Return to the Islands
4 — — Arrests on Arorae
When my formidable first chief, E. C. Eliot, was teaching me my job as a district officer in the Gilberts, he was fond of saying, "You can't intimidate these people in the mass, so don't ever be fool enough to try. It's their consciences you have to work on when they get sticky; nothing else."
I didn't make much of his words at the time, but I had occasion to remember them a few years later, while Eliot was still in the saddle. It was when a sick and unhappy individual, whom I shall call Albert, came trailing up to Tarawa from the Southern Gilberts with a tale that the people of Arorae Island had tried to murder him.
Albert was a stop-gap in the administrative machine. He had been taken on locally as a temporary, provisional, acting page 73district officer at a time of desperate staff shortage. I never could fathom how my chief came to pick him. True, he spoke a bit of Gilbertese, but bully was written all over him, and his ranting talk about missionaries was a byword everywhere. To go and put him in charge of a tough, dourly Protestant crowd like the Southern Gilbertese was about as clever as setting a chimpanzee to play with a keg of dynamite.
Yes, Albert was a mistake—a private letter to me from the native magistrate of Arorae explained how enormous: 'He came among us breathing hate of our religion and shouting threats against our pastors,' it ran, 'and that was the beginning of our sorrows.' In other words, he had conceived a bitter jealousy of the influence of the London Mission's brown pastors in the southern islands, and was fool enough to think that bullyragging could smash in on Arorae. 'But,' the report continued, ' Timoni, the chief pastor, told us to be patient; so we suffered his talk in silence for a week and three days. And then arose the matter of Nei Tabita.'
Nei Tabita was a pretty village girl on whom Albert's roving eye had fallen. She, instead of submitting with joy to his forceful advances one evening near his house, stayed only to hurl a fallen coconut at him, then fled arrow-swift through the palm groove to the dwelling of her uncle, a native pastor. The pastor, a big man, came out and shooed him off with a broom and epithets of biblical frankness…
'So the day after,' continued the magistrate, 'he came to me, saying, "Punish me that insolent pastor." I replied, "For what crime in the Book of Laws shall I punish him?" He answered nothing, but the next morning he returned, saying, "You show favour to Christians. You are not fit to be a magistrate." And he pushed me out of my middle seat at the table of justice, forcing me to sit beside him. And, sitting in judgement instead of me, with a revolver before him, he sent men and women to prison for offences not named in the Book of Laws. And when my council of village headmen said "This revolver is not the Law," he sent them also to prison for page 74contempt of court. But because Timoni, the chief pastor, said "Patience! Keep the peace," we suffered that man for yet another four weeks and four days, lifting no hand against him. Nevertheless, our young men began to murmur, "If this is the Law, let us quickly make an end of it."'
The end came when Albert entered his seventh week on Arorae. I will reconstruct that final scene now from the notes I took later, on the spot. He had called a general meeting in the speak-house for more talk about the pastors, and a big crowd of men and women had turned up. But when he tried to address them, a mysterious sound arose: just a hum— mmmmmm—mmmmmm—from behind closed lips, untraceable to any particular part of the audience. He stopped talking; the hum stopped, too. He glared into their faces. Seated on the floor, they stared back at him, stony-silent. He began again: so did the hum. At a third attempt, he tried to shout it down; its volume grew to the bourdon of a church organ. It was the sight of him roaring and livid in his seat that at last broke up the peaceful game. A couple of youths burst into rapturous laughter. He whipped round to his wretched orderly: "Arrest those two !" he yelled. The orderly tried to obey, but men leapt up and held him off. And then Albert did the stupidest tiling of his life: he snatched his gun from the table and pointed it at them. A woman screamed, "Death! He brings us death!" That loosed pandemonium; they all went berserk together: the whole audience charged. In a couple of seconds, he was down, stunned, under their trampling feet.
