Solomon Islands

Living in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s felt somewhat like being an observer in one of Somerset Maugham’s short stories.

Many of the British Colonial officers from Maugham’s stories were recognisable 50 years after he wrote these stories. There appeared to be a pre-occupation with class, tradition and position among the long term serving officers and perhaps even more so among their wives, whose status varied according to their husband’s position. Most of them had been in the Colonial Service all their working lives, and appeared to be trying to create a life which they could never have aspired to in the UK.

I grew up in New Zealand. Going to the Solomon Islands was the first time I had left New Zealand, and I was totally unprepared for life in a British Protectorate.

The journey from Auckland to Honiara, in those days was an adventure in itself, especially for a first overseas trip. An overnight stay in Fiji was necessary. Descending from the plane in Nadi and experiencing for the first time breathing in warm humid air is still a vivid memory, as is the scent of frangipani.

The flight from Nadi to Honiara was long, with two stops. The first in Vila and the second in Santo in the (then) New Hebrides.

Stopover in Santo, Vanuatu

The view, on descent into Honiara, was spectacular. The sea was several shades of blue, startlingly white coral sand beaches, fringed with coconut palms. The palm trees merged with jungle and mountains beyond.

The requirement for flexibility was illustrated immediately on arrival. There was no house available in Honiara, and one would not be available for another three months. Luckily a house was available in Gizo, in the Western District. Oh, and also your temporary accommodation at the Mendana Hotel is not available. Lucky me – I get to stay in a motel (and that is a generous description). Hovel would have been a more accurate description. Mouldy bathroom (though I was to learn that mouldy bathrooms went with the territory), all manner of insects and no airconditioning.

Gizo is a small island, 11km long and 5km wide, about 380km north west of Honiara. It was the site of the second government station in the Protectorate, and was established in 1899. The main purpose for establishing the station was to control head hunting, which was rife in the area. On their way home from raids on nearby islands, the headhunters stopped at Gizo to wash and clean the skulls. Headhunting had mostly been suppressed by 1904.

The flight to Gizo was about 1.30 hours, in a small baron beechcraft plane – so small that passengers were weighed with their luggage to ensure weight limits were adhered to. Flying at a relatively low altitude made that 90 minutes among the more magical of my life, even now after many years of world travel. Islands with palm fringed beaches, lagoons of immense beauty and reefs turning the dark blue of the deeper parts of the sea to a myriad of shades of blue to almost white. Along the way a small underwater volcano was erupting, which would ultimately result in the creation of a new island. The pilot made a couple of circuits to enable passengers to get a good view of the steam and bubbles created by the eruption. The outline of the top of the volcano was visible under the water.

One of many small islands

Gizo did not have its own airstrip at that time. It was necessary to land at the old war time airstrip at Barakoma on the island of Vella Lavella, north west of Gizo. The journey to Gizo was completed by a 90 minute boat trip. Alighting from the aircraft with nothing in sight other than the airstrip surrounded by palm trees, with the sea to the north, was a surreal experience. The silence when the aircraft engines stopped was deafening. There was absolutely nothing there. Finally a mini moke appeared out of the jungle. The transport to the wharf.

Gizo was a bit of a shock, to say the least. The waterfront area was dismal. There was little sign of life. The main street was dusty and forlorn looking, lined with a few Chinese merchants shops all closed. It was hot – very hot.

Outside Chinese Merchant’s shop, Gizo main street – 1969

First impressions are often not best impressions. I had arrived at the hottest time of day, when people are not out and about. Although it wasn’t called a siesta, in fact that is what it was.

Later that day I was taken to the recently opened Commonwealth Bank of Australia to meet the manager, and change some money. The manager gave me a tour of the bank, including a small wharf beside the bank building. The wharf was lined with cages containing crocodiles. I shall never forgive that manager. He told me that the crocodiles were the bank’s security – they were released into the bank at night. I believed him.

My house was on a ridge behind the Gizo township. The views south, across a lagoon to a reef, and beyond was spectacular.

Gizo ended up being a lot of fun, and a gentle introduction to the absurdities of British Colonial life. There were very few Europeans – the bank manager from Australia, a school teacher and surveyor from New Zealand, missionaries and a few lands department ex Africa British Colonial people. There was, of course, the British District Commissioner. A very pompous chap, and his wife, who considered Australians and New Zealander’s did not know how to dress or behave appropriately. What a trial for her to have to be among people whom one would not naturally mix with “at home”. Her racist attitude to Solomon Islanders was pompous and paternalistic.

She might have been correct in some respects about Australian and New Zealander’s ignorance of the social mores of a dying Empire. We were a somewhat irreverent bunch. The pomp and ceremony of the dying days of the Empire were an occasion for great mirth. ANZAC day was not acknowledged in a Protectorate. This needed to be remedied. Every morning a Solomon Island police officer, folded British flag under his arm, would march from the police station to the flagpole, and with some ceremony raise the flag. Each evening, the reverse occurred.

