Academic wants resource benefits shared
Australian composer is a friend of Melanesia



HE WAS SHORT and squat and hairy: rather like a 40 litre drum in a black Angora sweater. An Einstein mane of grey-threaded black hair tumbled riotously over a woven yellow and red neck-band into his waist-length beard.

He carried a black palm walking staff, heavily carved, and his bare feet were as hard and agile as any Highlands villager’s. In the creased photograph a slash of smiling teeth split his face. A calloused hand, knotted with arthritis, was hooked in the rope cinching his mud-stained soutane.

‘Who’s this?’ I asked the Cathedral archivist.

‘Father Franz-Paul Schnee, yes’ – he saw the look on my face. ‘I’m told he’s a distant relative of a prominent German family rich in artistic and musical talent. Known as Pata (Pidgin English for Father) to his mates – black, white and yellow – he arrived in what became known as the Western High-lands of mainland New Guinea in the late 1920s. By himself. God alone knows how he passed unscathed through the warring tribes on the way.

‘Look’ – The archivist opened a box. ‘These are our holdings on him. The man was an unrecognised saint.’

I settled into a chair, pulled the box towards me and lost myself. Pata had attended Göttingen University, breezed through philosophy and law degrees, read ethnography and anthropology for pleasure before deciding to enter the priesthood. The Society of the Divine Word (SVD) fathers accepted him and said he would be sent to former German New Guinea after he was ordained.

He reached Lae on the mainland coast by Norddeutsche Lloyd steamer via Singapore, asked an incredulous policeman to point him in the direction of the largely unpacified Highlands, and started walking.

Through his diaries I read how he threaded his way through showers of bone-tipped arrows and nipa-palm spears which fell dangerously close during inter-village fighting, and the threats of plumed and painted warriors on arrival at his chosen village. He smiled and blessed them.

They turned away, puzzled, but soon accepted him. Some built him a house and sent women with pointed digging sticks to break clods of hard clay for a food garden. He smiled his thanks, but shook his head at their offer of a woman or boy to keep him warm at night. The warriors were again puzzled.

Pata moved among the villagers, his quick ear picking up words and phrases. He was soon able to guide their inter-village trading and made sure each side received fair value. He eagerly accepted the government offer of bush materials for a hospital and supervised its construction so carefully there was sufficient left over for a small school.

No longer puzzled, the warriors gave him an old woman to maintain his garden and ensure there were always tubers of kaukau (sweet potato) slowly cooking in his fire coals. Pata had seen bloody carcases prepared for roasting on his way into the Highlands and never quite sure if they were human or animal, became a vegetarian for the rest of his life. He thought it wise not to mention the concept of the Body of Christ in his sermons.

Pata quickly became a trusted part of the life of his adopted village gradually introducing villagers to baptism and communion but never interfering in their ways, even blocking his ears to the screams of roasting pigs. He spent his nights in prayer, or writing. He redrafted his diaries and studies of villagers into anthropological papers which a succession of District

Officers, using government funds, willingly posted to scientific journals in Germany. His reputation blossomed, but he steadfastly rejected all offers of overseas lecture tours. He did, however, welcome replacement soutanes every few years.

Grateful for the increased circulation their journals enjoyed through his papers their editors sent donations to the SVD mother house in Kensington, Sydney. It passed them to the District Officer to buy hospital and school necessities for Pata’s own, and other, villages.

Invited to the District Office from time to time Pata enjoyed tea and conversation with the District Officer. Told of gathering war clouds in Europe he frowned and muttered ‘Why? I will pray for them.’ The District Officer privately hoped war would not come to New Guinea again.

Settled in his village, Pata sheltered wives fleeing ill-tempered husbands and smiled inwardly at the irony of young men seeking his advice on bride-prices for particularly alluring females. He ignored their fathers’ attempts to wheedle him into doubling these prices and shared their good-natured laughter at his refusal. The village children greeted him respectfully and every night two armed warriors guarded his house.

Some suggested Pata should become village headman. He dismissed the idea and now able to converse fluently, repeated he was only interested in bringing them the word of God. Other villages tried to lure him away but although he would happily visit, he always returned to his adopted home.

Village life continued its cycle of marriages, births, deaths, singsings, digging, planting, harvesting and bartering surplus food and handcrafts (clay pots, woven bilum string bags and seed necklaces) with little, if any, inter-village fighting. Government officials recognised and appreciated his influence.


The District Officer was astounded when a biplane struggled through the fog-shrouded valley to disgorge an army officer. He strutted into the District Office, twenty-year old face flushed with self-importance, and demanded the whereabouts of Pata. Australia was again at war with Germany, he said, and all German nationals were to be interned in a camp near Cowra in New South Wales.

The District Officer protested. ‘The man is adored by the native people! To remove him could cause…’ The twenty-year old interrupted. ‘I am to arrest him and take him to Port Moresby this afternoon. My commanding officer has ordered the immediate removal of all foreign nationals.’ An hour later a bewildered, yet placid, Pata stood on the District Office veranda. The large crowd of confused and concerned villagers who had followed him milled about anxiously.

The twenty-year old seized Pata’s wrists to cuff him but stopped abruptly as a low growl arose from the villagers. Spears and greenstone axes were raised. Women and children filtered to the back of the crowd as the men surged forward. The District Officer nodded to his ever-present sergeant of police who cocked and raised his rifle. ‘Nein!’ rumbled from the priest who moved in front of the barrel and held up his arms for the men to stop.

‘You bloody fool!’ the District Officer hissed to the twenty-year old. ‘Get off my veranda – I’ll see him onto the plane.’ As the twenty-year old slunk away, the District Officer – who had attended Pata’s services – knelt before him for his blessing. A sigh like wind rippling pit-pit grass swept the villagers who also dropped to their knees. When Pata boarded the plane fingers were hacked off and women covered themselves with white mourning clay. The valley rang with their wails of despair.


Pata was duly interned in Cowra and filled his days with prayer and teaching the children of other German internees. Academics from Australian and overseas universities Anthropology departments urged the Commonwealth government to release him to lecture and hold seminars. ‘He is a recognised world authority on the people in his part of the Highlands,’ they said.

A visiting professor of anthropology pleaded for Pata’s release, guaranteeing his availability at any time. Other academics joined the push to release Pata under a form of house arrest. All were ignored. Pata stayed in the freezing, wind-swept Cowra camp, now filling with Italians and a few Japanese.


A brittle, yellowed newspaper cutting at the bottom of the archives box told how late one afternoon two lorries packed with soldiers collided in front of the open camp gates. Pacing the fence while saying his daily office, Pata saw the accident, dropped his breviary and ran through the gates to help the injured men.

A guard thought he was escaping and shot him.


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Max Uechtritz

What a fascinating story Peter. But talk about a wind-out-of-your-sails ending!

What a tragic end to surely a great character and very good man. Appalling small-minded thinking by the Australian administration at the time - but why should we be surprised?

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