Biographical entry: Bell, William Robert (1876 - 1927)

Born
7 August 1876
Died
5 October 1927

Details

William Robert Bell was born in Gippsland, Victoria, Australia, on 7 August 1876. He attended Moe State School and then Tanjil South School until age fourteen. His mother died while William was young and he was raised by an aunt but remained in close contact with his siblings. In 1899, he enlisted in 2nd Victorian Mounted Rifles in the Boer War in South Africa. After the war he was working with his uncles at harvest time when a pitchfork entered his right hand and a doctor had to remove a portion of his hand and some fingers. He was very conscious of the injury and in his early years wore a glove and shook hands with his left hand. He went to Fiji where he began work for a trading company as an accountant. In 1904-1905 he began to make labour recruiting voyages for the company and then secured an appointment as Government Agent on the schooner Clansman, making several voyages to the Solomons recruiting labour. (Keesing and Corris 1980, 45-49) Two of his journals have survived, which show him as an upholder of regulations. He came to respect the tough and straightforward Solomon Islanders, particularly the Malaitans who were the main labourers recruited. When the Solomons labour trade to Fiji ended in 1911, Bell applied and received the position as Head of the Department of Labour in the Protectorate. The new 1910 labour regulations required detailed supervision of the labour trade at a time when plantations were expanding. Recruitment conditions, rations and treatment on the plantations needed to be strictly inspected and Bell was just the man to do it. However, Bell had no independent transport and felt that he did not have Resident Commissioner Woodford's (q.v.) support. He broke ranks to complain straight to the Colonial Office. Although Woodford was exonerated and Bell castigated, it showed the measure of Bell, and that Woodford, about to retire, respected him. Amongst the British career public servants, Bell was an anomaly: he was a self-made Australian, he did not drink alcohol, was a stickler for what was right, was willing to alienate the big plantation companies, and championed the rights of Solomon Islanders. (Keesing and Corris 1980, 50-53)

When the First World War began, many officers left to join regiments but Bell was ineligible due to his hand injury, and in 1915 he was asked to assume the position of District Officer on Malaita, replacing Thomas W. Edge-Partington (q.v.) who had opened the Auki base on Malaita in 1909, but had left in 1914. Bell, aware of the enormity of the task, reluctantly agreed to take the position for one year. Almost immediately he crossed swords with the new Acting Resident Commissioner, Frederick Joshua Barnett (q.v.). As occurred in his interactions with Woodford, his behaviour bordered on insubordination. Once more he bypassed local authority, this time complaining by letter to the High Commissioner in Fiji. Bell had a far better understanding of the Malaitan ramo (warrior) system than Barnett, but his insubordination could not be supported. Although Barnett sacked Bell, he was soon reinstated and had to beg forgiveness from his superior. Barnett departed and was replaced by Charles Workman (q.v.) in 1917, who was more supportive of Bell's approach. (Keesing and Corris 1980, 56-59) By this stage Bell was clearly an 'expert' on Malaita and understood the complexities of the island's society better than any other European at the time, except perhaps Anglican missionary Walter Ivens (q.v.). Workman confirmed Bell as District Officer and commended him for his unswerving honesty. Bell, a severely spartan bachelor officer, became the master of Auki from his government residence high on the hill. (Keesing and Corris 1980, 60-65)

From 1915-1927, Bell and his constabulary worked to stop fighting and bounty hunting and impose government control. His method was to out-bigman the bigmen, specifically the ramo warriors. He was like a feudal lord controlling a fiefdom and, knowing that he was doing an excellent job, the Resident Commissioners left him alone. He threw himself into the task and was remarkably successful. His years on Malaita saw the abolition of the beach payments for labour recruits and the introduction of a head-tax there in 1923, both changes he criticized. He continued to have an aggressive relationship with his superiors (who respected him nonetheless) and had an uneven relationship with the missionaries whom he admired, although he decried certain self-seeking zealots, particularly among SSEM missionaries, who wanted to destroy Malaitan customs. (Keesing and Corris 1980, 66-80)

By 1927, the year of his death, he was an experienced Malaita hand and had no equal in the Solomons. Perhaps he had become too sure of his abilities. The surprise attack which led to his death on 5 October 1927 came during a government tax collecting patrol to Sinalagu Harbour, in the Kwaio area of east Malaita. Men primarily from three kin groups inland from Sinalagu made the attack which killed Bell, his assistant Lilley, and another thirteen of his party. Two Kwaio attackers died. Most of the dead were police from north Malaita. (Keesing and Corris 1980, 83-147) Two weeks later, a government force consisting of fifty Australia soldiers, twenty-eight European civilians, and some fifty Malaitan police and volunteers primarily from the north, arrived in Kwaio on HMS Adelaide. Although the Europeans were ineffectual in the rugged mountainous terrain, the north Malaitans were efficient and ruthless. Women and girls were gang-raped and many were shot, children were also murdered and other prisoners were executed and mutilated. The soldiers roamed north to Uru Harbour, into the 'Oloburi area and into west Kwaio, far away from the area from where the attackers came from. Keesing and Corris estimated that around sixty people were shot and others, some children, died from exposure while hiding in the jungle. Ancestral shrines and sacred men's houses were desecrated, which the Kwaio believe caused their angry ancestors to kill more descendants later through illness and mishap. About two hundred men, most innocent of the crime, were taken to goal in Tulagi, where thirty-one died in a dysentery outbreak. Six were hanged and seventeen received long prison sentences. The atrocities related to the 1927 reprisals have led to on-going compensation claims from the Kwaio and a boycott of national elections in the 1980s. (Keesing and Corris 1980, 148-205; Akin, 1999a)

In 1977, on the fiftieth anniversary of the attack, anthropologist Professor Roger Keesing of the Australian National University had suggested some form of official celebration take place, but Chief Minister Peter Kenilorea refused the suggestion. Instead, a private marking ceremony was held at the site of the attack, at Gwee'abe in Sinalagu Harbour, and on the island of Ngongosila at nearby Uru where Bell and Lilley were buried, attended by Bell's only surviving sister. (Allan 1990, pt. 2, 157; AR 1928-1929)

Published resources

Books

  • Allan, Colin H., Solomons Safari, 1953-58 (Part II), Nag's Head Press, Christchurch, 1990. Details
  • Keesing, Roger M., and Corris, Peter, Lightening Meets the West Wind: The Malaita Massacre, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1980. Details

Reports

  • British Solomon Islands Protectorate, British Solomon Islands Protectorate Annual Reports (AR), 1896-1973. Details