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Westernization of Truk: A Backward Glance

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ


The story of Truk's emergence into contact with the western world is a strange one. Unlike the people of many another island group, the Trukese did not have to wait until the first passing ships that happened to stumble upon their islands introduced the wonders of the West to them. Instead, they themselves traveled hundreds of miles to fetch the first foreign objects brought to their islands. And yet, following upon their early contacts with the outside world and their first taste of imported goods, the Trukese entered upon a long period of relative isolation that was only ended in the 1880s with the arrival of the trader and the missionary.

Long before the Spanish conquest of the Marianas, tradition has it, regular trading voyages were conducted between the islands of the central Carolines (including Truk) and the Marianas. A Sonsorolese chief who was questioned by the Spanish navigator Jose Somera during the first European visit there in 1710 told him of a large island well to the east named "Ugulat" whose people had had extensive dealings with the Marianas for many years before. This island, which according to the chief was inhabited by a peaceful people, was almost certainly Truk. Unbeknownst to the Sonsorolese informant, however, the trading voyages from Truk and other islands in the central Carolines had been discontinued for some years, after stories of Spanish cruelty to the Chamorros during their suppression in the late 1600s were brought back to the Carolines. When the regular canoe trips finally resumed late in the 18th century, voyagers were returning with a precious new item which, they reported, could be obtained in almost unlimited quantities on Guam-iron. Islanders were quick to appreciate the advantages that iron offered as a replacement for their less durable stone and shell tools. It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine the rapid increase in traffic between Truk and Guam that must have resulted when Caroline islanders learned of the plentiful supply of the prized metal there. The contemporary shopping visit to Guam, in other words, has a precedent of at least two hundred years.

Lacking first-hand reports of these trips and what they meant to Trukese long ago, we can only gauge their effects on island life by piecing together observations that early explorers made on a few islands in the Truk area. When Freycinet, the commander of the first French scientific party, brought his ship into Pulusuk in 1819, he was greeted by a throng of people who repeated again and again the word loulou-the Chamorro loanword for iron. The next French captain to visit the area, Louis Duperrey, in 1824, reports the same experience on Pulap. "The word loulou is always on their lips," he writes. "Axes, knives, nails and large fishhooks are all objects of great value for them; in return they give coconuts, breadfruit and shells that are collected on the shore." When Feodor Lutke stopped at Lukunor in 1828, he found to his surprise that the people of this island showed a good bit of savvy regarding the value of trade items. The inhabitants there were not the least bit interested in bits of glass and other relatively worthless trinkets, but asked for tinderboxes, stone lighters, grindstone, and iron tools. One chief, more particular than most, requested a long bone-handled knife to match the one that he already possessed. On Lutke's brief two-day visit at the high islands of Truk, he found that the only means of persuading the cautious inhabitants to come aboard his ship was to hold up axes and other iron objects in full sight of the canoes that were moored alongside. This incentive proved irresistible to at least two older Trukese, and once they clambered aboard to claim their treasures Lutke was able to obtain from them information on their islands.

But iron was not the only thing with which the Truk islanders returned from Guam. An English seaman who was marooned on Murilo for over a year relates that long before his arrival, cockfighting had been introduced there, presumably from the Marianas. Tobacco had already made its way into many of the islands in the central Carolines by the early 1820s, and white long-sleeved shirts were becoming another prized item throughout the vicinity. Everywhere they visited, the early ship captains heard Spanish phrases that the islanders had picked up-most frequently cuchillas, meaning knives. One old fellow on Namonuito was able to carry on a simple conversation in Spanish with Lutke, telling him in the course of their talk of his personal acquaintance with Governor Torres on Guam. It must have been during his stay on that island, Lutke observes, that the man also developed a taste for goose liver, which he devoured with unfeigned relish in the galley of the Russian frigate.

