British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by James Tedder
Mail Day in Solomon Islands
Point Cruz, Honiara 1950s
In the Solomon Islands as with many other parts of the world where the Colonial Service was stationed there were many variations of waiting for the mail. It was an important event particularly for the wives who didn't always have a busy work schedule and who hadn't left home so long ago. Then there were the old timers who were at home where they were and didn't care for mail to remind them of a different life or who had such long intervals between mails that it was no longer looked forward to if it had been more regular. Of course mail days also in the outstations meant that the audit queries, the judicial comments on the last few months of court work, and the usual impossible requests from the secretariat arrived as well as the personal mail.

In Honiara in the 1950s the plane arrived every fortnight via Papua New Guinea in the late afternoon. The new arrivals in the islands would be seen gathering outside the post office before the truck had arrived from the airstrip. People with longer residence would turn up just as the mail was being thrust into the boxes. Then many adjourned to the club to read their mail and some even to pen replies. Others rushed home to enjoy their mail in peace and do their replies before morning when the mail closed at some very early hour before the plane flew back along the islands to Papua New Guinea and connect with the rest of the world.

To those living in the outstations this mail ritual was not so serious or if serious it was not on a regular basis. Mail flowed to the outstations as and when a ship went that way and if the ship's bosun managed to remember to notify the post office that he was sailing. Some forgot or went off in another direction and ended up by chance at a post office in the outstation without mail.

Even given these problems there were other obstacles for people to receive their mail whether they were villagers receiving news from their relatives in Honiara or expatriates dreaming of "home". Many of the locally originated letters were addressed in rather a perfunctory manner with a name and a village name with the island. But sometimes the village name was one that had been applied by the Church and what many knew as Forte was actually St Johns. It took a lot of skill on the part of the outstation postal clerk, who often came from a different language group, to decide where the letter was to be delivered. If the District Officer was taking the mail with him on a tour he had to go over the mail with the clerk for instructions as to where the letters were to be delivered.

Mail Day in Solomon Islands
Malu'u Outstation
Then the actual physical nature of the islands added their difficulties. Sometimes the rivers were up and the district tour diverted so those letters were either left at another village to be delivered by the headman or medical assistant or some other person later in the week. How many letters did not reach the recipients is not known but there were few complaints about the mail service. In any case news would travel by word of mouth as well as this was always reliable even if the text was sometimes garbled.

For an expatriate living on the outstation there was less trouble in the addressing but just as much as in delivering. Malu'u was an outstation in the north of Malaita and some 50 km from the "capital" at Aoke. Just to ensure that the District Officer Malu'u had something to do when not touring the District Commissioner sent a weekly police patrol north to a half way point where the constables exchanged the mail bag with a patrol from Malu'u. So audit queries and requests for information reached the District Officer within a day of the mail closing at Aoke. At times if a ship had brought mail from overseas via Honiara then the District Officer might also receive airletters. Parcels and any large letters were not carried by the patrol which had to travel fast, both sections doing the 50 km trip in the day. The patrols were also useful in that people could send in their complaints and worries once a week and the presence of the police helped to ensure law and order.

Mail Day in Solomon Islands
Aoke, Malaita
Such patrols did not always meet up. Many times the rivers were up and even the strong constables thought twice about crossing a really high river.

District ships were not always available, either taking officers on tour in another direction or sitting at Tulagi the marine base awaiting their regular checkup, or even having been borrowed by other districts. There were two ships stationed on Malaita. One was the Margery, a 20m vessel apparently built for the US Armed Forces on a tug design. It looked as a small ship should look, carried a lot of ballast and even rolled like a ship. It operated out of Aoke with the District Commissioner deciding on the programme which was made up also to suit other officers such as the Medical Officer and Agricultural Officer who wished to tour to various parts of the island. The post office was always informed of its ETD and that is when mail could be expected at Malu'u and places all round the island. The second ship was a 12m ketch stationed much of the time with District Officer Malu'u who used it for touring. It made some trips to Aoke for medical cases, or to collect supplies, transport prisoners and of course it always carried mail.

