Cook Island chronicle; An Irishman's tale of the South Pacific

On a rainy day in Rarotonga I stumbled into the government offices of the Cook Islands and found a feisty old Irishman in an ink-stained shirt hunched over a portable typewriter. He was preoccupied with hunting and pecking out the day's parliamentary news. Every few minutes he picked up a magnifying glass to proofread his copy.

He introduced himself as Ronald Syme, saying he worked as the prime minister's public-relations officer while moonlighting as the chief political correspondent for the Cook Island News, Rarotonga's daily newspaper. His American counterpart would be Ronald Reagan's press secretary covering the White House for the Washington Post. But in Syme's case it is nothing more nefarious than an overworked newspaperman with a dual allegiance to country and facts.

In this tropical island nation, whose shrinking population now numbers less than the student body at many American universities, it would be difficult to find two people capable of accomplishing the work Syme does single-handedly. He remains one of the best writers in the Cooks and is highly outspoken on the history and politics of this relatively new nation.

Syme is the author of two tautly written histories of the Cook Islands, and has lived on Rarotonga nearly 30 years, though he was born in County Galway, Ireland. A lanky, white-haired gent, he has a small brush mustache and a short fuse. He and his father belonged to the Irish Republican Army back in Ireland, and the tranquil South Pacific has yet to soothe the rebel in him. His tale is that of an adventuresome Irish lad who shipped to sea, looking for romance in the South Pacific, settled on a remote volcanic island, and ended up wrestling the colonial remnants of the British Empire he had fled.

The odyssey began at age 19 when Syme bade farewell to Galway. ''The day I left I remember my father was in the farmyard talking to his favorite cow, Rosie. I said, 'Father, I want to travel around the world.' He looked up, wished me well, and handed me a five-pound note.

''I shoveled coal in a ship crossing the North Atlantic and in the fall harvested wheat in Saskatchewan. I made Vancouver by winter and got a job as a 'pearl diver' - that was slang for dishwasher -- in a restaurant called O'Grady's. Or was it O'Malley's?,'' Syme continued in his Celtic brogue. ''In the spring I signed on as a galley boy on a ship to New Zealand. The day we stopped in Rarotonga, I looked out the porthole and said to the mate, Mr. Flaherty, 'This is a fine-looking island, sir. May I have leave for the afternoon?' ''

''No,'' Flaherty curtly replied, and the ship continued west. Syme never stepped ashore. After a year in the freight yards of New Zealand, he shipped back to Rarotonga. On the island an old Maori befriended Syme and for four months he lived a Gauguin grass-hut existence. A few years later he returned to Galway via Tahiti and Marseilles. He found his father on the porch piping the ''Wearing of the Green'' on a penny whistle. ''Welcome home, son,'' he said, pausing a few measures. ''How long will you be staying?''

Father knew best. Soon Syme was off again, this time to Dublin. There he wrote for the Irish Times, and later for a succession of Fleet Street dailies in London. He covered the Spanish Civil War and worked as a correspondent in Italy. In his spare time he wrote crime thrillers under the name Keith B. Gordon. Why the nom de plume? ''I never did much like crime novels,'' Syme said.

By the early 1950s he didn't much fancy London, either. In 1953 the Irishman arrived back in Rarotonga and eventually married into a family of what he calls ''church burners.'' His wife's ancestors were among the few islanders to resist the missionaries in the 19th century. ''Until 1820,'' Syme said, waxing historical, ''the Cook Islanders were a tough, virile, efficient people who thought nothing of navigating to the Australs or the Marquesas, across hundreds of miles of open sea. They had their own star navigation. As fishermen and farmers, they were superb.

''In the 1820s the problems all began with the arrival of the London Missionary Society. It was started by the mighty -Joseph Hardcastle, a London cloth merchant, who read (explorer Captain) Cook's journals about the happy, handsome, more-or-less naked people in the South Pacific. He rubbed his hands and said, 'What a market!' Hardcastle advertised for blue-collar workers to become missionaries in the South Seas. The blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and cordwainers all signed up. . . .

''The missionaries started in Tahiti, moved to Aitutaki and then to Rarotonga. They arrived here in 1822 and rose to power by buying off the chiefs with a steel axhead, a bag of rice, and a few yards of Mr. Joseph Hardcastle's cloth. My wife's own ancestors resisted to the end. When the church in Takitumi was built they burned it down.''

Being an Irishman, Syme has never taken kindly to the British. When the subject of British missionaries comes up, you can nearly see the smoke spew out of his ears. ''The missionaries,'' he said, ''had a slogan: 'Give copra for the Lord.' Twenty pounds of copra was worth about $1.50 in today's money. The islanders sold the copra to the missionaries who exported it. They bought 20 pounds of copra for one yard of cloth which cost Mr. Joseph Hardcastle 10 cents. . . . They smashed the maraes, the traditional sacred meeting grounds. They stacked up all the beautiful carvings, who knows how much those would be worth today, and burned them.

