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Return to the Islands

9 — —

page 159

An armed man standing next to a man in white clothing

Mistaken Policy

It was early in 1925 that the Pioneer finally dropped me at Ocean Island and returned with Lambert to Fiji. Those were the difficult days before we had the Chinese and Gilbertese labourers living and working in areas well apart from each other. The Gilbertese were housed in a location immediately above a small railway line used for the transport of phosphate; the Chinese location lay immediately below it. At one point, nothing but the breadth of the permanent way and a public footpath—less than fifty paces in all—divided the lower boundary of the one from the upper boundary of the other. That was not nearly enough for peace of mind between races of men who withdrew from each other every evening savage from having had to work cheek by jowl throughout the day.

The policy of bundling irreconcilables like the Chinese page 160and Gilbertese hugger-mugger together in mining field and workshop was as cruel as it was dangerous. For an oriental, deeply sensitive to losses of physical dignity, the schoolboy horseplay of the islanders—the upsetting of his wheelbarrow, the spilling of his paint pot, the jogging of his elbow, the uproarious barging around—made something like a nightmare of his working day. To an islander, incapable of imagining a shame more horrible than incest, the stock Chinese retort about his relations with his grandmother (which he had learned to recognize by the sound of it) was an insult that screamed for blood-letting. There was constant friction between yellow and brown. It was madness, in the face of all the facts, to keep the two races housed side by side without even enclosing fences to prevent them from prowling around each other's locations at night.

Although, in all other respects, the British Phosphate Commissioners were notably thoughtful employers, they had to pay heavily for that one big standing mistake. It kept the Chinese in such a constant state of nervous tension that they were ready to lay down tools on the slightest provocation. The reason for one memorable strike was the non-arrival from Hong Kong of a consignment of tinned lily shoots. The ration scale in the contract of employment said lily shoots twice a week; so, when the stock ran out, eight hundred coolies sat down and remained sitting until the delayed supply arrived.

In those days, the duty of settling strikes usually fell to the resident commissioner. The Gilbertese labourers expected his intervention as of right when they had a grievance, and about 50 per cent of the Chinese coolies tolerated it amiably enough as a guarantee that the administration was interested in their side of affairs as well as the employer's. On the other hand there were always plenty who distrusted official meddling altogether, and attended our meetings with strikers only to guess aloud at uncomfortable moments how much the B.P.C. paid us for cheating them back to work.

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Reggie McClure, humorous, kind and never at a loss for an answer, showed superb technique in dealing with this sort of sabotage. He replied once that the reward offered to him personally for cheating them in any way at all was £1,000. "But," he added, "as you are much too clever to be deceived by any trick of mine, I have never pocketed a penny up to date." Every face in his audience was illuminated with instant delight at this extraordinarily courteous tribute to their superior cunning. They plainly thought it worth a thousand-pound response, for they returned to work the next morning without further parley.

But anxious times came for all of us when they hit on the device of striking work in order to secure attention to their grievances against the police. Not that they ever brought a charge against an innocent man; they had no need to do that, for, although our Ellice Islanders and Fijians could be trained to the patient perfection of London's own metropolitan force, our Gilbertese—alas!—had not their marvellous restraint under provocation, and too often manhandled abusive coolies. But it did seem rather unfair that their impatience should be visited upon the pocket of the wretched employer, however blind his labour policy.

Reggie McClure used to say, looking at tilings from the angle of the local manager, that not even an archangel would have liked to have eight hundred coolies sitting down on him idle for as long as it took the O/C police to go into the charges against his constables. To which Stuartson Methven would reply that not even an archangel trying his best to get at the truth of things would have liked to have the blanky manager breathing down the back of his neck until he found it.