Even by the early 1800s, then, the islands in the Truk area had enjoyed some amount of contact with the Western world and had already acquired a taste for certain foreign-made goods, according to the evidence offered by visiting ship captains during these years. One would expect that such a relatively early introduction to luxury items such as iron tools, cloth and ship biscuits would have had an addictive effect on the people of the Truk islands, leading to the establishment of intensive contact with the West within a short time. For a number of reasons, however, this did not happen. By a peculiar twist of events, it was not until after 1880-some years after Palau, Yap, Ponape, Kusaie and many of the Marshalls had been exposed to strong foreign influence-that Truk experienced its first steady contact with the western world, despite the fact that it had been touched by acculturating influences well before most of these other islands.

Truk's first recorded contact with the outside world goes all the way back to the period of early Spanish exploration in the Pacific. In January 1565, Alonso de Arellano brought the San Lucas into the Truk lagoon and was promptly met by the inhabitants of an island he calls "Huruasa" who offered him pounded breadfruit and other foods. The friendly trading Arellano conducted aboard ship with the people of that island was abruptly halted when the Spanish captain observed the approach of "a thousand canoes filled with armed men coming off the other lagoon islands." The Spanish managed to avoid any serious conflict while making good their escape from the canoes, but they had to spend a watchful night at anchor in the lagoon well within earshot of the "savage shouts" from the islands around them before finding a pass in the reef the following morning. Arellano then proceeded to Pulap, intending to spend some time there procuring water and wood. His visit was cut short, however, when two of his men were ambushed and killed. Unable to take punitive measures against the islanders because of the hail of slingstones that was continually showered on his party while they circled the islet in the ship's launch, Arellano could do nothing more than return to the San Lucas and pay dubious tribute to his lost men by naming the island "Los Martires."

It was over two hundred years later before another ship is known to have touched any of the islands in the Truk district. In 1795, Captain James Mortlock visited Lukunor aboard the Young William, leaving the island group to the south of Truk with the name of his ship. (Only much later in the century did Mortlock's own name replace "Young William's Group" as the popular designation for the islands he discovered.) Mortlock was followed into Truk by a few other Europeans around the turn of the century-Juan Ibargoitia on the Filipino stopped at Pulusuk, Puluwat, and Pulap in 1799 and 1801; Juan Baptista Monteverde on the Pala visited Nama in 1806; and Manuel Dublon on the San Antonia explored the high islands of Truk in 1814. Unfortunately, no details of any these visits survive, all of the original journal accounts having apparently been lost.

During the long interval between Arellano's visit in the 16th century and that of Mortlock at the end of the 18th, the Truk islands were not entirely forgotten. Since the early 1700s Truk appeared on European maps, thanks to the information which explorers had obtained from Western Carolinian navigators. On the sketches which they made at the request of European mariners and missionaries, Truk appears as a large island, labeled "Torres" or "Hogoleu," placed midway down a string of smaller atolls to the far east. "Hogoleu" was known to the West-in name, at least-well before the 19th century, even if its true geographical position was not properly assigned until Duperrey's expedition surveyed Truk and its environs in 1824. Ponape, on the other hand, which was shortly to become such a favorite stopover for whalers and a refuge for deserters, did not appear on European maps at all until 1828. Duperrey's five-day survey of the Truk lagoon in June 1824, during which he was able to learn from the inhabitants of Pis the names of the principal islands of the Truk group, furnished data on Truk that would supplant the cruder maps of "Hogoleu" that had endured for over a hundred years. The fact that Duperrey's cartography, which was reproduced by British and American mapmakers after 1830 and survived as the standard work for the greater part of the century, is some indication of the scant additional knowledge that was received by way of foreign contact with Truk during subsequent years. The 1820s saw the beginning of a shift in the nature of Truk's contacts with the outside world. There is some evidence that the once-frequent canoe trips made from the Truk area to the Marianas may have been reduced to occasional voyages by this time, even if they were not altogether discontinued. Freycinet tells of fifteen Trukese who set out for Guam in 1807 to conduct trade there but were frightened into turning back before ever setting foot on land by a thunderous cannon salvo that was fired ashore during a fiesta. Their return trip was made without any provisions and might have ended in disaster if they had not had the good fortune to meet the fleet which sailed yearly from Lamotrek to Guam and been able to secure assistance from these other canoes. It is likely that experiences of this sort, and much worse, discouraged the long voyages to the north-all the more so since foreign ships replete with trade stores began to visit the islands with greater frequency during this decade. There are accounts of at least ten whaling ships making contact with islands in the Truk area between 1824 and 1834; and in all probability these recorded visits represent only a fraction of the total contacts by foreign ships during this period.

