People sometimes ask how I learned so much about coral atolls and islands. It’s because for three years in the late ’80s I lived in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, a coral atoll in the South Pacific. I was the Manager of the island. The company had a slipway and a shipyard and a machine shop and a trade store and a copra buying point and a banking agency and a couple of cargo ships and a postal agency and a couple of guest cottages that we rented out and (as you can see below) a whole lot of coconuts … and I ran the business. My wife and I were the only melanin-deficient folk on the island, at least at the time I’m talking about before our daughter was born. The rest were Melanesians and Micronesians, wonderful people. The company employed about thirty folks, and they and their wives and husbands and kids almost all lived on the island. Here’s the layout:
The workshop was on the north end of the island, by our house. You can see a couple of boats tied up at the wharf to the left of the red arrow. The channel into the lagoon is at the top. And it is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest island with a paved road is a long ways away. And when the sun goes down, there’s nobody home but you …
But this story is not about coral atolls. It’s a morality tale about justice and crime and humanity, playing out in one of the world’s most lovely settings …
Now, the power for the island came from a diesel generator. The guys fired it up in the morning, and we worked all day with its easy hum in the background. We made mostly two things, small aluminum skiffs that were prized by the Islanders because they lasted forever, and rainwater tanks. Here’s a photo of the area behind the wharf, with a shed for copra (dried coconut meat) at the left, and worker housing above that, and a boat up on the slipway at the right. Open ocean in the background left, with another island in the distance.
The generator stayed on until nine at night, and as always when the guys turned it off and all the lights went out, the silence and darkness were a soothing balm. On that particular night, the island was illuminated by a waning three-quarter moon, a warm, gentle, enveloping light. My wife and I were lying in bed, under the mosquito net, of course, the place has lots of malaria. I had it four times, so I did my best to avoid it. In other words, it was a normal peaceful evening on the island—the loudest sound the gentle susurration of the small waves on the outer reef, all the folks on the island were home and in bed, lights most definitely out.
So I was surprised when there was a knock on the door. I got up out of bed, buck naked, and I walked to the door. The company foreman, my main man and good friend Tumeke, was outside the door. He said through the door, “One-fella man, him like for look’m you”, in Pijin English, the lingua franca of the islands.
Pijin is a magical language, where every word has to work overtime. It was developed in the fields as a way to communicate with the islanders who had been stolen by the blackbirders to labor in Fiji or Australia. It has no tenses. It has no masculine or feminine. There are only about a thousand words, although it’s adopting more words in modern times in the big city.
So when Tumeke said “One-fella man, him like for look’m you”, he meant “One man would like to see you.” His voice sounded, I don’t know … odd.
I opened the door a crack, peered around it, and Tumeke was out there. Odder yet, his wife was there as well. And there was a third man, with something in his hands, an object that wasn’t clear in the moonlight. Tumeke said, “This-fella man, him got’m rifle. Him say you-me must go long office.” I looked, and indeed the man had a rifle. So it looked like we [you-me] would indeed be going “long” (the all-purpose Pijin preposition that means from, in, at, near, on, and many more meanings, and in this case “to”), the office. … I said “OK, bye me go long office, but first time me must put’m sulu”, meaning I will [bye for the future, as in bye and bye] go to the office, but before that [“first time”] I had to put on my sulu, the all-purpose wraparound cloth worn everywhere in the islands. I closed the door before they could think it over, and I locked it.
The fact that they let me do that told me they might not be professionals. I whispered to my gorgeous ex-fiancee, explained the situation, told her I had to go with them because the man had a gun on Tumeke and his wife. I whispered “Go out the back door and hide on the beach. I’ll call out when I return. If you see someone you lay low. I love you.” I kissed her, and we held each other tightly for a moment, and as she slipped quietly out the back door and headed for the beach, I returned to the front door.
But decently dressed this time, in my sulu and sandals, no shirt. I made no attempt to find and conceal a weapon. It didn’t feel like the story was headed in that direction, and being armed, even with a knife, would introduce a new and unpredictable element into the situation that I didn’t want or need. I’d dealt with violent desperate men before—it’s always better to dial the temperature down rather than turn up the heat. So armored only by a thin piece of cloth wrapped around my unmentionables, I took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped out.
