The Book of Luelen – first book written by a Micronesian

The Book of Luelen, translated from Pohnpeian to English and edited by John L. Fischer, Saul H. Riesenberg and Marjorie G. Whiting, was published by the Australian National University Press and the University Press of Hawaii in 1977. It has now been out of print for some forty-three years. This is a shame because its author, Luelen Bernart, originally wrote the book, in his words, as a “reminder” to future generations of Pohnpeians of what “occurred in the past.”

Bernart started the book in 1934 and completed it just before his death in 1946. It records the history of the island of Pohnpei from oral accounts of its discovery to the construction of its ancient city of Nan Madol through the fall of its Saudeleur rulers to the era of German administration.

Written in Pohnpeian, of course, the book was patterned after the Bible, with numbered chapters and verses. The Bible was the only example of Western writing available to Bernart that had been translated into his language. He does not distinguish between mythology and history, and the book’s various themes do not follow the chronology of its chapters, leading to some jumping back and forth between them. The translators, trying to “preserve the flavor of Pohnpeian speech,” left the English somewhat stilted, and numerous lists of things will seem out of place to Western readers. All this creates an impression of random disorganization for those who forget or do not understand the historical and cultural context of the author. One Goodreads reviewer stated that it was the worst book she had ever read.

Indeed, the book was meant to pass down an entire cultural history to future generations of Pohnpeians and not to the casual Western inquirer. Bernart’s people had already lost much of their history. (The first missionaries arrived in 1776. The Spanish administration began in 1885, followed in succession by German and Japanese administrations and finally, just before his death, the American Trust Territory administration. Each outside group brought its own languages and customs, which inadvertently erased portions of the past.) He knew this better than most and must have thought of this book as his mission for them.

Thankfully, the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai‘i has published a most interesting eighty-seven-page monograph entitled Lost in the Weeds: Theme and Variation in Pohnpei Political Mythology by anthropologist Glenn Petersen. This wonderful work not only summarizes the various themes interwoven in The Book of Luelen but also compares them to an English translation of the German ethnographer Paul Hambruch’s three-volume work published between 1932 and 1936 — and to additional versions of Pohnpeian oral literature told by other contemporary oral historians. By themes we mean answers to the most sought-after questions, such as these: Who were the first settlers? Who constructed the city of Nan Madol? How was it constructed and under what sort of leadership? Finally, why was it abandoned?

If the answers prove less than what Western readers hope for, they can take solace in this Petersen quote: “When the people of Pohnpei themselves work at sorting out the evidence of multiple historical versions, they say that the truth is Nan tehlik ‘Lost in the weeds’ like a coconut that has fallen into the underbrush at the foot of the tree.”

Who were the first settlers?

Bernart provides a specific list of seven men and nine women who built a large canoe and sailed forth from “the shores of a far-off land.” Interestingly, he attributes the hewing, carving, and plaiting of the sails to the women, whose names all begin with the female prefix Li. Is this a linguistic clue to where they came from? Then he gives us another clue: their vessel had one mast but three sails. It soon becomes clear that these must be mythological characters because he says they met an octopus on their journey who pointed them to a small reef. There they built the island and surrounded it with a barrier reef and a mangrove forest to protect it from the waves. They gave this new land the name Pei (“stone structure”) and named everything on top Pon. Thus, the name of this new land, Ponpei, meant “upon a stone structure or altar.” After completion of this work, these mythological characters return to their homeland but leave a man and a woman behind. Bernart tells of six more voyages of settlement.

Who constructed the city of Nan Madol?

A seventh voyage came after a “long time indeed and many, many years.” Leading one hundred or so voyagers, two men named Oljipa and Oljopa arrived on a vessel — again with one mast but three sails. They came from the same place, Kataupaiti, and according to Bernart, were related to the others who had arrived on previous voyages. He states, “[S]ome people say that it was a fleet and others say that it was a sandspit on which they rode from Yap.” They traveled about the island “looking for a place for their ceremony. . . . They further went to the east and this was where it was very successful. They started their work and it was going to succeed. They gathered all the people of Ponape together, to come and assist them in their work so that it might succeed. And the whole of Ponape joined them in pursuing their work.”