They would certainly have finished him then but for one lucky circumstance. Timoni, the chief pastor, had a wife whose colossal weight—24½ stone—was superbly matched by her agility and loving-kindness. She, seeing Albert's desperate plight, converted herself forthwith into a flying mountain of salvation. Her hurtling mass swept the astonished crowd back like flies from carrion. She fell upon the prostrate body. Albert disappeared from view. Timoni and half a dozen other page 75pastors, ringing the two around, beat back all who dared to charge again with stunning two-handed swings of their enormous black Bibles. So it came about that Albert's life was saved by the very men whose influence he had come to break on Arorae. He woke up in Timoni's house. They kept him there, nursed, fed and protected by a continuous bodyguard of pastors, until a trading steamer removed him a week or so later.
The magistrate gave nothing but the barest bones of the last act in his letter. Also, he named no names. Clearly, he wasn't going to be interested in identifications later on. 'The table of justice was overturned upon me and I saw nothing,' he put it, and added, 'furthermore, I think that the only sinner in this matter was that man. This, I know, is not according to the Law. Therefore, I am no longer fit to remain in office. Therefore, I have locked away my uniform in the government safe and returned to my village. Farewell.'
The problem that his resignation had left on ice, for whomever it might concern, was packed into a neat postscript: 'The people say that that man was struck down by all of them together. They have sworn to resist anyone who comes seeking to bring this person or that among them to trial.'
The southern islands weren't my official business at the time; but there was nobody else in the Gilberts to do anything about it, and obviously something had to be done soon. Not that Albert mattered; he had pulled a gun and got his deserts. But it wasn't for the man in the street to decide who was guilty or not of near-murder. Only a court of law could do that. Someone just had to be brought to trial, unless mob law was to stand condoned on Arorae. This was the bone I felt I had better go and pick with them down there. And the sooner the better, I thought: Arorae had to be legally out of the red before Albert got through to Headquarters at Ocean Island with his side of the account. So I collared the only ship available —a small trading ketch—to take me south with my cook-boy, leaving Albert stuck in Tarawa hospital. The doctor page 76 promised to hold him for at least a month. He was a pretty sick man, anyhow.
Our arrival at Arorae wasn't a triumphal affair; no canoes came out to see us ashore; we were dumped on the beach by the ship's dinghy. Not a soul but the ex-magistrate stood at the beach-head to greet us. He wasn't there officially, he said, but only to warn me against staying overnight.
"The ship's leaving me here for a month," I told him— "but where are the village headmen? Why didn't they, at least, come along? Or did they resign in a bunch when you did?"
"They did not resign. That man sent them to prison, as I reported to you," he replied, "and they are still in prison."
The futility of that angered me: I couldn't resist a savage dig: "I see. You left them sitting. You're out to protect the men who knocked him on the head, but you daren't release the men he imprisoned falsely. So you ran away. O, brave magistrate!''
He was a hot-tempered man. His fists came up and thumped his barrelled chest. The Gilbertese do that when they are on the warpath; for a moment, I thought he was going to wipe page 77the floor with me; but he only stood glaring. I walked past him towards the island speak-house, usually so packed for visitors, now so forlornly empty: "Go and get your uniform on," I threw back at him, "then go to the prison and bring the village headmen here, also in uniform. Maybe we can straighten a few things out between us." It was a bit of a gamble, I suppose. But I was counting on his twenty-odd years of perfect service; and they did prove too much for him. Half an hour later, a fully constituted and uniformed island court was reinstalled in the speak-house. That was at least a beginning.
The district officer's first job on landing anywhere was to review the prison records. The court scribe brought the books along and the gaoler led in all the prisoners who wanted to appeal against their sentences. Arorae's prison population was five or six souls, on the average, but sixty-three men and women were lined up that day.
"Well, for heaven's sake, what is Natan in for?" I asked the scribe, starting with an aged fisherman, a very old friend of mine.
"For no crime that I know of," the scribe answered glumly.
"But what's in the records? What charge … what evidence …what did you write in the books?"
"Nothing," he said, and that ran for all the sixty-three. The records were just blank about them. Albert had dispensed with nonsense like charges and evidence. There wasn't a shred of a warrant anywhere for holding one of them in gaol.
