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A Pattern of Islands

Island of Dust and Dreams

Island of Dust and Dreams

We raised Ocean Island, via Solomon Island ports, on the morning of our seventh day out of Sydney. It was one of those burning days of the doldrums, when the sea is glassy but not still. The solemn swells that came pulsing up out of the south were unruffled by any breath of wind, but the huge heave of them told of storms far away. The ship swung dizzily from valley to burnished mountain-crest and back again to shining valley as she laboured her way up to the island. We heard the boom of the breakers from miles off shore as they crashed upon the reef. It was a sound new to our ears, a note of majesty once heard, for ever remembered. It seemed unbelievable that the sweep of that thunderous attack could fail to engulf the tiny hump of land — not 2,000 acres of it in all — so forlornly crouched between the vastitudes of sky and sea.

The shudder of Ocean Island's narrow reef to the shock of the surf is familiar to people who live there. The old fishermen who used to dwell in the water-side villages would whisper to each other, when they felt it, 'Behold, Tabakea moves a little!' Tabakea was the great turtle at the bottom of the sea, who balanced on his back the thin column of rock that carried their home like a coral mushroom-head on its top. One day, they believed, Tabakea would move too much, and Baanaba (The Rock-Land — that was their name for it) would topple over and be engulfed in the roaring waters. But the thought did not trouble them mightily, for they knew that their hero ancestor, the far-voyager, the all-conquering warrior and lover, Au-of-the-Rising-Sun, who had pinned Tabakea down when his people had made the place their home, would see them safely through the end. Every new dawn was his repeated guarantee of that. So, when someone whispered, 'Tabakea moves a little,' it was enough to answer, 'The Sun rises!' for everyone to be comforted again. And, awaiting the end, they treated the imprisoned giant page 14as a friend and helper, as was only proper, because he too was an ancestor; the Turtle had been the god of the men whom the People of Au had overwhelmed, and so also the god of their widows and daughters. These had been taken to wife by the womanless invading horde for the raising of a new stock of Baanaba. But their subjection had not made them false to the faith of their fathers; their constancy saw to it that the children they bore to the invaders should inherit the cult of the Turtle not less than the cult of the conquering Sun-hero. Though Au remained the triumphant Lord of Heaven (Taumarawa, the Holder-of-the-Skies), Tabakea sidled his way through the nurseries at sea-level, so to speak, into the daily life of the people. He became Tau-marawa, the Holder-of-the-Ocean. It was to him that the new generation turned to pray for good fishing, and, above all, for safe goings and comings through the dangers of Baanaba's terrible reef.

The fisherman's notion that the land was perched on a column of rock was not so very wide of the truth. Ocean Island is nothing but the tip of a vast pinnacle upthrust out of the depths. At two cables' lengths out from the reef in Home Bay, there is a little ledge a hundred fathoms down, over which ships can tie up in fine weather to colossal buoys that carry the world's deepest moorings. Only a bare half-dozen cables' lengths farther to seaward, the bottom has plunged to nearly two thousand fathoms. In other words, the hundred-fathom mooring-ground is a mere niche by the pinnacle's crest, chipped out of a two-mile precipice that soars almost sheer from the ocean's abysses. It may be not even a niche, but a cornice of reef-coral overhanging the black deeps. If that be so, it follows that the island's cliffs have slipped six hundred feet lower today than once they stood, for the polyp that builds reef-coral is a creature of the light — its extreme living depth is within one hundred and twenty feet of the surface. It is sure, in any case, that the towering pinnacle has been the plaything of vast movements in the ocean's depths.

Aeons ago, its crest must have lain under water, yet just near enough to the top for the reef-building polyps to live there, for it was capped in that age with a platform of coral rock. Perhaps, when the reef broke surface after countless centuries of growth, page 15the grinding of the surf for countless further centuries of disintegration formed a bank of coral sand upon it; or perhaps there was simply a sudden upheaval of the peak to tremendous heights above the sea. Whichever it was, that solitary perch in the midst of the mighty waters became the sanctuary of unnumbered sea birds. There were so many of them and they stayed for so long, that their droppings covered the coral platform with a bed of guano forty feet deep and tens of millions of tons heavy.

