HMAS Adelaide and the Malaita Punitive Expedition 1927

The inter war period (1919-1939) is often considered a time when the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was least active due to financial and personnel constraints.  This may be true for the period of the Great Depression but for much of this period the RAN was quite active on a variety of diplomatic and constabulary duties; particularly in the Pacific Ocean region.  One of the more notable activities was the deployment of the light cruiser HMAS Adelaide to the Solomon Islands in late 1927 on what became known as the Malaita Punitive Expedition.

In early October 1927, Adelaide was alongside at the Garden Island naval depot in Sydney, having recently returned from a showing the flag cruise to the South West Pacific region.  The ship was undergoing maintenance and her crew enjoying some well-earned leave when news was received of a native uprising on the island of Malaita in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate (BSIP).  As the British Government had no warships in the area the Colonial Office, in London, requested Australian Government assistance to put down the uprising.

The background behind the ‘native uprising’ on Malaita stemmed mainly from BSIP policy of imposing a ‘head tax’ on every able bodied Solomon Islands man.  This tax was five shillings per annum and forced the Solomon Islanders to work as labourers on British copra plantations.  The tax had been deliberately introduced due to the shortage of native labour and was seen as a way to induce the Solomon Islanders to work on the plantations.  The Solomon Islanders resented this as well as the increased inroads into the traditional way of life being made by missionaries, traders and British officials.

On 4 October 1927 the matter came to a head on the island of Malaita.  The District Officer, Australian born William Robert Bell and his British assistance Cadet Patrol Officer Kenneth Lillies, had arrived at Sinalagu (Diamond Harbour) the day before with 15 native police to collect the annual head tax from the local population. Bell had been District Officer since 1915 and knew Malaita and its people well.  Lillies was an ex British Army officer and had been Bell’s assistant since 1925.

Bell and Lillies operated from a specially constructed ‘tax hut’ in the village of Gwee’abe.  Seated at a desk outside the hut they collected the tax and issuing typed receipts.  The morning passed without incident even though Bell had received previous warnings that some local Solomon Islanders, known colloquially as ‘Bush Boys’ intended to oppose the collection of taxes.   Towards midday a prominent Solomon Islands warrior known as Basiana (of the Kwaio tribe) and several of his followers arrived to pay their tax.

As Basiana stepped up to the desk where Bell and Lillies were seated he produced a hidden rifle and clubbed Bell to death; this was the signal for his men to attack.  In the melee that followed Basiana’s men, though only armed with spears and a few old rifles, overwhelmed the native police who were armed with .303 rifles.  They killed nine policemen and put the rest to flight.   Lillies drew his pistol and shot two of Basiana’s men before he was also killed.  Several of Basiana’s men were also killed or wounded in the engagement.

Anchored in the harbor at Sinalagu was Bell’s motor boat, Auki, and the schooner Wheatsheaf, and it was to these the surviving native police fled and raised the alarm. The crews of the two vessels were unsure of the situation ashore, other than that Bell and Lillies had been killed, so proceeded to Tulagi, administrative centre for the Solomon Islands, to advise the Acting Resident Commissioner (Captain N.S.B. Kidson).  The Resident Commissioner Richard Kane was absent on a tour of the northern Solomon Islands and the inexperienced Kidson is thought to have panicked when presented with the news of the massacre.

Cables were immediately sent to the Colonial Office in London requesting military support  and gave the impression that this was the start of a Solomon Islands wide uprising although it was later to prove to be a purely isolated event.  The Colonial Office passed the request to the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board on 8 October and within 24 hours Prime Minister Stanley Bruce had authorised the RAN to provide assistance.

On 9 October 1927, Adelaide (under the command of Captain Gerald Harrison, RN) was ordered to proceed to Tulagi with all dispatch.  Extra arms and ammunition, including several crates of Mills Bombs (grenades), provisions and medical stores were rapidly embarked.   The shortage of portable wireless sets in the military inventory prompted Petty Officer Telegraphists Oscar Allen and Clarence Scrivener to purchase the necessary parts themselves and they constructed a shore wireless set while en-route to the Solomon’s.  This was to be the only set available ashore until the Royal Australian Fleet Auxiliary Biloela arrived in late October with more stores and equipment.  Additional personnel including an extra medical officer were posted to the ship and the cruisers crew swelled to 470 men.

The Sydney Morning Herald informed its readers that the crew ‘were looking forward to a trip of adventure’ and that amongst the medical stores were ‘antidotes for tropical poisons’.   The Sun News Pictorial stated ‘trouble in the islands finds the Navy ready’ and carried a picture of Adelaide ‘rushing to the Solomon’s in response to appeals for assistance following a native uprising’.

