A Pattern of Islands
2 — Recruiting Trip
A new accountant had arrived early in 1915. His coming did not bring Methven and me instantaneous relief from Treasury preoccupations, as he kept both of us, for the next few months, constantly busy explaining what had happened to his books. But the worst storms were over by the end of June, and then the Resident Commissioner ventured some light humour. According to him, all my local instructors, including himself, were suffering from nervous exhaustion. Would I be kind enough to grant everyone a short vacation? In any case, I had passed my first language-test and he had decided it was time for me to see something of the other islands. I was to do a trip in a recruitship, so that I might learn how the Company collected its Gilbertese labour force for Ocean Island. My function would be to act as doggie – that is, clerical assistant and odd-job man – to Charles Workman, the District Officer who was going to supervise recruiting operations. 'The chief duty of a doggie,' observed the Old Man in despatching me, 'is to behave as little as possible like a pup.'
The company recruited its Gilbert and Ellice workers under indenture for two years' service, in drafts of two or three hundred at a time. One-third of every draft was made up of married men, who were allowed to bring their wives and children with them; the rest were roronga, or bachelors. Living page 57conditions on Ocean Island were excellent for married and single workers alike. The recruit-ships were handsome vessels of 6,000 tons or more with covered decks and spacious 'tween-decks admirably fitted for their purpose. The young men flocked to the recruiting tables.
The Company, which became the British Phosphate Commissioners, a nationalized industry, in 1915, was justly proud of its record as a thoughtful employer; I do not suppose its care for the welfare of native labourers has been often equalled or ever bettered in any other part of the British Empire. One way or another, the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders had to be prepared, in a world from which they could not remain forever segregated, for the shock of new ideas and disturbing influences from outside. Fate could not have given them a kindlier or more profitable teacher. Missionaries had brought them schools, the British administration had assured them protection in their homes, and they had learned from trading ships something about the value of their goods to the white man; but it remained for the phosphate industry alone to endow them as a nation, from 1900 onwards, with a sense of their own personal value to the world at large. From Ocean Island they got a working knowledge of Europeans in the mass, a standard of the manual skills needed to compete with the demands of civilization, and real opportunities of learning and exploiting such skills. What the Company and later the Commissioners gave them was, in effect, a kind of university where in a happy indigenous environment, they could graduate from the state of neolithic fisherfolk into beings with a technique and a morale sufficient for their survival under the inevitably increasing pressure of modern cultures. If the Gilbertese have outlived today, without loss of their national élan vital, the disintegrating effects of the Japanese invasion of 1941 followed by the American occupation of 1943, this miracle is greatly due to the new interest values, standing for a bridge of hope into the future, which the phosphate enterprise built up in them over the first forty years of the century.page 58
Our big ship came up to the entrance of Tarawa lagoon a little before sunset. 'So this is a coral island,' said Olivia, who was coming round with us: 'Where's the lagoon? And is that all the land there is? I thought it was going to be a circle.' We were creeping up dead slow over coral heads, on a bearing by a beacon on a sandbank five miles east of us. The land was three miles to southward – a low, straight line of palms that tapered away to nothing over the horizon behind the beacon. There was a smudge on the horizon to north-east; it looked like a separate island about ten miles off. Running away due north was a reef drowned under surf, and beyond it emptiness. Save that the water ahead was calm, there was little to show that it was a lagoon enclosed by land on all sides but the west.
The picture in our dictionary showed an atoll as a small ring of sand and coconut-palms around a dead flat lagoon kept fresh by the ebb and flow of ocean tides through breaks here and there in the land. Marakei in the Northern Gilberts is indeed rather like that – a ribbon of palm-green not more than twelve miles round; the regular golden circle of its beaches, closed save for one tidal passage, encompasses a sapphire lake forever exquisitely at rest. But five of the other atolls are straight, lagoonless strips open on every side to the big Pacific rollers, and, though the remaining ten have lagoons, they are very far from circular. Their twisted shapes, cut into short lengths by tidal passages, appear from the height of the soaring frigate birds like clasped necklaces of narrow green beads flung down at random on the deep azure of the ocean. But it is as if the western side of each necklace had failed to float, for there, instead of land, is a sinuous line of half-submerged beads – the barrier reef which, broken at intervals by deep-water channels, divides the ocean's darkness from the burning colours of the lagoon.
