In "Drums" the life of my hero, Guy Richmond, becomes meaningless after the death of his son. He sets off in a search for rare orchids in the islands of Polynesia - and finds much more than flowers, I might add.
I already knew orchids grew in Polynesia and Australia, but knew nothing of Robert Brown (1773-1858). Brown, the son of an Episcopalian clergyman, was born in Scotland and at sixteen began medical training at Edinburgh University. His main interest was always botany and soon he was noticed by Joseph Banks who selected him, aged twenty-eight, for the Admiralty expedition to Australia in 1801. During the next four years Brown collected nearly 3800 botanical specimens, including 120 orchids, a quarter of Australian orchid species. In the spring in those days he would have been able to see sandstone areas around Sydney covered with the purple wax lip dendrobium, unfortunately these glorious orchids require uncultivated soil so that as soon as cultivation of the land began they were decimated.

Friends of Lane Cove Park site

Hurricanes leach every hint of vibrant colour and don't always strike when expected. The hurricane at Apia, Samoa, in 1889 surprised everyone including the captains of foreign warships, gathered to protect national interests at a time of Samoan political unrest. A hurricane begins with the collection of small thunderstorms over the tropics when the ocean water is around 26.5 C, usually January to March in the South Pacific. Once wind speed within the storm reaches 37 km/h, water vapor condenses into water droplets and releases latent heat into the atmosphere. There is a chain reaction pulling in hot, humid air from the ocean up to cooling high altitude where it condenses into thick clouds. As wind speed increases spirals of bands of cloud rotate an "eye". A typical hurricane is about 480 km across. The strong winds can cause severe damage in their own right, heavy rains often cause flooding or landslides, the surge created by winds push up a wall of water which can wash over shorelines and rush back out to sea. (

U.S. Naval Historical Center

In March 1797 'Duff' landed in Tahiti after a seven-month voyage from Woolwich with 37 London Missionary Society missionaries and their families to be settled in the South Seas. The L.M.S. was one of the first Christian missionary societies in the South Pacific. Missionaries, artisans as well as pastors, learned the languages, reduced them to writing, translated the Scriptures and trained and taught island leaders they converted. They went about by ship supervising the work of local teachers and pastors, many of whom were martyred.
John Williams was one of the early missionaries. He was marooned on Rarotonga and in 15 weeks, with local materials and help built The Messenger of Peace,  60 ft long and 18 ft wide, and was martyred in 1839 on the island of Erromango. A line of missionary ships travelling from southern Polynesia to Micronesia was named after him.

London Missionary Society ship Duff
Coral islands are formed by coral building sea organisms known as polyps. Polyps protect their bodies by building limestone walls around themselves. In time these colonies grow large enough to form reefs and these reefs are the basis for islands. Reefs become islands when the sea level drops around the reef or the land beneath the reef rises. Over long periods of time sand, bird droppings and other materials accumulate on the exposed reef, and an island is formed.
About 30,000,000 years after little colonies begin (according to people like Charles Darwin) they have the first of what may be many waving palms.
Copyright 2010-2014 Gwendoline Ewins. All Rights Reserved.
Richard Ling
Daphne a blackbirder siezed by HMS Rosario
Coconuts growing on a palm
Coconut palms can soar high into the sky and end in a flourish of fronds hiding clusters of coconuts,or sway elegantly over lagoons and make a perfect diving board. Whatever their shape they have a multitude of uses. They accompanied the Polynesians on their great migrations, providing pure water and food and sprouting nuts ready to plant. They were planted wherever Polynsians landed, the shell was a bowl and drinking vessel, hair clasp and ornament, musical instrument. Its fronds were a roof or a mat or woven into baskets and hats. The husk was made into ropes and mats and brushes. Its flesh when new was perfect for infants. When mature the flesh was dried and used for flour or crushed into oil which could be used for flares, for massaging the living and embalming the dead. Mixed with gardenia it was, and is, a perfume. In the early twentieth century dried coconut became the world's premium source of vegetable oil. Traditional stands of palms around a village or a lagoon could not supply demand so vast areas of palms were planted commercially.     

In mid 1800's blackbirding in the South Pacific was rife, by 1900 it was over. Blackbirding was the practice of recruiting, by fair means or foul, workers from South Pacific islands to meet the demand for labour elsewhere. Schooners and barques were fitted out for the purpose, holds divided into compartments and separated by iron grating which also covered the hatches. The vessels were mounted with swivel guns and their crews heavily armed. In the early 1800's recruitment was mainly from Micronesia and Melanesia for plantations in Tahiti and Peru but changed as the century wore on. The American Civil War set back cotton production in America  and cotton was planted in Fiji. The huge popularity of sugar encouraged sugar cane production in Queensland. The overworked land in Europe and America required additional fertilizer and mining of guano along the coast of Peru was one of the answers. The appalling conditions and high death rate, especially in the guano mines, gave rise to an ever increasing demand for labour. Peruvian blackbirders saw the opportunity for profit and in the early 1860's expanded recruitment to Polynesia.

gwendoline ewins


Frangipani (plumeria) originated in South America before wandering across the oceans to similar warm parts of the world.  
By the 1800's they had taken root in the islands of Polynesia and became immensely popular for leis and garlands. Tradition has it that a woman wears a frangipani behind her right ear to signal her availability. As the sun sets the perfume of the frangipani strengthens. That is when their brilliant white or yellow, pink, or combination of all three, glows  in the fading light.               

Rope was everywhere on a sailing ship and was used for everything. It held together and operated the complex systems of sails which controlled the ship, it was coated in tar for added strength and protection from the elements on standing rigging, and left untarred for running rigging assisting the smooth movement of spars and sails. It was sewn into the edges of all sails, for foot ropes, braces, halyards and anchor cables. There was miles of - almost four miles for a 400-ton brig, twenty-six miles for HMS Victory.
Sailors were expected to know the name of every rope from twine to seven inch diameter and how to tie knots for specific purposes.  There are records of ropemaking from papyrus and leather in Egypt in 3500 BC, and cannabis hemp rope in China 12,000 years ago. Fishing line was an early reason for twisting fibres. From the middle ages hemp was used for the longbow, one-eighth inch to be four or five times the strength of a bow of about eighty lbs. From the 1830's Manila became popular because it was more supple, softer, clearner, resistant to the elements and didn't need to be tarred.

Oranges were first grown in China before spreading to Europe and proliferating in warm countries like Spain.
George Vancouver had a number of orange cuttings aboard when he captained the Discovery on its 1791 expeditiion to the South Pacific. They were tended by the ship's naturalist, Archibald Menzies, and survived the long and perilous journey. On arrival in Hawaii Menzies distributed cuttings to several chiefs keen to watch over a novel source of food as it took root. The cuttings thrived - especially in the area of Kalua Kona where vast plantations of oranges were planted. Soon orange growing and trading became the prime source of Hawaii's income.
Some of that original stock still bear fruit. 
Jamie Campbell
Ellen Levy Finch