''Their Sunday 'blue laws' were appalling,'' Syme continued. No one was allowed to walk the roads on Sunday unless ''to visit a sick man, get ready for a hurricane, or bring back a canoe that floated away.'' Public floggings were administered to those who played cards or were caught walking at night with an arm around the opposite sex. ''What's worse,'' he claimed, ''the missionaries appointed their own judges to enforce the laws. They were notorious for savagery and sadism in passing judgment on people who broke the blue laws.

. . .It reached the point where in 1831, a number of families marched six miles from their village, burned a judge's house, and pelted him with rocks.''In the old days the islanders lived in thatched cottages. They had perfect natural air conditioning. The missionaries, however, wanted their parishes to look like English villages, with the humble village people touching their hats to the squire. They ordered the people to build limestone cottages with small doorways and windows. Those houses were damp death traps.'' (In one of his books, Ernest Beaglehole, a New Zealand history professor, refers to members of the London Missionary Society as ''lower middle-class evangelical English Puritans'' who wanted to create in the Cooks ''a replica or mirror of lower middle-class England.)

Syme advanced his story: ''The islanders all began wearing coats, trousers, neckties, and white shirts. Before the white man came, they would put coconut oil on their bodies if they were caught in the rain and the water bounced off like off a duck's back. When the people went out in European clothing, they came back damp and sat in their damp huts. Added to these conditions were rats carrying the bubonic plague, introduced to the islands by English ships. Two-thirds of the population was killed.''

Missionary rule lasted in the Cooks until the turn of the century. At that time, New Zealand began cultivating illusions of empire and claimed the tiny islands to its northeast. ''Remember you Americans ended colonial rule in 1776, '' said Syme. ''The poor people of the Cook Islands endured it until 1965.''

Syme lived in the Cooks for 12 years before independence and showed unflagging disdain for the colonizing Kiwis. They, in turn, lost no love on him. ''They couldn't make up their mind whether I was a Nazi, a fascist, a communist, or just a Celtic troublemaker,'' he said.

''New Zealanders did a few good things here,'' he will admit. ''They abolished the blue laws and made the islands dry -- no liquor, that is. They set up primitive medical facilities and a school system. The tragedy was that the New Zealanders never understood the Polynesians. None of them bothered to learn the Maori language.''

By the time self-government came in 1965, all kinds of pollution had begun to creep in. ''Before the Europeans came,'' Syme said, ''there were no bugs to destroy the crops. Unknown weeds sneaked in with imported seeds. One was lantana , which in Europe makes a nice ornamental hedge. Here it went wild and took over hundreds of acres.''

The telephone in Syme's office rang.''Syme here!'' he huffed into the receiver. His teen-age daughter, Florence, a reporter for the Cook Island News, was on the line. She had a scoop and wanted to share the news with her father before it hit the front page in the morning.

''No! I don't believe it!'' Syme gasped. His face grew pale. I heard only his voice and was left to imagine the news on the other end.

''Spare us all!'' he shouted, scurrying from the room. His voice echoed down the hallway. ''The minister must hear about this straight away.''

Syme returned 10 minutes later with the facts. An Australian ex-convict whom the Cook government had been watching for some time had purchased leases on 200 acres of rich farm land in Titikaveka. He paid $10,000 for it, was selling off one-quarter-acre subdivision plots for $4,000 apiece, and stood to make more than $3 million. ''See what I mean? The islands are full of these losers from New Zealand and Australia, 'no-hopers,' we call them, trying to exploit our land.'' Land, like religion and politics, is a volatile issue in the Cooks.

''The worst thing New Zealand did to this country was the land court,'' said Syme, slumping in his desk chair. ''Parliament was just debating it this morning. In the old days parents named in their last will and testament the boy child to inherit their land. He was foreman for the other children. But the New Zealanders introduced a land court, based on their idea of perfect democracy. Under that system when the parents died, land was divided equally, among, say, four children. When those four children each had four children it was divided into 16 pieces, and so on.

''As you can see the progression was lunacy. Today it is common to find one acre of land that has 70-100 part-owners. So if a man wants to plant bananas he has to go to 70 part-owners to get permission. The result is that hundreds of Maoris have gotten so fed up with trying that they packed up and went to New Zealand. There are 20,000 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand, and as you can see, most of the land here sits uncultivated.''

Under the local-self-government arrangement signed in 1965, not only does New Zealand continue to provide defense and economic aid for the Cooks, but also all of the islanders are given New Zealand citizenship. Their freedom to emigrate is a principal reason the islands' population continues to fall. There are now more Cook Islanders living in New Zealand than in the Cooks themselves, which have a population of 17,000.

