It was like stepping into the pages of one of Somerset Maugham’s South Seas stories.
On a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific was a classic example of a plantation house. It stood five feet above the sand on heavy stilts, had a living area measuring 1,500 square feet and was surrounded by a wide veranda. The effect was enthralling. You could almost picture a trader standing on the veranda in a rumpled white linen suit, inviting a visitor to join him for a gin and tonic while apologizing for a lack of ice.
The living room showed just how comfortable life could be for a successful trader. Peering through a window, you could see a chandelier hanging directly over a circular table with four oversized chairs. In one corner was a roll-top desk, its veneer cracked by decades of humidity. There was also a pedal-powered Singer sewing machine. Decorations included a ship in a bottle and a brass sextant encased in glass.
The island was Likiep, part of the Ratak chain of the Marshall islands.
The house was built around 1905 by Joachim deBrum, son of a Portuguese trader named Jose deBrum. Both the elder deBrum and a German named Adoph Capelle had been sailing around the Pacific in the mid-1800s. They eventually wound up together on Likiep, married Marshallese women and started a thriving business trading copra – the dried coconut meat used to make numerous products including cooking oil, soap and animal food. The names deBrum and Capelle are still common on the island today.
I stumbled upon the house in 1970 while sailing through the Marshalls aboard the Militobi, a ship that made regular inter-island voyages out of the district center of Majuro to ferry passengers, deliver cargo and pick up copra. At 158-feet, the Militobi had 18 bunks divided among five cabins, plus plenty of space for deck passengers.