Olivia's difficulty as a sightseer in Tarawa lagoon was its size. Though it had less than the area of Butaritari, Nonouti or Tabiteuea, more than the half of Middlesex could be dropped into it with room to spare. Afloat on one of those big inland seas, where the containing land never rises as much as ten feet above high water, not much of your island is visible at a time. It is the twenty-mile atoll curved in a deep and regular bow – like page 59Abaiang and Abemama, whose names mean Land-in-the-Wind and Land-of-Moonlight – that fills the eye with most delight. There, nothing is out of sight, yet everything seen carries vision outwards to infinity …
Your canoe is racing in mid-lagoon to the clip of the joyous trade-wind. Away to eastward beyond turquoise waves, the beaches of the near mainland flame golden above their emerald shallows. Waterside villages glow homely golden-brown against shadows of violet within the forest of palms. Beach and village and forest are fused in a single purple blur as they dwindle north and south towards the horizon. In the northern and southern bights the land is hull down, but its palms are seen etched tenuous on the sky-line, like the lashes of a great blue eye serenely open to the great blue dome of heaven. Along the bowstring of barrier reef to westward, a few islets vivid as gems float palm-tufted amid the rainbowed tumult of the surf. The blue-black ocean lies limitless beyond them. You shout for the immensity and the friendliness of it all as your lean craft hurls itself, shuddering as if for gladness of the wind's urge, through the singing water …
The captain of our ship would not take her into the lagoon before daylight. He lay at anchor in the twenty-fathom water outside the reef while the Company's Recruit Manager and I went ashore by boat to report to the District Officer, Charles Workman. The moon was high when we started. At noonday, the lagoon colours are sheeted flames of cobalt and viridian, agate and emerald so fierce they sear the sight. But under the milk-white glamour of the moon that night, the cobalt was changed to murex, the viridian to green-purple and purple-green; the glare of white-hot light among the sands was muted to an amethystine glimmer; and where blind emerald had flared across the shallows, there was a mother-of-pearl translucence. Light and colour and peace were fused for me in a single rapture that beat like a gentle pulse over the water. The waters themselves were so pellucid, our boat seemed poised on some shining essence of dreams as it glided over coral head and sandy bottom. Scents of flowers grateful for the cool of night beneath the palms came out to page 60meet us as we waded shoreward over the lambent shallows.
My houndmaster for the trip, the famous Charles Workman, was a dashing giant of six feet five inches, idealist, classical scholar, Regency buck, and Elizabethan buccaneer rolled in one, and a man of puckish humour. He loved to face people with situations, and I think my gangling looks always tempted him to peculiar indulgences of his passion. He heartily endorsed the Old Man's view about the puppishness of cadets in general. He did not actually mention mine in particular, but observed that a recruiting trip with the likes of him would do the likes of me a power of good. The first job he gave me to do, however, had no connection with recruiting.
It was nearly midnight when the Recruit Manager and I reached his quarters. There was a small trading steamer (not one of Burns, Philp and Company's, I hasten to add) lying in the lagoon, and her captain was ashore with him, sitting hunched up on the verandah floor and groaning as if in great pain. 'The drunken old sailor,' said Mr Workman when we were settled in chairs, 'wants more liquor, which I refuse to allow. That is his immediate cause of complaint. But beyond it, he has another. He was picked up and thrown overboard from his own ship this morning by the second engineer.'
It was difficult to extract details from the captain, but one gathered from his story that the second engineer was the terror of the ship – a man of gigantic size and demoniac temper. Everybody, according to the allegation, thought he was more than a bit mad. After he had flung the captain into the lagoon, the whole ship's company had fled ashore; so there he was now, alone, stamping the deserted decks.
'This,' said Mr Workman, 'cannot be tolerated for a moment … not in my District. The fellow must be apprehended; he must be haled before my court. And you, my lad,' he added, 'will effect the arrest.'
'What – me?' was all I could find to say at the moment.
'You,' he confirmed, with a note of unmistakable unction in his voice,'… and you alone. A most instructive experience for a cadet! How I wish I were in your shoes! Now, attend to me closely. He is a European. There must be no initial show of force page 61by our rude island police. You will proceed to the ship at 7 a.m. in the station bum-boat, rowed by a single native constable. You will go aboard alone. You will produce the person of the accused in court before me at 8 a.m. precisely.'
