Research Document #11
Eric Bevington’s Journal
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In October of 1937, as the first step in a colonization plan designed to relieve overpopulation in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony, Lands Commissioner Henry E. “Harry” Maude, assisted by Cadet Officer Eric R. Bevington, and accompanied by 19 Gilbertese “delegates” made a visit to the Phoenix Islands. In his book Of Islands and Men Maude says, of Gardner Island (Nikumaroro), that “… the island was thoroughly explored from end to end.” A more accurate account of this first documented visit to the island since the Earhart disappearance in July is provided by a diary kept by Cadet Bevington. We have taken up the tale on October 9, 1937, at the island of Niutao in the Ellice Islands, as the expedition is preparing to sail for the Phoenix Group.

Saturday, Oct. 9th: At 1 a.m. we heard singing in the distance and torches could be seen burning in the village. The singing grew louder as they approached, and it was a most impressive sight to see some 150 maidens advancing in the palm-leaf torch light with a similar number of men behind, all singing Polynesian songs at the tops of their voices. The only jar was the horrible lack of uniformity given by European print dresses. The traditional clothing is made entirely from palms and flowers and is uniform. As they drew near they very slowly danced their way towards us, to the rhythmic clapping and singing. K. [Kennedy, the administrative officer of the Ellice Islands] and I sat under a light on the verandah, and as they came near the old women brought the presents and lay them at our feet – coconuts, chickens (alive), eggs, model canoes, mats, baskets, and a coconut crusher. The singing and dancing came to a pitch, when they were almost on top of us, whereupon they all sat down, and the oratory began. As is the custom we didn’t speak but had orators to speak for us, and reply; the speeches are terribly flowery and of a stereotyped pattern so it is easy to be an “orator” although the Polynesians are natural orators very often. This over the presents were moved aside (we had, by the way, been properly garlanded, head, neck, and K. made me take the garland-of-honour, that round the left arm). Dancing now began in earnest. The men sit on the floor beating on the ground while everyone sings in their peculiar way. The dancing is done by girls who have to practice no end and is chiefly arm movements, with swaying of the body, it is really very beautiful. Custom demands that we sit right through the ceremonial, which goes on till dawn (5.30 a.m.) I found the last 1½ hours a bit long but it was always very interesting. The dancers sang incessantly without a break. Soon they were one mass of perspiration, which made their frocks awful. Over the frocks they had grass skirts, and their hair is, as always, decorated with flowers (real). Occasionally a dancer would retire, only to be replaced, until she came back looking fresher from a wash and change. The final speeches were at 5.30 a.m. when dawn came, and K. and I went to wake Maude up. We got out to Nimanoa by 8.15 a.m. when we took on two reef canoes for the Phoenix, and then had breakfast.

This trip to the Phoenix is something like 700 miles and wind and current are at present dead against us, so it will take well over a week. Still it is good to be on the way at last after knocking around the Group for three weeks. At present we are making a beat for the Phoenix and are heading S. of E. for the Tokelaus but we hope the wind will change. Having seen now four Gilbert Islands and five Ellice, my impressions are definitely in favour of the dour and sullen (comparatively) Gilbertese. They seem so genuine and the ones we have on board have a wonderful sense of humour. They are a most loyal and respectful people, and it makes me feel quite awkward sometimes the way they shift for one or will do anything when I have done nothing to deserve it or justify my position. The Ellice while being far more friendly at first, seem to have no depth at all; they shower compliments but say everything with their tongues in their cheeks, and because it is the custom; they lie about everything, and seem quite untrustworthy. The great beauty for which they (the Polynesians – Ellice) are famous seemed entirely lacking except at Niutao; there the dancers were all older and I thought ugly, but they were there because they were dancers. The young girls end men were in the surrounding crowd on the edge of the circle thrown by the torches. Some of these were really beautiful and magnificently built; one and all were imitating the dancers, trying to learn. They were not dressed in European dress, but, just had on the short lava-lava as strictly speaking they were not meant to be seen.

Sunday, October 10th. The wind changed overnight so we are now heading direct for Canton Is. as the wind is favourable. I had 12 hours sleep last night and am feeling very fit. Had my first natural action, without medicine, since we were off Nauru 4 weeks ago. The bananas we got at Funafuti have put me on my feet again. The sea is calm and we are making about 5 knots with the wind five points off the bow; we crossed the date line this evening (180 degrees) at 6 p.m. so it will be Sunday again tomorrow as the clocks go back 24 hours. At 7 p.m. when time had really gone back to Saturday, the Gilbertese held a service in the stern while we were having dinner. Maude confused them by telling them it was no good then as it had become Saturday, but they must do it again tomorrow. This service, which was prayer and an oration, came as a surprise to me. Their Christianity seems so terribly superficial, the merest form, and I never thought they would trouble about it when away from a pastor.

