Massacre of Naval Personnel in the Solomons, 1880?

By Professor Clive Williams MG is a former army officer and visiting fellow at the ANU.

Solomon Islands (formerly the British Solomon Islands Protectorate) was in the news again in 2022 because of its closer association with China, largely due to the Morrison government’s neglect of the South-West Pacific and China’s preparedness to pay bribes to promote its strategic interests.

Historically, though, the Solomons only seems to have attracted Australian public attention when there have been acts of violence there – particularly ones where British nationals and Australians have been the victims.

 In 2021 I came across an account of a massacre of British naval personnel in the Solomons in 1880, written by Admiral Sir Reginald Tupper. In 1881, Tupper was personally involved in the punitive action against those responsible. (This was in the early part of his distinguished naval career.)

The account I have of his involvement in the Solomons? probably later became part of his memoirs. In 1929 Tupper published his autobiography, titled Reminiscences.?

Who, then, was Tupper?

 Admiral Sir Reginald Godfrey Otway Tupper, GBE, KCB, CVO (16 October 1859 – 5 March 1945) was a Royal Navy (RN) officer during the late Victorian period and First World War.

PHOTO: Sir Reginald Godfrey Otway Tupper by Bassano Ltd whole-plate glass negative, 28 May 1921. National Portrait Gallery, London

Tupper was the son of CW Tupper, an officer in the Royal Fusiliers. His mother was Letitia Frances Wheeler-Cuffe, the daughter of Sir Jonah Denny-Wheeler-Cuffe, an Irish baronet.

Tupper joined the RN at the age of 14 in 1873.

After his involvement in the Solomons, he saw active service during the 1890 Witu Expedition in East Africa, where he was mentioned in despatches.

In 1898 he was appointed Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific and a member of the Naval Intelligence Department, and in 1901 he was promoted to Captain and posted to the Admiralty as Assistant Director of Naval Ordnance.

On 28 September 1901, Tupper arrived at Ocean Island (now part of Kiribati) aboard HMS Pylades to take formal possession of the island for Great Britain.

In 1903, Tupper was given a seagoing command, the cruiser HMS Venus, and he transferred to the battleship HMS Prince of Wales in 1905. In 1907, he was appointed to command HMS Excellent, a gunnery training depot. In 1912, he returned to a seagoing command with the Home Fleet, as Rear Admiral commanding the Portsmouth Division aboard the battleship HMS Revenge; he left this post in 1913.

Tupper did not return to an operational command at the outbreak of the First World War, but in early 1915 was given command of the patrol area around the west coast of Scotland. In early 1916 he took over command of the Northern Patrol from Vice Admiral Dudley de Chair and was subsequently promoted to Vice Admiral. Tupper had hoped for command of the 4th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. Instead, he commanded the Northern Patrol until it was abolished in November 1917.

After the Armistice, in January 1919, Tupper was promoted to Admiral and appointed Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, based at Queenstown in southern Ireland. He held this post during the Irish War of Independence, handing over command and retiring from the RN in 1921, aged 62.

I have left Tupper’s account of his 1881 Solomons involvement in his own words and unabridged. Some of it would be regarded today as politically incorrect, but I have left it as Tupper wrote it to reflect the naval attitude of the time more accurately.

His narrative follows:

The trouble of 1928 in the Solomon Islands took my mind back for the better part of fifty years when as a young sub-lieutenant I shared in a punitive expedition that was the result of just such another outbreak.

The story begins when I was serving as a sub-lieutenant in the old ironclad battleship Alexandra, flying the flag of Sir Beauchamp Seymour in the Mediterranean, with Lord Walter Kerr as flag-captain.

I remember the commotion there was when one day in October 1880 I returned from an afternoon’s ride to the Union Club at Malta and saw a telegram posted up stating that Lieutenant James St. Clair Bower and a boat’s crew from H.M. schooner Sandfly had been massacred in the Solomon Islands. The news caused a great sensation, and everybody regretted the young officer’s death, but no further information came in for some time, and with so many other things to interest us the excitement died down.

Two months later I had a surprise when I was informed that I had been appointed to act as first lieutenant to H.M. schooner Renard, a little ship of 120 tons engaged on police work on the Australian station. I knew that before I had left London I had put in a request to be given any appointment which promised quick promotion, but nobody wanted to leave the flagship of the Mediterranean station for a small schooner.

The flag-captain wanted to know whether I had applied for this job, as naturally he was not pleased at the idea of a junior officer asking to be moved away from his ship, which was regarded as the finest in the fleet, without his knowledge.

