Garnautgate: The independence struggle continues
UNHCR backs away from W Papua refugee support

Days of the Kiap: Constable Okomba & the cannibals


Policeman in Kanai countryIN 1968, WHEN IT WAS APPARENT that self-government and independence for Papua New Guinea was imminent, the Australian government issued orders for all the so-called ‘uncontrolled’ areas to be brought to heel.

The Department of District Administration instituted a program of saturation patrolling in these areas to speed up the process. A sizeable chunk of uncontrolled area existed in the Nomad area of the Western District.

Assistant District Commissioner Rob Barclay was given the job of pacifying the infamous Biami (Bedamini) cannibals once and for all. In an article published in Quadrant magazine in September last year he described the process.

Of the Biami, Barclay wrote….

Shooting pigs to deter primitive peoples from attacking patrols was standard practice, but it didn’t work with them. They wanted us out, never to return. There was an uninhabited buffer zone around the Biami homelands which provided some protection for the surrounding tribes, who were all potential items on the Biami menu.

Primitive men were deathly afraid of the dark. It was the time when the evil spirits were abroad. No sensible person would leave his barricaded hut to see what might be happening beyond the light of the fire.

The Biami had no such qualms. They moved through the jungle by the fitful light of the moon and by the faint starlight, earning for themselves the title of “meat-eating flying foxes”. The flesh of their victims was an integral part of their diet, and their only really satisfying source of protein.

Most cannibalism around the world is ritual, the aim being to imbibe the powers of your victims, making you ever stronger and eventually invincible. But the Biami had no such tradition; they only wanted meat.

Their approach was highly organised. Raiding parties would steal silently through the night, and carefully deploy through the tangled gardens of the targeted long house, stationing themselves at the minor exits.

At the first glimmer of dawn, making the maximum uproar to disorient the sleepers, some would leap through the main entrance, howling like madmen, indiscriminately clubbing and axing the occupants.

The remaining house dwellers would pour out through the lesser exits, or simply barge straight through the walls in a mad panic to escape. The waiting warriors would axe them down as they bolted out of the house, and chase the more agile through the gardens, finishing them off there.

The corpses would then be dismembered, the manageable portions stuffed into string bags and borne off by the triumphant chanting warriors to be partially roasted on the long house fires.

Brains, eyeballs and testicles were particular delicacies. Much of the catch would be eaten practically raw. Eligible young women captured in raids would be forcefully married into the Biami to produce more warriors and women workers. Barren women were eaten or became slaves.

On one patrol Barclay and Patrol Officer Colin Young were in pursuit of a group that had killed and eaten a woman accused of witchcraft….

We passed an abandoned long house and heard the sound of a chopping axe in a garden ahead. A shout five minutes later indicated that the patrol had been spotted. We sprinted forward, and a group of armed men darted into the bush to the south. We apprehended the two slowest and moved on to a partially completed long house that was said to belong to Ouli (one of the murderers).

As the patrol was now out of food, we despatched Constables Okomba and Suni and ten carriers to collect food from the gardens directly below the house where we camped. Payment was made to the Sabasigi men who we had taken into custody. An exhausted carrier stumbled into camp soon after to inform us that constable Okomba [pictured at the top of this article] had been speared and killed, and that a carrier had been wounded in the hand with an arrow.

Colin and I immediately left the camp with five police. We charged through the garden and into the jungle. A small house near the jungle’s edge was deserted. We ran further uphill, spotting a boot print of Okomba’s heading into jungle. Loud yodelling was heard from the camp. Colin and I looked at one another and froze. Colin and two police immediately charged back in case the ever-resourceful Ouli had made an opportunistic attack in our absence.

Four police and I followed a track that the warriors had recently used, and discovered the footprints of Okomba. Biami footprints diminished in number, suggesting that they were peeling off individually into the jungle. The tribesmen were adept at leaving the track and heading straight through the virgin jungle, leaping on logs, rocks and tussocks to avoid leaving prints.

We soon arrived at a small house on the edge of a stream, where the last of the tracks petered out. We returned along the same track, carefully examining the verges, but we saw no signs of a large body of men leaving it.

Approaching darkness made it difficult to distinguish features in the dense jungle. That night, apart from the cooking fires we were in darkness, as we were out of torch batteries and lamp kerosene. Our police guards were changed regularly, to enable them to stay alert in the impenetrable blackness of the forest night.

Interpreter Nogoi offered to talk to the spirits and went into a self-induced trance, swaying and then falling to the ground, twitching and rolling. He recovered and announced, “Okomba will return when the first bird chirps.”

The Adumari and Sefalobi sang to the spirits for much of the night, in an attempt to discover Okomba’s whereabouts. We were told that he had not been killed, but was in hiding. Thus “reassured” we went to bed; but not to sleep.

Colin and I spent the rest of the night unsuccessfully searching for telling phrases in the English language to use in the report to Headquarters to soften the blow of having a policeman murdered, dragged off and eaten.

We were overjoyed when Okomba returned to the camp at daybreak. He had thought that the garden house contained only a man and a woman. Instead, it was packed with warriors. He had given his shotgun to a carrier to keep his hands free. Men came boiling out of the house, and Okomba and a carrier secured one each.

The remainder, some eight to ten warriors, seeing only a small arresting force, decided on direct action. An Adumari carrier heard one shout, “There is only a few of them, let’s get our weapons and kill them.” The carrier shouted to Okomba, and then hared off into the bush with the rest of the panic-stricken carriers, clutching the empty shotgun, and leaving Okomba to it.

Okomba, in possession of the now useless shotgun cartridges, and finding the warriors between himself and the camp path, was forced to sprint off in the opposite direction, hotly pursued by the enraged warriors. He was able to shake off all but two shrieking fighters. One was armed with bow and arrow, the other with an axe.

A number of arrows were fired at him during the pursuit, one of which lodged in his shirt, which he instantly discarded. His oversized commando boots (an old pair of mine) slowed him down, but he managed to unlace and discard them at a dead run: no mean feat. Twice he slipped and fell, and twice he hid behind a tree, and each time he was discovered.

Finally eluding his pursuers, he climbed a large tree as darkness fell, and strapped his arm to a branch with his belt. But his troubles were not over. He soon found he was not alone. Soft talking and whispering around the base of the tree seemed to go on interminably. Eventually he felt that the shadowy figures had left, and he judged it safe to begin to relieve himself, as he was in real pain.

Frighteningly, he then sensed more figures were gathering again under the tree, and he froze in fear. They remained silent and motionless for a long time, seeming to seek the source of the smell, and listening for the sound of any movement. A slight rustling much later seemed to suggest that they were moving off. But how far? Had they left a guard hidden by the blackness of the night? He couldn’t chance it, and moved his aching muscles only infinitesimally to relieve the debilitating pain.

Just before dawn, when the first bird chirped, he gingerly climbed down, fully expecting an attack. But there were no warriors to be seen. Relieving himself caused him absolute agony. Hiding in the jungle, stealthily moving beside the tracks, he eventually came across our prints, and finally returned to camp to our rapturous reception.

I was more than a little angry. His instructions had been to supervise the gathering of food for the patrol and return to camp, and not to conduct investigations or attempt any arrests in the dangerous environment the patrol found itself in.

No disciplinary action was necessary beyond a reprimand, as nothing I ordered could duplicate the effect of his traumatic experience. He was an excellent policeman, energetic and normally reliable. His wish to affect what had seemed to be a simple capture was understandable.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Peter Kranz

OK Phil and Keith - mea culpa.

I do not support censorship, but Quadrant seems to have it's own 'glorify the colonialists' agenda, and people should be aware of that.

So I just ask readers to peruse it with a critical eye. I meant no denigration of Rob Barclay.

Paul Oates

Phil, Maybe Kiaps were or are no different to any group as far as political leanings are concerned. We come from a pluralistic society and therefore, it should be no surprise that we may be pluralistic in preferences.

Whether Kiaps were misfits when they were recruited is a moot point. Most were however fish out of water when they returned to Australia.

Certainly, Quadrant has previously published two of my articles and I thank them for that. I also enjoy reading their articles. Cripes! Does that make me an anglophile etc. I’m ‘dinky die’ and I don’t care who knows it. Who cares anyway?

Peter Ryan has my respect as someone who is both erudite and I enjoy his razor wit when it comes to describing how he sees the world.

I agree with Rossco that people should resist the temptation to try to judge what it was like in an anachronistic way, if they weren’t there and experienced the same circumstances.

Ehya! Ol Wantok. Yu bin sigarapim sampla tok ibin paiap pinisya!

Phil Fitzpatrick

My opinion of Quadrant is similar to yours Peter but I do occasionally read it, especially when there is something about Papua New Guinea in it.

Peter Ryan especially annoys me at times but I like to read his articles.

I was really chuffed when they refused to review my book, 'Bamahuta'. When that happened I knew I was on the right track.

Quadrant attracts a lot of Anglophiles so anything about empire and British mores and values goes down really well.

The extract from Quadrant is part of a larger work by Rob Barclay. In March 2012 they also published an extract by him about kiaps and tribal fighting in the Chimbu. I suspect what he is doing is testing the waters for his longer work.

I thought for a long time that kiaps were inherently right wing but I've modified that view in recent years. Most of them seem to have coddled together their own unique mix of conservatism and liberalism.

The late Jack Baker summed it up nicely when addressing my course at ASOPA in 1967 by telling us we were a bunch if misfits and that was why we had been recruited.

I'll continue to subscribe to Quadrant and Australian Book Review. That way I get a serving from both sides and can make up my own mind.

Ross Wilkinson

Peter, you must understand the kiap climate that was occurring here in Australia at the time this article was written and not focus on the medium.

A number of articles were produced by kiaps in a variety of magazines and dailies and interviews on the ABC around Australia.

I had three interviews on various programs, one of which was conducted in Tok Pisin on the overseas service to PNG.

This all culminated in national recognition our work and an exhibition at the National Archives in Canberra.

You cannot ignore or destroy history and First Contact in PNG was an extreme hardship, whatever the reason behind it.

It brought the people forward to today where the descendants of those people are now engaging with the world on equal terms.

I am sure that more than just Quadrant have been taken in over the years.

You only have to look at the apologies section of every newspaper to see how much poor reporting and sub-editing goes on every day.

Peter Kranz

While this story is an interesting historical anecdote, isn't retelling stories of cannibalism and murder two generations ago denigrating the reputation of current PNG people and their culture?

I'd also not put too much faith in anything published by Quadrant, the right-wing apologists attempting to rewrite the history of white settlement in Australia, and famously scammed by "Sharon Gould" into publishing fictitious nonsense as history.

Windschuttle - editor of Quadrant.

There were no massacres of Aborigines.

There was no 'stolen generation'.

Aborigines have no historic attachment to the land, as they were nomads.

'Native title' to Australian land is nonsense.

Australia was Terra nullius and therefore ripe for take over by white men.

Phil - please rethink your reference to Quadrant.

Whatever one thinks of Quadrant - or cannibalism for that matter - censoring what is a first-hand account would be an appalling vandalisation of history - KJ

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)