The Solomon Islands in the Early and Middle Thirties

Courtesy of OSPA

by R. A. Lever
The Solomon Islands
in the Early and Middle Thirties
Fifty years ago the capital of the then-styled British Solomon Islands Protectorate was concentrated on the southern end of the small island of Tulagi, itself tucked into the larger Florida island (see Tulagi: The Capital That Was Abandoned. The site had been chosen in 1893 on account of its more or less central position and the possession of a good harbour with depths of up to 27 fathoms. On an Empire cruise in the early twenties, Admiral Lord Jellicoe was looking for a site for a Far Eastern Naval base for which, of course, the final choice was Singapore - but one cannot help wondering how events would have gone had the giant graving dock been constructed in the Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islands
in the Early and Middle Thirties
Tulagi Chinatown
Although Tulagi had the usual complement of hospital, post office, prison, wireless station, Lands, Survey and Public Works Department (under one roof) and Treasury, Customs and Excise (under another one), yet by 1935 there was no lunatic asylum, or schools. This probably unique set-up for the capital of a dependency, was simply due to the system adopted whereby grants were made to the missions (there were five brands of Christianity) in return for non-sectarian education in addition, of course, for propagation of their particular religious beliefs. This anomalous system was soon changed and both schools and an asylum were in operation just before the last war.

In parentheses, Tulagi was virtually destroyed during its capture from the Japanese by the United States Marine Corps in 1942 and a large hutted camp on Guadalcanal was developed into the new capital of Honiara which has since spread from the coast into the adjacent foothills. The first residency there was built out of the remains of a disused casualty clearing station left behind by New Zealand forces - it had to be content with a thatch roof made from palm fronds.

The Solomon Islands
in the Early and Middle Thirties
Seaplane Base, 1942
As in most, if not all, tropical colonies, after-office activities were centred on the golf and tennis club, a timber building perched on concrete piles built for under-floor ventilation and to repel white ants. On the evening of Steamer Day - the six weekly arrival from Australia of mail and stores - a larger than usual turn-up could be assured with a determination to obtain a copy of the brown-covered Times Weekly or Punch while sipping a pink gin or a 'schooner' of Australian lager. These would have been served by the unflappable Ah Sui - doubtless to-day carrying trays of nectar in some choice Chinese valhalla.

The 9-hole golf course played a more important role than in larger communities and the final hole with one's back to the south-west headland passed a row of coconut Palms was done in good time before the sudden sunset. It had proved impossible to have proper greens so rolled laterite 'browns' had to suffice. These were kept in tip-top condition by long-term prisoners (mostly murderers from Malaita) and as the Commissioner of Police was one of the keenest players, a good surface was provided for the first players each evening. Golf balls were liable, if driven more than a very few yards into the rough, to disappear down holes made by land crabs; a cadet who arrived the same year that I went on transfer writes of fiendish coconut crabs which actually bore off one's ball", - but then we all know that the Administrative Service tended to have ways of their own.!

The Solomon Islands
in the Early and Middle Thirties
Tulagi Residency
It was most amusing to read in a war-time issue of Life magazine that the Japanese forces during their occupation of Tulagi were responsible for the construction of the golf course which must then have been well over fifteen years old. (The next broadcast from Washington was given less credence than usual). Dinner parties at the Residency - a large building enjoying the luxury of electric lighting - were always looked forward to and sometimes provided unrehearsed amusement when a new arrival clearly showed he had not previously seen a finger bowl and did not know what to do with the wretched thing. For the others, excluding the Senior Medical Officer and the Wireless Officer, had pressure Tilley lamps with hurricane lights as a stand-by.

The Solomon Islands
in the Early and Middle Thirties
MV Southern Cross
It is axiomatic that no capital is representative of the country and I was fortunate in that my work as an entomologist enabled me to do a fair amount of travel thus avoiding what must have been a humdrum life for those tied to their desks. As attempts at descriptive travelogues are clearly not expected here, I shall simply recall some impressions of a few of the larger islands forming a double chain extending for some 600 miles to the south-east of Papua New Guinea. Owing to Guadalcanal being the main island during the Solomon Islands campaign, it changed almost overnight from an unknown place to a household word. Its shape was described by an American scientist as similar to that of Paramoecium which is helpful if one knows this is popularly known as the slipper animalcule. It measures some 80 miles and has the unusual character of miles of grassy plains along its northern coast in addition to mountain peaks over 8,000 feet high which is better than anything throughout the continent of Australia. Gold mining was developed in a small way in the 'thirties which is a matter of historical interest as the first Spanish explorers as early as 1568 made unsuccessful efforts at prospecting in one river.

The Solomon Islands
in the Early and Middle Thirties
Marovo Lagoon
The most populous island of Malaita, which supplies the bulk of the plantation labour force, has the unusual distinction of one village having persons who are able to call porpoises from their depths to approach the coast. While most people tend to claim that some part of "their" colony, whether Mauritius, Fiji or Grenada, is unrivalled for some particular piece of scenery, a very good claim can be advanced for the Marovo lagoon on the scattered group known as New Georgia which also includes the conical Kolombangara with its extinct volcanic crater.

