A Pattern of Islands
George McGhee Murdoch at Abemama
George McGhee Murdoch at Abemama
A second application I had made for permission to go to the front was turned down at the end of 1916. Our second daughter, Rosemary Anne, was born at Tarawa in January, 1917. A month later, the four of us left Tarawa for Abemama, the headquarters of the Central Gilberts. My orders were to take over there from that famous old-timer George McGhee Murdoch, who was waiting to retire from service.
My great advantage as a beginner at Abemama was that George remained nearby after handing over to me. He had been allowed, against the usual Colonial Service rule, to settle down in retirement on an island of his own district and open a trading station there. Kuria, where he lived, was one of the High Chief of Abemama's tributary islands (Aranuka was the other) and only twenty miles away.
Kuria is a tiny lagoonless strip of sand not more than five or six miles long, but broader than most Gilbert islands. Its deep and silent coconut forest is over a mile across in some places, and the minute population – less than two hundred souls in page 184those days – were unable to gather the rich crops unaided. George's coming was a godsend to them, for he brought in his own labourers from other islands and worked the land on a fifty-fifty basis, he paying all the costs. He did not make much out of it for himself, but I never saw a man in retirement happier than he was. He had married his third wife not long before retiring – Mamie – the big, plump, laughing daughter of a white trader and a Gilbertese mother, who treated him at once with the reverence due to a god and the kindly firmness of a mother for her rather difficult son. Mamie delighted his declining days – or maybe declining is the wrong word here – by presenting him with a new baby about once a year for I don't remember how many years in succession. The compound of his trade-store above the shining beach was always a hurly-burly of incredibly active infants as freckled and Scottish-looking as himself. He would sit on his beautifully neat front verandah gazing out at the wild tangle of them with infinite satisfaction, murmuring, "Why did I not spend all my life at this … just gathering copra and making babies? Can ye tell me that, now? D'ye know of any finer activities for a man? Ye say ye do not? Well… have another wee drink.'
It was an easy trip across to him in the 35-ton ketch Choiseul, which Burns, Philip and Company kept based on Abemama to collect the copra of the three islands. I used to go and spend a night with him every six weeks or so, to draw on hs vast fund of local knowledge. He was not very forthcoming with me at first, mainly because he felt I made an unworthy successor for men like Charles Workman and himself. Heaven knows I felt the same too, but when I admitted it he didn't like that either. He was pleased when I lost my temper and shouted, 'All right, I'm a pup. So were you and Mr Workman pups when you started. Now you're superior. What about helping me to be superior too by the time I'm sixty like you.'
'Now that's what I call talking, laddie,' he answered: 'You come to your old uncle, and he'll teach ye … he'll teach ye,' and from that time on we were friends.
He was a little sandy-grey man, as wiry and alert as a foxterrier, always spotlessly turned out in starched ducks. There page 185was mastery in his jutting beak of a nose, and the deliberate, waxed bristle of his sergeant-major's moustache betrayed, perhaps, an over-conscious will to dominate, but caution and humour too shone in the pale blue twinkle of his eyes from under tufted brows. He had needed all the controlled strength that was in him to make what he had made of his life between 1871 and 1917. He never told me his personal history as a continuous tale, nor did he ever set out to speak directly in my hearing about his past, but from time to time he would turn aside into odd, stark little scenes out of it in the course of talking about other people. I have had to make what order I could of the scraps he released.
He was born at Greenock in 1887, the son of a small painter and glazier. He grew up, in his own words, a sickly bairn with a continuous running cold until, at twelve years old, he began coughing blood. By the next year, his condition had worsened. His parents could afford no more medical treatment for him, and would not accept charity. So, on the doctor's advice that a long sea-voyage might do him good, they got him employed at short notice as captain's boy in a barque sailing out of Greenock for New Zealand.
The captain, according to George, was a very fine man except when drunk, which was nearly all the time. With the drink in him, he was a fiend of hell. What aroused his fury most about George was his weakness. The little boy was thrashed whenever he coughed, for being the bad bargain he was. A favourite game was to swipe him back-handed across the mouth. This caused him to spit blood in a way that made his master laugh. Most of his top front teeth had been smashed by the time the barque reached New Zealand.
The sick child deserted ship at Auckland with a spare shirt and his next most valued possession, a toy monkey on a stick, wrapped up in it. He had found on the way out that the warmth of the tropics eased his coughing. Someone had told him too of the blessed climate of the Gilbert Islands, and he had made up his mind to get there somehow. He spent three months in the strange city looking for his chance. I never heard what he did to keep himself alive; all George would say about it was, 'I did not page 186beg, I did not steal, and the monkey was grand company; my mother gave it to me the day I left home.' He found a job at last as captain's boy in a barquentine trading up to the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. And so, in 1871, at fourteen years old, he sailed with his man's experience, spare shirt and infant's toy for the Central Pacific.