I turned from the books to Natan: "Well, you tell me yourself how you got into prison."
"The white man came to my village, saying, 'You will be my fisherman,' but I said to him, 'I am a free man and I do not want to fish for you.' So he said, 'You are no longer free. I am taking you to prison.' And I followed him to the calaboose, for I thought it was the law."
I shut down at that point and delivered the lot from gaol. A couple of hundred sightseers had trickled into the speak-house page 78by then. Their collective regret for the attack on Albert wasn't going to be strengthened by a wholesale rake-through of his tyrannies—not, at least, if my own feelings could be taken as a guide. I sat loathing the thought of bringing anyone to trial.
More and more people came crowding in as I got on with the other court routines. There were seven or eight hundred of them at last, sitting with bowed shoulders crosslegged on the floormats. The quality of their silence, massive and tense, shouted its own warning. They were waiting for me to start trouble about Albert. Not that they gave a hoot for what I might say; they were there, on the contrary, to make that quite clear. Albert had destroyed white prestige for the moment. Any least reproach, or whatever it might be, of mine was simply going to be their cue for a roaring 'Hands off!' ultimatum. That grandiose showdown, nothing else, was what they were waiting so tensed for.
The only plan I had in mind so far was to avoid any such thing. Once they had struck their noble attitude officially, so to speak, nothing but the crack of doom would ever snap them out of it. So I hurried nervously on to the rongorongo— the newsgiving—with which a visiting district officer invariably ended his first day in court. It had to be got over. I burst into a spate of small-talk about the outside world, and for fifteen minutes they took it without a move. Then stirrings and sniffings began. I chattered on, my material getting thinner and thinner. They started throwing blank looks at each other. I began to repeat myself. I saw grim jaws slacken and gape. This childish gabble simply didn't belong—what could it mean? Had they but guessed, it meant I didn't know how to stop. I couldn't just get up and hop it, though I longed to; so I went on talking. How the deuce was I going to manage a smooth exit? I was at my wits' end by the time a man's voice interrupted: "But, Kurimbo ! That man? We have a word to say!"
"Ah yes … that man," I said blankly, "yes, yes, of course page 79… that man … well … he's in hospital." As I paused, desperately wondering what to add, a great sigh burst from the mass of them. Now for the showdown, it seemed to breathe! But I had found a way round. "Yes … he's in hospital … at Tarawa. And talking of Tarawa, did I tell you this one?" It wasn't very clever, I grant you. I felt like a twisting rabbit. But believe me or believe me not, it stunned them. They let me go on about Tarawa for another ten minutes.
By that time I had dripped myself dry of ideas, and the only breakaway I could think of was to rush non-stop into an adjournment: I think my voice jumped a full octave with the strain of it as I twittered, "Well that's all about Tarawa and all for today so good-bye we shall meet again and you shall be blest." I was on my feet with the last words.
That too shook them deeply. They actually gave me back the traditional 'You shall be blest' all together, quite heartily, before anyone came out of the haze. I was almost clear of the speak-house when someone tried again: "But, Kurimbo … that man!"
The voice was definitely plaintive this time, which somehow gave me strength to answer quickly, "Ah yes, I had forgotten. Thanks for the reminder. Good Christians all of you. He also shall be blest." This floated me out.
They stayed dead silent for half a minute after I left. Then a woman screeched with laughter; men followed suit; indignant voices yelled reproof. The speak-house was roaring with the mixed din of mirth and anger as I crossed the island to the thatched rest-house by the eastern beach. It sounded as if they weren't all in one camp anyhow.
If anyone had ever thought of harming me, which I doubt, nothing came of it that night. I slept undisturbed to the surge and thunder of surf on the weather reef. But a visit from chief pastor Timoni had me up at sunrise. He, of course, knew all the facts of the attack and gave them to me freely. He named no names, however, and I didn't want any from him. You page 80can't make a stooge of a missionary. Besides, the only radical cure for this trouble was for Albert's attackers to give themselves up of their own accord, and so short-circuit the foolish pact to resist their arrest.