Bernart describes the growing population of the island as “poor.” This is a curious choice of wording to describe Pacific islanders, who always seem to prosper from an abundance of food from land and sea. I doubt he is using the word to describe a lack of food or housing, but rather a lack of commerce. 

In the next verse, once the work has begun, Bernart states, “Now the people of all Ponape were happy and assembled to help them with their work. Here was their work — building up stones which they obtained. They made some large rows of houses and some small ones, building them up out of the sea, making them rectangular with four corners.” (As explained earlier, these were not “houses” but man-made islets, and the “stones” were the basaltic crystals that had broken off the island’s volcanic cliffs.)

Again, I noted Bernart’s choice of words. Nan Madol was a place where people “lived.” They were “happy” to help with the work, and they “obtained” the stones rather than simply “gathering” them. In my upcoming book The Forbidden Man, I make two reasonable assumptions here. First, whoever owned these islets may have purchased the stones or traded for them with those who owned the land the stones came from or, more likely, from the movers and stone-fitters who placed them. Second, this trading led to a period of commerce during which Nan Madol arose as a center of trade. This helps explain the sort of robust economy needed to fund the centuries of organized work it took to build the city. It also suggests a reason for building the city out on the reef, where it would show itself off and nicely accommodate seafarers from the surrounding atolls.

None of the historical narratives of Pohnpei’s history that I have read account for the substantial economy necessary to support the construction of Nan Madol. The explanation that it was some sort of religious site begs the same question. Bernart lists seven of what he calls “the Lords of Teleur,” or rulers after Oljopa. At thirty years each, this would measure a period of at least two hundred years of construction. Archaeologists suggest a much longer period of perhaps five hundred years or more. Even considering a much larger population, the longer the period, the more sophisticated the economy must have been to sustain itself. We know that during this period, far to the southwest in Melanesia, people had developed sophisticated circles of trade stretching over hundreds of miles of open ocean. Watch for more history on this and on how Pohnpeians may have moved the stones to construct the city in subsequent posts. Suffice it to say that Micronesian proas have but one sail while Melanesian proas from certain areas currently have at least two sets of sails.

Bernart wrote, “They also made places for their fighting, their house of refuge, (meaning) a place of deliberation for the nobles. They gave this place the name Nantauaj [spelled Nan Dowes on Hambruch’s map, left]. They also made a place for landing their canoes.” To me this describes walls to protect the city’s wealth and a harbor to attract and sustain commerce, not a site used primarily for religious purposes, which most historical narratives of Nan Madol seem to suggest.

Petersen relates tales of “continuing contact with outsiders,” saying, “The impact of these visits by outsiders was recorded in the earliest name given to that part of the island now known as Sokehs: Pwapwalik, which means that it was the area where foreign (liki) languages (pwapwa) were spoken by foreign peoples.” Petersen writes that when he asked Damian Primo (one of his informants) “about Sokehs’ reputation as a haven for foreigners, he replied that the reputation did not apply solely to Sokehs. All Pohnpei has had visitors from abroad, he said, and welcomed the things they brought from distant places.”

Under what sort of leadership was the city constructed?

As stated earlier, Bernart lists seven rulers, or Saudeleurs. Petersen breaks this title down into its components: Sau, meaning “titled one,” and Deleur, referring to the area of Pohnpei that includes Nan Madol, or present-day Madolenihmw. Based on archaeological evidence, there could have been more than seven. Are these perhaps just the ones who stood out?

Along with their names, Bernart lists a defining characteristic for each. One was very respected. The next was “haughty and presumptuous.” The next had magic powers. Bernart describes Raipuinlañ as rich. The next, Raipunloko, “ate the flesh of people.” And the last, Jau-temoi, was the “man who sank in the time of war.” This is a reference to the final mythological/historical character Ijokelekel, who overthrew him and allowed for a series of actions leading to the current division of Pohnpei into five “states” and the dual Nahnmwarki/Nahnken systems of leadership.