Shortly before 1820, whalers first ventured from off the coast of South America where they had confined their activities during the previous twenty years, and sailed into the Central Pacific in pursuit of the sperm whale. For the next several years until the discovery of the off-Japan fishing grounds, it was customary for whaleships to "cruise the line"-or sail back and forth along the equator-for the greater part of their voyage, putting them in the vicinity of the Caroline Islands. The Lady Blackwood in 1824, a British whaler under Captain John Hall, was one of the first and most famous to make a landfall in the area; the memory of this visit survives in the name that was bestowed on the group of islands Hall sighted to the north of Truk. Another of these early whaleships deposited on Murilo the English seaman William Floyd, the first foreigner known to have resided for any time on an island in Truk and one of the very few to do so until the arrival of the missionaries in the l870s. There are some few observations on the islands among the sparse reports found in the whaling logbooks. Some of the whaling captains comment on the speed and dexterity of the native canoes "capable of sailing within six points of the wind," or the food "which seemed to be Guinea corn macerated." When it came to the islanders themselves, opinions on their disposition varied with the individual captain from "sudden and quick in quarrel" to "mild and agreeable." On one point, however, the whalers seemed to generally agree among themselves and concur with most later observers-that the inhabitants of the Truk group were among the most handsome of the Pacific peoples they had visited.

After 1833, visits from whaleships to Truk were a rare occurrence; only two passing contacts are documented throughout the next 25 years. With the abandonment of the equatorial waters by whalers in favor of the off-shore grounds in higher latitudes-and still later in Arctic waters-and the establishment of Ponape and Kusaie as regular ports of call for refreshment, Truk was bypassed by whaling vessels during the industry's peak years in the Pacific. From 1835 until about 1875 Truk entered a period of isolation that was interrupted by only an occasional brief visit from a trading schooner or naval ship. The most notable exception, however, was Jules Dumont d'Urville's visit to Truk aboard the Astrolabe and Zelee in 1838 during his second scientific voyage around the world. D'Urville, who spent the better part of a week at anchor off Tsis in the lagoon, offers the fullest and most reliable description of Truk and its people before the missionary letters written by Rev. Robert Logan in the 1880s. The fifth volume of his Voyage au Pole sud et l'Oceanie contains more than 60 pages of detailed narrative on his stay in Truk.

D'Urville tells us that thirty or forty canoes came out to watch his ships feel their way through one of the narrow passes in the reef. This in itself must have been a spectacular event for the onlookers, since not more than two or three ships among all the previous vessels that had reported sightings of Truk and its satellite islands are known to have attempted to enter the lagoon. Almost immediately after the ships anchored, Trukese swarmed over the deck to carry on trade with the Frenchmen; mats, combs and ornaments were exchanged for knives, bracelets and necklaces. On each of the next three days, trading began soon after sunrise with the arrival of the first Trukese canoes at the ships; then a party of French naturalists and geologists would be taken to different islands in the lagoon to carry out their scientific investigations. It is not unlikely that the Frenchmen who went ashore on some of the islands were the first Westerners to have ever set foot there. In such circumstances there were bound to be surprises for both French and Trukese alike. One of the ship's party, who had gone to Fefan for the day, relates that the first shot he fired at a bird was received by the people around him with fright and astonishment; but their astonishment was all the greater when they saw the bird fall bloody and lifeless. The Frenchmen, on their part, were surprised (and perhaps disappointed) at the peculiar absence of women in the villages they visited-a phenomenon that was frequently reported by later foreigners. D'Urville assumed that they had been hidden away or whisked off to another island as a precaution against temptation.

