude their lack of fear of death certainly meant they were gods.  Thus, the Chiefs submitted themselves and their authority to the pale skinned men.

These pale skinned men quickly assembled the whole population and recruited the inhabitants of every nearby island, taught the Christian faith to one and all and set upon making Mangareva a showplace of civilized Christian man, subjecting the population to sixteen hour days of work with the seventh day reserved for rest and worship of God.  The culture and lifestyle of the population was banned at the threat of punishment.  The concept was work and sleep with non-work and waking hours solely centered on the worship of God was the only way to rid oneself from the pagan lifestyle.  What obviously seemed a good idea to the islanders quickly became a prison where hard work, introduced disease, loss of identity and dismay overtook the population.

It was at this time, according to oral history, murmurs of a plan to return to Crescent Island was hatched.  A careful eye to the tides and clandestine meetings plus a work crew to construct a raft, hidden near the shoreline of a little visited spot was begun. As the plan proceeded, a time was set for those Crescent Islanders who had not died from illnesses or had been placed in the island’s prison to assemble with a stockpile of food, water, seed, tools and clothing.  By the light of the moon, the small group set sail, trusting the currents, after careful study, to guide them back to their home island.

Mother Nature had other plans for the sixteen men, women and children on that raft. Seven remaining Crescent Islanders were left behind for reason still unknown, perhaps by choice or possibly they were caught trying to escape; we will never know for certain.  A fierce storm, we  today think many have been a tropical storm, tormented the islanders but on the evening of the seventh day at sea a landing on what was certainly believed to be Crescent Island was made.

The next morning, this nearly identical island to the original Crescent Island, was planted in seed and the community set up so the islanders could again live their lives at peace and in harmony with the land and sea.  In fact, the original settlers died believing they had succeeded in landing on what is now known as Temoe.

It was not until the third generation of Crescent Islander learned from a passing vessel they were indeed not on the original Crescent Island.  Needless to say, the news had little affect on the people of the island.  After all, this was their home and they pined for no other place.

Life would continue quietly over the coming generations excepting for two times the island was awash by waves from tropical systems coming close to the island and the threat of overpopulation which was controlled by edict of the Fono.  

In the early 1960s, a small vessel manned by only a few hands discovered us.  Their vessel was a yacht. They brought food, smiles, friendship and certain odd things our people had never seen.  The island was infatuated by the group who eagerly showed us their rig and explained living aboard.  It was a time of sorrow after they left buy in time they returned with many gifts for us and spent about a month telling of the world and sharing with us.  We were attentive students and adopted much of what they spoke of, in the classic Crescent Island way, of course.

In the years that followed more’ yachties’ would come to find Crescent Island.  In time we would begin to order tins to supplement our diet from a food store in the city of Houston, in the United States of America.  We would forge new friendships and join the world in as much as Crescent Island might be afforded to join considering our remote location.  We would become a regular stop for the more adventurous yachties pining the oceans. 

We continue to reach out today to the world about us in the name of friendship.  We look forward to hearing from you.  

From that friendship has come education, health and emergency benefits and more. We are indeed blessed by each friendship and from each has been an outpouring of abundance we feel we can never repay.  Our hearts belong to you, our friends and we long for your next visit with glee and expectation.