I was able to explain things satisfactorily, and the commander-in-chief wired to the Admiralty to ask to let me stay in the Alexandra; but the request was refused.

Accordingly I embarked at Naples in a Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s packet in company with two other sub-lieutenants who were destined for service in other schooners; and with all the social pleasures of a liner and the exciting prospect of adventures ahead it can be well understood that we three youngsters had a very enjoyable passage.

When we reached Sydney, we found that H.M. corvette Emerald had just arrived in port from the Solomons, whither she had been sent under Captain Maxwell on a punitive expedition after the murder of Lieutenant Bower and his boat’s crew. Unfortunately the attitude adopted by the Governor of Fiji, who was ex officio High Commissioner of the Islands, was not helpful, with the result that the ship had to return to Sydney with her object unaccomplished, to the intense indignation of the Australians and the Navy. The consequence was some change in the Pacific Colonial Service.

I learned at Sydney that the Renard was at Hobart, Tasmania, recommissioning after a spell of police work in the islands. Lieutenant Walker S. King was in command, and under him was one sub-lieutenant (myself), a boatswain, and twenty-two ratings. The Renard was one of five schooners that had been built by Sydney shipbuilders to Admiralty design – little ships 80 feet in length, with a beam of 17 feet and a draught of 8 feet 6 inches, built on the good old “cod’s-head and mackerel-tail” principle, which made them fine sea-boats, and gave them good accommodation below for their crew. They were well rigged, the main-boom being 35 feet long, and they were fitted with a big square sail that was very useful for running before the wind.

Amidships a 12-pounder Armstrong breech-loader was mounted; otherwise their men only carried rifles and cutlasses, and the officers revolvers. We also carried the famous old-fashioned boarding-pikes. As the schooners were designed to undertake long cruises on their police work they had ten tons of fresh water apiece, in five iron tanks, and were provisioned for four months.

Lieutenant King and myself messed aft in a diminutive wardroom, the deck-house rising three feet above the deck and giving us air and light. The boatswain had a tiny cabin to himself, just forward of our quarters, and in this he spent every off-duty moment reading his Bible, with never a word to officers or men.

When we recommissioned at Hobart one-third of the old crew stayed on in the ship, as they had obtained some experience in the handling of fore- and -aft sails, of which the average naval rating was ignorant. I was quite at home in a fore-and-after on account of my yachting experience, and we felt that we could hold our own with the other schooners on the station, and that the Admiralty were entirely justified in choosing us to go up with the sloop Cormorant, [under] Commander Arthur Bruce, to punish the murderers in the Solomons.

By then the massacre was several months old. It had occurred on Mandilana Island, which is a small uninhabited island off Florida in the Solomons.

Kalikaona was the chief of Florida Island, and he had been involved in a domestic quarrel with some or all of his wives. This made him sulky, and he declared that he would not eat until some skulls had been brought to him in traditional fashion.

Two of his chiefs, Utomati and Voreea heard the threat, and having seen a man-of- war’s boat – it belonged to H.M. schooner Sandfly – with six men on board making towards Mandilana, they sent a boy in a canoe to reconnoitre and report whether or not they were well armed. The boy sold fruit to the bluejackets, and took the opportunity of noting that, although their rifles and ammunition were in the boat, they were busy surveying, and were not at all a warlike party.

The boat was in charge of Lieutenant Bower of the Sandfly, with five ratings, and as soon as he landed on Mandilana Island he took the very proper precaution of searching the bush for natives before he permitted his men to relax their vigilance.

Unfortunately the boy had returned to Florida Island, and the two chiefs, with a party of their followers, had landed on the far side of the island, just as the search-party were returning to the boat and reporting that all was clear.

Feeling that his party was safe, Lieutenant Bower gave permission for his ratings to bathe, and with an able-bodied seaman named Savage he walked along the beach to see if there was anything of interest.

The lieutenant was some distance from the bathing -party when the natives rushed out of the bush and attacked them, helpless as they were, with tomahawks and spears.

They were taken at a disadvantage, and most of them could do nothing to help themselves, but one seaman named Venton contrived to get to the boat, and, unable to reach and load a rifle, seized a stretcher and laid out two of the savages before he was overpowered and killed. Not one of the bathing-party escaped, but Lieutenant Bower and seaman Savage, hearing the disturbance, were in time to see what had happened, and as it was obvious the could do nothing, hid in the bush. The natives then cut off the heads of the four seamen, which they took away with them, and after hauling the boat up clear of the water, so that she was too heavy for the two Britons to launch they returned to Florida Island with the rifles, ammunition, and oars of the boat.

