On the morning of August 20, 1767, the crews of two canoes out on a fishing expedition from the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific became the first men to discover a European. It didn’t go well.
Most likely, the Islanders were far more surprised than the object of their discovery, a British sailor, Captain Philip Carteret, whose ship Swallow was half-way through a four-year voyage around the world. Sadly, we will never know what they thought. This first meeting between the two tribes ended in a fire fight, after which Carteret stole all their coconuts. Pausing only to name their islands after himself, Carteret then sailed on and into the minor footnotes of British exploration.
Reading Carteret’s own account of his voyage, last published in 1811, in the Foyle Reading Room of the Royal Geographic Society, I was struck by the fact he makes no mention of whether any of the Islanders survived this encounter. Armed only with flint-tipped spears and arrows against muskets, I think we can assume things went badly. For his part, Carteret writes only that “hostilities being thus commenced we seized their canoe, in which we found about an hundred cocao-nuts, which were very acceptable.”
©Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
In his defence, the captain should not really be blamed for this oversight. He was simply the product of a worldview in which the lives of a few foreigners were seen as an irrelevance next to the advance of European progress. I mention this now because today, a little over 200 years later, the Carteret Islanders are on the receiving end of the same mistaken ignorance.
Today, the people of the Carteret Islands are preparing for an evacuation. Clustered together within a coral atoll east of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the islands lie low above the ocean that surrounds them. As climate change causes sea levels to rise, their crops and wells of fresh water have been poisoned by salt, and one island has been entirely cut in half by the waves. As a result, the PNG regional government has decided to evacuate the entire 1000-strong population to Bougainville, an island 50 miles away across the open sea. This will make the Islanders the world’s first people to officially be evacuated because of climate change.
Yet, in the West, no one seems to even know they are there.
I first heard about the Carterets in November 2005, when the evacuation was announced. I was working for The Australian newspaper at the time and tore the article out, pinning it to the wall above my desk. This was important, I told myself. A signal moment in human history. The first wave in what will soon become a flood of climate change refugees. Someone should be there to witness it. Over the next couple of years, as I moved desks around the office, that article followed me. Watching me as I worked.
Since that November, little progress has been made on lifting the Islanders to safety. Last week the woman organising the evacuation, Ursula Rakova wrote to me saying this:
We have great difficulties with finance but we have some land secured in 2 locations.
Money is very hard in coming though, for purchase of land, survey and building homes for the families. Most crucial aspects that not too many donors wish to support, I am afraid. Our work on the relocation site is on going but we’re not getting enough financial support as expected.
Yes, we will be moving only 5 families in March and hopefully 20 by October if the funds come in. Thank you so much.
It seems we are ignoring our destruction of these people.
I hope this situation can be changed and, to achieve this, I will be travelling to the Islands. I have received funding from the Royal Geographical Society and BBC ‘Journey of a Lifetime Award’ and plan to be there when the first boats leave and, hopefully, to join the Islanders on this journey for their lives. In a way, I am repeating Carteret’s four-year voyage. Except I will be travelling mostly by plane, so food will be slightly worse.
Throughout both the preparation and the journey itself, I will be blogging weekly for The Ecologist, and daily on a dedicated blog. I believe that the least we can do is bear witness to what is happening - to accept our collective responsibility for it. My hope is that we can help raise the funding the Islanders desperately need. I hope you will join me. Together, we may in some small way address the wrong begun over two centuries ago.
Dan Box will be blogging live on his journey to the Carteret Islands at www.journeytothesinkinglands.wordpress.com