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A Pattern of Islands

4 — Native Courts

Native Courts

The chief business of a District Officer was to supervise the work of the island Kabowi, or Native Courts. A Kabowi was an page 95assembly of village kaubure or headmen, presided over by a Native Magistrate. The assembly sat every month, in the Native Government maneaba, to deal with the current administrative and judicial business of its community. Its powers were derived from a code of native laws which adapted the application of British forms to local usage. On the judicial side, the code allowed the District Officer nothing but advisory status in the Kabowi, and did not oblige him to be present at any proceedings save trials for homicide or for offences against English law not specially mentioned in the code; but it required him to review every conviction made in his absence, and gave him power to quash illegal sentences or reduce any that he found excessive. Beyond the District Officer, appeals against convictions lay to the Resident Commissioner, and no sentence of death could be carried out except after review of the written evidence by the High Commissioner in Fiji.

On the executive side, the Kabowi had power to make, subject to the Resident Commissioner's approval, regulations for the cleanliness and good order of the villages. The village kaubure, who were unpaid, assisted by village policemen, who earned the princely salary of £6 a year, or less on the smaller islands, saw to the maintenance of these regulations, looked after the general welfare of their parishioners and either voiced their grievances at the monthly sessions or introduced their delegated spokesmen to the Kabowi. A Chief Kaubure and a Chief of Police (at £12 each a year, or less) both resident on the Native Government station, were directed by the law to visit every village at least once between monthly meetings, so as to keep things on the move and give people the latest news from Headquarters. An Island Scribe (£12 a year or less) was charged with the registration of births, deaths, and marriages, the reporting of defaulters, the keeping of a cash book, and the duties of Island Postmaster.

In any matter of debate which demanded a moti, or judgement, by the Native Magistrate, a division of the assembled kaubure was taken. The kaubure, in effect, performed parliamentary functions as representatives of their people in conclave with regard to administrative affairs, and operated as page 96jurymen in all judicial cases. The Chief Kaubure sat with the Native Magistrate as an assessor at the table of justice, while the Chief of Police conducted prosecutions. There was no such thing as a secret session of the Kabowi for either judicial or administrative purposes, and the public followed the proceedings at every meeting with intense interest. On a big island, there would be an audience of fifteen hundred or more to watch an important trial or listen to the oratory of petitioners, counter-petitioners (and, if heaven was bountiful, cross-petitioners also) before the Court. The silence and orderliness of those great crowds during judicial proceedings could not have been bettered in any English court-room; nor could their liberty of utterance during debates on matters of general concern have been less fettered anywhere else in the world.

The method of electing village kaubure for office was democratic, though the ballot was an open one all along the line. The villagers assembled first in their own maneaba under the chairmanship of the Chief Kaubure and, by a show of hands, nominated two or three candidates, whose names were laid before the Kabowi at its next meeting. The majority vote of the Kabowi decided the final choice, and the new member took his seat at once. A small village had only one kaubure; the larger ones, where the population might run up to 1,000 or more souls, had sometimes as many as five. On the fifty-mile island of Tabiteuea, with twenty-odd villages and a total population of about 5,000, there were over thirty representatives of the people in the Kabowi. There was no preliminary training for the work. The young members learned their business from the older ones; the gifts of commonsense and eloquence natural to the Gilbertese, allied with their phenomenal memories, made them very quick learners. I have met in the Western Hemisphere no oratory in high debate that could compare, for average pithiness of content, beauty of diction and ease of delivery, with that of those rugged brown fishermen working for no reward in the cause of their village communities.

The salaried heads of the system-the Native Magistrate and Chief Kaubure-were men who had qualified for appointment by many years of service as village Kaubure. In the early days, page 97most of them could neither read nor write. Some of the old sort were still in office when I got to the group, and I was in a state of continual astonishment at their powers of memory. They were word-perfect in the native laws and regulations, and two readings aloud by the Island Scribe of any letter or record in Gilbertese were enough to store the whole text of it in their minds forever. The spread of Mission education brought with it in the long run a natural demand for literacy, even among the village kaubure. That was all to the good as time marched on, for it widened horizons; yet, excellent as it was, it certainly produced no finer breed of justices or administrators than those unlettered and, more often than not, pagan Native Magistrates of old.

