British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R.A. Lever
Tulagi, the capital that was abandoned.
Blackbirding in the Pacific
The physical transfer of a capital from A to B is always a major event for those involved even if, as in this case, the move was simply from one Pacific island to another only twenty miles away. In order to control the conduct of "blackbirding", or the recruitment of Solomon Islanders for the sugar canefields of Queensland and Fiji, a proclamation of 1893 led to the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. This called for a Resident Commissioner for which post Charles Morris Woodford was chosen on account of his familiarity with conditions in the Western Pacific. So in 1897 he landed on the small island of Gavuta with half a dozen native police and a whale boat and there he lived for some weeks under canvas. A move was soon made to the nearby Tulagi which was to become the capital for the next fifty years. Both of these small islands lie off the coast of Florida (native name Nggela), Tulagi having the advantage of a good anchorage and a sheltered harbour. Islands, extending for 600 miles and lying to the east of New Guinea, had been discovered by the Spanish as long ago as 1568 but were lost to Europeans for 200 years.
Tulagi, the capital that was abandoned.
Charles Morris Woodford
Administration was carried out by Woodford as the Resident Commissioner reporting to the High Commissioner, who was also the Governor of Fiji, at its capital, Suva, an obviously cumbersome system.

The bulk of the Europeans were engaged in extracting copra from the coconut palm, extensive plantations being taken in from the jungle. With an increase in population, including both traders and missionaries, the seat of government expanded rapidly and soon a number of offices began to arise along the shores near the southern end of the island. District Officers were posted to the main islands of the group but here we are concerned only with the embryo capital. A handbook of 1911 informs its readers that "residents in the Protectorate are too much occupied with their own affairs to be able to spare time to answer any tourists' enquiries." Many years elapsed, however, before there was a real influx of tourists. It was not long before a dignified and solid residency had to be built to replace the very rough-and-ready building which had served hitherto. Successive resident commissioners and their wives entertained here on a fine site overlooking Florida and some other islands. As a guest at a few occasions I little thought that I would spend a night on a mattress on its highly-polished floor but war makes for some stranger happenings! Soon a most impressive array of red-roofed bungalows with white walls and regulation water tanks were built on higher ground while a row of Government offices, comprising Treasury, Public Works and Survey, Customs, Post Offices and Stores, led from the hospital and gaol to the concrete wharf. The absence of schools is not an oversight as until just before the outbreak of the last war, education was carried out by the missionaries aided by Government grants. Leading from this coastal area was a cutting hewn through a ridge of soapstone which led to the Tulagi Club.

Tulagi, the capital that was abandoned.
The Original Residency
This was the hub of the island's social life with tennis courts and a 9-hole golf links. The latter played a dominant part in that welcome period between office work and the sudden gloaming which is such a feature in the tropics. All old-timers were amused when they read an article in that normally accurate journal, the National Geographic Magazine for December 1942. This contained an article by Eleanor Oliver entitled "A Woman's Experiences among Stone Age Solomon Islanders", in which she assured her readers that the Japanese had built a golf course on Tulagi - it had, in fact, been there for at least the previous twelve years! But it was the idea of these people setting sail with their golf clubs and balls that caused the greatest amusement. One of the hazards of the course was the land crabs which made burrows in the fairway. Owing to establishing decent grass for the greens proving impossible, we had to use rolled earth, always referred to as the "browns".

Tulagi, the capital that was abandoned.
Resident Commissioner's Office
The club house, built on piles to isolate white ants or termites, was close to the sea so as to make full use of the breezes. One remembers so vividly the little tables full of players retailing master strokes made on some now deserted hole, with background noises of billiard balls being struck. Where now is the unruffled Ah Sui who brought us the drinks? Probably taking around a tray of nectar in some celestial valhalla on high.

Communication with the outside world, long before any air service existed in the Pacific, relied on a steamer from Sydney which called every six weeks thus giving eight contacts per year with home. This meant, of course, a large pile of letters and magazines to be dealt with rapidly so as to catch the mail on the ship's return from her most northern port near the then Australian island of Bougainville. As can be imagined. Steamer Day almost assumed a festive occasion as one walked up the gangway to see new faces and enjoy a glass of really cold Australian beer while discussing the news which, during my time, coincided with bodyline bowling which did not exactly cement relations between the English and Australians.

Tulagi, the capital that was abandoned.
Tulagi Waterfront
Although there were laundries in the small Chinatown, it proved impossible to deal with dress shirts, obligatory for evening wear. Hence it was necessary to send these off to be laundered in Sydney so that it did not take long before the postal charges and washing exceeded the initial cost of the shirts themselves. One was also a sitting target for shopping and I well remember how my agent in Australia, when asked to supply a couple of photograph albums, took the opportunity of forwarding the most expensive leather ones imported from Florence, well knowing I would have to keep them.

Tulagi, the capital that was abandoned.
1935 Stamp
The Silver Anniversary celebrations of King George V called for a special issue of stamps featuring a view of Windsor Castle. This issue had to be sold for the year 1935 and no longer, so all supplies left over had to be destroyed. I was roped in to do this which involved burning hundreds of sheets which were dropped into kerosene tins with a thin film of fluid which was ignited in the open. Not appreciating their future value, I failed to buy a few of each denomination; these stamps were later found to have some minor flaws in the shape of a line or dot near the flagpole of the castle. Today these varieties fetch many times more in value than the normal ones.

Tulagi, the capital that was abandoned.
Tulagi Cricket Ground
A level stretch of ground was turned into the King George V cricket ground - when I was last at this spot it bore a large noticeboard as "The Admiral Halsey baseball field". I rather think the King, as a naval man, would have been amused.

During the thirties the price of copra, virtually the only crop grown, fell steadily year after year and when it reached 7 pounds a ton on the London market, it was costing 8 pounds to produce - not a recommended way to make a living. Figures can be dull reading but for an annual production of about 15,000 tons the export value fell from 87,000 pounds in 1933 to a mere 2,500 pounds in 1935. This catastrophic drop led to many bankruptcies, with some planters having to return to Australia. Fortunately, the price of copra rose from 1936 but balancing the Protectorate's books had been a terrific headache.

Health conditions were none too good as malaria was rife, the official annual report of the Colonial Office stating that "the disease was endemic with no permanent resident escaping infection. None of the drugs available during the last war had been developed and the drill was thirty grains of quinine per night. This, coupled with a high cost of living owing to nearly everything having to be imported, ensured that life in those days was as different as could be from that of tourists and residents today.

The reader who has persevered to this point could well be asking why was the capital abandoned as indicated in the title. For an answer we must go back to the year 1946. With the return to the USA of the large American garrison, a huge hutted camp was vacated on the large island of Guadalcanal, which now had a good anchorage at Point Cruz. It then became possible to develop this site into the new capital of Honiara. Further, this was also now the headquarters of the Western Pacific High Commission which for the first time was separated from the link with Fiji. This is not the place to deal with the many advantages which followed from the change to a large and populous island some 80 miles long. The virtual umbilical cord with Suva was now cut and Tulagi was down-graded into a ship-building and repair depot with a Japanese fish-canning factory. What an end to a colonial administration which had lasted some sixty years!

A final reference must be made to a long, rambling building known as the Single Officers' Quarters, designed to accommodate the unmarried government officials. Someone had the idea that these people would choose to dine in a mess and the Crown Agents for the Colonies at Millbank (now ensconced outside Glasgow) sent out a complete set of tureens, plates, dishes, etc. which, so I was told, was never used. Among the many inmates who passed their three year tour here was an elderly Aberdonian, whose solo drinking led to one of two nightmares. This could either be that he was a harpooned whale or a Highland Chief attacked by his enemies. The latter was the more dangerous as, armed with an old cutlass, he would make wild sweeps at imaginary foes as he indulged in a noisy sleepwalk.

Do the spirits of long-dead officials roam at night on a virtually deserted island looking for a vanished band in search of the old capital? What one can be sure of is the bright cluster of the Southern Cross accompanying the moon still shining with a brightness unknown in the northern hemisphere.

British Colony Map
1944 Map of Florida Island
Colony Profile
Solomon Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 56: October 1988