British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R. E. N. Smith
On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog: Gracing the Gilberts
MV Tautunu
In 1967 I moved on to become District Commissioner, Gilbert Islands District in the GEIC. This was a considerable change from being a District Agent in the New Hebrides, where I had commanded one clerk, one typist, a driver (for a year or so only) and my dog. On Tarawa I eventually had no less than three A.D.Cs, a Senior Executive Officer or two, a Head Clerk and a bevy of underlings, plus Island Executive Officers and their staffs on each of our fifteen islands, before I was eventually abolished. I won't say that I wore gold braid on my shoulders, but mentally I could feel its weight. All the same, travel conditions were only a little grander than they had been in the New Hebrides. Though airfields were beginning to be constructed, nearly all communication was still by sea, and the administration had designed and had built in Singapore two administrative touring vessels to carry officials about their duties. This was fine, and I even had an official District Commissioner's flag, to be worn by any vessel I deigned to favour with my august presence. These two touring ships were fine little vessels, perhaps eighty feet long, with two first class cabins (ten feet by six, with two bunks each), a dining saloon, a second class flat below deck and room for forty or so deck passengers, plus a tiny hold for cargo. All in all most suitable vessels, though they were high out of the water and would have rolled ferociously on wet grass. They were named ''Tautunu" and "Tabuariki" , but the latter foundered at her moorings before leaving Singapore. She was hastily dried out, and her name changed from the perhaps inauspicious one of the Gilbertese pagan god of thunder to "Temauri" or "Good Fortune".

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog: Gracing the Gilberts
Moana Raoi
This was all very well, but by the time that the two ships had reached Tarawa, their role had been altered. Government, always anxious to turn an honest penny in a colony alleged to be financially embarassed, had decreed that the ships were to be operated by the Colony Wholesale Society on a commercial basis. This was all very well, but they had been designed for touring only, with no consideration given to such a radically new role for which they were totally unsuited. Their hold space was negligible, and as passenger transport they were handicapped by having only a small deck space and a paucity of sanitary and cooking facilities. From my point of view, these were minor drawbacks compared with the difficulty of actually getting a passage. The District Commissioner and his understrappers had to book their passages like anyone else, and if there was no room for me or mine, we just had to wait for the next scheduled trip, however inconvenient, and however vital the travel. I had no say as to where the ships went, or how long they stayed at an island, and if one of us got off to transact business, he either had to be back when the ship was ready to leave, or be left behind with no certainty of being able to get on a ship even on its next scheduled voyage. This made smooth administration a nightmare at times, but keen development experts in the Secretariat and later in the Development Authority could maintain that economic progress was well served.

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog: Gracing the Gilberts
MV Nivanga
The Colony also operated a couple of cargo ships "Moana Raoi" and "Nivanga". both efficiently skippered by Tom Murdoch and Teitia Redfem, two Gilbertese officers of great experience and skill, but their function was largely commercial, which made them of no value for touring; I only ever made one voyage on the latter, dancing attendance on the Resident Commissioner. This trip was uneventful, apart from a minor hiccough when at Makin, and the touring party was coming off from the island in the ship's boat. Anxious to be helpful, Teitia brought "Nivanga" close inshore to pick us up, and the sight of her bow bearing down on us induced the Resident Commissioner's lady to demand immediate action from her husband to save us, only to get a peremptory adjuration to sit down and calm down, for there was a limit to the powers of even Knights of St Michael and St George!