Kira Kira on San Cristobal (Makira) was further away from Honiara than Aoke and received fewer ships - except in the calmer periods when there would be a rash of officers from Honiara on a "swan", so mail was less frequent. Sometimes the occasional trading or recruiting ship would bring mail but that could be infrequent. If the district ship Mary, similar to the Margery, had been on a freight and passenger run to Honiara when the ship from Australia was due there was always the excitement that surface mail with papers and parcels and grocery supplies would arrive.

Mail Day in Solomon Islands
Kira Kira
The cry of "sail ho" always went up on the district station when a ship was sighted. As the Mary was expected mid-morning at Kira Kira after its 18 hour journey from Honiara, people were standing by so it was no surprise when a labourer looked up from his grass cutting and gave the shout. Now there was an hour for the station foreman to arrange for the prisoners and station work-force to assemble and launch the work-boat, for the works foreman to bring down the tractor to collect the cargo and for some excitement to build up. People were always expecting relatives, or cargo, or it was just fun to learn at first hand from the boat's crew what had been happening in the "big smoke" after two months without "real" news. So excitement began to build up with a steady procession of people down the station path to the beach with our children, having been excused school, being in the lead. There was laughter and shouting among the assembled people, some of whom were helping launch the work-boat, skipping out of the way of the breaking waves as they pulled up their lava-lavas clear of the water while the children from the local school were already swimming around the boat and getting in the way. The station work-boat was a prize after a long fight with Treasury who could not understand why the ship could not moor at the wharf, or why we couldn't just use the smaller ship's dinghy. The crewing of the station boat was always eagerly sought after but the station foreman usually managed to be the steersman and his friends manned the oars.

By this time the boat was on its way out to where the Mary was anchoring. The dinghy was lowered and quickly filled up with their colourful painted Chinese tin trunks, sleeping mats and bed rolls. But the priority was for the mail and the first boat had the mail bags which were collected by Mathew the postal clerk and carried up with Rueben's assistance to the leaf built post office. There as the bags were tipped out on the floor to begin sorting, the radio schedule would start and call Mathew away to take and send telegrams. These schedules always seemed to coincide with the ship's arrival and be extra long.

The station routine had been broken and it was fun. Most of the medical staff were on the beach, the agricultural assistants were eyeing off the new copra drier parts, prisoners and station labour were in the thick of unloading, all the police were there except the desk officer and those on patrol, many people from the surrounding villages not in their gardens were there, even the District Commissioner had abandoned his desk to ensure all at the beach was in good order.

Mail Day in Solomon Islands
Malaita Canoe
Meanwhile the first sorted mail was being heaped up on the office desks, the official letters to be opened and registered and placed on the DC's desk and the private mail was now coming through. By official lunch time the boys and I were able to walk up to the house with a few airletters which were not opened until after lunch and the hour's siesta had begun. At two it was back to the office to stare at the official mail heaped up on my desk. Why could such a pile be generated in only four weeks by the Honiara bureaucracy and just before I was due off for a two week tour. Most of it would have to await my return. But just to make sure there were no nasty surprises or some pleasant ones it would all have to be read and filed. Some at least could be answered by Silas Sitai, a local man who later became the District Commissioner, while the rest were left to mature. Some could be solved by time alone, some could be dealt with on tour and the rest would await the tour end.

Unlike most days I would leave the office at 4.00 with a large bag of mail and over tea we spent time sorting out the personal mail. The letters from parents, sisters and brothers, and friends. Then the official looking ones suspected of containing bills. Finally the parcels of magazines, papers, books and other exciting articles. The number of these increased as Christmas drew near. The personal letters were read at once then the others waited until after dinner of the next day. Not having electricity meant there was a rush at dusk to ensure all the kerosene lamps were operational and in any case we had to divert attention to the grocery order but that is another story.

Solomons Map
Administrative Districts Map 1918
Colony Profile
Solomon Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 90: October 2005


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