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Doctor In Kiribati


Published by J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London in 1941, A Doctor In Paradise details the recollections of Doctor S. M. Lambert, M.D., who travelled throughout the South Pacific in the early 1900s. The following is an extract from Chapter XI of this book which gives his recollections of Kiribati as he saw it in 1924. These recollections include references to many significant names in Kiribati history and are a valuable guide to early Kiribati. Certainly, many of Doctor Lambert's perceptions are those of a western visitor and, as such, although interesting, are not always an accurate depiction of the unique Kiribati customs, culture, lifestyle, etc.


On Kuria it was my professional duty to confer with one of Robert Louis Stevenson's least appreciated characters, District Commissioner Murdock, who had emerged from the days of piracy. Stevenson had actively disliked Murdock; somewhere in his tales of Apamama (Abemama) and King Timbinoka (Tem Binoka), the novelist had referred to Murdock as 'a rat-faced Scotchman with a secretive disposition, and 'Timbinoka's cook.' The feud stemmed on Murdock's refusal to tell of a thousand and one nights he had been concerned in. He had plentiful reason to keep his mouth shut, for at the time the other Scot was snooping for adventure stories Murdock was a sort of business manager to the savage king who conquered Kuria and terrorized all surrounding islands. Murdock had also acted as contact man between the terrible Tembinoka and the terrible Bully Hayes, pirate and blackbirder extraordinary.

All the pirate I saw was in Murdock was his flaring white moustache; the mouth below it stayed pretty tight, and he only grunted, until I won him over with a fancy new spinner for his fishing. Then he opened up and talked about himself.

As a consumptive lad of nineteen he had come there on a sailing ship and won Timbinoka's heart by cooking him a good meal of victuals, and was hired on the spot. From frying fish he had graduated into diplomacy, mostly with Bully Hayes and his slaving deals with Timbinoka. Hayes, who probably hailed from San Francisco, would clean out whole islands and carry away the inhabitants to die on the fields and mines of Australia, Fiji, South America. As a side line, he would swoop down on the pearl fisheries, gathering the pearls and the girls. Out at sea he would repaint his ship with a new set of colours, to fool pursuing naval vessels. He often baited his trap with pretty girls. The ladies of Aitutaki were especially tempting, so he would take on a load of them and keep them in full view as he loitered by various islands. Then the native men, poor fools, would swim out, to be captured and chained.

On one occasion, at least, Murdock went as the king's agent to an island where Bully Hayes had carried a shipload of Timbinoka's warriors to punish some of is Majesty's disobedient subjects. When Bully took captives he had the privilege of buying them from Timbinoka. The monarch prospered on this industry, and was a tyrant of the old school. Once he sent Murdock with 300 slaves for coffee plantations in Mexico and Guatemala.

The king's harem was extensive, and uninvited males were ;promptly slain. A splendid rifle shot, Timbinoka kept in practice by pinking disobedient wives, usually on the run. He owned every blade of grass, chased competitors out of his trading shores, forbade missionaries. he could be hospitable; but when he said 'Get out!' his guest said good-bye. He bought liquor, boats, and gadgets wholesale. His grand passion was sewing machines; he had a royal collection in various stages of decay; and a trader with music boxes to sell received a royal welcome. European clothes charmed him, and he couldn't wait for the latest styles to come by boat. So he sent two natives to Auckland to learn tailoring. Alas for Timbinoka's vanity! Hew got so very fat, so very soon that the broadest coats and trousers split on him. He spent his declining years in an ornamental Mother Hubbard. Murdock showed me a photograph of him wearing one; so far he couldn't walk, he was being carried by eight men.

In short, Timbinoka had several some enemy heads which a trader bought, pickled, and sent to a scientist in Australia. After this transaction the enterprising trader sold the rum back to Timbinoka. The monarch found out abut it, so he didn't use the liquor. But the shipwrecked sailors got their share of it, and His Majesty was vastly amused when he told them what they had been drinking and saw them get sick. He commissioned Murdock to buy their ship for five pounds. Timbinoka assembled the whole kingdom with everything that float. By main strength and awkwardness they raised the ship, which was repaired and became the royal navy. With a regal gesture Timbinoka sent the crew back to Australia, at his expense.

Before his death the king got his useful cook a job as District Officer, a post he served well the rest of his life. Once, he told me, he found an extremely leprous village, so he burned it down and moved the inhabitants to new quarters. From these particular people, he said, he never heard of leprosy again. It sounds a bit fishy, for to this day no experimenter has found out how the leprosy germ is impaired.

One of Timbinoka's royal descendants was at Kuria when we were there. A big man, he had once been handsome, but he was going to fat, and his baldness rivalled mine. His morals were everybody's business, even among the Gilbertese, who are remarkably sophisticated for so primitive a folk. Maybe their vices had drifted in from Tahiti, or from an especially low crop of beachcombers. Possibly the discouragement of the harem system had demoralized them. At any rate, the royal descendant was no match for a nice girl.

