‘Savage Island: An Account of a Sojourn in Niue and Tonga’ is a memoir penned by Basil Thomson, a British colonial civil servant, who was sent to the Pacific countries in 1900 as a special envoy representing the United Kingdom.
After the death of King Tuitoga, the chiefs and rulers of Niue kindly ask Queen Victoria to place their island under the protection of the Crown. When the British officials finally discover the value of this South Pacific territory, sir Basil Thomson is dispatched to sign a treaty of cession and hoist the Royal Union flag.
The Savage Island quickly charms the foreign visitor. In between performing his formal duties, he strolls the streets of Alofi and acquaints himself with the wonders of ‘The Rock’. With every passing day, as he gets to know the place, he is more and more mesmerized by the friendly inhabitants and their fascinating culture.
When his sojourn in Niue comes to an end, Mr Thomson is transferred to Tonga in order to convince king Tupou II to accept British protectorate. During this short visit he absorbs the Tongan way of life, learning quite a bit about the mentality of the native Islanders.
Not every day you get a chance to lay your hands on a book about the colonial administration in the Pacific. Firstly, because few of the men engaged in the politics during that period felt the need to describe the details of international relations. Secondly, because even fewer of them had the ability and skills to actually do it. Basil Thomson’s account may not be the most compelling piece of literature ever written, but it is definitely worth your attention.
This short publication is a pleasant mixture of the author’s reminiscences, insightful observations, and amusing anecdotes. Despite the fact that Thomson concentrates predominantly on the political situation of the two states, his memoir is quite an entertaining read. The reason for this lies in his proficiency in combining the weighty subjects with light-hearted stories. In one chapter you learn about the complexities of the protectorate system, in another you discover what the Tongan ideals of beauty are. The meticulous delineations of island life and scenery provide you with an insider’s look into the famous Pasifika ways of being. It should be noted, however, that Basil Thomson had grown up in a society far different from the ones he visited in the Blue Continent. Therefore, his comments are often subjective and may exude a mildly unfavourable undertone.
Now, the greatest virtue of this account is unquestionably the historical background. It is the story of the times, which proves to be a valuable lesson on the Pacific Islands’ colonial past. The author concisely explains how some of the territories voluntarily asked for the protection of one of the mighty empires to avoid being taken over by another country, while other nations enjoyed their independence and were reluctant to succumb to official annexation by any Western power. As a government representative, knowledgeable about the state of affairs, Thomson was an expert in his field. With this book he offers readers a look behind the proverbial curtain of the politics and diplomacy in the ‘era of involvement’. Trust me, you do want to take that glimpse.
All in all, I must say that this is an interesting literary work. Not especially riveting, not particularly impressive but attractive enough to recommend it. It’s a well-written chronicle of the important events in the Pacific history, penned by a man genuinely fond of the islands. Plus, this is one of the very few books regarding Niue, and as such it deserves due recognition.