Apparently they were quite satisfied that they had wiped out the whole party, but when they came to discuss things they could not make the numbers tally with the  report of their spy, so they returned next morning to search for survivors.

During the night seaman Savage undertook the very difficult and dangerous swim across the shark-infested tide rip to Florida, where he had the good fortune to fall in with some friendly natives who cared for him until he could slip away to the Sandfly.

Bower did not undertake the swim, but hid himself up a tree until help could reach him, as he had already given that rendezvous to the Sandfly.

Before Savage could communicate with the schooner the natives returned to the island, and, seeing Bower’s hiding-place, the chief Utomati shot him with one of the boat’s own rifles. Poor Bower’s head was then collected and taken back to Florida, while the arms and legs of the whole party were cut off and taken away, and the ghastly mutilated trunks were stuck up in a row on the beach, as a gesture of defiance.

Meanwhile the Sandfly was under the temporary command of Sub-Lieutenant E.E. Bradford, now Admiral Sir Edward Bradford, and one of the best-known officers of the Navy, who was my contemporary. As time went on he began to get anxious, and searched for the missing boat. At last he found the remains of the bodies on the beach, and marks in the sand on Mandilana which showed how the boat had been hauled up and later launched by the natives.

Bradford saw that something would have to be done at once to make an impression on the natives and to show them that they could not murder white men with impunity; so, most gallantly, he took his entire ship’s company with the second whaler and the dinghy leaving the schooner with only two or three men on board, and straightway landed on Florida Island to burn some canoes and huts near the shore.

Returning to the boats his force came under a heavy fire from the bush, and he had one man killed and one wounded before he got clear. After that he realized that he could not do anything further without a bigger force, so he re-embarked to make sail for Sydney and report the whole incident to the authorities.

This was the incident that had caused all the trouble, and although it had been almost forgotten in Malta, it was still a very live question in Australia and among the islands.

Before making a rendezvous with the Cormorant off Florida Island the Renard was ordered to pick up Bishop Selwyn, of Melanesia, who had made excellent progress in converting and civilizing the natives on this same island of Florida, and who had great influence amongst them. He was the ideal type of bishop for such a diocese, strong, spare, and dark, with the frame of an athlete and as hard as nails, and I can speak of the great impression that his personality made on at least one sub-lieutenant of the fleet.

Arriving at Florida Island the Cormorant anchored off the north-west coast, while the Renard went to the south-east. The Bishop landed to parley with the natives, and to carry to them an ultimatum from the commander of the Cormorant that if the murderers were not surrendered to justice all the villages and property on the island would be burned.

In the meantime the whole coast was blockaded to prevent the natives of near-by islands sending reinforcements, and to see that the murderers did not slip away to safety before the negotiations were complete.

I was afloat in one of the boats and the boatswain in the other, maintaining a night patrol over a long stretch of coast. It was not by any means an easy task, for we had to be ready to meet the big native war-canoes which were capable of carrying between seventy and a hundred warriors apiece, and which were quite likely to be meaning business if we did meet them.

We had great excitement one evening when two huge war-canoes, which must have had nearly two hundred men in them, were sighted paddling towards the Renard.

We immediately triced up our boarding-nettings and made ready to fight, but about a mile ahead of the Renard the savages turned towards the shore and landed, while I was sent in the dinghy with two men and an interpreter to find out what they were after. It was a ticklish job for a lad of twenty-one with no support, but everything passed off quite calmly.

They had brought the chief, Voreea, whom they alleged to be the leader of the attacking party, bound in the bottom of one of the canoes, and I must say that he was triced up about as thoroughly as a man very well could be, the cords biting into his arms and legs until he was quite unable to move an inch without excruciating pain.

We bundled him into the bottom of the dinghy, returned to the ship and loosed his cords securing him in the hold infinitely more humanely than he had been treated by his friends. The news of the surrender of the chief who was certainly one of the men whom we were seeking, had to be communicated to the Cormorant at once, as it had been arranged to march inland on the morrow.

Lieutenant King took a boat’s crew of five men through the extra-ordinary winding sea passage, which cuts right through the island of Florida, to convey the news to his senior. That left me in charge of the schooner with nightfall approaching, and I must say I spent a very anxious night of it, particularly as just before dusk the two big war- canoes with their crowd of savage warriors put off and took up a position some hundred and fifty yards on each bow of the schooner.

