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SOLOMON ISLANDS

The Malaita Massacre

6. Steps to Pacification

 
When Bell tool command of Auki in 1915, the native constabulary, under command of Campbell and his successor, Kirke, was relatively ineffectual. the initial constabulary was mainly from the Western Solomons, particularly Choiseul; when they were buttressed by recruits from Tana, these were hardly more effective in an alien setting. As Malaita recruits wee taken on, they were ill-trained, and their loyalties were torn when they operated in home districts. the police were under immediate command of a Choiseulese Sergeant-Major named Alike (Alec), whose approach is characterized by Mann:
 
Alec ... (was) a 'brass hat' if there ever was one. A patrol sleeping on duty might b let off with a reprimand, but Bell told me Alec recommended death for anybody caught laughing in ranks . . . (He had) a knowledge of several dialects and beche-la-mer.'
 
 
The constabulary, in these early years, was viewed with derision by the strongmen of the hills; Mann's 1917 photographs show the police to be a fairly scruffy mob, however resolute. Bell realized that pacifying the island would be impossible unless he created an effective constabulary that was familiar with Malaita custom, was under his own effective command, and was intensely loyal to him personally as well as devoted to duty - a constabulary of his own Fast Guns to meet strength with strength. Bell concentrated his early efforts on pacifying the To'abaita-speaking peoples of the north-west end of the island, where the S.S.E.M. had established a strong foothold at Malu'u. It was in this district that Sergeant Major Aliki had led the bloody raid on Aitoli village in 1916 - the raid that had triggered off Bell's confrontation with Barnett. Bell's strongest supporter at Malu'u was an old friend, a Queensland returnee named Stephen Gori'i. Gori'i was a central figure in the pacification of To'abaita, and Bell's strong arm in the area. Gori's sister's son, Maekali, enlisted in the constabulary. so did Gori'i's lineage kinsman, Makasi ('Marcus') Konda'ae, Maekali's second cousin, whose literacy, gained as an S.S.E.M. schoolboy, was to make him a valuable administrative asset to Bell. This was the beginning of a formidable cadre of young Malaitans who wee to rise to power in the constabulary as agents and extensions of Bell's authority. Another of Bell's tough young police recruits who was to rise in the ranks was Ba'etalua, who joined with a To'abaita contingent in 1918, after three years of plantation experience. Maekali and Ba'etalua were to rise through the ranks step by step, in competition with one another, until 1927 each was a sergeant. From Kwara'ae, Lau, Langalanga, West Kwaio, Bell got other young men - Tolo'au, timi Kakalu'ae, Malaurifu, Maeluma, Buga. Most but not all were Christians, all were attracted by the pay and prestige of police work and the power and magnetism of Bell. In 1975 an aged and feeble Kakalu'ae told anthropologist Ian Frazer how Bell had 'been a father to him'. Maekali spoke of Bell in similar terms to Ian Hogbin in the 1930s, and to me shortly before his death in the 1960s. Bell had taken him to Sydney once when he went on leave.
 
Bell's young police strongmen increasingly assumed the role and he assertive personality of the ramo. As Ian Frazer puts it, having explored the oral history of the Bell era in To'abaita,
 
Bell carried through his somewhat religious determination to make Malaita 'quiet' with a distinctive frontier style which must have been readily picked up by the small group he recruited around him, especially when it meant carrying on the Malaitan . . . tradition (of assertive maleness and violence) in the name of the Government.
 
This opens the way for a further crucial insight: Bell was himself increasingly becoming a Malaita-style strongman, as he and his police strongmen forced the ramo to capitulate one after another. He was acquiring an aura of supernatural power as well. a Kware'ae man incited his kin to kill a female relative in 1922 by claiming 'the same power as Misa Bello'. Bell's strategy was not necessarily to try the ramo for murder, but to intimidate them into retirement. he 'persuaded' a number of them to post substantial bonds as legally recorded guarantees of 'good behaviour'. Informal or formal personal pacts were formed with ramo in the parts of the island accessible to him; and each such pact meant, for sovereign and fiercely independent groups, a renunciation of wealth and power, an acceptance of subjugation and an acknowledgement of importance.
 
Although Bell's first and foremost task was to pacify the island, he looked ahead to the future benefits of law and order. he worked to build 'roads' for administrative travel, and court buildings, pushed for clean and sanitary villages. in the To'abaita area Bell sought to establish native-owned copra plantations, himself subsidizing initial plantings by his local ally Gori'i, Maekali, and his old friend from Fiji days Sale Eloa, who was married to Gori'i's sister.
 
