The British Empire Library

Seven Years' Island Hopping

by Roddy Cordon

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Kelvin Nicholson (Gilbert & Ellice Islands 1947-56)
Roddy Cordon might well have given her second book about Pacific islands in the mid sixties the sub-title of A Woman in a Man's World, for this was the world she entered as the first Woman Education Officer appointed to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. This volume covers 1965 to 1967 and offers fascinating vignettes of both her work and the difficulties women encounter in taking part in island development. She must either have an excellent memory or have kept an exhaustive diary to record such detail; but also usefully breaks her descriptions of present-day island life with written or verbal accounts of historical events, and with lots of pictures.

Her work - which she normally obviously enjoyed - involved both the formal education of girls and the informal adult education of women and the well-being of their families, which demanded frequent visits to "small islands in little boats" (not always enjoyable!). (The equatorial inhabited atolls making up the now two countries of Kiribati and Tuvalu - the onetime Colony - are still remote and scattered over two million square miles of the Pacific!) A major difficulty, as in many countries, was the cultural distinction between feminine and masculine roles, which had been emphasised for so long by the educational system (and of course by the historical Order in Council reserving to men any posts in His Majesty's Civil Service overseas). Mind you, she had been warned before she left London that many island men ranked their wives somewhat below their canoes, houses and children.

To help change this, she found a useful tool in the Women's Committees which existed on some islands. To develop health standards, these went round inspecting houses (in one case even a District Officer's) and imposing a fine if the premises weren't up to scratch. The fines of course had to be paid by the husbands which didn't improve marital relations! (One of the few women Gilbertese community workers reported the custom in some islands that "wives not adhering to husbands' strictures" will either "receive a stick or to some, even death".) Mrs Cordon encouraged these committees so that at the end of two years, there were nearly 100 such with wider remits receiving monthly help from Education headquarters. This accent on adult women's education was essential as only since the fifties had girls education really begun to develop. And island schools' quality was often poor and materials scarce.

Another difficulty was the pronounced religious divide on many islands. In one school, only after her intercession was agreement reached between the Protestant head teacher and the Catholic assistant teacher who had removed the Catholic children to be taught separately! The Women's groups also helped in this field - it must have given Mrs Cordon pleasure to receive from one Protestant Women's Club which had met with a Catholic Club a letter which ended "and do you know, those Catholic women are just the same as Protestants!". But what emerges from her writing is the warmth she shows towards all those she describes. It is particularly delightful to find that most of her book is about the 1-Kiribati and Tuvaluans themselves, their needs, their hopes. And the few critical remarks are so gently phrased that they must be searched for.

As emphasised by the frontispiece, the book is also a memorial to Freda Gwilliam who did so much to forward women's education in developing territories. It was she who appeared at Mrs Cordon's interview and persuaded her to take on the Gilbert and Ellice instead of the New Hebrides. Lucky for the islanders, lucky for the reader

In the second volume, covering her last five years work in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu), Roddy Cordon continues her account of an expatriate civil servant's day-to-day life and work there in the years prior to independence. As in the first volume, whatever she was involved in she describes in detail, and although much of the book is about her professional activities, she covers many aspects of both her domestic life (from animals to Christmas dinners!) on a very crowded coral atoll (recent figures list some 25,000 islanders living there), and her obviously happy relationships with islanders and fellow workers.

Although she found herself allotted additional jobs at various times - acting (logically) as Community Development Officer, and inspecting and invigilating at 86 island schools - her main work as the first Women's Interests Officer continued to be to increase the knowledge and status of women in island culture so they could take their part in the development of the country. To do this meant particularly extending the network of women's clubs and associations to all islands, with support services to help them.

She therefore made good use of inter-island transport, both sea and air, managing to visit (albeit fleetingly) even the remoter islands, from Banaba to the Line and Phoenix Groups, as she found personal meetings with the women essential if only to help disperse the conservative attitudes of some islanders (even some women). Her complementary initiatives - such as the regular broadcasts for women and later for children, and (with some difficulty) the setting up of an islands library service - backed up the personal contacts, information and suggestions on a wide range of subjects made to the clubs.

Tradition was perhaps the main obstacle to the work but good beginnings were made in changing attitudes. One radical example is that women were persuaded of the need to improve hygiene at the sea latrines by cleaning around and under them. Before she left, women were travelling unaccompanied by male relatives to take part in conferences and training sessions at island centres and even going overseas to link with such activities in Australia and elsewhere in the Pacific. Mrs Cordon's two illustrated volumes are therefore a welcome and valuable record of how the enthusiastic workers of one small section of a colonial administration opened new horizons to women in the immediate years before independence.

British Empire Book
Roddy Cordon
Cordon & Wood


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