British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by James Tedder
Supermarket - Island Style
McIlrath's of Sydney
In the mid 1950s there were only two sources of European style groceries in the Solomon Islands, the Trading Company in Honiara which was often out of stock or the item was "on the next ship", and the old firm of Mcllraths of Sydney. This firm had been supplying wholesale groceries to the South Pacific since well before the war. The firm supplied a catalogue and price list and several evenings were spent making up the order based on what was necessary or what couldn't be resisted from the lyrical description. The pantry had to be checked, the consumption rate of various items calculated taking into account the delays that could occur between sending and receiving the order. Then allowance had to be made for visitors, and functions such as the Queen's Birthday. Finally the budget had to be considered.

One of the problems was that the new order often had to be dispatched before the current one was received and you never knew what could not be supplied or what was certainly not going to be ordered again. Even though the Sydney ship came every six weeks a cyclone or a strike could delay it by two or three weeks so that uncertain period had to be taken into account. Then when our order was complete and ready to post was there a ship likely to be going to Honiara within a week or two? Of course the letter could arrive in Honiara the day the fortnightly plane had already departed. So that was a minimum of two months before we could see the order on the back verandah. We considered ourselves lucky; times in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were much longer.

So it was a long time between the making up of the order on the back verandah under the glare and hiss of the pressure lamp until we opened up the cases in the same position. There were other problems due to the long wait. Some items had fallen out of favour by the time they arrived, children had switched from baked beans to spaghetti, tins of meat ordered by the beauty of the label and the glowing description in the catalogue had by now been uncovered for their false advertising and here was another case ordered before we had decided how to dispose of the first case.

Mail Day in Solomon Islands
Kira Kira
So the arrival of the Mary off Kira Kira as described in Mail Day was exciting not just for the mail but whether our new grocery order had been shipped. Whether the station orders had been supplied. Was there rice for the hospital patients and drugs, what about the new drugs promised two months ago, and was the drum of petrol for the radio battery charger, missed from the last ship, finally on board, and what about the vital building materials holding up work on the new hospital?

Our other concern was whether there had been sufficient time between the arrival of the Australian ship and the sailing of the Mary for the customs agents to have cleared and loaded our grocery order and whether unloading was going to be accomplished without any dinghy capsizes. Kira Kira had only a bay protected from the worst of the SE weather but open to the north and north west. During the SE period landing was no great problem with only a small surf onto the sandy beach. During the months of November and December there would be occasions when a huge low swell would be running and then the surf could be horrendous breaking far out and giving little warning of its coming.

It was strange that so much food had to be imported but it was the lack of variety in the local produce. Living on the coast one could be expected to have plenty of fish but not only were they difficult to catch but the local people were gardeners not fishers. The few Polynesians on the station sometimes would have fish for sale but even they found fishing difficult. There were always sweet potatoes for sale and some local "greens" but there was no established market, possibly because of the low population density. Fruit was hard to find. We did grow pawpaws, tomatoes and sometimes managed to buy a bunch of bananas. One group of people to the east had as their basic diet green bananas, usually boiled - not very appetising.

There were two ancient grapefruit trees which yielded wonderful fruit for several months of the year. This seemed to coincide with an influx of visitors from Honiara or there would be a plea from Honiara as to whether we could spare a few for an important visitor. But these fruit were no respecters of authority. Sir Christopher Cox, then the adviser to the Colonial Office on Education, caught an eyeful of juice one morning. Many Europeans even imported potatoes and onions but they were often a mass of rot when they arrived so we decided very early to make use of the yams, taro and sweet potatoes. We did however keep a tin of dehydrated potato in the pantry for our visitors whose taste buds couldn't take the local root vegetables. Several times we tried to bring down from Honiara fresh meat and butter and as there was no refrigerator on the ship I suggested if the parcel was put high on the foremast it would keep cool for the eighteen hours - but of course it didn't. Whenever there was a local feast in which a bullock or pig was killed then we usually ended up with some meat - usually very tough but a nice change from tinned meat.

There were at times errors in our overseas grocery order which could not be easily corrected, such as ordering a case instead of a bottle of coffee essence. We sold on bottles, used them for presents and even bequeathed the remaining bottles to our successor. Large rounds of cheese wrapped in cheesecloth were wonderful for the first month but then tended to develop strange moulds. But there must have been a stage in the maturing process which we did not see in our cheeses. Father Devlin at Dala in Malaita invited me in for lunch one day as I walked by. After lunch he asked if I liked cheese and sent off his house servant to "fetch the cheese from the shed". A few minutes later I detected a very strong odour closely followed by the cheese held at arms length by the small boy. Holding noses we cut pieces and the flavour was wonderful and there was no mould; perhaps the mould could not stand the stench. Apparently the cheese had been lost in Honiara sheds for several months before being "found".

A side of bacon packed in salt was imported and hung over the fuel stove in the kitchen. It remained in good condition for a number of weeks before turning rancid. Even then I found that taking slices packed in salt on tour then grilled over the village fire removed the rancid flavour.

So with the groceries opened and the next order sent off, the next few weeks would be devoted to answering the personal mail, paying the bills, and reading the magazines and enjoying the whole process and even looking forward to the next mail day.

Meanwhile, I had a tour on the morrow and attention would be turned to other matters. It was only after I had left that the station could lapse back into its routine not to be disturbed until I returned or the next ship arrived from Honiara.

Solomons Map
Solomon Islands Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 91: April 2006


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