Thus completely did those poor, illiterate, helpless victims of imperial exploitation, the coolies, contrive to range their exploiter on their own side against the government and then to split the government party into two contending factions. I personally failed so often to satisfy them as an arbitrator, or to understand the hidden ways of their thought, or to get page 162them within a mile of understanding what I liked to regard as my open ways, that I came at last to believe there could be no possible bridge of shared sentiment over which they and I might ever approach one another across the abyss of our mutual ignorances. Yet, in the long run, it was the generous sensitiveness of their response to a purely private gesture of mine that settled the most serious anti-police strike I ever had to face.

A Gift of Crackers

Armed men

It happened soon after the Pioneer had brought me back to Ocean Island. It never would have happened, I'm sure, if Stuartson Methven had still been O/C police and prisons there. But he had lately been sent as district officer to Fanning and Washington Islands, 1,600 miles to eastwards of the page 163Gilberts, and I was under orders to hold down his job at Head-quarters as well as Reggie's until further notice.

That was in itself a dangerous arrangement. With all the racial tension there was, I should have been wise to forget for the moment that I was acting resident commissioner and give all my time to police and prisons. But I tried to do both jobs and saw my mistake only too late, when Sergeant-Major Taitusi came to report the madness of Corporal Teakai.

Teakai was at that time the sole Gilbertese N.C.O. in the police force, the rest being Fijians and Ellice Islanders. Through all his eleven years of service he had a name for gentleness. It was because of his known patience that we put him and nobody else in charge of Chinese prisoners, working parties. Yet Sergeant-Major Taitusi had caught him flogging one poor, weedy little coolie before him up the precipitous bush track that led from the beach to the prison yard. His weapon was a tarred rope-end; his victim had a heavy load of sand hoisted on his shoulder. Taitusi sprang forward to snatch the rope from Teakai's hand. Teakai resisted. In the tussle that followed, the prisoner quietly dropped his load to the ground and slipped away into the dense bush. The sun set twenty minutes later. We searched in vain for the missing man through the whole of the following week.

During that time, Teakai stood his trial. There could be no defence for what he had done, but Chinese witnesses proved beyond doubt that it was his only offence of the kind. Also, he was the only man in the colony who held a medal for life-saving from the Royal Humane Society.

I felt too small a man myself to decide out of hand that these things, together with all his years of perfect service, should be passed over as though they had never been because of that single hour's madness that had seized him on the hillside. So I gave him his own choice between dismissal with three months' imprisonment on one hand and reduction to the third grade of constable with a flogging from his sergeant-major page 164on the other. He choose the second and, next morning, took his punishment with fortitude and dignity from Taitusi. We were able to get him transferred to the Gilbert Group within the next few days. He never returned to Ocean Island.

Three days after he was gone, we found the escaped prisoner. He had been hiding in the desolation of a dug-out mining area, a wilderness of blazing rocks where never a blade of green could grow for cover from the sun's blistering glare. Things had gone fairly easily for him at first, nevertheless, for he had been able to feed with his friends at night in the Chinese location, and stay hidden with them until the dark before dawn. But on the third or fourth morning, scrambling down steep crags back into his hiding-place, he had had a fall which, though it broke no bones, so terribly bruised and wrenched his frail body that he could no longer walk. He had lain trapped and starving and flayed raw in the furnace heat of that inferno for five days before our search patrols found him. His bruises were found to have gone gangrenous when he was brought to hospital. He died a day or two later.

His death was the signal for an instant strike by the Chinese labourers. A deputation told the manager that they would remain out until repatriated unless the government agreed to their terms. The terms were that the whole police force, as a gesture of contrition for what they called Teakai's murder of their comrade, should follow the dead man's body to the graveside with uniforms stripped of buttons, badges, stripes, or any other kind of distinguishing mark.

The manager referred this ultimatum to me. His note arrived just as all the strikers came streaming up the hillside to surround our lonely office, and as our Chinese interpreter put it, "to plead aloud for reasonable conference with some honourable representative of the government."