Malaita was Bell's world, and he threw himself into it with a zeal unmatched by his contemporaries. But there was still an outside world, in Tulagi and Sydney. There were still fellow Europeans, missionaries and planters, on 'his' island. there was still a planter community pressing for more labour, still recruits, still a Resident commissioner and a hierarchy of colonial control. In dealing with the world outside, Bell continued to generate hostility and to alienate those who saw him as a traitor to 'his kind' - though his success commanded a sometimes grudging respect. He was concerned about the ill-treatment of Malaitain labourers on island plantation, the flogging and poor rationing of native police whilst training or on duty at Tulagi, and illicit concubinage of Malaitan women to traders and recruiters. his opinion on the conduct of recruiting ran clean counter to those of the influential Solomon islands Planters Association, whose clamour for measures to reduce the cost of local labour had resulted in the abolition of recruiters' trading licences and 'beach payments'. According to Bell, the first restriction robbed islanders of opportunities for fair trading:
 

in my opinion the only persons in the Protectorate who benefit by this provision are a Partnership (Messs MacCrimmon & Jackson) and a Mr. Waterhouse who have native stores on Mala(ita). thee is only one such store on the north-east coast and that coast is considerably over 100 miles long. when I was round thee recently the natives were complaining about the prices charged, for instance, 1/- for 6 boxes of wool matches which I can purchase retail at the Tulagi Stores for 7/6 a gross.

 
His unorthodox suggestion to remedy this position (in addition to the restoration of the recruiters' trading licences) was that the Chinese merchants of the group be allowed to trade and open stores around the island, with the islanders to benefit from the resulting competition. Bell saw the abolition of the beach payment, and the doubling of the wage which accompanied it, as a device by the planters to recoup as much as possible of the labourers' wages at the 'Company Store'' and he believed that it did grave injustice to the legitimate interests of the recruits' kin:
 

Many employers of native labour in the Solomon Islands appear to think that they should receive all their money back from the labourer forthwith . . . they appear to think that the natives should be treated as cattle, and they do not for one moment consider the people who have suffered pain, and years of worry and toil, in order to bring the natives, who become labourers for the white man, into the world and to provide for them until they reach a state of usefulness. the natives would not continue to propagate their species under cattle conditions and solely for the benefit of the white man . . . the present studied propaganda of employers of native labour is inspired only by the axe they wish to grind, and, if it has not already been done, I think it behoves someone to undertake the unpleasant task of putting the natives' side of the question as forcibly as, but more correctly than, those propagandists are putting their side of the question,. thee are always two sides to such a question, and an employer of coloured labour is not likely to present fairly the two sides of the coloured labour question.

 
These pronouncements of Bell's were in opposition to most private and a good deal of official thinking at the time. He had made an enemy of levers through his criticism of their treatment of labourers, and this must have put him in disfavour with the numerous representatives of the firm in the group, closer to home, he had attacked the Malayta Company for dishonesty in regard to its land claims. Respecting a certain piece of disputed land, Bell claimed certain knowledge that the islanders would not have ceded it to the company, since it contained a shrine held sacred by the people as the burial place of a hero. bell pointed out that observances at such places wee 'a vital part of their lives', and he regretted that the Malayta Company had violated many such places.
 
Bell's championing of the interests of what most planters viewed as expendable subhuman labour, and his sympathy to Malaita custom, were irritants enough to the European community. That Bell fraternized with 'the natives' on his visits to Tulagi, and avoided European company in the pubs that wee the normal habitat of whites in the tropics, wee further irritants for men who must have seen B ell as a traitor to 'his kind'. Usuli Tefu'i, a Malaita constable, who accompanied Bell in a trip to Tulagi, recalls that
 

He was the strongest of all the white men. But when he'd go to Tulagi or Mokambo (Burns Philp's base), he didn't want to go off with the white people. That's the way he was. He used to say to us that if he went off with the white people they'd spoil him with poison (something of a private joke for Bell: he of course was referring to alcohol, but did so in a way Malaitans would interpret as referring to sorcery). The white people of Tulagi and Mokambo weren't very happy about him . . . Once at Mokambo one of the Europeans got in an argument with him. The ',aster' insulted Bell and tried to provoke him into a fight. Bell told him to shut up. The other man said, 'Try to make me. You're afraid to fight!'. Mr. Bell said, 'It's true I don't want to fight. But if I did I'd grab you like this'. And he wrenched a great big piece of iron railing off the wall of that store in Mokambo, and the whole wall caved in. He didn't want to hit him, just to show that he was stronger than any of them.

