Some of you will be wondering how I could choose a memoir by an actual colonial officer as my world challenge book for Kiribati. The answer is that the country's literary presence seems limited to white men's expat memoirs. Within that category, this appears to be the book based on the greatest experience of the islands and their people: Arthur Grimble worked as a British colonial officer in what were then known as the Gilbert Islands for about 20 years, the first six (1914 – 1920) of which are covered in this book. And whatever else can be said of him, he was clearly fascinated by local culture and prepared to respect the people he encountered. I doubt many colonial officers were offered adoption into a local tribe, much less proved themselves by memorizing lineages and submitting to painful tattooing.
This is entertaining reading, though a bit slower going than I expected. Grimble begins the book with the story of his becoming a cadet, but once he is working on remote islands we get a lot of stories about the culture, mixing dramatic events and everyday life (everyday life may involve fighting tiger sharks). There’s also a fair bit about myth, religion and magic; Grimble claims not to believe in magic but tells several stories for which it’s the only explanation. It is interesting material, told in a pleasant, self-deprecating tone, and so makes for an enjoyable read on the whole. There are some real gems here, such as the story in which the author becomes human bait in an octopus hunt, and another in which an island is upended by religious fervor that turns it into a short-lived doomsday cult.
That said, this is a memoir by a British colonial officer, published in the 1950s after the author’s retirement, so yes, it is extremely dated. Grimble, unsurprisingly, supports colonialism. That’s easier to overlook here than it would likely be from most former officers, given that the system didn’t produce conflict in Kiribati, a remote island nation with few resources and a tiny British administration that, for the most part, seems to have worked alongside the local government. But it is evident in his writing about Ocean Island (Banaba), which did have a natural resource – phosphate – which the British mined to the point of rendering the island uninhabitable. Grimble opines that this was the right decision because it created so much fertilizer for farms in other countries, and that the British administrators were commendable because they set aside money for the resettlement of the locals on another island once their own was destroyed. One doubts the Banabans’ views would be quite so rosy.
Also, there is this little gem, following an incident in which Grimble forcibly prevents his cook from beating his wife to death with a stick: “The only thing that cheers me about this story is that the thrashing Mareve got did her a lot of good. It sounds all wrong, but it is a fact. She never resumed her nagging of Biribo: she was scared stiff of him; and from that time on there was shining peace in the back premises.” Happily ever after, is it? Ouch.
That said, sometimes works with problematic elements provide the most authentic picture of bygone times; that doesn’t mean we should excuse the problems, but that a book can be worth reading regardless. This one provides a great portrait of a culture, and the stories of Grimble’s experiences on the islands show a humility that makes them – with the exceptions mentioned above – palatable for the modern reader. This is not an easy book to find, but it's worth the read if you do encounter it.