Return to the Islands
The friend who revealed these truths to me, Airam Teeko, chief of the royal house of Abemama and Native Magistrate of his island, was a lumbering six-foot albino who had had to contend all his life with the handicap of a revolting ugliness. A lesser man than he would have been early embittered by the shrinking of all children from his terrible looks added to the pain of mortally sensitive eyes and skin, forever page 155unable to support the equator's blistering sun. But behind that tortured exterior there lay a spirit as patient and serene as any I have ever met. He was the kind of man one sought out first when things went wrong, because of the silent peace that was in him. Beyond that, too, though he knew no English and had enjoyed no education above the level of his local primary school, he had the natural lucidity of thought and speech that goes with high intellect. I never ceased to be astonished at the way that delving mind of his rooted out the essentials of any subject, however unfamiliar its details.
Airam was one of the very few islanders of his generation (he had passed fifty in 1917, when I was district officer at Abemama) to whom I ever ventured to reveal the horrid truth about the Secretary of State for the Colonies. It shocked him deeply at first that any such individual should have managed to obtrude himself so insolently between the King-Emperor and his Empire. I had to take him through quite a lot of Anson (whose volumes I had cherished from Cambridge days) before he was reasonably comfortable about the element called the Crown in a constitutional monarchy. And when I spoke of a Secretary of State who came and went according to the fortunes of his political party, and of permanent officials who stayed on whatever happened to him, he was especially perplexed.
"Who then among these three, Kurimbo—the King, the Sekeriteri who comes and goes, and the menials under the Sekeriteri who remain forever sitting and writing—who among these is our real master?" he asked me one day, as innocent as a new Candide groping his way to truth through the white man's endless illogicalities.
The only true answer in terms of purely material control would of course have been, "None of these is our real master, for above them all a far more powerful overlord, the United Kingdom Treasury, is permanent cock of the colonial walk." But that would have meant a further series of excursions, page 156which might have broken his heart, down the blinder alleys of Whitehall imperialism. I answered instead with the mystical truth, very much more vital to our service in those days than the material one, that the King was our ultimate master. As his official Pangloss, I could not in any case have said anything to leave him better convinced for the moment that all was for the best in the best of possible empires.
Nevertheless, from that time on he was constant in his enquiries about our system. He would spend hours devising lists of questions and writing them down on the left-hand pages of little black exercise books, so that my answers could be recorded on the right. His favourite way of approaching a discussion was to throw out some experimental positive conjecture for a starter and wait for my reaction.
Sitting on my guest mat one evening not long after we had agreed on the Sovereign for our chief, he suddenly said, "How rich that King must be: for see how many servants like you he sends across the seas and pays to represent him!"
I could hardly leave it at that, could I? He had to learn something nearer to the truth some time or other; so I said flatly, somehow hating myself for the admission, "It isn't the King who pays us, Airam."
"But how can that be, since it is he who appoints you to work for him?"
"It is not the King who appoints us: his servants in the Colonial Office do that."
"You mean the Sekeriteri-men who come and go?"
"No, I mean the sit-sit-men who remain and write."
"What? That crowd. Are those then the men who hold all the money, and measure out your wages, and pay to bring you here and pay again to send you away from us whenever they like to other lands?"
"Those indeed are the men who fix my wages, and send me now here, now there, without asking either you or me about page 157it. But they haven't any money and it isn't they who do the paying."
"Then is it the good, the generous chiefs and people of Buritan who pay you to look after us? And is it for these that the sit-sit writers work?"
"Well, I suppose it is true that the Colonial Office works for the good taxpayers of Britain; but the good taxpayers of Britain would simply hate the idea of paying for a single thing I am doing in or for the Gilbert Islands!"
"Alas, Kurimbo!" he exclaimed at that, "my thought has reached its end. In Heaven's name now say yourself who it is that does the paying."
"Why, you do, Airan—you, and your people, and the companies, and the traders from whom we collect taxes in this country of yours."
"But the copra tax that we give every year to the government is our tribute to King Tioti [George]," he protested gravely. "Are you telling me now that it is not sent to him in London?"
"It is not sent. He would not wish it. He is grateful for the generosity of his people, but he has enough of his own money to live on."
"So the tribute we give him is spent here, by his order, for our benefit."
"It certainly is spent on local services, and I am quite sure the King would wish for nothing else."
"Therefore, in the end, it is indeed the King who pays you to look after us," he finished triumphantly, and I found in myself no wish to rob him of his dialectic victory.
When we talked together after that of how the colony's little jigsaw puzzle of a budget was put together, without a penny's help from Britain, I was often afraid his fine faith in our imperial generosity might one day be shaken. But it never was. He never tired of reminding me of that freely returned royal 'tribute.' And if ever, in the dark of the night before dawn, private doubts about the purity of Whitehall's page 158motives did assail him, his inborn urge to serve his own people was so royally strong I'm sure that, like Candide, he found the best answer to every uncertainty in the end was to cut the cackle and get along, when morning broke, with another little job of work in the local garden.