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Return to the Islands

Dies Irae

Dies Irae

The riot happened on a day somewhere near the middle of October. The Chinese opened the show with a raid on the Gilbertese labour location, to which they had dedicated months of preparation. Though the weapons of the rank and file were simple bars of iron, the most loving thought had been spent on arms for their leaders. The Generalissimo and his three Generals carried ancient revolvers smuggled in from Hong Kong; Colonels and Majors dispensed jam-jar and salmontin bombs of local manufacture; Captains and Lieutenants had the privilege of wielding the most romantic-looking page 176scimitars from behind corrugated-iron shields and bucklers of curious design.

Gelignite for the bombs had been stolen fragment by fragment, detonators one by one, fuse a few inches at a time, from the white overseers responsible for blasting operations. It twists the heart queerly in retrospect to think of the piled-up patiences that went to the making of those bombs, and of the pains so tenderly lavished upon the fashioning of the little scimitars; for the bombs were hardly more lethal than rather big crackers and the scimitars, so bright, so beautifully curved, were piteously ineffective against the rude Gilbertese bludgeons and rocks; and I don't believe that either was really meant to kill. What I do believe is that both they and the aged revolvers of the Generals were, like the grandiose military titles themselves, just the wistful bang-crash-flashing panache or artists starved of romance—symbols of a desperately felt right to glory brandished in the teeth of a cold alien world.

The plan of battle, already hatched and written down months before the day of the riot, was to catch the hated Gilbertese workers at their most vulnerable moment; that is, while enjoying their lunch in the big open-sided messroom fifty yards uphill from the northern boundary of the Chinese location. It was laid down in the orders that three columns, each about 200 strong (and each led by a General firing his revolver, a Colonel and two Majors tossing their bombs, four Captains and eight Lieutenants striking their scimitars with frightful clashing noises upon their corrugated shields), should emerge from different parts of their location and, rushing upon the messroom from its eastern, southern and western sides respectively, drive the terrified enemy with intimidating shouts and painful blows of their iron bars northwards up the hillside, into the ignominious shelter of their own sleeping quarters.

If there was any offensive intent beyond this climax neither the written plan nor the evidence taken after the event had anything to say about it. The testimony offered to me months page 177later by the Generalissimo, just before his release from prison, was that the men with the iron bars had been definitely instructed to give up intimidating the Gilbertese as soon as these had dived into their funk-holes. After that point, it seemed, the magnanimous host was to have marched from the field in disdainful silence, leaving the stricken islanders alone with their humiliation.

All warlike stores and equipment having been assembled by early October, nothing remained then for the dedicated six hundred but to await the next reasonable cause of battle. The precipitating event occurred towards the middle of the month, when a Gilbertese youth jerked a ladder from under a Chinese house-painter and his paint-pot. It was a loutish trick, enough to have caused a general sit-down strike at any time. But nobody flung his tools down that day. A war council was held instead, that same evening, in the Chinese location; and next day, according to plan, the triple assault upon the Gilbertese messroom was launched.

Jack Blaikie and I were sitting on his verandah ready for lunch when the sound of an explosion, and then another, came up to us from the Uma settlement. Had there been no more than a couple of bangs like that, we wouldn't have noticed them—blasting was always going on somewhere on the island —but these bangs were followed hard by three or four pops like pistol-shots and a clamour of distant shouting. We jumped from our seats, staring at each other. ''I bet that's the Chinese!'' exclaimed Blaikie, inspired I don't know how, and next moment both of us were out of the house plunging down the path to Uma as fast as our legs would take us. We hardly noticed the sudden rain that lashed us as we ran.

We came panting to the narrow-gauge railway line that divided the two locations. By that time the attack, so laboriously prepared, so proudly launched, was already smashed to bits. The Gilbertese issuing lunchless and furious from their messrooms (a few of them smarting damnably from nails and scrap-iron implanted in their anatomies by the page 178two bombs we had heard) had counter-attacked on the spot with rocks torn from the borders of their location footpath. A good half of the Chinese had incontinently fled back to the shelter of their sleeping quarters. The rest, split into a dozen fragments, were still hanging about just out of range of the Gilbertese rocks, while half a dozen of the B.P.C.'s white staff and five or six Ellice Island policemen, all unarmed, rushed back and forth trying to get everyone to go home.