The next fragment is the story of how Benjamin Corries befriended him in the Gilberts. Benjamin was a sternly religious but not teetotal Yorkshireman of about thirty-five who ran a successful trade-store on Maiana, the island between Tarawa and Abemama. He was horrified, when the captain brought George ashore with him one day, to learn that although the ailing boy could neither read nor write and knew not a single Bible story, his master proposed to do nothing to cure his ignorance. Ben could not let things go at that. The fate of a child's soul was in the balance; his duty lay clear before him. The night before the ship was due to sail, he went aboard, drank the captain under the table and brought George ashore with him.
The captain landed with a search-party at daybreak, but by then the boy was hidden in a village five miles away with a brother of Ben's native wife. Other men of her family were gathered at the trade-store. They stood round to see fair play while Ben fought the captain first and the second mate next to a standstill on the beach. The ship left the same morning, without George.
He was allowed to idle day-long by the lagoonside at first, bathing whenever he liked and fortified by enormous doses of shark-liver oil that Ben himself forced down his throat twice daily. In three months he was spitting no more blood, in six his cough was gone and he had grown plump. Every evening, Ben gave him two hours' teaching in the three Rs at a table under the palms by the beach. There was no heavy discipline until his lungs were healed; but after that, the exquisite copperplate script he learned from Ben was beaten into him, according to his own phrase, with the buckle end of a leather belt. 'The Books of Genesis and Exodus were my first and second reading primers,' he used to say: 'Beginning with those, I read every chapter of the page 187Bible aloud to Ben straight through to the last o' Revelations. He would expound our readings next day as I worked with him in the trade-store. I was rising eighteen before we came to the end, and that finished my schooldays. He never thrashed me after that except in fair fight, as man to man, when I argued with him about the Scriptures. I didn't argue often, for he had a fearsome hard fist. Ay, Ben was a militant Christian.'
At twenty, working now on a good wage as Ben's book-keeper and store-manager, George married a girl of Maiana, who bore him two children, Agnes and Charlie. Before he was twentyfive, he had saved enough money to set up business on his own account. He started small, with Ben's kindly help, at the south end of Maiana, but his ambition from the first was to get across to the rich island group of Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka, over which the redoubtable Tern Binoka, made famous by R. L. Stevenson a little later, ruled as absolute monarch. It was a bold ambition, for Tern Binoka wanted no white man snooping in his kingdom and bearing tales about his murderous ways to the British, American and German warships which policed the Gilberts under the Pacific Islanders Protection Conventions. He had refused many an applicant before George came into the picture.
But, as George saw things, the others had all taken the wrong line. Their sole aim had been to set up local trading stations, buy the High Chief's copra dirt cheap and sell it to the trading ships for their own profit. 'But Tem Binoka was a shrewd man,' said George to me; 'he didn't see why he should let folk step in like that just to do him in the eye under his own nose, so to speak. What he needed was a private agent of his own clever enough to do everyone else in the eye on his behalf. Your old uncle was the very man for the job. I became what he would have called his factor, had he been a Scot. I managed the whole of his heritable estates and, believe me or not, it was a mighty profitable deal for him.'
George organized production and marketing on Tem Binoka's several thousand acres of coconut land as it had never been organized before, taking a commission on his sales to the trading ships. He made a pretty thing for himself – enough to send page 188his beautiful little girl Agnes later on to the best schools of California and his son Charlie to school and university in Australia. But he gave much for what he earned; he was always greatly more to the High Chief than his man of business. It was he who, operating as a kind of secretary for foreign affairs, maintained friendly relations between Tern Binoka and the tough New Bedford whalers who, in those days, found Abemama lagoon a convenient base for hunting the equatorial whale. It was his influence too that converted his formidable chief from resenting the visits of British warships as threats against his throne to tolerating them as tokens of Queen Victoria's friendship, and brought him in the end to submit to the British Protectorate with resignation instead of hate. The Protectorate would doubtless have been established whether Tern Binoka had wanted it or not, but the peace in which it came to Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka was uniquely George McGhee Murdoch's gift to the Empire.