The night was still as warm, but somehow now the moon seemed cold and alien. This time the landscape looked hard-edged in the moonlight. Tumeke and I walked ahead, the man and Tumeke’s wife behind. I asked Tumeke why his wife was with him. Quickly he explained that the guys came to his house and said “You-me go long big boss”, and he was going to take them to me by himself, but his wife had said she didn’t care if the man had a damn gun. I could tell he was shocked that she had sworn so. “Him never story all same”, she never talked like that before, he told me later. She said if they were taking him, as God was her witness and protection, they were taking her as well, wherever they were going … and so here she was.
I shook my head and marveled at the raw bravery and humanity of her action. We walked the path from my house over to the combination office / storeroom / trade store / banking agency / postal agency I called home during the day.
There we were met by two other men, one with a rifle and one apparently unarmed. I nodded to them and unlocked the door. Tumeke had a flashlight. We went into the room that served as the trade store. I lit a kerosene lamp. The three men blinked and looked around. They all wore bandanna-style masks, giving them a sinister air. They were dressed in the island standard uniform of shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops. They looked young. With the additional light, I could see that one had an actual rifle, and the other had what we used to call a “zip-gun”. This one looked lethal enough, a three foot (one metre) long piece of pipe with a bullet in the end and a bizarre setup with a whole bunch of rubber bands to pull a sharpened barrel bolt into the primer on the bullet … I saw in an instant how it would work, and I didn’t like it at all. It looked like it would shoot just fine. Here’s how the gun worked, pull back on the barrel bolt and let go.
We all crowded into the trade store, not a big room at all, narrow, with trade goods in shelves on one side, and a counter on the other side facing the public, with the shutters closed and locked now. The room was hot, and it quickly filled with the distinctive acrid smell of people who are afraid … their fear, our fear, there was plenty to go around …
The men had brought two folded up sacks with them, presumably to haul away the money. I looked at the sacks in amazement. They were the big copra sacks we used to bag up the copra when we bought it. They are maybe half or three-quarters again the size of the gunny sacks that they bag grain in. And these guys were all built to the standard Melanesian blueprint, which is long on short, so I knew that when unfolded, the sacks would reach from the floor up to the middle of their chests. The leader, the one who had come to get me, said “Where now safe b’long [belonging to] you-fella?”
Well, we didn’t have a safe, so Tumeke said “Oh, me-fella no got’m any safe”. The man said “You-fella must got’m safe, you-fella Banking Agency, you tell’m me now, where now safe b’long you-fella!”. And it’s true, we were a banking agency, and a post office as well … but no safe. Tumeke explained why we didn’t have a safe: “Last time, one-fella man him come for steal’m shilling [money] b’long me-fella. Him take’m safe, him break’m finish [completely], safe no work now. Two-fella time before, different rubbish man him steal’m safe, and time me-fella payim new one, ‘nother man steal’m more [again]. So time man him kill’m last safe b’long me-fella, me-fella no pay’m any new safe.”
The man digested the idea of a dead safe for a minute, then he said, “So where now you keep’m every shilling b’long bank?” he asked. Tumeke told him one of the employees took the money off-island every night, “Me-fella give’m shilling long one-fella man him work with’m me-fella. Him, he take’m shilling long [to] house b’long him. Tomorrow, long [during] morning bye him bring’m come long office.”
By this time, I had concluded that I was involved in the rankest of rank amateur criminal theatrical productions. I knew that as long as no one got stupid, or tripped, or did something foolish, all we had to be afraid of was clumsiness, idiocy, and fear on their part … which left me strangely uncomforted. In fact it increased my fear—I’d have preferred professionals.
Their leader looked at the men with the two bags. He looked at us. “OK, where now every cash b’long you-fella?”. I walked over to where we kept the till with the change, ready for the morning. I handed the till to the leader. The till had come out of a cash register that no doubt had been dead and discarded for decades. Machinery like that doesn’t last long in the tropical sun and salt, and it had vanished, leaving only the divided till drawer behind. The robbers might be surprised to know that me-fella no got’m any cash register either. People say that “what goes around, comes around”, but in the Pacific I used to say, “what goes around … stops”. On that tiny coral island there were lots of things that me-fella didn’t have, we were a long way out in the ocean.
