Solomon

 

 

 The Malaita Massacre

Linggatu, Russell Islands, Solomon Islands Photo


 

 

 

 

In the Solomon Islands as throughout Melanesia beliefs about origins, not only of men but also of animals, plants, and social customs are frequently linked with certain archetypal themes, one of which is the myth of the ogre-killing child born to an abandoned woman.

Over many thousands of years successive waves of predominantly Oceanic negroids and later Austranesians (a Caucasoid and Mongoloid mixture moved out of South-east Asia into New Guinea and the chain of Melanesian archipelago which stretch south to New Caledonia and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and east to Fiji). Each new group of immigrants either mixed with their predecessors to form hybrid groups or push into the less hospitable regions of mountain, swamp and jungle. The pattern of settlement was one of independent developers of innumerable small communities in relative isolation - a process that was constantly modified by external pressure such as minor migration, warfare, trade and intertribal social gatherings.

It is these factors that ensured the continuous diffusion of all sorts of cultural elements including myths. The manner in which certain stock incidents, elements and themes of myths became linked in a kaleidoscopic variety of combinations tempts speculation about the cultural layers they belong to and draws attention to the complexity of the area's cultural history. It is this diffusion that manifests itself in the continuing process that has produced the rich profusion of cultural patterns that characterise Melanesia today.

In the Solomon Islands as throughout Melanesia beliefs about origins, not only of men but also of animals, plants, and social customs are frequently linked with certain archetypal themes, one of which is the myth of the ogre-killing child born to an abandoned woman. Other related themes concern abandoned women who mate with animals or birds or abandoned children who are suckled by animals or birds. Very often one of two hostile brothers or one of a band of brothers is regarded as a creator. Then there are the myths about a snake relative who is killed and from whose body comes various forms.


Several districts of New Ireland have stories about snakes as food producers and makers of totems and clans. One of these stories come from the district of Medina and is about Marruni the earthquake, who had a human body that ended in snake's tail which he kept hidden from his wives. One day they returned from the garden early without giving the warning signal and discovered him sunning himself. He sent them away and cut his tail into segments. He gave a clan name to some pieces and from each of these came the people of that clan. From others came birds, snakes, fish and pigs. Marruni is said to have come from the tiny offshore island of Tabar, which seemed to have been the home of the germinal culture of the area, and to have brought the malanggin or memorial rights for the dead with him from there.

Everywhere in San Cristobal there were stories about serpent figonas who were thought to be creators. Hatuibwari of the Arosi district was a winged serpent with a human head, four eyes and four breasts and he suckled all he created. The greatest of all these figona was Agunua who was thought to embrace all the others who were merely his representatives or incarnations. He made all kinds of vegetables and fruits but his brother burnt some of these in the oven, making them forever inedible. He made a male child who was helpless at caring for himself so he created a woman to make fire, cook and weed the gardens. The first drinking coconut from the tree was sacred to him.


The theme of the ogre killing child is also common in the Solomon Islands. The monstrous creature who devours people has many different shapes. He may be an ogre or a giant in human or spirit form, or an animal like a crocodile. Almost always, the overkillers are twins, although occasionally the hero himself is a bird like a cockatoo. The method used to kill the ogre are various. In a story from New Ireland, there was a great devouring pig who caused the villagers to flee to the offshore island of Tabar, leaving Tsenabonpil behind because she had a swollen leg, so heavy it would have sunk the canoe. She mated with a bird and produced twin boys who killed the pig. The woman sent the pig's hair attached to a coconut leaf to Tabar as a sign. The fugitives returned and Tsenabonpil allocated them to different clans and assigned them their totems so that they would know how to behave towards one another. She also taught them magic and other skills.


In some parts of Melanesia, particularly the southern and central Solomon Islands, there is a belief in dual souls, one of which goes to an after-world usually situated either on an island or underground while the other takes various forms. In parts of the Solomon Islands it passes into sharks, fish, birds, animals, men, stones and trees and as a person ages, his companions watch for a creature that buy its persistent association with him reveals itself as his future incarnation. Sometimes, the head of a man is placed in a hollow wooden shark and floated in the sea. Then the soul passes into the first sea creature that approaches it.