That was the age of birds; it was ended by a subsidence; the island disappeared, and the age of fishes began. One relic that remains for man out of the era of engulfment is the fossil tooth of a shark so enormous that a motor lorry could be driven through its reconstructed jaws. The heaped bird-droppings, overlaid by the rich refuse of the depths, suffered a sea-change from guano into phosphate of lime. Then again the ocean's bed was convulsed, and the coral platform with its load of precious phosphate was pushed three hundred feet above the water. It did not sink again. New generations of polyps got to work to build a cornice of reef around the island's foot; birds flew in from places afar bearing seeds in their feathers; the land was covered in scrub that rotted, and grew, and rotted again, to form a topsoil of black earth; a forest of great calophyllum trees appeared on the heights.

Maybe it was not so very many millions of years after the last upheaval that seafaring men – the people of Tabakea, the People of Au, and who knows what other land-hungry swarms before them – arrived and built their villages above the south-west facing bay. Only a few score centuries more were to pass from then until the Pacific Islands Trading Company, scouring the archipelagos for cargoes of guano, chanced upon the vast deposit saved on Ocean Island out of the gulfs of time.

The Company, never a very rich concern, was tottering towards financial collapse in the late eighteen-nineties. Its old ship, the Ocean Queen, sailing out of Melbourne, Australia, had helped to rake all the known guano-islands of the Western Pacific clean of their deposits by that time; persistent search had failed to discover any worth while new sources; a day came when page 16the directors knew that a single speculative voyage would probably land them in the bankruptcy court. They decided to go out of business before worse happened. It was a bleak look-out for everyone at the table. They called in young Albert Ellis, the supercargo of the Ocean Queen, and broke the gloomy news to him.

But Albert had a bright bee in his bonnet. Their sad looks only made it buzz the louder. 'Wait a minute … wait a minute!' he shouted, dashed out of the room and returned at a run carrying in his hand a queer-looking chunk of putty-coloured rock. Everyone recognized it. He had used it for several years to prop open the door of his office. 'This,' he said, 'was given me by a friend, who picked it up at Ocean Island. I believe …'

'Yes, yes,' they cut him short wearily, 'you needn't go on.' He had said the same thing before, a dozen, a hundred times. He believed the rock might have phosphate of lime in it. But they believed otherwise. They were so certain he was wrong, nobody had ever even thought of having the thing analysed. They scoffed at his plea for an analysis now, at the eleventh hour. 'Fortune doesn't play fairy-godmother tricks these days, boy,' they said. 'Now drop it and hop it.'

But he was not to be put off this time. He could ill afford to pay for an analysis himself, but he rode his hunch and took the rock to an expert.

A week or so later, he stalked into the directors' room again and reported what he had done. 'I'm not asking for a refund of the fee,' he told the astonished board, 'because I think you're going to raise my pay quite soon.'

'My poor boy,' answered the fatherly managing director, 'you shall certainly have your money back. Foolish as you were, you acted in our interests and you shan't lose by it. But we can't raise your pay. The firm is closing down.'

'Oh-no-it's-not!' shouted the irrepressible Albert. 'You just take a look at this report,' and slapped the paper on the table. The analyst had recorded a ninety per cent phosphoric acid reaction to his tests. The rock was made of the purest phosphate of lime yet discovered in a natural state by man.

On the strength of that report, a Melbourne bank granted an page 17overdraft that enabled the Company to send the Ocean Queen prospecting up to Ocean Island. She returned, her holds crammed with the putty-coloured rock, bought piecemeal from the Baanabans in exchange for tobacco, beads, knives, prints, and calico. The profits from this first yield paid for a better-fitted second voyage; and so on; the business never looked back. The Pacific Islands Trading Company became the millionaire Pacific Phosphate Company; this, in its turn, was converted into the British Phosphate Company, which again, a few years later, became the British Phosphate Commissioners, a nationalized industry owned jointly by the governments of Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Albert Ellis finished his career as Sir Albert, a Knight of the Order of the British Empire and Phosphate Commissioner for New Zealand.