That solution seemed beyond hope to me, but not to Timoni. "They would refuse today," he said, "because their consciences are still asleep. But later … when you have done your part … things will be different."
My part, according to him, was to awaken the general public conscience for a start. I agreed, "That's a grand idea, but how do I get them going?"
"Do as you have begun," he smiled: "ask no questions: answer no questions: say never a word about that man: nevertheless, go much among the people, laughing with them all the time. Do nothing but this at first."
"But, Timoni, why should being friendly start them thinking? Just the reverse, I'd have thought."
His answer struck me as more than a bit sententious: "They have taken the guilt of those men upon themselves, and guilt walks ashamed in the face of friendship."
"Hm? All right. So then."
"Then the people will begin to wonder aloud, saying, 'This white man is our friend. He loves to laugh and play on Arorae. Yet he continually hides something from us. What is it that he hides?' And one will whisper to another, imagining all manner of things, until at last they will send a deputation to you, saying, 'Grimble, what are you hiding from us?' And you will say, 'Nothing,' and they will go away empty, and the people will wonder still more, until presently someone will start a whisper: ' What is about to happen to us?'"
"But, Timoni," I objected, "where's all that going to lead us? Threats of danger or punishment just don't frighten Gilbertese men."
"Not your threats or mine … no," he answered slowly, "but the threats they imagine darkly in their own bellies … these they fear."page 81
I put in a last objection: "Well, even at that, they'll never, never split on those men."
He shook his head: "Surely not. But those men themselves will come to you on a day, saying, 'We give ourselves up.'" In short, he was counting on their chivalry to do the only right thing, once they saw everyone around them sunk in despondency and alarm.
I admit it all sounded hopelessly far-fetched to me. But he knew and loved his own people, and he had given me a definite line, which seemed to be very much in keeping with my resident commissioner's ideas. So I promised to give it a trial.
There were many ways through to the domestic heart of most islanders in these days. The easiest of all began with the children. You had only to go and sit on the beach, pull out a piece of string and begin making a few cats-cradles to find them crowding round to show you how many more figures they knew than you did. Mothers soon drifted up to stand watching, then a few passers-by joined in, and so on, until at last you had a big sample of the village gossiping and laughing around you. A few days of that anywhere were enough, as a rule, to get yourself known for a private friend, whatever you might have to do there as a public officer. You could count on the Gilbertese being never less hungry for your friendship than you were for theirs. Remembering Albert, however, I couldn't believe it would work that way on Arorae.
But I was wrong. Perhaps it was nothing but curiosity that brought them along at first: it was a fair guess that I might give them more openings on the beach than in the speakhouse. Nevertheless, when it was plain that I wouldn't, they still came crowding to the five o'clock children's sessions by the waterside. A kind of island competition started to dig up string figures for me. I often imagined my severe chief saying, "What the heck are you doing to clear up this mess?" and myself answering, "Sitting on the beach, sir, doing catscradles." Only I never would have dared.page 82
The single snag was, they stayed just as cryptic with me about Albert as I had set myself up to be with them. After ten days of nothing but smiles and gossip, I began to feel foolish. After fifteen, I was sure they were simply stringing me along. And then, suddenly, there were no more smiles or gossip: I went to the beach one evening to find nobody there. It was the same next day: I sat a long while waiting by my favourite canoe-shed and not even a child came along to greet me. I walked through the village on my way home. It was the friendly sunset hour when all the world was gathering round the cooking fires before the evening meal, the very time for talk and laughter under the trees. But nobody was laughing and, though they gave me gravely courteous greetings as I passed, their eyes fled mine and nobody paused in the road to talk. I thought the game was played out and went no more to the beach.