 

The Solomon Islands Group were probably discovered about 5,000 years ago. The first Europeans to visit the Islands were the Spanish with Alvaro de Mendana naming them the Solomons. He also named the Islands of Santa Isabel, Guadalcanal and San Cristobal.

The Solomon Islands Group has an abundance of golden beaches fringed with palm trees, translucent blue waters, spectacular coral reefs and colourful marine life. The Solomons are located south east of Papua New Guinea and only three hours by air from Australia.

The islands are covered in tropical rainforest and their steep hilly slopes are interspersed with swift flowing creeks, waterfalls and peaceful lagoons. The people of the Solomons still practise a traditional way of life, preferring to respect the old customs and traditions, maintaining and preserving their beautiful unspoiled environment.

CAPITALS AND MAJOR CENTRES


The Solomon Islands are made up of more than 990 islands, which together cover a land mass of 28,000 square kilometres. The main islands are Choiseul, Guadalcanal, Santa Isabel, San Cristobal, Malaita and New Georgia.
Volcanoes with varying degrees of activity are situated on some of the larger islands, while many of the smaller islands are simply tiny atolls covered in sand and palm trees.


HONIARA


Honiara, the Capital was born out of war's necessities. Its oldest architectural style, still to be observed in one or two less obvious corners of its bustling environs is the World War II military hut with its distinctive semi-circular roof. Honiara takes its name from the native description of its site: "Naho ni ara", meaning "facing the east and south-east wind", and not even a native village preceded it in its location.

Honiara is centred on Point Cruz, which Alvaro de Mendana named when he landed there more than 4 centuries ago. He also named Guadalcanal, the island on which it is located for a town in Spain, and many of the other geographical features of the Group, which probably takes its own name from his reports of its riches.
Situated on Guadalcanal, the capital Honiara has a population of more than 30,000 and is located on a coastal stretch overlooking Iron Bottom Sound. One of the most spectacular waterfalls in the South Pacific is Matanikau Falls, a two hour walk from Honiara. It has many large pools for swimming and an impressive stalagmite-covered cave which is home to a vast number of swallows.

Visitors can also climb Mount Austin, passing Solomon Peace Memorial Park with its sweeping view of the Northern Coastal Plains. Other historical sites include the Red Beach on the Coastal Plain, and the Henderson Tower.

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     The Malaita Massacre


The story of the Malaita Massacre is told in the book: Lightning Meets the West Wind by Roger M. Keesing and Peter Corris. The following extract is from Chapters 3, 4, 5 & 6 of this enthralling book and gives the background of life in the Solomon Islands in the 1920s.
3. Whisky, Quinine and Coconuts

By the 1920s, there were about 650 aliens, white and Asian, scattered throughout the Solomons. They fell into four broad categories - each with its own outlook and interests, each often in conflict with the others. The first was the governmental hierarchy of the Protectorate; District Officers, Customs and Post Office clerks, Police and Labour Commissioners, Medical staff; and the rest of a cast of bureaucratic characters replicated in outposts of Empire around the tropical world. At the head was a Resident Commissioner, based in he tiny island capital of Tulagi, and answering to the High Commissioner of the Western Pacific in Fiji. these government officials numbered only about forty.

A larger category, about one hundred strong, were the missionaries: Anglicans, S.S.E.M., Methodists, Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists. They were internally divided on lines of denomination, though some accord in territoriality was reached among the Protestants; and distinguished on lines of class background, national origin and commitment to life-long or short-term service in the Solomon's. But despite their conflicts, all sought a strong though just hand of government protection and looked askance at thee worldly vices of white adventurers and ne'er-do-wells.