Adelaide sailed at 1900 on 10 October and steamed at 20 knots with all scuttles closed to prevent spray and water entering the ship and arrived at Tulagi on the afternoon of 14 October.   The survey ship HMAS Geranium was operating in north Queensland waters and, as the closest Australian warship to the Solomon Islands, was also put on standby to sail as well.  This was soon cancelled due to her slower speed and smaller crew size.   The collier Biloela was also prepared to carry a resupply of coal, provisions and stores to resupply Adelaide and she sailed from Sydney a few days later.

The dispatch of Adelaide to the Solomon Islands was raised in the Federal Parliament by the Labor opposition who took an anti-colonial stance and accused Prime Minster Bruce of toadying to the British Government.  Bruce dismissed the argument stating that ‘every community under the British flag is administered fairly and impartially, and it is not for us to criticize the administration of the Solomon Islands’ and that Adelaide would remain firmly under Australian control. The Government also had the popular support from the public and the bulk of the press for the cruisers deployment.

After arriving at Tulagi, Captain Harrison met with the Resident Commissioner, Captain Richard Kane, to discuss the ship’s role in the expedition to Malaita.  The decision was made that the ship’s company would supplement the native police force while also providing communications and logistics support. A locally recruited volunteer force of 28 Australian and British traders and plantation owners was also to be raised and join the expedition later.    The ship itself was also to be a not insignificant show of force to impress the Solomon Islanders.   Adelaide sailed from Tulagi on 16 October bound for Malaita with the new District Officer and several native police onboard.   A small detachment of 11 men from Adelaide was left behind in Tulagi to provide administrative and communications support to the Resident Commissioner.

On arrival at Malaita, Harrison put a detachment ashore to the village of Gwee’abe to assess the situation.  The village was now deserted but the signs of the incident was well evident.  Surrounding the tax hut were the signs of the struggle; broken spears and spent .303 shell casings.  At the hut lay a broken typewriter, two empty pistol holsters and a number of brass tallies that the Solomon Islanders were issued to identify themselves when paying their head tax.  The bodies of Bell and Lillies had already been recovered and returned to Tulagi for burial, but the remains of the butchered native police had been hastily buried in shallow graves and after several days in the tropical sun had begun to putrefy.

One of the first tasks for Adelaide’s initial shore party was to dig deeper graves and rebury the men with liberal layers of quick lime applied.  Once this was completed the village huts were burned and bell tents then erected to shelter the landing force.  This area became known as Beach Base and by the 17th there were five officers and 70 ratings ashore constructing the base and stockpiling stores, water in kegs, provisions and equipment. Onboard Adelaide, 24 hour upper deck sentries had been posted to watch for potential attack by Solomon Islanders in canoes.

The reality was that attack was unlikely.  The Solomon Islands did not have a homogenous native population and each island had different tribal groups who were often in conflict with each other.  On Malaita for example the coastal dwellers were known collectively as ‘Saltwater Boys’ and those living inland as ‘Bush Boys’ and these two groups were also made up of different tribes who often fought each other for a variety of reasons.   The same was true of the several other islands in the Solomon Islands group and often native police from outlying islands were used to put down insurrections and fighting as they had no tribal affiliations to uphold and often had old tribal scores to settle with some stretching back decades.

The men ashore were allotted eight to each tent.  One of Adelaide’s sailors recalled the first night ashore – The occupants of each tent slept on ground sheets with their feet to the centre pole.  In most cases the arms of each other overlapped on the chest of the person on either side.  Strategically, the camp was badly situated but it would have been so anywhere along the beach strip with towering hills on three sides, but the moral effect of camping at the scene of the crime was considered great as the natives of those parts feared “debil debils”. The eerie feeling was increased when one was aware that there were nine bodies buried close by.

Shortly after midnight when the middle watch sentries had been relieved, a blood curdling scream was heard and pandemonium broke loose.  First thoughts were that Basiana and his bush boys had attacked the camp. In an endeavor to grab rifles and bayonets, matelots were pinning one another down trying to get out of their tents in the pitch blackness.  In my tent was a leading seaman who had his boots on the wrong feet; others slid under the flaps of their tents without boots on, and some with rifles but with no bayonets or ammunition.  Outside the whole camp was astir and it was quite some time before it was realised that the cause of it all was some jittery sailor yelling out during a nightmare.  This episode on the first night in camp, although humorous, served as a lesson to know what to do and what not to do should the real thing occur.

At this stage Basiana and his followers were several miles from the massacre site having taken refuge in the mountainous central region of Malaita.  On 18 October the Beach Base was again a hive of activity as more tents were pitched and a galley, wireless station incinerator and field latrines were set up.  Several native carriers had been recruited and more native police began to arrive at the camp.  By nightfall over 150 men from Adelaide were ashore.  There had been another interesting ‘incident’ that afternoon as related by another Adelaide sailor –  During the afternoon Gunners Mate ‘Sandy’ Lovegrove gave a demonstration on how to throw Mills Bombs. After explaining the technique to a large audience and stressing that after the pin was removed the bomb was to be thrown cricket ball fashion.  He then removed the pin and let the missile land a few feet in front of him.  In less than 30 seconds the audience had put a few hundred yards between them and the bomb.  Fortunately the bomb was only a practice one.

