The “Pooh Bah” of Christmas Island

In his book, “Memoirs of a Malayan Official”, Victor Purcell, devotes an entire chapter to his stay on Christmas Island after being appointed as the District Officer (D.O.) in 1926. Dr Purcell was a learned man but seems not to have taken himself or his position over seriously. I find his account of life whilst the D.O., especially with regard to the Europeans, engaging. It seems he had his hands full dealing with them.

I have included below, excerpts from the chapter in his book, that focus on his observations of the people and lifestyle on the island.

It is unfortunate that Dr Purcell died suddenly in early 1965 during the final stages of what was to become his final book. He lead a most remarkable life. But how fortunate we are that he lived long enough to write about his time on Christmas Island.

An island interlude

… as District Officer I was for seven months in charge of the destinies of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. I might have stayed there indefinitely had it not been that my Government wanted me for some other job-at least, so I have got into the habit of saying, in that facile way we have of dramatizing our lives, but the truth is that, in spite of the highlights of my sojourn there, enough is as good as a feast: and if I had stayed there much longer, a welcome interlude would have turned into an unbearable exile.

Christmas Island is in S. lat. 10° 25′, E. long. 105° 42′. That is to say, almost precisely in the middle of nowhere. … After a four-day journey from Singapore in February 1926 on the Phosphate Company’s vessel, the Islander, I arrived at Flying Fish Cove.

… The District Officer’s house well-built and roomy, but spoilt by a red tin roof) was on a promontory to the west of the cove, reached by a narrow path that had been blasted through the cliff face (a man with a rifle could have held up an army in such a defile).

As D.O. I was a veritable ‘Pooh Bah’. I was District Officer, Magistrate, Assistant District Judge, Port Officer, Port Health Officer (though the Company had a doctor), Postal Agent, Assistant Protector of Chinese, and half a dozen other things as well. When any clients decided to visit me (which was seldom), I would ask them which of these dignitaries they wished to see. If Chinese, they might well ask to see the tai jin (I being the Assistant Protector of Chinese), in which case I would give them advice on their problem which had not the force of law, but, should they not be satisfied, I would refer the matter to the Magistrate. I would in that event mount the steps to the Bench (the court-room was in the lower part of my house), my clerk would swear in the men as witnesses, I would hear the evidence, and come to a decision (usually the same one) which had all the force of law. Appeal lay only to the Supreme Court in Singapore.

My duties were not unduly onerous. The population of the island consisted of somewhat over 900 Cantonese coolies working under contract, about fifty Javanese boatmen, and twenty-three European employees of the Company, including their wives, all under the Manager. I had a staff of one clerk, two boatmen, and a police force of twenty-seven Sikhs under a corporal. During my tour of duty I was very lucky, for there were no murders and no riots. (Assaults and breaches of the peace and, in the past, murders, had usually started in the local brothel, where four Chinese prostitutes looked after the needs of their 900-odd potential customers.1) In my time the gaol was empty. As D.O. I sold opium to the Chinese at a reduced rate, as compared with the mainland, opium, or chandu, being then manufactured and distributed by the Government Monopolies Department in Singapore. (Opium smoking no doubt helped to keep the Chinese population quiet, and what happens now that the sale of opium is prohibited altogether I do not know.2)

1. When licensed prostitution ceased to be allowed in the Straits Settlements, this brothel was closed.
2. After the liberation of Malaya, the manufacture and sale of opium by the Government was not resumed.

The Chinese population proved to be no great problem. They had been recruited by a single contractor of their own tribe on behalf of the Company, and he was in a considerable measure responsible for their welfare. He had to maintain a shop at which the coolies could buy what they needed at reasonable prices. The men came readily to the Island, since it was easy to save money there, there being nothing (except gambling) to spend it on. This fact appealed also the the Sikhs of my police force and the few Company jagars, or ‘watchmen’, of the same race. They imported the meal for their chupatties in bulk and lived practically on nothing else, and their sole off-duty occupation, so far as I could discover, was lending money at high interest to the Chinese and Malays or praying in their godwarra, or temple. The two corporals I had in succession were splendid physical specimens and manly fellows as well, but the men (although tall and stalwart too had a childish habit of complaining to me about one another ‘He hit me,’ ‘He stole my belt,’ ‘He pushed me on parade,’ which was highly incongruous with such huge men. But perhaps it was the unnatural proximity to one another in their barracks and the lack of any better amusement that made them behave in this way.

The Europeans, though few in number, required very tactful treatment. When I arrived, they gave me a great welcome as they always did anyone from the mainland, who was a seven days’ wonder until his news became stale), but I soon discovered that they were divided into three factions, two of which had very limited dealings with one another and would not speak at all to the third-or rather, the third would not speak to them. The third faction comprised a British foreman and his Russian wife. I tried to heal the breach but could not discover the real reason for it. It had I think, nothing to do with national jealousies, but arose mainly from the man’s super sensitiveness and belief that he was being persecuted. I had to be very careful not to be unduly friendly with either of the two majority cliques, for fear of appearing to favour one at the expense of the other.

