Micronesia is the northernmost region of Oceania, consisting of numerous scattered island groups north of New Guinea and east of the Philippines. The largest of these archipelagos is the Caroline Islands, which consist of some 500 islands scattered over 2,000 miles of open ocean.
The largest island in the Carolines is Pohnpei. This star-shaped high volcanic island bursts forth from the ocean and rises some 2,566 feet to the cloud-piercing peaks of Ngihneni and Nanlaud — “The Giant’s Tooth” and “The Big Mountain.” Their slopes are blanketed by verdant rainforests that gradually give way to the dense, frequently impenetrable mangrove swamps that ring the island.
Offshore, Pohnpei is ringed by a belt of smaller islands, sandbars and reefs that make it almost unapproachable by sea, save for a few small gaps here and there, and a relatively safe harbor in the southeast.
It’s about as beautiful and idyllic a tropical paradise as you can imagine, but to James Francis O’Connell it felt a lot like prison.
O’Connell, an Irishman, had set to sea as a cabin boy on the Phoenix but wound up stranded in Australia for several years when the ship was quarantined and condemned. In 1826, he signed on to the crew of the whaler John Bull, but on the way to Japan the ship struck a coral reef and sunk. O’Connell, five other men, and two female missionaries wound up in a lifeboat. It drifted aimlessly on the ocean currents for days, and the two missionaries died. The next day the other six survivors were shocked when their boat slammed into a coral reef on Pohnpei’s northern shore.
Almost at once, or so it seemed, hundreds of Pohnpeians emerged from the swamps and began furiously canoeing in their direction. Their behavior confused the castaways — at first, the natives tried to attack the lifeboat with spears, stones and coconuts, only to eagerly surround it once it made landfall. What they didn’t understand was that it was all an elaborate ceremony, both a show to frighten off invaders but also to welcome visitors. You see, the Pohnpeians believed that everything that washed up on their shores was a gift from the gods to be shared by all. That included the John Bull‘s lifeboat, its emergency supplies… and the six castaways.
The men were stripped naked and split up among the tribes who had gathered to repel them. Most of the castaways were terrified, afraid that they were about to be a cannibal’s feast, but O’Connell remained chipper and charmed his captors by dancing a hornpipe. He later impressed them with his courage by silently submitting to the complex and painful tattooing that marked him as a slave. He wound up with extensive tattoos on his arms, legs, belly and back.
His charm and toughness inspired his new owner to give him a place of honor in the tribe. At least, that’s how O’Connell saw it, but it seems more like the chief saw him as a mascot, court jester, or good luck charm. Basically, he was a dancing monkey.
Even so, he was given a good deal of latitude for a slave. They returned some of his personal property, including a shaving mirror and two volumes of Miss Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs. He married Liuani, a chief’s daughter, and had two children. He even had the freedom to roam the island and explore its secrets.
As the years went on and the island became a port of call for whalers, he served as a sort of harbor pilot.
(He wasn’t above a bit of rebellion from now and then, mind you. When he and his fellow captives found out that the Pohnpeians considered eels to be sacred and untouchable they secretly caught as many as they could and had a massive eel fry on the shore. When the bones and skins were discovered, the tribe went ape-nuts for days.)
On November 17, 1833, O’Connell was one of a group of Pohnpeians who rowed out to greet the American whaler Spy, out of Salemm, MA. While O’Connell tried to pitch his services as a pilot to the captain, the islanders treated the Spy like any other gift from the sea and tried stripping it of everything that wasn’t tied down. The ship’s captain, John B. Knight, tried to keep the situation under control but soon shots were fired, the natives retreated, and the Spy was headed back out to sea with O’Connell still aboard.
Over the next several months Captain Knight made several attempts to get rid of his unwelcome stowaway, but none of the nearby Spanish territories would take him. O’Connell returned the captain’s lack of hospitality by trying to incite a mutiny, and was eventually clapped in irons to ensure his good behavior. He remained in the Spy‘s brig all during the long journey back to America, where he was unceremoniously booted overboard and left to fend for himself.
O’Connell didn’t have much trouble finding a job. Thanks to the explosion of the whaling industry, Americans were mad for anything from the South Seas. Pohnpei was of special interest, because few Europeans had ever set foot on the island.
