Tag Archives: Gilbert Islands

‘A PATTERN OF ISLANDS’ BY SIR ARTHUR GRIMBLE

‘A Pattern of Islands’ is a memoir written by Sir Arthur Grimble. It recounts his time in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, where he served as a British colonial officer for nearly 20 years.

A PATTERN OF ISLANDS

Summary

In 1913, a 25-year-old Arthur Grimble gets nominated to a cadetship in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate. Being the only candidate, he accepts the post and soon after that leaves cold Britain for the heat of the Pacific Islands.

The little country welcomes Arthur and his wife Olivia with its kind-hearted inhabitants and a significantly different culture, to which the young officer must quickly adapt. Having the natives as his teachers, Arthur masters the Gilbertese language, gets to know the local customs and traditions, and discovers what it’s like to live at the end of the world. With each passing day he grows fonder of the place and the good-natured people he has a privilege to meet. And he realizes that his is the honour, not theirs

Review

I’ve been wondering for a while now, why are memoirs written by colonial administrators so unbelievably engaging? Is that because they transport you to exotic places? Or maybe the reason lies in the fact that they take you back in time? It’s probably both, right? Well, this particular title is no exception. Let me tell you right off the bat: this is such an interesting piece of work! First of all, Kiribati is the most fascinating topic. Could anyone write a bad book about this country? I highly doubt it. And second, Sir Arthur Grimble was a very talented writer, whose innate gift for telling stories in a poetic and descriptive way simply cannot be denied. That’s exactly what I call a perfect mix; a perfect mix of substance and style.

Although the book is a classic memoir, the author doesn’t focus solely on his experiences. In fact, he treats them as a sort of background to his descriptions of Kiribati, its inhabitants and their culture. And you should know that those descriptions are second to none. From the scenery to legends, rituals, and beliefs to people’s everyday lives, you can picture it all. It is quite astonishing what a careful observer Arthur Grimble was; and surprisingly unbiased one at that! You can really sense his genuine admiration and utmost respect for the Islanders. He came to Kiribati representing the great British Empire, but he didn’t even try to impose his ways of being on the locals. He chose to learn theirs instead. How rare is that? Don’t we all love to judge and criticize other cultures just because they are not similar to ours?

Now, apart from being an excellent study of the Gilbertese culture, the book is also an engrossing portrayal of colonial administration. The author doesn’t hide his support for colonialism, which only adds plausibility to the whole story. Bygone times are vivid in all their glory on every single page. So if you have ever dreamt of a time machine, or if you have ever been curious what it was like to work for the British Colonial Office, this definitely is a book for you.

Sir Arthur Grimble had a delightful way with words, so his memoir reads like a charm. Some may say the pace is a little too slow, but the narrative is so compelling that this really isn’t a bother. Plus, the author’s wonderful sense of humour and slightly self-deprecating manner make up for any minor drawbacks you may find. Personally, I couldn’t put this book down. But as they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison!

Would I recommend ‘A Pattern of Islands’? Wholeheartedly. For whom would I recommend it? For those interested in Kiribati, or Pasifika in general. For those intrigued by history. For those wishing to immerse themselves in a literary masterpiece. Because this is one hell of a good read. Insightful, thought-provoking, and thoroughly captivating.

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GREAT ANTHROPOLOGICAL READS ABOUT PACIFIC ISLANDS (PART 2)

‘Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands’ by Robert I. Levy

If you want to get to know Tahitians, you should read Robert Levy’s book. It’s as good as an anthropological study can get.

Levy visited Society Islands in the early 1960s and worked there for 26 months. During that time he lived among Tahitians and became acquainted with their distinctive ways of being. His publication covers a wide range of topics, from moral behaviour to love and relationships to personal psychological organization. It is a must-read for everyone interested in French Polynesia.

‘Tokelau: A Historical Ethnography’ by Judith Huntsman, Antony Hooper

There are very few books about Tokelau, which is reason enough to reach for Judith Huntsman and Antony Hooper’s title. Plus, it’s a really valuable piece of ethnohistory that not only examines the archipelago’s traditional lifestyle but also elaborates on its bygone times.

In nine chapters, the authors try to explain how Tokelau’s past relates to its present, and in what way it shaped the nation’s indigenous culture. Their focus on all three atolls makes the book an exceptionally comprehensive and equally enlightening study.

‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea’ by Bronislaw Malinowski

This is yet another classic in the canon of Pacific Islands non-fiction literature. Bronislaw Malinowski was, without the slightest doubt, one of the most influential social anthropologists of all time, and his works are still today regarded as groundbreaking in their field.

In this particular book, the author investigates the complex trading system conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. Since the publication of his account, the Kula Ring has gained much attention, however no one has ever described it in such meticulous detail as Malinowski did. A truly fantastic volume!

‘Tungaru Traditions: Writings on the Atoll Culture of the Gilbert Islands’ by Arthur F. Grimble, Henry Evans Maude

Sir Arthur Grimble is perhaps best recognized for his memoir that recounts his time in Kiribati and Tuvalu (formerly the Gilbert and Ellice Islands), where he worked after joining the Colonial Office. Not many people know, however, that he also wrote another book – an immensely engaging ethnography based on fieldwork he carried out in the Gilberts.

‘Tungaru Traditions’, which was edited and published by Henry Evans Maude, provides significant insight into Gilbertese culture: customs, habits, rituals, practices; social organization; history; and even mythology. Not only is it compelling but also very pleasantly written.

‘Traditional Micronesian Societies: Adaptation, Integration, and Political Organization’ by Glenn Petersen

Glenn Petersen’s publication is one of the best books on Micronesia ever penned. It is extremely thorough and yet surprisingly detailed. The clearly structured content is presented in lively prose that is quite appealing even to those who aren’t very fond of academic writing.

The author describes Micronesian communities, aiming his attention at their organization around interlocking lineages and clans. This theme constitutes the focal point of the study. Petersen scrupulously explains the significance of this unusual social system, so that readers can fully understand the complexity of the Pacific’s northwest region.