Headhunting in the Solomon Islands Around the Coral Sea
IF I had been titling this book, I should have called it “Two Babes in Purgatory,” for everyone knows that the Solomon Islands are only a short way this side of Gehenna so far as climate and health are concerned. Ever since old Mendaña misnamed the Solomons, in 1567, visitors have been tempted to write books about them; this one concerns two inquisitive ladies who go to the Solomons to paint portraits of the natives and learn what they can.
The few reproductions suggest that the artist of the pair paints extremely well. And one gains the impression that they do learn, for there is much more nonsense in the first part of the book than there is in the second. For instance, on page 6 we learn that Rabaul is in New Guinea, which it is not. On page 11 we learn that expectant mothers must go to Australia because of complications due to malaria. The complications, of course, are simply the fact that quinine, which is used to cure malaria, also produces abortion. On page 76 it is recorded for the first time in the history of science that a horse has malaria. This phenomenon is repeated. On page 93 we learn that “this particular species of kingfisher blue butterfly is not found anywhere else in the world.” This is true in the sense that species of the genus Ornithoptera are unbelievably numerous and each species is largely confined to the island on which it occurs, but I should not dare to say how many there are of them.
We know, too, that these poor babes in the woods suffered agonies of apprehension, for they had nervous crises when they heard the mosquitoes humming; they thought they were Anopheles. Actually, when you hear the mosquito hum you can sit back and sing the Doxology. You may get a bite, but you won’t get malaria. It is the stab in the dark, coming without a sound, which should make you want to reach for the quinine bottle. And so it goes. There is no object in multiplying examples. Fortunately they wane in number as one reads along, and in the latter part of the book there are a good many interesting observations on the natives.
There are few really good word pictures which tell what the islands are like, and there is a great deal of emphasis on the obvious and inevitable—the way planters live, the not particularly creditable administration of the islands. British colonial administration has been spread out too thin. There have never been enough really good men to go around, and the more loathsome localities have had to suck the hind teat, so to speak. Comparing this book with Codrington’s great work, The Melanesians, published in 1891, or Berger’s book brought out in 1923, or even Guppy’s classic of 1887 makes it seem all the more puny.