The escape hatch offered by New Zealand is a dangerous drain on the work force, Syme said. ''Once a fellow has a setback on his farm or job, he says 'Forget it' and climbs on the next outbound plane to New Zealand.'' Government figures show that in the last three years alone the population of the Cooks has fallen more than 10 percent. ''One of the government's plans was to take TVs and cassettes to the outer islands to keep the people entertained down on the farm, '' he said. ''But the plan backfired and gave them a thirst for New Zealand.

''On Rarotonga, people don't want to live on subsistence anymore. We have more fish sitting off our coast than we could catch in a million years. But most people buy canned fish from Japan. The young people are not interested in culture and history. They see Rarotonga as the stepping-off point for the bright lights and fast motorcars of New Zealand. And where do they all end up? In the slums of Auckland.

''As much as some Cook Islanders dislike Kiwi cultural colonization, they grudgingly recognize their economic dependence on New Zealand. It now subsidizes nearly half of the Cooks' $14 million annual government budget. All of the islands' petroleum is imported, and the annual fuel bill for the government alone amounts to around $4 million, a figure approaching the total value of the islands' annual exports. Transportation is another dilemma. ''People in the islands have no way of getting their produce to market. Pineapples are rotting on the ground, and people wonder what's the point of planting,'' Syme said.

While some Cooks Islanders see tourism as the quick solution for the faltering economy, it remains a subject of much bickering. I happened to arrive on Rarotonga at the beginning of its second annual Tourism Week, and one of the programmed highlights was an amusing but revealing public debate: ''Tourism - Promotion or Prostitution?''

The contest was held at the Banana Court in downtown Avarua, known on Rarotonga as ''the city.'' With its sagging corrugated iron roof, pinwheel ceiling fans, and back-porch dart game, the Banana Court has the quaint Hollywood aura of a ramshackle set from ''Casablanca.'' One almost expects to see Humphrey Bogart drift through the Banana Court's front door and sidle up to Ingrid Bergman with a throaty ''Here's looking at you, kid.''

Nobody drifts through the front door of the Banana Court. The bouncer outside , a matronly Maori woman, refused to let me in until I put on a pair of socks. Once inside I spent the night sipping flat ginger ales and killing time in the challenge line of the dart game. My first match was with a 250-pound rugby player named John Dean, who had never heard of Watergate. He walked with the swagger of a local darts champion and polished me off 100-to-nothing.

Three nights a week at the Banana Court a local group called the Las Vegas Band twangs out Maori songs on electric guitars. The dance floor is elbow to elbow with boys in striped jogging warm-ups and girls with hibiscus crowns. On the night of the tourism debate, however, the dance floor had the feel of a friendly boxing ring where the opposing teams faced off. In no time the verbal punches began to fly:

''We islanders live on money, not agriculture. Just look at our government flying all over the world begging for money. Tourism provides work for our bus drivers, duty-free shops, hotels, and handicrafts. Most of the changes in our lives have come since the airport opened in 1974.''

''But you forget, the Bible says love of money is the root of all evil. Tourism is outright prostitution. It is wreaking havoc on our people and churches. Beware of tourism, the nose of the camel. Once the camel gets its nose in, soon the whole body will come.''

''We are a living Polynesian culture. A culture must change or die. We are healthier, wealthier, and wiser with tourism. We have our song, dance, language, history, and flowers. Shouldn't we share them with the world?''

''Look what tourism has done to our values. I see tourists in hot pants and bikinis with no respect for local tradition. The price of tourism is loss of human values. In our heritage are the seeds of survival. If we trade our heritage for the white man's culture, we won't survive.''

At the close of the debate, the audience, mostly tourists that night, cast their votes. The pro-tourism forces triumphed handily. The minister of tourism leaned back in his chair on the edge of the dance floor and gloated.

But back in his office Syme offered characteristic dissent: ''The economic benefits of tourism are not what the government figures suggest. Not much of the tourist dollar actually remains in the Cook Islands. Tourists stay in European-owned hotels and eat imported food. If they want to buy a shirt or a handbag, they go to the Cook Island Trading Company or JPI, both European-owned. They arrive and depart on Air New Zealand and are driven around in European cars.''

Syme's last comment must have jogged his memory. Perhaps he just saw an opportunity for his getaway. For whatever reason he then piped up: ''Speaking of being driven around, I believe my ride home is waiting downstairs.''

On our way out I asked about the Irish flag and sword hanging on the wall outside his office. ''That's what my ancestors used to fight the British.'' A leprechaun smile crept over his face. ''But don't get me going on Ireland or we'll both be here 'til midnight.''

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