We put the captain to bed between us. After a little more talk on the verandah, Mr Workman drew up his towering height of brawn and bone to run a reflective eye over my unimpressive physique. 'It might be as well,' he murmured, 'if you were to avoid any attempt at man-handling the accused while taking him into custody.' Then he and the Recruit Manager retired to their rooms.
The captain was snoring already. I spent the rest of the night wheedling from him a sworn statement to back the warrant of arrest. Every time I woke him up, he called me something different. I disturbed Mr Workman at dawn to get his signature to that warrant. That was not a popular move, either. When I ventured to quote the Pacific Order-in-Council in justification, he replied, 'My good man, I happen to be a Barrister-at-Law. If you ever study the admirable Institutes of Justinian (or was it Gaius?) as I did, you will meet with a maxim to the effect that the Law cares nothing for trifles. However, give me the document.'
He added with a remote smile as he signed, 'Now remember. Leave the policeman in the bum-boat. He will pick you up if you are unfortunate enough to be thrown overboard. Good-bye.'
The so-called bum-boat was in one of the canoe sheds. She was a rickety nine-foot dinghy with rowlocks for a pair of sculls up in the bows. With the policeman and myself aboard, she took in a lot of water amidships. A fresh wind was raising quite a lop in the lagoon, and the going was uncomfortable; but I got a little unexpected relief as we drew near the ship; there were several white men walking about the boat-deck. 'At least,' I thought, 'the crew have returned. I shan't be quite, quite alone with this murderous maniac'
A giant shape was leaning over the rail by the ship's ladder. He was glowering down straight into my eyes. He had a most frightful walrus moustache; there could be no mistaking the huge, bristling bulk of him, the wild and sullen look; that gorilla was my man. I tried hard to think only of the grand old page 62British Raj as I went up the ship's side. It afforded me, I regret to say, not a grain of comfort.
'Are you William Clarence W—?' I heard myself asking. He heaved himself upright, to overhang me like a cliff, and replied in a growling bass that he was, and who the blank might I be, if it wasn't too blankly much to ask. I informed him with modesty about myself and added huskily, 'I hold a warrant to arrest you on a charge of criminal assault.'
He stepped back and stood glaring while I recited the usual warnings; then he spoke, as if groping in a haze; 'Well … spare me days … criminal assault … arrested … what … by you? Here, gimme that blanky paper.' He snatched the warrant from me. As he finished reading it, he emitted a hoarse bellow, which brought the first mate running. Now for the trouble, I thought; but instead of attacking me he looked down into the dinghy, burst into a howl of laughter, and said, 'All right, I'll come quiet, you poor little pup.' That beastly word again.
The whole ship's complement draped itself over the rail to watch us into the boat. 'Now, you all keep right out of this,' he bawled at them going down. 'You betcha life,' replied the first mate with a guffaw. They all guffawed. Of course, everyone knew perfectly well what would happen with William Clarence's vast weight in that miserable dinghy. It did. A hundred yards from the ship's side, the lagoon lop filled us to the brim and we slowly sank, all sitting.
My prisoner took charge at once. He had it all planned in advance. 'Leave the blanky policeman to rescue the blanky little boat,' he commanded, 'an' I'll look after you. You're not too good in the water, are you, son?' I wasn't at that time; it was only with a lot of help from him that I got through the quarter-mile struggle to the shallows. 'Hold on to yer old uncle,' he said when the going got really bad, and I did; I had begun to like the chap. His arm was round me for support when we walked into the courthouse.
The place was a single-roomed building of native materials, beautifully cool and spacious; but it had no furniture that morning save a kitchen table, two kitchen chairs, a portrait of Queen Victoria, and a floor mat. Mr Workman sat at the middle of the page 63table, under the portrait, a gold half-hunter watch before him; the captain sat at one end. We stood dripping together on the mat. 'You are thirty-seven minutes late with your prisoner, Mr Grimble,' said Mr Workman, taking not the least notice either of our soaked clothes or our affectionate attitude.
I groaned a few reasons, to which he replied 'Ah' non-committally and read the charges.
'Not guilty,' growled the accused, his arm still firmly around me.