On 24th April, after the British flag had been lowered and marched back to headquarters, the irreverent ones raised an Australian flag on the flagpole. Early next morning we are all out to observe the ceremony. Policeman marches up to flagpole. Rope not in correct position. He was most confused. It took a while to remedy this rank insubordination, but ultimately the Australian flag was lowered and the British flag reigned triumphant.

Hell hath no fury than a Colonial power feeling insulted. The bank manager and the school teacher were recalled to Honiara, for a dressing down from their superiors.

Flexibility was also required when it came to food shopping. I arrived “between boats” – every four or five weeks a boat bearing food from Australia arrived in Gizo. Thank goodness for the local markets, with an abundance of local fruit and vegetables and fish. The Chinese Trader’s stores stocked staples, such as flour and sugar. There was also a huge variety of canned food. The only thing I found difficult to deal with was canned butter and milk.

There was no school for ex pat children. My children were hastily enrolled with the New Zealand correspondence school. Their inept mother was the supervisor. The materials arrived. For mathematics, there were cuisenaire rods – mathematical learning aids. Interactive, and a hands on way to explore mathematics and learn mathematical concepts. I had not the slightest idea of what do do, even though I am sure the instructions were perfectly adequate. Three months building houses with cuisenaire rods should surely not matter.

So, what did one do when not working. For socialising, there was, as described in Somerset Maugham’s stories, a jolly little club. The Gizo hotel had just opened.

There were wonderful boating and snorkelling experiences to be had, although I found snorkelling somewhat stressful. There were coral snakes (if you get bitten you will die), and stone fish (wear sandshoes in case you stand on one. If you do you may die, but you will almost certainly suffer excruciating pain). Don’t stand on a sea slug, (you will not die, but the sea slug will empty its insides out all over your foot.)

A day trip to Kasola Island – called Kennedy Island due to John F Kennedy’s boat being sunk nearby during World War II – with a picnic lunch on a beach, and snorkelling was always a great day out. I did see a coral snake just off Kennedy Island. It was directly below me. I willed myself not to panic, glided over it and made straight for the beach. No more snorkelling for me that day.

On Kennedy Island

The local priest, Father Meese was an interesting man. He was quite a businessman. He acted as agent for various commercial companies, such as Solomon Islands Airways, and had a sheaf of business cards for each of the organisations he represented. He was frequently seen driving his mini moke overloaded with local children around Gizo.

I decided to attend Mass one Sunday. Solomon Islanders were sitting on one side of the Church and Gilbertese people on the other. Where should I sit? I decided to sit at the back, and change sides during the service.

The sermon was delivered in pidgin english. The topic was from Leviticus on revenge – “fracture for fracture eye for eye and tooth for tooth”. Listening to the familiar words in pidgin english was a delight. I wish I could remember the pidgin words. I reflected that this phrase must have been spoken in so many languages, starting from ancient Mesopotamia where it was part of Hammurabi’s Code, before the bible was written.

The time came for my return to Honiara. Back to civilization, in a manner of speaking. Woodford School relieved me of my pathetic attempt at educating my children. Mendana Avenue, the main street was then lined with beautiful ponciana trees. There were shops, including a bookshop. Joy. Chinatown was large, and the local markets very extensive.

The Solomon Islands are believed to have been settled around 2000BC. The first contact with Europeans came in 1568 when Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana visited the area, naming them Isle de Solomon. He was hoping for a King Solomon mineral riches experience, and there were rumours that he discovered the place where King Solomon obtained the gold for his temple in Jerusalem.

It was around 200 years before the area was visited again when in 1866 Britain and Germany divided the islands between them – British in the South, Germans in the north. The Germans ceded their rule to Britain in 1889. Tulagi was the administrative capital of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. The capital moved to Honiara after World War II.

The Colonial Office appointed Charles Woodford as the first District Commissioner in 1897. He justified policies favouring foreigners ahead of Solomon Islanders because “my opinion is that nothing…can prevent the eventual extinction of the Melanesian race” ( Islands – a brief history part 3-5). The British, on their invasion of Australia, appeared to do their best to ensure the original people suffered the same fate.

With this small amount of knowledge of the history, I commenced life in Honiara.

Honiara – Point Cruz in background.

I discovered that the Gizo District Commissioner’s wife was a pussy cat in the scheme of things. She and Mr Pompous were amateurs in the superiority game

There seemed to be a presumption of superiority over Solomon Island people, which manifested itself in racist attitudes, paternalism and the infantilising attitude towards Solomon Islanders – grown men and women being referred to as “boys” and “girls”.

I receive a formal invitation, in the mail, from my next door neighbour to a dinner party. I was to RSVP by mail. The invitation informed me that HE was arriving at 7.30pm. So – who might HE be, and why did it matter what time HE was arriving. Well, HE was the His Excellency, the High Commissioner, and one was expected to arrive before him. No wonder these minor functionaries became so self important.

