DURING the Second World War, recruitment to the British Colonial Services was virtually suspended. When the guns at last were silent, there was a vast backlog of vacancies in 50 dependent territories across the world. The restoration of basic civilian administration was of first priority in those islands of the South Pacific which had been overrun and their populations decimated by the Japanese invaders.
Appointed as an Administrative Officer (Cadet) in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate in 1945, Colin Allan was in the front line of post-war recruitment initiated through the armed services by the Colonial Office. In his case there was, however, a difference: Allan was a New Zealander, one of the select few ex-colonials who, with cautious circumspection, were filtered through the selection net from time to time.
Apart from three years from 1973 to 1976 as the last governor of a colonial Seychelles, he spent the whole of his service career in South Pacific Melanesia. With the Seychelles duly launched as a republic within the Commonwealth, Allan returned to the Solomons as its last pre-independence governor 31 years after his initial appointment to the protectorate.
Many a 'nativist' movement was spawned in island territories of the South Pacific during and after the war time naval and military operations. Marching Rule on the Solomons island of Malaita was one. It was part religious, part anti-colonial and part 'cargo cult', appealing to or arousing native avarice with promises of a US- Army-type paradise of trucks and well-stocked refrigerators for all. 'Adherents refused to be numbered in a census, to work, to pay taxes or to listen to the British, whom they threaten to club on the head if they come to Malaita,' James Michener wrote in 1951.
Allan was appointed as the island's District Commissioner in 1952, by which time Marching Rule had dominated and disrupted life there for about six years. Two years later, his patient persuasion resulted in the formation of a properly organised first Council of Malaita. It marked the end of the movement's influence and was his most notable early achievement.
Allan needed a different and more profound quality of patience to survive the maze-like complexities and frustration of the Anglo-French condominium of the New Hebrides (now independent Vanuatu) for 14 years. It was arguably the ultimate colonial absurdity. Not without justification was it known as the 'Anglo-French pandemonium'. The two metropolitan powers duplicated, if not replicated, their respective systems of law and order, education, medical care and basic government philosophy. There were three separate administrations: that of the joint Anglo-French condominium, the British administration for British nationals and the French administration for French nationals. Missionary activity, in parallel with that of the two national administrations, was one of intense rivalry for the bewildered souls of the indigenous New Hebrideans.
Allan became British resident commissioner in 1966. His residency was perched atop the tiny island of Iririki in the bay of the capital, Port Vila. The French residency was on the mainland. Each was built at precisely the same height above sea-level. The flagstaffs of each were of exactly the same dimensions. The Union Flag and the French tricolour were raised and lowered at the same minute each day.
To get to the British Residency, you travelled in a pinnace manned by smartly uniformed Melanesian sailors with bare feet. My invitation to lunch in 1968 seemed to have been a mistake when I saw a large notice on the jetty which read 'Bains interdit'. On disembarkation at Iririki, you clambered up a circular set of steep stone steps to the house. 'Puts up the breathless instant consumption of alcohol no end,' Allan once said to me.
The Solomon Islands became independent in 1978; the New Hebrides in 1980. In both cases, fears of land alienation had become an issue around which Melanesian leaders had mobilised popular support for independence. Allan's long experience in both countries, his studies in anthropology and his period as Lands Commissioner in the Solomons gave him special insight into these problems. He was to put his interpretative skills to constructive use in retirement. The Australian National University and the Universities of Auckland, Otago and New South Wales welcomed him as a visiting lecturer or fellow.
Allan relished the concepts and vivid simplicities of Melanesian pidgin English. One of his favourites was the pidgin version of the coronation of King George VI in 1937:
King George, he dead. Number one son, Edward, he no want him clothes. Number two son he like. Bishop he make plenty talk along new King. He say: 'You look out good 'long all the people?' King he talk. He say yes. Then Bishop and plenty government official and storekeeper and soldier and bank manager and policeman, all he stand up and sing and blow him trumpet. Finish.