A bad dose of ex-colonialism
30 April 2012
BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
WHILE THE OUTSIDERS who passed through Papua New Guinea over the last couple of hundred years were responsible for introducing a deadly suite of diseases, like syphilis and influenza, the favour was returned in the form of equally deadly nasties like malaria and typhus.
For many Australians there was also another infectious malady for which it is hard to find a name. It involved exposure to another cultural set and a gradual and insidious change in their view of the world. In that sense it’s a sort of brain disease.
The kiaps, school teachers, didimen and other remote area staff were particularly susceptible because they all seemed to have a predisposition to it. Jack Baker put his finger on it when he met us at ASOPA and casually explained that we were essentially a bunch of misfits who would no doubt fit well into wherever it was that we were going.
That was well and good and Jack turned out to be mostly right. What he didn’t explain - probably because he didn’t know at the time - was what would happen when it came time to go home; an event which occurred a lot sooner than many of us expected.
This awkward transition back to Australian life is something that Paul Oates occasionally mentions. It’s something you briefly acknowledge and then forget. In the last week or so I’ve had reason to think about it a bit more deeply.
The first thing was an email from Andy Connelly who is following up his excellent MA thesis, Counting Coconuts: Patrol Reports from the Trobriand Islands 1907 – 1934*, with a wider ranging PhD thesis.
He was interested in something that I had written about Assistant Resident Magistrate Leo Austen. Leo was a remarkable character but he just couldn’t fit back into Australian life when he left Papua New Guinea after WW2. His gradual disintegration makes for very sad reading.
The second thing was a trip down to Brisbane last week to rummage through the archives held in the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library, including the excellent Papua New Guinea Association of Australia’s records managed by Dr Peter Cahill.
While going through one box I happened across some letters written by a friend who had experienced very similar difficulties to Leo. I won’t explain how the letters ended up in the collection but by reading them I began to understand a lot of things that my friend has never really talked to anyone about.
With these revelations in mind I remembered other troubled people I know who had been in Papua New Guinea and who were all about the same age as me.
The litany of failed relationships, physical and psychological illnesses, especially depression, unemployment and business failures and the like started to make sense.
In fact, I was hard pressed to remember anyone, apart from a couple of hard heads, who I had known in Papua New Guinea who had come back to Australia and who had really fitted comfortably back into society, myself included.
One of the biggest realisations for many of these returning people was the social and cultural impoverishment of the Australian and general Western way of life.
I recently read the memoirs of Mary Guntner, Doctor in Paradise. Mary was a Lutheran mission doctor and she underwent a similar period of disillusionment where she couldn’t come to terms with the preoccupation of Australians with consumerism, status, celebrity, sport and what was on television.
I know the experience of the poor blokes coming back from Vietnam was different but thinking about Papua New Guinea made me a bit more sympathetic towards them.
The malady is not new of course. Literature is full of stories of disgruntled colonials and repatriated exiles who couldn’t settle back down but the letters of my friend, inadvertently stumbled upon, brought it all vividly back into focus.
* Available for download at http://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10524/1554