Another two or three days passed before I noticed those nightly rustlings in the bush around my house. I couldn't be sure what caused them at first—it's hard to tell one sound certainly from another through a curtain of surf noises and the hiss of the trees in the trade winds. I tried to keep an open mind for several nights—until, in fact, my cook-boy began to complain of ghosts creeping round in the dark. He rushed in one night to say he had seen three shadows crossing the pathway. I didn't believe in his sort of ghosts, but I won't say his alarm didn't get under my skin. I felt awful. The people were obviously up to something and it was lonely lying there wondering exactly what.
I had promised Timoni to keep away from him until he had something to tell me, but I thought it was time for another talk with him now. I sent him a message by my cook at sunrise, and he came at once. He would have come in any case, he said, because things were moving fast. Ever since I had started making friends with them, the people had talked with mounting wonder—just as he had predicted—of my strange silence about Albert. Alarm had soon crept into their per-page 83plexity. Within a fortnight, they were saying I had something dreadful to tell them—so dreadful that, loving them, I could not screw myself up to the point of telling it. "And now," said Timoni, "for a whole week they have been saying, 'We know the truth!' Do you remember speaking of warships?"
I remembered. Someone on the beach had asked me what a really big warship was like, and I had spread myself, trying to describe the terrible hitting power of a modern battle cruiser.
"Yes," he said, "that is what they are thinking: a battle cruiser will come and take you away from here, and when it is far out at sea—so far that none can see it—it will turn and fire all day and all night at Arorae, until not a man, not a pig, not a chicken is left alive. This it will do because of the injury done to a white man."
There had been meeting after meeting about it. The hundreds who hadn't even been present at Albert's downfall were asking why they should be destroyed with those who had. Others had put it round that I would stay and die with them rather than desert them in their extremity.
Well, there had been bombardments of islands within living memory, but none since the British flag had gone up in 1892, and I got nothing but shame and heartache from this horrifying rumour. So I asked Timoni to tell everyone he could, at once, from me, that there wasn't going to be a battle cruiser. He looked doubtful and answered gravely, "I will tell them … but they will only begin to imagine something even worse, I think."
It depressed me so, I forgot to ask him about my night watchers.
The first deputation came along two nights later—a dozen men in the prime of life, wearing the long white waistcloths of their island. They had a card to play and came to the point with a pitiful show of confidence: "Kurimbo, we have been thinking. We are here to offer a gift. In spite of what that man did to us, we are sorry for our anger, so we offer him twenty page 84tons of copra … " They proposed, in short, to settle with Albert out of court, and no questions asked.
It was an enormous sum by island reckoning. I wanted them out of their misery, and the idea tempted me until my mind asked why the whole island should pay for the work of a few, and whose business it was, anyhow, to assess the damages. Then, because I had wavered, I answered tartly: "And what if he dies of his injuries? How much copra then? Or if not copra, who will pay the price?"
I wasn't trying to bluff them. I intended nothing but to blow their case out. But they read my rhetorical questions as meaning that Albert was dying or dead. Since the pastors had saved his life, nobody had conceived of that possibility. I saw their faces suddenly stricken with the thought: the murder of a white man. Their confidence fell away from them. I could see them thinking all together—Is he dead?—and not daring to ask, and wondering what would happen if he were.
I should have tried to knock the idea out of their heads at once; half of me wanted to, but the cautious half refused; I said instead, "As you're imagining punishments, remember what I told Timoni: no battle cruiser is coming to Arorae."
I added other things—Britain didn't do things like that, and so forth—but they only stared at me in sick silence until I stopped. And then someone whispered, so low that his voice barely came through the blanketing roar of the surf: "Kurimbo … you are our friend … what are you hiding from us?"
That 'you are my friend' shamed me into almost shouting the truth: "Don't be silly! I didn't say he was going to die. He's not." But, by that time, I might just as well have returned a blank "Nothing" to their questions for all the difference it made to them. They got up without a word. I heard their thudding feet on the run down the pathway as they raced to report to another meeting.
Next night, it was the magistrate alone who came. "Kurimbo," he opened, after some preliminary dithering, "what news have you for us?"page 85
"No news at all for you," I answered, "except what I told those men last night." It was hard on him, perhaps, but his cock-and-bull stuff about seeing nothing when Albert was attacked still rankled. Besides, I wanted no official intermediary between the people and me at that point.