'First witness for the prosecution,' called Mr Workman, looking at the captain. But the captain was incapable of speech; it appeared that he had discovered where the bottle was hidden before Mr Workman got up; it appeared further that this was regarded as my fault, as I had woken him up before leaving to make the arrest. He remained mute even when William Clarence called him a something something.
'Other witnesses?' The question was directed at me.
I reported that, as far as I could judge, the entire ship's company was on board, and had never been anywhere else. I seized the occasion to enter upon a fuller story of the morning's events, but Mr Workman cut me short: 'The court is aware of all the circumstances, Mr Grimble. The court observed them through a telescope. The court is now waiting to know if you took any steps whatever to bring witnesses ashore with you.'
'What … all of them, or who, sir? … what in? … in that little … that little bum of a boat?' I said, on an upsurge of the stubborn anger of the meek-hearted. William Clarence rewarded me with a hearty laugh.
'All of them, or who?' Mr Workman asked the captain with no sign of emotion on his face: 'Have you any other witnesses to produce or testimony to offer before the verdict is considered?'
The captain raised his head from the table, leered at the Bench, slipped from his seat, and sank paralysed to the floor.
'No witnesses, case dismissed, court adjourned. And now,' Mr Workman turned a genial smile upon William Clarence, 'I have to thank you on behalf of His Majesty's Government for so nobly rescuing my esteemed young colleague from, a watery grave. It shall be recorded in the archives of my District and page 64reported in the most exalted quarters. You will leave this court covered with honour. Having said which, may I venture to ask what you actually did, and why you did it, to this drunken old man? Quite off the record, you know.'
'I threw the old blank overboard,' replied the trustful William, 'because he kicked me kitty.'
'Because he kicked your what?'
'Me kitty … me little cat.'
'And did he hurt her very grievously?'
'It ain't a her, it's a him, it's a little bull-cat.' William's voice rumbled deeply tender on the bull.
'Well, of course, that explains everything,' said Mr Workman: 'Now let's all go and have some breakfast.'
We left the captain under the table. The Recruit Manager was waiting for us at the house. He also had watched my landing with William and was suitably sympathetic about it. I enjoyed my breakfast a lot – much more than I should have done had I known that, within less than three hours, I should be sampling Mr Workman's humour again before an enthralled audience in the Native Government maneaba.
Every Gilbertese village of any size had its own maneaba, or speak-house, in those days. The building was the focus of social life, the assembly hall, the dancing lodge, the news-mart of the community. Under that gigantic thatch, every clan had its ordained sitting-place up against the overhang of the eaves. Everybody's material was pooled to build it, each clan contributed its traditional portion of work to the construction. One manufactured thatch-pieces for the roof, another lashed them into place; there was a clan to gather the timbers, a clan to dress them, a clan to lay them in place; and so on for the capping of the ridge-pole, the trimming of the eaves, the setting up of the corner-stones, the shingling of the floor, the plaiting of coconut-leaf screens to cover the shingle and hang below the eaves. The ridge soared sixty feet high, overtopping the coconut-palms; the deep eaves fell to less than a man's height from the ground. Within, a man could step fifty full paces clear page 65from end to end, and thirty from side to side. The boles of palm-trees made columned aisles down the middle and sides and the place held the cool gloom of a cathedral that whispered with the voices of sea and wind caught up as in a vast sounding box.
Our recruiting-table was set, with a clear space before it, at one end of the maneaba, looking down the middle aisle. The space was kept open by a cordon of village kaubure, or headmen, seated cross-legged on their mats in uniform of white duck coats and waistcloths of navy-blue serge. Behind their immaculate and statuesque line sat the packed audience, a tumultuous sea of bronze torsos, its waves crested with the white foam of flowercrowned heads and aflame with the orange and scarlet of trade-store prints. Recruiting operations were as popular with the general public everywhere as with the men who rushed to get themselves recruited. There were fifteen hundred villagers there, by my reckoning, that day.
I sat at the right-hand end of the long table, lost in the delight of my first sight of the massed people in the superb setting of their maneaba. Next on my left sat the Native Magistrate; beyond him were the Company's hand-picked recruiting clerks, the Recruit Manager and, at the far end, Mr Workman. I waited dreamily for my chief to open. The multitude of vivid faces had set me longing for the time when my Gilbertese would be good enough for me to talk easily to such a gathering. I was indeed already addressing that very audience with incomparable oratory in my imagination; they were quivering to the passion and the mirth of it when Mr Workman's cool clear voice interrupted:
'And now, Mr Grimble, as you have passed your initial interpreter's test, you will doubtless wish to tell the assembled people how glad you are to be here among them for the first time today.'
