After The Massacre

In July 1837, Captain C.H. Hart sailed to the tiny island of Sapwuafik in Micronesia. His aim was to get a store of sea turtle shell that he believed was there. The men of Sapwuafihk knew he was up to no good and armed themselves but Captain Hart and his troop killed all of them but one who escaped only to die a few months later. Hart’s followers — British, Australian, American, and natives of other islands — then occupied the island, taking the women and children as their own. A hundred and eighty-five years later, the people of Sapwuafik have tried to digest their historical past and their origin in an act of mass murder and rape. They see themselves as separate from other nearby island peoples and they believe themselves to be more civilized and more Christian than these others. This is how that came to be.

The atoll that includes Sapwuahfik which is on the far left. [GoogleEarth]

The atoll that includes Sapwuahfik which is on the far left. [GoogleEarth]

The Assault on Sapwuafik:

Micronesia in the 1830s was a wild and wooly place. Although Europeans had been visiting the area for 200 years, there was, as yet, little attempt to bring the islands under any kind of order — that began to happen because of Europeans wanting to keep other Europeans out of their own particular honeypots.

The island of Sapwuahfik. [GoogleEarth]

The island of Sapwuahfik. [GoogleEarth]

In 1835, the schooner Waverly ran onto a reef after leaving Pohnpei (aka Ponape). The damaged ship sailed on to Kosrae, where the crew was killed. Six of them made it to Sapwuafihk where they also were killed by the natives. There were other events of this sort.

In early 1836, Captain Hart brought his Australian registered ship, the Lambton to Pohnpei, then sailed on to Sapwuafik — which, for some reason or other, Hart called Ngatik. One of Hart’s men reported that he had seen a vast store of tortoise shell — very much a trade item of value, since it could be made into combs or mirror backs or other such fancy boudoir paraphernalia. Hart determined to take the shell but the party of men he sent to do the deed was turned back by the armed natives of Sapwuafik. So Hart sailed back northeast about a hundred and forty kilometers to Pohnpei.

Meanwhile, A British whaleship, the Falcon, which had been stuck on Pohnpei by contrary winds, sailed away and ran onto a reef. Pohnpei natives tried to raid the ship and there was some fighting. The Falcon‘s captain, mate, and four of the crew were killed. Five days later, Captain Hart arrived on the scene. He assembled a force that included a number of natives and attacked the chief who he thought was responsible for the killings. That chief was brought on board the Lambton and hanged. By this time there were two other British ships — both operating out of Hawaii — in Pohnpei. They participated in the punitive expedition and — for a price — sailed some of the Falcon survivors to Guam.

Hart took some of the force that he had assembled in Pohnpei — including islanders and members of other ships’ crews — and returned to Sapwuafik to get the tortoise shell.

Once again, the Sapwuafik islanders armed themselves and prepared to meet the invaders. Hart spent the night on another island in the atoll that includes Sapwuafik and, the next morning, attacked in force. He had perhaps fifty European seamen and two hundred or so Pohnpei islanders who rode in canoes towed by the Falcon. These were men who had already participated in the Pohnpei hostilities.

Hart’s army overwhelmed the defenders of Sapwuafik who retreated before him. The next day, Hart managed to run down and kill all those who had escaped the initial attack. Some new widows then killed their children and hanged themselves to escape the invaders. Fifty or more men were dead, maybe forty more islanders died as a result of the fighting. This out of a total population of two or three hundred people.

Antique boxes made of tortoiseshell. This was the item that Hart came to steal.

Antique boxes made of tortoiseshell. This was the item that Hart came to steal.

The stock of turtle shell was nowhere near as valuable as Hart had been told, nevertheless he decided to keep a force on the island and run it as his own personal property. He left in charge an Irishman named Paddy Gorman who had been part of the Falcon fight. Gorman was eventually joined by his three native wives and a number of Pohnpei natives who wanted to be part of the settlement. For a few years Hart’s project continued, then a British official stepped ashore and announced that there was going to be a new administration. He located three boys who were descended from Sapwuafik’s ruling families and made them the new rulers of the island. British Navy vessels might call in at any time to see how things were going. So, in less than four years, Sapwuafik progressed from a small native polity to a pirate possession to colonial guardianship. (Note: the Brits did not make Sapwuahfik a colony as such — the Spanish were the rulers of these waters for a time — the English agent restored local order and dampened the ambitions of people like Hart who wanted to own a colony or a country of their own.)

