Here am I,/Your special island!' " says the song from
. And here it was, gleaming green in the sunrise on the ocean ahead. Its name, to be sure, was not Bali Ha'i. It was, prosaically, Swains. But it was—and is—as "special" an island as exists anywhere in the world.
To locate it you need 1) a large-scale map of the Pacific and 2) a magnifying glass—or, better, a microscope. Start at American Samoa (which is small enough to begin with); move north and very slightly west from the main island of Tutuila; and after 200 miles of blue nothing—if your navigation is perfect—you will come upon the low, lost midge that is Swains (see map, page 66). Geographically, it is the southernmost of the Tokelau, or Union Islands group, of which the next one, Fakaofo, is another 100 miles to the north. Politically it is part of American Samoa, and therefore a possession of the United States. But it is a possession in an unusual, almost theoretical, sense, for what makes Swains Island special is that it is—all three square miles of it—private property.
The dream of a "South Sea island of one's own" is one of the most persistent and venerable of romantic clich�s. But here, on this one dot in the Pacific, dream and clich� become plain fact. For Swains is owned lock, stock and lagoon by a family named Jennings, and has now been so owned—and occupied—for more than 100 years.
Its known history, to be sure, goes back much farther than that: specifically, to 1606, when it was sighted and placed on the map by the Portuguese mariner Quir�s, exploring the South Pacific under the flag of Spain. He called it Peregrina. The Spaniard Espinosa, happening along a while later, renamed it Isla de Gente Hermosa because its inhabitants—presumably Tokelau islanders were to his mind "the most beautiful, white and elegant people that were met with during the voyage." Since then it has been called Quir�s Island, Olosenga, Jennings and a variety of other names. But the one that has stuck, unfortunately—for it has neither magic nor much appropriateness—is Swains, which was bestowed on it in 1840 by a Captain Hudson, of the U.S. exploring ship Peacock, in honor of a whaling ship captain who had told him of its existence.
It remained for another whaling man, however, to give more than a name to the tiny atoll. This was Eli Hutchinson Jennings, a far-ranging Yankee from Southampton, Long Island. Having seen and admired the island in the course of his voyaging, Jennings conceived the idea of making it his home. He obviously was a man adept at changing fancy into fact, for in 1856, age 42, he sailed up from Samoa with a few islanders and a newly acquired part-Samoan wife—and did exactly that. At that time no Western power had yet staked a claim to this tiny shred of real estate. The few Tokelauans who dwelt there were hospitable. And Captain Jennings forthwith set about founding the community and dynasty that have endured to this day.
Before he died on Swains in 1878, Eli Jennings and his wife had had six children. These, in turn, had many more, as did their children, until today there are some 200 living descendants. In the process, a medley of national and racial strains came into the family—including British, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and many varieties of Polynesian—and its present members are widely scattered. But in each generation the oldest son has made his home and raised his children on Swains, so that the continuity of family-on-island has remained unbroken. After the original Eli came Eli II, from 1878 to 1920; then Alexander Eli, who "ruled" until 1958, or two years beyond the island's centenary. And now the head man is young Wallace Hutchinson Jennings, freshly emerged from six years in the U.S. Air Force to assume his rare but lonely heritage.
True, he does not control Swains as absolutely as did his forebears. For with the coming of the 20th century it was no longer feasible for the family to remain stateless, and in 1925, after repeated Jennings requests, the island was annexed by the United States as part of the territory of American Samoa. During the Pacific war it was used as a weather and plane-tracking outpost. And today it boasts a total of three non-Jennings-employed inhabitants: a nurse, a radio operator and a schoolteacher—all Samoan—the last of whom also serves as general government representative.
Very few of the Stateside personnel in Samoa, concentrated in the capital and port of Pago Pago, have been to Swains, and those few have been mostly doctors on emergency missions. No place on earth, alas, is total paradise, and the island has its problems—of isolation, weather, food supply and health. But of such modern plagues as bureaucracy and officialdom, file clerks and tax collectors, Swains, even under U.S. aegis, is blessedly free.
Until a few months ago I, like almost anyone else, had never heard of the place. Then, reaching Samoa, I heard of it all right, but still with little thought of getting there, for there is nothing vaguely resembling regular transportation. Even in the notoriously unhurried South Pacific, however, things do occasionally happen quickly. And, happily, such an occasion came now. For within the space of two days, in Pago Pago, I met a Jennings, was invited to Swains and found myself, rather bewilderedly, on my way. Neither bewilderment nor subsequent enjoyment were lessened by the fact that I was to be not only a guest on the island but at a wedding as well.
The couple-to-be were David Eli Jennings, younger brother of clan leader Wallace, and Bessie Brown of Apia, in Western Samoa. Like Wallace, David had had his hitch with the U.S. armed forces—in his case, three years in the Navy—and though predominantly Polynesian in feature and coloring, was, at age 24, a thoroughly Westernized young man. Bessie, too, was of mixed background—part Samoan, part British—and had had several years of school in New Zealand, which administers Western Samoa as a United Nations trusteeship. They had met and become engaged the year before, when David's ship had called at Apia in the course of a Pacific cruise; and now, with the Navy behind him, they were ready to marry and settle down.