The British Empire Library

Don't Step on a Stonefish!

by Dan Raschen

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by K.Nicholson (Gilbert & Ellice Islands 1947-1956)
The one-time Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) covered such a vast and otherwise empty area along the equator - two million square miles, of which only some three hundred was land - that few of even its inhabitants, indigenous or expatriate, ever had the opportunity to visit much of it.

Colonel Dan Raschen had this chance in 1959 when sent (as a Major in the Royal Engineers) to Christmas Island in the extreme east of the colony, a thousand miles south of Honolulu, to command the Army detachment left there when the UK nuclear weapons testing was suspended.

On arrival at Christmas, his first job, at the request of the Colony's Government, was to survey as many of the islands as possible - most between one and two thousand miles away - and advise how (and if!) boat channels could be blasted in the coral reefs surrounding the islands to improve ship-shore communications for the islanders. Don't Step on a Stonefish is largely his very entertaining account of this 10 days survey, travelling by whatever ship could be found to go his way, from Christmas through the Phoenix Group to the Gilberts and the Ellice. But he also gives a rare picture of activities on Christmas, the largest coral atoll in the world, at the end of the first nuclear tests; and his anecdotal descriptions of government and expatriate life towards the end of colonial rule sometimes recall Maude's comment on "the soul-destroying trivialities of European headquarters life".

Necessarily he spent much time at sea, and records honestly the difficulties (and his own discomforts!) in small ship travel, even to one ship being unable to find the island he planned to visit; though Wilkes had the same problem in the last century, finally concluding that the islands he sought didn't exist.

He is particularly fascinating when describing in detail his work in the more remote islands, often surrounded, indeed hindered, by crowds of children shrieking with amusement at this European's peculiar antics in the water. His enquiries constantly lead from one subject to another - and all is duly recorded - how to make grass skirts; the best way to blow up coral heads, what happens if you ignore the way a giant walks round an island; how a pre-war DO (unreported to the survey team) had begun to blast reef channels (his method of drilling gave the clue on the best way to blast through the hard slabs of coral, though Raschen had to ferret this out from an old Ellice Islander). This is where an index would have been handy.

It is a pity that the standard of reproduction of photographs fall below that of the excellent maps and diagrams; and although it is a solidly produced hardback, when compared to recently published paperbacks about the Pacific such as Bevington's, the price of #14.95 may deter some would-be readers. The occasional misprint or slip has crept in - the long-time owner of Christmas was Father Rougier, and the first drillings on Funafuti (reaching 1114 feet) were by the Royal Society expeditions a hundred years ago. And as a European doctor at Tarawa found to her great relief, the Gilbertese do have a cure if you step on a stonefish!

But this is a lively and well worth reading contribution to the sparse material about the Central Pacific, as well as a light-hearted record of the initial stages (the channels were blasted in 1962) of help rendered by the Services to a very small and distant British colony.

British Empire Book
Dan Raschen
Buckland Publications Ltd.


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