Toward the end of one long day's work on Fefan, Messrs. Jacquinot and Lafond decided to spend the night on the island instead of returning to the ship. As it was about dinner time, they approached a group of people seated around a cookfire and shared their meal with them. The biscuits and wine that they passed around to their hosts were deeply appreciated, they say, but the cheese was thrown away in disgust. They themselves were unable to eat the half-cooked fish and live crabs that they were given, and had to retire on an empty stomach to a nearby canoe house for the evening. Inside that hut, Jacquinot hoisted his mat and belongings on the platform of the canoe-his suspicions aroused at the noisy circle of men who had gathered around the fire-and prepared to go to sleep atop his citadel with his musket in one hand and a geological hammer in the other. Meanwhile, Lafond, who had remained on the floor, slowly crept closer to the fire in an effort to hear one of the Trukese who had broken into a chant. As the man finished on a long plaintive note, he wheeled around and stabbed a finger at Lafond. The Frenchman immediately jumped to his feet and bellowed out a few verses of the Marseilles and some tunes by Beranger-much to the enjoyment of his audience. A few moments later Lafond was asked to dance. He had just made a brave start when one of the men demanded that he undress. Lafond thought it better not to refuse, and a moment later he was dancing the Cavalier seul completely unencumbered by clothing, with his friend occupying a balcony seat.

Unhappily, d'Urville's stay in Truk did not end in as good-natured a vein as this. The small party that set out the next day in the ship's launch to carry out a hydrographic survey undoubtedly thought it was nothing more than a practical joke when several canoes they met along the way unleashed a barrage of oranges at them. The learned otherwise, though, when the next volley-this one of spears-was directed at them. About a dozen Trukese were killed in the battle that followed and the Frenchmen returned to the ship with a much lower estimation of these "treacherous and wicked people, however engaging their appearance."

The mid-1800s saw the rise of the independent trade-captain as an influential figure in Micronesia. With the depletion of the sandalwood resources in Hawaii and Fiji by 1830, traders turned elsewhere in a search for other kinds of cargo with which to carry on their lucrative trade with China-particularly beche-de-mer, tortoise shell, and copra. Perhaps the most enterprising and best-known of these itinerant trade-captains was the controversial Andrew Cheyne, who operated in the Carolines for some 25 years prior to his violent death on Koror in 1866. Cheyne stopped off at Truk in 1844 with the brig Naiad and the schooner Will-0'-the-Wisp to collect beche-de-mer for a few days, with the added intention of establishing the first trading station in the Truk group. His plans were frustrated, however, when the schooner was attacked by "an immense force, supposed to be not less than two thousand men." Although its crew succeeded in saving the schooner and beating a hasty retreat out of the lagoon, they suffered losses of six men killed and another five seriously wounded. Cheyne left Truk for good, but not before taking the usual retaliatory measures of setting fire to a number of Trukese houses and destroying many of the canoes along the beach.

Cheyne's advice to ship captains who might follow him into the waters of Truk was that "no vessel should visit this group for the purpose of collecting (beche-de-mer), unless well-manned and armed, as the natives...will be certain to attack any vessel which they may find in a defenseless state." This warning, along with his decidedly unflattering description of the Trukese, was subsequently published in the book of sailing directions he wrote for the British Admiralty and was widely circulated among mariners on both sides of the Atlantic. Even the tranquil relations that he enjoyed with the Mortlockese during two later trading visits to that group-one of the visits lasting three weeks-did not cause him to mitigate his severe judgments on the entire Truk area. Cheyne, in fact, was as much responsible as any other single individual for the notorious reputation that Truk-or "dreaded Hogoleu," as it was now sometimes called-bore during the rest of the century.

