Monday, 19 October 2009

The collapse of the Gambier trade triangle

‘The traders have come!’ You prepared the feast, impatient for news.

They unloaded their sea-canoes: cutting stones from Pitcairn Island and oyster-shell fishhooks from Mangareva Island. Sometimes they brought women, and delicate marriage negotiations would unfold.

They came to Henderson Island for your abundant food, and your luxury goods: turtles and precious, royal-red feathers. This trading had linked the three habitable islands of Southeast Polynesia for centuries, each supplying the others with vital resources.

Like always, the men scoffed at how little workable land you had, how you could survive with no fresh water, but then they saw the feast and fell silent.

Eating greedily, they said, ‘There are too many of us on Mangareva. The soils have grown poor. Some are so hungry they threaten to eat their neighbours. The trees have all been felled; this is our very last canoe.’

It was 1450, the year for you to marry, but the seas stayed empty. Henderson had no tall trees to make canoes and Pitcairn was too far by raft. Your people lived on, struggling to hunt and fish without cutters from Pitcairn or fishhooks from Mangareva; beginning a century of toil until death took your very last one.