Blaikie raced ahead of me a hundred yards to the major centre of trouble east of the messroom; I stayed on the hither side, by a wooden bridge on the roadway above the railway line, where Sergeant Nape stood opposing his mighty chest and fourteen stone of Ellice Island brawn to twenty-one scimitars and a pistol whose owners were screaming to get by him, back into the fray. Fifty yards down the road, armed with bludgeons, shovels and rocks, waited a score of Gilbertese, roaring at him to let the little men pass.

What knocked at my heart as I scrambled up the bank to join Nape was that, for all their fury of impatience to get him out of the way, not one of those men raised a weapon against him, while he, on his side, never once drew his truncheon to drive them back. When they did at last manage to shift him aside, it was by dint of forming a crocodile scrum of fours behind fours and heaving against him with the united thrust of forty-four legs. Just as I reached the level of the pathway, he popped out of the bridge-end like a cork from a ginger beer bottle and rolled on his back:

"Sillipuggers, sillipuggers!" he bawled at me as the forty-four legs rushed over him. "They gerremselves dead longa Gilibert boys too quick!" and, leaping up, flung himself in headlong chase—the perfect gentle policeman that he was—to save them if he could from the results of their own foolishness. I found myself dashing beside him through the puddles close on the heels of the rearmost warrior, who happened to be a wild-haired, pistol-brandishing General.

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That flourished gun most kindly ceased at once to cause me any anxiety because, under my eyes as he ran, the General suddenly pulled it down from the air and, with a series of the most artistically blood-curdling yells, emptied its six chambers into the earth. This seemed to me proof enough of its strictly aesthetic intentions on the field of battle. Nape, however, decided on his own account against leaving it with him, and, taking a diagonal dive at his back, brought him down in the slush immediately under my feet. The gun flew forward from his outflung hand and I like an arrow after it in a belly-dive over their bodies. I didn't care what happened to it after that. Nape and I sat there recovering ourselves while the scimitar men, unhindered, rushed upon their fate. "Sillipuggers! Sillipuggers!" roared Nape again as we watched them piteously break and melt away for the second time that day before the Gilbertese counter-attack, leaving four men wounded on the pathway. We managed to get some dejected stragglers to pick these up—they weren't very badly hurt— and bear them uphill to the hospital. The General had disappeared.

I personally saw no more of the fighting than that small sideshow. But things had been more serious at Blaikie's end. A savage Gilbertese sortie had cut off the retreat of some iron-bar men into their own location and left one of them pulped to death, with seven others only just alive strewn around him, on the slope above the boat harbour. There had been ferocious clashes, too, on the higher levels. Yet, by the time Nape and I got there, Blaikie and his half-dozen fellow Australians with a few unarmed policemen had already contrived to shepherd most of the Chinese back into their location. That was a job which many times their number of armed men could never have managed without inviting more bloodshed; and the special constables who, for the next week or so, stood on guard unarmed between the two locations made the only kind of 'force' that could peaceably have prevented the Gilbertese— seething still to show how deeply they scorned firearms of page 180any kind—from launching a night raid, with all-out slaughter, on their wretched enemies.

And so those proud attackers finished (in the words of our Chinese interpreter) as "the humbled objects of our solicitous moral defence." That was a sad come-down for them at the time. Nevertheless, by my reckoning, it cost them no loss of face in the end, because the riot they had staged made it impossible for anyone to ignore their genuine grievances any longer. The British Phosphate Commissioners found themselves obliged at last to invest a bit of money and thought in their security. A beautiful new Chinese location was built up the hillside, a mile away from the Gilbertese quarters, and the two labour forces were set to work in mining areas and workshops well apart from each other.

Alas, however, the first thing to be done when things simmered down a little was to bring a few responsible people to account. Not that anybody regretted the imprisonment of the Gilbertese youth who had upset the painter and his pot. But it was more difficult to spot the villains on the Chinese side. The iron-bar men could hardly be regarded as ringleaders and the rôle of the scimitar men had clearly been little more than that of artists in a state of effervescence. The same was of course true of the top-rankers, too, with their big titles and little bombs and aged revolvers; but the law never can altogether condone the use of guns and explosives in an affray, so it was these who had to suffer. Also, because death had come to one and wounds to many, the sentences had to be more than a joke. The Generalissimo and his three Generals got a year's hard labour each.