British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by James L.O. Tedder
Anuta - An Island from Paradise?
Solomon Islands Map
Naturally one of the attractions of the Pacific throughout history has been that somewhere there is an island paradise. This has led people into doing all kinds of unusual stunts and going to the edge of the world to find this island paradise. Thor Heyerdahl in his splendid book Fatu-Hiva Back to Nature told of how he and his wife went to Fatu-Hiva in the Marquesas before WWII to find paradise on earth. But, as you may read, all was not well in that paradise. There were the tropical ulcers, there were the disputes with their landlords, the diet, and there was the question of religion, or rather the way people practiced it, that finally was the undoing of their dream. Of course Thor eventually returned to the islands because I suppose he found them the nearest to what he thought was paradise that he could find on earth.

Many people who came to the Solomons as their first experience of the Pacific were disillusioned by what they found. All the stories they had read of the Pacific, particularly of places like Tahiti and Raratonga, had not prepared them for the reality of the equatorial high islands. These islands, with the help of the early white contacts, had succoured a people who were not so open or welcoming as the Polynesians and whose democratic systems had prevented the rise of powerful chiefs who, in places like Samoa and Tahiti, ruled whole islands. But here in the Solomon Islands there were no large and important chiefs and many villages barely spoke to each other. But once you were past that natural reserve of these people and they knew you, then you could not hope to meet and have better friends who were always loyal and steadfast.

The other shock to the visitors arriving in the Solomons was that, with exceptions, many of the islands did not have golden beaches, and it rained a lot, and it was hot and humid and the bush was thick and the ground was muddy.

Anuta - An Island from Paradise?
Anuta Island
There was an island which was a story book island, but it was so far out in the Pacific that it was closer to Tuvalu (Ellice Islands) than it was to Guadalcanal. It was within the boundary of the Protectorate and, what was more, it was part of Eastern District where we lived for four years. This was the island of Anuta which lay in the blue, blue Pacific of the large lazy swells some 450 nautical miles east of the island of San Cristobal. This tiny island, a green hill and a small flat of sandy spit covered with coconut palms, in this huge expanse of blue ocean was less than three kilometres in circumference.

The beaches were wide and golden, the Polynesians were of the same colour and their smiles were as wide. Just over two hundred people lived, loved and of course argued, as do all humans, on this beautiful island.

The only safe way for the Government ships to reach Anuta in the days before the captains were trained in deep sea navigation techniques was to island-hop. First the 250 miles from Kira Kira to the large island of Santa Cruz, discovered in 1592 by Mendana in his second voyage to the Solomon Islands to set up a settlement.

Anuta - An Island from Paradise?
Tinakula Volcano
It was fairly easy to find Santa Cruz though several times we found ourselves thirty miles off course. If you were too far to the north then the 700 metre cone of the volcano Tinakula would act as a marker to set you on course for Graciosa Bay, Santa Cruz's huge harbour, where Mendana died. The second section of the voyage occurred during the next night when the ship sailed 110 nautical miles south east to the island of Vanikoro. On the south coast reefs of this island France lost its famous explorer, La Perouse. At least that is where the wrecks of his ships Boussole and Astrolabe lie today, though what happened to the explorer and his men has not been solved. In the days that we visited the island it was the site of a logging operation. Vanikoro was not the ideal South Pacific island. There were no beautiful beaches, the place was full of midges and mosquitoes, the rainfall averaged 300 inches a year and much of the coastline was protected by mangroves. It certainly would not have impressed La Perouse who had previously called at Botany Bay. There are lots of stories that could be told about Vanikoro and some have been by Chris Hadley, who was the Forestry Officer, Custom and Labour Officer when we were there, in his recently published book A Forester in the Solomons.

Anuta - An Island from Paradise?
Boussole and Astrolabe
Then it was a mid-afternoon departure from Vanikoro ESE into the ever-present SE swell. Now there was a definite change in temperature and if you had done the trip before you now reached for your woollen jersey and breathed in a much cooler air. Generally the SE wind was blowing and rain squalls came scudding across the sea, limiting the horizon to a few hundred metres and driving the deck passengers to huddle closer together. In ten minutes the squall had passed, leaving the white horses gleaming in the sun and the dark blue of the rolling swells reminding you it was the Pacific. If the fates were kind, you would expect to see the grey bulk of Tikopia on the horizon at dawn and by 10 o'clock be safely at anchor off the NW beach of this island. The Tikopians were made famous by the anthropologist Professor Firth in We, the Tikopia. They were Polynesians with a well-developed chieftain system. There were four Te Arikis. In the mid-1950s three were followers of their ancient religion and one with his people were adherents of the Church of Melanesian (Anglican). As this chief lived nearest the only safe anchorage it seemed obvious to assume that the Church's proselytising had been done on the beach. The ancient beliefs had been strong and it was not until the 1956 and 1957 cyclones and many deaths from influenza that the other three chiefs and their followers became Christians. It was always a busy day or two at Tikopia as formal calls had to be paid on each Te Ariki in order of seniority before any of the more mundane work of administration could commence.

The departure for Anuta was usually with a full ship of passengers as the Tikopians took the rare opportunity to visit relatives, buy coconuts, or just have a look. At nine at night the click-clank-clink of the windlass marked the anchor coming up and soon the ship started to roll as we cleared the shelter of Tikopia on a NE course. Dawn at sea with the large swell like a series of grey hills over which the ship wallowed, the sky brightening with a grey light then a pink-tinged line of cloud giving way rapidly to the first rays of the sun appearing above the horizon. The deck passengers leaning over the rail or sitting on their bed rolls on the hatch covers, clearing throats, chewing betel nut, or just lying listening to the hum of desultory conversations. Climbing to the top deck the bosun pointed ahead to a small cloud like bump - "Anuta now", he said, "should be there by 8 o'clock". And by 8 am we were anchored off the SW beach, rolling heavily in the swell. There was no question of going ashore by ship's boat in a dignified manner with the ship's crew in uniform performing their drill with oars. There were but two ways and by now the islanders were demonstrating in fine style one method as the first of the swimmers were climbing the ship's side, their faces wreathed in smiles, their long hair streaming and their tapa breech clouts looking distinctly fragile.

Anuta - An Island from Paradise?
Anuta Island
The second method did not look much better, as the first tiny canoes with an inch of freeboard arrived full of laughing children. It was always difficult to know how many had travelled in any one canoe, as bodies kept falling out and half the passengers seemed to be in the water at any one time.

But the larger outrigger canoes had by now negotiated the surf and these looked far more suitable for conveying an officer of Her Majesty's Service in a dignified manner to pay his respects to the Te Ariki.

Anuta - An Island from Paradise?
Tattooed Polynesian
But first one had to move out of the cabin, or was it a fish bowl? There were two ports and one door and there were two faces at each port, and possibly six at the door, absolutely fascinated by all our doings and possessions. The Melanesian boat's crew were very suspicious of these wild Polynesians and kept warning Margaret and Claire, the wife of the Forest Officer, that we had to lock up everything, otherwise there would be losses. The cheerfulness, wild abandon and curiosity, made these people attractive but their size was daunting. Thighs like tree trunks supported huge barrel chests with hands like soup plates. The women were not the little Polynesian beauties but matched the men in size and stature, not rotund like some modern-day Polynesians but of huge frames. The women wore vast wrap-around skirts of tapa and equally large smiles. Most wore a necklace with a barbless bonito fish-hook attached. Some had bleached their hair with lime but all wore their rather curly hair quite short. Most had tattoos featuring the bonito tuna fish down their front, on their arms, and backs of their hands. Many of the men were tattooed on their thighs and the backs of their legs.

