Biographical entry: Kwaisulia (1850s - 1909)



Kwaisulia was born on Adagege artificial island in Lau Lagoon, Malaita, probably in the early 1850s, dated from his 1875 enlistment on the Bobtail Nag as an indentured labourer to work in Queensland. Recruits were usually in their late teens or early twenties. Peter Corris wrote about his life in a 1973 volume chapter and in his 1973 book Passage, Port and Plantation. Kwaisulia knew John (Jack) Renton (q.v.), a Scottish sailor who was shipwrecked in Lau Lagoon between 1868 and 1875, and who left on the Bobtail Nag's first voyage to the Lagoon. Kwaisulia enlisted on the second voyage a few months later, which reached Brisbane on Christmas Day of 1875. He would have been transhipped from there to a sugar town on the coast, possibly Rockhampton. He is reported to have spent six years in Queensland, and then returned to Lau Lagoon in about 1880.

As he was able to speak Pijin English and knew the needs of the labour trade, he soon managed to make himself into a middleman, or 'passage master' in Lau Lagoon. Europeans begin to refer to him as a 'coastal chief' in the mid-1880s. He accompanied labour recruiting ships along the coast and arranged for coastal and inland recruits, and was the crucial Malaitan contact with the outside world from 'Ataa in the south to Maana'oba in the north of the east coast. Like Gorai (q.v.) in the Shortlands, Kwaisulia amassed a vast array of European goods at his Urassi home. Corris lists 'rifles and ammunition, tobacco by the case, barbed wire, knives, axes, looking glasses, and cloth' (all stock trade items), plus 'a ship's boat, clocks, music boxes, and at least one piece of furniture-a chest of drawers'. (Corris 1973a, 259-260) Rev. A. I. Hopkins (q.v.) described Kwaisulia as on one occasion wearing 'a white drill suite, spotlessly clean, sun helmet, sash and a broad smile'. (Corris 1973a, 263)

Kwaisulia's power came from his knowledge of European needs and ways of thinking, but also because he was a nineteenth-century ramo, a warrior bigman capable of exerting his authority through persuasion and force, as evidenced by his contract killings. He was involved in internecine fighting in Lau Lagoon, particularly in a war against Funafou in 1887 after the death of Kabbou, the chief of Funafou Island. In 1894-1895 he was opposed to Peter Abu'ofa (q.v.) starting a branch of the Queensland Kanaka Mission in Lau Lagoon, calling instead for a European missionary. He was unwilling to see his power eroded by another Malaitan and could see the prestige of having 'his own' European. This was eventually achieved when Anglican Rev. Hopkins (q.v.) arrived in 1902.

In June 1896, Charles Woodford (q.v.) sent Kwaisulia a message via the Government Agent on the Rio Lodge, a Queensland labour trade vessel, explaining the nature of his authority over the Solomon Islands. The next year Kwaisulia returned the greeting through a message he had delivered to Woodford at Tulagi. Although he had become a powerful leader, in reality he did not even control all of Lau Lagoon. For instance, in 1900 Ramofolo of Fuaga made clear that Kwaisulia would never dare land on his islet and had no authority there. Nevertheless, Europeans regarded Kwaisulia as the most powerful Malaitan of his time. (SCL June 1900, 1; AR 1897-1898, 15; Woodford 1896, 28 June, 22)

When the Queensland labour trade ended in 1903, Kwaisulia continued to support the smaller Fiji labour trade and had started to provide labour for plantations within the Protectorate. In his later years he was assisted by his son Jackson (sometimes given as Johnson) Kaiviti and by his nephew Kaa. Kwaisulia died in 1909 when a cartridge he was using to ignite dynamite for fishing exploded in his face. Jackson Kaiviti, who had been baptised in Fiji but had returned to his customary religion, became the next Lau chief and demanded compensation from the Sulufou people. He replaced Kwaisulia as a powerful leader. Another son, Kwakwari, was convicted for the murder of his wife Sula and sentenced to death in 1913, which was commuted to a fifteen-year sentence. He was released in 1918. (SCL Nov. 1910, 89; Hopkins 1949; Corris 1973a, 1973b; BSIP 14/40, Edge-Partington to Woodford, 12 Oct. 1909, 5 Apr. 1911; BSIP 14/8, Woodford to Jackson Kaiviti, 14 Feb. 1913; BSIP 14/12 RC CRMW to DO WRB, 22 July, 30 Oct. 1918; Keesing 1992)

Published resources


  • Hopkins, Arthur I., From Heathen Boy to Christian Priest, S.P.C.K., London, 1949. Details

Book Sections

  • Corris, Peter, 'Kwaisulia of Ada Gege: A Strongman in the Solomon Islands', in J.W. Davidson;Deryck Scarr (ed.), Pacific Islands Portraits, Australian University Press, Canberra, 1973a, pp. 253-266. Details
  • Keesing, Roger M., 'Kwaisulia as Culture Hero', in James G. Carrier (ed.), History and Tradition in Melanesian Anthropology, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992, pp. 174-192. Details


  • Woodford, Charles M., Diary of Part of a Tour of Duty aboard 'Pylades', 30 May to 10 August 1896, PMB 1290, C.M. Woodford Papers, Reel 4, 1/9, Reference 8/16/3, 1896. Details


  • Southern Cross Log (SCL). Details
  • British Solomon Islands Protectorate, British Solomon Islands Protectorate Annual Reports (AR), 1896-1973. Details