The meetings in Honiara

I had met Anthony Hughes before. I was based in Banika Island, a part of the Russell Group in the Central Province of the Solomon Islands.

In the first few days of taking over, I had flown with Jim Broom to Guadalcanal to meet with the top government officials.

First, we met governor-general Sir Baddeley Devesi in suits and ties, and Jim explained my background.

Then prime minister Solomon Mamaloni was not in the country, so we saw his finance minister Bartholomew Ulufaalu, a young, feisty man who was frank about what he wanted for the country.

It was in the first few years of independence.

In the long corridors of the wooden buildings, I observed that many secretaries were British women, but it was plain that change was taking place.

Eventually, we crossed the road and walked to the office of the Central Bank. Governor Hughes was waiting for us.

He was wearing shorts, sandals and a T-shirt, but I understood that it was usual for people to dress simple there.

He was a tall and ascetic figure, and when he sat at the low glass table his knees touched the glass top.

As Jim spoke, I noted the display of custom money of seashells, which I was told were still in use in ceremonies and marriages.

I knew Hughes had read my background because he was also on the board of the company representing the government, which had bought a big share on his recommendation.

From my information, I knew that after his graduation from Oxford University, he had joined the civil service.

With his sharp mind, it was not long before he clashed with officers more senior to him at Whitehall, and there was no place in the empire further than the Solomon Islands, where they sent him.

But he took to the place and helped pave the way to independence, married the tall daughter of a chief from the Western Province and after some years became a citizen of Solomon Islands.

We did not go through the cashflow problems, but he said before we left that the matter should be solved.

It struck me that he was a thoughtful person, who I could get along with.

But this was not the case. It was at the second meeting when we sat at the same glass table, that he went straight to the point.

“Your parent company should put up a loan. You must have sent a lot of money back over the years. And you took the land virtually for nothing in the first place.”

Clearly, he had turned hostile. Perhaps he had many things on his mind.

It so happened that my next meeting for the day was with the director of lands, and I found myself facing another odd situation.

Instead of seeing an islander, I found myself facing a Scotsman donning a dark beard and he was even more direct than Hughes.

“From your proposal, I see you have a wish to delay giving us back the unused islands. Our people want them now. After all, you had acquired them with some shells and dogs’ teeth as custom money. You have exploited us.” He glared at me.

As I walked away, I felt sore that the two officials had chastised me, a Malay, like I was a colonialist and they were the injured party. The stories were not true.

Those islands and the trading posts across the Pacific had been bought from another foreign owner nearly a hundred years before and with Western currency.

When I got back to the Mendana hotel, I was ready for a strong cup of coffee when I saw a figure and I thought I could guess who he was.

He was wearing long stockings, white shorts and shirt, and a silver chain went from his belt to his pocket.

He was sitting alone under a false almond tree and reading a piece of paper closely with his eye-glass.

This was Commander Ninian Scott-Elliot, who had land in Rendova bought after the war and planted coconut and cocoa.

He was balding and he looked tired.

“Very glad to meet you at last,” I said. “And thank you for your letter welcoming me to the islands.”

He had written on my first days with a warm word of welcome and hoped to see me anytime at his plantations, by a bay further to the west.

His letter was written with a broad nib on expensive stationery, in the old way I was taught in school.

It was later that I read that he had been a war hero, seeing action in Malta, and Tobruk.

After his boat was sunk, he was held prisoner on the way to Germany and had escaped.

He rejoined the navy and was in the South Pacific at the end of the war when he saw the Solomon Islands.

I was told he had planted his place at Rendova with cocoa and coconut, leading a team of loyal workers.

At dinner, he would have a bag-piper who would pace outside the house. He had set his own time.

He was tolerated, as he was said to be related to the Queen.

He threatened to mint his own currency, but changes had caught up with him.

“I came to see the authorities in the land office when they said they want to buy my land,” he said.

“Are you selling?

“They gave me the price. I told them to add a few more zeroes.”

He paused.

“I know I can’t stay on. I will have to look at Sri Lanka or Tanzania, where I might start over again,” he added.

I took a photograph with the sea behind him, and I did not see him again.

It was later that I read that he went back to Devon to live there to the end of his days.

He had left a will and some money to a young Englishman to start a chicken farm in Rendova, so his former workers could once again have an income and perhaps start a school.

With Tony Hughes, I got to know him a bit better when I held a board meeting in Banika.

He stayed at my house and he was in the mood to talk.

“Did you expect anything different before you bought the shares?” I asked.

“I did, in a way. Now I can see under the cover what a multinational does. But I am glad there was nothing that I found that could not bear scrutiny.

“Having said that, the income had not been as expected and the ministers were asking questions directed at me. It happens every time I try to stop spending, such as building new government offices.”

A few days later I heard on the radio that Hughes had been sacked. Later, I heard he still had his job.

I made a mental note to ask him about that when I was next in Honiara.

It could be the time when the Queen arrived on her yacht, the Royal Britannia.

The writer has extensive experience in the management of oil palm plantations. Comments: