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A Pattern of Islands

Old Man of Ocean Island

Old Man of Ocean Island

Edward Carlyon Eliot, the Resident Commissioner, was struggling at the time of our arrival to improve the conditions that governed the mining of phosphate on Ocean Island. His aims were to secure for the Baanaban villagers an increase of the tonnage-royalties paid into a trust fund for their phosphate, and to set up guards against the premature encroachment of the diggings upon their villages. He won his fight eventually in the teeth of much official misunderstanding. Fifteen years later, as Resident Commissioner myself, I was called to add a little to the foundations he had laid, and others added more after me. But it was mainly due to his courage and foresight between 1913 and 1920 that the Baanabans of 1945 found themselves in a position to buy an exquisite new home for themselves in the Fiji group and to migrate there in their own good time. I was greatly fortunate to have him as my first chief, for he was a personification of the protective spirit which did inspire the best servants of autocracy with benevolence in the field, whatever may be said today about the system of their allegiance.

He was healthy for me in another way, too, though the pleasure of it was at the time not so obvious. The prospect of having a cadet to lick into shape did not entrance him. There were reasons for this. His parents had not been rich and, as a youth, he had been obliged to forgo for the sake of a brilliant elder brother in the Diplomatic Service a number of things that it hurt him to miss, including his hope of a university education. I never heard him complain of it, but the handicaps he had suffered and the very success with which he had overcome them had affected his attitude towards beginners. He had started his own official career, while still in his teens, as a clerk of the fifth grade in the civil service of a Caribbean colony. From that page 25'back-stairs entrance to the Colonial Administrative Service', as he bitterly chose to call it, he had fought his way up by the time he was forty-one to be Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. His achievement had shown him that a university degree was by no means an essential preliminary to getting on in his profession, which was all to the good; but it had also left him with a basic contempt for beginnings less difficult than his own. His generosity, so ready in other directions, was not predisposed in favour of young men like myself, who came out from Downing Street (so he said) with reach-me-down official futures all ready packed in our suitcases.

Another neat thing he used to shoot off about my species was that we thought we had been despatched across the starlit foam with special warrants in our pockets to dispense celestial wisdom direct from the Colonial Office to the benighted inhabitants of the Empire. As a matter of fact, there was a good deal more in this than an ironic twist of phrase. We were not at that time sent out trained in advance for liaison-work in the field as cadets are trained today. Nor were the senior administrative officers in the Colonies who had themselves started as cadets always careful to bludgeon us into habits of co-operation with other departments. On the contrary. The result was the spread of a poisonous kind of snobbery throughout the administrative branch, which encouraged its members, young and old, to regard themselves as unquestionably superior, clay for clay, to the members of other branches. The internal frictions engendered by this attitude militated heavily against the effectiveness of inter-departmental collaboration in the field, often to the incalculable cost of colonial populations. A good many years were to pass before a system of pre-service training designed to avoid these evils came into being. But pending that kind of improvement from the Downing Street end, my Resident Commissioner was certainly taking no chances with the likes of me. He did not, of course, cram everything down my throat at our first talk; nor, as far as I know had he any prepared series of deflationary utterances laid up in pickle for my education over the weeks and months to come. He proceeded, rather, by the catastrophic method. His most instructive sallies – I mean the ones page 26that sank in deepest – always leapt out of him impromptu under the goad of my many stupidities. Nevertheless he did give me quite an insight into his feelings on the day of our arrival.

While Mrs Eliot talked to Olivia on the front verandah, he took me into his office and sat me before his desk. He was a neat, slim man of medium height with the very black hair and rather Phoenician features one sometimes sees in Cornwall. His slightly close-set dark eyes, overhung by thick, straight brows that almost met above the narrow nose, were as watchful and veiled as a poker player's. He had a habit of twitching his toothbrush moustache and sniffing twice, staccato, from time to time as he examined people or things. Going with his saturnine looks, it always struck me as strangely sinister.

I remember he asked me first if I played cricket. When I said I liked it, he replied, 'Well, that's one good thing, anyhow!' in a way that left me wondering what next. I did not have to conjecture long. He went on, with irritation in his voice, 'You know, Grimble, you ought not to have been sent here really. This isn't the sort of place for a cadet. I didn't ask the Colonial Officer for one. I asked for an experienced man – someone who knew about men and affairs.'

There wasn't much I could say to that. I sat sweating while he gave me his ideas about the right man for the job. What he wanted was someone who had knocked around … not an official … preferably a fellow who had done a bit of trading and planting somewhere. A sahib, naturally … right kind of breeding, right kind of school … all that. But definitely not a cub from a university. Above all, not a heavenly-born selection from the Colonial Office.

I forget what I replied to this (if anything), but I recollect asking him if I could get lessons in Gilbertese from someone on the island, and the request seemed to brighten him for a little. He said the Government would pay the official interpreter to teach me. He turned gloomy again, though, in the course of wondering how the Colonial Office thought he was going to train me in other ways. He supposed he would have to take me to sessions of the Magistrate's Court and the Native Court, for one thing; and then I could learn a bit about correspondence from page 27the clerk at head office, and book-keeping from the accountant, and police and prisons stuff from Methven, and so forth and so on. They could doubtless teach me a few odds and ends not yet revealed to either Cambridge or the Colonial Office; and outside the Government staff there were, of course, plenty of other people on the island aching to teach me what was truly what.

I remember that his last words gave me another of those sudden visions I used to get. It was not as sanguine as the one I had had with Mr Johnson. I saw myself standing (for some peculiar reason) on the sun-smitten railway line above the crushing mills, hemmed in by a circle of Company's men with hairy forearms and noble looks enhanced by the walrus moustaches of my uncles. They held themselves erect in silence, arms folded, looking at me with contempt in their eyes for my gross ignorance of everything a real man should know.

As a matter of fact, I could not have been more mistaken about the Company's staff. Olivia and I were to find out almost at once that our ignorance could not have fallen among friendlier neighbours; only the vision was depressing in its moment. But for all that, there was a lot of comfort, too, in what Mr Eliot had said. He obviously had no ambition to collar me as his private slave; I wasn't to suffer the strain of continuous proximity to the deity, and there wasn't going to be any fighting over my body. What with the relief of this thought, plus the fulfilment of Mr Johnson's promise that I would start off as a washer of bottles for bottle-washers, plus the happy spell our first sight of a Baanaban village had laid upon both of us, I left the Residency reflectively, perhaps, and somehow not game to tell Olivia quite all the Old Man had said, or the way he had said it, but by and large a reasonably happy young man.

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