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1997, Cook Islands

Cook Islands  

The steep-sided peaks of Rarotonga greet visitors like the mountains of Never Land with a Peter Pan promise of innocence and recaptured youth. No wonder Fletcher Christian's Bounty mutineers called here when searching for a haven from the British authorities.

Reminders of those days of European discovery remain, with English names taken from Bounty survivors or other castaways or deserters from British naval ships. If you were going to jump ship, you could have done far worse than Rarotonga.

Of all the South Pacific islands, the Cook Islands retain a charm and beauty that is difficult to surpass. Hawaiian-type hotel development threatens to transform the charm in the name of American-style convenience, but for the moment, at least, it is still possible to see a way of life that has changed little since the first visits of Methodist missionaries in the early 19th century.

The Takamoa Theological College, established by the London Missionary Society, has two separate memorials - one for the British Methodist preachers and one for Polynesian missionaries. The word "martyred" appears alongside a sprinkling of names, a reminder of the difficulties in bringing Christianity to these shores.

Once installed, however, the Christian ethic became ingrained to a far greater degree than might be encountered in most western countries. Today, the islands appear to have reached a crossroads - committed to Christianity but increasingly confronted by secular western society.

People who were once urged to cover their bodies now encounter western visitors clad in thongs and bikinis. Airport arrivals is like stepping into a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road show as the flight announcer doubles as a crooner, singing Polynesian melodies while strumming a ukulele.

In nearby Aitutaki, every postcard's image of a south sea island with stunning azure seas, the people live at a pace that has not yet been spoiled by the demands of tourism.

Two companions are given a tour of the island by the king, an accountant by profession, who places them regally on oil cans at the rear of a flat back lorry.

The hotel manager is called Stephen Christian, a descendant of the Bounty mutineer. You can see why William Bligh would have found it almost impossible to maintain order among a crew who, because of the need to rear breadfruit in pots before the plants could be transported, were kept in Tahiti for six months.

Bligh survived the mutiny and a subsequent court martial, although his career was blighted with further mutinies because of his complete lack of management skills.

His survival, however, represented a triumph for the Protestant work ethic over the lotus-eating mutineers, some of whom were hunted down to Tahiti and later hanged. Others, however, escaped to Pitcairn Island, taking with them a number of Tahitian men and women.

Although the party formed the nucleus of a community, with many current Pitcairn islanders descended from Bounty crew members, the mutineers did not live happily ever after. Five were murdered by Tahitians, another was killed in a fight, one died of asthma and one went insane and jumped off a cliff. Only one mutineer, John Adams, lived into old age.

Maybe you have to have been born in the South Pacific to adopt the islanders' perspective on the world. Although the Cook Islanders have embraced Christianity, they have never bought into the western world view. They point out that the islands were not discovered by Europeans, but by migrating Polynesians. The seven canoes which completed the voyage to New Zealand and claimed it for the Maori people were assembled in Avana Harbour on Rarotonga. There was a great tradition of adventure and discovery among the early Polynesians.

But the history books record the British and French discoveries. Captain James Cook came here during his voyages of 1773 and 1777, charting all but Rarotonga, the largest of the islands, which was first visited by Europeans when the Bounty called there after the mutiny in 1789.

These stories of discovery are told in Cook Island stamps, prized by philatelists because of their rarity, now exploited by the Cook Islands government with continuous new issues which have proved a nice little earner for the island economy.

The stamp business, however, is nowhere near as lucrative as the market for sea cucumbers, sold to the Japanese at NZ$ 75 a kilo. Sea cucumbers aside, it is the submerged beauty of the coral and its shoals of brightly coloured fish in the island lagoons that bring in many of the visitors.

The seabed is home also to exotic shellfish with names that could have been invented by Lewis Carroll, such as the Warty Frogshell, the Mutable Conche and the Hailstorm Prickly Winkle. But their very desirability is putting their future at risk.

Maybe the mutineers were right to reject the disciplines of a society bent upon exploitation. The breadfruit experiment - designed as a cheap crop to feed plantation slaves - proved a failure when the slaves rejected the food.

It was a fitting end to an ignoble episode in British history. That the names of the mutineers survive among islands that have yet to lose their charm is perhaps memorial enough to the life that they chose.

Christianity, which played so large a part in their more recent evolution, has lent the Cook Islands a certain robustness but whether it is strong enough to preserve one of the few remaining jewels of the south seas is uncertain. The new discoverers are the holidaymakers and they bring their own religion - the worship of money - and their own lifestyles characterised by short attention spans.

The Hawaiian-style developments are on the way with their boutique shops and pay TV, about as welcome as breadfruit for those who prize tranquillity. Time is running out. Where are you now, Fletcher Christian?

© Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved