British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Sir Robert Sanders, KBE, CMG
(Administrative Officer, Fiji 1950 - 76)
Nanggelelevu (also known as Nggele Levu or Qele Levu in the Ringgold Isles), despite having a name that means Great Land, was in fact a very small island. But at some 150 miles to the northeast of the Northern Division of the Fiji Group it was at the limit of the Northern Division which presented a challenge, and at the same time a responsibility, for the District Officer. Its people were a devout Roman Catholic community and I had my first contact with them when their chief came to see me with an island trader. The object of the visit was to ask me to witness a document assigning to the trader copra already bagged on the island. His ship had been delayed by bad weather and had not yet picked it up. But the islanders were wanting the proceeds in advance to contribute towards a big fund-raising for the church. The trader was prepared to advance the money but not unreasonably he was looking for security. No problem about that but my interest was whetted and I promised to visit Nanggelelevu within the month.

I took the Medical Officer along with me on the voyage as I thought the isolated place would benefit from a health check-up; and also because he was Irish and very good company. Two stories will make the point. Once having examined a visiting colleague of mine who was a bit off colour, he went to get the appropriate medicine, but returned to the patient empty handed. "Sorry", he said, "we don't seem to have the right drug for your complaint. I'll have to change the diagnosis."

And when he was invited by his headquarters to comment on a proposal to initiate centrally bought bulk supplies of food instead of buying locally, he commented, "If the bulk supplies of food are as successful as the bulk supplies of drugs, the patients will starve". He was told to couch his memoranda in more respectful language. This was water off a duck's back as far as Terry was concerned, though, unfortunately for us, and indeed the medical service as a whole, his contract was not renewed. I am pleased to say that he later enjoyed a successful career in Canada where his associates were less stuffy.

I had one or two other islands to visit on the way, but on the second day we launched into the deep blue yonder bound for Nanggelelevu. Conditions were perfect and the twin engines of the administrative vessel "Venture" seemed to be making good time. We lounged on the deck, smoked, drank kava, yarned and generally relaxed. It was up to the skipper and his crew to get us there. We were merely passengers. But by late afternoon there was no sighting of land anywhere. I knew the skipper was usually unwilling to sail in the dark, and besides, if we missed our objective, the next stop was Rotuma, the Ultima Thule of the group and after that empty ocean. After a discussion with a very worried skipper, who clearly didn't know what to do, I happened to glance to starboard and spotted a small dot a long way off.

"Make for that island," I said, "and we'll overnight there." A greatly relieved skipper altered course and we anchored there before dark.

It was a completely uninhabited island with a few coconut trees amid scrubby undergrowth and a beautiful sandy beach. We eventually identified it on the map as Nukusemanu. This means the sand to which the birds flee, and it was soon apparent how it got its name; for it was populated by numerous large sea birds which were quite unfazed by our presence. Had we been shipwrecked mariners we could easily have picked one up, wrung its neck, cooked it and eaten it. Fortunately for them, and probably for us, we had ample supplies aboard, and after a refreshing swim from the golden beach we spent a convivial evening on the ship. Unfortunately there was no question of going forward the next day as commitments at headquarters required our return. So ended my first attempt to reach Nanggelelevu.

The second was more eventful. This time I took Dave, the works foreman, who would be able to advise on the construction of a concrete water tank on the island. It appeared that for years the main sources of water there had been hollowed out trees to collect rainwater, somewhat imperfectly covered by flat stones - ideal breeding places for mosquitoes.

Dave was a keen fisherman and had brought along his tackle and also his camera, hoping for good sport which he could record. Our voyage was uneventful with not a fish biting till we approached Nanggelelevu. The island lies at the end of a long narrow lagoon, and because it is so low it cannot be seen from the passage through the reef. Just as we were entering and looking forward to our first sight of the promised land, a fish struck. It was a huge barracuda, and as it leapt about trying to shed the hook, we slowed down to allow Dave to play it, pull it in and eventually bring it aboard in triumph. It was a monster, fully five feet long, and it thrashed about on the deck snapping its razor sharp teeth. But Dave was not satisfied. He was determined to be photographed with his catch which writhed free and fell on the deck, pulling Dave down with it, for in the flurry he had impaled his wrist on the triple hook in the fish's mouth. So there he lay with the great fish gnashing its teeth and the hook pulling on his wrist, till a resourceful crewman enveloped the fish in a heavy sack, while another dispatched it with a heavy cudgel. The hook was then cut out of the fish's mouth, but Dave was in trouble. Two prongs of the triple hook were embedded in the inside of his wrist under the artery. A single hook could be simply pushed through the skin but this is impossible with two prongs of a big triple hook welded together, and there could be no question of amateur surgery so close to an artery. How we wished we had brought the doctor with us on this journey.

Third Time Lucky
Rabi Island
The only prudent course was to turn back immediately to reach medical attention as soon as possible. Fortunately we were able to contact headquarters by radio link and arrange for the medical officer to come by launch and meet us half way home at Rabi island. In the meantime we made liberal use of a bottle of gin, both as disinfectant and anaesthetic. At the rendezvous, the doctor soon had the hook out and the wound bandaged. He thoroughly approved of our medical treatment and his only complaint was that we had left too little for him. Thus ended the second attempt - so near and yet so far.

For the third, I did what I should have done in the first place. I invited the local Roman Catholic priest to join us. With his benevolent presence we had a smooth and uneventful journey and a happy landing. He was very welcome on the island and was able to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and baptise several children.

Third Time Lucky
Coconut Crab
While on the island we enjoyed the most delicious large clams which abounded in the lagoon. But another delicacy defeated us - the coconut crab. This creature climbs coconut trees, knocks the nuts down and then descends to rend the husks and shells with its powerful nipper claws. It is said that by wrapping leaves round the trunk half-way up the tree while the crab is at the top it can be deceived on its downward journey into thinking it has reached the ground so that it lets go, falls and becomes an easy prey. True or not, the crab certainly feeds on coconut meat which turns into heavy oily fat, much prized as a delicacy by the islanders, but politely declined by us.

But one piece of lore I believe implicitly. We were told that the mosquitoes operated in two watches, one day and the other night. If this was not true there must have been two varieties of mosquitoes for there was no respite during the twenty-four hours and we were nearly eaten alive.

So, for all the warmth of the islanders' welcome and all the interest and achievement of the visit, it was with a slight sense of relief that we left. The sooner they got that concrete water tank the better. But any way, third time lucky, or should I say third time blessed?

map of British Empire
Map of Fiji, 1967
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 113 (April, 2017)


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