In 1908 Dr James Cyril Dalmahoy Allan arrived on Christmas Island as the new medical officer. He was just 26 years old and was replacing Dr Macdougall (who was returning to Singapore after the sudden death of his new wife Dr Sara Maude Robertson). Dr Allan stayed on the island for a period of 18 months leaving in January, 1910. He would later return for a second stint, arriving in October 1919 and staying for just over two years.
The health of Dr Allan had never been robust. As a teenager he contracted rheumatic fever and this left him with a permanently damaged heart that impacted upon his health. He was not always a well man and, after he left Christmas Island in 1921, nearly died several months later from double pneumonia and pleurisy. He did recover, but just over five years later, in 1926, died in Hong Kong.
The year after his death, “D.F” (who I believe may have been a fellow doctor) arranged to privately publish a memoir of Dr Allan’s life. He did not want his friend to be forgotten and the memoir is a touching tribute. It includes letters that Dr Allan had written and most fortunately many of these detail his every day life and observations whilst he was on Christmas Island. These would have to be one of the best first hand accounts (albeit from a European perspective) of life in those early days on the Island. Of course, he was a man of his time and there are a few things he writes of that gives one pause for thought in this modern day. However, he was foremost a healer, a reliever of suffering and had a genuine affection for the Chinese labourers at a time when they could not have expected such a thing from their European masters.
Dr Allan’s story has almost faded away because it is hidden in what would otherwise be an obscure and rare, privately published book.
However, I find myself in the fortunate position of owning an original copy of that 1927 memoir. Therefore, I am very happy to be able to share Dr Allan’s Christmas Island experiences, in the form of his letters, as follows. The blue text is a narration by “D.F.” providing a link between the letters. Text in [ ] brackets are my own explanatory words.
… When I last wrote I was just getting into Singapore. I was sorry to leave the Marmorashe – she was a very steady boat and we had a cheery time on board, and an excellent four at Bridge! It was almost twilight when we dropped anchor and a steam launch came off from Boustead’s with a very decent chap called Blair on board. … I learned from him that I would have to proceed early next morning to Christmas Island on board the Islander, the Company’s boat.
… I started the next morning. For the first two days it was most pleasant; we crossed the Equator with a fine breeze facing us, steaming under a perfect blue sky and what looked like eternal sunshine, into a sea dotted all over with a myriad of islands, small and very pretty, some quite brick red and bare in the sun, others green and wooded, varied in shape and colour in a wonderful way. At night hour after hour, the sheet lightning flashed out.
On the second day we put in at a small native village in Java – out shot the sampans with their almost naked crews, each with a wide-brimmed hat on. I can see all the colouring now: the green of the palms, the dense tropical vegetation behind, the streak of glaring white sand, the green of the sea merging into deep blue, and the small boats with their crews shining like figures of bronze.
They put on board six and a half dozen very wee birdies they call chickens, some ducks, and two miserable sheep – all for the island, being its fresh meat supply. We left them, and after rounding Java Head came misery, and the “not-once-but-again-and-again” wish for death; the boat had no cargo and rolled and pitched to a nicety! No wonder after thirty-two hours of it I was glad when Christmas Island was reached.
About Christmas Island I am not going to say much yet; there have been many disappointments as well as pleasant surprises, and now that one is here it is as well to make up one’s mind to accept the former and get full value out of the latter. After all, the will to have a good time, and get the best out of one’s environment wherever one may be, is very much a question of the personal equation. …
I learn that the Islander does not by any means run once a fortnight; it all depends upon the phosphate. Occasionally on getting here she can’t land and has to go back to Singapore, because there is no harbour here, and only in one spot is there a small bay, but no shelter.
July 20, 1908.
Last time I promised to let you know something about the island. … It is extremely pretty, and were it thirty miles from London, what a rush there would be to see it! The shape is rather like a flattened-out tiger-skin. There is a bay on the north coast, and around it half a dozen European houses. This is called “Flying Fish Cove,” and is the most sheltered spot. … There is a garden round my house which I am going to try and make very beautiful, and then a road and a row of coconut palms – all that divide the houses from the sea.
Behind the houses the ground rises steeply to about eight hundred feet, the ground being covered with dense tropical vegetation, and at the top of the hill, about a thousand feet up, are the phosphate of lime quarries, of a clean bluish-white stone. Out east from the European part come the office buildings, the mandores’ quarters, the coolie lines and lastly, about three-quarters of a mile away, the hospital and dispensary. At the top of hill there are more coolie lines and a small hospital, and at the far side is a fresh-water spring, from which the water is pumped and gravitates down to this side. The rest of the island is jungle, very dense in parts – some of it has not even been explored!
I shan’t close this yet, but will stop because the mosquitoes are making merry at my expense – my hands are swollen and one eye closed up; but it soon goes down! We are lucky not to have any malaria-carrying mosquitoes here.
I have started to teach myself to swim, a useful art I never managed to acquire, because at home I usually developed palpitations and cramp after about one minute’s effort.
It is 6 P.M. now, and as I sit here on the veranda writing, I am looking due west. For about ten minutes there is a glorious sunset, the row of palms shines like bronze, while the background of heaven touching ocean is brilliant like a blazing ball of fire which quickly dips below the mystic line, and then there follows such a magnificent colour effect in which sky and sea join – purple, orange, and gold. In what seems a moment of time the vision (for so it afterwards feels like) is over, the twilight is as brief, the crickets start to sing, and darkness ends another halcyon day in this island of dreams.
Here follows his account of a day’s routine:
After breakfast, up to the Hill Hospital on pony (two and a half miles), with possibly a game of tennis there, for my new court is now finished, and very excellent it is too! Back to tiffin at 11.30, which consists of chicken or duck (either whole or made into a Chinese “chop”), cheese and fruit as a drink, the most delicious lime-squash made from limes growing behind the house. After tiffin comes the period of rest – I have not yet started a siesta, but read or write or go up to the Magistrate’s to play him at chess. He is one of those who can do the blindfold touch, and is far better than I am, but so far with luck we stand four all. Tea is at 3.30, and is just a biscuit and a cup of China tea. I am growing mustard and cress for this meal!
After tea, to Hospital, and do any operations that require to be done, see more coolie outpatients with various injuries received up at the quarry. I have been fairly busy doing small things this last week: several tonsils to remove, one finger and two toes, also varicose veins, and yesterday I did a Syme’s operation [amputation of the foot through the ankle joint. The heel pad is preserved so the patient can still walk]. Then follows some cricket or tennis, and another bathe, twenty minutes’ dumb-bells, and so to dinner at 7 o’clock. After dinner we stop at home and read or else visit and perhaps have some music, or go down to the Club and play billiards, poker or bridge – so the time passes, and one is quite ready for bed at 10.30 p.m.
Since we came we have had three vessels in, not counting the Islander for cargo, which always livens things up a bit. I have to go on board when she comes into port, and inspect the crew in my “special capacity”. …
On the 12th [August] I had to let off a gun for “auld lang syne”, so went up to the hill and shot some pigeons; they usually sit on a branch and refuse to move, but on the 12th they rose to the occasion, were flying about everywhere, and I got some sporting shots! On the 14th I started at 6 a.m. and rode out to the farthest point of the island. It is twelve miles long, but as the path zigzags a good deal the ride was a thirty-mile one. One goes through the jungle all the way, so does not get any view at all; the path is awfully rough mostly, and full of roots and crab-holes, but occasionally there is opportunity for a good gallop. On reaching my destination I had, for tiffin, a curry with the Chinese woodcutters, which wasn’t half bad or else I was very hungry!
I have been a little busier lately, and one day had a major operation, which I think is going to turn out all right, but it was done under such awful conditions! The Eurasian dresser absolutely beat the band as regards giving the chloroform! I was surprised on dressing the case to-day to find that it was healing by first intention.
Sir John Murray and his daughter arrived by the last boat.
September 21, 1908.
… Sir John and Miss Murray are off to Batavia to-morrow. I went with him once on one of his several trips round the island on the Islander, and he named one of the points “Allan’s Point”, so there lives for all time one memorial should I die tomorrow!
The voyage round the island was grand! The coast-line is very stern and rugged – high cliffs all round with an occasional lagoon or beach. Above the cliffs the dense jungle starts immediately, and rises rapidly to eight hundred feet. There are lots of holes and caves all round, and the great waves go rushing in, causing a deep booming, sound. … In some cases the end of the cave opens by a blow-hole above ground, and then each time the wave rushes in there is a great column of spray thrown twenty feet in the air. …
Nobody knows who called it Christmas Island, or why. The original name was “Moni,” given to it by a Dutchman, but until about twelve years ago the island lay unclaimed by any nation, and was supposed to be in the Dutch sphere of influence. Eventually Great Britain annexed it, and it is now one of the Straits Settlements. …
As regards more recent news, my garden is fair. The sunflowers and nasturtiums are out now, but the sweet peas are poor. The tomatoes and lettuces are doing well. …
October 18, 1908.
This is Sunday. I have just had a letter from an aunt, asking the particular denomination of the Church here. I fear I shall have some trouble in answering the question. There is the Joss House, with its awful grinning gods and its ever present sensation of a “yellow peril” in the background, where doubtless one might pour one’s sins into the sympathetic ear of a Confucius; and then again, there is the Hindoo temple where the Sikhs worship – the low and prolonged trumpeting of their horn is even now calling all true believers to worship, and the Sikhs in their wonderful Sunday turbans and loose shirts are going past the veranda as I write, with their pots of beaten brass – and with them I daresay one might not seek in vain the Comforter. Yet in spite of all this atmosphere of abounding grace, there is none I should care to advance as evidence of godly piety to a Calvinistic aunt. …
To return to terra firma, THEY have arrived!
I am sure you are anxious to know who THEY are. I shall enlighten you – THEY are crabs. Each year, for one month, all the thousands of land crabs visit the seashore for breeding purposes, and it is an extraordinary sight! The males come first, evidently seeking out the way, and later the females follow. Every path is covered by these beasts, with their black shells and red legs and pincers. They come for miles and march steadily on; hundreds perish during the exodus; each time the tram comes down it runs over any number of them; they are so thick they are piled up one on top of another, and on the seashore they are sometimes six deep. I know it sounds like a fairy tale and is hard to believe unless actually seen. I must try and get some photos. At night, if one is awake in bed, one can hear the steady rattle of their armour in the silence all around. They are no respecters of persons, these crabs, but come in through the house, and cling all over the bath in the morning. They can climb trees and verandas and all sorts of things, and are of all sizes – some quite small and very neat, others are large – all rather repulsive. “Bunda” attacked one, but got his nose caught and set up the most piteous howling! When I caught him he had torn off the claw but the pincers were still fiercely gripping his olfactory organ. He is daily becoming more lovable and is a splendid house dog, but he is doggy enough to return in triumph with some particularly nauseous treasure. …
December 27, 1908.
