A traditional chair – a no’oanga or atamira – is being packaged up by Isaac Solomona and sent to Belgium, where it will join scores of other seats in the In Flanders Fields Museum and its Empty Chairs collection.
The no’oanga has been placed in a large DHL Express delivery box and will be sent without charge by the international couriers to the museum in Ypres, scene of some of the worst fighting to take place in WWI.
The museum lists more than 100 United Nations member states that took part in the war and a further 20 territories whose men also served. It wants to have a chair from each nation or dependency as the Empty Chairs represent the millions of men from all of those parts of the world who did not return to their families after the conflict.
So far more than 100 chairs have made it to Ypres and the Cook Islands contribution will soon be joining them.
When he became involved in the project Solomona, who is Editor of Debates at Parliament, said he thought it should be a no’oanga, or atamira, a traditional chair used for chiefs.
“I thought that it would be appropriate to have something traditional and, secondly, to me 1914 was still early into our moving into the Western world and many homes – where the men came from – didn’t have chairs.
“I saw this atamira in Parliament and the Clerk of Parliament and staff generously donated it when I told them the Empty Chair story.
“The Queen’s Representative Sir Tom Marsters and his official secretary Anthony Brown were part of this and they funded the etching of Rarotonga Cook Islands into the seat. When it sits in a museum people will ask where Rarotonga is and the Cook Islands story will expand.”
Accompanying the atamira will be a garland ei.
“Someone suggested we add the ei as it is based on the tradition of us putting ei on family who went to war.
“There was a culture where they put it on the men and when the ship sails away the men drop the eis on to the ocean. If it floats back to shore that means you are coming home. If it floats by the current somewhere else – you were not coming back.
“It connects with the chair, which is empty, signifying that some men never came back.”
The Cook Islands soldiers who served in WWI are close to Solomona’s heart as his grandfather was one of them.
Corporal Solomon Isaac was one of the two CI troops – with Private Angene Angene - who famously carved their names into a mine wall in Arras, where Cook Islanders were used to enlarge tunnels in preparation for attacks on enemy positions. Isaac returned home to Aitutaki, but died in 1923.