Biographical entry: Wheatley, Norman Michael Jackson Ernest (c. 1868 - 1930)

c. 1868
13 May 1930


Norman Michael Jackson Ernest Wheatley was born in Yorkshire in about 1868, the son of a foundry owner in Temple Town in South Shields, England. In his early twenties, it is said, he fled to Australia from Liverpool because he had been involved in an assault, and ended up in Brisbane where he joined a ship sailing to the Solomons and German New Guinea. When the ship reached Roviana Lagoon in New Georgia, he remained behind as a trader. Initially he was the resident trader for the partnership Kelly, Williams and Woodhouse, who had bought out the traders Cowlishaws in 1880 and owned the ship on which he reached the Solomons. When the partnership broke up, Wheatley began to trade in his own right at Nusa Zonga Island in the lagoon, under the protection of Hingava (q.v.) of Sisieta (Munda), whom Wheatley assisted with provision of guns for headhunting raids to Choiseul and Isabel. Wheatley was certainly ruthless and it was said that he had trading competitors killed. (Golden 1993, 227-228; Bennett 1987, 55, 59, 68, 89-90; Boutilier 1975, 37)

In 1902, Wheatley encouraged the newly arrived Methodist Mission, not from his religious beliefs, but because he saw Christianity as a pacifying influence which would help his trade. He miscalculated, however, and found the Methodists too powerful and also interested in trading and plantations. He therefore tried to neutralise them by inviting the Catholic Marists to begin work in the Western Solomons, which they did in 1911. This plan failed when Resident Commissioner Woodford (q.v.) refused to confirm their purchase of land. Never daunted, in 1914 Wheatley supported the arrival of the Seventh-day Adventist Mission.

Wheatley married a local woman named Nuatoli and they had three daughters, Florence, Lena and Annie. At age sixteen, daughter Florence married the planter Joe Binskin (q.v.) of Bagga plantation on Mbava Island, on the west side of Vella Lavella. Her husband died after a few years and she remained to run the plantation until the 1960s (Tedder 2008, 143-144). Lena married Frank Joseph Hickie in 1921, and then married a second time to Jacob Lingi. Annie also married twice, to planter Philip Palmer and then to Abel Alema (Boutilier 1975, 30). When Nuatoli left Wheatley to live with one of his Islander employees, he married Sambe Vindu, with whom he had six children: Willie, the eldest, died as a child; Hugh (trained as a Native Medical Practitioner) was captured and killed by the Japanese while serving as a coastwatcher (q.v.) in the war; Kitchener (also trained as a Native Medical Practitioner) survived and was still living in the Solomons in 1972; Ellen married Edward Soakai, the son of an early Tongan missionary in June 1930; and the other two daughters, Agnes and Josie married local men. (Boutilier 1975, 33; Butcher 2012, 58)

Wheatley built his home at Lambeti on the mainland of Roviana Lagoon. Over the years this became a comfortable plantation house with a combination of European and local features. The walls were made from woven cane and the roof was thatched, but the house was set on concrete stumps, and had wide verandas and louvers to facilitate air flow. 'It was an impressive structure which stood in the midst of a beautiful twenty acre plantation at the end of a long road lined with shells. The core of the building was concrete sheathed on the outside with palm planks, which had been sealed and oiled, and on the inside by reed thatching in alternating patterns of red, yellow, orange and blue'. (Boutilier 1975, 35)

Wheatley began his Western Solomons career before the Protectorate was proclaimed and well before any attempt to pacify the rampant headhunting around New Georgia. From soon after his arrival in 1893 to 1895, Wheatley had a partner, Charles Atkinson, also from Temple Town. The pair traded through the islands on their ketch Savo. Atkinson was killed in September 1895 while trading with Frank Floyd on the schooner Marovo at Nggatokae, New Georgia. (Golden 1993, 214). Several Malaitans were arrested for the murder. Wheatley had a new ship in the late 1890s, the 16-ton yawl Elna. Wheatley began to clear land for a coconut plantation, and then in the 1900s established trading agents on several islands and began to purchase freehold land to establish more plantations around the New Georgia Islands. He bought land at Logha near Gizo and on Tambusolu and Mbarambuni Islands in Rendova Harbour. In 1913, he added another five hundred acres at Viru Harbour on New Georgia and over the next few years increased this by another four hundred acres, plus five hundred acres at Suluna on Isabel Island. His biggest purchase was 1,850 acres at Ariel Cove on Kolumbangara Island. Wheatley acted as agent for other companies such as for Burns Philp & Co. (q.v.) in the 1900s, when he purchased most of Tetepare Island (thirty thousand acres) for £100. He also began to sell some of his plantations to Lever Brothers and other planters. (Bennett 1987, 143, 145; Boutilier 1975, 32; Golden 1993, 214)

Wheatley was wealthy and often took holidays in Australia accompanied by important local men from New Georgia. He also had a penchant for sailing boats, which surrounded him on the lagoon, slowly deteriorating. He is famed for the purchase of a retired Sydney harbour ferryboat, which ended its days in the lagoon. He became very fat from over indulgence.

Wheatley's expansion was financed on loans and he owed money to Lever Brothers and Eduard Hernsheim and Co. of Rabaul, and in 1924 he owed £6,000 to W. R. Carpenters Ltd. (q.v.). To repay Carpenters, he sold land at Marovo and Roviana Lagoons, Rendova and Isabel. He tried his hand at gold prospecting on Guadalcanal. In late February 1930 he was admitted to Tulagi Hospital with an infected foot, and he died there on 13 May and was buried at Tulagi. Hernsheims attempted to seize Lambeti, but the Protectorate administration intervened and auctioned the property, which was purchased by the trader Lesley Gill. Lambeti and its plantation were destroyed during the Second World War. Wheatley was the caricature of a Pacific planter-he swore like a trooper, drank too much and ruled like a feudal lord. (Golden 1993, 227-230; Boutilier 1975)

Related Party

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
  • Butcher, Mike, '...when the long trick's over': Donald Kennedy in the Pacific, Holland House Publishing, Kennington, Vic., 2012. Details
  • Golden, Graeme A., The Early European Settlers of the Solomon Islands, Graeme A. Golden, Melbourne, 1993. Details
  • Tedder, James L.O., Solomon Islands Years: A District Administrator in the Islands, 1952-1974, Tuatu Studies, Stuarts Point, NSW, 2008. Details

Journal Articles

  • Boutilier, James A., 'The New Georgia Days of Norman Wheatley', Journal of the Solomon Islands Museum Association, vol. 3, 1975, pp. 29-41. Details