With the canoes alongside it was just a case of standing on the gunwale and waiting until the ship rolled close to the canoe and then making a leap into the narrow hull. There were always plenty of willing hands to stop you falling overboard or to pull you from the sea if you did miss. The approach to the beach was across the reef and it depended on the size of the swell whether it was hair-raising, exciting, or just another canoe trip. On the beach you were surrounded by the rest of the population, who all wanted to shake hands or, with some of the braver ones, touch noses in the traditional Polynesian greeting. Then off along the beach to Te Ariki who was sitting cross-legged in his house. The houses, like those in Tikopia, were basically a roof with walls only two feet high, and a floor of beautifully woven mats, the finer pandanus ones placed on the coarser ones of coconut leaf, so that the whole effect was indeed very comfortable. The doors at the gable end of the house were so low that one crawled in on hands and knees and that ensured that your head remained below that of Te Ariki, which was socially required.

Anuta - An Island from Paradise?
Traditional House
Introductions were made through the interpreter and gifts were exchanged. The Administration permitted the District Commissioner to purchase gifts for the Te Arikis of Tikopia and Anuta from the Station vote. Such gifts were often a drum of kerosene, a knife, lengths of cloth, anti-mosquito spray or a hurricane lantern. Gifts from the chief were one or two beautiful, finely woven, mats of pandanus leaf.

After the formal proceedings other pleasantries were exchanged and inquiries were made of the peoples' gardens, fishing, health, and whether there were any outstanding disputes. As the atmosphere relaxed there would be jokes and much laughter. On one visit the Te Ariki admired my shirt. There is only one thing to do in those circumstances so I took off my rather grubby and sweaty shirt and handed it over with much ceremony. He also admired Claire's blouse but she voiced strong opposition to the suggestion that she should strip off and hand over her new blouse. "Where would such a practice end?", said Claire.

Anuta was obviously well able to look after itself. Very few of the people were in other parts of the Protectorate, a couple of young men on plantations or with the Honiara Town Council, and two or three were at the Church schools.

Anuta - An Island from Paradise?
Anuta Village
Consequently there were not the demands for assistance to have some errant husband return home, or requests to take boxes to relatives, or disputes on the distribution of goods or money sent home.

After the formal meetings there was time to walk around the remainder of the small village and exchange pleasantries with people sitting outside their houses mending fishing equipment or exchanging gossip with visitors from Tikopia.

The return to the ship was done by canoe, in the same way as the landing, but the tide had changed by this time which could add to the uncertainty of crossing the reef without being capsized. Margaret was too slow to make the jump on to the ship's rail, or so thought the large Anutan who helped her up with a slap upon her bottom which certainly helped her make up her mind.

Anuta - An Island from Paradise?
Fataka (Mitre Rock)
There was occasional canoe traffic the 90 nautical miles between Tikopia and Anuta but some administration and Church officials had tended to discourage such voyages. I thought this was wrong. This was part of their culture and their way of life and to deny them this occasional adventure was similar to discouraging our young people not to climb in case they may fall. As it was, the Anutans travelled regularly some 25 nautical miles to the easternmost island in the Protectorate which was a small shaft of rock called Fataka (Fatutaka) or, by the Europeans, Mitre Rock. Here the Anutans caught seabirds and fish.

There was little time to inspect the gardens which were on the hill in neat patches of taro, sweet potato, and tapioca. At the foot of the hill, and hidden in a glade of bush, a spring gushed from the hillside. This was a favourite destination for all from the ship to have a shower and get rid of the salt and grime.

The other interesting point about Anuta was that when the tide and swell were favourable it was possible to body-surf across the reef.

So this was an island which to the outsider seemed a paradise untouched, or barely, by the wicked outside world. Untainted by the tourist, the commercial world seeking to profit from the people or their resources, and inhabited by a cheerful people content with their home and not seeking a "greener field".

Imagine my disgust, concern, and jealous thoughts, when I found a travel book just the other day advising people how they could visit Anuta. Is no place sacred in this modern world?

Anuta Island Map
Colony Profile
Solomon Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 74: October 1997


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