The system of government calls for some remarks as the Solomons, as well as the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) to the south-east, were both administered by a Resident Commissioner responsible to the High Commissioners in Fiji who was also Governor of that Colony. It is easy to see what an impracticable system this was in view of the great distances separating the different dependencies involved and without air mail, it was only to be expected that the R.Cs played for safety by referring tricky questions to Suva.

A personal experience of this occurred over an isolated island called Rennell whose inhabitants had at this time not been converted and so aroused professional jealousy between some of the more aggressive missionaries. As a result, the island had been officially declared a 'protected' or special area denied any visits from ships. It so happened that its fauna was unknown, thus being of interest to the Natural History Museum, South Kensington. Accordingly, I had been given a letter from the then Director asking if a visit could be arranged sometime in order to secure specimens. The R.C. quite naturally felt it safer to forbid my going there with the result that I had the mortification of seeing a visiting American yacht being granted a permit on grounds of not being members of the BSIP government. Hence a fine series of new species of birds, fish, reptiles and insects were secured for U.S. Museums which normally would have become accessions to the national collections in London. When a British and Danish team went there after the war they were suceessful in getting a new species of bat.

The Solomon Islands
in the Early and Middle Thirties
1d Solomon Islands Stamp
Despite the remoteness of the Solomons, they responded with vigour to the application of sanctions when Italy invaded Abyssinia (as it was) in 1936. Having run out of photograph albums I ordered a couple through may agents in Sydney. Quick to make a good profit out of a distant client, they sent two beautiful albums, apparently made by a leading craftsman in Florence. By the time I had paid for them plus the extra customs dues imposed, personal photography was virtually stopped so far as I was concerned until my bank account had recovered from the strain.

The Solomon Islands
in the Early and Middle Thirties
10/ Solomon Islands Stamp
Some three years before my arrival there had been a most regrettable murder of a District Officer, his cadet and a dozen native constables. The rising, due to resentment at paying head tax, was soon put down but in certain parts of the same island of Malaita, there were standing orders that an escort had to be provided. Shortly after setting out from my quarters came the first of several sudden showers - annual rainfall ranged from 80 to 120 inches, resulting in my escort each time taking shelter under the thickest tree. The reason for this turned out to be a desire to keep the bolt and sling of his rifle dry so as to save him extra work with an oily rag and khaki bianco on his return to barracks. The armed native constabulary was a well-organised force and in those days wore nothing above the waist. The difference between then and now can be seen in the local stamps where the Id. of King George VI shows the pre-war uniform in contrast to the 10/- of 1956 with a rifle-less constable now wearing a long-sleeved tunic.

This seems a good place to record a job I was allotted in 1935, the year of the Silver Jubilee of King George V, which was commemorated with an issue of four stamps with a view of Windsor Castle. These sets were not to be issued after the end of the Jubilee year so that unsold stocks had to be destroyed. With a second member of the Service, the Treasurer and a couple of kerosene tins and a few spoonfuls of petrol we had to bum the balance of sheet after sheet of mint stamps. These now fetch quite good prices with the set of four changing hands at 20 pounds - if only we had been allowed just a couple of sets each as a little souvenir!

Tulagi, the capital that was abandoned.
1935 Stamp
A good working knowledge of the native language is something which has to be acquired in every colony but, probably uniquely, in the Solomons the official language was so-called 'pidgin English' of which a few examples are provided. Certain words have a restricted meaning thus 'behind' means later, never to the rear and similarly 'before' refers to the past as in 'time before'. Harder to get used to is the word 'kill', pidgin for to hurt or injure while for the word 'kill', it is necessry to say 'kill die finish'. 'Me look him one fella Mary' means I saw a woman; 'altogether me no savvy' is I don't understand at all. Lastly 'Shootilight him e bugger up finish' means the torch (battery) is no good - used for a lamp would show that the wick is useless. To those who have had to swot Swahili, Fijian or Malay, it might seem that pidgin was child's play but to speak it well, using only the accepted words in the vocabulary, is much harder than it might be expected by those who have not tried it.

In retrospect, the most significant feature about pre-war life in the BSIP was the permanently acute shortage of cash available both for development and administration. This stemmed from the inflexible Colonial Office rule that every dependency must be self-sufficient financially so that one could have only what one could afford. In our case, we were virtually dependent for revenue on the dues for copra exports - the exceptions being kauri and other timber and a commodity known as ivory nuts from a species of palm. Unfortunately, the price on the world market for copra continued to fall during the thirties so that we were in the position of always having to cut all but essential expenses. Three years before his death, the R.C. of my time wrote a letter to me containing these words: "I wonder if any of you fellows . .. realised how difficult it was to work with no money in the kitty . . . However, that is all over and today the Treasury is overflowing with milk and honey". Never were there truer 22 words as witnessed by current official reports from which it is seen that a training college and a technical institute exist as well as a philatelic section run by the postal authorities. With taxis, cinemas, three clubs and three hotels at Honiara, the present capital is a metropolis compared with Tulagi.

Out of the very modest pre-war administration, no less than four members lost their lives in the last war, two in action against the Japanese. However, that is another story. Since independence the term Protectorate has been dropped along with the word British and the accepted name is now just the Solomon Islands.

British Colony Map
Administrative Districts
Colony Profile
Solomon Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 51: April 1986


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