19th Century Micronesia:

The small islands of Micronesia were far enough apart so that invasion from another island was not an everyday occurrence — yet it did happen. In the 16th Century, Pohnpei was invaded by a force from the island of Kosrae. These invaders overthrew the Saudeleurs, who had ruled Pohnpei for a thousand years — after conquering the place themselves.

Micronesian culture was everywhere distinct in terms of local peculiarities but was everywhere homogenous in certain features. The islands were ruled by the headmen of powerful clans. The clans were matrilineal (though it is not clear to me that this improved the lot of women one iota). A place might have its own deities but no one god was thought to rule over all and societies might honor, if not worship, the reigning deity from other communities. Most places practiced various kinds of magic or sorcery and these practices might be borrowed or passed down from memories of a time before the current rulers had taken over. In other words, the usual tolerance practiced by pagan groups toward other pagan forms of worship was general. The clans, the chiefdoms, religious practices, plus what Europeans call “custom and usage” — i.e., common law — all mixed together in a very complex jumble of form and possibility that is impossible to render as a flow chart or diagram of power and authority.

There is one more aspect of Micronesian culture to consider: a person might become a member of the tribe through birth and ancestry, or by adoption. This is not uncommon among non-Europeans before the 20th Century. Europeans, on the other hand, during this same period were developing a sense of race based on “blood”, which was their term for genetics before that concept had been developed scientifically.

At any rate, when the British agent restored native Sapwuahfik rule, he may have violated certain principles of Micronesian organization — though it is hard to see what else he could have done since the basic structure of Sapwuahfik society had been destroyed.

Sapwuahfik to the present:

After 1839 there is not much to be heard from Sapwuahfik until 1889 when a Pohnpie Christian, John Francis, took on the work of missionary to Sapwuahfik. Christian missionaries were active in the area from the early 19th Century and Sapwuahfik had indicated its willingness to hear the Word, but there were other, larger places to convert first. In most places the missionaries had to break down local society before they could convert and civilize the natives. Conversion and civilization were both part of the missionary vocabulary and one might be confused for the other by people trying to hear the message. Civilization — proper clothes and decorum — often preceded conversion; the word “enlightenment” referred to this civilizing process.

Sapwuahfik was new ground. Whatever had occurred in the half-century between the British restoration of local order and the advent of missionaries, the society itself was not repaired from the horrific Hart invasion. The islanders quickly latched on to the new religion and worked their system around it.

The Spanish were thrown out of Micronesia and most of the Pacific in 1898; the Germans ran the place until 1914 when it was turned over to World War I ally, Japan. In 1943-44, the United States drove out the Japanese. In 1986, Micronesia became independent. None of these events affected Sapwuahfik particularly.

Older people in Sapwuahfik have their opinions of the Japanese, as Lin Poyer has mentioned, but their island was never occupied as Pohnpei was. The Americans considered Pohnpei/Ponape not worth an invasion, but bombed it for a year or so. Japanese tanks are still to be found there. Meanwhile, the Americans dropped food and other good things on Sapwuahfik and the people there, like many others in the Pacific, consider the U.S. a special friend.

Today, Sapwuahfik considers itself to be more democratic than other islands, specifically Pohnpei. The island is moving toward general elections and local democracy, the inhabitants say — which may be a good thing, depending on how you feel about the loss of rule by clan headmen and possibly, the diminishment of matrilineal society.

But the critical cultural import for Sapwuahfik is Christianity. The Sapwuahfik people consider themselves more civilized and enlightened (closer to American values) and more Christian than other island communities around them. From this they have put together a vision of what a Sapwuahfik citizen is:

First, a person of Sapwuahfik is not necessarilly one who was born there. Certainly, that person’s belonging cannot be determined by genetics or race or even ethnicity in the way that these terms are understood in other places. The founding people of Sapwuahfik are native — women and children that survived the massacre, and from other islands such as Pohnpei but also the Gilbert and Mortlock Islands; and they are European or American (including black Americans) or Australian. In other words, ethno-genetic hash. So adoptees or invaders or the children of others may be Sapwuahfik. I say “may be” because any individual may suddenly find himself classed as “other” if there is some reason for society to name him/her so. This is back to the community using custom to defeat law: I like that guy = he is one of us.

