The British Empire Library

Ghost Stories And Other Island Tales: A colonial officer in the Gilbert Islands

by I E Butler

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Michael Walsh Economic Adviser to the Government of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (1971-76) and Honorary UK Consul for Kiribati (1996 to the present)
The OSPA journal last year carried an obituary of Ian Butler, who went out to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the 1950s to escape from his humdrum existence in Birmingham, working for ICI. He did two tours in the GEIC before moving to Swaziland for a decade and eventually settling in South Africa.

After his death, Ian's family found a manuscript that he had written about his time in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, but about which he had never told them. This has now been published as Ghost Stories and Other Island Tales.

He went at a time when the ravages of the Second World War had been largely overcome, but before the constitutional developments of the 1960s and 70s had started. In a curious way the GEIC had become a time capsule:

'Bairiki was the seat of the Resident Commissioner and senior civil servants. It was small, shady and quiet with a neat village of Gilbertese and an assortment of government personnel all aware of their hierarchical ranking in terms of the official circular on precedence ... [I was told] "If you get an old file out make sure there is not a scorpion in it and keep the whites happy and you will be alright". If the first piece of advice was practical the second struck me as cynical but it proved only too true'.

Like so many who went to the Gilberts as young bachelors, however, Ian Butler clearly found the locals much more entertaining company than the expatriates, and he quickly fell under their spell - and their tuition. We follow him on an octopus hunt, through many history lessons, night fishing expeditions, finding out why the scent of ghosts haunted the rest house on Tabiteua, shark hunting, and learning not to kill rays if you were with someone from the 'ray' boti (clan).

At the same time, once away on District Officer postings far from Bairiki, he describes, as well as the locals, the many drunks and eccentrics; the missionaries - Roman Catholic, Protestant and Bahai (who mostly led lives of intense loneliness): 'tourists' with influence in London and total ignorance of local custom, but nevertheless bent on interference with it; and a disillusioned medical officer who shocked the community by suggesting that a clinic for malnourished children might be a better use of funds than 'a radiogram, some decanters and a picnic basket for the Residency'.

Quite apart from the tales, however, this book is remarkable for the quality of its prose; in places it breaks into sheer prose-poetry. Here for instance is Ian's description of the night sky in the Gilberts: 'The heaven was vast and into it were fitted stars that were larger and brighter by far than the small points of light that shine in the nights of Europe. So expanded and numerous were they that it looked as if we were beneath a vast mosaic dome built with diamonds, blue and white, flaming opals and rubies, but stones had fallen or been lost and some were dim, so that there were dark holes and patches and the dome appeared old and in poor repair. But enough stones remained... to ... clean and polish the ceiling to the brilliance it had been'.

It is worth buying the book for the final two chapters alone. These concern a hunt for a 'bison/buffalo' in the Ellice Islands which had become the subject of a Parliamentary Question. Such questions were the one thing that terrified all Civil Servants, and it provoked a visit from the Colonial Office itself - which meant that not only the Resident Commissioner from Tarawa, but also the High Commissioner from the Solomons, had to accompany the hapless visitor from Whitehall. These chapters gave me my best 'laugh out loud' for years.

Let us hope that there are other memoirs of Empire out there as good, and yet to be discovered!

British Empire Book
I E Butler
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