 
Bell admired the accomplishments of the most dedicated and able missionaries on Malaita, but he viewed many of them as hypocrites and ignorant zealots who needlessly destroyed a rich cultural heritage they did not understand. And he scathingly condemned the way the S.S.E.M. used their religious influence in support of the Malayta Company, which was closely tied to the mission through the business interests of the Young family in Queensland.
 
The Colonial Service officers in Tulagi must have found Bell a special source of bafflement and frustration. H was not one of the upper-class, public school and Oxford- or Cambridge-educated gentlemen who wee born to rule the colonies and were sought by the colonial Service. he was a self-made man, scarcely educated at all; and worse still, he was Australian. but instead of being deferential to those of higher station, he exuded the strengths of will and self-assurance that wee supposed to be marks of proper breeding, exemplified gentlemanly virtues to the point of making others feel decidedly uncomfortable, and was quite prepared to challenge his superior officers with penetrating arguments. All in all, Bell stood isolated, over one issue or another, from practically all his fellow Europeans in the British Solomons. the effects of this isolation upon his temper and judgement must remain a matter for speculation. Perhaps he did not indulge in introspection, perhaps he subsumed private feelings and tensions in his work - at which he performed prodigously.
 
Although the planter community had at best an uneasy detente with Bell, whose primary concern with the interests of the Malaitans often placed him on the opposite side on issues of policy and practice, they accorded him respect: he stood so far above most of his contemporaries in the depth of his knowledge and the firmness of his commitment that he commanded admiration. he also served as a useful foil in the planters' conflicts with the colonial administration they subsidized - and this occasioned a eulogistic 1921 article on Bell in Planter's Gazette which quite aptly describes his performance.
 

The B.S.I.P. possesses, in Mr. W.R. Bell, . . . an officer of zeal and efficiency. His work on Malaita has been notable. Possessed by a long and intimate knowledge of Malaita, he has used that knowledge to extend the influence of the Government throughout that island. As a result of his efforts the king's Law now runs along the beach and through the jungle of what was, unto recently, the most savage and dangerous island in the Solomons. In doing so, he has gained the confidence and respect of the natives, and 'Misi Bello' is a name to conjure with in that dark island. Great credit is also due to this able officer for the manner in which his work has been accomplished. Without fuss or feathers or shouts or guns he had quietly and persistently extended his sphere of influence . . . seldom . . . has to fundamental a change been effected with so little disruption of native life and custom.

 
But behind the scenes, pressures mounted for a stoke that would swell a dwindling stream of plantation labour and augment Protectorate revenue, derived primarily from the export duty on copra - the introduction of a native head tax. this was first mooted in 1917 and was brought into effect by a Regulation of 1920. the reasons behind the introduction of the tax were mixed: some officials argued that tax payment was a 'civilizing' measure' the revenue to be raised was welcome to the administration; such taxes were in force in other parts of the colonial Pacific, and in African and other colonies, where they served to force natives into wage labour. while the British administration of the Protectorate has gone to some pains to disguise or deny the connection between the head tax and the supply of cheap labour, the colonial strategies of the time were transparent enough. In 1913 the British Governor of the then East African Protectorate had observed that 'We consider that taxation is the only possible method of compelling the native to leave his reserve for the purpose of seeking work. A head tax was the standard colonial strategy to force local labour to work, when the importation of cheap labour was unfeasible. The 1920 Regulation provided for the payment of a head tax not to exceed 1 pound per annum by all non-exempt males. Exemptions were granted to the old or infirm, supporters of large families, native mission teaches and indentured labourers whose tax was to be paid by their employers. the penalty for non-payment was a fine not to exceed 10 pounds, or imprisonment. 
 