Then there is Christianity. Sapwuahfik, now Christian, has decided that, before Hart, the island existed in a pagan state of sin. Hart was a bad guy, sure, but he served as God’s tool to remove paganism from these people and now they are better for it. “That’s the reason foreigners came and killed, for God permitted them to cause such [behavior] to be punished.” Lin Poyer, primary scholar for this place, has said that the people of Sapwuahfik are both God’s accursed and God’s chosen. But the accursed period, when Hart’s crew was on its murderous rampage, is over; now they are God’s chosen, the most enlightened of islanders who will show other Micronesians the way. One islander said that once he hated whites for the 1837 massacre but now he thinks of the Japanese on Pohnpei and the bombing there, which did not touch Sapwuahfik, and he thinks, “Maybe it comes out even.”

According to the story Sapwuahfik now tells itself, the last chief of Sapwuahfik, Sirinpahn, was a man who loosed all the sexual constraints of society. He proposed intercourse between members of different, or the same, clans and is spoken of as a man who promulgated general sexual license. That is the “behavior to be punished” that is referred to above. After their cleansing massacre, the people of Sapwuahfik believe themselves to be “more Christian” than other islanders: they are a chosen people. According to them, once Sapwuahfik was home to the most potent sorcerors anywhere, but now everyone has rejected magic. Anyway, if sorcery is used to kill a Christian, that victim is guaranteed a place in Paradise.

Group from Sapwuahfik performing at Founders Day celebration for the College of Micronesia. [YouTube

Group from Sapwuahfik performing at Founders Day celebration for the College of Micronesia. [YouTube

During World War II, Sapwuahfik in the area served as translators for the Americans, because they had never lost the English brought to them by Hart and others. In fact it developed as a Man’s Language, spoken by men at work only, although women could understand it. Poyer says that it retains a great many nautical terms from the 19th Century and it is a matter of interest to linguists generally. Now Sapwuahfik sees itself as a leading light in Micronesia as ideas of local democracy are developing there.

So that is where we are: Sapwuahfik has decided that the murderous rampage that began its modern history was an Act of God; it does not differentiate between the descendants of that time as to race; but being Sapwuahfik may mean following the unwritten rules of community and custom; meanwhile, this chosen people is more enlightened and better able to move forward than others in their region, they think. No one should look on this as some silliness promulgated by savage people. Many of your ancestors — I don’t care who they were or where you come from — were born into a regime founded on murder. And you, now, think that you are a very enlightened person, and I say, yes. Yes, you are. But do you know how it was that you became enlightened?


Sapwuahfik is now part of the Pohnpei polity in Micronesia. You may find more info on the place if you call it Ngatik, like Hart did. The Wikipedia entry, for instance, is under Ngatik Massacre.

Lin Poyer is the main source for this post. If you have Jstor access you can read her article “History, Identity, and Christian Evangelism: The Sapwuahfik Massacre”. If not, there is her book The Ngatik Massacre which is out of print but can be found at your friendly used book store.

Poyer has given a great deal of attention to the process that people use to digest an event like the Ngatik/Sapwuahfik Massacre and how the identity of Sapwuahfik people is constructed. See: “Being Sapwuahfik: Cultural and Ethnic Identity in A Micronesian Society”.

Poyer was my main source but I also got a few tidbits from Foreign Ships in Micronesia

A decent map showing the islands in question.

Like other places in the Pacific, Seventh Day Adventists have been very successful in the area. There are pages on the Net from SDA missionaries that give some pictures of this place. Here’s one. Here’s another.


2 comments on “After The Massacre

  1. Bilrose says:

    Nice miss my home………lol like the story interesting..

  2. Bilrose says:

    lol.. the we were performing in the field on a founding day…..miss the day really fun.

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