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog: Gracing the Gilberts
MV Ninikoria (Teraaka)
There was also the "Ninikoria" (later renamed "Teraaka") of nigh on a thousand tons, a former Yugoslav tourist ship. I believe that she was the first tentative step in that country's efforts to enter the tourist market for her capacity was limited. There were perhaps four double first class cabins - small, but with bathroom and loo, a few more second class, and room for many deck passengers. There was one minor snag technically with the ship, for the engine room manuals were allegedly in Serbo-Croat, a language not in vogue in the Pacific; still the engines were the well-known and reliable Sulzer diesels, and with skilled officers they invariably ran smoothly. She was superbly skippered by that fabled doyen of Pacific captains, the inimitable Vic Ward, and it was a pleasure to travel with him; he used to maintain that the ship had been built for the well-known European monarch King Sito (so pronounced in Gilbertese, but spelled Tito). Because of her size she spent much of her time transporting Gilbertese and Ellice workers to and from Ocean Island and Nauru, so that it was only when Ocean Island district was abolished and came under my authority that I could find any good excuse to travel in her, though I did have a splendid trip almost by chance, shepherding a gaggle of British MP's led by Peggy Herbison. She was a former minister of the Crown, as well as (a little later) Moderator of the Church of Scotland, and of fairly advanced years, but she brought the house down when the old men in the maneaba on Tabiteuea asked if she was married and she struck back - "No, but I'm still looking''.

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog: Gracing the Gilberts
MV Teraka
There was yet another large ship, the “Teraka” ; she had started life as the Norwegian ferry “Baroy’’. during which time she had been cut in half and had an extra chunk stuck in, so that she had many cabins. This was almost ideal for her usage as the training ship of the Merchant Marine Training School. Her trips with cadets were of no benefit to my work, so that I only travelled in her once, when the Resident Commissioner used her as his own touring ship and I perforce had to accompany him. This venture was not a great success, for after I left her at the far end of my district she shed a propeller and had to be towed home. There she swung at anchor for several years until some panjandrum suffered a rush of the Napoleons to the head and had her towed out to sea and scuttled, but without making any worthwhile attempt to salvage all the valuable bits and pieces; she went to the bottom with a brand new donkey engine that had Just been installed.

On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog: Gracing the Gilberts
I must not omit one other small but stalwart sea-going vessel, the landing craft/ferry "Tabakea" (turtle), a largely home-made effort. At the start of her career she sported a loo built out over the stern. It was an alarming convenience, for inside the little hut the sanitation was Just a hole in the seat, and you dangled immediately above a large and rapidly threshing propeller. Since most of the ship's work was ferrying passengers, cargo and vehicles between Betio and Bairiki, a matter of twenty minutes or so, the loo was removed. This was all very well, but "Tabakea" also made occasional visits to the two nearest outer islands, which could take a day or two, to collect huge loads of pandanus thatch, the main roofing material in Tarawa. It was an impressive sight to see her fully laden, for the thatch was light and could therefore be stacked to great heights, so that the ship resembled a floating haystack, and must have handled like one.

One of these trips was quite eventful; with the acting Senior Magistrate (John Leaney) I made a day trip to Abaiang, which allowed both of us to get some useful work done. For this voyage the acting Marine Manager, Willie Schultz, had decided to keep his hand in and command the ship. On leaving Betio he realised that the ship, having recently undergone a major overhaul, had its compass badly out of true and should have been "swung". Since the southern tip of Abaiang is only some three miles from the northern tip of Tarawa, the atoll on which Betio stands (though the anchorage to anchorage distance must have been about twenty miles) and the voyage was to be made in daylight, Willie decided to press ahead. The outward leg was easy, but for one reason and another, our departure was delayed, and it was nearly dark when we left. The night was stygian, and Willie cautiously picked his way along Tarawa's outer reef. This was tricky enough, but to get into the lagoon and reach for safety in Betio was even harder, for it was necessary to find the reef passage, marked by the Fairway Buoy. We turned at approximately the right spot and peered anxiously into the dark, trying to spot the buoy. Suddenly John shouted "I can see the light - there it is" (we think that his eagle eye had actually spotted a light on Betio several miles off) "Got it" says Willie and swung the ship. There was a slow crunch, and very gently we rode up onto the reef No damage was done, but we were stuck there until the next high tide, unless someone came out from Betio to help us. This was where Willie's injured Islander pride came into play, and not for any inducement would he, a Master Mariner foreign going, summon help, so there we sat until dawn, when we crept, unwashed, unfed*, unrelieved and rather shamefaced, into Betio harbour.

*Almost - I had brought along a tin of cheap meat originally meant for my dog and John and I wolfed it down

1941 map of Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Colony Profile
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 78: October 1999
See Also
On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog: New Hebrides


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