Early on the morning of 19 October a group of Adelaide sailors were organised into No. 1 Platoon and with the new District Officer and a number of native police they set off to explore the interior of the island.  After marching for three hours, with full packs, they had climbed over 1000 feet up into the mountains and progressed about three miles inland through difficult country.   Another Adelaide sailor recalled that during this steep climb that three personnel became so exhausted that they were unable to continue and were sent back to the Beach Base.  One of these men was an unpopular officer nicknamed ‘Guts’ due to ample stomach.   Captain Harrison took the failure of this officer (Lieutenant Charles Mills, RAN) to keep up with the rest of the men as serious and had him medically examined.  Harrison later wrote – As nothing organically wrong could be found I was driven to the conclusion that this officer has allowed himself to get into a thoroughly unfit state by never taking any exercise.

After another hour of climbing No. 1 Platoon reached a small plateau where the deserted village of Furingudu stood.  Its inhabitants had fled to the coast in order to disassociate themselves from Basiana and his men.   Basiana had made the claim that white men were inferior and would not be able to climb into the mountains, however, the arrival of Adelaide, and her crew being deployed ashore caused many on Malaita to doubt his words.  The village of Furingudu was built on a flat area and the ground sloped away on all sides; thus putting any potential attacker at a disadvantage as they would need to attack uphill.  A natural spring was also found which would negate the need to carry water to the site.  Furingudu was therefore selected as Base B for further operations inland.  No.1 Platoon then returned to Beach Base to collect over 100 native carriers and escorted them back to Base B which was reached late on the afternoon of the 19th.  The next few days were spent moving stores, provisions and equipment from Beach Base to Base B.

The merchant vessel Ranadi arrived at Sinalagu on 21 October carrying more native police and carriers and also 28 men of the civilian volunteer force (known as White Force).  This volunteer force was to prove to be a totally unfit, ill-disciplined and incompetent rabble.  Shortly after their arrival White Force and two more platoons of Adelaide sailors moved up to Base B.  It was now nearly three weeks since the massacre and no confrontation with Basiana and his followers had taken place.  Biloela arrived at Sinalagu on 23 October and more stores were unloaded from her including, according to the Sydney Guardian, several tons of barbed wire to form entanglements to protect the camps.  The collier also brought coal for Adelaide and the cruiser was coaled by those men left onboard; which was a slower process than normal with a third of the crew ashore.   Biloela then returned to Sydney and was decommissioned on mid-November 1927.

The combined naval and civilian force left Base B on 26 October for the village of Falavalo.  Over 150 carriers were now required to carry the provisions, stored and equipment needed.  Unfortunately the White Force members had brought a great deal of personnel gear with them, including alcohol, and each man was found to require two carriers.  Captain Harrison later complained in his official report that over 75% of the great quantity of stores moved inland was the personal gear and stores of the civilian volunteer force and their personal servants!  One native carrier, interviewed in the early 1970s, claimed that many of the White Force men collapsed and had to be carried on stretchers back to the Adelaide.  He also stated he thought several were ‘faking it’ in order to be carried out and that the native carriers often carried the rifles as well as the kit for the civilian volunteers.

Meanwhile the long line of sailors, civilian volunteers, native police and carriers continued to push inland and at times the column was over a mile in length.  Basiana and his followers were well aware of the force being sent to capture them so moved further inland to avoid confrontation with this well armed force.  It took over two days for the entire force to march the relatively short distance to Falavalo.  On arrival the village was designated Base A and tents pitched.  A wireless transmitter was set up and communication established with Adelaide and Tulagi.  Base A was over 2,500 feet above sea level and quite cold at night.  A stream ran close by and there was also a waterfall and an ideal swimming hole which several sailors took advantage of.

At Falavalo problems between the undisciplined White Force and sailors from Adelaide soon came to a head.   The civilian volunteers began to consume the large quantity of rum and whiskey that had brought with them and several became drunk and one assaulted a petty officer.  The senior naval ashore was Adelaide’s executive officer, Commander Ivan Whitehorn, RN who later reported – drinking, gambling and singing went on well into the middle watch (midnight – 4 am).  Overall the whole attitude of the White Force caused a great deal of disharmony amongst the naval personnel and native police and carriers.