Note that Bernart describes Raipuinlañ as rich. What does “rich” refer to in this context? This word is as out of place in the Pacific as “poor.” The Saudeleurs would have collected tribute (food) from their followers. (They had to transport all food and water to these artificial islets from the mainland.) Because of its perishable nature, most of this food would have been redistributed by the Saudeleurs. True, breadfruit and pandanus can be preserved, but is this all that Bernart is referring to when he describes Raipuinlañ as “rich”? That the redistribution of food is a major theme in Pacific life is well known. It goes all the way back to the Melanesian “big man” system, where a man is renowned for the number of people he feeds. Yet the purpose of this is to gain followers, not to become rich. Why didn’t Bernart simply characterize Raipuinlañ as having many followers?

Arguably, things like preserved foods could make a man rich, but there were also stores of coir sennit, fishing lines and lures, shark teeth, stingray barbs, items of clothing made from banana and pandanus, pandanus mats, necklaces and armbands, shell knives and weapons of various sorts. My book suggests that Bernart was referring to items such as these, which may have driven a system of commerce.

Petersen’s monograph contains a section entitled “The Pali Stories.” His informant, Ioakim David of U province, relates several stories about Pali’s role in the construction of Nan Madol. Petersen states, “Pali and its cognates are widespread Central Carolinean terms for navigator or sailing master. A character called Pali appears in several of Hambruch’s texts. He is described as a man who travels widely, led by his curiosity to visit all parts of the world.” David told Petersen that there were many Palis, though they are all spoken of as if they were one. According to David, Pali came from the east or the south. On separate occasions, he suggested the Marshall Islands, the South Pacific or Katau (a mythological land sometimes to the east, sometimes to the west.) Petersen suggests that these Pali may have had a hand in Nan Madol’s design or construction. At minimum they were highly revered and respected. In my book The Forbidden Man, they travel to Nan Madol because it is a center of commerce.

Why was Nan Madol abandoned?

Over the years, the Saudeleurs grew tyrannical and lost the respect of the people. Chapter 48, verse 1 of Bernart’s account begins, “In the period of the Lords of Teleur as they followed one after another, some of them were good, some of them were bad, some of them were oppressive and cruel and bad.” We have heard this tale before. Suddenly the story of Nan Madol turns universal. The leader becomes vain, glorious and power-hungry. The leadership turns arbitrary. The people revolt.

In my novel, Ḷainjin finds a thriving economy based on the placement of stones. Islet owners, or titled men, act as middlemen in the trade between Pohnpeians and visiting atoll-dwellers. These titled men trade items like those mentioned above to stone-fitters. Ḷainjin leaves Pohnpei on his search for his mother. Before he leaves, he visits the quarry at Sokehs and finds it nearly spent. Left unsaid is what is likely to happen to an economy built upon the placement of stones once the leadership fails or that economy runs low on stones.

Bernart attributes the fall of the Saudeleurs to supernatural forces. He states, “The Lord of Teleur was doomed by the great gods. All his titled men in Ponape no longer felt sympathy for him because of his cruelty and oppression of them all the time.” He continues in this same vein in Chapter 48, verse 1: “This caused the Thunder God to proceed to Upwind Katau . . . and visit a woman relative of his who was a clansmate named Lipanmai . . . He gave her fruit of a tree named motokoi [lime tree] to eat. Now when she tasted it, it made her shudder. She then became pregnant and bore a boy and gave him the name of Ijokelekel.” In later chapters, Ijokelekel returns to Pohnpei with a fleet of 333 men, beats Jau-temoi in battle and returns rule of the island to the people.

This is the theme of my third book, The Fall of the Saudeleurs. Because of the transfer of leadership to the provinces or states, Nan Madol falls out of use as a center of activity, and the residents abandon the incredible city. Over the following centuries, it is gradually overcome by the mangrove that surrounds the island.

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