At odds with the missions at times, and the government more or less continually, was the commercial sector - the individual planters recruiters and traders, often long-settled, with local roots and island wives and the representatives of the large companies - Burns Philp, Levers, W.R. Carpenter - that dominated the commercial economy. these men of commerce thus ranged in financial status from well-salaried plantation mangers through to independent planters of some means, down to men who were virtually beachcombers - dwellers in leaf huts, owners of tiny cutters which battled about a small island circuit trading on a shoestring. A sub-group were the labour recruiters, successors of the early 'Blackbirders', who earned their living taking their schooners into the island 'passages' and bargaining and cajoling to sign on recruits for plantations. The 'European' (the genetic colonialist term for white expatriates; commercial community was increasingly composed of Australians, preponderantly Queenslanders; rough and ready, typically hard-drinking, hard-swearing, violent and contemptuously racist toward the Solomon Islanders. The conflicts between the 'commercials' and the administration in the Solomons, deeply rooted economically, have been underlain throughout this century by the mutual antipathy between these Australians and the British - seeing each another on the one hand as effete, pseudo-gentlemanly 'Poms', preoccupied with games of status, and on the other as uncultured colonial barbarians.

The fourth category of aliens in the Solomons, the Asians, were mainly Chinese shopkeepers and tradesmen. Even though some of the Chinese families became relatively prosperous, the Chinese were excluded with racist scorn from the colonial world of Europeans. All of these expatriates were, it seems, victims of myths. The 'commercials' pursued dreams of the inexhaustible productivity of tropical islands, inhabited by natives whose obvious role in the scheme of things was a labourers for white people; the government officers followed the lure, enshrined in a hundred books, of ruling romantic, tropical outposts, and sought to enact pretensions of higher social status than they enjoyed at home; and the missionaries sought the grace to be earned from bringing fallen beings to God. The Chinese, concentrated in Tulagi's Chinatown, left no known documents of the time, but they, too, must have been led on by myths of a prosperity that might have been possible decades earlier in the Australian gold tons but evaporate for most in the closure and isolation of the Solomons. By the 1920s, mission work had achieved only limited success at great cost, the planters were mainly in debt to the commercial giants, and the administrators' romanticism had been eroded by the harsh realities of apathy, drink and isolation.

Administrators, planters and missionaries, whatever their conflicts, were united as a small band of whites in a hostile and dangerous periphery of Empire. They travelled on each other's boats and recommended servants to each other. Isolated at district station, plantation and mission centre, they were frequently grateful for each other's company however much their interests and personalities diverged. The social life of the pre-Depression Solomons reflected this spirit. Cricket matches were held between 'government' and 'commercial' teams, and even race meetings brought the scattered European community temporarily together. At Tulagi, Elkington's hotel did a good trade all year round from the official and private visitors to the Protectorate Headquarters, and had overflow crowds at six-weekly intervals when the Burns Philp steamer arrived from Australia. 'Old hands' recall Tulagi harbour being crowded with shipping-traders' boats, mission vessels, recruiting schooners, the Malaitan labour gangs' boats and human contact. At these times all accommodation in Tulagi was booked solid, and drink flowed freely in the Club, Elkington's bar, the steamer's smoking room and the 'Chinatown' grog shops.

Alcohol was - except among the missionaries - the universal solvent. Duty on beer, wine and spirits accounted for more than a sixth of the Protectorate's import tax revenue in the 1920s, and many a planter's anxiety about the price of copra was rivalled by his concern for the prompt arrival of his supply of White Horse. Drink, the essential social ingredient, was also a potent factor in the occasional quarrels and fights - between civilians and officers and each other - which set the society gossiping. Significantly, no white man drank or gambled with the islanders or Asians if he wished to continue to enjoy the privileges that went with a white skin.

The health of the European community in the Solomons was appalling. Almost all suffered from recurrent malarial fever that drained strength and left its sufferers vulnerable to other illnesses. The quinine that was the only available antimalarial was cumulatively debilitating, and sometimes pushed malaria into its lethal cerebral form and particularly into Blackwater fever, which took a frightening toll of European life in this 'tropical paradise'. The death rate among missionaries was high; and almost no year went by without deaths in the alcohol-sodden and malarial planter community and the ranks of government. Without antibiotics, whites were vulnerable to tropical ulcers, dysentery and other infectious diseases spread by flies and mosquitoes, where sanitary precautions could extend no further than the last European house. In the Solomons climate, so hot and humid that a house post will take roof and grow, bacteria and fungi thrive as if cultured in a laboratory; while Europeans physically maladapted to the tropics, their resistance weakened by malaria and anaemia, wilt and rot.