There were also medical problems to be dealt with in this tropical region.   The bell tents in use as accommodation were ineffective in keeping out insects especially the mosquitos which carried the Malaria virus.  Heavy rain and cold nights also affected the men and any cuts and abrasions quickly turned septic in the hot and humid conditions. Laundry facilities were almost non-existent and the sailors wore the same clothes for days on end.   Although the men had been issued with groundsheet and blankets it was discovered some had thrown them away on the steep climb into the interior due to their extra weight and were now sleeping on damp ground each night. Some men began to fall victim to dysentery due to poor  hygiene.

Daily convoys were soon shuttling between Beach Base and Base A bringing up more supplies and returning the ill to the cruiser for medical treatment.  The ships surgeons and sick berth attendants worked long hours dealing with the sick and injured but were exasperated when they discovered many men were failing to take the issued Quinine to prevent Malaria as they did not like the taste of it!   By the end of the operation, in November, approximately 20% of the ships company of Adelaide were suffering from Malaria, Dysentery or septic sores (dubbed Solomon Sores by the Australian press).

Meanwhile the search for Basiana and his followers had commenced.  The Sub-Inspector of police and his native ‘police boys’, and some of the civilian volunteer force, conducted patrols into the hinterland. They were often absent for two-three days at a time searching for the culprits responsible for the massacre.  The bulk of the native police used were from other islands or tribes in the Solomon Islands, so had no link with the Basiana and his followers, and thus had no qualms in conducting harsh interrogation of the local Solomon Islanders and treated suspects and the innocent with equal contempt.  As a result Basiana and his men found it difficult to hide as their location was often betrayed.  Adelaide’s men ashore did not take part in these patrols and became solely responsible for the logistics and communications support for the mission and security of Beach Base and Bases A and B.

By 11 November most of the members of White Force had been evacuated to Tulagi.  Captain Harrison described them as a – useless and undisciplined crowd who ought never to have been sent on the expedition at all.  In comparison the men from Adelaide were described as hard working and well behaved. The need, however, for Adelaide and her ships company was now deemed unnecessary as the native police were proving effective in locating and arresting Basiana and his men.  In mid-November the sailors began to move supplies and equipment back to Beach Base and on 16 November 1927 the cruiser sailed from Sinalagu and returned to Sydney on 23 November.  A few men, mainly wireless telegraphists, were left behind at Tulagi to provide communications support with the native police force at Malaita.

Meanwhile the expedition continued at Malaita and by early December the police had captured nearly all the men who had taken part in the massacre including Basiana.   A number of innocent Solomon Islanders were also arrested or killed while attempting to evade capture.  The number of casualties is unknown but an estimated 60 Solomon Islanders were killed and another 200 arrested.  Claims were also made that important Kwaio ancestral shrines and ritual objects were destroyed. By 21 December 1927, Base A had been abandoned  and the bulk of prisoners shipped to Tulagi to face trial.  82 men eventually faced trial at Tulagi of which 11 were charged with murder and six were subsequently convicted and executed.  The remaining 71 were charged with lesser offences and 21 were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.  Basiana was convicted of killing William Bell and was publicly hanged at Tulagi on 29 June 1928; his two sons were reported to be amongst the crowd.

Upon return to Sydney, Adelaide went alongside at Garden Island to offload the additional stores, ammunition and equipment that she had been supplied with.  The sick and injured were also sent on to hospital while the rest of the crew cleaned the ship in preparation for proceeding on Christmas leave.  Captain Harrison wrote his official report for the Naval Board including the comment that –  five hundred  natives were waiting the word to attack the murdering tribe. It seems a great pity that no such order can be given as they would undoubtedly clear up the whole situation in a week. Several other members of the crew also questioned the usefulness of the deployment as well, including one report that stated – most of the carriers who assisted us came more in hope of getting a fight than for the wage they received.  It seemed that everyone with a grudge against anybody in that part of the country had sharped up his spear and enrolled as a bearer with a view to smiting his enemies with the approval of “big fella government”.

Harrison ensured several of his officers and men were commended to the Naval Board for their service especially the medical staff, cooks and officers stewards.  The Naval Board even graciously approved to reimburse Petty Officers Allen and Scrivener the money they had spent to build a shore wireless set.   In December 1927 the British Government sent  the following signal of thanks to the Australian Government:

His Majesty’s Government of Great Britain desires to convey to His Majesty’s Government of the Commonwealth of Australia an expression of their grateful thanks for the help afforded by HMAS Adelaide in the search for the perpetrators of the outrage at Sinarango (sic) and the restoration of order in the disaffected area.

Thus ended the RAN’s role in the Malaita punitive expedition.   While, with hindsight, some may call into question the necessity of the deployment the Navy was able to carry out the lawful direction by the Australian Government with speed, skill and devotion to duty.  The deployment also demonstrated the flexibility and versatility of maritime forces by displaying the many uses for which they can be employed.

Contact Greg Swinden about this article.

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