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 On the island of Vanuasemia


Chapter 1. The Island of VanuaSemia

Vanuasemia -The Island of Meanings
VanuaSemia, Liza's Reef, coral reef artV
anuasemia, which  means "Island of Meanings',  in Polynesian (vanua = land or island, semia = meanings/revelations)  is located approximately 600 miles east of  the three small atolls of Tokelau in a remote section of the South Pacific. The thumb nailed image to the left shows the island approaching from the southern shore.

Jacques Seymour's painting of Vanuasemia -circa 1940

The island is only twelve  square miles,  ringed completely by extensive coral reefs and numerous sand fringed small islets, or motus. There are three azure lagoons on the western shore also, lovely and serene, that  frame the coral reefs beyond.  Very little of Vanuasemia is flat, except along the shore, and it's green tropical slopes and mountain valleys  are dominated by an extinct volcano towering 2500 feet above sea level, referred to by the islanders as Tawhaki Oaoa.


The Rainforest of Tawhaki Oaoa
Liza's Reef, coral reef art
Because of it's height, the volcano's spines  produce clouds from the prevailing easterly  winds and the lower reaches of  the windward slope is home to a lush tropical rainforest, fueled by the abundant rainfall. The island's main river flows from this forest and reaches the sea after a short winding journey through valleys overflowing with banana trees, breadfruit, palms and an exquisite kaleidoscope of  countless  wild orchids, hibiscus and frangipani.

The Queen's Orchid, a hybrid grown in the rainforest on VanuaSemia, Liza's Reef, coral reef artVanuaSemia's only exports are plants that are grown in these valleys, including some of the rare and beautiful Dream Orchids that are only found in this forest and nowhere else in the world. These are a unique scented species, and are delicate shades of lavender and pink,  with brilliant lime green stripes sometimes running the length of the three petals, and  always the dorsal sepal.


The Black Pearls of Vanuasemia
Liza's Reef, coral reef artVanuasemia, because of it's isolation and small size , has remained relatively unknown and has no tourist facilities to speak of. There is one tiny hotel, The Maori's Retreat, in the island's main village of  Poehina  that offers four rooms that are primitive but which are clean and modestly comfortable.
Poehina is a lovely island village, and the name means "The Moon Goddess Pearl" in Polynesian. About seventy of the island's two hundred and seventy natives live in Poehina, the rest in the other six smaller villages scattered all the coastline.   The lagoon in front of the village is known for it's black pearl oysters and many years ago, according to island history a  pearl of exceptional beauty and shape was found there by Aiata, a young girl who grew to become the island's Queen. It was during Aiata's reign that the shooting stars fell on the coral reefs and the sacred reef, Kuanaka Kapua, was born.


Chapter 2. Liza Reineange

What Happened on VanuaSemia in 1948
Liza's Reef, coral reef artThe following events took place on the island  during the late 1940's, just after the end of World War II, and were related to me by an elderly Vanuasemian named Ra'imere who had been island chief at that time. I also learned of the events in the 40's from reading the journals of Jacques Seymour, a former Frenchman who had lived on the island at the time of the incident. 

Kuanaka Kapua -The Sacred Reef 
According to the story that persists to this day on Vanuasemia,  the coral reef that is now known as "Liza's Reef" was originally called Kuanaka Kapua -"The Sacred Reef". The  myths of the Manuia tradition  tell of a time many years before, during the reign of Queen Aiata, when shooting stars  fell  from the sky one night, and some landed just off the western side of the island,  in the vicinity of a large coral reef just offshore.   The islanders tell of  how  the  reef changed overnight  in extraordinary ways -new, exotic and previously unknown species of fish and coral appeared in great numbers, and celestial phenomena; stars, galaxies and lights began to appear among the corals.  The islanders were astonished at the beauty and mystery that now awaited them on every dive over the reef and it soon became a special place to them. The village council declared it tabu from  killing of any of the fish or animals that now lived there. This new tabu was further strengthened when many of the islanders who swam there began to experience visions  of the future, or "gift of the future" which they called it, of events that later took place exactly as they described them.  Those islanders who experienced these visions were referred to as Haili Kama or "the ones who see" and they were given special status in the island social order as persons whose voices were to be heard. All of this was attributed to one of their main deities, Motu Mana , the Vanuasemian Goddess of the Coral Reefs, whose  body  is  the coral  and whose hair is the waves that break like blossoms over them. The reef  was considered her gift  to the people of Vanuasemia, and they celebrate this fact every August, when the Tiare tree blossoms white like the surf,  with  ceremonies, song and dance,  and feasts that last for days.