The till had one twenty, a ten, some fives and twos, dollar coins and change. The leader took the till. He looked happier, he finally had something to show his followers for their trouble and risk. One of his henchmen unrolled his copra sack, and as I expected it came almost to his armpits. The leader dramatically turned over the till and dumped the money into the mouth of the sack … we all watched as the few bills fell. Like the last leaves of autumn, they slowly fluttered down to the bottom of the copra sack. The coins bounced once on the cloth and were still. The room was quiet.
The three men gathered around the sack, holding open the mouth and all leaning in to peer all the long way down to the bottom of the bag, to the few paltry bills and coins that lay there … it was a bleak vision, of that I have no doubt. I could see their dreams of unimaginable wealth evaporating … not a good thing, tends to make a man cross, and they needed no push in that direction.
The two young guys looked up at the leader. The leader looked around. I could see the thoughts bouncing around in his head. Finally, he said “You-fella got’m Ox and Palm?”, referring to the ever-present corned beef that is the stock gustatorial delight of the islands.
“Me-fella got’m”, I said, and pulled a half-full box off the shelf. I expected him to take the box, but he just stood there, and I followed suit. “Put’m four-fella Ox and Palm inside long sack”, he said after a long pause. I leaned over and put four tin cans of Ox and Palm corned beef in the bottom of the bag. The money looked happy to have some company way down there at the bottom. He looked in, thought about it, figured there was room in the bag, and said “Put’m four-fella more”. I did.
He looked around. “You got’m Navy biscuit?”, he asked. I admitted that we did have that most popular of imperishable staples, which are wheat crackers likely thrice-baked that would easily survive a nuclear holocaust.
“Put’m eight-fella Navy biscuit inside long bag.”I complied. His eyes danced around the room. “You got’m any kind soda?”
I’d been afraid of that.
I was hoping they might not think of that because the soda was in the refrigerator with the Fosters beer. And I figured when he saw the beer, he’d drink just one, to take the edge off his fear, and from there, various roads all led to ugliness. But as they say, “Needs must when the devil drives”, so I opened the fridge door, quickly took out eight sodas without being asked, and shut the door.
He knew he’d just seen something, but it took a second for him to make the connection … “Beer,” he said, “me look’m beer”. I agreed that he had indeed gazed upon that most mystical Australian brew. He thought some more. “Put’m … eight-fella Fosters long bag”.
I pulled out eight Fosters beers, feeling like a store clerk in some demented black-comedy movie where the bad guy is not really robbing the store. The clerk thinks he is a robber, but in fact, the guy is out shopping for a family of eight and he just happened to bring along his zip gun. I put the eight tins of Fosters in the copra sack. The man picked up his bag, hefted it, and decided it weighed enough. He herded us around to the back office. He took the gun, the real one, and told Tumeke he wanted to see what we had in the back storeroom. They went off together into the darkness.
Tumeke’s wife and I looked at each other. The two men watched us. The time stretched. After a short while, she whispered to me in a worried tone, “Where now man him take’m Tumeke?” I said “Me no savvy”, because indeed I didn’t know where the man had taken Tumeke.
The man with the zip gun asked “What now you two-fella story? I told him what we’d been storying about, that she’d asked where Tumeke was, and how I had said I didn’t know … although we could have been planning insurrection for all he could tell. “You-fella nothing story more”, he ordered, and so we didn’t story one bit more after that. The room was quiet. Tumeke was gone. His wife was worried.
Then a mosquito landed on my arm, and I swatted it without thinking. The sound of the hand-slap on my bicep cracked into the silence. The man with the gun jumped and pointed his gun at me. I froze. Time slowed to a crawl. I got that strange metallic taste in my mouth and the world took on that curious flat light it gets when the crazy level gets up into the red … I looked in his eyes. They darted around the room. He was getting nervous instead of getting rich and it was getting worse. I figured I had to do something, anything to chill things out.
Now, at the time, I was a practicing Zen Buddhist. I figured, well, what the heck, this might be a really good time to practice some “zazen”, the seated Buddhist meditation. I didn’t want to make any sudden moves, so I said “Mosquito”, and smiled very calmly at the man who was pointing the gun at my navel with his finger on what passes for the trigger on a zip gun. I asked, “Him all right suppose me sit down on top long [of the] table?”. He nodded. So I very deliberately climbed on to the table and sat down cross-legged, put my hands in the usual position, and began to meditate.