The apex of the colonial hierarchy in the Solomons was the Resident Commissioner, overlooking his miniature empire from a high hill on Tulagi. The first Commissioner, C.M. Woodford, was an able naturalist and scholar who at least knew the Solomnons and was committed to his task. But his assistant, F.J. Barnett, who took the active lead in administration from 1915 onwards, and most of his successors, lived in a world of colonialist fantasy, with little knowledge of, or commitment to, the realities of the Solomons. A concern with the niceties of status and protocol, the proprieties of despatches and the rituals of Empire, was more important than the pacification and administration of the still-uncontrolled island interiors.

The Resident Commissioner, responsible to the Governor of Fiji (in his capacity as High Commissioner for the Western Pacific), held virtually total power over his subordinates; he could send them touring, bring them to headquarters in Tulagi and transfer them from one post to another. There were channels of protest, particularly through the High Commissioner; but the ultimate authority, the officialdom of the Colonial Office in London, usually chose to interpret protest in disaffection and to support all actions of the Resident short of outright lunacy. Isolation, the climate and the constant threat of illness in one of the most unhealthy places in the world broke the physical and mental strength of more than a few government officers, no decade down to the present has been without its 'case'.
After the First World War (and hence in the decade before and the years just after the Gwee'able massacre) the Solomons administration was flooded with retired military officers - Captain this and Major that - who brought with them their fading military titles and decorations and their residual fantasies about batmen, regimental silver and parades. As an anthropologist who visited the Tulagi of the 1920s as a research student recalls it,

It was all very, very pukka. Everybody went around in starched whites, all wearing ties, mostly wearing jackets. If one went to call on the Resident Commissioner, and one had neglected to bring a tie or a jacket, the Government Secretary ... had both of these ready so that one could slip these on before seeing His Honour.
Even though government of the Solomons was directed mainly to the European community, Parkinson's law and the rituals of Empire had produced a rather clumsy administrative hierarchy. It was a Gilbert and Sullivan world in miniature, a world of caricature colonialists, of whisky, quinine and coconuts. In those spheres where Solomon Islanders were energetically 'administered' - the courts in coastal areas, the periodic inspection of plantations to maintain labour conditions, the mission enclaves - the British administration was legalistic, often to a ludicrous degree. An assassin in a blood feud, whose homicide was culturally legitimate and even a duty, would find himself before a bewigged and unintelligible magistrate, then imprisoned in Tulagi for weeks or months while his crime of breaking an aliens law he had never heard or was reviewed in Fiji, then led to the gallows.

The particular fantasies that pervaded the miniature island world of Tulagi came and went with the changing personnel at the top echelons of government, but they were all of a piece. Old-timers remember the Secretary of Government in the late 1920s, and ex-Wimbledon tennis player whose particular dedication was to courts rolled six times a day by detachments of prisoners. The Commandant of Police had a special passion for golf, and kept special watch over the grooming of the fairways from his office on the hill. That the rulers of Tulagi were seldom genuine products of the upper class made their pretensions to the niceties of status, on this far edge of Empire all the more strident.

This curious colonial world was administered - rhetoric about the white man's burden notwithstanding - for profit. And that meant a supply of cheap, if not willing, labour. Brown bodies were made to swear in the tropics; it was for whites to drink, swear and supervise.
The mountains of Malaita had provided a steady and substantial stream of indentured labour for the sugar fields of Queensland and Fiji. But as the internal plantation buildings of the Solomons expanded, and as sophisticated bushmen and coastal middlemen drove harder and harder recruiting bargains, the supply of labour dwindled. A 1919 observer has left a revealing description of the recruiting scene:

A long address on the beauties of plantation life and the wealth to be acquired thereby fails to raise any violent enthusiasm on shore, although a liberal display of trade goods causes many an envious glance, and we notice black paws involuntarily tightening their grip on spear and killer (club) ... After much patient argument ... an axe and a case of tobacco, calico, beads, and other goods is offered as compensation to the sorrowing relatives of anyone wishing to accompany us on board ...
This growing pressure for more plantation labour was an important theme in the Solomons in the years that most concern us here, from 1910 until the world fell into an ice age of Depression.

