British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by John D. Field
(District Officer, Solomon Islands Protectorate 1949-70)
the modern spelling is Isabel, but in my time it was Ysabel as named by Mendana after his patroness St. Ysabel
An Introduction to Ysabel
Alvaro de Mendana Stamp
Some time early in 1950 my DC decided to reopen the Government station at Tatamba on the island of Ysabel in the Western District of the Solomon Islands Protectorate and that I, his DO, should be the incumbent. Ysabel had been the first point of contact between the Solomons and the outside world when on 7th February 1568, Alvaro de Mendana, the 25 year old nephew of the Governor of Peru, and commander of the expedition, had landed there after a three month voyage from Callao. Primarily they were seeking the gold and other treasures that were believed to exist in abundance in the islands but they were also well equipped with priests to convert any heathen they might meet en route.

Ysabel had had a resident DO for many years before the Second World War, but when the group was invaded by the Japanese in 1941/2 permanent occupation had been abandoned and the island became a vital post for Coastwatchers, headed by a pre-war DO, D.G. Kennedy, who had the perilous task of keeping watch on Japanese naval movements and transmitting the information by portable radio to Allied bases. Re-establishing a Government presence on the island was now desirable and I was keen to get there and start things going again.

An Introduction to Ysabel
Solomon Island Campaign Map
Ysabel is a long thin island, about 120 miles by 20 miles, inhabited by pleasant people, about 5,000 we thought at the time, who had in the fairly recent past suffered from the depredations of more warlike head hunters from nearby Roviana. There were three "lines" in the island's population, Vihuvunagi, Posomongo and Thogokama. The Headman of the island, Edmund Bako, who had been decorated for his wartime work, lived at Kia, in the north. The three other sub-headmen lived at Nagolau, close to Tatamba, at Meringe Lagoon and in the Hograno bush, a pretty formidable mountainous area that I later walked or rather climbed over, so far as I know the first DO to do so. For European neighbours I had two redoubtable ladies of the Melanesian Mission on an island in the Meringe Lagoon about thirty miles away, a lone plantation overseer entirely bald as a result of typhus and another who played the trombone for himself and to a bewildered audience of Melanesians.

There was one easily walkable road from Tatamba to the nearby village of Regi where the inhabitants were a little less friendly because an earlier DO had fined them 5 pounds for making too much noise one Christmas. Contact with the coastal people was very largely by sea and so far as the outside world was concerned, I had the only radio transreceiver on the island, powered by a 12 volt battery and charger. There were one or two magnificent canoes on the island, carrying twenty plus people and I recall one exciting trip back from the north, the paddlers chanting away for hours on end as we raced back to Tatamba. Later the powers that be allocated me a small ketch, the Veronica, about thirty feet in length, constructed by a local Chinese shipwright in which I travelled many hundreds of happy nautical miles at never more than five knots in the charge of Martin Maeheta, who, like many Melanesians, had uncanny night vision.

An Introduction to Ysabel
Tatamba House
My house, atop a hill, had once enjoyed nearly all round views but some misguided soul had planted casuarina trees around it with the result that the place was now hot and airless. It was painted dark grey, with an attached kitchen. Water came from a tank fed from the corrugated iron roof. Lighting was by Tilley lantern or hurricane light. The loo was a separate establishment at some distance that was hand-emptied daily. I had a bed, a table, four chairs, a chest of drawers and little else by way of furniture. I recall being told when I requested a bit more comfort that furniture was a privilege and not a right. My office was a joy. Massively constructed in thatch, it was at the very tip of a point from which there were superb sea views. It contained two objects of major interest, a human skull that no one could identify, and an enormous heavy safe that had not been opened for many years. I asked for the key from Honiara, the capital. Some weeks later it turned up and amidst great excitement we opened the thing expecting to discover some important documents but were greatly disappointed to see only an IOU from a pre-war planter. There had, incidentally, been at least three flourishing plantations on the island in European hands prior to 1941, and they had been deliberately damaged or destroyed to deny any advantage to the Japanese invaders. It had earlier been my melancholy duty to inform these people that, despite well intentioned promises at the time, they would not now receive any part of post-war reparation money. They all left, never to return.

Most of Ysabel's villages lay on the north east coast of the island, but I recall two ten day walks I did in the hinterland. The first, in the pretty formidable Hograno bush, involved tramping up and down through dense forest in order to reach some tiny hamlet, inevitably perched for defensive reasons on top of steep slippery slopes up which I had to scramble. How I envied the agility of the locai people. Some of the inhabitants and all the young children had seldom if ever seen a white face in their midst and much consternation usualiy ensued. Someone had given up their house for the "Guvmen", and after the usual exhortations about village cleanliness and the need to respect local authority the cavalcade would move on. After a few days one could not escape a feeling of extreme isolation.

An Introduction to Ysabel
Anglican Church
Another memorable trek involved going ashore at the coastal village of Mulichichuro and walking around the hill villages, finally descending to a river that fed into the Meringe Lagoon. Three of us, the chief, a policeman and me, in a small canoe, came around a bend in the river to see a collection of very large crocodiles lazing on the bank. Qne took off and made a beeline for us, rubbing its back on our canoes which wobbled alarmingly but fortunately not disastrously, and we paddled on to Tasio island for a wonderful tea provided by Mrs Sprott of the Melanesian Mission. All the islanders adhered to the Anglican church which made life a lot easier. The Mission ran elementary village schools and a very enthusiastic secondary school at Lithogahira. The Roman Catholics had in fact been the first to establish a mission station on the island early in the 19th century but their leader, Bishop Epalle, had been murdered and they withdrew.

With me at Tatamba were a clerk, Alec Tozaka, still alive and with whom I remain in contact, and three members of the Solomon Islands Armed Constabulary, Corporal Lokosasa with Constables Julumu and Gusubatu, all from different islands. Their "armament" consisted of ancient Lee Enfield .303 rifles. Intensely loyal, the force had done very well during the war.

Life went on with visits to villages, exhortations to support the recently formed Local Council and Native Courts. The only ripple I recall in a tranquil scene was a mass refusal to pay a levy that the Council had imposed. I cannot recall for what purpose. I thought a bit of back up from my DC might be a good idea, so after his arrival from Gizo we made our way to a gathering of several hundred dissenters. Their spokesman stood up, produced a dictionary and declared that the word levy meant a recruitment for military purposes and they wanted none of that. My DC and I looked at each other and burst out laughing, which broke the ice, and after we had explained the intended alternative meaning, tensions disappeared and everyone promised to pay up.

An Introduction to Ysabel
HMAS Culgoa
Finally, towards the end of my stay, an Australian corvette HMAS Culgoa turned up and took me off to Honiara. My confidence in the Australian Navy was somewhat dented when during gunnery exercises on passage the crew mistook a very static rock for a moving target.

I spent about eight months on my own at Tatamba, and despite the joyful simplicity of District Administration there I was becoming aware of the limitations of my existence. Fortunately my DC decided to take leave and I was able to act in his stead at the District Headquarters with more widespread responsibilities.

It was all a very long time ago and I sometimes wonder what the Solomon Islanders, long since independent, made of our efforts. Development money was yet to trickle through to Districts. We had very little to offer except good will and the impression of security. At least we did nobody any harm. Some eighteen years later my service ended in the Francophile sophistication of the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu, but I shall always recall the innocent simplicity of my first tour with substantial nostalgia.

Solomons Map
Santa Isabel Map c1970
Colony Profile
Solomon Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 106: October 2013


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