I mean, they’d known about it for centuries. The Spanish first spotted Pohnpei in 1526, but they just sailed right past it. Subsequent explorers attempting to make landfall had been bewildered by the Pohnpeians’ strange combination of hostile response and ceremonial welcome and sailed off to less confusing shores.
Still, a few intrepid individuals had pressed on, including Pedro Fernandes de Quiros in 1595, Friedrich Benjamin Graf von Lütke in 1828, and C.H. Hart in 1836. They brought back tales of an island paradise full of beautiful birds and flowers, strange customs and superstitions, and mysterious ruins.
Mysterious ruins? Oh yes. Off the shore of Temwen Island, southeast of the mainland, sit the mysterious and overgrown ruins of Nan Madol. It consists of almost 100 man-made islets built inside a lagoon, topped by basalt buildings ranging in size from small vaults to enormous fortresses, and connected to their neighbors by intricate canals.
Explorers were very interested to learn more about Nan Madol, but most Pohnpeians refused to approach the complex or discuss it with outsiders. This led most European visitors to conclude that the Pohnpeians had no idea who had built Nan Madol or what it was used for. Therefore, it must have been built by some long vanished race of white men. Probably Phoenecians, those guys really got around.
So by the time James Francis O’Connell came on the scene, Americans were dying to know more about Pohnpei and the mysterious site many were calling the “Venice of the Pacific.” O’Connell was happy to tell them all about what he had seen, for a reasonable fee.
He became “The Tattooed Irishman,” one of the country’s most famous circus performers, dancing a terrible hornpipe, showing off his extensive tattoos, and telling wildly exaggerated tales of his time spent in Pohnpei. In 1836 his best anecdotes were compiled into a book: A Residence of Eleven Years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands.
Perhaps the most spectacular part of his act involved recounting his visit to Nan Madol. He claimed to have been the first white man to have ever set foot there, and really played up the drama and danger.
But the most wonderful adventure made during the excursion, the relation of which will put my credit to a severer test than any other fact detailed, was the discovery of a large uninhabited island, upon which were stupendous ruins, of a character of architecture differing altogether from the present style of the islanders, and of an extent truly astonishing….
At a little distance the ruins appeared like some of the fantastic heapings of nature, but upon a nearer approach George and myself were astonished at the evident traces of the hand of man in their erection.
At the entrance we passed for many yards between two walls, so near each other that, without changing the boat from side to side, we could have touched either of them with a paddle. They were about ten feet high; in some places dilapidated, and in others in very good preservation. Over the tops of the wall, cocoa-nut trees, and occasionally a bread-fruit spread their branches, making a deep and refreshing shade. It was a deep solitude, not a living thing, except a few birds, being discernible.
Except the wall, there was no perceptible trace of the footsteps of man, no token that he had ever visited the spot. We examined the masonry, and found the walls composed of stones, varying in size from two to ten feet in length, and from one to eight in breadth, carefully propped in the interstices and cracks with smaller fragments. They were built of the blue stone which abounds upon the inhabited islands, and is, as before stated, of a slatose formation; and were evidently split, and adapted for the purpose to which they were applied. In many places the walls had so fallen that we climbed over them with ease….
Nothing during my residence on the Carolines was productive of so much deep yet vague speculation. The immense size of a portion of the stones in the walls, rendered it impossible that they could have been placed there without some mechanical contrivance superior to any thing I met among the natives; and no contemptible degree of architectural skill was manifested in their construction, though their dilapidated state afforded no clue to the purpose for which they were piled.