In spite of its peaceful appearance and its normal calm, Christmas Island had had its social typhoons in the past and was to have them again in the future. There had been some serious riots during the war. Murders were committed from time to time, and there had been a number of suicides. One incident (subsequent to my departure) was when a foreman who had been drinking heavily for some weeks began letting off his revolver into the ceiling, and since there was a family living upstairs, this was looked upon with disfavour. The Assistant Manager (Humphreys) had to call upon him and persuade him to hand over his gun (no easy feat). On another occasion, before my time, an over-sensitive D.O. who, when dining out, had been offered fruit-pigeon pie during the close season for that rare bird (Carpophaga whartoni), unique to Christmas Island, regarded this as an affront to his dignity as a magistrate (he was, by the way, a policeman, not a M.C.S. officer) and left the house in a huff. This led to a feud between him and the rest of the Europeans, and when he surrounded a house with his Sikh police in search of unlicensed firearms, a joint petition was sent to the Colonial Secretary, protesting against this high-handed (though, no doubt, perfectly legal) action. Those Pooh Bah’ detachment jobs under the British Raj. where the white-man authority was thin on the ground, often involved legal and procedural difficulties.

… But it was only the trivial frictions of human intercourse which caused me any concern-whether I had or had not said ‘Good morning’ to the wireless operator in the swimming-bath, and, if so, whether it was in the right tone of voice; whether Mrs. X had received her mail before Mrs. Y; or whether or not Mrs. Z was entitled to receive a parcel C.O.D. without producing the cash (which, from previous experience, the D.O. knew she intended to avoid doing). Remember that these people were on the island for three years at a time, and that some of them, except for ‘leaves’, had been there for up to thirty years. There was no wireless, no cinema, and no club, but the Manager and I used to have gramophone dances on alternate Saturdays and give amateur movie shows.

If the European inhabitants had not got on one another’s nerves occasionally they wouldn’t have been human.

Most of the European men were foremen or mechanics, but a few were men of some education. We had a Scottish doctor, and two Scottish chemists, whose unvaried routine it was to test samples of phosphate for moisture-content. The phosphate went to Japan to be treated with sulphuric acid to turn it into superphosphate, and moisture-content was an important factor affecting both the quality and the price. But think of the strain on human endurance, day in and day out weighing a sample of phosphate, heating it in a crucible and weighing it again, each time carefully noting the result-the sort of thing they had done in the ‘lab’ at school! A spell on a treadmill would, no doubt, have seemed an enjoyable change.

There were a number of cheerful souls among the Europeans, and we combined heartily until the liquor ran out. A few of them, however, were undoubted freaks. One of these was a foreman who, in a broad Lancashire accent, would retail for hours stories of his experience in the Diplomatic Service which, in inventiveness, if not in credibility, outdid those of William le Queux. Mason, the structural engineer, who erected the gantries, was a ‘character’, however, and in no way a freak. He had been a workman himself at one time and the tales he told of the pranks played by his fellows did not support the theory that the proletariat are the sole repositories of virtue. One was of the common trick of inserting red-hot rivets through an aperture to make contact with a sensitive portion of a mate’s anatomy and another was of filling up pillars with waste paper instead of concrete–not, it seemed, for gain but just for a lark’. But the stories of McWhirter, our Scottish doctor, of the exploits of medical students with serving-maids involving gruesome and illegal operations did not exonerate the bourgeoisie either, and were calculated to shock any but the most hardened cynic.

Victor Purcell (1896 – 1965)
C.M.G., Ph.D., Litt D. (Cantab.)

… I was officially charged to preserve order in the island and to perform the miscellaneous chores of a multi-purpose functionary. Preserving order first of all meant keeping a finger on the pulse of the local community. The Chinese, the Javanese, and the Sikhs each seemed to have a collective pulse whose beat it was fairly easy to count, using one hand at a time. The European community, on the other hand, not only had a separate pulse for each clique but it also had twenty-three individual pulses which beat at different rates and which called for a physician with as many hands to feel them. People were on top of one another. There was no escape. The D.O. was in a somewhat special category, being the local magistrate and the representative of the King (the celebration of the King’s Birthday was a solemn occasion when the Islander was dressed and the Sikh police presented arms as the Union Jack on the D.O.’s flagstaff was hoisted in salute), but even so, he was not exempted from membership of this very touchy society. If he was wise, he would be on the lookout for any ruffle on the communal duck pond.

