The ancient city of Nan Madol, which translates as ‘the space between’, was built sometime between 700 and 1200 CE, on a coral reef just off the island of Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia. It was a city of islands, a miniature Micronesia consisting of 92 man-made bits of land. Micronesia itself is made up of 607 islands, of which the city of Palikir on Pohnpei is the capital. There is only one way for civilians to get to Pohnpei and most of the other islands in Micronesia. United Airlines Flight 154 takes off from Honolulu and, over the course of 22 hours, stops at Majuro and Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, then at Kosrae, Pohnpei and Chuuk in Micronesia, before reaching its destination, Guam.
Standing in front of me at the check-in queue in Honolulu was an American bound for the US military base on Kwajalein. I asked him what he did there and he told me he was a military contractor and ex-soldier, currently employed at a ‘facility’. This sounded mysterious, so I asked him what went on at the ‘facility’. He lowered his voice: ‘Oh you know, they do things and stuff.’ When we began talking to the woman behind us, who was joining her husband, a soldier, on Kwajalein, it emerged that he was a mechanic, in charge of maintaining the island’s rubbish trucks.
Only a thousand people live on Kwajalein, most of them American. Fifteen thousand Marshallese live on its closest neighbour, Ebeye, an island one-tenth of the size and one of the most densely populated places on earth. Though it is part of the Marshall Islands, Marshallese may only live on Kwajalein with the permission of the US army. The relationship between Kwajalein and Ebeye mirrors South Africa’s apartheid pass system: Ebeye’s residents are allowed onto Kwajalein only to work and must leave every day after their shift ends.
Few of them chose to settle on Ebeye. Most are refugees, or the children and grandchildren of refugees, from the US nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll, carried out between 1946 and 1958. After the Second World War the Marshall Islands and Micronesia were made part of a single territory, the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific, and this group of more than two thousand islands was put under American control. The US decided to use this new territory to test nuclear weapons: the combined energy yield of the tests exceeded seven thousand Hiroshimas. In the aftermath of Castle Bravo, a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb that was exploded over Bikini in 1954, John Anjain, a magistrate from nearby Rongelap, reported that ‘women gave birth to creatures that did not resemble human beings: some of the creatures looked like monkeys, some like octopi, some like bunches of grapes.’
A little north of the equator, and just west of the International Dateline, Micronesia sits between China, the US and Australia. Pohnpei is 5000 km from Hawaii, 4000 km from Taipei and 3000 km from the Australian city of Cairns. The UN created eleven trust territories around the world, but because of its location, the Pacific Trust Territory was the only one whose future had to be determined by the Security Council, rather than the General Assembly.
In 1986, the US terminated the trusteeship and Micronesia became independent. It had by then entered into a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the US, which is still in place today. Its most recent version gives Micronesians the right to study, work and live in the US and provides Micronesia with financial and military support. The agreement is set to expire next year, a fact that has become newly significant as China tries to gain a foothold in the region. According to a recent report by the US Institute of Peace, ‘perhaps to a greater extent than any other geographic area, the Pacific Islands offer China a low-investment, high-reward opportunity to score symbolic, strategic and tactical victories in pursuit of its global agenda.’
The US has never tested bombs in what became Micronesia. It hasn’t been allowed to build a military base there either. Instead, it has recruited Micronesians to fight in its wars: per capita, Micronesians sign up to the US military at a higher rate than people in any US state. One in a hundred Micronesians is currently enlisted. They also died in greater numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, per capita, than recruits from any US state, according to Christian Science Monitor, which reported in 2010 that Micronesia had ‘lost soldiers at a rate five times the US average’.
Photographs of ten of the dead hang on the wall of the arrivals lounge at Pohnpei Airport, where Kukulunn Galen, a representative from the tourism department, was waiting to meet me. I was the first journalist to visit since Micronesia’s borders had reopened after Covid, she told me, putting a wairenleng of fresh flowers on my head. We looked at the portraits. ‘This is one of the benefits of our relationship with the US,’ she said, then laughed, realising what she had implied.
