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Tales from one the Empire's bottle-washers

This bottle-washer's account gives us one reason the British Empire flourished. It is not a reason we have ever heard mentioned before.

Arthur Grimble was nominated to a cadetship in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate at the end of 1913. He was eager to learn native languages and British law, but he hated the idea of a far-flung dominion over palm and pine. Indeed, the idea of meting out imperial kindness-but-firmness to anybody anywhere in the world made him sweat with shame. As he writes with hilarious aplomb:

I was a tallish, pinkish, long-nosed young man, fantastically thin-legged and dolefully mild of manner. Nobody could conceivably have looked, sounded or felt less like a leader of any sort than I did at the age of twenty-five.

Grimble decides to alert the Colonial Office to his failings, and is ushered in to meet Mr Johnson, Chief Clerk in the department which handled the affairs of Fiji and the Western Pacific High Commission:

That discreet title of his (abandoned today in favour of Principal and Secretary) gave no hint of the enormous penetrating power of his official word. In the Western and Central Pacific alone, his modest whisper from behind the throne of authority had power to affect the destinies of scores of races in hundreds of islands scattered over millions of square miles of ocean.

. . .The air of his cavernous room enfolded me with the chill of a mortuary as I entered. He was a spare little man with a tenuous sandy bear and heavily tufted eyebrows of the same colour. He stood before the fire, slightly bent in the middle like a monkey-nut, combing his beard with one fragile hand and elevating the tails of his cut-away coat with the other, as he listened to my story. I can see him still, considering me over his glasses with the owlish yet not unkindly stare of an undertaker considering a corpse.

. . .When I was done, he went on staring a bit; then he heaved a quiet sigh, ambled over to a bookcase, pottered there breathing hard for a long while (I think now he must have been laughing), and eventually hauled out a big atlas, which he carried to his desk.

'Let us see, now,' he murmured, settling into his chair 'Let us see. . .yes. . .let us go on a voyage of discovery together. Where. . .precisely. . .are the Gilbert and Ellice Islands? If you will believe me, I have often been curious to know.'

He started whipping over the pages of the atlas; I could do nothing but goggle at him while he pursued his humiliating research.

'Ah!' he chirruped at last, 'here we have them: five hundred miles of islands lost in the wide Pacific. Remote. . .I forbear, in tenderness for your feelings, from saying anything so Kiplingesque as far-flung. Do we agree to say remote and not far-flung?' He cocked his wicked little eye at me.

I made sounds in my throat, and he went on at once, 'Remote. . .yes. . .and romantic. . .romantic! Eastwards as far as ship can sail. . .up against the gateways of the dawn. . .coconut palms, but of course not pines, ha-ha!. . .the lagoon islands, the Line Islands, Stevenson's Islands! Do we accept palms, not pines? Do we stake our lives on Stevenson, not Kipling? Do we insist on the dominion of romance, not the romance of dominion? I should appreciate your answer.'

I joyfully accepted Stevenson and ruled Kipling out (except, of course, for Puck of Pook's Hill and Kim, and the Long Trail, and others too numerous to mention); but my callowness squirmed shamefully at romance. He became suddenly acid at that: 'Come, come! You owe perhaps more to your romanticism than you imagine--your appointment as a cadet, for example.' The truth was, according to him, that I had been the only candidate to ask for the job in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. But for that. . .if, in fact, I had been up against the least competition. . .well. . .who could say? As I, for one, could not, he leaned back in his chair and fired a final question at me: 'I may take it, may I not, that despite certain doubts which you entertain about the imperialism of Mr Kipling and. . .hm. . .a great many of your betters, you still nurse your laudable wish to go to the Central Pacific?

I replied yes, sir, certainly, sir, but how was I going to tackle this thing about leadership, sir.

He peered at me incredulously, rose at once, and lifted his coat-tails again at the fire, as if I had chilled whatever it was. 'I had imagined,' he confided in a thin voice to the ceiling, 'that I had already--and with considerable finesse--managed to put all that in its right perspective for this queer young man.'

'However,' he continued, after a long and, to me, frightful silence, 'let us dot our i's and cross our t's. The deplorable thing about your romanticism is that you display it as a halo around your own head. You seem to think that, when you arrive in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the entire population will forthwith stop work to stand with bated breath awaiting your apotheosis as a leader among them.'

The blend of venomous truth and ghastly unfairness in this bit deep into my young soul; I opened my mouth to protest, but he overrode me: 'You permit me to proceed? Thank you. Now, believe me, your egocentric surmise is grotesquely incorrect. You will encounter out there a number of busy men interested primarily in only one thing about you, namely your ability to learn and obey orders. These will severely deplore any premature motion of your own to order them--or, in fact, anybody else--about. They will expect you to do as you are told--neither more nor less--and to do it intelligently. In the process of learning how to obey orders with intelligence and good cheer, you may, we hope, succeed in picking up some first, crude notions about the true nature of leadership. I say "we hope" because that is the gamble we, in the Colonial Office, have taken on you. Kindly do your best to justify it.'

Though his tone had been as cutting as his words, the flicker of a smile had escaped once or twice. . .