The effect of the truly remarkable initiative wielded by the native courts and the representative nature of their constitution was to keep alive among them (quite independently of European supervision) a high sense of responsibility for their decisions, and to maintain among the people at large a vivid and critical interest in the conduct of their own affairs. The Kabowi system was established by an extraordinarily wise dispensation of the eighteen-nineties. 'Wise' is not to imply that the penal code was entirely devoid of flaws; for example, it forced monogamy, under pain of imprisonment, upon a historically polygynous people and made criminal offences of certain sex-relationships that were basic to the old moralities. That was itself a moral and anthropological crime of the first magnitude, which no British missionary body or government would have dared to attempt, even in those days, against a more powerful community. But, for all that, the Kabowi system as a whole stood for an almost unique effort, in the heyday of Imperialism and thirty years before the publication of Lord Lugard's Dual Mandate, to engage the genius of a subject race on a really big scale in the vital business of self-rule.

One of the Kabowi's most important annual tasks was the assessment of native taxation. Though nine-tenths of the colonial revenue spent on the maintenance of services in the two groups was drawn from the mining industry of Ocean Island, the page 98villagers of the lagoon islands also contributed their quota. This was collected by way of a land tax which was paid not in money, but in copra. The copra tax could not be assessed on acreage, for a boundary survey of the thousands of smallholdings was far beyond anybody's financial reach in those days; nor could it be based upon an overall average of productivity, for the yield of copra varied enormously from atoll to atoll and from year to year, according to rainfall. The only possible method of assessment was to name a tonnage figure for each island's total contribution, based on its average annual export, and ask the local Kabowi to consider at the beginning of every year, first of all, whether the average quota could be fairly insisted upon or not, and, second, how much each separate landowner, according to the size and fertility of his holdings, should justly contribute towards the agreed total.

The task of allotting out individual proportions was never a simple one. The Gilbertese man in the street was no more in love with his copra tax than the Englishman with his income tax, and he had many more chances than an Englishman enjoys of arguing special pleas before his local authorities. Also, he was a humorist, a dramatist, and an orator in his bones, and the magnificent setting of the maneaba packed with listeners was a temptation that his artistry could never resist. The staging of an elaborate petition was pure joy for him. A man would begin to think over his piece and coach his witnesses for their parts months before the date of his great production. The rejection of his plea, qua plea, was of course a foregone conclusion; but it was neither here nor there that nobody but an idiot could be expected to take it seriously. He was a weaver of dreams, a creator. The delight of the crowd at his glorious flights of humour and fancy was all he needed to soothe the aching of his wistful heart.

'Sirs,' the Native Magistrate would say to his kaubure when the plaudits and the laughter died, 'what think you of the crying of this man? Does he speak truth or lies?'

'Ekeve (he lies),' the kaubure would answer, single-voiced save for those who preferred 'E banga ni keve (he is stuffed with lies).'

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'Ai e aera (How about that)!' someone in the crowd would shout, and 'Ai ngaia naba anne (There's the truth of it)!' the rest would roar, while the petitioner stood with unruffled serenity awaiting the Magistrate's last word:

'Sir, thou hast heard the voice of the people. They think thou liest. So it is also with me, and that is my judgement. Thy wish cannot be granted. Yet calm thy heart and go in peace, for the crying of thy voice has been heard from beginning to end, and it was a good crying.' Wafted from the maneaba on the wings of that last compliment, the petitioner would go happily home to think up an even better piece for next year's production.

But invariably in cases of genuine hardship the petitioner presented his plea without rhetoric and unaided by witnesses of his own choosing. Every man's poverty or wealth was known to the last pound of copra by everyone else in his village. Nobody with the truth behind him needed to worry about the evidence; the kaubure would look after that. The crowd, with its acute sensitiveness to the truth, would show its sympathy by silence. In my eleven years as a District Officer I never met a case in which a taxpayer with a bona-fide hardship to present had been turned away without proper relief by his Kabowi.