I could never get George to say much about R.L.S's stay on Abemama in 1889. There must have been some deep misunderstanding between the two men. The great and gentle romancer never knew that, but for the intercession of his masterful little fellow-Scot, Tern Binoka would have refused to allow the party from the Equator to settle ashore. It was not George but Benuaakai, Binoka's cousin and close friend, who told me this. I do not suppose that George was particularly interested in Stevenson as a writing man – he never had much time for pen-pushers, as he called them – but he had heard or divined for himself that his compatriot had te kangenge, the wasting sickness that the Gilberts had cured in himself, and this, according to Benuaakai, was the ultimate argument he used to beat down Tern Binoka's resistance. It makes a strange picture – the grossbodied and ruthless island potentate, who held the lives of his own subjects so cheap that he would shoot them down from tree-tops for the amusement of seeing them fall sprawling, nevertheless touched by the pleading of his little white factor for the health of a sick stranger. How deeply and urgently George did touch him is implicit in Stevenson's own account of the building of 'Equator Town' for the visiting party in two days, page 189under Tern Binoka's personal supervision. I like to think that, had the great writer known all the facts, he would have dealt as kindly with George – adventuring now and then, perhaps, as pleasantly far into the field of sentimental conjecture about him – as he did with the High Chief. But, to prove the full value of his helpfulness, George would have had to reveal something of the real nature of his unspeakable employer, and he was too loyal for that.
So, R.L.S. remained always for George the pen-pusher who did not like his face, and George figured in R.L.S.'s record as nothing better than 'a silent, sober, solitary, niggardly recluse' without a name, who lived on sufferance at Abemama 'far from court, and hearkening and watching his conduct like a mouse in a cat's ear'. George said to me once, 'Maybe he would have liked me better if he had known I was legally spliced to the mother of my children. But how could he know? Outside old Ben Corrie and me, there weren't many white men in the Gilberts who indulged in the luxury of marriage, those days. After all, with his own leddy in the house, it would not have been decent to receive me had I been living in sin with a village woman.'
'But why didn't you make sure he knew, Mr Murdoch?' I asked (I never presumed to call him George to his face).
'There are things a man doesn't run around explaining about himself,' was all he troubled to reply.
Three years after the Stevensons left, the British Protectorate was established, with George operating as one of the principal agents for setting up tentative native courts on the Gilbert Islands. 'From that time on,' his own account ran, 'I transferred my services from King Binoka to Queen Victoria. Binoka was sore with me at first, but he settled down to it and stayed my friend. I ordered myself a belt with a big crown on the buckle, and I stuck another crown in front of my helmet. Solid silver, they were. I told him the Queen herself had sent them to me for a present. Whenever a new law came out, I invented a special message from the Queen to him requesting his pairsonal collaboration in the matter. He was impressed and pleased. I made a by-ordinary good citizen of the old reprobate before he died.'
George's modest title under the new administration was Dis-page 190trict Agent and Tax Collector, but his tremendous business was to supervise the working of the Native Courts he had nursed into being, to bring peace and order without the use of force into the life of the young lagoonside villages, and to get the wild white beachcombers of his day – very far from always without strong measures – to toe the line of British law. His official colleagues at the outset were his old benefactor, Ben Corrie of Maiana, and another Yorkshireman, Alf Hicking of Tabiteuea, but these soon returned to their own job of trading, and he alone remained, at a salary of £150 a year, to teach succeeding generations of newcomers their business as administrative officers in the Gilbert Islands. His vast knowledge of native custom and his sympathetic understanding of the people were behind every enactment of importance to the islands passed between 1892 and 1917. His pay rose to £200, £250 and finally £300–400 a year in the slow course of time; his title was changed to District Officer; he became a Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific – in other words, a magistrate with power to try cases in which Europeans were involved – and this gave him the right to wear a civil uniform of the fifth class.
'I was a proud man,' he told me, 'when I first put on those trappings. I cannot say they precisely suited my style of beauty … and the wee sword had a habit of tripping me up, times; my mother would have looked at it poking between my wee legs and said, "George, ye look gey like the monkey on a wee stick I gave ye"; but she would have been fine and proud of me, ay, she would that. It was the idea of the thing. I wish she could have lived to see me climbing that sword.'
But the high climax of his career came in 1912 when, forty years after he had strayed the streets of Auckland, a penniless child with death in him, he was appointed to act for twelve months as Resident Commissioner.
'Ay,' he said, 'I felt grand up there at the Residency. I used to stand looking out over the sea and say to myself, "George McGhee Murdoch, look at how you started … and here you are, in charge o' one o' His Majesty's territories overseas." Mind ye, though, I did not get too big for my boots, for I knew that Charles Workman would have made a better job of the pen-page 191pushing than I did. They should have appointed him to act really. But there – they've given him his chance over at Nauru now. Looking back, I'm glad they did not pass me over.'