The trade-captains who were active in Micronesia between 1850 and 1875 seem to have generally avoided Truk, perhaps as a result of the bad publicity that the group had received from Cheyne. Aside from Wallis' brief visit to the Mortlocks in 1846, where he was hospitably received, the only trader after Cheyne to visit any of the Truk islands was his former business partner, Alfred Tetens, who put in at Truk in 1868 aboard the Vesta. Tetens, like Cheyne, reports that his ship was almost taken in a surprise attack by Trukese who had come aboard ostensibly to trade with the Yapese crew. The German captain does not allow personal modesty to prevent him from describing at some length his own important role in securing the victory. According to Tetens' rather inflated account of the events, the attack was summarily halted when he himself picked up the instigant chief by the legs and threw him overboard.

It may be that there were additional contacts during these years, for Trukese oral accounts tell of the burning of two whaleships by the people of Moen, as well as the entry of at least two other ships into the lagoon and their bombardment of unspecified islands in reprisal for Trukese thefts from "the red-haired strangers." There are other tales recounting how shipwrecked foreigners were saved from death at the hands of the people of Uman or Fefan by escaping to Tol where they obtained protection. In one documented case, 22 foreigners who put in at Truk in a long boat after their ship was wrecked at Oroluk were immediately taken prisoner by the natives of Fefan and held in slavery until their rescue six months later by the British man-o-war Sphinx. Four of the shipwrecked crew who were able to escape to Tol reported that they received gracious treatment there. Accordingly, the Sphinx rewarded the people of Tol with gifts of serge and flannel, while exacting the customary penalties from the Fefan people for their mistreatment of the ship's crew.

But for all of this, the low point in relations between Truk and the outside world was still to come. If traders like Cheyne and Tetens could with some justification complain that they were attacked without provocation, another wave of commercial profiteers was sweeping through the Pacific who shared none of the traders' scruples about fair treatment. In an ominous notice appearing in the Whalemen's Shipping List (Feb. 9, 1869), attention was drawn to the fact that "the numerous groups of Micronesia are infested with a set of lawless men...who are engaged in nothing more or less than the slave trade." Just three years after the publication of this item, the brig Carl, one of the most infamous black birding ships in the Pacific, appeared in the Mortlocks and took eighty men off these islands to work in the plantations of Fiji. Another unidentified slave ship stopped there within two years of the Carl and carried away still more Mortlockese, this time to Samoa. It was not until 1881 that many of these laborers were returned home. A trader who resided on Lukunor at the time reports that eight men were brought back to that island aboard the schooner Shanghai, all decked out in European clothing and eager to tell of their adventures. Unfortunately, they had little opportunity to enjoy their release, he relates, for within four months all of them were dead.

When the HMS Blanche sailed into the Truk lagoon in 1872 to investigate charges of murder and kidnapping against the Carl, its landing party found nothing but deserted houses and cooked breadfruit that the people of Tsis had left behind in their haste to escape. Although some few persons eventually appeared on shore, it was two days before the British could persuade anyone to come aboard ship. Whether this unwonted timidity on the part of the Trukese was due to a recent encounter with blackbirders or simply to an instinctive fear of reprisals that they had lately developed is difficult to discern. In any event, the missionary ship Morning Star, on its first trip to the Mortlock Islands in 1874, found the same extraordinary wariness among the people there. Upon its landing at Lukunor, one of the missionaries writes, "no signs of life, no native, no canoe appeared." Not long afterward he learned that his cool reception was owing to the still vivid memories of the Carl's visit just a few years before. This experience was repeated, according to the missionary, everywhere they stopped in the Mortlocks.