The largest cluster of these ruins merits a particular description. The outside wall incloses a space about a mile in circumference. This area is not, as in the other cases, empty, but at about twenty feet distance from the outside wall is another, exactly parallel to the first; then at the same distance another, and still another, to the number of five or six. The centre wall incloses a space only about forty feet across, and is perfectly square. The outside wall was, upon one end of the edifice, about twenty-five to thirty feet in height. Upon the other three sides, which had been more exposed to the tide, the walls had become undermined, and had fallen in many places, but the inner walls were all perfect. The standing side of the outer wall had evidently been the front, for square pillars, which had formed a part of some portico, or similar structure, lay across the creek. The entrance, or aperture in the wall, was about four feet in height. Upon entering, no aperture in the next wall presented itself, but after working our way among the brush we discovered an entrance at the corner of the wall, to the right of the first. Passing this, we found an aperture in the next, at the left; and thus, finding doors alternately at the right and left, we penetrated to the inner wall. In walking inside of this, by the accidental falling of a piece of wood, we discovered a vault, into which I descended. My first supposition was that it was a burial place, but all that appeared to sustain such an opinion was one skeleton, which lay at the bottom, its parts scattered to and fro about the ground. This distribution was probably done by the rats. I found no paddle or war-club in the vault. This body was accounted for after my return to Nutt, where I was informed that a chief of Kitti had been buried there. Upon the island of Kitti the natives were unable or unwilling to give me any information. The logs, and the sods which covered them, concealing the top of the vault, must have been placed when the body which I found was deposited there. The fact that the vault was used for a burial place, even in this isolated instance within the memory of the living natives, would seem to speak some vague tradition of the purpose for which the place was built but I never could get hold of any more satisfactory tradition than that the ruins were built by animan.James Francis O’Connell, A Residence of Eleven Years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands
Gripping, isn’t it?
Too bad it’s all lies.
James Francis O’Connell had never been in a shipwreck. James Francis O’Connell wasn’t even his real name! He kept his true identity under wraps, probably because he was an escaped convict from Australia.
He had been on Pohnpei, that much was true, He had been adopted into a chief’s family and married his daughter. But his father-in-law was hardly the big shot O’Connell made him out to be.
He had been ritually tattooed, though he later supplemented those with fresh ink to make his look more dramatic.
His knowledge of the Pohnpeian language was minimal, and his descriptions of Pohnpeian society and culture baffling. He talked about warriors using bows and arrows, which the Pohnpeians did not have. He seemed to think that the society had a race-based caste system, with the light-skinned “moonjobs” ruling over the dark-skinned, uh, n-words, which is not true at all (but seemed to play well with his American audiences).
His descriptions of Nan Madol are way off. The buildings are square, not circular. The stones are not worked but naturally-occurring basalt columns carefully stacked like Lincoln Logs. His descriptions of individual buildings are way off, and the sizes he gives are usually an order of magnitude greater than reality.
Pohnpei was also not as isolated or as untouched by white man as he made it out to be. For starters, there were his five fellow “castaways.” Beyond that, the island was the center of the local tortoiseshell trade, repeatedly visited by European traders, and lousy with rootless beachcombers.
O’Connell wasn’t too concerned about the inaccuracies. The inaccuracies were his bread and butter; gate receipts and book sales made him a pretty penny. He probably would have been less sanguine if he knew showbiz would be the death of him. In January 1854 the circus he was performing in installed a new-fangled electric arc lamp to illuminate the big top. O’Connell got a lungful of the toxic fumes it was putting out and died.
As for Pohnpei, throughout the 1830s the whaling boom brought more and more vessels to the island, bringing with them alcohol, tobacco, prostitution, syphilis and smallpox. Once the island’s reputation for lawless hedonism was well-established, well, then the missionaries started showing up. In the 1870s, Germany tried to take over the island on the grounds that while it was nominally Spanish they clearly weren’t using it, which led to Spain finally colonizing the island in 1886. The Pohnpeians weren’t exactly keen on being anyone’s colony and made occasional attempts at resistance, which were usually shut down with naval bombardments. Eventually, the cash-strapped Spaniards wound up selling the island to the Germans after the Spanish-American War, but the Teutonic triumph was short lived and the Japanese took over after World War I. The United States bombed the hell out of the island during World War II and then administered it as a trust territory until 1986, when the Federated States of Micronesia were formed.
Throughout this century of chaos, Europeans remained fascinated by Nan Madol and the other ruins on Pohnpei. Alas, the island’s remoteness and the reluctance of the natives to speak meant that they had to rely on travelogues. For the longest time, that meant exactly one book: A Residence of Eleven Years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands by James Francis O’Connell.
As a result, wild speculation was the order of the day.
Some thought the vaults of Nan Madol had been built by evil black dwarves called the Cholokai. Theosophists attributed its construction to Lemurians who had survived the sinking of their doomed continent. And, well, I’m not saying it’s aliens, but…
Stories claimed that the tombs of Nan Madol contained the bones of literal giants. Treasure hunters believed they concealed hidden treasures, buckets of pearls and coffins made of precious metals. After World War II it was rumored that the Japanese had been extracting enough solid platinum from the ruins to fund the entire war effort.