Walking to the centre of Kolonia, Pohnpei’s main town, I passed sleeping dogs, small shops selling snacks, a Unicef office in a shipping container, a post office, a satellite dish as big as the post office, the bright green tourism office with a sign showing the distance from Pohnpei to various cities around the world, and a billboard displaying two thermometers, which measured the island’s Covid vaccination progress (70 per cent of the population). At the Red Cross office I met Diaz Joseph, a former chairman of the local branch, who now teaches at the college in Kolonia. I asked him where his brightest students end up. ‘The military,’ he said. ‘It’s unfortunate.’ The US military holds many rounds of aptitude tests each year. There are few other means available to students who want to study overseas, and even then the army pays only for approved courses. Enlisting also means your flight off the island is paid for – a serious consideration for many young people. A one-way ticket costs more than $1000, a quarter of the average income on the island.
Once in the US, Micronesians have full working rights. But raising the money to get off the island without joining the army is difficult. First, you might turn to civil servants, who earn good salaries, for help. If that fails, and it usually does, your family will hold a raffle, gathering donations of coconuts, taro, bananas, rice, chickens and maybe a pig, selling tickets at 25 cents each. The winner gets the whole lot, Joseph told me, making the shape of a large pile with his hands.
There are more than 100,000 Micronesian citizens, but less than two-thirds of them live in Micronesia itself; nearly all of the others live in the US. Micronesia is the world’s sixth smallest economy, with a GDP of just $400 million a year. A quarter of this comes from the US government under the terms of the compact; just under a quarter comes from selling fishing rights to vessels from other countries – mainly China, Taiwan and Japan. The hundreds of islands don’t add up to much: together, they make up an area smaller than New York City. But the area between them is vast. Micronesia controls the world’s fourteenth largest exclusive economic zone – around 2.6 million square kilometres of ocean to which it has sole exploration rights. This is three times larger than China’s undisputed zone, and twice as large as China’s and Taiwan’s combined. Chinese funds paid for the building that houses Pohnpei’s Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.
It’s projected that in seven years’ time, the waters of Micronesia will be so acidic that the coral reefs – which not only absorb carbon dioxide and support the fish on which its inhabitants depend, but are a buffer against rough seas and high tides – may no longer be able to grow more than they shrink, as the acid dissolves them. They are expected to stop growing altogether before long: the Pacific Ocean has become 30 per cent more acidic over the last two hundred years. The acidity is likely to increase by a further 150 per cent by the end of this century, making the ocean unliveable for many life forms.
Drought and rising sea levels threaten subsistence crops. Because Pohnpei is mountainous, it is relatively well protected. But on the smaller islands, coconut trees are being washed away and taro patches are inundated by salt water. Many local legends centre on food, and people on the island used gastronomical metaphors to explain things to me. (‘These are my banana trees! These are my yams!’ Joseph said of his students.) The stories about Nan Madol focus on food, and the cruelty and greed of the Saudeleur emperors, two brothers, Olosihpa and Olosohpa, who sailed to Pohnpei ‘from the western sky’. The Saudeleurs were all-seeing and all-knowing and had many rules about who could eat what. Pohnpeians, who lived on sea snails, oysters, clams, fish, coconut and breadfruit, were not allowed to eat even a single louse; any louse they found had to be taken to the Saudeleurs. The emperors’ dog, Watchman of the Land, made sure of their obedience. In these legends, Pohnpeians succeed at impossible tasks – obtaining a scale from a fish nobody has ever seen, or, with the assistance of spirits, a feather from a mythical bird – assigned as punishment for even the smallest transgression (usually having eaten something they shouldn’t).
Each island in Nan Madol had a specific purpose. There was an island for clam aquaculture, another for turtle husbandry, one for burying priests and another for punishing, torturing or executing people who failed to pay sufficient tribute to their rulers. The city, abandoned for more than four hundred years, is now preserved as a Unesco World Heritage site. Pohnpeians managed to mine, move, lift and lower into place the basalt that built it. The weight of the stone would certainly sink a canoe – some pieces are estimated to weigh fifty tons. Local legend attributes its building to magic. The extensive Unesco documentation says only that building the city required transporting and placing ‘an estimated two thousand tons of volcanic rock every year for at least three to four centuries without the benefit of pulleys, levels, metal tools or wheels’.
