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Return to the Islands

8 — —

page 148

Two men on outrigger canoe

Timely Arrival

At this point of imperial history, no such luxury was known in the Western Pacific High Commission services as passage grants for grass widows like Olivia who wanted to visit their husbands in the field. But Olivia inherited that small legacy in 1923 and splashed the lot on a visit to the Gilbert Islands when I had been six or seven months at Tarawa. She reached me, alas, only to find our station plunged in sadness. A month before her arrival, pneumonia had robbed our new cadet-in-training—young Scooter, as all of us called him—of his adored little son.

The blow had been the more bitter for Scooter because, on the night the little boy died, our senior medical officer Kitson, the only doctor there, who was himself to die of Bright's disease only a few weeks later, had been too sick to leave his bed. Even if he could have been aroused from his semi-comatose state, he could have done no more to save the child's life on that night of crisis than, for the last week, he had been courageously battling to do. The sulpha drugs and page 149penicillin were as yet unknown to medical science, and Betio hospital did not run to oxygen tents.

But neither Scooter nor his wife could ever after be persuaded that Kitson had not been, through wanton neglect, the killer of their son. The hate and despair they nursed defied all consolation, and seemed to flow from them through the station like some dark river, while Kitson, sick beyond hope of cure, lay in his house waiting for death to take him.

It was a tremendous relief when, out of the blue, the Fiji government's motor yacht Pioneer broke in upon us. The Pioneer was a comfortable little craft of perhaps 400 tons— the ex-playboat of an American millionaire—which our High Commission territories had helped to purchase and were glad to get on occasional loan for local purposes. She had come now to take me on a tour of the colony instead of Reggie McClure. Reggie, for health reasons, had had to take vacation leave rather suddenly and I was to carry on for him until his return.

So we were able to get our poor Kitson across to Ocean Island at once, where he could lie in a good hospital with kind Dr. Gould and a trained nurse to attend him, while Olivia, instead of coming on tour with me, stood by to make a home at the residency for his grief-stricken wife.

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.

This Happy Breed of Men

I am sure King George V would have been surprised at the number of poor relations he had among our government staff in the islands. It wasn't that any of us ever, to my knowledge, had presumption enough to claim for himself even the remotest degree of consanguinity with the Sovereign. The idea came from our parishioners. These looked at things from the basic assumption that a great chief would naturally want all the jobs everywhere for his own flesh and blood. If he hadn't that amount of family love in his heart, he couldn't conceivably be a great chief, they said. So, inasmuch as King George was a great chief, particularly well known for the example of family love he set, it followed that every one of us, whatever his rank in the local service, had to be either a blood relation of his or at least one of his in-laws.

The courteous hypothesis about a new officer always allowed him the higher of these degrees, i.e., the blood royal, for a start. But from then on, the correctness of the assumption was strictly under test. If in fact it was incorrect, the page 154truth would surely out, for the breed could not but tell, said the islanders. In other words, kingly was as kingly did; or, even better, kingly was as kingly didn't, because the virtues attributed to royalty seemed always to be expressed as avoidances. Not to be a physical coward; not to boast, not to shout when annoyed; not to be pompous, or unun (addicted to anger), or tiritiri (quick to violence) with anyone, or parsimonious to family, or discourteous to dependents: this ideal list of royal negatives was written down for me by Airam Teeko of Abemama, a chief of the house of that redoubtable Tem Binoka, whom R. L. Stevenson made famous in the late eighties.

It was a modest enough standard to live up to; further-more, I don't think it was ever very straitly applied to any of us. The amazing affection of the islanders for our race wanted every one of us to prove royal if possible. But there had to be now and then a throw-out. The King's blood could not be insulted by retaining really dyed-in-the-wool boasters or shouters, for example, on the panel of his putative kinsmen. So these were relegated in due course to the panel of his in-laws, and he was respectfully commiserated for having had such unfortunate alliances foisted upon him; or, as in very bad cases like Albert's down at Arorae, they were declared to be rang, or baseborn pretenders, and dismissed from memory, never to be named again.

The Imperialist

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.