The British Empire Library

"...When The Long Trick's Over". Donald Kennedy In The Pacific

by Mike Butcher

Courtesy of OSPA

John Smith (Western Pacific 1970-78)
Colonial memoirs and gubernatorial biographies abound but a well- researched biography of a District Officer is so rare that the recipient of such attention will surely be exceptional. Donald Kennedy was certainly not the average DO; his entry into the administration, his departure from it and his service in between belie the stereotype. Grimble said of him that he 'is not an ordinary man. He is clever (even exceedingly clever); he is an excellent teacher; he has qualities of heart and head that lift him well above the average officer and seem to mark him out for success...' Maude, who worked closely with Kennedy, described him as 'an extremely brilliant person. He had brains and capability far ahead of any of us in the Colony.. .the cleverest person in the service by far.. .cleverer than any of the Resident Commissioners.' Even the Secretary of State, after meeting him in England, was impressed enough to write to the High Commissioner mentioning the breadth of his interests and the fact that Sir Arthur Richards regarded him 'as much above the average of administrative officers in the Western Pacific...'.

'No man did more for Tuvalu' Maude was to say. Kennedy had established the school at Vaitupu that gave the then Ellice Islanders a head start over the Gilbertese in western style education, a major factor in the separation of the two island groups in 1975, prior to independence. A New Zealander, Kennedy, the first in his family to receive higher education, trained as a teacher and his first colonial service appointment, in 1921, was to Suva Grammar School, Fiji. In Vaitupu he proved to be a sound teacher and a tough disciplinarian, convinced of the importance of English, contrary to the policies of the day. He re-invigorated the ailing co-operative society so successfully that it became the model for coops throughout the colony. His papers on Ellice culture and land tenure were published by the Polynesian Society. He established radio links with New Zealand, acquiring an expertise that would serve him well during the war when he survived the longest stint of coastwatching in the Solomons, for which he was awarded the DSO. He then played a major role in Banaban resettlement.

Yet this record of success was accompanied by petitions asking that he be removed, accusations of violence, a complex personal life with three marriages and other liaisons, uneasy, often contemptuous, relationships with authority and colleagues and a constant problem with alcoholism. Mike Butcher endeavours to show why this able and effective administrator failed to live up to expectations but he remains an enigma.

Infection with filariasis (endemic in Vaitupu) had resulted in Kennedy's transfer to Tarawa, as acting headmaster, but he soon returned to the Ellice as an acting administrative officer and was quickly appointed Lands Commissioner. It was while he was on study leave just before the war that a group of Ellice Islanders petitioned that he not return, complaining of his drunkenness, cruelty and womanising. Despite another more representative group arguing in his favour he was posted to the Solomon Islands where he quickly proved himself preparing for war, in which he displayed outstanding leadership. Commissioned in the Solomon Islands Defence Force he was responsible for coastwatching on Isabel and New Georgia. His seamanship and radio skills were crucial and his success against the Japanese renowned, but his use of corporal punishment to maintain discipline caused complaints once the war moved on. A 'safe' posting was found for him in the secretariat. Office work did not appeal, and Maude, colonial secretary, decided he was the ideal person to gather together the Banabans, whom the war had scattered, and settle them on Rabi until the devastation on Ocean Island was repaired and a decision could be taken on their future.

Kennedy achieved much before the Banabans petitioned that he be removed. Their leader, Rotan, would be cited in the longest ever High Court civil actions in London thirty years later. He was a man with a mission. It was the end of Kennedy's career but unable to settle in New Zealand he saw out his days, often drunk, on Waya, a small and isolated island in the Fiji group, cared for by his third, Ellice Islander, wife. Mike Butcher's readable and intriguing account of a talented but flawed man makes a substantial contribution to the history of the Western Pacific, depicting the isolation, limited resources and lack of privacy that characterised the minute scale of the islands and so deeply affected the intensity of all relationships both between islanders and with and between the expatriates who shared their lives.

British Empire Book
Mike Butcher
Holland House Publishing
978 0 9871627 0 0


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