Jenny Olin taught at a mission school on Kusaie, one of the Caroline Islands in the South Pacific. Her letters home to her friends describe her life and work with the girls in the mission school and the Kusaie natives who lived and worked with her.
Jenny Olin's thirty letters from Kusaie, dating from November 16, 1898 to March 21, 1910, are directed to her friends, Bessie and Annie Turner in Thomaston, Conn. Olin's lengthy letters describing her life and work with the girls in the mission school and the Kusaie natives who lived and worked with her are a pleasure to read. There are also two letters to Bessie from Miss Hoppin, written in July 1911, during Olin's final illness. There is a letter to Bessie, translated by Olin, from an island woman named Mareta, who had been "adopted" by Bessie, thanking her for some presents. There are two letters to Olin. The collection also includes a nineteen page copy of a journal she kept while touring the Marshall Islands, a ten page, unfinished manuscript about the life of Jenny Olin, some notes probably compiled by the unknown author of the sketch, a printed map of the world, showing the Missions of the American Board in 1884, and eight photographs of missionaries and the children of the mission.
The life Olin described was impossibly difficult, with inadequate shelter, clothing, food, or comforts of any sort. The native crops were fair but the supply was erratic. In this period, cyclones and tidal waves twice devastated both housing and much of the food crops. The mission depended on ships bringing mail and supplies but the visits were infrequent and unreliable. Yet in the face of these obstacles, these letters are shot through with humor, and with a feeling of purposefulness and devotion. Olin believed the natives, who were generally good-natured and appreciative, desperately needed her help, and there is the sense that for Olin, doing her work as well as possible was its own reward. As a result, she made light of her difficult situation: "I am well though often I feel cross, so presume I am not living in such repose of mind as I ought to. Can't you give me a sure recipe for keeping sweet tempered? I assure [you] I need one. Only I might do the way the natives do with the medicines we give them -- take a dose or two, and finding no great improvement, stop taking it" (1907 November 6).
Missionaries commonly thought of native peoples, both children and adult, as playful young innocents, and Olin was no exception: "These folks are just like children," Olin commented. "I wish you could know them, you would enjoy them" (1906 August 20). The islanders and the missionaries had high regard and affection for one another. Olin wrote about giving her students presents on holidays and birthdays, and making gifts if no supplies had arrived. She had many pets, including kittens, a pigeon, and a little wild chicken, which had been presented to her by the natives.
When provoked, Olin was capable of slinging sharp barbs. Her account of the people on board ship when she returned from her furlough to the States is in stark contrast to her fond descriptions of her "charges." There was a senatorial party from the U.S., including Sen. and Mrs. Hill of Connecticut and "many whom I do not care for in the least, among the latter is Miss Alice Roosevelt who ought to have a mother along to take care of her. She impresses me as decidedly loud, in many ways" (1905 July 22).
In 1902 the 50th anniversary of the missions on Kusaie was celebrated. The island people built the missionaries a small house and prepared a feast. 188 men were needed to carry all the food: breadfruit, taro, pork, pigeon, fwa fwa (which the men had made from breadfruit), sugar cane, corn beef and bread. Foods also occasionally available on the island included, bananas, papaya, coconuts, b'abai, eels, crabs, and clams. Once the school children caught 200 fish by poisoning the water deep down with a native vine that caused the fish to surface and be easily caught. Although the fish died from the poison, the people who ate the fish were not affected. The missionaries also had some livestock, including a milk cow, chickens, and pigs. Staples such as flour, beans, rice, potatoes, peanuts, raisins, and canned goods were all imported.
Even if food was plentiful, it could perish quickly in the face of the elements. After a cyclone had caused starvation on nearby islands, Olin put the islands' plight in perspective by alluding to the ongoing Russian famine: "I could not sleep after reading it. Starvation is so much worse when you are cold also . . . . When will the poor Russians get their rights?" (1907 June 25) Continual dampness also made it difficult to preserve food and even seed. Supplies from the States were equally unreliable, for it could take over a year from the date they were ordered for them to actually arrive.
In December 1903, Olin, eighteen girls from her school, and seventeen Marshall Islands boys, plus others, set out for an adventurous tour of the Marshall Islands on the Vine. There were five staterooms for forty-six people. The purpose was to visit other missions, replace the staff in some missions, and enable the young people who had been attending school at Kusaie to visit their homes. While on the islands, new members were admitted to the church, baptisms and marriages were performed, and other passengers were landed or added to the company on board. Seas were very rough, decks and staterooms were inundated often, cargo shifted to and fro, people got seasick and provisions were inadequate. The captain had to be kept from drinking at sea and from upsetting the natives on shore. The ship was too small for the many passengers and gear was old and needed repairs and replacements frequently.
The missions usually had a medical doctor and his family, but no dentist was available. More serious illnesses and dental problems required trips to Hong Kong, Sydney, or a return to the States. The excessive rainfall at Kusaie (24 ft. of rain per year) made malaria a constant threat. In 1909 Miss Olin went to Hong Kong to have her remaining teeth removed and plates made, taking the precaution of getting two sets. She also was fitted for new glasses, for hers had been broken awhile before. While in Hong Kong she also shopped for clothes, materials for sewing shoes, furniture, and of course, provisions. Olin noted that they "do not usually catch cold from the weather down here but have regular importation of influenza everytime the steamer comes, and then everybody on the island takes it" (1907 June 25).
The missionaries were not the only white people on the islands. The traders, responsible for importing goods and influenza, also interfered with the local flow of life. The King in Lelu, the village where the natives had built a small house and a church for Olin, made problems for his people and for the missionaries. "The King is getting old and is puffed up with a sense of his own importance, which the trader helps to puff," Olin reported (1907 November 6). In addition to these transients, there were several men who had settled there, including "6 white men on the island stayed from the Horatio," who married natives, although the English and the Germans had some marriage laws and restrictions, and the missionaries were far from enthusiastic about such unions (1899 April 15). In March 1910, Olin wrote of the pressing need to visit other islands. "It will be far from a pleasure trip. If there were no one but natives to run up against it would be all right, but white folks have a way of making things uncomfortable for one another sometimes. I wish it were not so, it is not a very flattering remark to make about white folks, but really, natives are generally easier to get along with. I wonder if you will think I have been quarreling with all my associates. I have not, really, but am quite peaceable at present" (1910 March 21)
All through the years there was worry about the future of the missions, questions of consolidating, having one mission on one island only, joining the Germans, who had an effective missionary program (the island was German territory), coping with inadequate funds for supplies, ships, and lumber for buildings. The disastrous earthquake in San Francisco was one of the factors involved in the decision to keep the school in Kusaie, "for lumber and vessels to bring it down have risen to twice their former price" (1907 January 16). In 1906 only two missionaries were left to care for twelve young students from the Giebero Islands and thirty from Kusaie. In these lean times, seventy natives brought supplies of food, prepared food, and collected $6.00 for Miss Olin. Olin, pictured here with a group of German missionaries, stated that she would stay and work with the Germans, even if the American Board pulled out.
An epidemic of dysentery broke out on Kusaie in February 1909. At least four people died, and Olin was seriously ill. Once she recovered, her letters focused more on her health; "I have never been so thankful that I am well, as this last year. It certainly is one of the greatest blessings" (1910 March 21). Her recovery might have been only partial, for she succumbed again to illness in 1911. Miss Hoppin wrote to the Turner's on Olin's behalf. "Jenny is very ill and very brave. No one else thinks she will recover . . . . Letters do her so much good though she cannot answer them" (1911 July 15). Hoppin persisted, "I will not let myself quite give up hope. We seem to need her so much in our work" (1911 July 21). Olin died in the latter part of 1911.