Private Column by Frank Short, CBE
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Tuesday, 4 June 2013 4:00 PM

Reflections on the Colonial System of Administration in Pre- Independence Solomon Islands and Some Commentary

As I write this piece its 60 years to the day of Her Majesty the Queen’s accession to the Throne.

I recall that on that occasion she wrote to express to all members of the Colonial Service her warm appreciation of their ability and devotion to duty in undertaking their manifold and responsible duties.

The Colonial Service may have had its critics but I like to think that it was an age of service rather than domination and that many territories, including the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate, benefited from the work of the men and women from Britain and the Solomons who worked to improve the lives of many in the fields of administration and law, medical, nursing and veterinary services, scientific research, education, agriculture, engineering and transport, communications and irrigation.

One only needs to read of a typical day on a tour of the outlying islands in the Solomon’s Group by an Administrative Cadet to get some idea of a British system of administration and native court justice that has long been forgotten but a system which worked and, had it been retained, could have helped to ‘nip problems in the bud’ in respect of the events of a decade or so ago.

Let me quote you just one example of what many may well have forgotten or never heard about.

“Having sailed through the night on one of the small Government ships used by the District Administration we anchored in the early morning in deep water outside the reef. After giving the bosun his instructions for the day, which were to take some cargo and passengers to nearby islands and to send some telegrams to the District Station on the ships wireless schedule later in the day, I was rowed ashore in the whaleboat. The surf was heavy and I arrived on shore in the middle of a wave.

“On the beach I was met by the Headman, the Dresser stationed there by the Medical Department and a crowd of villagers and children. My first duty was to make an inspection of the villages on the island. This provided and opportunity to see if orders given on previous visits had been carried out, and to make further recommendations as to the cleanliness of villages and water supplies, improvement of housing and drainage. A number of complaints and requests were received from the inhabitants, and these were deferred to be dealt with at a meeting of the Island’s Council house later in the day. A Native Field Assistant of the Agricultural Department was with the touring party and gave detailed advice on operating an improved type of copra drier and, as the soil was suitable, on the planting of a new crop, cocoa. During the course of the day, he and I discussed methods of financing the installation of the new copra drier and the planting of cocoa with the villagers. I visited the Mission School on the Island, giving a short talk to the children, and handing over Public Relations Office literature to the teacher.

“At the Council House the clerk to the Island’s Native Court was waiting with his court record book which contained the details of cases heard by the Court since my last visit. I reviewed these cases. Native Courts can deal with minor criminal cases, e.g. petty assaults, thefts, adultery, or civil disputes which may be anything from a quarrel over the ownership of coconut trees to a claim for damages for the destruction of a garden by pigs. Serious criminal cases or major civil disputes are reserved for the Headman for trial by a Deputy Commissioner who may hear them on the spot or remove them for trial at District Headquarters. I did not actually hear any cases during the day.

“The villagers’ requests which now came up for my attention, included applications for licences for a shot gun, to buy copra and to open a store. One native, as frequently happens, asked me to help him collect a debt owing to him from someone from another Island and several people asked for passages on my ship.

“I paid the Headman and the Dresser the wages due to them and dealt with some deposits and withdrawals on behalf of the Savings Bank.

“Towards the end of the day most of the Islanders had collected under the trees near the Council House to hear what I had to say to them and to discuss matters of general importance. One of these was a community project, the building of a dispensary, which had been making slow progress and I encouraged them to work on it and to complete it. The Native Council held a meeting which was in public and at which Resolutions were passed for the good governance of the island. These Resolutions have the force of law when approved by the High Commissioner. The Council considered ways of spending its revenue received from native tax and court fines and aired a few political and economic grievances on which I was able to give them advice.

“Before I left for the ship the Headman invited me to take food with him in his house, he had prepared fish, yams, coconut and puddings of taro.

“The Island’s Headman, a man of long service, in an indiscreet moment explained that the number of petty disputes over money was due to the prevalence of gambling. As this is a criminal offence this rather startling admission was met by a recitation of the penalties that could be imposed under the relevant law.

“I returned to the ship by canoe after dark and found that the dresser had arranged for his hospital patients to be sent on board and that the police constable had mustered witnesses and the accused for a court case to be held at District Headquarters. During the day a trading and recruiting ship had anchored nearby and the Master came on board in the evening to discuss labour problems with me, to renew licences, and to exchange news.

“Later while still at anchor, I sat down and brought my accounts up to date and drafted reports and memoranda on the day’s work. Throughout the day there was of course no distinction between ‘office’ hours and leisure hours as on tour there is no daily routine.

“Each day’s conditions make different demands and the nature of the work permits of no sharp distinction between work and play.”

Quoted from the daily journal of a District Administrative Cadet in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate as published in the book, ‘On Crown Service’ published by I.B Tauris Publishers – London and New York, 1999.

The wise investment in cocoa cultivation during the Colonial era is now providing dividends with the AusAid funded Cocoa Livelihoods Improvement Project and with the help of Dr John Konam. The plan is to develop better yielding and higher quality cocoa varieties and to produce 20,000 tons of cocoa by 2020.

I touched upon the fact that rural problems in the past, such as disputes affecting people and especially land disputes, were identified and dealt with on the spot under the former Colonial system of administration and the reason why I was so keen to introduce community policing during my term in office. My reasoning was that it was essential to have our eyes and ears on the ground, so to say, and to curtail problems by early effective action.

My work in achieving my aims was frustrated in large measure by a lack of money, resources and personnel to spread the community policing concept much beyond the environs of greater Honiara and certainly not to the remoter regions of the Weather Coast where ethnic divisions over land rights and settlement first began to surface.

Perhaps, with time, the Government will once again consider the value of local courts and aid the work of traditional village chiefs and headmen.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Frank Short, CBE and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.