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The bonfires of the prophet


A LOT OF PEOPLE will remember the hilltop bonfires that were lit all over Papua New Guinea on 16 September 1975 to mark the nation’s independence from Australia.

In a lot of places the kiaps had contrived with the local leaders to build the bonfires and were instrumental in the coordination of their lighting.

It was both an inspiring and eerie sight, especially in places like Simbu where such fires had been lit for other cultural reasons from time to time.

There is a story in the area around Gumine and some other places that such fires heralded the arrival of a “prophet” in the land.  There is a lot of mystery around this story.

One theory is that the “prophet” was the Russian anthropologist, Nicholas Miklouho Maclay, who spent several years living with people on the coast near Madang in the late 1870s and had ventured into the mountains from time to time.

Maclay was an anti-colonialist who objected to the takeover of New Guinea by the Germans and Papua by the British.

He was also highly critical of the racist theories of the time that saw dark skinned people as inferior to the white race.  At one stage he even proposed setting up an independent state or union in Papua.

It is interesting to speculate that the lighting of the bonfires in Simbu to mark independence may have actually been interpreted in an entirely different way by the local people.

If that is the case one wonders who this mysterious “prophet” might have been.


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Harry Topham

Phil - The concept of using fire as having a mystical concept has been a common practice used by most cultures since time immemorial.

During my time in PNG I cannot recall bonfires being part of the cultural practices of the day although I do recall in certain areas bonfires were used by missionaries to celebrate certain religious events.

It is strange how certain insignificant events stick in one memory.

Whilst in Tufi, ND circa 1972 we were engaged in having a large final cleanup of rubbish and building materials scattered throughout the government station resulting from the calamitous effects from Cyclone Hannah and a subsequent drought which lasted some 9 months.

Finding a suitable large ditch everything deemed to be non salvageable was dumped resulting a a large mountain of rubbish which later in the afternoon was then set on fire.

To this day I am not sure of the cause and effects of this event but strangely the next day it started raining and the drought was broken

Of more less important note I also recall that in the highland region when peace negotiations were being finalised that large white painted plank were displayed on the top of mountain ridges to advise interested parties that a Moka ceremony was forthcoming.

Francis S Nii

This is interesting, Phil. I don't know anything about the coming of the 'prophet' but I remember we used to light bonfires at the end of the Easter festival as a symbol of purification from sin and also as a form of communication - sending messages to distant friends.

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