I had a big black retriever on board, and she made an excellent extra look-out, but all hands were very keenly on the alert, with their rifles in hand and our single gun ready loaded. But it was a relief to everybody when nothing happened through the night.

The two canoes departed at daybreak.

The surrender of Voreea was the beginning of the end, but the natives insisted on their usual haggling, and there was a lot of delay before the whole of the canoe’s crew which had committed the murder were brought in.

Natives had to be interrogated closely to get the true facts of the case, but after some days we had no doubt that we had all those implicated except Utomati. He was pretty obviously the worst of the party, and finally he was brought down to the beach and handed over.

We then made up a landing-party and marched all through the island, making a great impression on the natives, and showing clearly that if the murderers of the white men were surrendered the British Navy had no desire to punish innocent parties.

All the prisoners were tried on board the Cormorant, and every care was taken that they had an absolutely fair and just trial. There was no doubt about their guilt, and Utomati was sentenced to be hanged on the tree from which poor Bower had been shot, while the other prisoners were sentenced to death, and taken to the most important islands round about, where they were shot individually, after a speech had been made to the assembled natives.

The impression made lasted for many years, and I cannot help thinking that the trial on the spot had a greater effect than it would have had had the prisoners been removed to another district.

There is one curious incident in the affair which is worth recounting. The second surgeon of the Cormorant Dr. Lewis was sent to the little Renard, and after the trouble was over he and my captain went ashore, leaving me in charge of the schooner. A party of natives brought off a skull which they said was Lieutenant Bower’s, but to me one skull looked remarkably like another and I accepted it without being convinced of its identity.

In the meantime Dr. Lewis, when taking his walk, saw a small native girl with a necklace of human teeth, and he noticed at once that some of them had been stopped with gold. He bought the necklace for a stick of tobacco – surely a curious desire for a small girl – and as soon as he returned to the ship he found not only that the teeth fitted the skull on board perfectly, but that Bower had that number of teeth stopped with gold, so there was no doubt that we had at least a small part of his remains to be taken back to Sydney for burial.

After that incident in the Solomons the rest of my time in the Renard, about thirteen months, appeared comparatively tame, although it was exceedingly interesting work.

We had to supervise the recruiting of labour in the island for the Queensland sugar plantations, and to check the activities of the “black-birders”, who invited the natives on board their ships and then kidnapped them, being in fact no better than slave- traders. The activities of these depraved whites had much to do with the indignation of the natives and their occasional outbursts against us, while the Government agents who were appointed to these labour schooners to supervise the recruiting of labour were in some cases the worst type of down-and-out beachcomber, and were often hand-in-glove with the men they were supposed to watch.

At the end of a long cruise we returned to Sydney, where I was appointed to the ironclad Nelson, flying Commodore Erskine’s broad pennant, and after our free and easy life in the Renard the return to flagship routine was a very big change.

After five months of this service I found myself appointed to the Royal Yacht, as a result of a recommendation by my seniors after the Florida Island affair; and although this is an appointment which is the aim of every ambitious young officer, it caused me to miss the bombardment of Alexandria: but I still feel very highly honoured in being selected for it.

An absorbing account, I think you will agree. Such colonial punitive expeditions were not as uncommon as one might think; it’s just that they don’t form part of the history we learn about in our education system.

Punitive expeditions to punish a political entity or group of people outside the borders of the punishing state have been undertaken for revenge purposes without formal declaration of war since at least the 5th century BC.

They were commonly undertaken by European powers in colonial times to consolidate political control over native peoples, usually successfully, although they created long-term local resentment – as is the case with Australia’s First Nations people.

International punitive expeditions still occur today, a modern iteration being the US and coalition partners’ punitive attacks against Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 and US drone assassinations of terrorist leaders.

A naval example was the US Navy’s destruction in 1988 of half of the operational ships of the Iranian Navy for damaging USS Samuel B. Roberts by mining international waters in the Persian Gulf.

 Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in 2022 to punish Ukraine for trying to join NATO is yet another example of a punitive expedition. (But in this case the outcome seems more likely to depend on who can tolerate the most punishment before making the necessary concessions to achieve a peace agreement.)




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One comment

  • Kenneth Ronald Taylor March 24, 2023  

    I have always stated that it is a shame that Australian History isn’t taught in our schools. We have such a rich history and it would be better for students to know it then the wok rubbish they force feed them today.

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