The romance of the Company, however, was far from being the first point to strike us as the old Moresby brought us lurching into Home Bay. What stood out initially was a dreadful, corrugated-iron factory building above the water-front, from which enormous clouds of dust were being thrown sky-high. It was the crushing-mill of the Company, busy pulverizing its daily quota of a thousand tons of phosphate rock for the export market. The dust it flung up drifted heavily down the still air, to load all the greenery of the island's flank with a grey pall. Its belchings seemed to us as grossly out of place as a series of eructations in the face of the infinite. Yet the major impertinence was ours; the unmannerly monster we saw before us was helping to keep a million acres of pasture-land green in Australia and New Zealand; and, but for its disfiguring industry on Ocean Island, there would have been little enough revenue to maintain services for the thirty thousand Gilbertese and Ellice folk who lived by their bright lagoons in the atolls to east and south. But, though the first shock of our disappointment was tempered by no such mature reflections, we did not have to stand nursing our peevishness for long; a boat was riding the mighty procession of swells a mile off shore, awaiting our arrival. The ship swung to give it a lee, and Methven came aboard.

Stuartson Collard Methven was the Officer-in-Charge of page 18Police, Ocean Island. It was not his business, as such, to board ships for the Customs, or the Post Office, or anybody else. But there were Ellice Islanders in the police force, and no race in that ocean of sea-princes ever produced a more superb breed of surf-riders than theirs. So it was a hand-picked crew of Ellice Island policemen who manned the government's boat for every purpose, and where they went Methven went too, in whatever weather. That is the sort of man he really was; he and his wife Ruby were to be our very dear friends a little later; but he was not actually bursting with bonhomie that day. The mails from the Moresby were, of course, worth coming out for, but the idea of hoiking ashore a curio called a cadet – a phenomenon until then most happily unknown in the Central Pacific – and his wife (heaven pity her whoever she might be), and their frightful luggage scratching the boat's beautiful paintwork to hell … well, I ask you, he said. We know he said it, because Ruby told us so in due course, and anyhow, we saw it sticking out of every angular Scottish inch of his six-foot-three, as he walked up to us like a one-man procession in resplendent ducks.

'I am Methven,' he opened, and added after a pause, 'the Police Officer,' with the courteous grimness of an executioner announcing his functions. 'If you are the new What's-It from England I'm to take you ashore. Will you please introduce me to your wife … Thank you … And is that your dunnage down there?'

When I explained that there was still a big box to come from the baggage room, he exclaimed, 'Oh, my God!' in a high, shaken whisper, and walked away to give some orders. On his return, he said, 'I suppose you've seen to the Way Bill,' and when I asked what the Way Bill was, he whispered 'Oh, my God!' again, falsetto, but allowed me to gather that the thing was a kind of receipt for the mails, which I should have saved him the trouble of signing. So I went and did it at once, and that was my very first official gesture in the service of His Majesty overseas. I felt the job had been done with considerable éclat until Methven asked me if I had counted the mail-bags I had signed for. When I said I hadn't, he exclaimed 'Oh, my God!' yet again, but this time on a bass note strangled with suffering.

page 19

The top end of a Jacob's ladder hung over a ship's side is the only part of it made fast to anything. It follows that, when the ship rolls towards that side, the bottom end swings gaily out over the depths, only to crash back against the plates when the roll is reversed. The terror of the landsman at the bottom end is the greater or less in proportion to the extravagance of the rolling. Olivia was near the bottom when the prize-winning outward swing happened. The accompanying downward plunge caused an uprush of air beneath her skirts which lifted them over her head. Skirts were worn voluminous in those days; Olivia's got so firmly entangled with her hat that the downward draught caused by the following upward rush failed to dislodge them. She groped her way blind after that, through a series of sick swings and crashes, until her questioning feet found no more steps to step upon, and she was left dangling in the void by her hands only, for somebody to do something about. It was Methven who did it. He grabbed at one of her wild legs as they swung out at him, and gave a good strong jerk. She came apart from the ladder like plucked fruit, and hurtled down upon him. I saw him crumple under the impact and collapse beneath her in the stern-sheets. His only remark when I got into the boat was that women ought to be careful to wear bloomers for occasions of that sort in the Pacific. I agreed with him cravenly. Olivia either did not hear him or was past caring, for she was being sick into the deep blue waters.