Everyone seemed to relax when I’d done that … well, except for me. Somehow it wasn’t working for me. Looking back, I suppose the calming effect on the room had to do with the fact that I was the boss, and I came from a strange foreign land. From the robbers’ perspective, Tumeke and his wife weren’t the problem. The robbers had known people like those two all their lives. Tumeke and his wife weren’t the wild card, the unknown. I was. They didn’t know people like me, they didn’t know what I might do.
So the whole tenor of the room changed when I decided to retire from the hubbub and clamor of the crowded world of work-a-day robberies in order to devote myself to the monastic life sitting on a table. Everyone relaxed. I concentrated on my breathing, and let my thoughts just flow past and the calmness come in … at least that was the theory. In practice, the calmness was strangely elusive …
After a while, Tumeke came back with the other guy, the leader. I saw he had a small metal box I hadn’t seen him with before. Tumeke went to stand by his wife. I got off of the table. The robbery appeared to be winding down. The leader called the two guys into the other room for a conference. In a minute he came back and warned us not to leave the office for a really long time, “one big-fella time too much”. To give a true flavor of the written as opposed to the spoken language, in Pijin that would actually be spelled “wan bikfala taim tumas”, and Tumeke and his wife and I agreed—waiting for one big-fella time too much sounded like just the appropriate thing to close off a memorable evening.
And then they left.
We waited, but not for any dang big-fella time too much. While we waited, Tumeke quickly told me he’d given the guy a bit of spare Company cash he had stashed in the back for some reason, maybe eighty bucks Solomon in all, about ten dollars US. No loss. Then Tumeke and I went outside, and scouted around in the moonlight. They were gone. We walked all round, no sign.
Tumeke went home with his wife. I went out to the beach to find my gorgeous ex-fiancee. I called out to her and she rose up into the moonlight from where she’d been hiding, like life itself rising out of the darkness, a fierce rush of joy. We hugged each other in the moonlight, and went back to the house. I told her what had happened, and we went back to bed, and did what people often do when they have just escaped death … they celebrate life …
The next morning dawned bright and clear, as most do in the tropics. I radioed the police. The nearest police station was on another island. They said they’d send somebody to investigate. In the afternoon, a police skiff came into the lagoon through the break in the reef. I went out to the beach. The officer beached his skiff and jumped out. I noted he had no shoes, just flip-flops. The policeman and I went to my office. He took out his notebook, found a pencil, and asked what happened.
I said I was in bed when it all started, “Time this-fella story him start, me stop long bed blong me. Tumeke him come …” when the man interrupted and waved his hands to stop me. “Time … this-fella … story … him … start …” he repeated each word as he began to laboriously write out my words in pencil, taking an eternity on each one. I was used to the speed of the islands, I’d lived there for years, but this was going to take a while. “What now think-think b’long you, suppose me type’m story long computer b’long me?”, I said, and he agreed, he thought that me typing the statement up on my computer was a great plan. I wrote it up and printed it up for him. I expected him to take fingerprints or something, but it seemed the statement was all he wanted and needed … he got back into his skiff and left.
Now this being the islands, the story always goes on, there’s always another twist. About three days later, my secretary said to me “New-fella man him stop long village b’long me-fella”. I asked what kind of new man had come to her village and what he was up to there. She said “Him stop long sand beach. Him open’m one-fella Ox and Palm, and him kai-kai’m [ate it] with’m one-fella navy biscuit and him drink’m one-fella Fosters. Me-fella no look-savvy [recognize] long him.”
So I called the cops again, and told them that one of the men who had robbed us was at a nearby village, eating Ox and Palm and navy biscuits and drinking Fosters beer. Of course, it took them another day or two, but eventually, they went there and they captured him.
He didn’t put up a fight. He was just a kid, early twenties. He knew they were coming before they got there, he’d heard over the “coconut wireless”, but he didn’t run. Where would he run to, it’s an island …
They were going to take him back and put him in jail. But there was a problem—the seas had come up high, and the police couldn’t make the seventeen mile (thirty km) open ocean crossing back to the next island. So after they had arrested him at the village, instead of taking him back to jail, they brought him around the corner to the island where I lived. The leader of the cops asked me if I could put him and his men up for the night in one of the guest cottages, and put up the prisoner in the other cottage … sure, I said, no problem.