The planters, at least in their rhetoric and fantasy, saw the Solomons as an agricultural goldmine whose riches lay beyond their reach because the strong brown bodies they needed were in such short supply. One of the leading planter spokesmen of the time, now a retired octogenarian, reflected back on those days:
We could grow anything ... in the Solomons ... and ... most of us tried our hand at growing different tropical products - rubber, para-rubber, vanilla, sisal, cocoa ... practically anything. We could grow the bloody lot. But ... we had a chronic cancer, and that was ... labour. We never had all the labour we wanted, we were always short of labour. And as copra is the least labour intensive of all the tropical products, that was why we were forced back willy-nilly into copra production.

The Solomons planters pressed the government for changes that would force or entice more Malaitans into plantation labour: a native head-tax would force Solomon Islanders to work for cash, reduction in recruiting licence fees, longer periods of indenture, permission for recruiters to trade. The Planter's Gazette, published in the 1920s, was an amazingly slick propaganda instrument; and strings were being pulled as well from the direction of the Sydney Stock Exchange. The ice of the planter community was often aimed at the extravagant posturing of the British in tiny Tulagi and Fiji. The often rather effete gentlemen who filled the higher rungs of government were an easy target, especially where the planters' income provided the revenue for the trappings of status and Empire. When the Fiji-based High Commissioner's elegant ship, heavily financed by Solomons tax money, came to Tulagi to take the Resident Commissioner on tour, Planter's Gazette commented: "The White Elephant Pioneer ... arrived and gave R. C. Kane a fifteen-gun salute. Chinatown was prodigiously impressed'. (The Planter's Gagette was equally cynical about the humanitarian sentiments expressed by Tulagi officialdom: '(Administration) officials invariably fall back on the pre-historic and exploded shibboleth that they are here to look after the interests of the natives'.)

Levers, the largest commercial interest in the Solomons, and a worldwide political and economic force, sought a global solution: the importation of Asian labour. They pushed first for Javanese, then Indians, and eventually for Chinese. Spokesmen for Levers, regarding India as the Empire's natural labour pool, as did many colonial capitalists, sent a barrage of letters to London on the subject. They made continual reference to the systems of Fiji, Kenya and British Guiana and to the declining population of the Solomons. H.E. Meek, Levers' Australian manager, went to India to investigate the possibilities of Indian migration, elaborate schemes were drawn up designed to ensure the highest standards of treatment. Levers continued to press the question long after it had become clear that the Indian government would no longer permit the emigration of the sub-continent's people as servile labour. By 1923 Levers were requesting permission to import two or three hundred Chinese, this time pointing to the examples of Nauru, Samoa and Ocean Island. By the end of the decade the Company, in desperation, began investigating the possibility of importing labourers from Mauritius. The argument was couched in terms of the decline of the Solomonese 'race' and crude pseudo-genetics:

We do not think there is any doubt but that the Solomon Islanders as a race will eventually become extinct, and we believe it would be vastly to his own benefit, and tend towards perpetuating the breed, if it becomes associated and intermingled with another race. A breed dies through the absence of a fresh strain, and it is more than likely that this aspect has been overlooked.

The local planters had a limited view of the vast worldwide economic system which controlled their destiny, and which was beginning to crack long before the great Depression. They saw the cyclical drops in prosperity in local terms: Development of the land has practically ceased, estates are reverting to jungle for lack of labour to keep them clean, copra is rotting on the ground because it cannot be harvested, and depression stalks the land.

And they saw in the periodic rises in copra prices the hope of continuous prosperity, and hence saw local and piecemeal measures as solutions to worldwide problems. The early history of the colonial Solomons was one of small men with myopic vision. The whites in the Solomons were totally dependent on Solomon Islanders black men carried every bag, built every house, crewed every boat, cooked every domestic meal. Every European was surrounded by Melanesian servants and labourers. (Jonathan Fifi'i, a Kwaio leader who has served as a cook in pre-war Tulagi and worked for years around government stations, reacted with surprise and wonder when he went to California in the 1960s: he had never seen white men work.)