As I looked over the verandah rail at that yelling mob, it came to me that, whatever else might happen, this must be the end of my official career. A man was dead who would page 165have been alive but for his escape from prison—who would never have wanted to escape but for the savagery of a policeman —who could not have suffered that savagery had I, the man in charge, been a hundred per cent on my job. Yet, responsible as the government had become through me, there could be no question of accepting either their mistaken charge of murder or their half-malicious, half-piteous plan to humiliate the police. Not even the ghost of a compromise on those two points was possible, and, as surely as I ruled them out of court, the strike would be on. There would probably be riots, too, judging from the temper of the crowd already.

There was a boulder-strewn space over-arched by coconut palms on the hillside below the office. While the interpreter invited them to meet me there, I walked down to a shaded rock a little higher than the rest. They let me through in silence, but making only just enough room for passageway. I shall remember until I die the acrid reek of phosphate dust and sweat that closed around me in those moments. All the crude toil and poverty of their lives seemed summed up in it. I was wrung with a sudden, shamed sense of the gross handicaps they suffered, the cushioned ease of my own lot. It did nothing to lighten my feeling of personal guilt towards them and the dead man as I waited for everyone to find seats.

They said their say quietly to begin with; but it was hopeless from the start; since leaving the manager, their committee had stiffened the terms: in addition to the humiliation of the police, they now required the recall of Teakai from Tarawa and his trial for murder. We argued round that single point quite uselessly for two hours, I doing nothing but explain why I couldn't agree, they retorting with ever-mounting clamour that nothing but a murder trial would satisfy them. We had not even began on the matter of the funeral when a wild fellow whom we called Peter the Painter leapt from his seat, yelled at the rest to follow him and started to walk off. They were all on their feet together then, screaming at the interpreter with brandished fists.

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"Sir," he said to me, his voice bland, his manner unperturbed, "this would seem to be a serious emergency. The saying of something of a highly constructive kind at once is indicated, if it happens to occur to Your Honour," and, without pausing for an answer, he raised his voice to a siren screech, bidding them be reseated.

They obeyed him.

I hadn't a word more to say about their terms. I was sick to death of the argument. My mind was already resigned to the strike and its consequences, whatever they might be. The only thing I did want to say was something entirely personal. It was that, strike or no strike, I was as grieved as they were at the death of their friend, because I felt that my negligence had indirectly led to it. Though I couldn't, as head of the government, do as they demanded, I could at least make a private grief-offering of all the fireworks they thought necessary for a happy funeral, if they would allow me to do so.

I did know how much they valued fire-crackers at burials; but the idea of bribing them back to work with such an offer was so far from my mind that I got up to leave as soon as the interpreter had finished talking. I wasn't surprised when the whole crowd sprang up, with renewed clamour. They were evidently yelling their contempt of me and my crackers. "No wonder!" I thought, sick at heart. "It must have sounded pretty cheap to them."

I had turned on my heel to get out when a bunch of them, headed by Peter the Painter, surged forward through the shouting mob. It looked like instant trouble. "What now?" I asked the interpreter, turning back to stand my ground as shakily as you like to imagine. In the same second, Peter the Painter stopped ten feet short of me, screamed a few words through the din with his arm raised high as if to strike, then suddenly swerved left and led the whole seven hundred of them, except for two men, at a gallop down the hillside.

The interpreter turned to me in a convulsion of high-pitched, expressionless sniggers. "The organizing committee paused page 167before leaving to tell you your face is like a looking-glass," he explained when he could manage to speak.

I had expected some sort of insult, but definitely not this contemptuous comment on my looks, topped off with his shameless, open amusement. "And you dare to stand there giggling while they march off to play hell in the settlement!" I began. "Why you…"

But he let me go no further. "Excuse … excuse! No hell whatever in settlement. My giggles the laughter of congratulation. 'Looking-glass face' high expression of Chinese esteem. Courteous gift of crackers-money is graciously accepted; these two men are waiting to receive same from your hands."

They returned to work the same day. There was not another anti-police strike on Ocean Island while Peter the Painter remained there.