Actually, I kind of enjoyed the exquisite South Pacific island irony of it all … I had first been the victim of robbers, and now, having assisted in one of the robber’s capture, I was some bizarre combination of a jailer and a host for him …
So I showed him where the towels were kept and how the shower hot water worked. Isn’t that what one does for a robber? After he was in the guest house, and in lieu of being locked in had been told by the police in no uncertain terms not to leave it under any circumstances until they came to get him the next day, I went to the trade store and got some Fosters and sat down to have a cold brew with police, an unusual occurrence in my life. My interactions with the police have often taken a decidedly more confrontational tone, like the time that … but I digress. I had a beer with the police. I asked them what the story of the robbers was. I knew the guy would have already talked, in the islands they never heard of “omerta”, the “law of silence”.
They told me the leader was a man who had come from Papua New Guinea when Bougainville had rebelled against the government that year. He’d fled the fighting and come over, and he’d partnered up with a couple of young guys. The cop said that there were four people who came to the island that night, not three, including the wife of one of the guys, who guarded the boat.
I’d kinda figured that out already from their shopping list, about there being four of them, but not about one being a woman … I found out later that when her husband said he was going out at night, she refused to stay behind. Memories of cannibal raids are not far back in history there. On some islands, women really don’t like being left alone in a creepy dark house at night, so she came along without even knowing what they were up to. They told her in the boat on the way over, and she’d just sat and watched the boat, and probably prayed.
How curious. While the robbery was in progress, unknown to any of us, on the beach on the other side of the island huddled the dark-skinned twin sister of my wife, both of them hiding on the beach, both of them starting at every sound, both listening for distant voices, and each one worried sick that her damn idiot of a husband was gonna blow it again …
The next morning I watched the police load their captive up. He’d spent a nice night in a soft bed and I didn’t begrudge him that one bit—he was headed for far poorer accommodations. Over the next couple weeks, I heard that they’d arrested the second guy and his wife, but the PNG guy was still at large. When they’d gone to arrest him he went up into the bush, but of course, he starved there. Raw jungle is not all that friendly, and I’m sure he got all lonely—Melanesians are very sociable people who rarely spend a long time by themselves. So after a few more days, once he’d finished the last tin of Ox and Palm and the final Fosters and got tired of sleeping rough in the rain, he went down to the village on the coast and told them to call the cops.
And that could have been the end of my involvement, merely being the victim, and the guy who told the cops where to find the suspect, and the host, and the jailer, but the island spirits are never that straightforward, they are jesters.
And so a few weeks later, I’d taken the company skiff and gone over to the island where the police station was, to the big town. I was having an adult beverage at the bar in the Gizo Hotel when who should walk in but my friend, the traveling magistrate. In island countries, the outer island people often don’t go to the courts of law in the capital. Instead, the magistrates travel out to the provinces and the remote islands and hold court there to dispense justice. My friend was British, fairly recently employed as part of UK foreign aid to serve as a magistrate in the islands, new to the people. I asked him why he had come all the way out to our particular outer islands. He said he was there to sentence the people who had robbed me. He said they’d already pled guilty at the arraignment. He asked me what had happened, so I told him the entire story of tropical crime. He asked me what I thought should be their punishment. I looked him in the eye. He was seriously asking, and my sense was he didn’t know a lot about the islands, so I took it seriously as well.
I considered his question for a while, and I said I thought that what was important, to them and to the village where they lived, was that they had been caught and put in jail. That’s what counted, not the time served, because in the tropical islands the conception of time is elastic. One year and three years and ten years don’t seem a whole lot different when every day is the same. And yes, to answer his question, I said I knew it was an armed invasion and takeover of the island, and armed robbery is not something to sneeze at, and the islands still have the strict British gun regulations, and crimes involving guns there draw long sentences, and ordering us at gunpoint from my house to the office was technically kidnapping … but still, I said, these are not hardened criminals.