Jacques Seymour & His Journals
Jacques Seymour was a French expatriate who in 1947-48, the time of this story,  had  lived on the island for almost 10 years. He was in his thirties, a painter and had traveled to the South Pacific for the same reasons Paul Gauguin and other artists before him did, to live and work in the most beautiful of places, far away from the distractions and materialism of modern civilized life. He kept journals when he lived on the island and after his death they were were passed on to Ra'imere, the island leader. Some of his paintings are in the possession of a number of islanders and at least two of them are in a museum in Australia.

Liza Reineange 
Liza Reineange, circa 1948Jacques Seymour's journals state that a beautiful young French woman, Liza Reineange,  arrived on the island in May of 1947, and stayed until the following June. They indicate that Reineange, who was thirty-two years old,  had grown up in Nice on the Cote D'Azur of France,  loved the sea  and was a superb photographer. Seymour  vividly describes her in great detail as extremely intelligent, one of the friendliest persons he had ever met,  and a fearless woman who possessed an air of complete self-assurance, confidence and determination. She was, in his words,  "a  true leader who was completely disarming with her easy laugh and mischievously captivating smile but at the same time, deeply serious as she got about the business of living".

She had  evidently been traveling in the South Pacific intent on documenting her travels and adventures in spite of the fact that World War II had just finished raging across the South Pacific. Her  photographs, primarily black and white, were for the most part   images of the islands, people and  flora. Upon her return to France in 1950, they were published by Emina Soleil, the  renowned Parisian publishing company, in a book entitled "Images of  A Journey in Paradise". One of her photographs. taken on Vanuasemia, also appeared in the November 1951 issue of National Geographic.  Her book has long been out of print and is sought after today as a collector's edition.

Seymour  and  Reineange evidently spent considerable time together during the year she was on Vanuasemia and they became close friends. His journal entries reflect a sadness after she and her friend Anapa left the island the following June.  He died about a year  after they left, struck by lightning when he got caught up in a tropical squall while  fishing off the island's southern shore.  Ra'imere, the island chief who was the same age as Seymour at the time, out lived him by 64 years!

A significant fact about Reineange, according to Seymour, was that her childhood heroine was Joan of Arc, something he conjectures probably played a role in the incredible events  that following spring of 1948. He relates that she talked to him on a number of occasions about her, and about growing up on the French Riviera, and the fond memories she had of Nice, the beaches there and especially the flower vendors in the Cours Selaya district.

Anapa -"The Wild Horse of a Girl"
Seymour also mentioned in his journals that  Reineange had arrived on the island accompanied by a young bright-eyed French girl named Anapa who had lived most of her life on Mo'orea with her missionary family. Anapa means "The Sea Sparkling Under The Sun" in Polynesian and she and Reineange had become immediate friends on Tahiti. According to Seymour, Anapa joined Reineange at that time on her travels and the two took off to see the rest of the South Pacific together. He describes her as  a "wild horse" of a girl,  twenty-four years old,  very outspoken and who could  run like a Thompson's gazelle. Like Reineange, she was captivatingly exotic,  and  carried herself with  a serene self confidence and innate intelligence that demanded immediate respect from anyone who met her.  She had a great fondness for animals Seymour recalls, and often talked about her favorite dog, a scruffy little brown island mutt named Powa that she had to leave behind at home when she took off with Reineange. She loved to paint, something she evidently learned growing up in Paris as a young child before her family moved to Tahiti, and while on Vanuasemia Seymour let her use some of his paints and brushes, and she completed a number of paintings of island women.  Anapa and Reineange he described as great friends who laughed and smiled constantly, who seemed to share a common vision of the world and were in his words kindred spirits who together were an unforgettable  "force formidable."