The swells got steeper where the bottom rose towards the reef. As their racing slopes snatched up our stern and tossed it high, the oarsmen fought to keep pace with the forward' scend of them, and the boat drove on, impossibly tilted, into valleys that forever fled away from under the plunging bows. But the bronze giant at the steer-oar stood easily poised on the tiny locker-deck behind us. His bare feet braced against the gunwales, he swung in lovely rhythm to the heave and thrust of the seas upon his oar, and sang aloud for the joy of his mastery as he brought the boat swooping like a gull towards the boat harbour. His voice cut across the crashing diapason of the surf with the gay challenge of a clarion. When we came to the very edge of the reef – so near it seemed nothing could stop our page 20onrush into the maelstrom – he called of a sudden, 'Easy!' The crew lay on their oars and waited. The passage into the boat harbour, a narrow channel blasted through the reef, was a few lengths ahead, its entrance wide open to the giant seas. The lesser surfs were breaking short of the entrance, and the back-suck from the brimming harbour basin – we could hear it snarling –fought their furious invasion to make a hell's cauldron of the passage. No boat could live in that raging battle of waters. The only safe way in was to ride on the crest of a wave so big that it would sweep the boat well down the passage before being undercut by the back-suck. We lay rearing and plunging while the steersman picked his wave. It came, house-high: 'Pull!' he yelled as its forefoot lifted the stern. We shot forward; the crest swung us towering; the crew spent their last ounce of strength to hold it; we held it – we were riding Leviathan – we were flying - we were halfway down the passage. The crest began to topple and foam overside. The wave hollowed itself for breaking, and the boat's nose was pushed out into the void over its forefoot. There was a sizzling downward rush through ruin as it collapsed; the sea came boiling in over the gunwales; the life went out of the boat; we were labouring, half waterlogged. But we were safe in the still water of the boat harbour.

Methven had sat bolt upright through all this, with a look of petrified correctitude upon his countenance. It somehow emanated from his total silence that the people of his clan regarded the demeanour of a royal mummy as the only proper one to adopt in the presence of the sea's contemptible nonsenses. Nevertheless, we supposed he actually had noticed something a bit out of the ordinary that day, because he did turn to the happily smiling steersman and murmur, 'Nice work, Sergeant Kaipati, very nice indeed!' before we tottered up the steps of the boat jetty.

From the boat jetty we climbed again, up the steep incline of a narrow-gauge cable-way which handled all the Company's imports in those times. The first terrace in the island's westward slopes was at the top. There stood the Company's trade store and office. Strung out farther to the left, above the curve of Home Bay, were the electric power house, the machine shop, the page 21crushing mills, the drying plant, the cold storage works, and the locations of the thousand or so Gilbert Islanders, Ellice Islanders and Japanese who worked under indenture as mechanics or boatmen, carpenters or miners for the Company. The bungalows of the European staff – forty or fifty of them maybe– straggled up the hillside above, pleasantly scattered among trees. But along the flagrant quarter-mile of factory buildings and workshops, hardly a green thing was to be seen.

We passed through the brazen heat and clamour of it ridiculously perched upon minute flat-cars furnished with benches far too high for safety. These were pushed by poles in the manner of punts – but at breakneck speed – along a narrow-gauge railway line. The benches were built to suit the length of Methven's legs, but not ours. He was propelled ahead of us alone, sitting purchased by his heels, whatsoever the angle or velocity of his car, as firm and majestic as a monument of Caledonia. We rocketed after him together, legs flying, and clutching at each other despairingly for lack of any other hold. Fat, apricot-coloured children near the line laughed with delight as we went whizzing by. I mention the journey because it was the occasion of my first considered resolve upon a matter of dignity in the service of His Majesty. I decided that, if it was given me to survive, I would have the height of at least one bench lowered, so as to accommodate it to the length of my own particular legs, not Methven's.

But the pace slowed as we took the slight gradient beyond the locations; suddenly, too, we were out of the torrid glare and running in the latticed shade of palms. The din of machinery was magically snuffed out as we rounded a bend; the dwellings of a Baanaban village over-arched by palms came in sight on the seaward slopes below us. We caught glimpses, through twined shadow and sunlight, of crimson and cream hibiscus, of thatches raised on corner-posts, of neatly matted floors beneath them, of bronze bodies in brightly coloured loin-cloths. We heard the chatter of laughing women and the shouts of children across a murmur of surf that rose muted through the trees. Scents of gardenia and frangipani floated up to us mixed with savours of cooking. The grim civilization of Home Bay lay page 22forgotten, as though a thousand miles away. The village was gone again in half a minute, but its spell stayed with us. We felt we had passed, in that flash of time, through a miraculous gateway opened for us into the real, the homely heart of the Pacific.

