Biographical entry: Mahaffy, Arthur (1869 - 1919)

October 1869
Howth, County Dublin, Irerland
30 October 1919


Arthur Mahaffy, and early BSIP administrator, was born in Howth, County Dublin in October 1869, the eldest son of classical scholar Rev. John P Mahaffy, D.D., later Provost of Trinity College and knighted, and Francis Leticia Mahaffy. Arthur attended Marlborough College, and Magdalene College at Oxford University where he was a fine scholar, athlete and sportsman, acting as stroke for the Oxford rowing four in 1889. He received a Bachelor of Arts (1891) and a Master of Arts (1904) from Trinity College, Dublin, so seems to have moved back to Dublin in the final year of his BA, no doubt facilitated by his father. The MA would have been purchased, a usual practice at that time. In the early 1890s he accepted a junior position teaching classics at Magdalene. Next he joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers and then the Colonial Service in October 1895. His first substantial position was as the British Government Agent and district officer in the isolated Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate, now Kiribati and Tuvalu. While posted there Mahaffy had himself tatooed, most unusual for a government officer. In March 1897 his transfer was approved to be Resident Magistrate and Deputy Resident Commissioner of BSIP under Charles Woodford (q.v.). He reached Tulagi in February 1898 and remained in the Solomons for over six years until September 1904 when he transferred to Fiji to work for the Colonial Secretary of Fiji, Sir Everard Im Thurn.
In January 1900 Woodford sent Mahaffy to establish the second government station, at Gizo in the Western Solomons. His main task was to control headhunting (q.v.), which Woodford believed had increased in recent decades and would lead to the extinction of the people, and also impeded the establishment of copra plantations. At about that time Roviana Lagoon chief Ingava was constantly raiding Chosieul in retaliation for the death of his sister and had killed or enslaved hundreds of Choiseulese. Woodford wanted a strong officer with military training and Mahaffy with his youth and military background was thought eminently suitable for the task. Mahaffy arrived at Gizo with a force of twenty-five police recruited from Malaita, Savo and Isabel islands, and instructions to make punitive raids on offending villages, particularly around Roviana Lagoon, specifically to stop attacks on Choiseul and Isabel. He seized and destroyed tomokos (the large war canoes) and used one for police transport when he travelled to Roviana, Simbo and Russell Islands in 1900. His policy was fierce and successful but quite illegal in terms of later British policy in the Protectorate, although his actions were encouraged by Woodford and the Western Pacific High Commission. His police were trained to use their rifles in punitive raids and had no compunction in killing the New Georgia people who had been raiding the other islands for decades. Mahaffy's 'policing' was forceful and he increased his raids across the Western Solomons, using his armed police to intimidate. He was probably assisted by the past decades of headhunting which had become endemic and debilitated the people of many islands, leaving them exhausted and ready to accept the new regime.
One of Mahaffy's strangest duties came in 1902 when he unproclaimed British authority over Nukumanu in the Tasman Group which had been wrongly included in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate when it should have been within German territory. Later, Mahaffy became Colonial Secretary of Fiji, and then Assistant High Commissioner.
In 1909, as Assistant High Commissioner, Mahaffy spent three months back in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorates, then returned to the UK on leave. He spent 1912-13 as Resident Commissioner in the New Hebrides. He was back in London in 1914 where he served on a committee for the Anglo-French Conference. In the same year he was transferred to Dominica as the Administrator, a post he held until his death in October 1919. Mahaffy was a great collector of artefacts and an ardent imperialist. His family donated his Solomon Islands ethnographic collection to the National Museum in Dublin. (Lawrence 2014, 198-206; Richards 2012, 87-90; Golden 1991, 236-237; O'Brien 2011, 2013, 2017; The Times, 30 October 1919)

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Published resources


  • Golden, Graeme A., The Early European Settlers of the Solomon Islands, Graeme A. Golden, Melbourne, 1993. Details
  • Lawrence, David Russell, The Naturalist and his 'Beautiful Islands': Charles Morris Woodford in the Western Pacific, ANU Press, Canberra, 2014. Details
  • Richards, Rhys, Head Hunters Black and White: Three Collectors in the Western Solomon Islands 1893 to 1914, and the Diary of Graham Officer, Collector of Museum Objects in the Solomon Islands in 1901 for Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Paremata Press, Wellington, 2012. Details