We have had a perfect scorcher of a Christmas Day! One perspired at every pore, and wished one had twice as many to perspire from – really a parody on a good old-fashioned day. Of course, one did not in the least realise that it was Christmas! … Since then, the rain has been extraordinary, simply comes roaring down, and one can’t make one’s voice heard at all. Now it has stopped for a space and I shall go down for a swim, because after the rain the mosquitoes have come out in their thousands. …
What do you think we found in the jungle? A coolie who had been lost for six years! He was fat and well, having lived all the time in a beautiful cave; his bed, upon which he slept much, was of soft feathers, and for food, arrowroot, pigeons, and fish served his needs. He has practically never seen a living soul during all that time, and has forgotten how to speak Chinese – just remembers “yes” and “no”. As to the reason for the exile, he ran away for some trivial offence after having been on the island two months, thinking he would never be forgiven and just die out there. I have him in hospital, but he is really quite fit – quite a weird sort of hermit! He is glad to be back again, and smiles amiably when I percuss his chest.
March 6, 1909.
To-day is very hot. The others are having their afternoon siesta, a habit I have not yet acquired, and all is very quiet – the air almost tingles with the heat! “Fuzzy” and “Bunda” have sought the shelter of the bathroom, where they lie behind the great earthenware jars which hold the bath-water; even the butterflies have ceased their aerial flirtation and have taken cover behind the papiya blossom; the only sound is the rattle of the phosphate away in the distance as it pours into the overhead bucket; or the thud of a ripe cocoanut falling to the ground.
My latest pet is a house lizard that lives under the cruet on the table, and at dinner, if one puts down a crumb, or if a fly drops from the lamp, it darts out like a streak of lightning and captures its food, then retires as precipitately to its shelter in the centre. It comes back every night at dinner-time.
I have had a little more to do lately in the way of active work and acute cases — I wonder if “talking shop” will bore you, but it is all part of “the dreary intercourse of daily life,” as Dr. John B says. I had a man with a fractured skull in which I operated and removed the fragments – so far satisfactory; a case of varicose veins upon which I also operated; another badly smashed up hand from a dynamite explosion, and an epyema [collection of pus in the pleural cavity]; also an acute pneumonia, and two bad beri-beris, so that things have been more interesting.
At last I have got a two-roomed house, which I have re-roofed and made into a laboratory and museum, and it looks fine with its rows of stains and an incubator going strong in the corner. …
David, the Magistrate, has been on the warpath; two more robberies to investigate, mutiny among the Sikhs, and a case of attempted poisoning of the whole Malay contingent by means of Jeyes fluid [a cleaning disinfectant and antiseptic still manufactured today] in the tea – not a very brilliant conception and quite unworthy of a would-be Madeleine Smith! [Madeleine Smith was accused of murdering her secret lover by poisoning him with arsenic in 1857. After a sensational murder trial the jury returned a verdict of “not proven”.]
One night I went round to a Chinese “sing song” amongst the mandores; one played a concertina, another a violin, while the Chinese fiddle and tom-tom were much in evidence. They sang Malay songs with their elusive cadencies, and danced weird dances, and were amusing. I feared to act as a damper on the subsequent gambling, and so left.
A sad thing happened to-day. Five coolies were sitting on a ledge of rock fishing, when a wave came up behind them and carried them all in. Two who could swim managed to scramble out, but three have been drowned. I am so sorry: they were such decent fellows. There is a boat out now looking for the bodies. I suppose if the sharks don’t get them it will mean an inquest.
July 6, 1909.
… This very evening I was childishly pleased over a small event. One hundred coolies, whose time is up, are going back to Singapore and China, and the Krani came and told me they wanted to give me a present before they left. I thought it was splendid of them – every one says they are so callous and indifferent, and many of them are not! I absolutely refused to let them do anything of the kind. Good heavens! The poor chaps have hardly got any money at all. But it was the idea of it that meant so much, so we parted with much wagging of pigtails, and a promise to meet in China, and if not there, in the fields of Paradise where there will be ever so much rice to eat, salt fish galore, no work, and lots and lots of red crackers going all day long; and almond-eyed ladies to sit and fan you; plenty of gambling tables at which one only loses when one has a small amount on, and wins when the betting is high. All that seemed to be their idea of a good time! As a matter of fact, they will all be horribly ill on way to Singapore, and then lose the little money they have got gambling on arrival there – simply can’t help playing – so having lost their all, they will not get back to China, but will go to a depot and re-sell themselves for a certain period of time, and be sent to Java or Sumatra, poor little yellow men!
We are still having wet weather! The meteorological report shows this to be the wettest year in the short history of the island. I do wish it would set fair. So far I have managed to keep down the cases of beri-beri, more through luck than anything else.
Post-tiffinic. The cook has secured a crayfish, which”he makee allee one piecee chop-chop”. I wonder if that would convey anything to your excellent Harriet! In any case, the effort was quite “bon” and must be repeated. As I write, a coolie has arrived with a tin of freshwater crabs. They are good eating! He has brought them seven miles from the other side of the island and refuses to take any money. I am overwhelmed with his generosity, and the only way I can repay him is to give him a day off when he next comes and says he is tired; then maybe he’ll go and get some more – happy thought, he shall have a day off once a week!