The centre of all emotion and potential trouble was, naturally, the European ladies of the island. In my time they numbered eight, three of them being at South Point. One was the Russian wife who, with her husband, composed the island’s minority clique and lived with him in double-distilled solitude. Except for Mrs. Parkins, an elderly lady who constituted herself as the local news agency as well as the arbiter morum and watch-dog of island society, the others were young, or youngish, and sociably inclined. And even though the settlement was about as private as a floodlit arena, scandal could still find enough food to keep it alive. The subterfuges of Eros one heard of (from Mrs. Parkins) and the risks involved would have given Casanova heart disease, but most of it was wishful thinking or just plain bunkum. The truth was that this tiny community, shut in by cliffs and encircled by the imprisoning sea, was a microcosm of humanity in a straight-jacket, and this excited the Houdini-impulse in every man or woman within the age group of romance or misbehaviour.

In spite of my many titles and functions, my work as D.O., as I have said, was light. Except when the Islander was in for two or three days in the month and I had then to deal with piles of correspondence from all the administrative departments of the Straits Settlements, the daily routine was usually quite trifling. The sale of opium involved a certain amount of accountancy and stock-taking, but that was about all. My one clerk did all the postal work as well as acting as court clerk, and my only other staff consisted of two boatmen in addition to the Sikh police. Once the Islander had sailed for Singapore the coast was clear for my private devices.

The only two bids I made to justify the inclusion of my name in the annals of Christmas Island (if ever anyone should be so hard up for a job as to write them) was first when I wrote a long letter to the Government pointing out that although it had been drawing a large revenue from the island for many years and paying a hundred per cent dividend, it had done nothing whatsoever for it, there being no ‘welfare’, no public building, no club, and not even a hundred yards of road, and second when I warned my superiors that the continued presence of goats (brought to the island for food during the war years and now running wild) would in time denude Christmas Island of its forest just as they had St. Helena in the eighteenth century, so that in Napoleon’s time some thousands of pounds annually were being spent for the importation of timber and firewood. Both of these letters, however (while treated as visionary by the Singapore Secretariat), eventually, I believe, bore fruit-but how much fruit I do not know.

But I had not come to the island to lotus-eat, to relax, and to bask in the sun. One of my many projects was to improve my Chinese. When I was studying Chinese in Canton, I had taken it all in my stride. My Cantonese was good, and just before I left Malaya for Christmas Island I had learnt Mandarin, for which I had received a bonus of $5oo from the Government. Since I had no longer got to learn Chinese, my resistance to doing so died down and I now positively wanted to learn it. In fact, both in Hong Kong and in Malaya, after I had finished my official course, I had already made energetic attempts to make up for lost time. Christmas Island gave me just the chance I had wanted. Moreover, an idea had occurred to me regarding Chinese which I wanted to put to the test … I had aimed to supply China with a plan for a simplified dictionary, on the assumption that there would be a demand for such a thing …

In addition, I wrote a little book on Chinese poetry which sold in modest numbers for the next fifteen years until in 1942 the Japanese took the copies in stock out of Kelly & Walsh’s warehouse in Shanghai and burnt them. … I wrote articles, I worked on a novel I had started years before, and I read late into the night. I had brought a lot of books with me, but I soon felt the absence of any library near at hand, and since then I have come to the conclusion that to live farther than ten miles from one of the great libraries of the world is to be condemned to a life of semi-barbarism–but by that same token I have spent most of my life under semi-barbaric conditions.

When not occupied with the pursuits I have described, I took part in what diversions the island offered. I joined in the picnics, went in a motor-boat to see the blow-holes from which columns of spray shot sixty or seventy feet into the air, and when I emerged from my retreat, I mixed happily enough in the local society. Our potations were large and liberal, the tomfooleries we indulged in differed not at all from the tomfooleries of the British kind elsewhere, and the songs we sang in raucous or maudlin disharmony sent the crabs scuttling to their holes and made the frigates cry ‘Wow, wow, wow’ (or whatever the correct phonetical transcript may be) as they flapped sleepily on their frowsy nests.

… I went to Christmas Island because I was sent there. It allowed me simultaneously to earn my living, to furnish my mind, to drink whisky by the quart, and to contemplate my navel. It had drawbacks (such as limited society and tinned meat), but I look back upon it with affection and gratitude. Above all, it gave me a taste of that dignity and even grandeur that a man can experience only when he is alone in the midst of elemental things-on equal terms with the ocean, the night, and the stars. I can see now in my mind’s eye the white coral gleaming through waters of Pierian purity, I can recall the heteroclite novelty of the Southern Cross; I can see the golden and silver bos’ns flashing past in the sun; and I can hear the everlasting booming and rustling of the waves on cliff and shore, much as they boomed and rustled (with none but the sea-bird’s cars to hear them) against the coral atolls of the Pliocene.