Payment was to be made in currency, although payment in produce was to be permitted at the discretion of the Resident commissioner. In the first year of collection, 1921, the people of the Shortland Islands, the Russell Islands, the western islands, Gela and Savo wee to pay 1 pound per head, those of the less economically advanced San Cristobal and Guadalcanal 10% per head. Malaitans wee exempt from the tax until 1923. this exemption was largely due to the representations of Bell, who, between 1918, Bell spoke out strongly against it. there was virtually no economic development on the island and few Malaitans would be able to raise even a nominal sum of money each year. the bush people could easily disperse and regroup to frustrate any attempt to tax them; and it would be unfair to tax only the coastal people, who might move inland themselves if the attempt were made. Bell implied that the collection of a tax would seriously disrupt his efforts to bring increasing members of the island's people under control. so little attuned to a cash economy were the Malaitans, according to Bell, that they embraced wage labour only as a means to a particular end:
 
the inducement to a community to allow its young men to go away to work is invariably the want of tobacco and it often makes them persuade some of their number to go away to work. As soon as they have sufficient tobacco for their immediate requirements there is no further inducement from that point of view.
 
A former Chief Secretary of the Western Pacific High Commission, looking back on the system with a candour and economic insight rare among his contemporaries, reflected that the system of labour indenture:
 

... in fact, if not in theory, forced labour at very low rtes of wages -- forced by the imposition of a poll tax, by the desire for trade goods, and the total lack of other means of earning money, and organized on a system of two years indenture based on severe penal sanctions. it is certain that planters could not carry on without this indirect compulsion of labour and that the system is a vicious circle leading only to progressive impoverishment in many parts of Malaita.

 
Two and a half years later, however, Bell considered that certain districts presented no tax collection problems, in others the presence of 'individuals' or 'gangs' who would resist would make a hazardous. Furthermore, Bell was not anxious to be diverted from the task of disarming the Malaitans - which he seems to have seen as his major stroke at this time - nor to have the work obstructed in any way. During the years of the colonial labour trade (1870-1914) many thousands of 'Snider' rifles had been imposed into Malaita. though illegal, a trade in 'Sniders' and Winchesters had been carried on after the First World War and into the 1920s, with the result that there were few adult men in the bush areas who did not own a firearm of some sort. Many of the old weapons had become unserviceable, but many had not; the Malaitans had become ingenious at repairing guns and adapting ammunition. former Inspector of Labour R.F. Thomson commented in the late 1920s that:
 

Many of them have firearms that are in various stages of falling to pieces ... The natives love them and seem to have a natural facility for bringing old blunderbusses up to date with hair-triggers and other attachments they fashion. They are expert in covering cartridges belonging to modern arms into ammunition for the most old-fashioned weapons imaginable.

 
Edge-Partington, enjoined to disarm the Malaitans in 1915, had declared the task impossible. The Administration's king-term aim was to bring rifle-owning under taxable, registered control; but Bell had to proceed very carefully in the matter because certain groups of Malaitans were dependent upon their firearms for protection against hostile neighbours. Confiscation had to be done slowly and systematically with an eye to local politics and power balances. Bell's view was that since pacification and disarmament had yet to be achieved, peaceable and efficient tax collection on Malaita could only be carried out if he had improved transport and a competent assistant. Only strongly armed patrols, he argued, could collect the tax, and the operation would be excessively arduous and expensive. He judged that such a tax would force more Malaitans into plantation work; but he deplored this on the grounds that it would lead to the depopulation of the island: in his experience labour migrants produced few children.
 
Bell's concern with the Malaitans' ability to pay the tax, his concern about the Administration's ability to collect it, and his misgivings about the social consequences of increasing pressure toward plantation work eventually gave way when it became clear that the tax was inevitable. His recommendation for a tax lower than that imposed on other islands, a Malaita tax of five shillings per male adult, had been noted. Bell, in acceding to the pressures for a head tax on Malaita, moved into a second phase in the transformation of the island. Much of the island was substantially pacified - all those areas within striking reach of Bell's whaleboat and constabulary. but the wild east cost - Uru, Sinalagu, 'Oloburi, Maanawai, Takataka - remained uncontrolled and inaccessible: to get there, Bell had to leave Auki unattended too long, to stretch his supply lines and communications too thin. Bell saw in the tax, of it had to come, the means to complete the pacification of the island, and the creation of an administrative structure through which Malaitans could build a new social order, based on internal peace. In agreeing to tax the Malaitans, he imposed a counter-demand - one that could not reasonably be refused - for a motor launch and an Assistant District Officer, a cadet who could man the Auki Station in his absence and assume some of the burden touring. (By this time Bell's powerful physique, worn b advancing middle age and eroded by years in the tropics, must have been more and more drained by hard touring.)
 