… The head Chinaman contractor has arrived this time to pay a three weeks’ visit to the island. He is the absolute limit, and I think the fattest I have ever seen, in or out of a show. He has the “fat boy of Peckham” [A British child music hall and sideshow performer, John Thomas Trunley (1898-1944), was famed for his obesity] beaten both ways from the ace. His short stature accentuates the awful monstrosity of his circumference. He is quite unable to walk more than fifty yards, and has always to sit on two chairs. He seems supremely happy, all unconscious of the fact that one day he will probably burst. I have no idea of the skin’s stretching capacity, but the limit must be reached some time. As a large waist measurement conveys to the celestial mind the idea of enormous brain development (much savvey), he is looked upon with positive awe by the coolies. He really is a clever fellow, and is worth pots of money, with which he is most generous. As a matter of fact, he has offered to increase my salary by five hundred pounds if I stay, but the moth, rust, and mental decay have weighed down the other side of the balance, and I go. Nevertheless I appreciate the offer and the temptation was there.
… Have done some good operations lately, and the results have come up to my most sanguine hopes, healing occurring by first intention in every case. I have made a few notes on a fever epidemic we have just got through, which I think will have some clinical interest, and shall send them up to the Journal of Tropical Diseases for publication.
… We have had fine weather now for a week, but the end of the rain was absolutely record breaking! 15 inches fell for two days in one continuous crash, lash, and splash. …
July 31st, 1909
The other night the diver (a Malay) who was very fond of the bottle, so to speak, went to fish off the end of the pier, and during a gust of wind he fell over, unbeknown to any one, and was drowned. I think he must have fallen flat on his face and had the wind driven out of him, because even when “off the map” he could swim like a fish. His wife sat all day – after the manner of the true Oriental – howling in a tearless fashion, and beating her breast; then she announced she would join him, and midst the loudest shouts, walked into the sea up to the neck, turned, and came out again. Her chief complaint was that he had been fishing a long time and had caught nothing.
The next day, with the true versatility and laxity of the Malay woman, she was arranging which of the other Malays would be her husband, and came to the conclusion that her adopted brother, who is my syce [a stableman or groom], would be the best. There was a fight between him and the boatman! She leaves for Singapore this trip, and then there will be no more Malay women on the island.
Allan’s friends will recognise the next two letters as specially characteristic of him. Mention has already been made of the contrasts in his nature, but none was more striking than his meticulous care for others and his heedlessness – callousness, one might almost say where he himself was concerned.
August 18, 1909.
Here I am, out at Hospital – 3 A.M. to be precise. I am sitting up all night looking after a case of typhoid. Poor chap, I am sorry for him, he is having a rough time! This is the sixteenth day, and I am wildly keen to pull him through, but alas, it is skilled nursing that is required. The reason I am here is simply that I could not trust any one. I gave the Eurasian dresser full directions at 8 P.M., and went home to help the District Officer sort the mails, the Islander having just arrived. I came back at 11 P.M. and found he had fallen asleep and forgotten to do anything. Inwardly I cursed him, but outwardly said that apparently the only way to get satisfaction was to remain and see to it one’s self. He seemed delighted at the idea of an undisturbed night in bed … so here am I, with the patient asleep, writing away at the end of the big ward. At the other end are some coolies asleep on their wooden beds and still harder wooden pillows beneath their necks, and not one of them is snoring! Outside the night is dark and very starry, and as mild as a June day at home.
October 31, 1909.
… The sun is 90° in the shade, and anything you like on the road! A suitable therm-antidote would be more than good, but for the present I have forsworn all tobacco and alcohol, being unable to play tennis or billiards or to swim. I got a septic wound on the hand and it was apparently healed, when the glands in the armpit became like the proverbial pigeon’s egg, and the temperature rose by leaps and bounds to 104°, while amongst the grey matter inside one’s head castanets kept time to the devil’s clog-dance. I thought of you and put on anti-phlogostine! [A poultice. An old, apparently good, remedy used for injuries and acute and chronic inflammatory affections.] During the night grinning gods and disease in monstrous forms visited me in the snatches of sleep, the last one of whom turned out to be the hairy head of a Sikh, who salaamed and seemed much excited. When at last I realised he was in corpore, and I was on terra firma, I mildly suggested he might choke himself as my temperature was still 103°, and then I grasped that a coolie had died with dramatic suddenness during the night, and that I had somehow to struggle on to a pony and go out and do a post-mortem!
When I got back I went to bed and awoke better, but almost sure that the case was one of fulminating cholera. I could recollect little about the post-mortem, but I knew I had made some slides (cholera, by the way, was raging at Batavia and the Islander had touched there, at Anjer, and was not put into quarantine, so I have had cholera on the brain). However, the slides had been removed and cleaned by a coolie full of excessive zeal – the man I told you about, who was in the jungle so long and so I was at a loss and started to disinfect everything, and take weird precautions. Nothing more has happened, so it must have been unnecessary – nevertheless, it was good practice!
I am quite fit again, but I can’t do anything with the arm yet.
Towards the end of 1909 he began to feel that it was time he made a move; that one and a half years on a small island was long enough for his soul’s good. He wrote on November 25:
November 25, 1909.
