At the southern extremity of the northern group
of the Cook Islands is Suwarrow , a true atoll. There is no continuous
history of Polynesian habitation and therefore no traditional Polynesian
name for the island.Its first recorded
discovery was by a Russian ship, the "Suvorov" on
September 17 1814. The crew found the island to be uninhabited. However,
Europeans were certainly in residence over the previous several hundred
years because Suwarrow is a true treasure island on which chests of coins
have been found.
The atoll has one of the best harbors in the
Pacific. It is quadrilateral in shape and 50 miles (80 km) in
circumference. Its reef encloses a land-locked lagoon 12 miles (19 km) by
eight (13 km). Cyclones have often created waves which sweep right over
the atoll since its small component of land is extremely low-lying.
Suwarrow has a mysterious past. It was described
by Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson as "the most romantic island in the
world" . Although it is a tempting thought, it was not the model for
"Treasure Island" by her husband Robert Louis Stevenson, since
he knew nothing of Suwarrow when he wrote his famous book.
In the mid-19th century a ship out of Tahiti
carrying out salvage work on a wreck on Suwarrow's reef unearthed a box
containing $15,000 in coins. In 1876 a New Zealander, Henry Mair,
discovered silver pieces of eight in a turtle nest. The main find was
hastily covered again because of a fracas Mair was involved in and has
never yet been rediscovered. An interesting sidelight on Henry Mair is
that he was a relative of the well-known New Zealand Maori rights activist
of the mid-1990s, Ken Mair. The coins were from 100 years before, during
the period when the British navigator, George Anson, crossed the Pacific
in 1742 in the HMS "Centurion" after losing five ships in
a raid on Spanish shipping in the Pacific.
The main island was once covered with tall forest
and banyan trees which were cleared in the mid-1870s when excavations
uncovered stone walls and platforms, lime kilns, a flintlock, a musket and
a skeleton holding an iron bolt.
Theories abound on the origin of these remains.
For more than 250 years Spanish galleons crossed the Pacific from the west
coast of the Americas to the Philippines and back again. Most used a more
northerly route but it is entirely possible that some of these ships
wandered further south and were shipwrecked as a result of the violent
storms and cyclones common in these latitudes.
In 1565 the Spanish ship "San Lucas"
under the command of Alonso de Arellano, successfully completed the first
return trip from Mexico to the Philippines. This epic journey opened the
way for the Spanish to develop trade between the two countries and to
transport goods overland for onward shipment across the Atlantic to Spain.
It says something for the seamanship of the Spaniards that during these
250 years only six ships were completely lost and three were wrecked. A
further six European ships are known to have disappeared in the central
Pacific between 1526 and 1768.
In the 1950s Suwarrow achieved fame as the home
of the New Zealand hermit, Tom Neale, who stayed alone there from 1952 to
1954 and again from 1960 to 1963. His experiences were documented in his
book "An Island to Oneself".
Suwarrow is currently the subject of
environmental impact investigations because of plans by a Hawaiian company
to set up a black pearl farming operation in its huge lagoon. There is
some resistance to this from environmentalists both because of the likely
impact on marine life of up to 100 workers taking up residence and because
of a reduction in bio-diversity from the possible importation of pearl
shell stock from Manihiki.
Today a caretaker and
his family live on the atoll for most of the year, their solitude
disturbed only by the occasional visiting yacht.
Suwarrow is now a conservation reserve.
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