Nonetheless, the Mortlockese did finally come out to greet the newcomers on the Morning Star and-what is more important-agreed to accept the three Ponapean couples who were to remain there as mission teachers. Additional Ponapean teachers were sent down in successive years on the Morning Star's annual tour of the islands, and these also won widespread acceptance. Within three years the missionaries had established churches on eight islands with a total membership of over 800 persons. The importance of this lies in more than simply the fact that it was the first successful attempt to evangelize the islands of Truk; it was the first time in the 19th century that an outside influence of any sort had permanently established itself in the islands of the Truk district. Within a matter of five years the missionary effort was extended from the Mortlocks to the Truk lagoon, which had for so long remained well-insulated from any abiding foreign influence.

Although missionary penetration into Truk had long been planned by the American Board, the actual circumstances under which it was accomplished were quite unforeseen. One Sunday in 1879, a chief from Uman who was visiting Nama happened to walk into church and was favorably impressed by the sermon that the Ponapean teacher gave on that day. Immediately after the service the chief invited the preacher to come to Truk and start a church on Uman. Shortly thereafter, the mission teacher and his wife were brought to Truk on the Morning Star to found the first church there. As they were rowing ashore at Uman, they were met by a throng of Trukese who "came down into the water and seizing hold of the boat, literally bore it up onto dry land." The initial enthusiastic reception of the missionaries by the people of Uman was followed during the next few years by insistent demands from other islands for their own mission teachers. When Robert Logan and his wife arrived in Truk in 1884 as the first American residents of this island group, they found a growing church among a people that had for years been regarded as one of the most inhospitable and warlike in Micronesia.

Missionaries were not the only foreign group to gain a foothold in Truk during these years. The rapid expansion in the 1870s of the large trading firms, such as Capelle, Hernsheim, and Godeffroy resulted in keen competition to find new sources of copra. As in the case of the missionaries, the trading companies began operations in the Mortlocks, extending activities to the Truk lagoon and the other outlying islands afterwards. By 1879 there were at least five resident traders in the Mortlocks, many of them representing one of the larger trading firms. Meanwhile, the only permanent trader on Truk was August Hartmann, who had established a business on Fefan in 1874 after spending some years in Fiji and Kusaie. Early in the next decade-about the time that Logan arrived in Truk-Frederick Narruhn opened a station of his own on Uman, while visiting the other islands in the lagoon on a small schooner that he operated. Thereafter, the number of traders in Truk grew at a pace that outstripped the increase in missionary personnel. By the turn of the century, there were about 35 traders residing in Truk, many of whom had turned from the sale of cloth and ironware to guns, dynamite, and alcohol.

When merchants and missionaries first came to Truk in the 1880s, they probably found a degree of westernization that was very similar to that which Lutke observed fifty years before. For after the relatively frequent foreign contacts of the early 19th century, many of which were initiated by the islanders themselves in the form of canoe voyages to the Marianas, the Truk area was long neglected by whalers, traders, and adventurers. Except for some few brief visits that were generally without permanent significance, the Truk area passed much of the century-from 1835 to 1875, as we have seen-virtually isolated from contact with the Western world. It was only after foreign groups established themselves on a permanent basis that the steady contact between outsiders and Trukese which is productive of deep social change was possible. At first the changes were strictly material ones: the importation of cloth and tobacco in large quantities, for instance. Cloth was so highly desired in the 1880s that it became the commodity commonly used to pay native workers, just as tobacco had been on Ponape years before. But later the intense contact with representatives of the outside world produced changes in Trukese social institutions. It has been maintained, for example, that the introduction of firearms by traders made the warfare that had been waged between islands in Truk since before the first recorded foreign contact far too destructive to be continued and ultimately led to the cessation of all warfare in Truk. Actually their introduction probably had an even more profound effect in that it made Trukese conscious of the need for some effective form of inter-lineage authority, a need that their own social system had never satisfactorily filled. It is sometimes suggested that this realization accounted for the surprising willingness of the Trukese people to submit to the German administration in 1901.

Even if the precise nature of the changes brought about by missionaries and traders is debatable, these two groups can at least be said to have inaugurated a period of intensive contact in Truk that certainly led to later westernization.

Micronesian Reporter Vol. 20, No. 4 (1972): 24-31.



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