The only real trouble about the copra tax that ever happened my way was a very grim business indeed. It began one April when the people of Onotoa Island (who were 96 per cent Protestant, the rest being Roman Catholic) heard that the London Missionary Society's steamship John Williams was coming to visit them in June.

I was Resident Commissioner by then. I had known the Onotoans for sixteen years and counted them among the gentlest and merriest of all Gilbertese populations. But they were torn that April by a mass fury so terrible, I was tempted almost to believe in such a thing as possession by devils. Only Koata and a few strong souls resisted the sweep of it. Koata was the Native Magistrate, and this is the story of how he stood firm.

Halfway through the month, the people of two villages decided to get ready a fine gift of copra against the Mission vessel's page 100arrival. As well as being generous, this was a perfectly legal intent, as the John Williams was licensed to trade through the Gilbert Islands. But the problem for Koata, as Native Magistrate, was that the island's copra tax was due to be delivered in June, and the gift proposed for the Mission was so big that he knew it must strip the villagers' trees of every ripe nut during April and May. That would mean the default of hundreds in the payment of their tax, and subsequent trouble for everyone concerned.

Koata was a moderate-minded man. When news of the intended gift came to him, he took a day or two to think things out. The main point was that, if the villagers were to reduce their offering to the Mission by about two-fifths, the balance of copra saved would be enough to cover the tax liability. So he called the native pastors and deacons of the villages to the maneaba and put the figures to them. In the course of his talk, he said he was not asking the people to deny God an offering of love, but only to limit the gift so that Caesar also might also receive his just due. He urged that, as the motive of the gift was religious, they, much better than himself-a Roman Catholic-could first approach their flocks with good counsel, and he asked them to take the initiative.

It was a statesmanlike proposal, as typical of the old pagan courtesies as it was of the Christian charities, but the pastors and deacons would have none of it. They were men driven by the blind zeal of inquisitors. Koata, for them, was not merely a Roman Catholic sinner but one who, baptized a Protestant, had treacherously in his adult years gone over to the Scarlet Woman. It added blasphemy to his wickedness that he had dared to quote to them the Bible text about God's and Caesar's dues. They accused him to his face of a deliberate attack upon their church, and broke off all negotiations there and then.

From that day on, they exhorted their congregations to persist in their gift to God and to welcome for His glory any form of martyrdom that the unjust judge might visit upon them. But though their speech was florid and Koata's name was branded with religious infamy, they preached no sedition at that stage. Their theme was at worst one of active work for God, passive page 101disregard for the tax-law, and God punish the unjust judge. Any liberal could condone it, and Koata was a natural-born liberal. He took not the slightest notice of the anathemas hurled upon him from the village pulpits, because, as he explained later, he did not think a Native Magistrate was paid to take private revenge on anybody.

But he had to take some sort of line as father of his island (that was his own phrase) when, in the middle of May, the gift was handed over to the pastors. The only nuts now left on the villagers' trees were far too young for tax-copra making in June, and it was his duty to be firm about that. At the same time, he thought that the people, having satisfied their own leaders and consciences, might now be willing to take some worldly advice from himself. Everything could be straightened out if the two villages could be persuaded to borrow the copra for their tax from the rest of the island, subject to repayment in July, when their own young nuts would be ripe. So he called the congregations to the maneaba and put the suggestion to them, after warning them that their failure to pay in June could hardly be condoned by the Government. He even offered to negotiate the loan for them.

But an unexpected complication arose to balk him. The congregations had answered his call hoping for punishment, not help, from Caesar. Their teachers had despatched them to court with promises of instant martyrdom. All pathos was in their utter sincerity of purpose; they put their case with heartbreaking simplicity. 'We have sinned against the law,' they pleaded. 'It is now thy duty, Koata, to put us in prison. That is what our pastors have told us, and we wish it so. We beg thee to put us in prison.'