Ra'imere, the island's former High Chief during the time Liza Reineange and Anapa visited the island. shared with me his memories of the two young women. He told me of incident in which Liza and Anapa lead the islanders in  stopping the United States Navy and it's plans to use the western  coral reefs as a test site for a new type of atomic bomb. In our conversation he described what happened that day in May of 1948, and of how amazed the islanders were  at the courage two girls showed in  accomplishing what they did. According to Ra'imere, it was only after Reineange decided to confront the Naval ships intent on relocating the islanders, did he and the others summon their courage and follow.  He said to me a number of times of how proud he was to have been there and to have played a part, even though he shared how he  feared for his life and the lives of all those in the canoes that day. At the end of our meeting, he told me he was one of those that  had changed "on the inside"  after diving on the reef, and that he had  been given the  "gift of the future" as the islanders called it. He said he saw clearly of his death which would come within the month, and that his life would soon be over.  I still have a vision of him  standing on the brown soft sand of the shore looking out over the ocean, watching the sea gulls sweeping low like white feathers in the wind over Liza's Reef, the reef that had changed his life forever.

Chapter 3: The Atomic Bomb

Atomic Bomb Tests in the Marshall Islands
n 1946, after the end of World War II, the United States government  under President Harry S. Truman conducted a series of atomic bomb tests (Operation Crossroads) in the Marshall Islands, which consists of 29 atolls and five islands scattered over 357,000 square miles in a part of the Pacific Ocean known as Micronesia.  Bikini Atoll, as the primary test site, was chosen by the government for these tests because of its isolated location away from regular air and sea routes.  The natives of Bikini, Enewetak and other Atolls in the Marshall Islands, as a result of a colossally stupid decision by United States government officials, were forcibly relocated to other inadequate and essentially uninhabitable atolls where many died of disease and starvation. Ultimately they were relocated to suitable islands but not until  much needless suffering had occurred. During this  testing period, three islands were totally vaporized and Bikini atoll, among many others was made completely uninhabitable due to nuclear contamination. To this day, the Bikini islanders still cannot return to their homeland and thousands of islanders throughout the Marshall Islands suffered horrible deaths and lifelong illnesses due to the radioactive fallout. The atom bombs that were used in these tests were a thousand times more powerful than the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the end of World War II. All of these tests were done supposedly to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships, and the innocent people of Bikini Atoll were told that they were being relocated and their island blown up "for the good of mankind and to end all world wars." 

U.S. Government Plans for Vanuasemia
According to the writings of Jacques Seymour, because of it's relative isolation  on the northern edge of the South Pacific islands, and the absence of any air or sea routes, with the exception of one island freighter that visited twice a month, Vanuasemia was also chosen as a test site  for a new generation of smaller nuclear bombs. These bombs, classified at the time as "Microburst Type II Weapons" were much smaller than those that were used in the Marshall Islands tests and were expected to carry payloads of less than 1 megatons. They were to be the government's first attempt to develop nuclear weapons whose blast effects were contained  within an area of less than one mile.  The coral reefs located just off the western shore of Vanuasemia, where the Sacred Reef Kuanaka Kapua was located was chosen as ground zero for the first  test because of its proximity to a shoreline  backed by the towering, almost vertical cliffs of  the volcano Tawhaki Oaoa. These cliffs  would have served as  a perfect  test wall, so to speak, where sensors and heavy electronic equipment could be placed at varying elevations to determine the blast radius and effects. As in Bikini and other islands, the two hundred and seventy five islanders of Vanuasemia were to be relocated against their will,  and the island itself annexed by the government as a nuclear test site, in spite of the fact that Vanuasemia was not a United States possession.