In The Moon Pool, pulp author Abraham Merritt placed a hidden tunnel in one of eel ponds of Nan Madol, which led to a sinister underground civilization that could control monsters from beyond space and time. H.P. Lovecraft even made an oblique reference to it in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
As amazing as these utterly baseless speculations are, what happened in Pohnpei in the early 1900s is even more amazing. Which is that Western archaeologists and ethnologists, rather than just latching on to some cockamamie idea of their own and promoting it as the gospel truth, actually started to earn the trust of the Pohnpeians and asked them what they knew.
The islanders, who had been dismissed for centuries as children and savages completely ignorant of their island’s history, turned out to know quite a bit.
In fact, they knew the whole dang story.
The Other Side of Yesterday
Let’s take a quick jaunt back to keilahn aio, “the other side of yesterday.”
Long ago, seven men and nine women from Katau Peidi, “the lands that lie over the horizon to the west,” set out to search for a new home. During their journey they met the octopus spirit, Lidakihka, who suggested a suitable spot nearby where they could settle. When they arrived, they realized they’d been tricked: the the “island” was tiny, barely bigger than a single canoe.
These bold voyagers weren’t going to let some mischievous octopus get the better of them. You see, Katau Peidi is not just some legendary land to the west. The lands beyond the horizon are also the spirit world, and its residents command mighty magics. The sixteen travelers used that magic to call the rest of the island above the surface.
When ocean waves started to break the stones, they raised a reef around the island to break the waves, and then planted mangrove swamps around the coast to protect the interior.
Once the island was secure, they built a large stone altar and piled rocks on top of it, and called forth animals and plants to populate the land.
They named the island Pohnpei, or “upon a stone altar.”
Archaeological excavations at Nan Madol have uncovered potsherds and other artifacts that date back to approximately 50 BC, though the island was likely inhabited for centuries before that. The style of pottery suggests that these initial migrants came from more settled islands to the west, possibly Yap or Palau.
This was the start of the Mwehi Keieu, the building time. Throughout this legendary age five more voyages would arrive from Katau, each bringing a new group of sorcerers armed with the secret knowledge of how to raise mountains, shape the island, build houses, and forge a new civilization.
Some time during the Mwehi Keieu the construction of Nan Madol began, probably around about 500 AD.
The complex is located in a relatively unique geographical feature: a protected and shallow lagoon on the island of Temwen, off the southeastern coast of Pohnpei. Inside the lagoon, the locals began to construct artificial islets.
Each of the islets is built on a foundation made of basalt boulders, some of them weighing as much as fifty tons. Initially these came from nearby, but as the supply of suitable boulders grew scarce they were eventually sourced from locations all over Pohnpei. They would be slowly transported along the coast via raft before arriving at Nan Madol to be dumped into the lagoon. Once the boulder foundations were complete, temporary wood and thatch structures would be built on top of them to help shape the islet and support the next stages of construction.
The next step was to enclose the foundations with walls made from basalt. These, too, may have originally been local but eventually were quarried far away in the region of Sokehs, on the northwestern corner of the main island. The Pohnpeians would build massive fires to heat up the basalt cliff there, then suddenly cool it with water. The sudden expansion and cooling would create fractures in the rock, and — this is the neat part — basalt naturally fractures into prismatic columns. Once these columns had been transported to the lagoon they could be stacked around the boulder foundations to create a rectangular base. Eventually the outer wall of the islet would rise as far as six feet above the surface of the sea.
Gaps between the boulders and columns would then be filled in with coral, pebbles, sand and other rubble. The result was a sturdy artificial islet on top of which other structures could be built.
If two islets were adjacent, they would be separated by finished canals lined along the bottom with more basalt columns. These canals gave rise to the name Nan Madol, “within the spaces.” Later European visitors were often put in mind of a more familiar locale back home, and nicknamed it “the Venice of the Pacific.”
Okay, so once you have a bunch of artificial islets, what do you do with them? The same thing you do with any reclaimed land: you build on them. Some of the islets supported small thatch-roofed huts, likely the residences of saworo, “priests,” who communicated with powerful nature spirits and long-departed ancestors.
Others islets had altars and structures used in specific rites and rituals. Sacred pools on Pehikapw may have been used to hold animals to be sacrificed. There was a mighty feast hall on Konderek, where feasts were held to honor the dead. Women would rub their bellies on Pahwni to ensure an easy birth. Further out on the reef there was Nan Mwoluhsei, a large boulder which youths would leap from to prove their courage.
Still, it’s hard to say exactly how Nan Madol was used in its earliest days, because its nature changed drastically over the following centuries.
Masters of the Land
The seventh voyage to arrive from Katau Peidi was different.
This one brought the mightiest sorcerers yet, the brothers Olosihpa and Olosohpa, who had come to build a mighty temple and fortress. At first they tried to build in Sokehs in the northwest, but the ocean waves troubled them and the locals rebuffed them. Then, they tried to build in Nett in the north, only to run into the same problems. They slowly worked their way clockwise around the island, unable to find a suitable location.
Eventually, they reached the island of Temwen. They used powerful magic to create a protected lagoon, and then to fly boulders and basalt prisms from the mainland to Temwen. These were then stacked in the lagoon to create islands and buildings. This was the creation of Nan Madol.
Once the fortress was complete, the two brothers turned their powers against the island that had rebuffed them, conquering large parts of it and cowing the rest into submission. Olosihpa died in the process, but Olosohpa carried on.
When his conquest was complete, Olosohpa renamed the land he governed from his fortress Deleur and assumed the lofty title of Saudeleur or “the master of Deleur.”
This was the start of the Mwehi Keriau, “the era of the Saudeleurs.”
The Saudeleurs were members of the Dipwilap, or “Great Clan,” which came from the sea and settled in the northwest of Pohnpei near Sokehs. They eventually subjugated the other clans on the island and seized total control some time between 1000 and 1200 AD.
Once their conquest was complete, the Saudeleurs separated themselves from their subjects to create an aura of mystery and power. One of the ways they did that was by moving their court to Nan Madol.
The temple complex had previously been the realm of the sacred, home only to priests, spirits, and the dead. By claiming it as their own the Saudeleurs signaled that they were more than mere men, they were gods made flesh. It worked. For centuries they were feared, not only as mighty warriors, but as powerful sorcerers who could see and hear everything happening on the island.
The existing structures in the lagoon were not enough to support the Saudeleur and his court, so the complex had to be aggressively expanded. New islet were formed and the center of the complex moved away from the mainland of Madol Powe (“upper Madol”) towards the outer edge of the lagoon, Madol Pah (“lower Madol”). Eventually the complex would grow to include 92 artificial islets and enclose the entire lagoon.
Some of the new islets now housed permanent residences for the Saudeleur and his court. The size of these houses indicated the importance of their residents, with lesser functionaries forced to live in cramped quarters only 40 sq. feet in size, while high muckety-mucks could stretch out in relatively palatial chambers of up to 450 sq. feet.
The Saudeleur and his family lived in the veritable palace of Pahn Kadira, which also doubled as a temple to the crocodile spirit Nahn Keiel Mwahu. Visitors and servants had to enter through a low opening that forced them to crawl, reminding them of their position relative to the Saudeleur.
The entrance to Nan Madol from the sea was guarded by the imposing fortress of Nan Douwas, with multiple rows of basalt walls that tower thirty feet above the waves and which still impress, even today. On Peikapw the Saudeleurs reportedly used a magic pool to spy on their subjects through the power of Ounmatakai, “the watchman of the land.” Other islets served more prosaic purposes, like the one where signal drums were housed or the one where coconut oil was pressed.
To finish enclosing the lagoon and protecting Nan Madol, the Saudeleurs began building tombs. Lots and lots of tombs. Tombs for the Saudeleurs. Tombs for saworo. Tombs for chiefs. Tombs eventually became so plentiful that they began to pop up on islets previously reserved for other purposes.
Of course, all of these new islets and buildings were made from basalt columns sourced from far-away Sokehs. Quarrying the columns, transporting them from the farthest side of the island, and carefully piling them into islets and buildings required a massive workforce which may have numbered almost a thousand. Conscripting those laborers was a great way for the Saudeleurs to flex their might and test the loyalty of their subjects.
The ritual use of Nan Madol continued unabated, though the rituals themselves also began to change to reflect Saudeleur rule.
Here’s a perfect example.
On a shallow saltwater pool on the islet of Idehd lived the great eel, Nahn Sawohl, an avatar of Nahnisohnsapw, “the honored spirit of the land.” Once a year a sea turtle would be captured, de-shelled, and offered up to Nahn Sawohl in the ritual of Pwung en Sapw. If the eel ate the sacrifice it signaled that Nahnisohnsapw was pleased with the Saudeleurs and their rule.
The ritual was fraught with meaning both sacred and political. Though the Pohnpeians revered Ilake, the eel goddess, she and her children were freshwater eels. Nahn Sawohl was a saltwater eel, not truly of the island but from beyond the sea, much like the Saudeleurs themselves. The turtle was a symbol of life after death, and its sacrifice to a symbol of the Saudeleurs symbolized their control over the island’s spiritual life. The turtle was also a symbol of the island itself — in Pohnpeian, wehi can mean both turtle and state. In short, the Pwung en Sapw was a sacrifice of both soul and land to a ruling clan made of outsiders.
Outsiders who were about to get their just desserts.
Son of Thunder
Over time, the Saudeleurs became cruel and capricious.
Ketiparelong feasted while his subjects starved, and committed suicide after he was tricked into eating human flesh as an ironic punishment.
His successor Raipenwenlake leaned into the whole cannibal thing, gleefully devouring his plumpest and most delicious subjects.
Sakon Mwehi took so much from his subjects that he even demanded all of the lice in their hair.
Others forced legendary heroes to perform impossible tasks for their amusement, and made human sacrifices of their subjects in revenge for the smallest slights.
In their hubris, though, these men who thought themselves gods decided to mess with actual gods. They attacked the cult of Luhk Nahnsapwe, “the god above the land,” who had foretold of their downfall. Nahnsapwe himself was taken prisoner, and staked out in front of Pahn Kadira so the Saudeleurs could watch him slowly die.
The other gods of Pohnpei took pity on the dying god and sent a sawi, or grouper, to rescue him and carry him away to Katau Piedak, “the lands beyond the horizon to the east.” There Nahnsapwe met an elderly kinswoman and gave her a magic fruit that would enable her to bear his child.
Years later, when this demigod had become a man, he returned to liberate land of his father — accompanied by 333 stout warriors. His fleet landed near the fortress of Nan Douwas and ritually prepared for the the battles to come.
The Saudeleur, seeking to turn a potential enemy into an ally, welcomed the invaders as guests and gave them gifts of food and an offer to settle where they pleased. He even bestowed noble honors on their leader, giving him the title of Isokelekel, “the prince of fortifications.” This only made the Pohnpeians grumble, since now they had to give up their own lands and food to support foreign invaders.
Seeing how weak the Saudeleurs had become and how badly the Pohnpeians wanted to be free of them, the invaders dropped any pretense of friendliness and open warfare broke out. The two sides met at Pei Ai, “the fight changes.” At first the Saudeleur’s warriors had the upper hand, driving the invaders back to the sea after several days of battle. Then, one of Isokelekel’s bravest men signaled his intention to fight to the last by spearing his own foot to the ground. This rallied the invaders, who fought back and destroyed the Saudeleur’s army.
In a final confrontation at the waterfall of Kamau Pwoungapwoung, the last Saudeleur was defeated. Rather than suffer death at the hands of the invaders, he leapt over the falls and was transformed into a fish.
The land now belonged to Isohkelekel. The Mwehi Kesiluh had begun.
During the 13th and 14th Centuries, the Pohnpeians began breaking away from the central government of the Saudeleurs. One telling development is that late in the Mwehi Keriau, small basalt vaults began appearing in other parts of the island. Locals were no longer sending their honored dead to Nan Madol to be buried, but entombing them closer to home.
Remote regions in the north and northwest became de facto independent, pledging only nominal fealty to the Saudeleurs. Eventually, the supremacy of the Saudeleurs was more religious and symbolic than political.
It’s not clear exactly when Isokelekel came on the scene, but it appears to be sometime in the late 16th or early 17th Century. That means these momentous developments were happening at the same time that Europeans first noticed Pohnpei… and chose to ignore it.
As mentioned before the name Isokelekel is actually a title, which may imply that he was a native Pohnpeian, a subordinate of the Saudeleurs who rebelled. Or it could be that he was a foreign invader, albeit one who could trace his heritage back to the island. If that’s the case, it’s worth noting that Katau Peidak is traditionally associated with the nearby island of Kosrae, which has its own monumental basalt structures and tombs. The stone city of Lelūh dates from sometime in the 14th and 15th Century, right in the middle of Pohnpei’s Mwehi Keriau. It’s possible it was started by Pohnpeian exiles. However, Nan Madol and Lelūh are only superficially similar, and local traditions assign them local origins. They may instead represent independent developments of traditions inherited from earlier Micronesian cultures, like the Lapita culture.
Whatever his true origins may have been, the story of Isokelekel shows an adept juggling of myth and political symbolism that rivals that of the Saudeleurs. The sawi which rescued Nahnsapwe was not just a messenger of the gods but was also a sacred animal for several of the island’s major tribes, a symbol of their own rebellion. His avenging son returned not from Katau Peidi, where the Saudeleurs had come from, but from Katau Peidak, the opposite half of the spirit world. Even claiming descent from Nahnsapwe was a political masterstroke — it made Isokelekel a child of the island returned home, and not a foreign invader like the Saudeleurs.
After overthrowing the Saudeleurs, Isokelekel made it clear that it was to be business as usual, at least at the top levels of society. He moved into Pahn Kadira and kept Nan Madol as the capitol. Small incidents proved he could be just as capricious and cruel as his predecessors. He even married his sister — though since he was half-god, it was all okay.
Early in his reign there was some new construction in Nan Madol. On the islet of Pelakapw he raised a new feasting hall, Koupahleng, where chiefs and commoners ate together. For the most part, though, construction of new islets and buildings ceased.
Isokelekel’s big accomplishment was a massive reorganization of the tribal structure of the island. He divided Pohnpei into five wehi: Madolenhimw, Uh, Kitti, Sokehs, and Nett. Madolenhimw, which included Temwen and Nan Madol, was the most powerful and important; Sokehs, the former power center of the Saudeleurs, was next, and Nett, which had virtually nothing going for it, the least. Governance of each wehi was split between two clans: a senior clan led by a nahnmwarki who was in charge, and a junior clan led by a nahnken who executed the nahnmwarki’s laws. Each clan and region had its own line of elaborate titles and offices, and complicated line of succession.
(To put some of this in a practical context: the chief who adopted James Francis O’Connell was the Oundol en Nett, the “guardian of Nett,” who was far down the line of succession of the junior clan in the least powerful of the five wehis.)
As important as this reorganization was, Isokelekel himself proved to be a mere blip in Pohnpei’s long and storied history. After he was dead and buried beneath the Altar of the Life-Giving Turtle, the wehi turned their back on his successors and started operating independently.
The nahnmwarkis of Madolenhimw continued to insist on their paramount importance, and the other wehis played along since Madolenhimw controlled Nan Madol and they needed access to it for their rituals.
The Fourth World
European visitors during Mwehi Kapahieu, or modern era, thought Nan Madol was abandoned. It certainly looked the part. Many of the monumental structures had been abandoned to the elements. Wooden structures rotted away. Thatched roofs collapsed. Trees and vines took root in the courtyards of palaces and temples. Mangroves spread throughout on the reef, their roots breaking down the mighty walls of Nan Douwas. Even walls that had withstood the assaults of invaders could not stand against the encroachment of nature.
The site may have been neglected, but it was hardly abandoned. Ritual worship at Nan Madol continued in spite of the work of Christian missionaries and the twin scourges of smallpox and measles that devastated the island and reduced the population from 20,000 to about 5,000. In the 1850s, missionaries described one of the many rituals held there, a yearly rite of renewal called the Pwohng Lapalap or “Great Night,” which lasted an astounding seventeen days.
What ultimately brought an end to Nan Madol was this: during the Pwong Lapalap in 1855, one of the saworo felt that his comrades did not give him a fair share of the turtle that had been sacrificed. He returned to Nan Madol, went to a pool on one of the sacred sanctuaries, and feasted on all the eels he could catch.
This petty act of revenge somehow did what all the Saudeleurs’ cannibalism, incest, dark sorcery, and attempted deicide could not do: it defiled the entire complex and made it unfit for ritual activity.
Nan Madol remained a curiosity for sailors and scholars for years, though its remoteness made it difficult to study. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the Smithsonian Institution and other groups began the first modern archaeological investigations into Nan Madol.
Nan Madol was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. Even those moves were not uncontroversial, since the nahnmwarki of Madolenhimw still insisted his clan owned the site the site and objected to preservation efforts chipping away at their sovereignty.
Today, the former temple and fortress is now a popular tourist destination. It remains fascinating and frightening to modern eyes as it first appeared to Europeans almost four hundred years ago.
We’ve touched on Micronesia before. In Series 2’s “Cold Hard Cash” we made a visit to the island of Yap where we discussed its curious stone money and the white man who almost ruined it for everyone.
- Ayres, William S. “Archaeological Survey in Micronesia.” Current Anthropology, Volume 20, Number 3 (September 1979).
- Ayres, William S. “Mystery Islets of Micronesia.” Archaeology, Volume 43, Number 1 (January/February 1990).
- Ballinger, Bill S. Lost City of Stone. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
- Berg, M.L. “Yapese Politics, Yapese Money and the Sawei Tribute Network Before World War I.” The Journal of Pacific History, Volume 27, Number 2 (December 1992).
- Bernart, Luelen. The Book of Luelen. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1977.
- Blackburn, Thomas. “Some Examples of Ponapean Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore, Volume 80, Number 317 (July-September 1967).
- Christian, F.W. The Caroline Islands: Travel in the Sea of the Little Lands. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899.
- Cordy, Ross. “Lelū, the Stone City of Kosrae.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 91, Number 1 (March 1982).
- Goodenough, Ward H. “Sky World and This World: The Place of Kachaw in Micronesian Cosmology.” American Anthropologist, Volume 88, Number 3 (September 1996).
- Hanlon, David. “Gods vs. Gods: The First Years of the Micronesian Mission on Ponape, 1852-1859.” The Journal of Pacific History, Volume 19, Number 1 (January 1984).
- Hanlon, David L. Upon a Stone Altar: A History of the Island of Pohnpei to 1890. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.
- Lovecraft, Howard Philips. “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” The Best of HP Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. New York: Del Rey, 1982.
- Merrit, Abraham. The Moon Pool. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
- Levy, Neil M. Micronesia Handbook. Emeryville, CA: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2000.
- O’Connell, James F. A Residence of Eleven Years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1972 (1836).
- Pala, Christopher. “Nan Madol: The City Built on Coral Reefs.” Smithsonian, 3 Nov 2009. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/nan-madol-the-city-built-on-coral-reefs-147288758/ Accessed 5/26/2021.
- Sacks, Oliver. The Island of the Colorblind. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
- Parmentier, Richard J. “Description and Comparison of Religion.” History of Religions, Volume 43, Number 3 (February 2004).
- Peoples, James G. “Political Evolution in Micronesia.” Ethnology, Volume 32, Number 1 (Winter 1993).
- Rainbird, Paul. “Entangled Biographies: Western Pacific Ceramics and the Tombs of Pohnpei.” World Archaeology, Volume 31, Number 2 (October 1999).
- Rainbird, Paul. “Prehistory in the Northwest Tropical Pacific: The Caroline, Mariana, and Marshall Islands.” Journal of World Prehistory, Volume 8, Number 3 (September 1994).
- Riesenberg, Saul H. et al. “Preliminary Report of Anthropological Research conducted on Ponape Island, Caroline Islands, from January 28 to March 8, 1963, under sponsorship of the Smithsonian Institution with support from the National Science Foundation.” Smithsonian Institution. https://nach.gov.fm/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/1963-riesenberg-to-goding-preliminary-results-of-expedition.pdf Accessed 5/26/2021.
- Von Daniken, Erich. The Gold of the Gods. New York: Bantam Books, 1973.
- “Letters.” Archaeology, Volume 43, Number 3 (May/June 1990).
- “Nan Madol.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nan_Madol Accessed 8/11/2020.
- “Pohnpei.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pohnpei Accessed 8/11/2020.
- Pohnpeian-English Online Dictionary. https://www.trussel2.com/pnp/ Accessed 10/20/2021.
- “Saudeleur Dynasty.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudeleur_Dynasty Accessed 8/11/2020.
- Cunningham, James. “Trust isles fascinating, Tobin finds.” Honolulu Advertiser, 2 Jun 1966.
- Hulse, Jerry. “Micronesian isle place to dream of.” Los Angeles Times, 25 Aug 1968.
- “Nanmatol ruins still mystery.” Wasau (WI) Daily Record-Herald, 24 Dec 1968.