The Saudeleurs worshipped a god called Nahnisohnsapw. Nahnisohnsapw’s medium on earth was a saltwater eel, Nahn Samwohl (a very eel-like name), who was ‘large, foreign, frightening and ravenous’, according to the historian David Hanlon. Nahn Samwohl was the evil version of the smaller, friendlier-looking freshwater eels worshipped by Pohnpeians. He lived on one of the islands of Nan Madol in a well, connected to other islands by underwater tunnels. Twice a year, in a ceremony marking the transition between rak, the season of plenty, and isol, the season of scarcity, he was fed turtle stomach (the two sons of a turtle had once expressed the desire to eat dog, another forbidden food).
The Saudeleurs were invaders; according to legend, until their arrival Pohnpei had been ruled by the descendants of the nine women and seven men who first discovered the island, guided there by divine winds and an octopus. When they arrived on the island, they built an altar. Pohnpei means ‘on a stone altar’.
The Pohnpeians were liberated from Saudeleur rule by the son of the Thunder God, who had escaped imprisonment on Nan Madol and sailed to a mythical island where he impregnated a woman by squeezing lime juice into her eyes. Their son, Isokelekel, grew up hearing stories about the Saudeleurs and, sometime in the early 1600s, sailed to Pohnpei with 333 warriors. Isokelekel is still seen as the hero who liberated Pohnpeians from tyrannical – and centralised – rule. Isokelekel introduced the traditional system of Nahnmwarki, or multiple chiefs, which continues to this day, unbroken even by colonial rule. In 1886, Pohnpei was colonised by Spain. Germany bought it in 1898 and Japan claimed it after the First World War, retaining it as a territory until 1945 – small, rusty Japanese tanks can still be found in its forests.
Augustine Kohler, the acting director in charge of Nan Madol, believes it was a place for sailors to trade, restock and pray for their journey ahead. He started his story of the ancient city by saying: ‘This was the only time in Pohnpei’s history that we were ruled by one person.’ Nan Madol is a reminder of the dangers of falling under the spell of a foreign power. This is especially relevant at the moment, as Micronesia tries to maintain ties with both the US and China, using China’s interest in the region as leverage in negotiations with the US (particularly when it comes to climate change adaptation).
And China is extremely interested. Between a pretty Catholic church and a baseball pitch in Kolonia is a large basketball court on which the words ‘KOLONIA-CHINA FRIENDSHIP CENTRE’ are painted in person-sized letters. It was built in 2017 in front of – and dwarfing – a small Japanese statue of Buddha. As we stood looking at it, Jasmine Remoket, a guide from the tourist office, smiled. ‘If China sponsors something you will know,’ she said, sweeping her hands across the sky.
Earlier this year China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, a leaked draft of which mooted the possibility of China establishing its first military base in the Pacific, less than 2000 km from Australia. Shortly afterwards, China circulated a draft policing, security and data agreement with ten Pacific nations, prompting the Micronesian president, David Panuelo, to write to the other Pacific leaders warning that signing the deal would increase the likelihood of ‘a new Cold War era at best, and a World War at worst’, and was a distraction in the face of what he called ‘our ceaseless and accurate howls that climate change represents the single-most existential security threat to our islands’.
Micronesia’s seas are rising by more than a centimetre every year, three times higher than the global average. There are few places on earth threatened by climate change to the same extent as the low-lying Pacific islands. Twelve of the coral reef islands off Pohnpei have shrunk or disappeared totally in the past decade according to Patrick D. Nunn, a professor of geography and sustainability at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. Two more are likely to go over the next few years.
Among the recipients of Panuelo’s letter were the four Pacific nations that recognise Taiwan: Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Palau and Tuvalu. These tiny states are subject to intense lobbying by both sides. The Solomon Islands switched allegiance from Taiwan in 2019, while Nauru has switched and switched back again in recent years. ‘A war for Taiwan is equivalent to a war between China and the United States,’ Panuelo wrote. ‘Whoever wins in such a conflict, we will once again be the collateral damage.’
