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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, April 3, 2005

A queen mother's last wishes

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

The king of tiny Swains Island, 200 miles north of Samoa, came to Our Honolulu 32 years ago looking for a wife. I wrote a story about it, and 50 women applied for the queenship. Wallace Jennings couldn't marry any of them because they didn't know how to fish.

Fishing is an absolute requirement for the queen of Swains Island, one of the most remote places in the South Seas. The queen must also know how to raise chickens and pigs. There is no store on Swains, 1 mile long by 1 1/2 miles wide, nor electricity nor air conditioning.

Do not despair. Shortly after Jennings returned from Hawai'i, the supply ship arrived with a nurse from the hospital in American Samoa on board, Tina Faumina. She stayed for four months, until the next supply ship arrived, to care for the people on Swains. Romance blossomed, Jennings proposed and she accepted. "She knew how to live on the island," he said.

Thirty-two years later, a nephew, sea captain Wally Thompson, has come to Honolulu on another important mission for his mother, Eliza Annie Jennings Thompson, queen mother of Swains, noted for her weaving and handicrafts. Eliza died recently and Thompson intends to fulfill her dying wishes.

One wish was to gather the entire extended family together on Swains Island for a big reunion next year. Another wish was that her sons put picket fences around the cemeteries. The sea captain explained that there are four cemeteries on Swains because of its colorful South Seas history.

The first cemetery is for the Jennings clan, descendants of patriarch Eli Hutchinson Jennings. Eli was a whaler from Sag Harbor, N.Y., who landed in Samoa as a ship's carpenter in the 1840s. He achieved fame by building the first-of-its-kind war canoe that won a victory for the high chief of Manono (a Samoan island) in a noted battle of 1847, then married Malia Su'a, daughter of the chief.

Eli went to Swains Island in 1856 to start a copra plantation. He found an Englishman already there, a Capt. Turnbull, who said he had discovered the island. Turnbull said he was tired of the lonely copra business. He wanted to pull up stakes and sail his schooner with a last load of copra to Australia and retire.

Turnbull offered to sell Swains Island (its Polynesian name is Olosega) to Eli for 15 shillings an acre and a bottle of gin, an extremely precious commodity on Swains. That's how the Jennings clan came to own Swains Island, now a part of American Samoa. Eli's son, Eli II, took over Swains at a time when copra prices soared. He became one of the richest men in the South Seas.

The second cemetery is for people born and raised on Swains, descendants of people from neighboring islands who, one way or another, landed on Swains and put down roots.

The third cemetery is for South Sea islanders who were brought in to work on the copra plantation and who stayed and intermarried.

Finally, there is a cemetery for 10 of the black Solomon Islanders who were kidnapped in the 1880s (the historical term for this activity is "blackbirding") to work in mines or plantations. Eli Jennings II "bought" them to work on his plantation. Ten of them never returned to their home island.

Each grave is outlined by bottles placed upside down into the ground. The captain said many of the bottles are more than 100 years old. Nobody takes them for fear of being cursed by the dead.

Capt. Wally Thompson said he and his brother are determined to carry out their mother's wishes. Wally's brother is Tihati Thompson, whose Polynesian Revue is a long-standing attraction at the Princess Kaiulani Hotel in Waikiki.

A last wish of their mother was that they bring Swains Island back to its former glory. Hurricane Percy flattened the village on the island. The only building left standing was the 100-year-old church made of redwood lumber. The old family mansion, built more than 100 years ago by Eli Jennings, is a wreck.

"We want to rebuild the houses of our five families on the island and restock the dispensary," Thompson said. "This year Swains Island will celebrate 80 years since the U.S. flag was raised over the island. We want to fix everything up for the big family reunion next year. My mother wanted all the Swains Island 'ohana to come back and visit their ancestors in the cemeteries."

Wally Thompson said his brother has founded the South Seas Christian Ministry, which sends teams of young people to Samoa to teach and work. A team recently visited Swains.

If you want to donate to the cleanup and rebuilding of Swains, or want information about Swain Island families, contact Ruana Teo, whose Honolulu phone number is 864-5920.