Navel Lieutenant Rip Dangerfield
Seymour further states in his journals that visits to Vanuasemia in 1944 and 1945 by scientists involved in the Marshall Islands "Operation Crossroads" had determined that the western shore of the island would be a perfect place for future testing of the then still theoretical Microburst Bombs. In August of 1947, the commander of  US Navy Coastal Transport USS APc-112, Naval Lieutenant Rip Dangerfield, was assigned  the task of relocating the  islanders of Vanuasemia to an uninhabited island in American Samoa and he visited  the following September with Commodore Bruce F. Jenkins, of the United States Military Command in the Pacific. In this visit Jenkins, a refined and intelligent man,  informed the stunned islanders that they were to be relocated and their homeland used as a nuclear testing site. He presented the bad news as considerately and as thoroughly as  anyone could have. The islanders were told, in spite of their dissent,  that they had until May 1st of the following year to prepare to relocate and that at that time the U.S. Navy would send ships, under Lieutenant Dangerfield's command,  to transport them to their new home. After Commodore Jenkins departed, Lieutenant Dangerfield stayed on VanuaSemia for another week to make plans with the island leaders for their relocation the following year, at which time he met Liza Reineange and  Anapa, as well as  Seymour himself.

Dangerfield was, according to Seymour's journal, an extremely handsome, arrogant self-centered  man who drank too much, and who was used to getting his way with women. Seymour relates that he took an immediate  and aggressive interest in both Reineange and Anapa when they first met in the only bar on the island,  The Maroi's Retreat, but they  left him "open-mouthed and speechless" after the encounter,  staring dumbstruck at the floor as if he had just  been reprimanded by General Douglas MacArthur himself. Evidently his slick come-ons  were met by a blistering salvo of words from both women simultaneously, telling him in no uncertain terms what they thought of him and the Navy's plan to blow up the coral reefs. The "force formidable" in action, according to Seymour. Lieutenant Dangerfield's  following week on the island was characterized by  rude treatment of virtually everyone that he encountered, and nights spent on The Maori's Retreat  porch getting drunk and harassing with crude sexual proposals any unfortunate island girl that happened to walk by.  From what Seymour could tell, Dangerfield's shallow, blind existence revolved around womanizing and drinking and he was in Seymour's words, "a  man who gave nothing to the world, but only took".  In a way, Seymour relates, Dangerfield was the very embodiment of the grim, fear driven men who had made the decisions to brutalize the Marshall islanders and to turn their tiny homelands into a hellish, radioactive desolation abyss.

Chapter 4. How The Reef Got Its Name

The Incident
In the months prior to May 1948, with great sadness and much reluctance, the islanders, according to Seymour continued to make preparations to be relocated when  the Navy would return. A grey cloudbank of despair had settled over them, and a quiet acceptance of what seemed inevitable -the loss of their beautiful island home and the destruction of  Kuanaka Kapua,  the Sacred Reef. Their pleas for the United States government to change it's plans went unanswered, in spite of numerous appeals to not only the U.S. Navy officers but American officials in Samoa, the Marshall Islands and elsewhere. They were told repeatedly that their new home would be better than Vanuasemia, that they would receive "much money" to move, and on a number of occasions, that the government really didn't give a damn about a so-called magical coral reef which  existed only in the islander's imaginations.

And so it was, on the day before the return of Lieutenant Dangerfield,  Reineange decided to act. After talking  with Anapa, who agreed with her plan, they informed  Ra'imere and the island council  that they were going to take an outrigger canoe out beyond the Sacred Reef the next morning and block the narrow inlet channel that wound its way though the coral reefs that ringed the island. Since this was the only deepwater access to the shore, their plan would  prevent  the ships from landing and in this way stop the relocation. Ra'imere and the other elders laughed at the plan "saying the two women would only get themselves killed,  and that there was nothing anybody could do to stop the great United States government".

However, the next morning, to their complete astonishment, Liza and Anapa were joined by Ra'imere and over one hundred and twenty eight  of the island's young men and women as they ran toward the beach and their canoe. During the night the others had realized that Reineange's plan was their last hope and that not to try to help her would shame them and throw away any chance that they might have. An  hour later there were  ten outriggers canoes completely blocking the channel and waiting for the  LCP Landing Craft that were approaching like sharks from the large gray Naval Transport anchored about a mile offshore.