Spirited Encounter

When the average Gilbertese villager of thirty years ago came to while away a few months in prison, his main idea as a rule was to settle down to a lovely, long, well-fed rest from the grim task of food-getting for his family. No such insults to his intelligence as chevaux de frise or barbed wire were needed to keep him put. For that reason, the calaboose on Ocean Island was ill-fitted to contain inmates of a less home-staying habit. Our Chinese guests, for example, could and did escape from confinement practically whenever they liked and their midnight doings, together with those of their friends in the Chinese location, were a constant pain in the neck for the local administration. But although this did, as you will see, have a strong connection with my behaviour coming home from the manager's party, it wasn't the thing that actually drove me to drink while acting for Reggie McClure.

You might say that a microbe imported by Chinese labourers page 168was mainly to blame. I never saw a new draft of recruits from Hong Kong that failed to arrive in the pink of condition or omitted to bring with it an influenza germ of peculiar malignance. When the newcomers landed, the order of events never varied. Almost at once, the entire population of Gilbertese labourers would disappear into hospital. A week or so later, the British Phosphate Commissioners' staff of fifty odd Europeans would succumb en masse with their wives and families. The eleven hundred Ocean Islanders in their beautiful villages would follow. Last of all, when everyone else had forgotten what it felt like to be ill, came the turn of the wretched little government staff. And infallibly, at this point, the manager of the phosphate concern would decide to celebrate his complete return to health with a grand dinner-party.

So things fell out about three weeks before Reggie was due to return from leave. The manager's invitation came and was accepted at a moment when Olivia and I were the only representatives of His Majesty's local dignity still able to get up and stand on it. But by the date of the party Olivia was down with the usual fever and bone-ache (the thing was very like dengue); nobody else on the station was yet back on his feet; and I was obviously sickening for a nice little go of my own.

My temperature was over 100, and I shouldn't have thought twice about calling the fixture off under ordinary conditions. But I felt that Reggie, himself a model of official courtesy, might well be annoyed if he heard that not even the man acting for him had made an effort to attend.

Olivia told me from her bed of pain not to be an idiot, but I was set on going; so she said at last, oh well, if I had to be silly and official about it I had better fortify myself with a drop of the right stuff for a start and go on keeping up my strength with whatever I could lay my hands on as the evening proceeded.

A couple of whiskies before I left more than justified the page 169first part of her advice. Their effect on me was all the more bracing, I suppose, because at that age I hardly ever touched spirits. They sent me off humming gay little tunes along the lonely way to the manager's house. Another helpful thing they did (for that evening at least) was to break down the queasy dislike I had for dry Martinis and that grossly overrated beverage, champagne. Two or three of the former before dinner put me into fine shape for a methodical attack on the latter as soon as the excellent sherry they gave us had been faithfully dealt with. Some superb brandy when the ladies retired and I forget how many Scotches for the road at about 10.30 set me on my homeward path, if not in fact entirely cured of my temperature, at least too free from care to give a hoot whether I had one or not.

I remember still the chaste clarity, the shining happiness of my impressions as I floated home through the moonlight. I remember how the black and silver trees, and the great amethyst cloud galleons, and the darling honeysuckle stars between them, and the pale green sticks and stones that rolled beneath my feet seemed to murmur and ripple, and twinkle, and tinkle all together in an ecstasy of being that sang in perfect unison with my own as I climbed the craggy hillside. I remember shouting, "Here I come, laddie!" and dancing like a faun out on a gangplank over a forty-foot ravine that scared me silly when sober. I remember stopping on the other side to stand and gaze by a twisted rock, laughing for delight at the queer shadow it threw, and trying to strike the same attitude, and failing, and failing again, and laughing anew each time for the exquisite fun of being myself and not my flickering, futile shadow. The thing I really don't remember rightly is my motive for popping behind that rock when I saw the little Chinese figure creeping round a bend of the bush track ahead.