Plus, I said, you don’t want to take people out of the village for too long. It is crucial that they not “lose their place”, that they not be forgotten or find that they have lost their homes in some larger sense upon their return. If they could not return to and be accepted by their village, they would be lost, and they would indeed become hardened criminals. I explained to the magistrate that in the islands the true punishment was not the jail, but the shame—first the shame of having done the crime, and then the shame of being caught, and finally the shame of having to publicly plead guilty. Those were the real punishment, and what the magistrate would do when he sentenced them to jail would not change or add to that a whole lot.
So I said that in his place, I would sentence the PNG guy to three years and then deport back to PNG, because he had left his village already, so shame wasn’t as effective with him, and because he was older and he was the instigator of the whole thing. I’d sentence the two men to one year less time served, anything less than a year is somehow forgotten in the islands, they needed to get back to their villages. I said I’d let the woman off with a warning, she wasn’t really even a participant.
And after that, the conversation shifted, the evening went on, the beers continued to flow, friends came and went, and at some point well after dark, I got back into the company skiff, an open 20′ (6m) aluminum skiff that we had built in our shop, a sweet boat, and fired up the thirty-horse outboard. I used the flashlight to work my way out through the reefs to the open channel, and drove the slow miles back home across the dark ocean waters to our little coral atoll, with the stars bouncing and turning around my head, and my head itself spinning enough that the light at the entrance to the reef seemed like one of the stars.
Now justice moves fast in the islands. A few days later, their guilty pleas had been accepted, and the Court announced their sentences. I heard it on SIBC, the national radio station. The guy from PNG got three years; the two men each got one year less time served; and the woman was told to go and sin no more … I cracked up when I heard it.
This is perfect, I thought. First I got to be the victim, then I got to help the police track down one of the crooks, then I got to be both his jailer and his affable host. I was able to hang out and drink with the cops, and finally, to top it off, I got to be the sentencing judge. I got to play every single part in the entire drama of crime and punishment.
So that’s the story of the great tropical crime wave of 1989 … and after playing all of those different roles in this tropical island morality play, my conclusions were:
1. If you are planning to be involved an armed robbery as the robbee rather than the robber, I strongly suggest you try to pick one where you can do some Zen meditation in the middle. It works wonders for that incipient headache you get from being afraid that you and your friends might be killed by some fool’s momentary clumsiness.
2. Among a number of equally obscure facts, I happen to know, from experience that I will pass on detailing at the moment, that a briefcase that is about 16″ (400mm) by two feet (600mm) by 4″ (100 mm) will hold about a hundred thousand dollars of US currency in stacks of crisp hundred dollar bills. As a result, bringing a copra sack to carry the money home from a tiny island trade store is very probably overkill, and bringing two copra sacks just marks you as terribly declassé.
3. A zip gun can kill you just as dead as any other kind. The cops tested it. As I suspected when I saw it, it worked just fine. It fired a .32 caliber bullet. Deadly.
4. Deciding how long someone should spend in a rat-hole of an island jail, not some stranger you happen to be on the jury for, but someone who has kidnapped you and threatened your life with a gun and wronged you personally, makes a man very conscious of the differences, distinctions, and issues surrounding the ideas of justice, vengeance, retribution, punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, and reintegration into the community. Although I was proud of the effect that I had on the outcome, and although I was glad that I had taken the magistrate’s question with the seriousness it deserved, it was not a position I liked the feeling of. The temptations were too great to get even, to engage in the old eye-for-an-eye. I could see why they don’t let the victims sit on the juries and decide the sentences …
5. If you think that there might be an armed robbery in your immediate future, do take the time to dress suitably for the occasion. The mosquitoes got under my sulu while I was meditating and set up their drilling rigs on my inner thighs, which wasn’t too bad, and other less public zones, which was, and of course I didn’t dare slap them for fear of being shot. So all I could do was go all Zen on them with my awesome mental powers, a thunderous telepathic assault that the mosquitoes shrugged off with the contempt it deserved. As a result, the main downside of the robbery was that I walked bowlegged for about a week. Well, that, plus the numerous red welts located on obscure parts of what my old drill sergeant used to call the “groan area” made it appear that I’d caught the strangest social disease imaginable, like genital measles or something, although at least I did dodge the malarial chills and fever.
In any case, because of a string of regrettable incidents like mine, the best fashion authorities now deem that pants are far more appropriate attire for your typical late-evening or after-dark robbery, although sulus are still acceptable for robberies held in the morning and early afternoon.
Yr obt svt,