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A Pattern of Islands

Measure of a Job

Measure of a Job

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate was turned into a Colony in 1915, but this made no difference to our working relationship with the powers that were. Our Resident Commissioner (in company with his opposite numbers in charge of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate and the British New Hebrides) remained still responsible for his administration to the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific in Fiji. But the High Commissioner, as such, was only one-fifth of a chief. The other four-fifths of him were Governor of the Colony of Fiji, a totally separate and distinct personality. The result was that he operated as little more, for us outside Fiji, than a relaying agent for Colonial Office orders relating to our territories and for the replies which such orders extracted from our respective Resident Commisssioners. As for visits of inspection, no High Commissioner was ever seen in the Gilbert Islands for the first thirty-nine years of their life under the British flag.

Things are better today. In this year of grace 1952, the High Commissionership for the Western Pacific stands at last divorced from the Governorship of Fiji. But even at that, and with air transport (a development as yet far from our most sanguine dreams in 1915) now possibly assured, the High Commissioner will still find it hard to penetrate into every corner of his command. The Solomons and New Hebrides, a curving chain of land-masses 1,600 miles long some 1,200 miles to north and east of a theoretical take-off at Townsville in Queensland, Australia, page 71might seem a fairly compact proposition for flying tours of inspection. But the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony is another kettle of fish. The hop by air from, say, the Solomons to the Northern Gilberts is about 1,000 miles; from Townsville, about 2,200. A flight down the sixteen Gilberts and the eight Ellices makes a fairly easy run of 650 miles for a sea-plane, with sheltered lagoons here and there available for landings. But the Gilbert and Ellice chain does not make the whole of the Colony. There is the Phoenix group too, 500 miles to eastward of the Southern Gilberts; there are Fanning and Washington Islands, worked as government plantations, 1,600 miles to eastward of the Northern Gilberts; and there is Christmas Island, with its hundred-mile-round lagoon and great possibilities of development, 100 miles more distant still. A rectangle drawn on the map of the Pacific to frame every scattered speck of the colony where brown men live, and have the right to see justice or aid brought to them, contains within its limits over one-and-a-half million square miles of ocean and less than 250 square miles of land.

A new Cadet had arrived at Ocean Island before the end of 1915; a Cashier had been added unto the Accountant; a wireless station had gone up and two Wireless Officers were installed. The place, as the Old Man said, was stinking with officials.

The twenty-four Group islands, on the other hand, were almost devoid of European staff. Charles Workman had been seconded from Tarawa District to act as Administrator of Nauru, Baanaba's sister phosphate-island recently captured from the Germans; Hyne Gibson, District Officer, Butaritari, was away on sick-leave; Geoffrey Smith-Rewse, District Officer, Ellice Islands, had had no leave for six years and was waiting at Tarawa for a chance to get to Australia, Methven, also at Tarawa, had received permission to join up in Australia for service at the front. Failing reinforcements, a single District Officer in the Central and Southern Gilberts, George Murdoch, would be left to cope with the whole 650-mile Gilbert and Ellice chain.

By early 1916 a proposal put up by Charles Workman to take me and a thousand Gilbertese rank and file to the war had been page 72rejected with a swinging snub. I had passed my final language tests some months before. The law examination was still to come, but I was ready for it. The Old Man thought I had better go at once to relieve Methven at Tarawa, if only to leave breathing-space for my betters on Ocean Island. We sailed for the group towards the end of March 1916.

'We' by that time included Joan Ruth, aged eleven months, in addition to Olivia and me. Our transport was a wooden-hulled monster of no tons register, originally built for sail but hurriedly converted to steam because nobody could sail her. She was reported to be the most unweatherly craft and the uncleanest object afloat between Sydney and the Golden Gate – it took a lot to earn a name for dirt in that ocean of squalid ships. When we climbed aboard, Olivia said she remembered the stink of the old Moresby with nostalgia, as it were the breath of some lost rose-garden. She, and the baby, and the Ellice Island nursemaid, Faasolo, began being sick within the first few minutes of the 80-hour crossing (240 miles at 3 knots an hour in the teeth of a tremendous trade-wind swell) to Tarawa. I was flat out myself not an hour later.