I knew, of course, that he could be up to no good. Though compound fences were forbidden, the Chinese and Gilbertese labourers were supposed to stay inside their respective bounds page 170after dark. But I must admit I wasn't troubling much about that kind of thing just then. I was simply brimming over with human affection, and I thought he was, too. Why, after all, probe deeper than that for motive?

"You funny ol', naughty ol', poor ol' boy!" I crooned towards him as he came sneaking nearer. "Caught in the act! But nemmind. Iss on'y good ol' Grumble!" And to convince him beyond all reasonable doubt of my pleasure at this meeting, I leapt out from behind the rock with whoopee after glad whoopee of friendship, and, arms flung high, rushed forward to embrace him there in that moonlit pathway.

I shall never forget the ungraciousness of his response. He stopped in his tracks; his hands flew up, clawing at his cheeks; his mouth fell open; he screamed one chattering, high-pitched scream when I was almost on top of him, then turned and hurled himself back along the way he had come.

The disappointment of it knocked all the sparkle out of me. I had no heart for chasing anyone who did not want my friendship. I sent a single wistful howl of farewell speeding in his wake and trudged the rest of the way home in melancholy silence.

The double doors of our bedroom were wide open to the verandah when I reached the residency, and I should easily have got to bed without disturbing my poor sick wife but for an architect's silly practical joke.

A batten of wood for the outside doors to close against in bad weather—a rain-stopper, I believe it was called—was nailed to the floor across the entrance. It had never been known to delay by an instant the flooding of the room in westerly squalls, but there it lurked, waiting for feet like mine to find it. Olivia woke with a shriek as all my bones hit the floor together.

I comforted her bravely from the dark where I grovelled "Issallri, my dear, issallri', iss on'y ol' Grumbo come 'ome."

Reassured, she sank into sleep again. But to me, as I lay gathering my forces, there came—I can't think why—a page 171sudden, overwhelming need to brush my hair. I rolled over on my back, groped upwards with one hand from where I lay, found the brush, jerked the runner off the dressing-table and brought its crockery crashing in ruin about my head.

Olivia woke with another shriek. There was a distinct touch of temper in it this time. "Are you by any chance tight?" she asked me, rather cruelly I thought.

Unwilling to return a sharp answer, I lay thinking it over soberly. "It mushta bin that terrible Chinese cocktail," I remember muttering just before sleep fell on me like an extinguisher, there on the cool, hard boards.

I woke up the next morning without a trace of fever and free of the smallest symptom of a hangover. The moral of this is that you can get a lot of good out of the creature if your limits are as moderate as mine were; and that is the proper climax of the story, but not the end of the record.

As soon as I was dressed, I went down to the police barracks for a talk with the Chinese interpreter and Sergeant-Major Taitusi. These illicit excursions of coolies from their locations must be stopped, I told them severely, after giving a rather modified rendering of my adventure.

There was a faint smile on the interpreter's face that I didn't much like. "Sir," he asked in his punctilious style, "is it possible that the evil fellow who escaped from your detaining hand last night was identical with the no-good convicted felon found missing from his prison cell at 10.44 and sought by us in vain until 10.58?"

"How should I know, man?" I replied irritably. "And while we're on it, why the deuce did you give up looking for him at 10.58?"

"Because at that time precisely, sir, he returned to us and desired with fearful pleadings to be locked up again."

I strongly hoped he would let it go at that, but he went on: "He deposed to the effect that an insane white man with the face of a devil pursued him through the bush with obvious intent to maim or murder."

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"Why, the dirty liar!" I began indignantly, but his smooth voice continued as if I hadn't spoken, "…after due consideration, Sergeant-Major Taitusi and I are of the opinion that it was not a white man whom he saw, but one of the dangerous rock demons who are known to infest this island. There is a certain similarity…"

Did his wicked old eyelid flicker at me or not? I have never been sure. But I agreed with him heartily and suggested that, as the poor fellow had had such a fright we might with decency forbear to pursue the little matter of his temporary escape any further.

"That would indeed seem very just and proper," he answered urbanely. So the matter ended there.