Variations | The Northern Islands, 44 years ago

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HERE’S how a Marianas Variety special report described the Northern Islands in Sept. 1976: 

“Four beautiful, barely inhabited islands, seven superb islands devoid of human life, the splendor of these magnificent oceanic mountains can only be described as exquisite.”

The writer, Patrick Evans, was among the passengers of Normar II, the Trust Territory government ship that, every three months, would sail from Saipan to the Northern Islands “to bring services and supplies to the isolated, tiny populations which call these foreboding surfaced volcanoes their homes.” Of the 10 Northern Islands, Evans said three had permanent populations: Pagan, Alamagan and Agrihan. “The remaining islands, although some were once inhabited, are today without settlements.” Evans reminded MV readers that “this part of the world is known as a typhoon belt. In this region…exists some of the most unusual and dangerously unpredictable weather.”

Normar II’s first stop was Anatahan. “Because of its proximity to Saipan, and because of its abundant marketable resources, Anatahan is a popular place for enterprising Saipanese families. There is, however, a limit to the amount of business this rocky precipice can support. This limitation is geographically imposed. As with all the islands of the Northern Marianas, Anatahan only reluctantly plays host to man.”

To begin with, Anatahan “offers little in the way of level land. The volcanic peak reaches a height of 2,600 feet. With a substrata of hard non-porous rock, Anatahan is only able to support a lush, green, tropical foliage by virtue of its rich topsoil and frequent rains.”

There were no harbor facilities so Normar II “must ride offshore at anchor, constantly susceptible to any change in weather conditions. The ship’s small boat plies the choppy water, ferrying supplies and passengers to and from, from ship to shore. Landing on the island is no easy task. The chore requires an islander’s dexterity. If the sea is rough (and it frequently is), the boulder-lined, craggy shoreline is quite hazardous. And once on the beach, the perils do not cease. Getting around the island involves sure-footedness and expert use of machete.”

So what made Anatahan special in those days? Its betel nut which, Evans said, was “extremely popular” and “coveted highly by the people of the Marianas.” A sack of Anatahan betel nut could be sold for $75 — about $342 today — on Saipan.  “One can make good money, by Saipan standards, with a little work and small sacrifices — no modern conveniences for three months.”

“Back on the ship for the return voyage to Saipan,” Evans wrote, “an old man gazed past his sacks of betel nut, resting on the deck, to the recently typhoon damaged forests [of Anatahan]. The typhoon was terrifying. Yet he had endured, along with his family; he had profited…, he vowed to return.”

Next stop was Alamagan which had been hit twice by typhoons in the past six months. Enough trees had been killed to affect copra production, Evans wrote, but Alamagan’s inhabitants, “undaunted, were determined to stay on their island,” which was home to four families, “about fifty people.”

As with all the inhabited Northern Islands, “the mode of life on Alamagan is one of subsistence agriculture, government aid, and the harvesting of coconuts to manufacture the island’s only cash crop — copra.”

There were no modern conveniences on Alamagan. But its one small generator “produces…enough power to run the radio, the island’s only community link with the outside world.” Evans noted that “many foods commonly eaten on Alamagan are considered hard to come by delicacies by the average Saipanese. Fruit Bat, a favorite throughout the Marianas, is priced out of the reach of most Saipanese families. But on Alamagan the animal is easily obtained after a brief and exhilarating hunt.”

But Alamagan was also known as “the island of the flies.” The island’s enchantment, Evans said, “is sometimes difficult to appreciate because of hordes of the harmless yet annoying airborne pest.”

Among the Northern Islands, Pagan was the most attractive, Evans said. Its only cash crop was copra which at the time fetched the price of $105 (about $479 today) a ton. Hence, the islanders of Pagan, like the residents of Alamagan and Agrihan, were only able to buy a few non-essentials from the merchants on Normar II.

But “there are various proposals and studies concerning development in Pagan. The [TT] government favors Pagan over the other islands as the logical place for development.” Saipan Mayor Luis Benavente, in a separate MV news story, said “there are millions to be made” on Pagan. He mentioned a hotel and a fishing industry as among the “most promising ideas.”  However, he added, “more people must live on [the Northern] Islands before real development can begin.” And significant government financial assistance was also needed, he said.

From Pagan, Normar II headed to Agrihan. “With the highest volcano peak in all of the Trust Territory, Agrihan Island is visible from a great distance. Rising to a height of 3,100 feet, Agrihan’s peak is constantly ringed by clouds. These clouds were deceptive enough in 1954 to cause the crash of a U.S. military plane.”

Coconut trees were plentiful, Evans said, “and all sixty inhabitants are engaged in the production of copra.” Like Alamagan, Agrihan had an insect problem. “The only way to escape the flies is to lounge around and enjoy one of three superb black sand beaches.”

Evans said the “weighing and loading of copra, a constantly reenacted scene in these islands, is the primary task. The work is tedious. Each sack of copra, weighing upwards of 120 lbs, must be carefully hand-loaded on to the beach shore boat for conveyance to the ship.”

Not surprisingly, “everyone is eager to complete the loading of the copra and start spending their copra earnings. Bales of barbed wire, Australian rice, nails, tools, all types of goods are brought from the ship for the enthusiastic customers of Agrigan.” Money was useless on the island without the merchants from Saipan.

“As the day’s work is completed everyone pauses to relax. Beer, a rarity in these parts, is visible everywhere. It is available only when the ship comes.”

Evans said the people of the Northern Islands yearned for more amenities. Perhaps, he mused, the islands would change. “Maybe the largely self-sufficient societies will decide to sacrifice some of the beauty which surrounds them for the sake of progress. Then again, perhaps the beauty of Pagan, Alamagan and Agrihan need not be diminished in the wake of increasing change.”

So far, the active volcanoes of the Northern Islands — specifically of Pagan and Anatahan — have had the last say in this matter.

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