It was the friendly habit of all good sailormen in those times and climes to offer pork-fat to landlubbers suffering from sickness. They said there was nothing like it for settling the insides. They told stories of how, as young men before the mast – always in square rig and generally in the neighbourhood of the roaring forties – they had cured themselves of agonies of vomiting which could otherwise have ended only in dissolution by chewing gobbets of the grisly stuff from the brine-tub.

'Not the lean; that's too stringy-like; it must be the beautiful soft fat, like this-here,' bellowed the captain in our foetid little cabin, dangling a fearful, sweating ribbon of it before our eyes.

I was collapsed on the floor beside the nursemaid and the baby's basket. Olivia was lying in the single bunk, even more torn with spasms than I, but it was she who found the strength to say the right thing: 'Take the something stuff away, you silly something!' Her voice rang clear as a bugle on two words that girls born in Queen Victoria's reign simply did not know.

The captain goggled at me for a second. 'Cripes!' he said. page 73'She's a fair bosker, ain't she, son! Called me a silly something, she did. She'll do all right in the Islands,' and left us in high good humour to our misery.

It was not exactly a triumphal approach to a first command, and, when you come to examine it in the dull light of reason, the command itself, compared for land area, population and wealth with a District of tropical Africa, was not much to write home about. For area, the Tarawa and Butaritari districts together comprised half a dozen bent wisps of coral sand and coconut palms, the biggest not forty miles long or much more than half a mile broad anywhere at high tide. For population, outside a handful of missionaries and traders, there were ten or eleven thousand brown folk in their lagoon-side villages of thatch and rustic timber held together by string. For wealth, the total export of copra and shark-fins was worth less than £25,000 a year in those days. For inward shipping, a trading steamer arrived from Sydney every six months or so, and, once each year (if you were lucky) the London Missionary Society's s.s. John Williams showed up from Australia and a recruiting vessel from Ocean Island.

This list of official positives concerning my new charge did not make grandiose public arithmetic, even to my romanticism. And then, one had to take into account the list of domestic negatives. There was no doctor within call most of the time, because the one Medical Officer had to be forever on the move. Fresh milk, fresh butter and fresh meat were unobtainable, as there was no grass fit for grazing. Refrigerators, and therefore also chilled foods and drinks, were unknown. In consequence of these conditions, it was dangerous to keep children there after the age of five or six. Yet the Government gave almost no help (a grant of £60 every sixth year of service) to get an officer's family home. It was normal to get no home news for six, or eight, or ten months together, because of the lack of ships.

But there are ways of looking at things. In the fever-soaked Melanesian Islands – the British Solomons and New Hebrides– a thousand miles to west and south, the conditions limiting leave and home passage grants were just as disgraceful, the all-round health conditions infinitely worse. Many years were to page 74pass before the Colonial Office began to show any sign of caring about the fate of its officers' wives and children anywhere in the Pacific. In tropical Africa, the leave and pay conditions were much better, but, jungle for ocean and continent for island, District Officers there lived lives as hard, and lonely, and dangerous as those of their opposite numbers in Melanesia.

We in Micronesia were pampered by comparison. It was hot, but what R.L.S. wrote of Abemama was true of every Gilbert Island; we enjoyed for nine months of the year a 'superb ocean climate, days of blinding sun and bracing wind, nights of a heavenly brightness.' Malaria was unknown. The only sicknesses we had to be really careful about were amoebic dysentery and paratyphoid. There were no head-hunters as in Melanesia, no open or secret racial hates as in Africa. The Gilbertese had their quota of bad individuals and mass madnesses – they were neither more nor less angelic than any European community in that respect – but a District Officer started out among the great bulk of them, in those days at least, as an honoured chief of the Breed of Matang. Barring the more tragic or sardonic twists of circumstances, he had to be a pretty bad fellow or an outright coward to forfeit the friendship of the average villager. However far from home, or ill, or forgotten by the Colonial Office he might be feeling, it was, in the last analysis, impossible for an ordinarily decent European to suffer in the Gilberts the black loneliness of Melanesian bush or African jungle, for he knew himself surrounded by friends, no matter where he went.