My whole being cringed at once, and ignominiously, away from the notion. I pleaded with misery that, unaccustomed as I was to public speaking – especially in Gilbertese – there were reasons in the name of mercy to spare me this honour. I said that every word of the language had now gone out of my head. I said my memory was always like that, tricky; it ran in the family; two page 66of my uncles suffered the same way. I implored him to say the gracious words for me himself.
The only point he troubled to answer was the last one: 'My dear fellow, I don't talk Gilbertese in public. It's far too dangerous. I invariably speak through my interpreter. And by the way – before you ask – no, you may not use my interpreter.'
So I got up amid a great hush and said (the words are burned on my memory), 'People of Tarawa, this is a beautiful island. This is the first time I have seen Tarawa. I think Tarawa is a beautiful island. This is the first time I have seen it. I think it is very beautiful. I have never seen it before. I think it is …'
There are no means of estimating exactly how long I should have continued had not Mr Workman's voice cut in: 'Perhaps, Mr Grimble, we might now with profit pass onward to the next thought. Time flies, you know.'
I had no next thought save a wild desire to have done: 'I think it is very, very beautiful,' I reminded the audience. 'This is the first time I have seen Tarawa. I am glad to meet you today and shall always be very, very glad to meet you,' and sat down incontinently.
I was, of course, aware of some difference of quality between this performance and my recently-imagined eloquence, but I did not expect the storm of laughter that rewarded my climax. It swept the maneaba like a hurricane, and lasted for minutes. The shadows of the soaring roof seemed to rock with it. My usually impassive chief himself was twisting on his chair. Everyone else at the table was convulsed. It seemed an ungracious response to my constantly favourable comments about Tarawa, and it made the worm within me turn. I got up amid the din and walked along to Mr Workman: 'You all seem to be having a frightful lot of fun, sir,' I said bitterly: 'I wonder if you could spare time to tell me why, if it isn't too much trouble.'
He pulled himself together, wiped his eyes and explained. My first assurance of happiness at meeting the people had been successfully put across, but not so the more ambitious repetition, it all turned on the wrong use of the word ma, which could mean and, with or but, according to context, and a reckless addition of the prefix ka to the word for meeting. What I had said page 67in effect was, 'I am glad to meet you today, but I shall always be very, very glad to say good-bye to you.'
Fortunately, this struck me too as funny. I will not claim that my smile was enthusiastic, but it was a smile; seeing which, the stately, big old Native Magistrate, in his beautiful white tunic and belt of office, did a thing that my heart is still wrung to remember, so typical it was of the royal tact of his race. He stood up, walked to my side and, putting an arm around my shoulder, laughed in company with me. The crowd responded with renewed ecstasies. When they were quiet again he said, still shielding me with his arm, 'You people, we have already heard from Baanaba of this Man of Matang. They say he likes our people over there. We know his heart, and we do not laugh at it. We laugh only because we know his tongue refused to say what was in his heart. The day will come when his tongue will obey him, and then, behold! his words shall blow upon us like a strong wind. May the day come soon. Stop laughing now, and say to him, Ko na mauri (thou shalt be blest).'
'Ko na mauri!' The traditional words of greeting came roaring back from the crowd while I stood, with my face saved whole, thinking how miraculously this old brown man had divined my secret dreams: 'Behold! his words shall blow upon us like a strong wind.' It came to me blindingly again in that moment that I had fared across the sea of the world to live in no strange land.
'As you will have observed, Grimble,' said my smiling houndmaster, 'we dwell among gentlefolk in these parts,' and I thought that he too was not without intuition at times. Thus prosperously passed the hour of my maiden speech in Gilbertese, and we got along with our recruiting business.