He explained with kindness why he could not grant their plea. Their gift to the London Mission was in itself no breach of the regulations. Nobody wanted to punish them for that. Non-payment of the copra tax was the only sin the law would worry about. But not a man among them could be charged with an offence until he had failed to pay, and no evidence of default could possibly exist against anyone before the very hour of the last day of June had run out. Beyond this too, the law gave even a page 102proved defaulter the option of paying a fine over and above his tax instead of going to prison. He dismissed them on that note, with a final plea that they would return to him after thinking things over.

The missed martyrdom was a crushing disappointment for them. They went back to their villages like children fooled of their reward and taxed their pastors with misleading them. It was a deflating moment. Shepherds and sheep alike might well have come to their senses then, as Koata hoped, but for a single man among them-the senior pastor, whom I shall call Ten Naewa.

Ten Naewa was a middle-aged man, sternly ascetic in his habits, arrogant and ignorant, but of acute political wit. He saw more clearly than most that, among his people, the only cure for a broken dream was the creation of a new wonder, so he pulled one out of the bag on the spot. Leaping to his feet and shouting down the flow of recriminations, he burst into perfervid speech about a message he had that very instant received from Heaven. By God's grace, he said, the chapel in which they were sitting was to become a place of miracles. O, sinful generation, to pollute it now with angry reproaches, for a light was to shine out of it-the light of a New Revelation. God Himself was about to speak to His people in dreams, for their gift had found favour in His sight. They were His Elect from that day forth for ever. In the dreams He was about to send them would lie concealed the key of the Day of His Second Coming, and the clue to all things that must be done before He appeared. But none among them could discover the key save only himself, God's Prophet. Let them therefore bring all their dreams to him so that he might interpret them there in the chapel of dreams.

His superb acting carried the day. They believed him. Koata said afterwards, in defence of him, that he had probably reached total belief in his own words before he rushed out into the forest, as a man possessed, yelling damnation upon the Roman Catholics and the Government.

So the people dreamed dreams and had visions from God, which Ten Naewa interpreted endlessly, between sessions of prayer and hate, in the place of miracles. The two congregations page 103moved en masse out of their villages and set up a great encampment of leaf shacks around the chapel.

Almost at once, the habit of dreams became general; people from other villages began to flock into the camp, but not yet fast enough for Ten Naewa; success had set him hungering for more; so he issued a prophecy that the Last Day was but a month ahead, and launched a campaign upon it. God would arrive at high noon, he said. In the eleventh hour He had ordained that a wave should arise to the height of the Government's flagstaff and sweep away the Flag, the Roman Catholics and all traitorous Protestants who refused to be gathered near the chapel.

The threat started a terrified exodus from the villages, but still the Prophet was unsatisfied. To speed things up he embarked upon a course of propaganda that must surely be unique, even in the chequered annals of partisan religion. He began by limiting God's status to that of God the Father, changing his own title of Prophet to that of 'Father-of-God' and appointing his son to be 'God Almighty'. His next moves followed quickly. He organized a body of women, whom he called his Sheep, and charged them to stand around him wherever he went, shuddering or falling into trances at the sound of his voice. He interpreted somebody's vision of a flaming sword on the wall of his chapel as God the Father's direction to form a band of hooligans-The Swords of Gabriel-who marched about the island bringing terror of death to all who stayed at home. He named two women 'Christ-the-Sufferer' and 'Christ-the-Forgiver' to receive and pardon the repentant who turned to him at last. Three weeks after the first scene in the chapel, only aged folk and infants outside the forty or fifty Roman Catholics remained in the villages, while nearly thirteen hundred men, women and children with dogs and pigs complete were gathered in a hugger-mugger of squalor, hunger and hysteria around the Father-of-God, awaiting the Advent of God the Father.

Koata had done all a brave man could to prevent it. Ignoring the threats of the Swords of Gabriel, he followed hard on their heels to every village, trying to allay the terrors they spread. But it was not only physical force that drove the people. They believed, with all their capacity for fear, in the merciless new god of the pastors. The Last Day was at hand. What furies of damna-page 104tion awaited their souls if they listened to the Scarlet Woman's messenger? They stoned Koata from the villages in their panic of self-salvation.