Sunday, October 10th (Real time) Monday, October 11th (Apparent time).  A fine dry day with the thermometer at a steady 82 degrees. We made about 5½ knots all day. I spent most of the time reading The Return of the Native by Hardy, and also did three hours at Gilbertese. I have read Under the Greenwood Tree this trip already. There are some wonderful psychological studies in his works, and the analysis of emotion is amazing. In accordance with correct maritime ruling, we are sticking to Real Time, i.e. the clocks or calender rather has been put back 24 hours, for purposes of log etc. One of the old men on board rebuked me sternly to-day for saying “Thank you” to a Gilbertese. He told me (in Gilbertese) that there was no such word but “Ko raba” was the correct thing to say. They greatly appreciate efforts to speak their language, and are always willing to help one to learn. The more I see of the Gilbertese the more I like them. They asked Maude to-day if they might send a petition to the Government asking that no more Australians be sent out here – they hate them; they have one word for Englishmen generally and another for Australians, which means half-castes.

Monday, Oct. 11th (Real time). Wind slowly getting up all day straight ahead of us. Many sea birds have been visible for the last two days, chiefly snipe and bo’sun. The nearest land was 300 miles off when we saw the first. Maude had a bad attack of lumbago this evening and could hardly move. I personally am now very fit and my innards are working well – it had begun to get on my nerves a bit. Unfortunately the bananas have nearly all gone.

Tuesday, Oct. 12th (R.T.). Owing to very strong head-winds it was decided to change our course from McKean to Gardner Is.

Wednesday, October 13th (R.T.). We sighted Gardner at dawn. A wrecked cargo steamer was up on the reef and in the distance it looked O.K. The natives were very disappointed as they thought someone had got in ahead of us. The wreck was a cargo steamer; the bows high and dry in the reef while its back was broken in two places and overhung the reef; the ship was about 3000 tons, is very rusty and has been up 20 years. There being no anchorage we tied up to the stern of the wreck, as the wind took us away from it. I boarded the wreck and found the told to be teeming with mullet; they were so thick that more fish were visible than bottom. The natives easily speared them; lurking in corners were octopus, but of course not of the deep sea size. After breakfast I made an easy landing across the reef end walked across the shallow inner reef-lagoon. It was teeming with fish, undisturbed for years by humans. Coral fish and animals were visible everywhere, of colours varying from bright oranges, and reds, to blue and greens of the richest hues. There was truly the most amazing romantic feeling – an uninhabited coral island. Everywhere were fish, birds, and teeming life. Overhead thousands of sea birds wheeled and soared – there were terns, frigates, boobies, and many other. The natives added to the general excitement; here were their own natural foods, in masses and easily caught. Maude’s lumbago was bad, so I was to take the Gilbertese round the island, walking so we could see everything of it. There were few coconut trees, the vegetation being the valuable Kanoa tree almost entirely. We went up to a bunch of coconut trees to investigate their quality. Yells at once went up “Te ai” (the coconut crab). These are a great delicacy to them. I knew of them here from books but the natives didn’t. They are like huge spiders with vast pinchers with which they husk, and break open the coconuts. We caught three quickly then I insisted on continuing our trek. By the chart the island is only three miles round, one look at the inner lagoon told me it was much more so I pushed on; I was carried across the lagoon passage to the sea and we started out. The G’tese were full of praise for the island; the soil is certainly much more fertile than their own. When at the end of the lagoon as the natives thought we rounded a bend to find we were only half way. By this time we had been going 1½ hours, beating our way through virgin bush, testing and sampling, while I kept a compass course to keep us in the middle when we wanted to. By this time (10.30 a.m.) the G’tese were very tired and wanted to swim across the lagoon to the other side and go back. On enquiry, however, they said the end looked poor so I insisted we go to the end to see it. Thus we pushed on, the G’tese lagging behind. My interpreter was a 15 stone N.M.P. (Native Medical Practitioner). We got to the bottom, rounded it and moved up the shore, entering on the other side of the lagoon. A whale’s bones were clean and dry on the shore-side, and there were hundreds of marks where turtle had come up the beach to lay their eggs. Steadily now the natives started dropping back. My interpreter had long since dropped out, and I was managing as best I could. I could gather from their conversation that they thought I should soon peg out. By now it was 2 p.m. and the sun was bang overhead; the island was much larger than charted and was a good eight miles round, and we had brought no water. For the first time in my life I learnt what thirst was; the temptation was terrific to drink the crystal clear lagoon water – one native did, a younger one. Towards the end, when the natives had given up talking I went right ahead only my own boy keeping up like a faithful slave. I got in at 3.30 and took a canoe out to the boat, when I too acted like a fool and drank 4 pints of water. Fortunately it had no ill effect. I had been from 9 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. going hard in the tropical sun and no water or food. It was decided to camp ashore, so a sail was rigged up under the trees. The last native reached camp at 6.30 p.m. – three hours after me. They are a water people, and this was only to be expected. It was however a good thing – they have a wonderful respect for the white man, his books, and decisions; but physically they think he is an awful fool and hopelessly weak. One or two officers have shown themselves good at their pastimes such as canoe sailing, trapping etc., and so earnt terrific respect. In camp in the evening the one topic of conversation was the way “te-i-matang” walked, his long strides, his speed, and who was the last native to drop back. Added to that, having watched them, I managed to catch and carry coconut crabs and boobies. Maude interpreted their conversation to me and we roared with laughter; whle they gorged themselves on crab and birds in profusion. A wonderful palm leaf bed was made for us on which I put my li-lo; the sea birds were setting up an awful screeching noise, but despite this I was fast asleep by 9 p.m. The universal decision was that this island was paradise and ideal for habitation. Going round with the natives I soon learnt the points to look for, how to judge rainfall from the stem of a coconut tree, and many other points. Maude was most apologetic about the length of the walk, but assured me I had “made myself” with the natives.