In the ensuring minutes that followed, the lead boat, after hesitating briefly at the mouth of the forty foot-wide channel, without any warning or regard for the canoes or the islanders, raced towards  it's left side at over 10 knots and ran over one of the canoes, instantly killing seven of the slanders -four men and three women.  These LCP Landing crafts were fast boats, over 35 feet long and weighing 13,500 pounds each and the slender Vanuasemian canoes were only 18' long and weighed  200 pounds. It was no match, and the canoe was shattered into hundreds of pieces as the LCP slammed mercilessly into it. To the ship operator's credit, he did try to avoid the canoe but in doing so the craft took a massive hit on the right side from the coral shelf that bordered the channel. The landing craft's  hull split open like it had been peeled with a can opener,  and accompanied by the screams of men trapped underneath, flipped over as it rolled to the left and sank in the thirty foot deep channel, resulting  in the deaths of two sailors who were  under the sinking hull. In the chaos that followed, the islanders came to the rescue of the four surviving sailors, and returned them to the  other landing craft  that waited just outside the channel's entrance. Lieutenant Dangerfield, upon seeing what had just happened, ordered them back to the Transport, and was informed, after reporting to the Pacific Naval Command, to stand-down from the operation. News of the incident made sensational headlines the next day in American, Australian and New Zealand newspapers. Evidently reporters from these countries had traveled to Vanuasemia to watch the relocation and preparations for the bomb tests.  A week later, the Truman Administration cancelled all plans to use the iremote island  as a nuclear test site and eventually found a suitable site in the Marshall Islands, a part of the serene South Pacific  they were already in the process of blowing  up, all in the name of "preventing" future wars.

The Himalayan Necklaces
Liza's Reef, coral reef artAccording to island history, during the reign of Queen Aiata many years before, the island was visited by a jewel merchant and explorer named MacKenzie Carter from America who had just been in the Himalayan Mountains of  India and Nepal, and who was now traveling in the South Pacific in search of  the famous Black Pearls of  Oceania, or Kamoka perles, as they are known in the islands. While visiting the tiny atoll of Ahe’ in the remote Tuamotu archipelago, which was famous for them,  he had heard they were also to be found in the pristine lagoons of Vanuasemia, including extremely rare green, blue and gold variants. And it was this that brought him to the island, where he succeeded in exchanging  silver jewelry and semi-precious stones  for a small fortune in the rare pearls. He  presented the queen with two identical silver and amber necklaces  from Nepal as a gift when he first arrived on the island. Delighted with the gift,  she then allowed him to barter with the islanders for pearls. After Queen Aiata's death, the two twin necklaces were passed down from generation to generation and were in the possession of Ra'imere's family at the time of the incident.

The Changing of the Reef's Name

Liza's Reef, coral reef artAfter the encounter with the United States Navy, the islanders  held a  week long celebration to give thanks to Motu Mana for saving their sacred reef, and  to honor their fallen friends. And during this time, a number of the  Haili Kama, "the ones who see", shared a common vision they all experienced,  in which they were told by Motu Mana  to change the reef's name to Kuanaka Liza, or Liza's Reef. And so, at the end of the week, in a rare Kapua ceremony, at which Liza Reineange and Anapa were the special guests, the reef's name was changed forever to  honor the young French woman from the Cote D'Azur who laughed a lot, and who loved the sea. As  gifts of gratitude, Ra'imere  presented Anapa with a shimmering necklace of  black pearls, and  Reineange with one of the precious silver and amber necklaces from Nepal that had been worn by Queen Aiata years before, during the time when the sacred reef was born from the shooting stars. The other remained in the possession of Ra'imere and his family who showed it to me during my visit with him.

The following week after the ceremony Reineange and Anapa continued their travels east  towards  the Fiji islands.  Both women Ra'imere told me,  were wearing their necklaces the day they left, and he said remembered how Reineange's amber and silver sparkled in the sunlight like the golden stars in the reef that now bore her name. And Jacques Seymour, in one of last journal entries, shared how the islanders for years afterwards would talk about the two young French women who had visited their tiny island,  and who had shown them the meaning of courage, on the Island of Meanings.

Copyright © 2005 Lee James Pantas