The countries collectively rejected China’s proposal and in August, Joe Biden announced that the ‘first ever US-Pacific Island Country Summit’ would be held the next month – an example of what Patricia O’Brien, who teaches Pacific studies at Georgetown University, called ‘warp speed’ diplomacy. This time, the leaders did sign a declaration. It promised $810 million in aid over the next decade, not including the additional funding expected when COFA is renewed later this year. (The Solomon Islands signed the declaration only after all ‘indirect references’ to China had been removed.) ‘China did us a huge favour,’ Bill Jaynes told me. Jaynes is American but has lived on Pohnpei for three decades; he is currently the only journalist on the island’s only newspaper, the Kaselehlie Press. ‘I’ve worked with many ambassadors who have said: “There will be absolutely no extension of the financial terms [of COFA].” In the last year and a half, that changed.’
I left for Nan Madol with Paul David, another guide from the tourist office. We drove out of Kolonia along the island’s ring road – the complete circuit takes three hours – much of which is lined with single-storey houses, some painted in bright colours and all with a garden. Taro, banana and breadfruit grow alongside flowers – hibiscus, orchids, frangipani – and many houses have pig pens. Just beyond a sign saying ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of U’ (U is the name of the municipal area), the vegetation opened up to reveal a small bay. We turned left, drove down a hill, and entered an underworld: the roots of the mangrove forest.
Waiting in a motorboat was Ayler Gallen, a Nahn Saum, or traditional leader. Lying in the boat was his sleepy four-year-old grandson, Jose. We sputtered along a mangrove canal, out to the open sea. Mangroves grow on, in, or near almost every structure on Nan Madol. We passed a wall that dropped to a small foothold of land at the edge of the water: this was Takai en Rihp Kapehd, ‘the rock of the tightening stomach’. Pregnant women used to walk from one end to the other: if they managed to touch the far side, their child would be a warrior.
We passed into a wide canal, moving between various large basalt islands that sometimes could be glimpsed only in gaps between the monstrous mangrove roots. Then we began to slow down, and could no longer see the open ocean. To our right stood Nandowas, one of the most impressive islands of Nan Madol, surrounded by walls two storeys high. Its name means ‘in the mouth of the high chief’.
‘No one knew what was in the mouth of the high chief,’ the Pohnpeian oral historian Masao Hadley writes in Nan Madol: Spaces on the Reef of Heaven. ‘No one knew what he did inside. No one understood what was inside Nandowas. Nandowas was a place of war.’ We got off the boat and I put my hand on one of the enormous columns. The front walls formed an entrance through which another, shorter set of walls guarded a central building. Plants grew everywhere: vines, trees, taro plants with leaves as big as a person, palms and ferns of every description. Trees pose the greatest threat to the man-made city – falling branches and growing roots are breaking up the islet walls and foundations while mangroves close off the canals – and are weakening its defences against rising seas and stronger storms.
That day, a group of workers cutting back mangroves had cleared a waterway thought to have been impassable for fifty years. This was part of a conservation project funded by the US State Department and due to end this year. Progress had been slow – fearful of spirits, the workers wouldn’t stay after 3 p.m. We followed the newly cleared route. Deeper in the forest, the only light came through small gaps in the thick canopy. David spotted a ray in the water, causing Jose to forget his seasickness and clamber to the front of the boat to see it. Gallen said that it was a blessing and would guide us back to open water. David sounded sceptical as he translated, but the ray continued to swim slightly ahead of the boat until the canal opened into a broad waterway. Then the ray slowed down, we passed it, and it was gone.
With David as translator, I asked Gallen how he had felt travelling along that canal for the first time in fifty years. ‘He feels sad when he looks at it because it is so different from when he was small. He says that back then it was well maintained, people really looked after it. He is happy to see that it is being cleared now, but the project will end in January and he knows the work will not be done by then.’
On the way home, David bought a bottle of sakau and dispensed a little to each of us in empty water bottles. Sakau is made by pounding kava root and mixing it with hibiscus sap; it tastes like wheatgrass, but muddier. It is meant to cause a feeling of wellbeing and calm: Pohnpeians drink it ceremonially and for fun, and before discussing difficult subjects.
David told me about his nephew, a straight-A student who had hoped to go to medical school. His father, David’s brother, had died around the time the boy was applying to college, and when four weeks passed without a reply he went to the US embassy to sign up with the army. David had urged him not to go. ‘When he arrived home from the embassy, his acceptance letter for medical school was waiting for him,’ David said. But his nephew felt it was too late. He did a tour in Afghanistan and now lives in the US. David’s son is finishing high school and he, too, wants to join the military. David and his wife are pleading with him not to.
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