Luckily a friend briefed me about the so called protocol at these dinners. After dinner the men would go to Africa, and the ladies would withdraw to the hostesses bedroom. Going to Africa meant the men were all going out to pee on the lawn. The women sat and stood around in the bedroom, waiting their turn to use the lavatory. There was a queue system. The head of the queue was the wife of the most senior man, and so on down the ranks. Nothing to do with need, or their own rank. As a feminist, it grated that women were happy to accept their status, according to their husband’s position.

Single women, no matter what their occupation was, were at the end of the queue.

Some slight satisfaction was to be gained from jumping the queue, thus proving that antipodeans really did not know how to behave in the appropriate manner.

There were a couple of “jolly little clubs” in Honiara. The Yacht Club and the Guadalcanal Club. There was also a golf club, with a nine hole course. The Guadalcanal Club had a swimming pool, tennis courts and a bowling green. Solomon Islanders, at that time, were not admitted to membership of these clubs. They were however employed by these establishments, to wait upon the members. Infantilising these men, certain members would click their fingers and call “boy, another G & T (or whatever).” The Solomon Islanders were not “boys”. They were mature men. Looking back, I am impressed at the self restraint the Solomon Island people exhibited.

An invitation to a dinner at Government House arrived in the mail. By this time, the Solomon Islands were heading towards independence and prominent local people were included on the guest list. I was seated next to a Solomon Island man who would go on to become the first Chief Minister and Prime Minister.

He had attended Te Aute College in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand (where incidentally my grandfather, Bill O’Neill had lectured students on the finer points of rugby union – (George Nepia, a former All Black in his autobiography “I George Nepia” – ‘but after a famous character of Hawkes Bay Rugby, Bill O’Neill, a leading referee had come out to the college and lectured us with blackboard illustrations, I began to get the drift.'”).

It was customary at the conclusion of these dinners for port to be served. The port bottle would start with the High Commissioner, who would pour his and the woman’s beside him. The bottle would then be handed to the next man. Women did not get to touch the bottle. I was so impressed when my Solomon Island companion poured his port, and handed the bottle to me to pour my own. YES.

Toward the end of my time in the Solomon Islands, it was announced that the Queen of England, her husband Phillip, Lord Louis Mountbatten, her daughter Anne and her then husband would be arriving on the Britannia to grace us with their presence.

I am a Republican, and I can only excuse my acceptance of the invitation to attend a reception on the Britannia as a lapse of my moral compass, and curiosity. I comfort myself with the fact that I refused to curtsey to the British Queen. The invitation stipulated the dress code as “casual island”. We were ferried out to the Britannia by boat. There is a receiving line. The British Queen, her husband, Mountbatten, Anne and her husband, all in formal frocks and tiaras for the ladies, and dinner jackets and medals for the men. Well, let us try to demoralise the guests in casual island dress shall we.

A loyal ADC is circulating. “Are you having a good time he enquires of me”. Whoever has a “good time” at a cocktail party, which this was, minus the cocktails. A warm gin and tonic with no ice is hardly inviting. I ducked the question, and said that it was an interesting experience. I asked him why the royal persons were in formal dress when the invitation stated casual island dress. “Oh, the natives expect them to be formal” was his response. The natives!

There was, of course, a lot more depth to living in Honiara than the social scene. The pompous ones were a minority overall, and most people were not characters from Somerset Maugham’s short stories.

Sporting activities included tennis, golf, lawn bowls, boating and fishing. There was a Honiara branch of the Hash House Harriers (a walking and running organisation), which my son, aged 10, enjoyed.

After a Hash House Harriers run in Honiara.
On a coral beach, north east from Honiara

Another popular activity was searching for World War 2 relics. The Japanese Imperial Army invaded the islands in World War 2 in 1942, and some of the bloodiest battles, including the Battle of Guadacanal, August 1942-February 1943, occurred in the Solomon Islands. The battles were conducted on the land, and from the sea and air.

Fossicking would almost always turn up something of interest. Shell cases of all sizes were a common find. There were wrecks of ships on the beach, and crashed planes in the bush, as well as old military vehicles. Iron bottom sound, north of Honiara, was as its name suggests, a graveyard of US and Japanese ships and downed fighter planes. Paradise for scuba divers.

The British Solomon Islands Protectorate was one of the final countries remaining of the British Empire. During the period leading up to self government, there appeared to be little effort put into training Solomon Island people. Maybe this was because there were very few alternate employment opportunities for the British Colonial Service officers – Hong Kong could hardly accommodate all of them.

The UK granted the Solomon Islands independence on 11 July 1978, at which time the Solomon Islands joined the United Nations as its 150th sovereign State. The newly independent Solomon Islands joined the Commonwealth, with the British Queen as head of State, represented by a Governor General.

Happily Charles Woodford’s prophesy that there would be an extinction of the Melanesian race was false.

I left the Solomon Islands, enriched by the experience of learning about the Melanesian culture and the history of the Islands. Although not enriching, it was also a learning experience to observe the behaviours of the long serving British Colonial officers in one of the last fragments of the British Empire.