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‘They have six fingers on their hands’: Part 1 of the strange story of Tonga’s lost island of ‘Ata

All week this week the Spinoff Review of Books looks at Scott Hamilton’s brilliant new book, The Stolen Island, his investigation into the people-snatching raid on the Tongan island of ‘Ata. In this excerpt, he writes about visiting ‘Eua, the island where the survivors of the 1863 raid were re-settled; their descendants live in the village of Kolomaile.

In 2013, I took a group of students on a field trip to ‘Eua Island. I had been teaching at the ‘Atenisi Institute, a collection of rickety buildings raised just above a swamp on the edge of Nuku’alofa, the capital and only city of the Kingdom of Tonga.

‘Atenisi was built in the 1960s by Futa Helu, a Tongan lover of Greek philosophy and Italian opera who dreamed of creating a Pacific version of Plato’s academy, where scholars would discuss ideas around a kava bowl rather than a wine bowl. In the 1970s and 1980s, ‘Atenisi had hundreds of students and a score of teachers. By 2013, Futa Helu was dead, and ‘Atenisi’s student body was small enough to fit into a couple of cabins at the Hideaway lodge on ‘Eua.


Read more about Tonga’s lost island of ‘Ata:

A masterpiece of Pacific story-telling: Part 2 of the strange story of Tonga’s lost island of ‘Ata

The long nightmare of imperialism: part 3 of the strange story of Tonga’s lost island of ‘Ata


Few of them had set foot on ‘Eua. The island is only twenty kilometres from Tongatapu, and can be reached by a three-hour ferry ride or an eight-minute flight, but it feels like one of the Kingdom of Tonga’s remoter outliers. Where Tongatapu is flat, copiously cultivated and adorned by scores of villages, ‘Eua is high, bushy and underpopulated. A reef lies only a few metres off the island; fish as bright and skittish as butterflies live in its gashes and basins. The reef is so close to shore that ‘Eua has few of the good beaches or deep lagoons that palangi holidaymakers crave.

‘Eua has been neglected by scholars as well as by tourists. The island’s rainforest is the largest in Tonga, but it has hardly been explored by botanists. The thousands of caves and sinkholes in its highland have yet to interest speleologists, and the ancient forts on its ridges and hilltops have gone unsurveyed and unexcavated.

‘Eua’s people are as unusual as their environment. The island has been inhabited for thousands of years, and in pre-Christian times acquired its own deities and sacred sites. But most of the indigenous ‘Euans lived along the island’s western coast, in villages that looked across the water at Tongatapu; the plateau in the centre of the island and the highland above its eastern coast remained almost uninhabited.

Eight decades after the resettlement of the ‘Atans on ‘Eua, another group of refugees arrived on the island. They had come from Niuafo’ou, the northernmost piece of the Kingdom of Tonga. Niuafo’ou is a volcano whose crater is filled with water that periodically steams and boils. In 1946, the water turned to lava, and poured out of the lake and over Niuafo’ou’s villages and plantations. The island was evacuated and its people were resettled on ‘Eua, where they found the dialect baffling and the air cold. Some of the Niuans eventually went home, but many stayed on ‘Eua. They built houses and churches on the island’s plateau and named their settlements after the devastated villages of their homeland.

The three peoples of ‘Eua have maintained their separate identities and settlements. Sometimes only a road separates different villages, each with its own dialect and customs.

Old whaling pot on ‘Ata, one of the few signs of civilisation on the abandoned island. Photo: Alvaro Cerezo.

My students and I spent a week researching the history and environment of ‘Eua. We hiked to the highest spot on the island, where James Cook drank kava with local chiefs. We listened to a lecture by an Australian forester about the plantations of exotic trees – mahogany, teak, radiata pine – that contest the highland with native species like the banyan, and which supply the materials for most Tongan homes. At night, in the kava houses of ‘Eua’s villages, we heard stories about Cook, and about the American and New Zealand troops who occupied the island during the Second World War.

Near the end of our field trip, I was sitting under a tree outside the students’ cabin when a young woman walked over and sat in the dust beside me. She told me that she was twenty-two, but she was slight enough to be a child. Speaking English fluently but softly, she explained that she’d heard that a group from ‘Atenisi was on ‘Eua and asking questions about the island’s history. Her name was Pesi. She lived in Kolomaile, the village established by ‘Atan refugees, and she wanted to know whether we’d been asking questions about ‘Ata. I told her that we hadn’t talked about ‘Ata with anyone on ‘Eua, and that we hadn’t visited Kolomaile, which is the southernmost and one of the smallest villages on the island.

“I have asked my parents about ‘Ata,” Pesi said. “They won’t talk about the island, about what happened. They say it’s a shameful thing.” The only people who had talked about ‘Ata with Pesi were her Niuan and indigenous ‘Euan schoolmates. “They teased me,” she said. “They told me I was not really Tongan, that my ancestors came from a rock out in the ocean. They told me that my ancestors sold their own people to palangi.”

On the same day that Pesi visited me, I took the ‘Atenisi students to see Lisiate Lauaki, one of the oldest men on ‘Eua. Lauaki was in his early teens when Niuafo’ou was evacuated in 1946, and he had spent the rest of his life in Angaha, the largest of the Niuan villages on ‘Eua’s plateau. A tall, very thin man with a veinous forehead and a vehement stare, he lived beside Angaha’s Catholic church, and spent his days reading the Bible and talking with visitors about history and theology. Lisiate had cut reproductions of Jesus, Mary and Pope John Paul II from newspapers and pasted them to the breezeblock walls of his living room. The room’s only furniture was a low wooden stool. Lisiate sat on the stool, the students and I sat around him on the floor, and Lisiate’s daughter Maile crouched by his shoulder, so that she could translate his Niuan-inflected Tongan in her loud, slightly sarcastic voice.

Lisiate got his historiography from the Old Testament. When one of the students asked him about his memories of 1946, he explained that the eruption had been divine judgment on his homeland. Couples had been living in sin; children had been born illegitimately. Like the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah before them, the Niuans had been punished by God.

When I asked Lisiate about ‘Ata, he said that, like the people of Niuafo’ou, the ‘Atans had their own culture, their own language. “‘Ata was a good place, where taro and kava grew well. But the ‘Atans were very foolish. They trusted a palangi captain when he invited them onto his ship.”

Lisiate paused, waved his hand at me, and told me to be careful not to listen to liars.

“There are some people,” he said, “who say the ship that took the ‘Atans came to Niuafo’ou and stole people there as well. That is a lie! Niuans are clever people. They were never stolen from their island!”

What had happened, I asked Lisiate, to the stolen ‘Atans?

“They lived in Amelika,” he explained. “Their descendants still live in Amelika. They have their own society there, their own nation. They do well, make money.”

Maile stopped translating Lisiate’s words and added some of her own. “Some of the ‘Atans come back,” she explained. “During the war, some of them came back with the American soldiers. Some still come, secretly. They give money, foreign money, to their relatives in Kolomaile.”

“If the ‘Atans came back secretly from South America, how do you know they’ve been here?” a student asked.

Maile whispered in her father’s ear; he nodded. She turned towards us and smiled.

“The ‘Atans have six fingers on their hands,” Maile said. “Six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. That’s how you recognise them.”


The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata (Bridget Williams Books, $14.99) is available at Unity Books.

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