Europeans treated their labourers and servants with a mixture of racist contempt and paternalism, depending on their temperaments, backgrounds and circumstances. Brutal treatment of islanders by planters was common and is clearly remembered by old ex-plantation workers today. However this usually stopped short of killing or maiming: an assault which resulted in an islander being seriously injured or killed was likely to come to the notice of the District Officer or the Inspector of Labour and to bring a punishment (usually a fine, but possibly expulsion from the Protectorate). More usually, ill-treatment would be of the kind reportedly entered in the diary of San Cristobal planter: 'Belted that black swine Tohoni today. Bread a failure - when will that bloody animal learn to cook!'

More common than brutally were indifference and extreme paternalism. Few published accounts of life in the islands in the early decades of this century are innocent of episodes which describe the behaviour of a loyal servant - house boy, mission teacher, boss-boy or police constable. The astonishment expressed at the loyalty and capability of the servant concerned proceeded from the widely held, ethnocentric attitude that islanders, of whatever age, were somehow infantile. The use of the term 'boy' is an indication of this of course, but the point is made quite explicit by such people as S.G.C. Knibbs, government surveyor in the Solomons in the 1920s: 'In the child the native discovers one of his own mentality, for he, Peter Panlike, never really grows up, but remains mentally young throughout his life. A young plantation manager came to the same conclusion about his Malaitan labourers. 'My first impression of them was as big brown children, and this I finally decided was as near to the truth of their essential difference as one could ever get'.

This view of the islanders was not confined to technicians and planters; one District Officer wrote of the prisoners in his gaol who had been set to work at an extensive concreting job (no gentle task in the climate of the Solomons) that ... Solomon Islanders love to play; with them almost anything, even the hardest work, can be turned into a riotous game'. The view led logically to Knibbs' pronoucement that 'Kindness, yet firmness, is necessary in dealing with one's servants'. The missionaries even the more sophisticated ones, were paternalistic toward the wild heathen savages they sought to turn into tame Christian children:

These multitudes of little brown folk ... are like the wild creatures of the woodland. They are naked, easily deceived, easily frightened, dangerous when startled, full of suspicion ... (The 'bush man's') mind works slowly on a very limited stock of material ... The idea of a personal responsibility is a slow growth in primitive minds ... The bush man is a very simple and ignorant fellow. He moves and lives tribally. Like a flock of sheep he is easily bewildered and soon panic-stricken ... He is very subservient to authority and changes quickly en masse from wildness to mildness or from mildness to wildness ... The bush woman is even simpler and more ignorant than the man. She is as near a wild animal as a human being can be ... They are very simple, ignorant folk, but not, if given a fair, unhurried opportunity, at all incapable of mental and moral growth.

The racist assumptions of planters, missionaries and officials need no documentation. They preferred light skins to dark, facial features which approximated to the European; and when Melanesians displayed intelligence and imagination, these qualities they often attributed to a supposed admixture of European (or Polynesian) blood. However there also seems to have been a sexual dimension to these man-master, adult-child relationships. More than one missionary left the field as a result of his inability to control homosexual feelings, similar circumstances lay behind some incidents of ill-treatment of labourers by overseers or planters. The writings of men who spent time in the Solomons in the 1920s suggest this sexual response of white men to black:

Tikko was the best looking boy on the plantation so one expected something better of him. He had a smooth, even, lithe body of a light brown colouring, a well-kept mass of black, fuzzy hair, fine white-teeth, straight black brows and brown eyes that shone and glowed softly as he spoke to me. It was 'Malatamen' who constituted the bulk - some 79 per cent - of the labour force, not only on plantations but as stevedores, domestic servants, boat crews and the rest. 'Melaitamen' worked while Europeans watched; and they inevitably outnumbered the whites a dozen or a hundred to one. It is not surprising that Europeans, surrounded by men whose treachery and violence had been legend for decades, and totally dependent on them, created elaborate stereotypes, exchanged tales and focused their wits and resources on keeping the Malaitans at bay and 'in their place'. The Malaitans, proud, contemptuous of European weakness and totally fearless, in turn worked out strategies for manipulating, enraging and - if they could - destroying those overseers they did not respect. They goaded white plantation overseers, provoked them into rage and violence, then retaliated - once a European had been pushed beyond the bounds of violence permitted by law - with bloody beatings, or worse. The Malaitans needed the steel tools, trade goods, and illicit guns and ammunition money could provide, but though exploited in real terms, they exacted a hard price. So, too, did their senior kin at home, who levied larger and larger 'beach payments' as reward for indenturing their sons and younger brothers.