We reached the government siding and got down from our cars. A hundred yards up-hill from there, we came upon a squalid-looking wooden bungalow, without side-verandahs, perched among rocks. The rear edge of its floor squatted up against the hillside; the front edge was propped, visibly sagging, on concrete stilts. Part of the space between the stilts had been boxed in, and the hutch so formed, said Methven, was the Post Office. On the top side of the floor were all the other offices of the Headquarters Administration of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate, a total of three rooms. A typewriter had been installed in one of them. Nobody yet knew how to use it. It awaited introduction to me, but the pleasure would have to be delayed until Monday, as this was Saturday afternoon.

So this was the vast white office building with corridors, et cetera, of my vision in London. But no – Methven must be pulling my leg. How could all those departments that Mr Johnson had reeled off – the Secretariat, the Magistracy, the Treasury, the Customs, the Public Works, the Police Administration, the Prisons Organization, not to speak of the Resident Commissioner's personal group of Secretaries and so forth – I mean to say, I said, how could so many senior officers with their senior assistants, their junior assistants and all their respective clerical staffs possibly be crowded together into three little rooms?

It clearly pleased Methven to answer that one. This wasn't a rabbit-warren like the Colonial Office, he explained. People worked here. There was first the Old Man (in other words, the Resident Commissioner) who operated as his own Chief Secretary, Private Secretary, District Officer and Magistrate, except, of course, when his wife interfered. The Secretariat, as I had called it, consisted of a Clerk. Presumably, when I spoke of the Treasurer, I meant the Accountant, who comprised the entire financial personnel, besides being the Postmaster General, the page 23Collector of Customs, the staff of Landing Waiters, the Immigration Officer, and what-not-else of the kind. That made three Europeans, then came himself: he as Police Officer, was in charge of the Prisons too, and, as the prisons supplied a labour force, it followed that he also functioned as Superintendent of Public Works, Chief Sanitary Inspector, Conservator of the Water Supply, and manager of about a million other things that pertained to the upkeep and welfare of the government station. Fifth, there was myself, who (as everybody hoped) would be fairly divided between all of them from the word go, and not merely collared as a private slave by the Old Man.

I gathered from his tone that there was a good deal of local feeling about that.

We learned, further, as we trudged past the Police Barracks and Prison, up the steep mile to the Residency, that the rest of the Protectorate' s European staff consisted of a doctor employed on Ocean Island by the Company, but subsidized by the Government for public health duties; another doctor in charge of a Government hospital in Tarawa, 250 miles to eastward; and four District Officers scattered singly, at distances ranging from three to five hundred miles away from us, up and down the chain of the Gilbert and Ellice groups. It came to me then that, however else we might be maintaining dominion over palm and pine in this particular corner of the Empire, we certainly were not doing it by weight of numbers. This, in some strange way, easily compensated for the loss of my dream-office teeming with busy bureaucrats. And, besides, there was the music of the lovely island-names that had rolled from Methven's tongue -Butaritari, Tarawa, Abemama, Funafuti – Abemama above all, where Stevenson had lived a while and written. I mentioned his piece on the Gilbert Islands to Methven; 'Never seen it,' he replied (Oh, sprightly shade of Mr Johnson!). 'Here's the cricket field and there's the Residency straight ahead.'

We had reached an open plateau overlooking the tremendous emptiness of the ocean to south and west. The northern edge of the cricket ground lay cool beneath a green bank fringed with coconut palms. Behind the palms stood the Residency, a pleasant white bungalow, backed by a towering forest of calo-page 24phyllum trees. A slim white-clad figure was waiting for us at the top of the broad front steps.

'That's the Old Man,' said Methven: 'he won't ask you to tea. Come and have some with us when he's finished with you.' His voice was warm of a sudden, but he left us to go forward alone.