With luck you should get one more letter from the island of dreams. As I look back, I rather shudder to think of the time I have wasted; my thesis is as airy and unformed as the mystic rat floating in the air. However, I was pleased to see in the last number of the Journal of Tropical Medicine an article I wrote on “Dengue” or three-day fever …
On Saturday night, the poker game was disturbed by the arrival of a Malay with a mighty cut on his head, and I had to take him out to Hospital. He had been set upon by a gang of Chinamen, while fishing. Alas, the man that dealt the blow was my own coolie, and I had to go up and give evidence before the District Officer. The prisoner and three compatriots each got three months’ hard labour, so now my coolie passes my house on his way to work, clad in prison weeds, and when I meet him he hides his face in his hands. I did not think there was so much shame in him!
The present Corporal of the Sikhs leaves by this boat, and as I have entertained him once or ťwice, he is coming to say “good-bye” with full honours. I am apprehensive … three is the hour of the ordeal. Dressed in all his “glad rags”, with his fellows, he will present me with a bouquet and then offer me a bottle of gin and of whisky. I shall accept the flowers, stand them all drinks, and then they will proceed to fall on me with sprays of the cheapest of cheap scent, and spray me, head, feet, and body. I have been through it before – do you wonder I flinch?
His last letter of the period is dated December 13, 1909, just before his departure from the island. His own words convey a faint idea of the affection with which he was regarded by the coolies, to whom Fate had sent him to minister.
I must tell you about yesterday, in spite of appearing egotistical. I wouldn’t if I didn’t know that you will like to hear about it.
At 4 P.M. a great mass of coolies and mandores arrived, the head “Towkie” as interpreter. Their approach was heralded by a continuous roar of Chinese crackers and beating of drums. They all gathered round the house, swarmed over the veranda, and a perfect fusillade of crackers followed. When silence reigned again, the head man read an address, and then presented me with a gold medal from the Chinese of the island, [read more about this here] along with the most gorgeous banner imaginable; bottles of whisky and beer, etc. Then they all shouted and roared, and when the hubbub was over, I made a speech through the interpreter. …
No one need speak of Chinese ingratitude to me ever again. I think they are splendid little men, and I do wish I could do something in return. It was all so absolutely spontaneous on their part!
On January 17, 1910, he sailed from Christmas Island, and so ended his first term in that distant part.
It would be difficult to say what decided Allan to return to Christmas Island at the close of the war; a chance meeting with a member of the Phosphate Company suggested it, and the Company, having found him again, was determined to secure him if possible, and he was practically allowed to make his own terms. At the moment he was war-weary and far from physically fit. His last years in Hong Kong had been full of unceasing toil, and much in general practice had, in spite of his success, been distasteful to him, and a great longing for peace made the Company’s offer alluring. But even before this he had half decided to make a bid for a return to his “Island of Dreams”. He very speedily arranged matters with the Company, and booked his passage for early in September 1919.
The two months’ breathing space was spent with his father at Kingussie, with his friends and cousins in Edinburgh, and at Cockenzie. His preparations for the island were much more elaborate than when he first started for the East. This time he knew what was wanted, and meant to be prepared for it.
In the short time available he made an amazing collection of goods for the benefit of the inhabitants and himself: pure-bred poultry, a girdle for baking scotch scones, a cinematograph to amuse the coolies, were on the list; also seeds and plants for his garden to be, in the hope of improving the island diet. With his usual thoroughness he collected recipes for delectable dishes, and took cookery lessons in Edinburgh.
His friends felt it was hard to let him disappear again so quickly, but then if he did not go away neither would he come back again, and there was nothing in the world more delightful than Allan’s meteoric returns!
He reached Christmas Island in October 1919. The Company did well to secure him, for his experience made him doubly valuable as an official, and by the time he reached the island he was full of fresh energy and ideas.
He planned and erected a new hospital, to contain twenty-five beds, besides private accommodation for European patients. His flowers and garden loom large in his letters, and he struggled in his painstaking way with the rebellious hens, who for a time refused him eggs, but who eventually, like every one else, succumbed to his persuasions and agreed to produce a constant supply of eggs and chickens.
But all was not plain-sailing, even on the Island of Dreams. Even there, the spirit of unrest and discontent was dominant. In his letters he naturally minimises his share in restoring law and order, but had it not been for him the serious riot which broke out in December would have been a tragedy, the small white population massacred, stores destroyed, and starvation the lot of the survivors. The island at that time was as isolated as a ship, and depended entirely upon the Islander for supplies. He tells of the rebellion in a long letter of December 20, 1919:
December 20, 1919
If in a moment of aberration I left home with the fixed idea of finding one spot in the universe where one was free from riots, strikes, murder, and sudden death, and if I thought that by coming out to this Island of Dreams I had found it, I have been sorely mistaken. Since last I wrote, we have had enough concentrated excitement to last for a short while anyway, but, as far as I can see, we are not through with it yet.
It all happened thus. There is a Chinese holiday on what corresponds to December 22; this is not an important day in their calendar, like the Feast of Ancestors, and so the head Chinaman (known as the Towkie) thought it would be well to hold the holiday on the 25th, and thus every one would have a holiday at the same time. This was approved by the other coolies, especially as indicated that I would put up a feast, and if the cinema arrived by this next trip of the Islander, I would have given them a picture show as well. There are, however, amongst the more recent arrivals many very bad characters. It is not possible, on account of the adverse rates of exchange, to recruit the type of coolie one used to get direct from China. The result is that the only coolies that can be obtained are those who have been in the rubber Estates in the F.M.S. [Federated Malay States – 1895-1946. A federation of four protected states in the Malay Peninsula—Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang] for a long while, and the only ones that want to come down here are either chronic opium smokers – opium is cheap here – or else bad hats trying to escape from police surveillance.
One of these men posted an impudent notice saying that they refused to have the date changed. The Towkie sent for him and there was a scrap. I think the Towkie should have called the police and had the man arrested properly – he certainly had no business to take the matter into his own hands; but he says the man made an attempt to strike him, and came in looking for trouble. Certainly the man in question is about as low a dog as they make ’em. Anyhow, the first intimation that I received was hearing the distant shouting and the continuous blowing of police whistles, and on getting there the riot was in full swing. About two hundred men were engaged in attacking the Kongsi store – where all the food supply for the coolies is kept – and the Towkie’s house where he had taken shelter.
It was pandemonium let loose. I jumped up on the veranda of the Kongsi and and tried to get a hearing. A few heard me but the majority could not. I assured them that justice would be done and asked them to go home, and said the matter would be thrashed out in the morning. It was all of no avail. Bricks and heavy stones and bottles were being thrown at the two buildings, and were coming uncomfortably near my head, so I tried stop the riot by mingling with the crowd tackling groups. They would only listen to me a moment, and then a shout would set them off again. For over an hour this went on, getting worse and worse. At one time they saw one of the Mandores (head quarryman), and he tried to get silence for me to speak, but just as they were beginning to quieten down, a man shouted that the man the Towkie had struck was dead, and that fairly infuriated them. I assured them it was a lie, and so did the Mandore. Then someone shouted, “Kill the Mandore!” and they rushed him. I thought it was all up. He got one blow on the head, and then I got him under my arm, and backed him against a wall, and held them off until he escaped. I got several blows on the arm and head, but they were not meant for me but for him. All the way through the show they never willingly attempted to attack me.
The other Europeans were of course lending a hand all over the place, in the same way as I was, but they could not speak to the coolies.
Then things became much more sinister. I stopped six men armed with heavy axes, and there was a shout of “Foh Shui” (kerosene), and back some of them came with tins of kerosene – they had broken into the oil shed and got at the stuff. I stopped one lot applying a lighted lamp to a burst-open tin at the Towkie’s back door, and came round to find another lot doing the same at the front door. Things were getting desperate! The Sikh police by this time were drawn up and armed in an attempt to defend the Kongsi store, where all the food supply is kept. There was a wild shout, and they rushed the police! I was very busy at the time stopping coolies arriving with kerosene, but I realised that a wave of coolies had swung towards where the police were standing.
Then some shots rang out. I thought they were Chinese crackers, but a man two yards from me spun round and fell, and I realised that the police had opened fire and that I was in direct line. However, the result of the shots was magical! The coolies bolted like rabbits to their houses, and peace reigned. I could not find a soul to help me with the wounded, until at last I found a trolley and put them on; one dead outright, one dying, two others very seriously wounded, and two more slightly wounded. I had a fairly busy time of it!
For the next four days no work was done, and all the coolies were on strike. I addressed them myself, and through the interpreter, and their demands were entirely unreasonable. The acting District Officer is Manager as well, and is not in a position, I suppose, to be strong with them. What they should have done was to follow up the original initial victory and get hold of the ringleaders, most of whom I can identify myself. As it is, they have been given a great feast for the two who died, and are still in a state of seething discontent.
There has never been any foreign element in the show. I know these folk well enough to know that it would not take much to start it. You have only to get about twenty really bad men holding secret meetings, and then the fat is in the fire. Had they fired the store, we should have been faced with the problem of starvation. We only get one mail a month, that is to say, once the Islander has left we are absolutely cut off from the outside world till she returns. Anything might happen in that time. I have insisted, for the safety of the community, that a wireless be erected as soon as possible. The coolies are back at work now, as martial law has been proclaimed. If strong action is not taken, this is only the beginning of much worse. I am very fond of many of the coolies – they are tremendously good fellows and I am certain the better element will welcome a strong line being taken against these devils as I should.
That night they were yelling and cursing and foaming at the mouth like madmen – it is not a sight one will forget in a hurry, with the light of the torches and lamps – they were out for murder and arson, and would have done both if the shooting had been withheld for ten minutes later. As a matter of fact, the first shot was fired by one of the police in self-defence, as he was being attacked by the coolies in a surging mass. He attempted, as ordered, to fire into the air, but one of them seized the barrel of the rifle just as he pressed the trigger, and got the whole charge straight into his
heart. Of course, they were only using buckshot, but buckshot at close quarters can make a very nasty mess!
I have been kept very busy, and am most of the time out at Hospital. The two that were killed were among the very worst – one, in fact, was the man who wrote the impudent reply to the Towkie. There are seven Europeans on the island, and we are not very strong if the worst happened, but we are armed, and of couse I never go now without a revolver, though I personally am sure they would not touch me, as the majority are my very good friends.
I am full of my scheme for the new hospital. I enclose a rough sketch of the plan I have submitted, which has been locally approved. I want to have it called the “Sir John Murray Memorial Hospital”, and I hope they will make it a worthy memorial.
His anxiety had been great, and one can read relief in the news (December 31, 1919) that:
December 31, 1919.
