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Musings of a District Commissioner

Harry West Andrea Williams, the editor of the excellent journal Una Voce, which you can only obtain by joining the Papua New Guinea Association (just $20 using the membership form here), has sent me the copy of a speech made in Adelaide in 2004 by former PNGAA president Harry West.

The speech sparkles with anecdote, reminiscence and reflection on Harry’s PNG experience, which began in World War II and, it could be argued, continues today. I’ll be incorporating the full document soon in The ASOPA Archives [left], but these extracts will have to suffice for now.

“I was discharged from the army in Lae in March 1946 and was soon back in the highlands where Medical Assistant Gray

Hartley and myself under Assistant District Officer Jack Costelloe looked after the whole of what is now the Chimbu Province. Most of it was classified ‘uncontrolled’ and tribal fighting was rampant.

“Then came two and a half years at ASOPA in Sydney from September 1947 till March 1950, followed by a culture shock posting to Telefomin to take over from Des Clifton-Bassett, who had opened the remote post at the head of the Sepik a year or so earlier. He was evacuated with scrub typhus and Bobby Gibbes flew in the legendary Dr John McInerney just in time to save Clifton-Bassett’s life. Dennis Buchanan, as an 18 year old lad, loaded the Gibbes Sepik Airways plane that took me to Telefomin.  He went on to develop Territory Airlines and later Flight West in Queensland.

“So difficult were flying conditions to Telefomin from Wewak it was costing 24 shillings to fly in one pound weight of rice. The aircraft had no radio and there were numerous aborted flights. Patrols were long and tough without portable radios, airdrops or helicopters. It was more than eight weeks before I found out about the 1951 Mt Lamington disaster.

“I was on the first contact patrol to the Oksapmin people, through the rugged limestone pinnacles at 12,000 feet from Telefomin. My final long Telefomin patrol took many days and reached the headwaters of the May River where, almost by miracle, we rescued an abducted Telefomin girl and persuaded Miamkaling, the headman of the feared Mianmin people, to accompany us back to Telefomin.

“[In the late sixties the Mataungan Association emerged in the Gazelle peninsula.] ‘Mata’ means eye and ‘Ungan’ to look after. The Tolais wanted to handle  their own affairs. With more than 100 years of white domination, it was evident they had gained little and lost a lot. Many of them were landless through the virtual stealing of vast areas of land by the Germans, which had not been rectified, and pressures were rising through the demands of cash cropping as well as subsistence farming and rapid population growth, related to excellent medical services.

“Having lost their land, economically they saw the central government’s move towards multi-racial councils as strangling them politically and socially. There was drama. Police strength was built up in Rabaul to 1,000 – one-third of the Territory’s total force. The Tolais were divided amongst themselves about 50-50 pro and anti multi-racial council, but everywhere was the overwhelming desire to handle their own affairs.

“John Kaputin brought home new ideas from the East-West Center in Hawaii. The Administration tried all sorts of approaches and brought in many local and overseas ‘experts’. When the well-respected Papuan Oala Oala Rarua arrived, his mission was misunderstood and the eminent Tolai leader Nason Tokiala came to me in great secrecy and said: ‘Mr West, watch gud long dispela Oala Oala Rarua. Im I spi bilong Dr Gunther’ [‘Beware of him, he’s (Assistant Administrator) Gunther’s spy’]. Opinions differed at the Rabaul, Moresby and Canberra levels and loyalties were divided.”

Source: Speech by HW West to the PNGAA Adelaide Reunion Lunch, 31 October 2004



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