A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble (book review)

A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble (book review)

A review of Arthur Grimble’s time in The Republic of Kiribati during the colonial administration of the islands at the turn of the 20th Century.

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I avoided reading A Pattern of Islands for years – at least since I have known about it, so a good 30 years! As someone who is both British and I-Kiribati, I have more reason than most to be sceptical of Arthur Grimble’s writings – a colonial administrator in the age of jingoism and how he was going to portray the people of Kiribati, indeed in what manner he was going to do it.

Quite honestly, I just wasn’t interested in hearing a Man of Matang/British ex-pat telling me and the people of Kiribati how he knows more about our culture than we do – especially since I am also British and well aware of how many people in the UK still to this day hark on about the ‘empire’ as though it was a good thing! But I was, for the most part, presently surprised by this “… tallish, pinkish, long-nosed …” Edwardian, 25-year-old, who had a dislike for Kipling’s imperialist ideals and was positively sweating with shame at having to met out imperial rule over anybody in the world. All he wanted to do was travel and write sonnets!

“… a rich and complex cultural history of the dances and legends, rituals, spells and way of life of the islands.”


Luckily for him, and his fellow administrators, plus as the only candidate for The Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu (the colonial (c.) names were the Gilbert and Ellice Islands) he found himself first in Baanaba (c. name of Ocean Island) before embarking on a long stint on the island of Tarawa, with his wife and children – who were born out there, and was met with a warm embrace – noting how the islands were already governed “democratically” before the British arrived and how the colonial office was, for the most part, very much aware that they had to adhere to the ways of the I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan people and not the other way around.

I laughed out loud in recognition at the stories he told of black magic, the underworld and the creation myths, Micronesian gods and goddesses. Gatherings in the Maneaba, village life and the ghosts. And it was really quite special to read how he had managed to capture the spirit of Kiribati and I-Kiribati people – the humour, the love of storytelling, the reverence and respect felt in the Maneabas, characters of people from the different islands and in turn, his love of Kiribati really shines through.

However, I think I was right to be sceptical. If we are looking at this book critically it should be noted that the book covers Grimble’s 25 years in the islands in only 262 pages – I would have loved to have learned more about his stay as I’m sure he has missed a lot out, plus more inclusion of some factual history would not have gone a miss. It should also be pointed out that Grimble started to “jot down narratives of some of his more personal experiences” from his time on the islands fifteen years after he had left, and for entertaining talks on the BBC, so it makes me wonder how much of his experience was true and how much may have been embellished over time. There are also points within the book where the language used is very questionable, as well as some of his views – a couple of which stand out to me are when he doesn’t really intervene when there is a violent dispute between his cook and the cook’s wife under his own roof, and he also thinks that the people of Baanaba are grateful for being forcibly removed off the island so the British, Australians and New Zealanders could mine the living daylights out of the phosphate. And, I won’t get into it here, but the Baanabans were not happy about it then, and they are not happy about it now!

I think when you read this book, you also have to remember that it was written through the lens of a man brought up at the tail end of the Edwardian period, and no matter his protestations about being anti-empire, Grimble was a young, white man, with an affluent upbringing – public schooled, and he went to Cambridge University – and his writings, even if for the most part they are positive, are very much a product of his background, and he is very much there to administer out colonial rule. As I have said above, some of his views are questionable – then and now – and though he fell in love with Kiribati, and as funny and entertaining his narrative is of the islands, he is not I-Kiribati; this book is written by an I-Matang for an I-Matang audience – think 1950s BBC – and therefore very much a product of its time (and written by a man that wanted to write sonnets, which kinda says it all).

“Our people do not like to be ruled by rulers who allow them no word in the judgements that are judged.”


Anyone with Kiribati heritage will enjoy this book but will be able to dismiss and laugh at some of the more imperialist notions of the author; anyone who reads this book without Kiribati heritage, just be mindful of the history of the islands, the author’s background and views – but, as I have also said before, Grimble does capture the spirit of the islands, its people and its ghosts at that point in time, it’s just not a comprehensive guide anthropologically or otherwise, for me it lacks a lot of history and historical background, and I wouldn’t use this as a travel guide either. But it is still a funny book.

A note/warning on the publisher: Grimble’s writings were originally published in 1952. In 1975 The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were not only governed as separate countries, they also gained their Independence and have been known and named by their peoples as The Republic of Kiribati (1979) and Tuvalu (1978) respectively. This has not been noted in Elands 2010 edition of Grimble’s writings, which still refers to them by their colonial names. Given the book is called A Pattern of Islands and not The Colonial Offices of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, is this something they are unaware of, indeed was this an editorial decision by The Estate of Arthur Grimble – are they still looking for an imperialist sympathising audience, or do they not want the people of Kiribati (the book barely mentions Tuvalu) to read it? Either way, I’m stumped as to why they didn’t think to mention this. Definitely short-sighted on their part.

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Author of The Benaghar Series, and wannabe crime writer.

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