The Islander has just arrived – earlier than expected – and on board a Magistrate, a sergeant expected of police, and twenty Sikh police, so now I hope drastic action with regard to the recent riot will be taken. I am sure that many of my old friends among the coolies will welcome direct action. They are at present being terrorised by a lot of “bad hats” – the discarded rabble from F.M.S. Rubber Estates, who have only come here recently and are Bolshevistic in the extreme. I hear an armoured cruiser will call in a few days to a demonstration. That would be excellent! That will show them that though a bit out of the way, we are still a portion of the British Empire. There is a lot of unrest here still, and I hope they will make a thorough clearance of the bad element and put the fear of the Empire into the remainder. Things were very nasty for a bit when at their worst.
We have got about twenty-eight children on the island, Malays and Chinese, ranging from three years old to ten, and so I got down some suitable presents from Singapore and gave them a proper Christmas, which, after all, is no day unless you have children. I think they thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and I know I did. We first fed them, lots of bread and jam and cakes and pine-apple, and ginger beer which they much preferred to tea, and then we had games: the old favourites, blind man’s buff, hide and seek, and races for the bigger boys in the garden round my house. Then dressed up one of the other fellows as Father Christmas, and he was taken into the jungle behind a big rock, in front of which there was a tree with all the presents on it. They came along, and on reaching the rock I told them that a very old “Datch” (great-grandfather) lived inside and only came out once a year, and that I would shout for him, which I did. Nothing happened, so then I produced some gongs, and got them to beat them and all to shout “Datch!” at the top of their voices. This they did with right goodwill, a most appalling row which I had difficulty in stopping, so as to give the poor old Datch a chance. Then his gruff voice was heard: “Who calls?” At this, some of the younger almost bolted, and when the aged one appeared, two burst into wails of terror; but when they found he was a nice old man, they got quite brave and were all very happy. After he had given them their presents, he said, “Farewell, for another year”, and departed with a wail into the rock again. It was all most impressive; several of them had nightmares that night, and next day I found two near the rock shouting “Datch!” as if to burst their lungs. It will have to be an annual feast in future, as I think they highly approved of their first introduction to a British Christmas party.
Somewhere and some day – a day, alas! that was never to be – Allan intended to create a perfect home. That he appreciated the fact that the fundamental of good housekeeping is a good cook is shown in the domestic aspect of the following:
I have moved into my new house, and am getting it in order. The first thing was to get a cook. The old residents said, “You will have to send to Singapore for one.” They are very hard to get, and the wages are almost prohibitive. Any one who has lived up-country in China knows that John is a natural cook, especially the Cantonese, and that eight out of ten can really cook well if they have half a chance. So I walked along the coolie lines in the cool of the evening after they had the meal supplied to them, but at when they are cooking the little tit-bits their hearts long for, if they have a cooking strain in their systems. And when I smelt an apetising aroma ascending to the skies above, I strolled over to inspect the cooker, my object being to find if possible a man I knew personally, and one who was naturally clean. One can divide the coolies into two groups: those who wear at night the clothes they have worn during the day, and those who come straight down from the quarries and change, usually into thin white clothes. My inspection was rewarded, for I found Ah Tak, a coolie I knew to be very clean, cooking the most delicious ragout of fish and vegetables, so I asked him if he would like to come and cook for me. He thought at first that I was pulling his leg, and when he found I was in earnest was highly delighted, but said that he could not make European dishes. However, I told him he had the soul of a cook and that was good enough and he’s been a great success. He has a supreme respect for my knowledge of cooking, which is a comfort. One usually feels so infinitely small in the presence of one’s cook, and it is a novel sensation to be venerated instead of merely tolerated. The secret is that before visiting him I spent ages working up an item or or two out of the Edinburgh School of Cookery Book, which I brought out with me, and so far it has not let me down. Then I am really quite good at baking bread and scones, oatcakes, etc., and was able to help him there, so that the girdle has been in constant use.
In the spring of 1920 he had to go to Hong Kong on business connected with his practice. He had intended it only to be a visit, as indeed it was, but while there he found himself forced to promise to return again for good and all. His business arrangements alone made this obligatory, and also it would have taken a stiffer heart than Allan’s to refuse the entreaties of friends and patients. But the decision was not easily made, and the difficulty was increased by the attitude of the Phosphate Company, who had been generous not only to him, but in acceding to every request he had made for the welfare of the coolies.
A letter written on the return journey, after the visit to Hong-Kong, is worth quoting, as it shows the vicissitudes which Allan’s obliging nature often led him into:
SINGAPORE, July 1920.
I had promised the fellows on the island to bring down some good Leghorn fowls and some Chow puppies, so I could not travel by P. & O. or Japanese Mail, as they refused to carry live stock, so I had to come south on a tramp carrying coolies, and had the most poisonous trip I have ever struck. I had no cabin, and had to sleep on deck. Two days out we got into a typhoon and the vessel being a small thing, and without cargo, rolled and pitched and writhed about in a most diabolical fashion. I lay on deck and dragged my mattress around trying to find dry spot and seeking to escape the green seas that were coming over, and at the same time being violently ill at frequent periods. The puppies made the most horrible din, yelp, yelping, till I wanted to heave the whole lot over the side and follow them myself. However, even that concentrated misery came to an end, and once on shore I had the appetite of a tiger after the forced starvation. I am off to-morrow by the old Islander, back to the hermitage!!
I have spoken of the pleasure which Allan’s returns gave. It will be seen from the next letter that this was the case, whether the setting was in Christmas Island or Scotland :
CHRISTMAS ISLAND, July 30, 1920.