But there is one good thing to remember of those days. Two Protestant villagers took an open stand from the beginning against the sweeping madness. If ever the courage of a few just men saved the honour of a creed it was theirs. They went together one day to offer Koata their support. 'We are Protestants,' they said, 'but we think those pastors are mistaken. You do well to hold out against them, and you have always been a fair Magistrate. We will stand by you.'

The gesture put new heart in him. He needed it much, for some of his colleagues had deserted the Government Station that very day. Only two other men and five women remained with him. The newcomers with their households raised the moral strength by eight souls. All told, fifteen men and women stayed by his side to abide the day of wrath.

The day arrived. The distraught camp waited with fasting and prayer from sunrise to noon. But no wave from the sea came to destroy the wicked, no God appeared in the chapel.

Mutterings began. A few hundred of the quieter folk returned in sorrow to their villages that afternoon, but others stayed to reproach the man who had called himself God the Father: 'Where is thy wave, and where is thy Salvation now, thou man of many words? And who shall now save any of us from the law?'

He had no answer for them. The turmoil mounted. Not he, but the woman who called herself Christ-the-Forgiver, silenced them this time. It was near sundown when she suddenly shrieked, 'Fools! Fools and Sinners! A new vision has come to me. Listen, lest God strike you dead where you stand.' They stood dumb at the fearful threat.

She was a heavy, wild-haired creature with a voice of brass. She lumbered among them with upflung arms mixing curses with calls upon God to pity their unbelief: 'It is ye who have failed,' she screamed at them, 'ye, who have waited for God to send a wave from the sea. This is the meaning of my vision. God will send no wave; He waits for us; we are the wave that shall arise to make the way clear for His feet; we are the wave that shall page 105destroy Koata and his Roman Catholics. Arise! Make an end of them, that God may forgive our blindness and be with us tonight.'

A great number fled from the camp in instant horror, but several hundreds stood convinced, and almost at once the Sheep and Swords, yelling, 'Kill them, kill them!' set forth from the chapel, Ten Naewa at their head the rest behind, their bodies contorted in an insane kind of dance towards the Government Station.

Men ran to warn Koata of their coming. He begged his friends to go at once and hide among the trees, but not one deserted the Station, and his wife defied him to budge her from the house. He did not argue, but pulled out his best sleeping-mat and spread it on the floor. She knew what that meant; she was to bury his dead body in it. She said, 'Sir, it will be big enough for both of us,' and sat down beside it: He answered (she told me afterwards), 'Woman, it is well,' embraced her and went out.

He stood alone on the edge of the Government Station awaiting the mob. He had put on his navy-blue lava-lava, his white uniform coat and his belt of office with the bright silver crown. He was not a big man; he must have looked very small, standing there alone in the twilight under the tall palms; but there was something about him that gave pause to that mad procession. It halted and fell silent. He walked forward to Ten Naewa, saying, 'Sir, if it is myself thou seekest, here I am.'

The quietude of it seems to have shamed Ten Naewa. He looked down and gave no answer. Koata spoke again: 'Enough. Turn back now. Too much evil has already been done. Let the people return to their villages.'

That started a talk. Ten Naewa began to bargain for a general amnesty for all who had terrorized the villages. But Koata could not promise that; he could only guarantee a fair trial for anyone charged with an offence; the law could not be traded away for his own safety. His firmness, and the sight of their own leader actually pleading with him at last, enraged the crowd anew: 'Kill him, kill him!' they shouted. A dozen Swords of Gabriel leapt forward; Koata was struck down.

It was a terrible head wound, which held him near death for many days, but it did not kill him. He would not have been left page 106alive but for a sudden decency of Ten Naewa's. Perhaps something in his quiet talk had opened a gate of remorse in the Prophet's heart, for, when Swords and Sheep surged in to trample the prone body, their erstwhile leader straddled it and fought them off. They swept on impatiently to the back of the Government Station. He followed in their wake. They had beaten and wounded everyone before he caught up with them, but his new fury prevented them from murder. They scattered into the villages where he could not follow. A hunt for Roman Catholics ensued. Two unfortunates were caught and killed with crowbars and broken bottles. Most of their co-religionists fled at once in canoes, forty miles overseas to the island of Tabiteuea. An edict went out from the Swords of Gabriel that night: if, by noon of the next day but one, the few who remained had not presented themselves at the chapel for conversion to the creed of Ten Naewa, they would be slaughtered. Ten Naewa had no hand in that, but he had created a monster beyond his powers of control.

