The British Empire Library

Fire Over the Islands: Coast Watchers of the Solomons

by D.C. Horton

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by W.
Although this is a book about war and has a fair complement of bloody battles and military maps with menacing arrows, pincer movements and the like it is not essentially a war book. Rather it deals with the impact of a modern war on the remote people of the Solomons, people of great physical sturdiness and splendid ruggedness of character, themselves with a long still well remembered (and secretly cherished) tradition of warlike ways but these last generations treading the way of peace, or almost so. The underlying theme is the courage faith and self-sacrifice of the islanders to which the book is primarily dedicated, and the "blossoming of their varied talents", which makes this much more than a slice of history. I would hope that this is the second book of a trilogy, first the idyllic backwater of the author's "Happy Isles", then this, a baptism of fire, and a rough collision with the great technological world outside, and the third book to come, I trust, the emergence of a united people with a new self-confidence and a pride in their history and achievements.

It is their lot to inhabit the last of the island stepping stones between the countries of Asia and the great spaces of the Pacific, and it was precisely this circumstance which caused the Solomons to become the cockpit of the Pacific War; the victorious Japanese seeking to establish a springboard for assault on Australia and New Zealand to the South, the Americans and their allies seeking to gain a toe-hold on the first stepping stone on the long road back to the enemy mainland. The past history of the Protectorate was not, on the face of it, such as to command the co-operation of the islanders. The Protectorate had been administered on a shoe string with precious little in the way of social services or economic development, with no political participation -- the islanders had in fact nothing much to preserve or protect or to fight for. Nor could the confusion, the breakdown of services, the disordered evacuation before the advancing enemy have encouraged in them great faith. But they stayed resolute -- for two reasons I think, first a firm belief in the Crown -- and the concept of kingship however remote was part of their way of life -- and also, one likes to think, because of a genuine personal affection and mutual respect for the administrators, missionaries and planters who had shared their lives over the years, and however fallible, as they were now shown to be, had tried their best. Early misdemeanours by the Japanese removed any lingering doubts there may have been.

In his first forty pages (and for the last thirty years) the author is highly critical of the local administration, of the High Commission in Fiji and indeed of all officialdom at this time. "It was more important for the higher echelons of Government to maintain their status quo vis a vis the Services . . . . than to get on with the war" . And "No one in Fiji had thought far enough ahead to consider the retaking of the islands". But, pray, with what? There were places far better found, far better prepared, far better defended than the Solomons -- Singapore, Hong Kong, Dutch East Indies for example -- which went for a Burton but the Solomons administration stuck it out. Although at the time I shared the author's irritation and impatience, reflection impels me to pay tribute to Marchant, the Resident Commissioner, who kept the show going in however a rudimentary way, at a time when, after the disaster of Pearl Harbour, Allied strength in the Pacific was practically zero. The author is too hard.

The great achievement of the book is the way the author welds together the story of great strategic thrusts with that of the silent mission of the Coastwatcher, the story of massive confrontations at sea and of bloody battles ashore with the secret exploits of Clemens, Vouza, Seton, Goratara and their solitary companions, the famous battle of the Ridge with the stealthy movement of unarmed islanders through enemy lines, the story of great enemy air armadas tracked to their doom by little groups of watchers deep in enemy territory, a story of the interdependence of great events and small, of armed battalions and unarmed irregulars. The author succeeds wonderfully well in his task of identifying the people with great events although for the general reader, he perhaps overloads the detail. It is also perhaps a pity, in view of the vividness of the report by the already legendary Sgt. Major Vouza of the events for which he was awarded the George Medal, and that of the admirable Saku, that the author did not obtain more first hand accounts from the islanders, accounts no doubt by now woven into the folklore. But that would have meant a much longer book and there are signs in the text that the author was operating under strict limits of space (imposed by the publisher?). I suspect, too, that a lot of descriptive writing has been blue pencilled -- if so a pity because the author is at his best in descriptive prose informed by a deep and abiding love of the Solomons and all that therein is -- "days which told of heaven".

Some faults. The dust-cover is a bit crude, but so was life in those days. A number of the maps are inadequate and some badly placed; for example the first map of Guadalcanal does not appear until page 62 and even then does not include many place names and features previously mentioned in the text. There are also some errors -- see Sangigai (famous place) misplaced on Choiseul. Finally the conversation pieces introduced no doubt in the interests of topicality, are somewhat contrived and seem a little dated.

A book primarily for those who knew the Solomons in the war but much to be commended to students of Colonial affairs, aficionados of the Pacific, military historians and practitioners -- indeed to most people, and especially to District Officers past and present should some there still be.

British Empire Book
D.C. Horton


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