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Return to the Islands

Empire Bunk

Empire Bunk

The trip round in the Pioneer that followed has always remained memorable to me because it brought me into contact with Dr. Samuel H. Lambert. That great American friend and helper of Britain was stationed in those days at Suva, Fiji, as representative of the Rockefeller Foundation. To his labours there are due prime thanks for the princely grants of money poured by his Foundation into aid for all the Western Pacific page 150High Commission medical services. The Pioneer had now brought him our way to carry out a survey of the incidence of hookworm in the Gilbert and Ellice Groups.

We had known Lambert for the selfless worker he was long before we saw him among us. We had also heard a few tales about him: he was the sort of character around whom stories have a habit of gathering, like jackdaws round a belfry. His way with pretentious humbugs was particularly well documented. One report related (I can't possibly say how truly) that, having landed on a certain British island to do a job of work with the medical authorities, he was bailed up by X—, a very senior administrative official noted for his pomposity, and deflected from the hospital into a walking tour of the main settlement. He bore the interruption with courteous patience until he realized that he was being used merely as an audience for a peripatetic lecture on the 'awful lot' Americans didn't know, and the British did, about colonial administration. Even then, he only insisted politely on being guided without further delay to the hospital, and that would have been the end of it if the disgruntled X— had not snapped crossly as they parted, "You might at least say what you think of our little capital, doctor!"

"Your little capital? Ah … yes … " replied Lambert, stroking his chin thoughtfully, "well … the way things are … it looks to me as if all it needs to put it right is one helluva dose of American ignorance about colonial administration. That's what I'm here right now to see about, if you'll excuse me," and he disappeared into the hospital.

It was part of my business on tour to take him and his staff of Fijian microscopists into the big government meeting house at each island we visited and introduce them to the assembled people. Those preliminaries completed, they would leave for the half-dozen thatched huts above the weather beach that we called an 'island hospital' and, helped there by the dresser in charge, get along with their hookworm survey while I went on with my own work in the meeting house.

page 151

But at Vaitupu in the Ellice Group Lambert stayed on with me for some reason I have forgotten, and so heard a message of thanks which, through an interpreter, I was conveying to the people by request of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. With the regal generosity of their race, the Vaitupuans had clubbed together to give a great slice of their richest land— nearly twenty acres, if I remember right—for the support of a small secondary school for the Ellice group that we were starting there.

But in 1923 one didn't talk to the islanders about official thanks from such an abstraction as a Secretary of State. They knew what district officers were; they recognized the Old Man of Ocean Island; they even managed to grasp the idea of an aged potentate far away in Fiji called the Ai-Kamitina. But above and beyond that remote elevation of the High Commissioner they could imagine no chief save a royal one; and if they gave gifts to help the King's local government, their simple hearts took it for granted that they were earning the King's personal gratitude.

So, as a matter of course, I returned thanks to Vaitupu that day in King George's name, not the Secretary of State's. It was so entirely natural to do so that, as I spoke, it didn't even strike me a newcomer might find it strange. Lambert's reply to my first remark when the meeting ended therefore came as quite a poke in the eye.

"Wasn't that a wonderful gift of land for the school, doctor!" I exclaimed as we walked out of the maneaba: "It's going to save hundreds of pounds a year on the ration account."

"Wonderful … wonderful," he agreed—"and oh, boy, your speech about it! You sure can pull that Empire bunk over these people to perfection."

Well, there you are. In his eyes—and there were none more honest in the Pacific—I had been playing a deceitful little imperialist game, stringing along a bunch of simple, generous folk with bogus talk of kings and their gratitude. For page 152 Lagoonpage 153my part, I had used the King's name simply and without guile, as a symbol of Britain which everyone could understand, instead of an official title which would have been meaningless to everyone. Beyond that, the symbol was one which, for many field officers of my day in the Pacific, stood for nothing so little as the idea of white sovereignty or brown subjection, and for nothing so much as an ideal of fellow-service along a common road. If there was in fact anyone out there who clung to the notion of a kingly overlord and father, whose word was law—and rightly so—for half creation, it was the Gilbertese and Ellice villagers themselves. Those, not we, were the truly intransigent imperialists in that part of the world.