Concept: District Administration


Once districts were established, Protectorate officers were appointed to staff them. Usually known as District Officers (or 'DOs'), in the early years they were called District Magistrates or Resident Magistrates, and in law they were all Deputy Commissioners under the 1893 Pacific Order in Council that established the Protectorate. Once established, each district was staffed by a District Officer, often with an assistant, a detachment of police and a Police Commander, prison staff, clerks and labourers. District Officers were the district link in the long chain that began in the Colonial Office in London, passed to the High Commissioner in Suva, and the Resident Commissioner in Tulagi (and later Honiara). Based at district headquarters (which today are the major provincial towns), they patrolled all areas of their district. District offices opened at Gizo (1899), Faisi in the Shortland Islands (1906), Auki on Malaita (1909), Marovo Lagoon (1910), Aola on Guadalcanal (1914), Ontong Java (1915-1916), the Russell Islands (1917-1918), Kirakira on Makira (1918), Tunnibuli on Isabel (1918), Savo and Nggela (1923), Santa Cruz (1923) and Peu on Vanikolo (1923). District Officers had to have basic proficiency in Protectorate law, and one local language, which usually meant they used Pijin English and, when necessary, interpreters for other languages. Some administrative activities were carried out at the headquarters, but the most important activity for a District Officer was touring. Knowledge of local customary law was essential since it applied except where it was 'repugnant' to British law.

The Protectorate was short-staffed in its early years. The first Resident Magistrate was Arthur Mahaffy, who Woodford posted to Gizo in 1899 to try to end headhunting (q.v) and foster the development of a plantation economy. The next two were Thomas Edge-Partington and Nesbit S. Heffernan, who had to cover three district stations between them. Ralph Brodhurst Hill joined them in 1909, but he left in 1917 to fight in the First World War. They were joined in 1911 by the first Cadet, Jack C. Barley, and in 1912 by another, Clifford C. Francis. The administrative staff did not reach full strength until the mid-1920s; by then there were normally two or three Cadets and six or seven District Officers on staff, which enabled permanent staffing of district headquarters and gave the government the ability to cover temporary absences. (Boutilier 1984b, 43)

Native Administration, with District Headmen, Village Headmen and Village Constables, began in 1922, once all of the districts were operating. In each district two or three European officers operated alongside a team of Solomon Islanders holding these positions, forming an inexpensive web of government public servants who were middlemen, interpreting and enforcing Protectorate regulations. District Headmen were paid £12 per year, the same as a plantation labourer's wages from 1923-1934. Village Headmen received £3, and constables £1 10s. The initial outlay during the 1920s was less than £1,000 a year for an administrative system that radiated out into the villages and gathered information for the district headquarters. The difficulty was that European officers did not always choose the best men for these positions and some local officials abused their powers. The system worked best in the Shortlands and Western District, where many Government Headmen and Constables were also traditional chiefs.

Along with district administration came taxation (q.v.), introduced via a head tax instituted between 1921 and 1923. Headmen reported to the district officers and kept track of population numbers and movements. This was linked to collection of the head tax since the officers needed to know how many able-bodied men were in an area to know if all taxes had been collected there. A new Native Administration Regulation was introduced in 1922, which covered marriage, adultery, divorce, land and sea tenure (including reefs) and levels of compensation, adding to the amount of government regulation at the village level. Local officials also ensured that sanitation standards were adhered to, and supervised communal projects like road building and maintenance. Headmen also administered regulations relating to abusive language, slander, disorderly conduct and adultery. A court system operated at each headquarters and officers heard many cases while touring. They could fine those convicted or send them to prison at district headquarters or in Tulagi. The most serious offences were referred to the court in Tulagi. District Headmen were the assessors in some cases. After a decade, native taxes collected had reached £10,000, none of which was used directly for the welfare of the people.

Police patrols were sometimes attacked and ambushed, particularly when collecting taxes or attempting to capture notorious warriors. Malaita District Officer William Bell (q.v.) and most of his party were murdered while collecting taxes in 1927, and that same year members of a police patrol were killed on Guadalcanal.

Establishing Native Courts (q.v. Judicial System) to deal with customary offences were discussed in 1929, but the High Commissioner concluded that customary law needed to be codified first, with differentiation between Christians and those following their ancestral religion, particularly on Malaita. This was impracticable, and Native Courts slowly evolved. The Native Court concept was boosted by the support in 1934 of anthropologist Ian Hogbin, who had worked on Ontong Java, Guadalcanal and Malaita. He advocated reasserting the powers of bigmen to mediate and judge in customary situations. This led to District Officers making deeper study of customary laws and the geographic boundaries of language areas. By the late 1930s, a great deal had been done to understand indigenous cultures, and native arbitration courts began to operate. The first were in 1939 on Isabel and in To'aba'ita on Malaita, others followed the next year on South Malaita, and in 1941 in Baelelea and Baegu, all on Malaita. These councils codified custom within their particular area. On Malaita the whole of the Kwara'ae area operated under a single court from October 1941. Discussions were under way for forming similar courts in Kwaio and 'Are'are, and for limiting houraa (elaborate mortuary ceremonies) in 'Are'are. Similar courts and councils began in other districts between 1940 and 1942. Some of the Government Headmen were unhappy with the courts because they undermined their exclusive, government-sanctioned authority. More land disputes began to be heard through the court system in the 1930s, particularly in Western District and in north Malaita, and also around Auki. (Bennett 1987, 210-212, 397-404, 282)

Published resources


  • Bennett, Judith A., Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1987. Details

Conference Proceedings

  • Boutilier, James A. (ed.), The Law of England Has Come: The Application of British and Custom Law in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, 1893-1942, Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania Annual Conference, Molokai, Hawaii, 28 February to 3 March 1984, 1984b. Details