Tales of Tonga and Minerva Reef
|Directions from Nuku'alofa: Fonuafo'ou, North; Ono-i-Lau and Tovata-i-Ra, West; Minerva, SW.|
The ownership of Minerva Reef has been an unresolved issue between Fiji and Tonga for quite a while but recently heightened sensitivities about where — exactly— the marine boundary lies between the two countries have allowed the issue to resurface —an apt term because the reef is submerged at high tide— at an unfortunate time and in an unfortunate way.
I have no special knowledge on the issue and have no intention of taking sides, except to say the reef seems closer to 'Ata in Tonga than Ono-i-Lau and Tovata-i-Ra in Fiji. (see map.) I have lived and worked in both countries, and have warm feelings towards them. But I'll make one observation and point to an historic precedent for Tonga's propensity for staking its territorial claims.
The Tongan island group is perched at the edge of the Pacific plate and is comprised of a parallel chain on low coral and raised coral islands to the east ('Eua, Tongatapu and the Ha'apai and Vava'u groups) and small, steep volcanic islands to the west (from uninhabited 'Ata in the south to Niuafo'ou in the north). Submarine volcanic activity is frequent, and sometimes large quantities of ash are pushed to the surface to form temporary islands. One such is Fonuafo'ou (new land) which was created and disappeared in the 1960s. Once its existence was known in Nuku'alofa the then Prince Tungi (later King George Tupou III, and the present king's father) despatched a boat to the "island" and planted the Tongan flag.
Whether he was similarly motivated in having a beacon built on Minerva only he could say, but it does seem to me that, if ownership is in dispute, friendly proper practice would have been to discuss the matter with Fiji before going ahead with its construction. Instead, as we know, the beacon was built and later it was destroyed by Fiji, which was not a friendly gesture, either.
Had there been a beacon on the reef in the 1962 a Tongan boat, the Tuaekaepau, would not have been wrecked there on its way to Gisborne in NZ, and its 17 crew would not have been marooned for 102 days, where they were given up for dead and some died. Realized that they were assumed dead and could not expect rescue, and knowing that if they stayed much longer on the reef all would die, they built a crude outrigger canoe, the Malo e lelei, from wood found in the wrecked Japanese fishing boat in which they lived, and Captain Tevita Fifita, his son and another crew member sailed for help. Blown off course close to Kadavu, 570 kilometres to the north, they abandoned the outrigger and swam over the reef. The son was totally exhausted, and his father nearly so. They held on to each other, prayed and then the son drowned.
Along with most of the population of Tongatapu I was on Faua Wharf when the RNZAF Sunderland Flying Boat from Fiji brought the survivors home. It was one of the most moving moments in my life.
In old Polynesian custom occupance and shedding blood or dying in a place gave one some claim to ownership but I doubt those incredible 102 days will stengthen Tonga's claim. If you want to know more, I highly recommend Olaf Ruhen's "Minerva Reef."
'At Swim, 3 Birds' (with apologies to Flann O'Brien) by Balor
An Oceanian Fantasy involving the emu, kiwi and frigate-bird: fleet, flightless and in-flight.
A leader bird lowers the moral bar.
Fast, ostrich-like, big feet, feathers unruffled.
Her china in F.A. limbos under it effortlessly
Like the inscrutable pro he is.
Friendly Islands' visitor in distress glides down under too.
No lyre-bird, he. No parrot surely? Warbler perhaps? Let other blow-ins judge.
Besides, the little kiwi -key player in it all- saves face.
So, dear asylum seekers to Gondwanaland, you huddled masses,
Sail straight on by to southern Lau or Tonga
For immediate immigration processing.