On this first Gilbert and Ellice survey I had gone on preaching my crusade for modernized native practitioners. Government schools in the two groups were effective, although European training can be overdone; the scope of the native mind is circumscribed by the shadow of the coco-nut tree. Gilbertese intelligence was high. When I looked over such schools as the one at Bairiki and saw bright faces knit in an earnest desire to learn, and when I observed their steady progress, I knew that here were potential native medical practitioners. They were the sort who could learn medicine, and could return to their home islands to practise an to teach. Malakai was with me everywhere, an object lesson to them.

Dr. S. M. Lambert and Malakai.

Where the religious problem puzzled the righteous, the medical questions confounded the doctor. Ocean Island, one of the world's great phosphate bonanzas, was headquarters for the Gilbert and Ellice groups. A British syndicate mined the product. Arthur Grimble, Cambridge M.A., was acting District Commissioner and an ethnologist who had made useful discoveries.

From the doctor's point of view too many Chinese had been imported to Ocean island, although the Government's very good hospital was doing more than its share. The trouble was that Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) and Ellice Islanders (Tuvaluans) worked beside the orientals; they caught the imported diseases and carried them home. All through the twin groups I saw evidence of infections which the strangers were bringing to a lovely people. Pathologically, the march of disease was beginning to show. Yaws, which seemed to have been brought by civilization, was making heavy inroads. Tuberculosis was working its way into handsome youths, who lacked the European's immunity. Filariasis was a vexing puzzle, because it seemed impossible to control the mosquitoes that carried it. Intestinal parasites were fortunately few; the people lived near the beaches, and tide-water is nature's handy sewage system.

In my note-book I jotted down interesting items:

Gilbertese stick-throwers ... One man with wreaths of flowers over head and shoulders, the other with pointed, fire-hardened stick about a yard long. Stick-thrower stood away from wreath-bearer only five yards, poised the stick, and after it had left his hand named the wreath that would be cut off. He never missed. If a man is accidentally killed by this, there is no legal penalty ....

Concrete-topped graves to keep the tevoro from getting out. Graves decorated with dear possessions of decreased, derby-hats, bottles, bicycles, spectacles, pipes. Saw one piano....

Wreckage that had floated to Tarawa from San Francisco ... common occurrence because of ocean currents....

Spiritualistic seance ... two old men and a hag sit in a one-room native house ... smoking short pipes, they go into a trance ... you ask them to make prophecies, simple ones like what's tomorrow's weather or when will the boat get in ... there's a short silence, then you hear the queerest, eeriest whistling along the ridgepole ... pipes never leave their mouths. You run out to see if there is somebody in the roof ... bright moonlight, no accessory visible ... their prophecies are all wrong. They say it will rain tomorrow, but it's clear, and the boat they name for Tu3sday is a week late. ... Probably ventriloquism. ...

All over the Pacific you hear brave stories of divers who cut the throats of man-eating sharks. When I ask about it they usually say: "They do it in the Gilberts." Made a standing offer of 5 pounds for anybody who could do the trick. No takers. ...

But wonderful canoeing. Government is reviving the old custom of giant building. Saw one 109 feet long, sheer as a knife blade and with an outrigger float big as a young canoe. Could carry 150 natives; same people that once steered vast distances by the stars and with charts made of twigs and string. Gilbertese boys now prefer bicycles, but they're making canoes on a grand scale. ...

District Officer of Tabatauea (Tabiteuea) has one with accommodations like a yacht. I went out in a 30-footer, very fast. When they tack they disengage the mast in the stern and step it into a socket in the bow. Outrigger lifted clean out of the water, three men on it to keep it steady. ... I got on to add my heavy weight. As we neared the ship, showing off, the outrigger's framework stood almost upright, like a fence. We scooted around again and one of the native 'captains' ran around on the uplifted outrigger. Seeing is believing. The swiftest of these canoes can make 18 knots. At the regatta in Sydney Harbour they rule them out-too fast, they always win. ...

I also made notes on the white inhabitants, and with a touch of sadness. Many of them had been so long away from the outer world and were so hungry for the sight of new faces that they joined the Pioneer at the slightest excuse until the boat looked like a picnic excursion. The resident physician was with us. A young cadet named Jones kept sending messengers, saying that he must be seen at once, as he'd had a serious accident. In mercy's name we went to his island, 200 miles off our course - and found that he had nothing worse than a splinter in his leg and a slightly wrenched back. What he really wanted was an invitation for himself and his wife to join the joy ride, and I certainly sympathized with them. But the ship was already crowded to the gunwales.

The island group's treasurer made the trip to check each island's finances. He was a pleasant man, with a decided character of his own. Somehow I wasn't surprised when he mildly informed me that he was a grandson of the frightful Bully Hayes. I had my phonograph along and delighted him by turning on the latest ditties from New York. Yes, he had a Victrola, he said, but the tunes is played were so mildewed that even his children were tired of them. When he got off the boat I gave him a record of Mr Gallagher and Mr Shean and he was ever so grateful. ... About the time our ship was turning back toward Fiji I heard of his death. For some morbid tropical treason he had taken his own life.

His story had a ghostly finish. When I reached my office in Suva I found a letter from him, dated a few weeks back, thanking me for the record. It had given the children so much fun.


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