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Friday, November 30, 2012

Tom Neale - A Remembrance

to view some clippings from the Pacific Islands Monthly, click here


It’s been 35 years today since Tom Neale died. In the end, he was reduced to a frail, shriveled gnome in a hospital on Rarotonga; in one of life’s great ironies, the man who had escaped the madness of modern society for 25 years and who had defied death despite storms, sharks, injury and loneliness finally succumbed to one of civilization’s most dreaded—and common—ailments: cancer.

But those of us who knew him remember a different Tom Neale. In our mind’s eye we see a wiry, leather-skinned leprechaun who most often wore nothing but a loincloth and wide-brimmed woven hat to conceal his balding pate and jug-handle ears. We remember that at age 70 he could still work from daybreak to sunset, feeding his chickens, tending his crops and shinnying like a monkey up coconut trees. We can still envision his warm eyes, his thin lips fixed in a quixotic grin, cradling an unlit cigarette Bogart style, while he sat every evening on his beach watching the sun go down.

Neale was among the last true individualists. He left his native New Zealand at the age of 22 and spent the next 28 years of his life wandering the islands of the South Pacific, taking on an assortment of odd jobs: clearing bush, planting bananas, keeping store. His peregrinations led him to exotic locales, including Tahiti and the Cook Islands, where he met American traveler and writer Robert Dean Frisbie.

Frisbie fired Neale’s imagination with the idea of living in the northern Cook Islands on tiny Suwarrow Atoll, a deserted ring of coral motus, or islets, hundreds of miles from any inhabited region. Frisbie had been stranded there during World War 11 with his children and two New Zealand coast watchers when a powerful typhoon pummeled the area. During the storm, waves washed over the motus as if they were pebbles on a beach, prompting Frisbie to lash himself and his children to the forks of tamanu trees, which bend with the wind instead of breaking, to keep his family from being swept away.

In spite of his harrowing experience there, Frisbie had always harbored a desire to return to Suwarrow, and, after many rum-soaked evenings spent swapping tales with Neale, he proposed that they go to live on the island together. Neale was enthusiastic and began to make plans, but Frisbie was unable to uphold his end of the bargain: stricken with tuberculosis, he died soon after.

But Frisbie’s dream had become Neale’s obsession, and he began to squirrel away every spare penny from his meager earnings as a storekeeper. Then, in 1952, at the age of 50, when most men are preoccupied with nurturing their careers and managing their investments, Neale abandoned his job, his friends and his links with civilization to take up residence – alone – on Anchorage Island, the most habitable of Suwarrow’s motus.

Neale lived alone on the island by choice, not necessity. In fact, when word leaked out about his plan, Cook Island women deluged him with offers of companionship. Although tempted at first, he ultimately refused all offers, reasoning that "the prospect of being cooped up with a woman who might eventually annoy me, of being imprisoned with her -–like a criminal on Devil’s Island, without hope of escape – made me shudder." Thus, Neale spent his remaining years on Suwarrow living in splendid isolation.

His penchant for solitude gave Neale a reputation for being a recluse and a hermit. He bristled at the suggestion. "I’m not a hermit," he told me. "Hermits don’t like people, but I do. I just live here because it suits me. I can do what I want to, when I want, without being beholden to anyone. I’m free!"

His freedom, however, was not without its responsibilities. When Neale arrived on the island, he had to hack his way through a tangle of vegetation to reach the original coast watcher huts, but what he found was enough to make a lesser man weep with despair. The huts were in ruins and the garden had become a jungle overgrown with weeds and vines.

Neale took on the task of reconstruction with the zeal of a workaholic, laboring from dawn until dusk for months to repair the buildings and replant the garden. Using volcanic rocks, he first built a native oven and then constructed a series of tidy paths through the underbrush. He captured the scrawny chickens left by the coast watchers and killed the wild pigs threatening to uproot his garden. He fished, trapped lobsters and collected eggs from the nests of seabirds inhabiting nearby motus. He even succeeded in pollinating his plants by hand when no bees were available to fertilize them naturally.

This frenetic pace kept Neale from dwelling on the one troublesome aspect of his island existence: loneliness. Neale handled it with unending toil. "When I’m by myself, I’m never lonely," he said. "The only time I feel any loneliness is just after people leave. Otherwise, I’m just too busy."

Despite the isolation, Neale’s life was full. In time he became a South Pacific celebrity and was visited frequently by yachties and journalists. He wrote a book, Island to Myself, in which he told the story of his first few years on Anchorage. He was even appointed postmaster of Suwarrow and received correspondence from all over the globe.

But amidst all this notoriety, Neale harbored one great apprehension: he feared dying alone. Fortunately, this was not to be. He seemed in excellent health at the time of my visit in 1972, but even then the cancer that finally took his life was festering in his stomach. Not long afterward some visitors to the island found him in great pain, and he was removed to Rarotonga, where he died at age 75.

In his time, Tom Neale was labeled a dreamer, a hermit and a crackpot. I remember him as a warm, intelligent human being with a resolve and strength of character that most of us can only envy. He pursued his island dream to the end and lived his life as his own man.

(This has been reproduced from an article written by Kenneth R. Vogel which also included the excellent photo of Tom Neale, one of the later ones in his life. The photo was also taken by Kenneth R. Vogel.)

Read Tom's book An Island to Oneself.

Tom Neale's chronology.