British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R E N Smith
And so our luxurious progression went on; in twenty five years we had about twenty houses in three different territories, and while the houses were adequate enough, none was ever really suitable for grinding the faces of the poor or lording it over anyone. British colonial standards in the Pacific when we went there in 1967 were modest, even by the poverty-stricken standards of Nyasaland. They had been much grander in India, but while the Heaven-born members of the Indian Civil Service (in its upper ranks at least) had had to maintain a certain dignity, we lesser lights of a newer and more plebeian service were permitted no such prestige fashions.

The Lap of Luxury
The Ladies' House, New Hebrides
In the New Hebrides we occupied a ramshackle and elderly wooden “colonial” Pacific affair, square and hot, where the central rooms were almost too stuffy for human endurance and we slept, ate, dined and wined on the filled-in all-round verandah. Since the children's bedroom’s only window was immediately above our own bed, my wife and I led a rather public private life. The house survives to this day - as the Women’s Interests Office. There were a few more modern houses, but they were uniformly undistinguished in size and appurtenances - a separate dining room was unheard of, apart from the houses (grandly named Monument and White House) of the two senior British Office administrators.

The Lap of Luxury
Government Quarters
I finished up in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, where for many years after the war the country had been run by a former naval officer with a strong personality and an economical soul. By this time I had reached advanced years and some dignity as the Senior District Commissioner, but I still only qualified for a standard “B” grade house - two bedrooms and a large living-dining room, the rooms separated by soft-board partitions (soft-board meant that you could poke your finger through it). In all the older “B” grades the house was thatched, but my elevated rank was recognised by the provision of a soft-board ceiling. This was not an unmixed blessing, for since the PWD only renewed the pandanus thatch when daylight and rain broke through, the ceiling was marked by circular brown stains accompanied by an ominous sagging of the soft-board and the room looked rather seedy. These houses had been built when officers were not encouraged to have families and two bedrooms presented a problem if your family, like mine, included adolescent children of both sexes. This is where the elevated status bit came in handy at last, for the District Commissioner was actually provided with a separate guest-house - a bedroom with loo and shower attached. You just had to try to avoid having official guests during the school holidays.

In a country distinguished by incessant heat under a blazing sun the provision of a covered verandah was rare, unless you paid for it yourself. I managed to “bounce” Authority into approving a verandah at the D.C.’s house - provided that the work was carried out at minimum cost, achieved by an arrangement with the Betio Town Council, whose chairman was the District Commissioner. In my final year when the District Commissioner was abolished (and district run from the Secretariat) I was promoted out of harm’s way to be Secretary (for Natural Resources) under a Minister whose previous official contact with me was when I had fined him for causing a disturbance in a police station! To mark my rise in importance I was allotted a new two-storied house in an obsolete cemetery; it still had only three bedrooms and a living-dining room - and no covered verandah. Quite unofficially I prevailed on the Betio Town Council, which was no longer under my control, to put up a good thatched lean-to verandah, while my family and I humped coral and sand and water, mixed concrete and laid a proper verandah under the thatch.

The Lap of Luxury
The New Residency, Tarawa
There were only three grander official houses in the entire colony - two “A” grades, for the Chief Secretary and the Attorney-General (they actually boasted an en-suite bathroom for the occupants) and the Residency itself. This was not much more than a larger version of the “B” grades; it was distinguished by being blessed with a huge reception/dining room, but the building was thatched and did not even sport a covered verandah, which is perhaps why the Resident Commissioner was not too keen on my efforts to get one for a mere District Commissioner. When the colony was separated from the Western Pacific High Commission in January 1972 the Residency was upgraded to a Government House - but it had no improvements added - it was just the old building re-christened.

The Lap of Luxury
Lal Bagh Palace, Orissa
Looking back over a highly varied career, the most resplendent accommodation I ever had in my overseas service was in Government House, Cuttack in the province of Orissa in India when I was Aide-de-Camp to the Governor there in 1946-47. This establishment was only modestly grand, having been upgraded from a mere Commissioner’s bungalow about five years earlier on the promotion of Orissa from a Commissioner’s bailiwick to a full blown Governor’s province, but in the 19th century even Collectors and Commissioners had of necessity to present a lordly facade - after all, quite minor Indian potentates had palaces. I lived with my master and his lady in this graceful pillared and porte-cochered Government House, with a suite of my own - an enormous bedroom with attached bathroom and a large office/sitting room, where, promptly at 6pm every evening, a soft-footed, white-clad and gold-badge blazoned khitmutgar brought me a silver tray on which reposed a small decanter of Scotch, soda water, ice and a glass. Now that was the lap of luxury.

Colonial Map
1943 New Hebrides Map
Colonial Map
1941 Gilbert and Ellice Map
Colony Profiles
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
New Hebrides Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 85: May 2003
Lap of Luxury Part One


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