I was reading Francis Thompson two evenings later (it should have been his Hound of Heaven, I suppose, but it wasn't) when a shaky old voice from the darkness outside announced the arrival of another deputation: "Kurimbo … you shall be blest … we visit you."
The right answer was, "You shall be blest. Enter. Enter." As I replied, I set the hurricane lamp on the floor at my feet. Five old men, every one a friend, drifted in forlornly and sat crumpled on the mat beyond it.
Tobacco was passed round, pipes were lit: I talked banalities; they answered with tremulous courtesy: I talked on to those bowed white heads; and that is all that happened. Their illimitable good manners just would not let them pry behind the veil I had myself created. After a heartbreaking hour, I could keep it up no longer; a desolated silence fell upon us.
They rose unsteadily: "Kurimbo … we go … you shall be blest."
It was hard to see them leave like that, empty of all but forebodings. I called after them, "No warship is coming. No warship. Never. Do you hear?"
"We hear," one of them replied, but they read it as just another evasion: none lifted his head to smile at me as they drooped out into the darkness.
I went to bed, as miserable as any of them, and was half asleep when I heard low voices in the other room. It struck me that my mysterious night watchers might now be coming into action, as indeed they were, though not in the way I expected. I pulled myself together and went out with the lamp. Ten people were waiting there, grouped in pairs, the five old men of the deputation each with a younger man clinging to his hand. That way grown men had of holding hands page 86always moved me with its innocence: I knew at once they had come for no evil; but I couldn't imagine what they wanted of me at midnight, and said so.
One of the elders led his companion forward a step or two: "This is my adopted grandson. These are our sons or grandsons," he whispered, and stopped.
I guessed the rest before the young man spoke: "We have stood on guard about this house lest tale-bearers visit you by night, Kurimbo. And now we have come with our fathers and grandfathers to give ourselves up. We killed that man."
"You didn't kill him, you idiots," I remember shouting: "you didn't kill him; he's not dead; he isn't going to die." I kept on babbling just that and nothing else.
It got through to them at last. The old men were weeping. "Our sons will not be hanged?" "No battle cruiser will come?" "You are hiding nothing from us?"—the quavering chorus of questions broke me up completely. I found myself exchanging hugs at last with all of them, to get a bit of comfort as well as give it.
So the next day, the young men came to stand their trial before the native court.
The whole island packed the speak-house. A long, groaning sigh went up as they pleaded Guilty to a charge of assault with intent to wound. I could do little for the defence but plead the mitigating circumstances. I took the line that, what with the gross threat of the gun and the sense of total insecurity built up by Albert's doings, a very light sentence would suffice to meet the unintended excess of force used in the fear and passion of the moment. But the magistrate turned to the accused:
"Tell us," he said to the big, quiet youth who had disarmed and stunned Albert, "were you afraid of the gun?"
"I was not afraid, only angry."
"And what was in your heart? Did you intend to wound him?"
I cut in to say no law could oblige him to answer that page 87question, but he only smiled at me and turned again to the magistrate: "I wished to wound him. I tried to kill him. I was angry when Timoni's wife interfered."
"But you're sorry for all that now," I pleaded dolefully, for the record.
"I am sorry now, but I was angry then, not afraid."
The others followed his lead. What can a defence do for that kind of pig-headed candour? The magistrate gave them a year each.
My ship arrived two days later, and I took them with me to Ocean Island, picking Albert up from Tarawa by the way. My revered chief said he'd never seen such a ghastly mess as I had made of everything. My jurisdiction didn't run in the Southern Gilberts District. Nothing I had done had a legal leg to stand on. And why, oh why, he asked, while I was bouncing around the islands exceeding my powers, hadn't I exceeded them to the extent of reducing the magistrate's sentences at once? When I said I couldn't be defence counsel in one breath and court of appeal in the next, he said I was too damned legalistic for words. But it didn't really matter: he packed the prisoners back to Arorae within three months.