In 1920 Bell wrote to the Resident commissioner:
 

(With) a suitable patrol vessel . . ., an Assistant District Officer . . . and number of police . . . increased b ten, I do not anticipate that It will be long before the whole island is under control . . . Although I have travelled over 500 miles in the whaleboat and canoes during the last six months i have not dealt with nearly all the work of the places which I have reached . . . Unless thee are improved facilities for carrying on the work of this district, I cannot foresee the time when the whole of the island will be under control.

 
Bell's launch finally came in 1921; and in the next several years an Assistant District officer was periodically assigned, relieving Bell of some of his burden of administration and touring. To further his design for Malaita's future, he built on the Naive Administration Regulation, adopted in 1922. This regulation authorized the appointment of District headmen, village Headmen and village constables - hence took the first small steps away from direct rule by the District Officer and his constabulary.
 
Bell began to appoint Headmen and village constables around the island - mainly men he had known for years, Queensland or Fiji returnees or others with local power in Christian or pagan communities, and with some sophistication in Pidgin and European ways: men like Stephen Cori'i at Malu'u. the headman or Village constable appointed for each 'passage' served as intermediary, information source, medium for official announcement, organizer of labour for the Administration, and guide when arrests were to be made. He and his deputy provided the local means for cutting and maintaining administrative paths, building rest houses and helping to pave the way for systematic taxation. (Although most were in fact appointed as Village Constables in the early years, they wee generically referred to as 'Headmen' by the Malaitans; and to accord with Kwaio accounts and simplify exposition we shall do the same.) The creation of tax rolls required an exhaustive list of 'lines' (local clans and lineages, or neighbourhood clusters of them) and their adult male members, for the entire island of 40,000 speaking a dozen languages and dialects. this task was accomplished through the collaboration of the 'headmen' and Administrative Clerk Konda'ae ('Marcus'). it is one of the many ironies of the Bell era on Malaita, in relation to the history of British rule on the Protectorate, that in the five years between the introduction of the native Administration Regulation and Bell's death at Gwee'abe, he had managed to create a system of administrative order that - however limited, in those wild days - was nonetheless more effective and efficient than the system that prevailed in the mountains of central Malaita forty years later.
 
Bell's health at the time was not good, but he collected the tax in the late months of 1923 and early 1924. the Malaitans paid a little more than 3,000 pounds. According to Bell, this had involved certain communities and individuals in 'heavy sacrifices'. the tax-collecting experience confirmed Bell in his opinion that the 'beach payments' were necessary: 'If the natives had not been able to avail themselves of the payment to recruits when recruited, the collection of the tax would have failed'. Most groups managed to pay the tax only by indenturing their young men into plantation work. the recruiting ships followed the tax-collecting party like vultures. A convention long established among the recruiters that no ship could intrude on a 'passage' where one of his competitors was already recruiting acquired a new dimension: the recruiters jockeyed for position as the tax collections wee scheduled, so as to benefit from the burst of recruiting to obtain money for the tax. Ernie Palmer, long-time Solomons recruiter, who was in the late teens when he began working for Malaita passages, recalls that:
 

You heard that the D.O. ... was going round to collect taxes ... it was a race between us to see who got there first. Whoever got there first dropped his anchor, and he waited for the D.O. to come on the ship. And then after the boys came down to pay their taxes, you recruited them ... Half the poor blokes hadn't got any money at all ... We didn't pay in cash, of course, we paid in tobacco and calico and axes and knives... We handed the boys over, and they got money for (the beach payment) from relatives ashore, and they paid their tax.

 
Palmer continues:
 

The tax payment in those days was very difficult because none of the boys could read (or) ... write. they wee all given a little brass tag, something like a dog's collar licence. the tag had a number on it, and when he paid his ax, he was given a receipt. There was no name on it ... but the number was always there and the boy had to carry the number with him. And every boy got up to pay his taxes, take his brass disc off his neck or his wrist and pass it to Bell or the clerk; and the receipt would be written out.

 
Another way the tax money was raised was the trade of Malaita shell valuables for money. Bell's constables became specialists in the shell game: they would buy shell valuables around Malaita with shillings, at an exploitative exchange rate, and then sell the valuables in other areas for substantial profits. The head tax, forcing Malaitans into a cash economy, forcing them to export the muscle-power of their young men for low wages, had come to stay.

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