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Short story: The Blackbirders

BY CAROLUS KETSIMUR

An entry in The Crocodile Prize

There was hardly any cloud in the sky. From the vast blue above, the tropical morning sun shone brightly on Banio Bay, revealing a deep blue horseshoe-shaped expanse ringed by a narrow brown strip separating the sea from the green forest, which ran gently towards the mountain ranges in the distance.

Just beyond the southern corner of the bay, the kunai-covered Re’an Hills seemed out of place in the lush green Bougainville vegetation. The hills were the remains of a huge volcanic eruption of a long time ago – of which no-one knew.

It was low tide. Almost everybody was out on the reef. The men lined the edge of the water, casting strings attached to bamboo rods into the gently breaking waves. The women walked slowly along the dry reef, baskets in hand, collecting shells, crabs and anything else they came across. Black figures darted here and there, chasing the unfortunate fish caught in pools left behind by the receding water.

On the beach children played in the sand, as one or two dogs roamed the village looking for something to eat. White smoke rose lazily from the village to be dispersed by the breeze.

Then around the southern point, an object slowly turned into the bay. All movement stopped as eyes turned towards the object now travelling slowly along the coast. After a while people started moving again, coming together in groups to discuss what they saw. Was it some kind of a big canoe? What was that big post standing on top? Wouldn’t the weight of that post cause a capsize? And what was that noise and smoke?

As the thing got closer, white figures could be seen moving around. It was obvious this was a ship of some sort, towing a much smaller vessel. When the cutter came level with the crowd, it stopped and the small dinghy was pulled from behind.

Three white men carrying sticks got into the dinghy and pushed off. As the dinghy nosed in to the reef, the crowd sensed something. A few people slowly moved away; others hovered uncertainly. Some wanted to turn and run, but their curiosity was too strong. They wanted to stay and see what these white men would do.

The white men jumped off the dinghy and ran towards the crowd. Some of the crowd broke and ran and one of the white men pointed his stick up to the sky. There was a sharp cracking sound and smoke appeared at the end of the stick. The running men stopped and hesitated. This was enough to let the white men catch up. They grabbed three men and proceeded to tie their hands with rope.

The rest of the villagers ran as the three captured men were half dragged to the dinghy and taken aboard the cutter.

While all this was going on, a lone fisherman moved around the reef towards the Tsunpets river mouth, showing no interest in the unfolding drama. He had stopped to look at the vessel as it rounded the point into the bay and then gone back to his business, as if nothing unusual was happening.

Having got the three captives aboard, the cutter moved off towards the river mouth. It stopped, and the dinghy pushed off with the three hunters aboard. As it came to the reef the white men jumped off and hurried, half running, towards the lone figure.

With the rest of the villagers gone, the hunters’ intention was to grab anyone they could find. In that state of mind they did not realise how small was their present prey. Two men grabbed him, one on each arm, and propelled him, half carrying him, back to the dinghy then to the cutter.

He did not show much fight as they bundled him on to the ship, which started moving again past the mouth of the Tsunpets River. Further on, it stopped once more and two more captives were taken before the vessel moved on towards the entrance of the Bay.

It was just after midday as the cutter headed out of Banio Bay. Back on shore women and children wept and people wondered whether they would see their men again. They had no idea where the boat had taken them. On the ship the captives sat huddled inside the hold, eyes darting here and there as if looking for ways to escape.

The smallest one did not show much anxiety. He was calm and sat there quietly. None of them spoke. They did not know it, but they were on their way to the cane farms of Queensland. Whether they liked it or not did not really matter.

Extract from ‘Tokis: In search of the hidden population’ – an unpublished manuscript

The Crocodile Prize is PNG's national literary contest - offering awards of K2,500 each for short stories like this one, poetry and journalism.  You can read full details under Attitude Extra at left.

Comments

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Peter Comerford

We went to the Belvoir Theatre [Sydney] to see ‘The Bougainville Photoplay’ monologue which was terrific.

Certainly bought back memories (many not so pleasant).

The audience would have been in primary school when all this stuff was happening but it was great - graphic and certainly blasted the audience with the reality of pictorial images that our political leaders denied and no one in Australia really gave a tinkers about at the time - mostly because it was beyond comprehension or only partly reported.

It’s given me some ideas for writing I also had a chat to the actor, playwright and crew after the show.

Not sure if it is going north. It really should.Keep your eyes open for it.

Phil Charley

Excellent highly descriptive writing which builds good suspense. Great work, Carolus.

Phil Charley OAM

Don Hook

Well done Carolus. Good luck.

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