The British Empire Library

An Island In The Autumn

by John Smith

Courtesy of OSPA

W. David McIntyre, (Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, New Zealand)
This well-written and modestly couched memoir will be of tremendous interest to students of imperialism and decolonization. John Smith was accepted for the Colonial Service in 1950 and became one of the last Cadets to enter the Northern Nigerian Administrative Service. Twenty-three years later he was appointed as the last Governor of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. While they were considering candidates for this post, the ECO committee, seeking a measure of his experience, were told that during the first Nigerian military coup in 1966 he 'personally and unaided' kept Northern Nigeria In one piece and ran the government single-handed for a week until he made representatives of the new regime take responsibility. In 1978 he wrote in his valedictory despatch to the Secretary of State: 'I would have to confess that in the atolls I had met my match'. He told the Governor of Nigeria in 1951 that he expected a career of 'a certain five years, a probable ten, a lucky fifteen'. It turned out to be 'twenty-seven years of decolonization'. Although this book focuses on only three small countries - present-day Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati (with a total population at independence of a little over 200,000) - it holds immensely wider interest for students of Empire for six reasons.

Firstly, it tells of the motivation behind overseas service. Son of a father who worked for Posts and Telegraphs in Nigeria and Tanganyika; exposed as a youth to Kipling, Baden-Powell and Arthur Ransome, Smith sought for a career 'something active, outdoors, adventurous and fulfilling'. Already the Raj was ended in India and the policy was to 'guide colonies to responsible self-government within the Commonwealth'. Thus Smith 'always assumed that my career would be in decolonisation'. And anyway in Northern Nigeria he wasn't 'ruling'. He was all too aware of the anomalies and absurdities, but necessity, of indirect rule, which he wrote about vividly in Colonial Cadet in Nigeria (Duke UP, 1968).

Secondly, by his time in Oceania In the 1970s he was abundantly aware of the impact of the closure of the Colonial Office and the very different priorities in the FCO. Colonial Service officers were there to serve their colony; diplomats were posted to foster British interests. Smith characterises the difference by suggesting the way the respective services would react to a bad smell in the drains. The diplomat would pen a witty despatch adorned with a classical quote on the superiority of Roman sanitation; the colonial servant would 'roll up his sleeves and do something about it'.

Thirdly, he emphasises that decolonization was also about self-sufficiency. He had always assumed that colonial rule was as much about development and improvement as law and order. As Financial Secretary in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate from 1970 to 1973, he found a dependency 'grossly over-administered', but with only 5.5% of government expenditure devoted to agriculture, the basis of wealth. He also realized that the UK could have no long term economic interest in the islands, that Asia provided the potential markets. Thus his great success was to negotiate, alongside the first generation of Solomons' political leaders, a joint venture agreement with Japan's largest fisheries company, for the operation of tuna canneries in the Solomons to process fish that had never been frozen.

Fourthly, on the vexed question of colonial boundaries, he had a major role in one of the few pre-independence adjustments whereby the Ellice Islands were, by agreement, able to separate from the Gilbert Islands. The mainly Polynesian Ellice Islands Protectorate had been annexed along with the Micronesian Gilbert Islands Protectorate in 1915 mainly to remove jurisdictional anomalies. Distance meant there was little contact, and Japanese occupation of part of the Gilberts during the Second World War accentuated the differences. Thus when British rule seemed likely to end, the Ellice were adamant that they would not be ruled by the Gilbertese. Separation for so small a place was regarded in the FCO as a 'nonsense' and Smith was enjoined to stall or delay such a move. But after careful examination of the issues and a referendum observed by a UN Visiting Mission, charmingly described by Smith, the independent state of Tuvalu (population 7000) emerged In 1978.

Fifthly, Smith brings out how complex decolonization could become. The climax of the book is his account of the background to the Independence of Kiribati. The separation of the Ellice Islands removed but one of the complications. The thirty two Gilbert Islands spread over two million square miles of ocean. Some of the Line Islands and Phoenix Islands were subject to sovereignty claims by the USA. Canton came under a fifty-year condominium agreement, but when the Governor turned up in uniform (complete with feathered hat and sword) the commander of the American military facility there professed ignorance of the agreement. Above all there was the problem of Ocean Island (Banaba), a raised Island and rich source of phosphate that had been annexed by Britain in 1900. Here was a 'colony within a colony' run by the British Phosphate Commission (jointly owned by Australia, Britain, and New Zealand) from a head office in Melbourne. The BPC paid royalties, which met half the Colony's revenue in lieu of any other taxes; It operated on Melbourne time rather than Tarawa time, used Australian dollars, and Australian school syllabuses. The Banabans, who had gradually parted with more and more of their land in return for royalties, had all been deported by the Japanese in 1942 and when they were eventually released their Island was so devastated by bombing, that they were resettled on Rabi Island in Fiji in 1945, where they decided to stay in 1947. Although they had more land here and were better off than most Pacific Islanders, the Banaban leaders constantly complained about their lot, looked to the BPC and the British Government for compensation, and called for the separation of Banaba from the Gilberts before independence to become an Associated State of Fiji. With their royalty money they briefed top lawyers to argue their case in court and the 'Justice for the Banbans' campaign in Britain lined-up MPs and prominent activists. The Prime Minister of Fiji chipped into the argument and the Australian and New Zealand governments also had to be consulted.

This issue dominated Smith's term of office, but his chief concern was that Kiribati should get a fair start at independence. Ocean Island was not detached. Having experienced the failure of the Westminster parliamentary system in Nigeria in the 1960s (described in Nigeria in Crisis (1971) under the pseudonym John Oyinbo), Smith ensured that the Kiribati constitution more carefully reflected the local culture. He circulated a list of 52 questions that need to be answered and brought in Professor David Murray from the University of the South Pacific (with whom he had worked in Nigeria previously) to guide the Gilbertese in their constitution making. Kiribati became a republic with an executive president and built in checks and balances on the government's power.

Finally, the book includes valuable illustrative material. There are forty photographs, half in colour. They are so good that it is a pity that they do not bleed to the edge. There are four documentary appendices that Include the 52 questions and Smith's valedictory despatch of 1978, which was withheld from the FCO files that were opened under the thirty-year rule in 2009.

During lonely days on tour in Northern Nigeria in the 1950s, John Smith had looked forward to getting belated copies the The Listener so he could enjoy reading Sir Arthur Grimble's broadcasts about life in the Gilbert Islands in the 1920s. Perhaps it was fitting that he should end his overseas service a quarter century later helping to wind up Grimble's legacy. His account of this stewardship makes for a great read.

British Empire Book
John Smith
Librario Publishing
978 190 677 426 1