Back again, as you see, on the old island. I had a good trip down on the Islander, and begin to think I am becoming a sailor in my old age, as after Java Head there was a stiff south-east monsoon blowing, and I turned up at every meal.
We had eight fellows on board going down as reliefs to the cable staff at the Cocos Islands, so were quite a cheery party, and had some Bridge – a rare treat on board the Islander. Every third month the Islander goes on to the Cocos with reliefs, and one of the eight this time was a very old friend of mine. I think, on the whole, they are worse off than we are, as, although there are more of them, and they are in touch through the cable with the news of the outer world, yet they only get a mail once in three months, and the island they are on is only one mile long. They can walk all round it in twenty minutes !
I had a great welcome from the coolies on my return. You would think I had been away for a year instead of two months. They came down to my house at night and let off many dollars’ worth of Chinese crackers, waking the whole settlement, and startling the women with visions of another riot, and then presented me solemnly with six bottles of brandy, four dozen of beer, and two fowls. I hate when they go and spend their hard-earned wages in this way, but what can one do except thank them and promise to look after them as well as one can, but you can understand how fond one gets of the old things, when they show their gratitude for the little one has been able to do for them in such a characteristic way.
The four Chow puppies stood the journey all right, and the prize Leghorns that I brought with me are settling down in their new quarters and have commenced to lay. The garden is simply splendid; the flowers are out in bloom, and I really feel that one was justified for the hard work one put into it.
In view of his really precarious health a total incapacity to take reasonable care, all his friends must wish he had never decided to return to the strain of Hong-Kong, and had continued the peaceful life which the island prescribed, as depicted in his last letters written there:
The island is the same spot, far from the noise of this comic world, and life goes on quietly but cheerily. My black mare is the joy of my fading youth, and the garden is showering her blessings upon me in a manner which is positively prodigal. I have heaps and heaps of yellow, white, pink, and deep red roses, full of scent if gathered in the morning quite early. I can’t give you their number in catalogue, but I do know they are really very beautiful, and as I was told they would not grow I am more than pleased. In the vegetable garden there is a fresh crop of tomatoes in flower, and lots of peas, and behind them scarlet runners, which are so decorative behind the white peas that I don’t want them to form pods. Besides, there are beets, turnips, onions, radishes, brinjals, and okroes, all nearly ready for table. It was worth the pain in the back and the blisters!
Talking about blisters! I went out in my small boat the other day, and was exposed, with nothing on but a bathing suit and a topee, to the sun’s rays for eight hours, partly fishing and partly exploring some wonderful caves, and came back red. The part it got me worst was along the shin-bone. The next day it set up a periostitis [inflammation of the membrane enveloping a bone]. Probably because I played four sets of tennis on my return. Anyhow, my legs were like those of an ancient mahogany table in size and complexion, and I was on the flat of my back for eight days. However, I read a lot, and had much joy from reading Thackeray’s Book of Snobs, especially the Yellow Plush Correspondence and the History of Mr. Titmarsh.
October 25, 1920.
It is pouring as it only knows how to in the tropics – not a constant drip, but a steady cataract, louder by its rattle against the cocoanut palm leaves, and giving one the sensation that it is bound to go on for ever-an eternity of grey lowering sky with straight lines descending from it, and a constant sizzle like a huge pot boiling all around one.
The duck family are having a gala day, in and out of one pool after another, and bowing to each other in a manner which is not in the least courtly but rather ridiculous. I think the Vegetable garden must also be having quite a happy day; I got a basket of green peas out of it on Saturday, and a home-bred duckling’s number went up as a suitable sacrifice.
January 12, 1921.
I am in the throes of departure from the Isle of the Blest. I have told the Manager I cannot remain a single trip longer!
I got up a vaudeville show for Hogmanay, which went off very well. Amongst other turns I found two Malays who danced very well, and they gave an exhibition of Eastern dancing: and in the coolie lines I found a coolie who was a really, good conjuror and illusionist. I had to have several weird boxes made for him, but he did all Maskelyne and Cooke’s tricks of tying people up in a box, which was locked and roped, and out of which the man emerged unscathed. Afterwards we gave them supper in the “big house” (his own new house) and so saw in the New Year.
Unfortunately the presents I ordered from Singapore did not arrive in time to give the kiddies their Christmas Tree on Christmas Day, but as soon as the Islander arrived this time we had it.
Well, this is the last letter from the old spot. I shall miss much that I love about the old place: the early morning rides through the jungle before the sun is up, when the perfume of the wild tobacco hangs heavy on the air; and the moonlight nights out in the Thistle in Flying Fish Cove, and much else. But so it was written.
According to his memoir, shortly after April 1926, whilst working in Hong Kong, Dr Allan was taken ill with influenza and eventually had to be removed from his hotel, where he had been living, to the French Hospital. He was nursed with care and skill but suffered greatly. His right leg and arm became paralysed. The months of summer heat had been unbearable and despite being very ill he was eventually moved to Dr Strachan’s house on the Peak towards the end of August. Here the air was cooler. He revived and suffered less. An old friend sat with him the night before he died. She had been with him every day of his illness. At his request, she read him an article on trout fishing and the 34th Psalm. They said prayers and he was left peaceful and content. He died the next morning. His headstone in the Hong Kong Cemetery reads “In dear memory of a beloved physician JAMES CYRIL DALMAHOY ALLAN Died September 8th 1926 aged 43 years – Succourer of Many.