The British Empire Library

Vaitupu: Two Years on a Remote Polynesian Atoll

by John Chalkley

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by J H Smith (Nigeria 1951-70, Western Pacific 1970-78)
This is a humorous and readable account of two years spent on the remote Polynesian atoll of Vaitupu where John Chalkley, accompanied by his wife Sylvia, went in 1976 to teach art and craft at Motufoua, a former mission secondary school taken over by the government when the Ellice Islands separated from the Gilbert Islands. Vaitupu is the largest atoll in Tuvalu, as the country became at independence in 1978, but it is less than three miles long, just over a mile across at its widest, with a lagoon taking up about a fifth of the area contained within the reef, not much larger than Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. In the seventies it was accessible from Funafuti, the capital, only by an eighteen hour journey on the government ship, Nivanga, which called four or five times a year. Inspired at school by a superb geography teacher and with a youthful ambition to join the merchant navy, the author not only had some idea of what to expect but every intention of making the best possible use of his time in the limited environment of a small atoll. He could not have chosen better for Vaitupu is famed for its hospitality and the quality of its singing and dancing. John Chalkley writes frankly and with perception about the problems, including his own spell of sickness, the demon drink and the tension between church and state, as well as the pleasures of stepping outside his own society and immersing himself in one so sharply in contrast to it. Despite the inevitable frustrations and considerable privation by the standards of the late Twentieth Century, he clearly enjoyed himself, learned much and recognises that he is the better for his experience.

There can be few memoirs in the colonial genre so intensely focused on one very small place, but these are written with the observant eye of the artist and the narrative keeps the reader engaged, amused and often made to reflect. The text is liberally scattered with the author’s own delightful and explanatory illustrations. For those who have lived on an atoll or had the pleasure of knowing the Tuvalu people, both narrative and illustrations will not only bring memories flooding back but sharpen the detail of things which they may have never fully noticed. Both the Chalkleys obviously enjoyed good rapport with their hosts, took part in island activities in which fishing, dancing and singing play so large a role and accepted with ease the laid back approach to time and the different order of priorities which are the Pacific way of life. When the long Christmas holiday gave them a breather from Vaitupu, they went not to Australia or to New Zealand but to Fiji to visit Kiao, an island purchased by the Vaitupu in 1947 to provide space for overflow population.

The book is about Vaitupu, Tuvalu culture and their effect upon the author rather than about the school and his teaching, although there is a vivid account of a strike protesting against the martinet of a principal, and he writes warmly of colleagues and pupils, and fishing and camping with them. Asked on his return to England what had made most impression upon him, John Chalkley replied that it was his own insignificance in the immensity of the universe and of time, a sentiment with which all have lived on an atoll will understand and endorse.

British Empire Book
John Chalkley
Matuku Publications


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe