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Solomon Islands - A Doctor In Paradise

A Doctor In Paradise

The observations of Dr. S.M. Lambert who travelled from Tikopia to Rennell Island in 1933 provide an interesting perspective on the Solomon Islands at that time. Dr. Lambert draws comparisons with his earlier visit of 1921 including the impact of the missionaries who had now established a substantial presence on these islands.


Visiting Tikopia, a dot on the southeast tip of the Solomons presented a problem almost unique in the Pacific at that time. The island was becoming overpopulated partly due to the influence of the missionaries who said that every man should have a wife. Formerly, according to custom, only one son in the family was allowed to marry, the restrictions being aimed at keeping the population within the bounds of subsistence.

The people of Tikopia were strikingly like the Rennellese, perhaps more like the tribes of Bellona but more Melanesian than either. They had the same style of tapa breechclout, the same palm fan sticking in the back and the same way of knotting their hair.  The Tikopians whom we found here spoke a language with so much Fijian in it that Malakai could speak a few words with them; he said that they looked like the light-skinned tribe on Thikombia, a Fijian island which lied just north of Vanua Levu. This tribe were supposed to have come from Futuna. 


Dr. S.M. Lambert, 1941.


Malakai, who came from Fiji, was a native medical practitioner of the old school. He accompanied Dr. Lambert on his 1933 trip.

More than half self-educated, his inquisitive mind would never let a subject go until he marked it. He was a cannibal grandson who, in 1936, went to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (Kiribati and Tuvalu) as senior medical practitioner. When he came back to Fiji in 1939, it required two Europeans to replace him.

From Tikopia, Lambert sailed in the Zaca toward Vanikora and in the process saw Tinakula flaming across the sea, a volcano that seemed to be in constant eruption. Black smoke obscured it, and when the wind changed so that the summit could be seen; at night was a pillar of fire. Vanikora which lay beyond, had a total population of 95. It was said that when the early voyager La Perouse was wrecked there, the island teemed with people.

The Zaca swung into Sikaiana with its three charming atolls. In 1921, it had been an unspoilt paradise with laughing Polynesians, its modest, and pretty girls who had draped us with wreaths of flowers. The Melanesian mission had now come to these little islands and had sent in teachers and preachers to improve them. There was now a church and at the sound of a conch shell, the Sikaiana girls filed in dressed in their white pinafores. Beside them marched sad-looking Sikaiana men. Sadly, salvation had now entered paradise.

There was also an undercurrent of discontent in Sikaiana because a hurried government secretary had swooped down on them when the old chief had died and asked who was the new chief. At this point, an impostor had presented himself to the government secretary and had been appointed the new chief. In doing so, he had broken Sikaiana's traditional line of chiefly succession.

From there, the Zaca left for Tulagi where they ran into a mess of colonial politics concerning the appointment of more medical officers. Norman Wheatley of New Georgia had sent his two sons, and his eldest boy, Geoffrey was being educated in a New Zealand school and was thought to have the potential to make a fine native medical practitioner.

Norman Wheatley, a retired blackbirder, had settled sedately on Roviana lagoon, where he had married a native woman. His early adventures should have made him rich, but a ruling vice had reduced his surplus to near vanishing point. His vice was collecting prize winning small craft in Sydney. All around the lagoon were his ancient yachts, racing schooners, and launches, rotting away for lack of use and attention. Wheatley's sons were pretty small then, however, he felt that he ought to make doctors out of them.

Trader Kuper was then living on Santa Ana with his native wife, a fine woman who had posed for my camera in her tribal costume. Her two boys, the older not more than four, were running wild on the beach, absolutely naked.

The mother was bare from the top of her head to the waist band of her lavalava; around her neck were shark's teeth, and a long pencil of polished shell ran through the septum of her nose.

Tenderly she picked the children up and told me that they were nice boys but not strong. I found that they had hookworm, and I delayed my departure to dose them with chenopodium and they grew up to be fine husky young men.



The Zaca coasted down the shore of Malaita, a great hulk of mountainous woods 110 miles long, beautiful and forbidding. In 1921, a hurricane had stopped the party visiting Malaita, an island which held a horrid fascination. Twelve years ago, no white man had dared to enter the interior jungles, and there was still little knowledge of its wild hill tribes. The Zaca skirted the savagery of Malaita, which the Spaniards called "Mala" for short. To one side lay Sinarango, where Tax Collector Bell with Cadet Lilies and fourteen native police had been butchered in 1927.

Around Malaita are many artificial islands which are old and mysterious as the people who inhabit them. We landed on one of these islands which was about three acres built of huge coral junks that has been planted on the reefs and filled in with soil and rubble. Here, many of the children, had bright yellow natural hair. Many of them had grey eyes which are often found among Polynesians who have had no intimate contact with Europeans. These people, however, were not Polynesians and were almost as dark as the other Solomon Islanders. It was here that we learned that the missionaries had come to Rennell Island. We weighed anchor and headed once more to Rennell Island. Having seen the mischief done by the missionaries in gentle Sikaiana and other unprotected places, we were very concerned at what we might find at Rennell.

Upon reaching Rennell Island, we anchored inside the reef and came ashore making a presentation speech and giving gifts to the chief. The Rennellese were the friendliest people I had yet encountered and their generosity surpassed anything I have seen anywhere. Rennell Island had advanced since my last visit but in her march of progress she had taken the wrong folk in the road. A great many of the men had discarded native costumes and were now wearing lavalavas. Also, several thousand cigarettes salvaged from a wrecked Japanese vehicle had been brought ashore and the Rennellese had taken to them like so many ducks to water.

Rennell Islanders photographed in 1933 by Dr. Lambert.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church had arrived on Rennell Island and Pastor Borgas landed on the white sands and informed them that he had come to teach them. The Rennellese were very keen to learn English and they thought that the teaching of the pastor meant just that. When the Adventists taught them to say: "Me want skula" - meaning "We want a school"- they did not know that school was the Adventist word for batches Old Testament and vegetarian diet. It was absurd to teach the Old Testament to people living in an age that was older than Isaac and Rebecca and a vegetarian diet for a race that's starving for meaty proteins. Before Mr. Bogas went home, he gave strips of white cloth to some of the locals to wear. These were white arm bands with "M.V." marked on them in big black letters. The "M.V." stood for Missionary Volunteer.   

Overall, I felt a certain loosening of the old religious ties which had held Rennell's proud identity. The Rennellese knew nothing of that Polynesian favourite, kava, and many of their words were not Polynesian at all. But physically, they were not Melanesian, nor were they Micronesian. Somewhere in their long voyage, they had picked up some Polynesian arts and habits like the making of tapa cloth and the smearing of their bodies with sacred turmeric.   

To be continued ...

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