Likiep: Between seas and history
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Photo courtesy of Karen Earnsshaw/Marshall Islands Guide
While working in Likiep atoll installing solar panels, something struck Larry Lang, a nice young Marshallese man, about the Likiep people.
He was taken aback by how even though the residents had no electricity — and so no cold water, no ice cream — they seemed incredibly happy. He says much happier in fact than those on the more developed atolls who in comparison have access to everything.
Larry was sent to provide electricity to an island called Om-En, which was only occupied by a family of 13 people. When his crew arrived, they found a welcome party filled with dancing and feasting.
Their whole time there the locals did not stop feeding the workers. Even though Larry saw them eating just breadfruit, coconuts, pumpkin, chickens and seafood he never heard anyone complain. The people of the island spent their days helping each other collect food, cook, work on boats and care for the place. They all even slept together in small houses.
Morgan Cameron, a visitor to the atoll, concurs with Larry, saying “It was the friendliest of the atolls I visited.”
It is very different on Likiep than on the Marshall Islands’ capital Majuro — there are about 400 people to the “big city’s” roughly 22,000. Like all the dots of land in the Pacific, Likiep has its own unique history, in particular its formative experiences under European colonization.
People developed complex traditions, cuisine, technologies and religion on the Marshall Islands for thousands of years before Europeans set eyes on them, forever changing Marshallese cultures. Morgan Cameron recounted the oft-told legend of the beginnings of the atoll’s European colonial period: “[D]uring the days of warring chieftains, the chief of that chain [of islands] welcomed a whaling ship into their lagoon.”
The chief was enamored of their harpoon gun but the captain would not give it to him. “Two crew members — one named deBrum and one Cappele — got off the ship, with one of the ship’s harpoon guns, to stay in Likiep. In return the chief gave them both wives and offered them islands.”
“He actually offered them a larger chain of islands, but they said they wanted Likiep Atoll instead. The chief loved the gun so much that, legend has it, he made sure it was buried with him upon his death.”
The veracity of this story is in question, but what is known is that Likiep was the first Marshall Islands atoll to be purchased by European interests from a local irooj (chief) named Jortoka. In 1877, a Portuguese trader named Anton deBrum bought the land for goods of an estimated $1,250 value. They did not just hand it over, they accepted the money and entered into the agreement as they thought that it would bring greater sustainability and quality of life to the atoll. DeBrum was also trusted because he was married to a Marshallese woman with whom he had many children.
Although the irooj Jortoka agreed to only sell it to deBrum, the year after it was put under the control of his employer German company Capelle & Co, in a partnership with deBrum, under an opaque and complex agreement. Another interest, Charles Ingells, also bought in. In 1885 the Marshall Islands became a German territory.
European economic interests in the Marshall Islands were, at the time, primarily in the production of copra (dried coconut “meat”).
The two controlling families thus set out to create a new economic system on the atoll and it soon was cleared and replanted. It became a center of copra production and boat-building in the region. Industry drew in laborers from surrounding islands and the atoll shifted from small, weathered, subsistence villages to a productive, colonial village-style plantation. Many thousands of coconut trees were planted and Likiep-built ships were sold across Micronesia. An agreement of shared profits was reached between the company and locals.
Then came the 20th century. When Japan took control in World War I the economic system again was upended as copra production and profits had to be negotiated with new ownership.
Following the war came American occupation and the attendant cultural and economic upheaval that that brought to the country. The U.S. flooded the country with American goods and tested 210 megatons of nuclear weapons over 13 years.
After independence in 1986 the 100 years of colonial rule and outside economic powers had left Likiep a very different place. Having not had irooj control since European purchase, who held the power on the island was now a nebulous question. Many of the people are still deBrums and Capelles, and they are still navigating what it means to be from Likiep, Marshallese, European, and how the culture will proceed.
Remnants of colonial villages and planting still inform the Likiep landscape. Larry, Cameron and other visitors have commented on the exceptional cleanliness of the beaches and settlements, which set it apart from other parts of the Marshall Islands. A large, brightly-colored Catholic church cuts a figure in the main village; while the German Plantation Haus, deBrum Pacific-trader house, Japanese community center, Spanish wharf and Spanish cistern weave flecks of history through the handsome rows of palm trees in this exceptionally paradisiacal island.
As the atoll has such a small population, getting to and leaving there both pose a problem if you do not have your own craft. There, Air Marshall Islands is referred to as “Air-maybe.
Morgan Cameron, the tourist, planned to be there on a Monday to Friday but was told the plane would not go there due to some squabbling within the airline. He wound up missing three days of work. “I thought that was bad, but I was told about a European guy who was trapped there for three months.”
There was word on the island that the man had gone there in search of treasure and got stuck. He refused to leave his hut, stewing and waiting for locals to bring him food.
“The mayor of Likiep at the time was in a fight with AMI (Air Marshall Islands) over the state of the runway. Locals refused to change, so AMI refused to land there. So this poor bastard was trapped for months.”
Likiep’s economic and cultural history are amalgamations of foreign exploitation interests and hard-won local agency.
To Larry Lang, the solar-power-installer, the people of Likiep look more European — they have lighter skin and different noses. The more remarkable thing, however, was how unburdened they seemed. Life was much more straightforward and unencumbered by things not related to family, land, food and relationships.
The beaches are sandy and pristine — not rocky and polluted like some on other atolls. Visitors also notice how well-organized and defined the land is, also perhaps a remnant of plantation days.
No matter what a century of colonial exploits and war does to Likiep, local spirit and Marshallese traditions make it a paradise. For such a small place with such a small population, outcomes of myriad foreign machinations have coalesced, evolving with the culture while not erasing it and for many of its visitors, creating a haven from want.