What gave extra value to the friendship of a Gilbertese man was his rugged determination to be a person of his own. He remained inveterately an individual even on the islands where paramount chiefs were most firmly established. It is pretty certain that the last migrating swarm to invade the Gilberts (which came from Samoa some six hundred years ago) set up dynasties of Uea, or High Chiefs, on every unit. But the people of the southern islands had done away with Uea, and established democracies instead, centuries before the coming of the British flag in 1892, while, in the northern islands, the only royal lines still securely seated at that date were those of Butaritari, Abaiang and Abemama. The Abemama dynasty was of comparatively new page 75creation-not more than two hundred years old-and the event that brought it into being illustrates just how carefully a High Chief of former days had to observe the independence of his subjects. The Uea in question was Tetoka-ni-Matang of Butaritari, a man much loved by his people. Nobody had the least objection against being ruled by him, according to the tradition, but his brother Mangkia was a bad man. Mangkia was forever breaking a law which Tetoka-ni-Matang himself, in Kabowi (conclave) with his people, had passed against the drinking of fermented coconut toddy.

The recognition of drunkenness as a social evil by a rustic monarch two centuries before European influences were felt is a historic fact worthy noting by the way. Even more so is the constitutional method of legislation used by Totoka-ni-Matang. 'In Kabowi with his people' means that his law was made in the maneaba, where every man-whether chief, freeholder or villein-had a hereditary sitting-place and freedom to join in debates. There is proof in what followed that the rights of entry and speech meant something real in terms of democracy, for it was the villeins who took action in defence of the law. They went to Mangkia's house as he lay drunk one day and arrested him.

'And they took him to Tetoka-ni-Matang,' runs the tradition, 'and they said, "We are in thy hand, yet allow us to speak." And he answered "Speak." They said, "Thy brother Mangkia overpasses the judgement that was judged in the maneaba, for he drinks fermented toddy."

'Tetoka-ni-Matang answered, "My heart is heavy for him, for he is my brother." They said then, "Our hearts are heavy also for thee, for we love thee. But this is the way of it: Mangkia shall die or thou shalt not be Uea over us."

'Then Tetoka-ni-Matang begged them, saying "Kill him not but send him away from among us." They answered, "We are in thy hand, yet behold! thou hast begged us. It is good. We will not kill him. We will send him away, according to thy wish."

'So they took Mangkia, and set him in his canoe with food, and sent him away. And many chiefs and freeholders went in their canoes with him. And they all sailed to Marakei, but Marakei drove them off. So it was also at Tarawa. But when they page 76came to Amebama, they were able to land; and Mangkia became Uea of Abemama; and his descendants are Uea there today; and the descendants of Tetoka-ni-Matang are Uea over Butaritari and Makin-Meang.'

The ultimate triumph of the exiled drunkard does not make very gracious reading for teetotallers. 'But lay that aside,' said Airam Teeko of Abemama, himself a chief of Mangkia's line, who gave me the story: 'Tetoka-ni-Matang remained Uea over his people because he would not favour his brother above the judgement that was judged in the maneaba. A wise chief he. Our people do not like to be ruled by rulers who allow them no word in the judgements that are judged.'

This undying independence of spirit, which made the friendship of any average villager worth winning for its own sake, also gave the true yardstick for measuring the size of a District Officer's job. By commercial or cadastral standards, his little flakes of territory made less than a drop in the ocean of Empire economy; by human standards, it depends upon how you count. Ten thousand bodies, white or brown, do not amount to much in vital statistics or power politics. But ten thousand cheerfully pugnacious minds, each one vividly aware of its independence and passionately bent on remaining independent, call for quite a lot of individual attention. The District Officer who, outside his purely clerical functions as correspondent, sub-accountant, customs authority, and postmaster-general of his region, kept level with his island tours, his village tours, his countless interviews, his work with the Native Courts, and the queer surprise-packets that his duty as a leader sometimes pushed his way, lived days not less crowded with delight than labour; but he was a pretty tired man by nightfall. Charles Workman used to put it the other way round. His dictum was that, if you weren't tired, you ought to be kicking yourself, because you must have left a hundred things undone; and I dare say he was right.