Corporate entry: Levers Pacific Plantations Pty. Ltd.
The Pacific Islands Company was established in England with grand plans to develop British economic and political interests in the Pacific. Its directors included Colonial Office officials with Queensland experience, the inaugural Governor of Fiji and the first Western Pacific High Commissioner, and another individual with investment interests in New Zealand with Pacific licenses. In 1898, the company applied for land concession over all unoccupied lands in the Solomon Islands to operate as a chartered company in the style of the British North Borneo Company or the German New Guinea Company. Initially, this was refused because similar companies often had bad reputations as inefficient and inhumane in their dealings with indigenous people.
Negotiations continued over years, held up by German claims and the dubious legality of imposing the concept of 'waste lands'. (Hookey 1969) At the same time, Lever Brothers, Britain's largest soap manufacturer, had wanted to expand its direct control of raw materials, and established a factory in Sydney in 1900. Two years later William Lever incorporated Levers Pacific Plantations Ltd. in England, sending G. Foulton from the London office to Sydney as General Manager. In 1903, they were granted a 'Certificate of Occupation' over two hundred thousand acres in the Protectorate. This led to the liquidation of the original company and the formation of a new Pacific Islands Company that included Lever Brothers, which had access to existing copra and phosphate reserves in the Pacific. The copra trade was slow to develop, but access to phosphate on Nauru and Ocean (Barnaba) Island through the Pacific Phosphate Company became their main endeavour.
Levers had decided that their future lay in controlling the growing as well as the processing of copra, and with an initial capital of £300,000 they negotiated to purchase eighty thousand freehold acres. They were also able to purchase the Pacific Islands Company concessions in 1906 for only £5,000, and for 999 year leases instead of the original 99. They also bought land from traders and planters. In 1907, Levers bought fifty-one thousand acres from Karl Oscar Svensen (q.v.) at a cost of £40,000, or ten times what he had paid to amass the land since 1890. Svensen's holdings included Gavutu Island near Tulagi (q.v.), which became their main trading base. (Golden 1993 68-69) In 1911, Levers paid Norman Wheatley £12,000 for land at Logha near Gizo.
While their coconut plantations developed to a harvest stage (about eight years) Levers purchased SS Upolu and in 1905 began operating as coastal traders buying copra, paying a much more generous rate than other competitors. In 1910, the Upolu was replaced by a larger steamer, SS Kulambangara, and by 1913 business was sufficient for the ship to be used solely on the Sydney-Solomons run. Three years later, with their plantation interests well established, Levers withdrew the ship to use in their African interests and allowed Burns Philp & Co. (q.v.) to become the monopoly steamer service to Australia. (Golden 1993, 422)
Levers was the biggest employer, hiring 2,500 indentured labourers from 1905-1910, and in 1910 they had 2,050 hectares under cultivation, including the land purchased from Svensen. (CO 225/95 (Microfilm 2919), ca. 1910, Lever Brothers' Assessment of their input in the Solomon Islands) Although they had acquired four hundred thousand acres, most of it on 99- and 999-year leases, in 1923, Levers only cultivated twenty thousand acres. There was not enough labour for expansion, and the Colonial Office rebuffed all overtures to bring in Indian workers. In 1928, Levers Pacific Plantations Ltd. was converted to a proprietary company, Levers Pacific Plantations Pty. Ltd., with Fulton remaining in charge until 1926, still based in Sydney and making annual visits to the Protectorate. (Golden 1993, 422)
During the Second World War years Levers wrote off the value of its plantations, and had a £250,000 reserve available to reinvest. The company took advantage of high postwar copra prices to return in a more limited form; it concentrated on plantations in the Russell Islands and considered diversifying into oil palms. (Bennett 1987, 127-129, 130, 143, 52, 303)
In November 1957, Levers took over the plantations of Fairymead Sugar Company (q.v.) (the old Malayta Company [q.v.]) at Yandina, Talina and Sifola, expanding their holdings in the Russell Islands. They moved their headquarters from Lingatu to Yandina. Over the next five years, Levers spent nearly £500,000 developing its plantations in the Protectorate, expanding plantations, patching damage from the war, and expanding their cattle herd back to the prewar level, aiming to have six thousand head by the mid-1970s.
After a series of discussions with the British Solomon Islands Building and General Workers' Union, in February 1963, Levers ended their bonus system and agreed to copra workers working an eight-hour day and a 20 percent wage increase. The minimum copra cutters' daily output was expected to be 300 pounds and the minimum brushman's daily output was expected to be forty-five palms brushed at ground level. (NS Dec. 1957, 28 Feb. 1963, 15 Apr. 1963; Golden 1993, 429)
- Bennett, Judith A., Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1987. Details
- Golden, Graeme A., The Early European Settlers of the Solomon Islands, Graeme A. Golden, Melbourne, 1993. Details
- Hookey, J.F., 'The Establishment of a Plantation Economy in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate', in K.S. Inglis (ed.), The History of Melanesia, Second Waigani Seminar, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University and University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, 1969, pp. 229-238. Details
- British Solomon Islands Protectorate (ed.), British Solomon Islands Protectorate News Sheet (NS), 1955-1975. Details