Thursday, October 14th (R.T.). The man who drank salt water on the walk yesterday was in a bad way this morning, but soon got better when the N.M.P. doped him. The more stern job of well digging constituted the morning’s programme. Maude took one side and I took the other with a party of natives. I also checked and assessed the bearing coconut trees. The choice of well sites was naturally left to the natives. On coming on my party in the bush, I found the blighters sitting down to another crab feast, so put them to work. Their first well had almost salt water. I stayed with them for three hours, then returned to camp at noon. Maude also had drawn a blank, though his water was a bit better. In the afternoon we got a canoe and Maude came in it, his lumbago being better, and I took him to all the points of special note I had visited the day before. It was a de luxe way of doing it, in a canoe gliding across the lagoon with natives paddling. We found many interesting things including signs of previous habitation. Maude verified the details of my report of the previous day’s trek by this means. Coming back we saw masses of shark up to 4 feet only. We also saw a frigate bird attack a booby making it vomit its fish up. It then eats what the booby bird has brought up. It is a truly amazing sight, and according to the books is the frigate’s standard way of getting its food. l have never seen a bird so clumsy on the wing as the booby. On returning to camp the water reports were better, though hardly good enough. The natives were all suffering from chronic diaorrhea after their riotous living. Kerosene had run out and we couldn’t have a light in camp to keep the coconut crabs off. Maude and I didn’t worry a patch as they don’t eat humans (!) though they are alarming to look at. However when we had turned in we found that the natives had made a complete ring round us with their mats and were sleeping round us in a ring to protect us – and this of their own accord. They are an amazing crowd. What would one of the old school in Africa say to allowing natives to sleep near one? But this people are spotlessly clean, have no smell I can detect, and don’t know the meaning of body odour.

Friday, Oct. 15th (R.T.). Awoke at dawn as is usual in camp, and the natives set off for more well digging – they were very determined about it. Maude and I saw to the construction of a flag staff and stone base, then we walked off to inspect the wells dug the day before for water movement, also to go into one or two points he hadn’t been able to check from the canoe. We got in by 11.30, both somewhat foot-sore – constant walking in the lagoon softens one’s feet. On return to camp, water reports were excellent, so we had a meal and pushed off to Nimanoa, having first raised the flag on the mast. It was grand to get aboard and get a fresh water wash, though water is rationed. The natives came on board with special woods they can’t get on their own islands, crabs, birds, and endless curios. As we sailed away they all talked endlessly; it was paradise to them, and the experience of their lives. They don’t want to see any more islands as they are sure there can be none so good. Actually they’re right, we wanted to do Gardner last but the wind drove us there. One old man asked me to be sure to tell the people in England about it next I go home! The more I see of the Gilbertese the more I am charmed by their general mien. They are clean, most respectful, genuine and have a wonderful sense of humour. The Ellice are semi-civilised, spoilt, dis-respectful and generally useless, at any rate the specimens we have are – Maude had to tick them off to-day as the Gilbertese have done everything so far, all the well digging included. The Gilbertese are a far more primitive people, with wonderful tradition and customs.

Saturday, Oct. 16th (R.T.). A perfect day at sea, calm and favourable winds. Spent about 18 out of the 24 hours asleep. In the evening the Gilbertese were singing to guitar music, as usual. I was surprised to hear several Welsh hymn tunes, heard at Keswick, sung beautifully in parts. Maude tells me their words were not hymns.

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