In this Q&A session, Clive Moore talks to Bethany Keats about his recent book, Tulagi, which focuses on the British Solomon Islands Protectorate (BSIP) and its original administrative centre, Tulagi.
Why is Tulagi an important story that needs to be told?
Tulagi, a small island in the Ngela or Florida Group, was the first capital of Solomon Islands. Tulagi became the headquarters town in 1897, and the pre-war Protectorate was run from there. The settlement was destroyed during the Second World War, and then the administrative headquarters was shifted to Honiara on Guadalcanal. The British Solomon Islands Protectorate (BSIP) was a major British Pacific territory, yet we know little about Tulagi (compared with Port Moresby etc).
In the introduction you mention that the book can be read as a ripping yarn, and that you’ve kept academic debates out of it as they won’t be relevant to most readers. Therefore, who have you aimed this book at and why?
I wrote the book out of historical curiosity as a retrieval exercise. Historians like a challenge. There are documents in the BSIP files in the Solomon Islands National Archives and in the Western Pacific High Commission Archives, but very few personal papers exist. Tulagi was a quaint colonial town, too small for a newspaper or a school, and it had no wheeled vehicles bigger that wheel-barrows. There were only a couple of hundred foreign residents. When World War II reached the islands many of the expatriate families had to leave with only one or two suitcases, in 1941 or early 1942. They did not even take their photographs with them, let alone diaries or other papers. I wrote this book for these families, but also for all Solomon Islanders, so that they can understand their first capital and its centrality to the nation. Everyone in the Solomons knows where Tulagi is, and what it once was, but knowledge stops there. Neither of these groups (expatriates who once lived there, or Solomon Islanders) are particularly interested in learned academic discussions, and debates over race and capitalism, or even the place of Tulagi within the British Empire. As well, I have reached a place in my career where I have retired and do not have to conform to academic ‘rules’. Tulagi was a fascinating place and deserves to be revealed as the strange place it was. Primarily the book is aimed at a Solomon Islands readership. It was fun to research and write, and because of the historical circumstances the sources are very diverse.
You also go into details about the people involved with its administration. Why are the stories of individuals important?
The Resident Commissioners lived there, all land and labour decisions were made there, along with several men and their families who made up the core of the public service on Tulagi. They were interesting long-stayers in a small Pacific town. The district administrators were also constant visitors. But Tulagi was more than one island: I argue that it was a small enclave which included trading and mission settlements nearby. The Burns Philp manager, the missionaries and the planters and traders were also crucial. Tulagi was the centre of the colonial Solomon Islands and small local vessels were always coming and going. Their stories are at the core of the Protectorate. And individuals make history live. Without them it could have been a boring administrative history.
You acknowledge that very little has been written about expatriate women in the Pacific colonial environment, and you’ve tried to tackle this with a chapter on home life. Given the lack of women in historical narratives, how did you go about researching their story? And why was it important to include this in your book?
As my research grew, I managed to contact some of the expatriate families who had lived on Tulagi. Expatriate women were the minority among the residents: they were almost all there with their husbands and families, yet if you read between the lines they are central to the history. The time is long past where historians can write history and leave out the women, even if their roles are mainly domestic. I was also curious about domestic life on the island. What was it like to live in the islands in the early decades of the twentieth century? There were Solomon Islands women there as well, but not many, as the government employees and house servants were mainly males. Again, as an historian I was trying to scour the available information to build an entire picture of life on Tulagi.
Your book contains a lot of historical photographs from the BSIP Tulagi period. Why was it important to include them?
Most people have no idea what the Tulagi settlement looked like. I tried to include as many photographs as I could as they help the ‘ripping yarn’ approach as you can visualise life in the island enclave. The photos make the book work and I am grateful to ANU Press for allowing me to use so many.
You discuss how the BSIP administration dealt with land rights. How was that different to the colonial government in Australia dealing with land rights, and why?
In BSIP (and the Pacific Islands generally) the British largely acknowledged that the land was ‘owned’ by the indigenous people, even though they declared some land ‘waste and vacant’ and issued rather unbelievable 999-year (millennium) leases. In Australia, the Crown claimed ownership of all land. The two systems are quite different. It is the difference between a settler society and a Protectorate, but even New Zealand, another settler colony, recognised indigenous land rights. Australia was quite unique and land issues are at the basis of modern Australia’s poor relationship with its Indigenous people. Until the Mabo judgement of the High Court in 1992 there was no recognition of indigenous land rights in Australia, whereas in neighbouring Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, the concept of indigenous land rights was basic to government processes.
The book includes a section on the Kwaio massacre of 1927, which was started when a local Solomon Islander killed a member of the colonial administration over tax grievances, resulting in retributive killings and the British asking Australia to retaliate. This appears to be a key moment in BSIP’s history. What lessons can be learnt from this massacre and the subsequent public discourse?
The 1927 Kwaio massacre on Malaita was quite horrific and in many ways was the height of violent colonial racist arrogance. It was one of the last times that the navy was used to quell Solomon Islanders, and the only time that an Australian warship was used in this way (as a proxy for British power). Even almost 100 years later the Kwaio people are still very tender about it all; the wound was deep. Colonial power and its misuse are writ large in the Kwaio massacre. Tulagi residents were central to the force of Special Constables who accompanied HMAS Adelaide on the expedition to the Kwaio region.
Relationships appear to be a key theme throughout the book (relationships with missionaries, traders, labourers, etc). How have these historic relationships shaped our present relationships with Solomon Islands?
Many of the expatriate males married Solomon Islander wives and their families are still prominent today, in business, politics and the public service. Just as with the Kwaio massacre, the relationships are a window through which we can look to understand British colonialism in the Pacific. In many ways the book is about how Solomon Islanders negotiated with the colonists, and inter-personal relations are an important part of this. Even though BSIP was never an Australian colony, proximity across the Coral Sea meant that there were always connections. Solomon Islands has borders with several Pacific Islands nations, but Australia is the largest neighbour. It was proximity and self-interest that brought Australia into the civil dispute in Solomon Islands which occurred between 1998 and the 2000s.
Tulagi makes it clear that there has always been a Chinese presence in the Pacific. What can those historical relationships teach us about contemporary relationships between China, the Pacific, and Australia?
The Chinese were crucial to middle-level commerce in BSIP. The Chinese were a large proportion of the expatriate population and as traders, they interacted a lot with Solomon Islanders. Chinatown was quite central to Tulagi. And some of the Chinese families still current in Solomon Islands began in Tulagi a century ago. The Chinese were important colonists in the Solomons and elsewhere in the Pacific. The Solomon Islands Government established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, although recently changed over to link with the People’s Republic of China. Today, the Chinese are an important immigrant community and are involved in a large range of commercial endeavours. They also include Southeast Asians of Chinese ancestry. The Australian Government is very aware of the diplomatic shift and the future role of China in the Pacific. The ‘old’ Chinese families balance between the more recent arrivals and Solomon Islanders. In many ways they are a bridge between the newer and older foreign influences.
Reading Tulagi there seem to be many situations where the past is reflected in the present, such as labour hire, colonial spheres of influence, lack of interest in local customs, and many more. How has (or hasn’t) Australia learnt from past interactions and relationships with the Solomon Islands and the wider Pacific?
BSIP was a British, not an Australian colony. Even so, Australians did interact constantly with Solomon Islands: the shipping came mainly via the Australian east coast, and the large merchant companies like Burns Philp and Carpenters came out of Australia. Early on, most of the public servants were British, although increasingly they also came from Australia, as did many of the middle-level workers on plantations, and in the Christian Missions. One of the major churches of today, the South Seas Evangelical Church, was originally begun as the Queensland Kanaka Mission and transferred to BSIP in the 1900s. Although it was a British territory, Australia was also always there through trade, communication, colonists and Christianity.
Because Papua New Guinea was once an Australian administered colony, Australia’s Pacific connections were largely concentrated there. Generally, Australia was quite ‘distant’ from Solomon Islands after World War II, concentrating on Papua New Guinea. Before the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI, 2003–2017) Australia was not a major aid donor (the Solomons rated at about the same level as Samoa). Yet, in 2003 Australia and New Zealand led and largely financed RAMSI. Australia has developed a new relationship with all of the nations of the Southwest Pacific, and has to deal with other regional powers (like China) developing interests in the region. Our relationship with Solomon Islands began with the labour trade (1870–1904) which transported Solomon Islanders to work in Queensland. Now the Seasonal Worker Schemes bring men and women from the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations to work in Australia. The Pacific Islands are no longer an exploitable but neglected extension of Australia borders and areas of influence to the east, and Australia is developing a new and mature relationship with its Pacific neighbours. Other than Papua New Guinea, Australia has now invested more into the stability of Solomon Islands than into any other Pacific nation. Proximity and self-interest have overwhelmed the different colonial circumstances.