Small wonder that the 'Malaitaman' became a stereotype savage in the European mythology of the Solomons. It was this imagined savage who was to be the antagonist after the 1927 massacre.

The lurid reflections of a popular writer in 1942 summarize the stereotype:
The head-hunters of Malaita ... were known all over the world as the most bloodthirsty of all ... (expressing) all that is cruel to the human temperament ... the head-hunter applied the cunning of a fox and the ferocity of a wild beast. (Malaitans did not take heads, although the peoples of the Western Solomons did ...)

Or, from another popular writer: 'It is the Malaita man of whom one thinks, when that part of the world is mentioned. The untamed, hating, smouldering savage ...'

Here, too, sexual fantasies entered. In the adventure novels that emanated from Sydney and London in the early decades of the century, the ultimately desperate situation was for the white heroine to fall into the clutches of Malaitamen. Thus Beatrice Grimshaw's convent-bred heroine in My South Sea Sweetheart, hiding in a rifle case under a bed on a remote plantation as Malaita plantation workers ransack the house, pondered her plight:

I recalled their blubber lips and flattened noses, hung like the snouts of pigs with heavy rings... And I was alone on an island with them, and they were on the loose!... There's only one thing I have that they haven't,... and that is the white man's brain. It has got to get me out of this, somehow or other.
By the 1920s, European settlers in the Solomons lived enmeshed in contradiction. They tried to sustain the myth of tropical prosperity, of islands where food and profits grew on trees.

The soul and climate of the Solomon Islands are admirably suited for the growth of every kind of tropical production... Coconuts grew there faster, and more luxuriantly, than in any other part of the world. Hurricanes are unknown. Here is a rich, fertile country, with nearly every natural advantage... ample rainfall, splendid deep-water harbours, much valuable timber, large areas for cattle grazing, many sea products,... wonderful productive powers... in fact, a country that would pour a tide of riches into the eager markets of the world.

Yet the physical drains of disease and drink, and the economic drains that left planters perennially in debt, made this myth of prosperity an increasingly bitter and frustrating irony. Another contradiction that loomed large was the complete dependence of the white settlers for their personal comfort and the success of their ventures on members of a race they disparaged. The supreme irony lay in the paradox that their most reliable source of labour was an island then regarded as the wildest place in the British Empire.

4. Malaita

Malaita's reputation for wild savagery and treacherous murder had grown over many decades before the British flag was precariously planted at a first government outpost in 1909. By that time a few mission enclaves had been established on the coast and on the lagoon islands. But the island on a whole was uncontrolled, subjected only to occasional and futile punitive shellings. The contempt felt by the Kwaio of the central mountains toward these peripheral and fumbling challenges to their sovereignty was shared by their cultural cousins to the north-west and south-east.

When the government did establish an administrative post on the north central coast, maximally accessible to Tulagi, the first steps were predictably colonists: erection of a suitably elevated house for the District Officer and the necessary amenities of administration, notably police barracks and gaol. A parade ground for police formation was cleared with a tennis court soon to follow.

The government post was built as Rarasuk on the slopes above a sheltered harbour, across from a 'saltwater village on a tiny islet. The administration eventually adopted the name of the islet, 'Aoke, for the post. 'but the Europeans in the Solomons have been as inept at spelling the local languages as at learning them: until this day the government station remains misspelt as 'Auki', as well as misnamed.

For the first three years, the Auki station was under the command of a young Englishmen, T. E. Edge-Partington, with scholarly aspirations as ethnologist and an initial enthusiasm to begin imposing the Pax Britannica on this wild island. But although he established friendly relations with the lagoon dwellers nearby, and uneasy detente with the Kwara'ae-speaking bush people who bartered with them at the market on the station grounds, much effort was spent securing the perimeter of the station against real and imagined threats. Sentries patrolled constantly to defend 'Auki' against raids, a situation that prevailed for a decade. The police available to Edge-Partington, some thirty to forty, under command of F. M. Campbell, were at first ill-equipped and ill-trained Western Solomon islanders, many of them raw recruits. Though they were supposed to have been 'stiffened' by the addition of recruits from Tana (the New Hebrides equivalent of Malaitans, stereotypically wild, tough cannibals but stout plantation workers) they remained an ineffectual force even when their firepower for exceeded that of the Malaita ramo. (By this time cartridges for the old 'Snider' rifles were being smuggled into Malaita by pious Anglican converts from nearby Gela Island, adjacent to Tulagi, and sold for as much as 3 pounds per cartridge; small wonder the ramo had a reputation for bad aim because they shot only at point-blank range...}

Edge-Partington knew that he could make an impact on the endemic blood feuding only by making swift punitive strikes against killers and their kin groups. When an Anglican missionary's cook was killed on the north-east coast, he sent a detachment of police around the island to arrest the murderers. The police were routed in disarray. Throughout 1911 Edge-Partington was engaged in a lively correspondence with his superior, F.J. Barnett, the Acting Resident Commissioner. The former urgently requested more and better-trained police, and repeating rifles, to stage effective strikes against known assassins who were raiding mission stations with impunity. The latter reprimanded Edge-Partington for inadequately documented investigation, and warned against heavy punitive measures. (Barnett lived in a world of gentlemanly fantasy about Malaita, and thought its strongmen could be encouraged by Christian example and scrupulous justice into giving up their wild ways).

Edge-Partington was scarcely more impressive. Displaying little of the keen insight into Malaitan social rules and lore which later distinguished. Bell from the ruck of District Officers, Edge-Partington regarded the market held at Auki between the bush and saltwater people as a 'nuisance' which littered the beach, and he resolved to end it. Although he criticized overseers who worked their labourers too hard, he offered no leniency to Malaitains who absconded from such 'drivers', preferring to sentence them to prison terms so that he could make use of them around the district station.

Officially rebuked for his punitive action, and frustrated by pious idiocy from above. Edge-Partington smouldered and went back to patrolling the perimeter and improving the tennis court. When the High Commissioner from Suva visited the Protectorate late in 1911, he observed that


'Received news from Dr. Deck of a murder, the usual weekly occurrence, at Darra. Let 'em all come', wrote Edge-Partington in the station journal in mid-1911. And after noting another murder, he added, 'Above information entered, but is I suppose useless, as usual being prohibited from doing our duty'. It was in this frustration that Edge-Partington responded to news at Daniels' murder by the Kwaio at Utu later that year: 'Boat returned from Tulagi with answer to official despatch re murder of Mr. Daniels. Prohibited from going ton punitive expedition by Acting R. C. Hope some more get murdered. Shall not budge'. Edge-Partington must have got only partial satisfaction when he was attached to the punitive expedition by HMS Torch at Uru, since the High Commissioner and Resident Commissioner presided over the raid and he was towed along behind the Torch as a strategic pawn.

Even if his superiors had reinforced his police and supported his punitive strikes, Edge-Partington would have faced a seemingly insurmountable task of pacification. Some 40,000 Malaitains, politically fragmented and fiercely independent, speaking a dozen languages and dialects, scattered through a hundred miles of rugged mountains, were more than two Europeans and a squad of ill-trained police with only a whale-boat for transport could have taken on lightly. The naval force on call from Fiji when the Resident Commissioner needed to protect or avenge the lives of Europeans was useless at an aid to pacification and ongoing administration. It was traditional blood feuding and the almost daily assassination of Malaita Christians that had to be stopped if Malaita was to be incorporated into Empire.
That the Malaitans were a free and sovereign people following their own customs in their own land was apparently never noticed, certainly never acknowledged.

wrote Sir Frederick May in 1911.

 

 

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