British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by John Pitchford
(Western Pacific, 1969-89)
A Reluctant Tax Collector
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
AS Sir Arthur Grimble, our illustrious predecessor, when Resident Commissioner in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, wrote in his Notes for District Officers, "The principal job of the DO is the collection of taxes".

Well, yes! Not really my scene but indisputably important. It was the sorry lot of the Island Executive Officer (lEO) to do this and the sorrier lot for me to see that it was done and that the money collected is duly placed in the island safe and both the Island and the Government funds are accurately accounted for in the books.

In order to keep these poor fellows up to the mark, the Department of Audit required DOs to do an internal audit as first priority. Thus, on several occasions, I had to root out an unsuspecting lEQ and his Treasurer at impossible times, like Sam, as the tides and ships' schedules dictated, to do an internal audit and count a safe full of dirty, disintegrating paper money and bags of coin. This was not my favourite responsibility - checking all this stuff by the light of a bug-encircled kerosene lamp whilst feeling tired, a bit queasy and the figures in the ledgers bouncing up and down like the boat I had just left, as well as me being the world's worst accountant.

In all those times, I never discovered any serious irregularities except on one occasion, on Tamana, when 1500 dollars went adrift. A fortune by outer-island standards, the island went berserk looking for it. There was one drawer in the safe that had rusted into the casement and had never been opened. Qn the initiative of the lEO, who was in a dreadful state by now, oil, jemmy, cold-chisel and mallet were found and with great difficulty the drawer was prised open. Nothing in it. I pulled it out completely and beneath was a film of curious saline mould. We scraped this away and thereunder found 1500 Australian dollars.

Touring by sea was bloody hard work. There were cockroaches that scattered across you at night, every night; the hardness of the planks when one travelled deck, the perennial diet of tuna and rice seemingly cooked in engine oil, the all-pervading smell of diesel from overworked engines, the strict rationing of brackish water from the taps, never feeling clean, exhaustion after doing one island after another and never, ever getting enough sleep, let alone time for a beer. That was the downside.

But there were so many compensations. The friendliness of everyone, especially, the ad hoc music-making on the foredeck, the glorious views of sea, sky and shore as our little boat glided through a channel into the calm of a turquoise lagoon after a stormy passage.

Colonial Map
1884 map of Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Colony Profile
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 105: October 2013


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