Kwajalein Atoll, January 1565

These islanders were the ultimate ocean dwellers, never staying more than a few feet away from the water and sustaining themselves through the bounty of the sea. “They live a thousand leagues away from the mainland, and their small islands are occupied by coconuts,” marveled Don Alonso. “Anyone seeing these lands would think that they are like floating carpets, they are so small and so low that they would sink under the water in a storm.” He was entirely correct. Typhoons do occur in this region and indeed swamp the low-lying islands. In the worst of such instances, Pacific Islanders had no other recourse but to fill the hulls of their canoes with fresh water, venture into the open ocean, secure the rigging, and wait out the storm, displaying extraordinary aplomb and seamanship. Less apparent to the Europeans was the extent to which these sea people, over the course of two or three thousand years of occupation, had thoroughly transformed the tiny coral islands. Originally no coconut palms had existed there. Early settlers had propagated them purposely to build their houses, clothe their families, weave rugs, and obtain practically every item required for their vessels, from the hulls, sails, and rigging to the food and water conveniently packaged in natural round containers. By cutting open the coconuts, they could also fashion cups and use them to drink the fermented sap and juice of the plant itself. “It is astounding that out of a single tree,” remarked a later Spanish visitor, “these natives can make so many different things and fill all of their needs.

Conquering the Pacific, pp. 106 – 107


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