The dialectic high-light of that particular meeting was contributed by a madder-brown lady of incredible age and agility dressed in a short riri, the old-time skirt of smoke-cured waterweed. She had sat crumpled up in the front row of sightseers, opposite a gap in the cordon of village kaubure, quietly awaiting the appearance of her adopted grandson at the recruiting table. Aware of her talents, everyone, including the kaubure responsible for the break in their line, had of course conspired to secure that exact jumping-off place for her. When the young man page 68emerged from the medical inspection-booth into the space before the table, she nipped through the gap and flung herself upon him. 'Alas!' she shrilled, showering slaps upon his brawny buttocks, 'Alas! Good-for-nothing! Alas! Man without shame, dung of a man! Come home with me at once!' and tried to drag him away. Ignoring massed officialdom when he stood his ground, she turned to face the delighted house, and treated it to a superb oration, punctuated by assaults of ever-increasing vigour upon her victim, about the vileness of his crime in running away to dig the excrement of birds on Baanaba. 'Anaia, anaia! (Go on, go on!)' and 'Katonua! (Round off the phrase!)' and 'Kanenea! (Make it blaze!)' roared back the audience whenever she showed signs of flagging. The Gilbertese believe in encouraging sore hearts to talk themselves out. Speech is privileged for the aged, and the stronger the merrier. A thunder of applause burst forth to reward her crescendo finale.
Mr Workman tapped the table for silence at last. His interpreter stepped out into the arena. 'Now,' began Mr Workman, 'let us carefully examine this lady's protest. We may, perhaps, for reasons of law and tact, pass over her more intimate genealogical reflections. This limits our inquiries to the living generation, namely, the father and mother of the young man before us.' He turned to the interpreter: 'Will you ask the complainant if I may take it as correct that the parents of this young candidate are so averse to his being recruited that the father weeps all day and the mother is sick unto death?'
'It is true, Man of Matang!' she answered.
'She says it is true,' clamoured the crowd.
'Alas, it is a lie,' said the young man simply: 'Woman, thou art to be pitied for thou knowest thy lie.' She slapped his face and sprang away from him.
'He says she lies' – the crowd timed it perfectly – 'Woman, what of that?'
'She lies,' suddenly shouted a male and a female voice together: 'I am his father; I am his mother,' and the two stood up from seats a few rows back from the old lady's.
'Behold! His father and his mother!' vociferated everyone together, 'They say she lies! Woman what now?'page 69
'But perhaps she does not lie,' the Native Magistrate intervened, 'perhaps you do not wish your son to go.'
'Do you wish him to go?' bawled voices.
'We wish him to go,' replied the mother, and the father nodded.
'See now, Magistrate! See now, Woman! They wish him to go,' the audience intoned.
'This, then, is the truth of it,' summed up the Magistrate: 'you wish him to go.'
'They certainly wish him to go,' the crowd came in again like a Greek chorus, as if to say 'We knew it all the time,' which, of course, was a fact.
The grandmother had stood arrow-straight throughout, facing them all as fearless as an old eagle. Mr Workman, admiring her pluck and wishing to save her pride in the end, said to the interpreter, 'Tell her, if you please, that we all understand it was for the love she bears her grandson that she laid this protest before us.'
She swept all of us with her arrogant eyes: 'I have laid no complaint before you. I came to talk not to you, but to my grandson,' she said in a low voice; and then, louder, 'I do not love him;' and finally, at the top of her lungs, 'He is a nikiranihobo.'
To European ears, the word ripples with the exact lilt of 'Sing-a-song-of-sixpence'. Not its ripple, however, but the ripsnorting shamelessness of it bursting at siren-strength from those aged jaws, was what made the ecstatic climax for everyone. You could translate all that matters of its meaning by the word runt. But there are ways of saying things, and this way shattered even the statuesque line of kaubure: they rolled on their mats, kicking for the perfection of fulfilment in nikiranibobo, and the people roiled kicking behind them. The Native Magistrate himself was sobbing, face between arms, on the table. 'I dare not translate this word, sir,' stammered the interpreter when he recovered himself; 'it is a very old and clever word, but it is not official.'
There were gasps of 'Ko raba, ko raba! (Thanks, thanks!)' from the multitude, as power of speech began to return to it. page 70The old lady stood as haughty as an empress to take her meed of applause; but it must have softened her heart, for, when the tumult died, she turned and took her grandson's hand. 'Thy sin is loosed. Go in peace,' she said, and the audience roared 'Thanks, thanks!' again as she resumed her seat with the dignity of an all-forgiving saint.