Guards were set around the Government Station to see that none escaped. It was an idle precaution. Some of the loyal party were, indeed, strong enough to have slipped away before dawn, but they had decided to stand by Koata and the other wounded to the end. It was the real spirit of Onotoa's ancestors that spoke through those few mouths: 'Ti a tia n teirake, ni mate (We have stood up to die)' was the way they summed it up. The old idiom meant that they had reckoned every chance of death from the beginning, and would not be running away from it now.

'And behold! the day dawned,' said one of them afterwards, 'and it was a day of life.' The Gilbertese tell their tales, whether in court or in private, with a fine sense of drama, and they expect their listeners to play up. A climax is a thing to be savoured. You must drag it out of them.

'How then, Aberamo? A day of life?'

'A day of life. Those others were waiting to kill us on the morrow, yet we died not. No, for death was prevented that day.'

'Prevented, Aberamo?'

'Ay, Sir … prevented by the ship.'

'Aberamo! … The ship?'

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'Ay, truly. The ship.'

A long silence. The listeners are artists too. A deep sigh greets his finish, 'The ship of the London Mission – even the Tom Wiriami.'

In more prosaic words, the John Williams arrived, with a District Officer and the local heads of the London Missionary Society aboard, on that one small day of grace decreed by the Swords of Gabriel.

Though most of the people had deserted the camp overnight on hearing of the murders, a good many still remained, and some of these tried to bluff things through with the white representative of the Mission's local Board. One of their moves was to produce before him a Sheep of Ten Naewa's fold, who was alleged to have fallen into a trance at hearing the Prophet speak. Nothing could wake her, they said. The Missionary's reaction made island history. He was surrounded by fanatics of incalculable temper, to whom the prestige of the Men of Matang meant nothing but a hateful pagan memory. But he did not hesitate.

He looked at the Sheep for a while and then advised gravely, 'This woman is very sick. Nevertheless, I think I can cure her. Go quickly and bring me a bucket of water.'

They raced each other to get it. He took the bucket. 'Yes,' he murmured, 'water's the stuff; the colder, the better,' and emptied the lot over the Sheep. She came out of her trance with a yell, and fled. 'Hysteria,' he finished quietly, 'that's what we call it. Now I've shown you how, go do the same yourselves to anyone else who falls into these trances.'

It was touch and go for him in that moment, I fancy. Had he laughed, anything might have happened to him; had he even allowed the incident to prolong itself in words, their madness might well have worked itself up anew; but he did neither. 'Now, let's get down to business,' he said matter of factly, and held their minds firmly switched to other lines. It was beautifully done. His courage and deftness of touch throughout that day broke the last of the madness before nightfall.

There was a commission of inquiry, and sad things remained to be done when the leaders came to trial. The murderers of the page 108two Roman Catholics were never traced; it is doubtful if anybody except the actual killers ever knew who was guilty – their chiefs among the Swords of Gabriel were certainly not present in the same district that night. But some long sentences for riot, wounding and attempted murder had to be inflicted. A magistrate feels a heavy sense of futility in dealing with such cases. The individual's guilt is so often only the symptom of a disease spread by others; the disseminators themselves so often escape scot-free, through the ignorance or dogged loyalty of their dupes. Most of the teachers escaped serious punishment. The only people I was glad to see put away were Ten Naewa and the evil women called 'Christ-the-Sufferer' and 'Christ-the-Forgiver'. Ten Naewa might have got as much as fourteen years but for witnesses who testified to how, in the end, he had defended Koata from the rioters. The prisoner's friend who brought these witnesses forward to help him was the father of his island, Koata himself.