29 June 2004

Ngatik Men's Creole and Its Legacy

One result of the massacre of all the men on Ngatik atoll in 1837 and their replacement by their killers from aboard the cutter Lambton was the creation of an unusual language, Ngatik Men's Creole, described in Ethnologue as:
A creolized language from the Sapuahfik dialect of Ponapean and English whose genesis is the direct result of a massacre in 1837 of adult males on Ngatik by British traders. Spoken by adult males who are also native bilinguals of the Sapuahfik dialect of Ponapean. Adult male speakers. Women and children understand it.
Most Pacific creoles are built out of words from the colonial languages (chiefly English or French) in a grammatical framework based on local languages. Ngatik Men's Creole is the reverse: The nouns, verbs, and adjectives are mostly of Pohnpeic origin, but the pronouns, prepositions, and such are mostly from English. It appears as if the foreign men started by speaking (some Pacific maritime variety of) English to each other, but gradually replaced the English content words as they became bilingual in the language of their wives.

Partly for linguistic reasons, the people of Ngatik later came to identify strongly with Americans. Among the nonlinguistic reasons is the relative egalitarianism of Americans compared to the more explicitly (but fluidly) hierarchical orientation of Pohnpeians.
Sapwuahfik people explicitly compare their perceived egalitarianism to American ways, and mehn Pohnpei share the recognition of American style as egalitarian....

Sapwuahfik's sense of having special ties with Americans is founded on a number of historical incidents, beginning with uncertainty about Hart's nationality, which for some people has become the determination that he was American (from the documents, he appears to have been a British citizen; the Lambton was registered in Sydney, Australia). (One man joked to me about filing a claim for damages against the United States on account of the massacre.) Sapwuahfik's history of affiliation with Americans can be traced through stories about the immediate postmassacre period (when several memorable Anglophones, some American, lived there), the American missionary era, World War II (when the U.S. military visited and bestowed gifts on the atoll) and the post-1960 era of U.S. economic generosity. Anecdotes of World War II include personal encounters with flyers and soldiers that emphasize the bravery, friendliness, and generosity of the Americans. Because they alone spoke English, Sapwuahfik men on Pohnpei acted as interpreters and assistants to incoming U.S. troops.

Today it is the people of Pohnpei, and to an extent other Micronesians in the Eastern Carolines, who have greatest access to and familiarity with American ways. Yet Sapwuahfik people retain a sense of identification with Americans. In their view of the past, they moved from a state of darkness through the trial of the massacre onto a path of increasing enlightenment, which today is consonant with the general shift in Micronesia toward political democracy and decreasing emphasis on traditional rank as a source of power. The construction of history is thus strengthened by American ideals of democracy and social equality, in which mehn Sapwuahfik see themselves as more like Americans than are their Eastern Carolines neighbors.

A second symbolic elaboration of Sapwuahfik identity is as sincere Christians, in distinction from neighbors who are thought to use sorcery. Concern about possible magical harm pervades discussions about illness or misfortune, and caution about sorcery dangers accompanies Sapwuahfik visitors to Pohnpei. Throughout much of the Pacific and elsewhere, it is "others" who employ magic, and "we" who are true Christians. The Sapwuahfik claim partakes of this general phenomenon. Yet beyond this, the notion of Sapwuahfik virtue (like the assertion of egalitarian socioeconomic relations) is supported by a historical argument: atoll people rejected pagan ways as a result of the massacre and are now firmly committed to increasing "enlightenment" in both religious and political terms. God's mercy on the island after the terrible punishment of the massacre is a reward for their faithfulness to his religion. Sapwuahfik's claim of special divine protection rests on uniquely local indicators--people point out that Sapwuahfik does not suffer from typhoons or food scarcity, as other islands do, and that it was preserved from bombing in World War II.

Egalitarian and religious considerations are thus potent markers, affirming the forward-looking, allied-with-power, "enlightened" qualities of Sapwuahfik culture.
SOURCE: The Ngatik Massacre: History and Identity on a Micronesian Atoll, by Lin Poyer (Smithsonian I. Press, 1993), pp. 232-234

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