. . .his manner changed again to one of sprightly good humour. He began to tell me a whole lot of things about a cadet's training in the field (or, at least, the training he thought I was destined to get in the Central Pacific) that nobody else had ever hinted at. As I understood the burden of it, it was that I would serve my first year or so of probation on Ocean Island, the administrative capital of the Protectorate, where I would be passed from department to department of the public service to learn in successive order, from a series of rugged but benevolent Heads (all of whom quite possibly harboured a hidden passion for the writings of R.L.S.) the basic functions of the Secretariat, the Treasury, the Magistrate's Court the Customs, the Works Department, the Police, the Post Office, and the Prisons organisation. I don't know what magic he used--he certainly never spoke above a chirp; but he managed to make that arid list of departmental names roll from his lips like the shouting of golden trumpets upon my ear. I had a vision as he spoke: the halo he had mentioned burst into sudden glory around my head. . .

. . .It was dawn. I was hurrying loaded with papers of the utmost import, through the corridors of a vast white office building set on an eminence above a sapphire ocean. I had been toiling all night with the Chief Secretary, the Treasurer, the Magistrate, the Collector of Customs, the Commissioners of Works, the Chief of Police, the Postmaster General, and the Keeper of the Prisons. The job was done! I had pulled them all through. Just in time! There in the bay below lay a ship with steam up, waiting for final orders. I opened a door. A man with a face like a sword--my beloved Chief, the Resident Commissioner himself--sat tense and stern-eyed at his desk. His features softened swiftly as he saw me: 'Ah. . .you, Grimble. . .at last!' He eagerly scanned my papers: 'Good man. . .good man! It's all there. I knew I could trust you. Where shall I sign? . . .God, how tired I am!' 'Sign here, sir. . .I'll see to everything else. . .leave it all to me.' My voice was very quiet, quiet but firm. . .

'. . .and remember this,' broke in the voice of Mr Johnson, 'a cadet is a nonentity.' The vision fled. The reedy voice persisted: 'A cadet washes bottles for those who are themselves merely junior bottle-washers. Or so he should assess his own importance, pending his confirmation as a permanent officer.'

He must have seen something die in my face, for he added at once, 'Not that this should unduly discourage you. All Civil Servants, of whatever seniority, are bottle-washers of one degree of another. They have to learn humility.'

It was another age.

And if you are minded to say, thank heaven it's over, what did the British ever do for the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders, consider this:

. . .a state of faction warfare was the normal condition of Gilbertese life of old. There were wars that involved only two or three villages at a time, and wars that split whole islands into opposing camps. The feuds, on whatever scale, were deathless. In Tarawa, the struggle for supremacy between two factions that called themselves the House of Teabike and the House of Auatabu kept nine generations of the people almost continually fighting or preparing to fight again to the coming of the Flag in 1892. A dramatic end was put to the conflict then by the arrival of Captain H.M. Davis, RN in HMS Royalist, to proclaim the British Protectorate on the very morning when the forces of Auatabu, badly beaten in battle the day before, were awaiting extermination at the hands of the Teabike.

Pax Britannica was a phrase perhaps too often used by Imperialists to cover a multitude of sins, but it really did mean the dawn of a newer, richer life for the Gilbertese, as the old folk of my day were never tired of acknowledging. Exactly twenty-five years after the House of Auatabu's escape from annihilation, I was talking about the outcome to a vivid old lady of perhaps ninety-five, who had been one of the survivors.

We were in her village house. Besides myself, sitting around her on their floor-mats, were her son, hale and active still in his late seventies, a grandson of fifty-five or so, a great-grandson of twenty-four, and several great-great grandchildren of ages up to ten. All the grown-ups were busy at some kind of handiwork as we listened to her story. Her son and grandsons were fashioning the shanks of pearl-shell hooks, as beautiful as gems, for bonito-fishing; she herself, still quick-fingered and keen-eyed for all her years, was plaiting the multitudinous strands of a new sleeping-mat across her knees. The murmur of contented talk drifted in from other houses. The peace of it all seemed to stab her with sudden happiness: 'Listen to the voices of the people in their lodges!' she broke off her tale of fighting to exclaim. 'We work in peace, we talk in peace, for the days of anger are done.'

She resumed her account of her husband's death in battle the day before HMS Royalist appeared, and held soberly to that theme until one of her great-granddaughters arrived home from a visit to the next village. The interruption loosed the floodgates of a new surge of happiness from within her: 'See that!' she cried triumphantly, 'see that! This woman arrives from walking in the north, yet no man molested her, for we walk in peace.'

She herself, up to the coming of the Flag--when she must have been about seventy--had never known what it was, maid or wife, to stray outside the village settlement of her menfolk.

'In those days,' she continued, 'death was on the right hand and on the left. If we wandered north, we were killed or raped. If we wandered south, we were killed or raped. If we returned alive from walking abroad, our husbands themselves killed us, for they said we had gone forth seeking to be raped.

. . .She told me of how she had found the body of her husband eyeless after the battle. It was the Gilbertese warrior's ultimate gesture of triumph in the field to pluck out the eyes of a stricken foeman and bite them in two while straddling his corpse. As she spoke, I had a picture of generations of grieving women before her, searching the floor of the forest for the eyes of their dead, lest the departing souls go blind into the Land of Shades. . .And it was on her theme of triumphant serenity that she finished: 'Behold, my son and my grandson! These would have died with me that day at Nea if the warship had not arrived And these'--she pointed to her great- and great-great grandchildren--'would never have been born, We live because the Government of Kuini Kabitoria (Queen Victoria) brought peace to us, and here I sit plaiting this mat to be buried in because of the kindness of that woman, with all my generations around me to wrap me in it when I die.'

Grimble sees the complexity of this story. He has written a funny and poignant book, vividly evoking the lily-scented islands and their remarkable islanders.

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