Em normal
Is PNG’s great leap forward one in which all can share?

Esprit de corps and the power of the kiap myth

Villagers with unidentified kiap, 1948 (National Archives of Australia)CHRIS OVERLAND

WHEN I was first recruited as a Patrol Officer in 1969, I was responding to an advertisement much like that featured in Phil Fitzpatrick’s recent article about kiaps being dupes of a mean, calculating government.

The advert shows an apparently khaki clad figure striding out at the head of a carrier line, his slouch hat tipped at a jaunty angle; the very picture of the purposeful, intrepid “outside man” on a mission to bring the manifest benefits of civilisation to wildest Papua New Guinea.

As a marketing strategy, this approach was calculated to appeal to those men whom my first District Commissioner, the late Bob Bell, succinctly described as “the right type”; just as the US Air Force sought out men with “the right stuff” to become the first astronauts.

Quite what being “the right type” entailed was and remains somewhat mysterious. It seemed to involve a combination of above average intelligence, a thirst for adventure, courage, self-reliance, reasonable physical fitness and an indefinable but essential amount of tough minded common sense.

Quite how Bob Bell deduced that I possessed such qualities, I’ll never know.

This recruitment policy seems to have worked pretty well on the whole, but the attrition rate for new recruits was still high. The initial strangeness of the PNG environment and society, the isolation of outstation life and the physical and mental challenges of the job could produce what could be described as “culture shock”.

New recruits often experienced this, to some degree at least, fairly soon after arrival in PNG. Culture shock turned into a personal challenge that tended to winnow out, very quickly, all but the hardiest souls and so produced a body of men who could cope with the rigours of a kiap’s life.

To illustrate the impact of culture shock. Of the 40-odd men in my 1969 intake, only 19 were still kiaps a bare three years later. The person posted with me to the Gulf District lasted only six weeks before simply fleeing south on the first available plane.

The survivors of this process, superficially at least, fitted what I call the ‘kiap myth’. By this I mean the archetypal “outside man” who was tough, fit and determined enough to take on any task allotted to him and, in so doing, help bring peace, good governance and good order to the people for whom he was responsible.

At the turn of the 20th century someone like the infamous and, in many respects, deplorable Papuan colonialist CAW Monckton might well have epitomised the “right type”. Later, after World War I, men like Ivan Champion and Jack Hides came to represent the mythological “outside man”.

Following World War II, it was the exploits of men like JK McCarthy, James Sinclair, Ian Downs, Des Clancy, the legendary Tom Ellis and many others, who helped further entrench this myth.

These men, collectively, helped create the legend of the kiap as a courageous and relentless “warrior”, who came to impose the law of “gavman”, to which all must submit without exception.

This had at least two very important effects upon the governance of Papua New Guinea in the pre-independence era.

First, many Papua New Guineans came to believe that kiaps were, in some sense, the invincible and sometimes dangerous representatives of a remote but all powerful “gavman”, whose physical embodiment was “Missus Kwin (Queen)”. The latter’s glamourous portrait was, after all, frequently seen on prominent display at patrol posts and in schools and court houses.

It is easy to see how this idea could arise amongst people undergoing first contact with what was an alien civilisation and its associated technologies.

For a start, many people knew that armed resistance to the kiaps, in some instances at least, had fatal consequences. There arose an entirely reasonable fear of the guns carried and sometimes used by kiaps and police on exploratory patrols and during their formal police work.

Kiap Tom Webster at Jimi, 1970Also, for many coastal people at least, the experience of World War II left a deep impression about the power and sheer ferocity of industrial scale warfare conducted by, from their perspective, hugely technologically advanced societies.

The result was that people tended to comply with the instructions of the kiaps not so much because of their actual or perceived individual power but because of the established mythology surrounding them, and the understanding that behind them stood a vastly powerful “gavman”.

Also, I think that it is fair to say that the arrival of the kiaps brought with it a level of peace, security and certainty about life that was, once experienced, greatly to be preferred to traditional life of all too frequent inter-tribal violence and chronic insecurity.

Second, the prevalence and power of the kiap myth came to affect those of us who subsequently joined the service.

Essentially, most of us felt it necessary to live up to our predecessors’ standards. Thus there was, within the ranks of kiaps, a culture which both valued and promoted stoicism, courage, physical endurance, adventure and achievement. Conversely, it was contemptuous of any perceived weakness or lack to resolve in getting the job done. A tradition emerged of achieve whatever it was and do whatever it took.

A shared experience of what has been called the “loneliness and the glory” of a kiap’s life, bound these men together tightly, much as a shared experience of combat binds veterans. There was amongst kiaps a recognisable esprit de corps that tended to both exclude and annoy those who were not kiaps. 

As a junior kiap, I remember being very anxious to “earn my stripes” through the hard discipline of patrolling, preferably in the most remote, rugged and dangerous terrain possible. I also remember how proud I was to return from my first patrol into the rugged mountainous country north of Kerema, over two stone lighter and considerably fitter than when I left a bare 33 days before.

This feeling of being able to take my place as a “real kiap” was heavily reinforced when, after a second solo patrol in the same area, I was praised by District Commissioner Bob Bell for doing a good job under very adverse conditions.

Many, perhaps most, of my contemporaries were motivated in the same way: we wanted and needed to fit into the kiap myth and earn the respect of our peers as being “the right type”.

It seems to me that this mythology is a significant part of the explanation for how a quite small group of men, never numbering more than a few hundred at a time, could exert such effective control over literally millions of people living in remote parts of PNG.

It was government on the cheap by a handful of multi-skilled and multi-tasking individuals, supplemented by a small but committed groups of doctors, nurses, agricultural officers, surveyors, teachers, architects, engineers and tradesmen.

No Australian state with a population of 3.5 million (as it was around 1970) could possibly have been governed, then or now, by such a small group of people, exerting their influence mostly based upon a combination of bluff, reason, cajoling and, very rarely, resort to coercion in some form or another.

It was, in truth, a quite astonishing collective achievement which I think was neither really understood nor acknowledged by the politicians and bureaucrats in distant Canberra.

It may well have helped Gough Whitlam and others develop a false sense of complacency and optimism about the prospects for an independent PNG, believing that there was a system of governance in place that could survive the demise of the colonial structure, the most notable element of which was the kiap.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the power of the kiap myth is that, subsequent to the dismantling of the kiap system, the PNG government seems to have never again been able to fully exert its influence in rural and remote PNG, except on a fairly temporary basis.

The evidence of PNG’s generally peaceful economic development and social progress up to independence, supports the contention that a relative handful of “the right types”, operating within the context of the kiap myth, could and did serve the people of rural PNG remarkably well.


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

Garry Roche

I am curious about the photograph of someone alongside the Tabibuga sign. Is that the author Chris who is standing there? Or is it somebody else? When was it taken?

In 1971-72 I was based at Karap Catholic Mission about one hour's drive from Tabibuga. At that time Jack Edwards, Ken Logan, Rod Cantlay and Harry Nash were kiaps in the Jimi. I was only there about twelve months but I still remember it all. The kiaps were all great company.

The photo is of kiap Tom Webster and was taken in 1970 - KJ

Des Martin

Terrific article Chris. Reminds me of the tribute to Kiaps by Jacob Sekewa published in the Sunday Chronicle PNG in April 2010.

One extra comment. In the group of those who also played their part in the old TPNG you could have included a reference to the indigenous barefoot cops of my era who supported Kiaps and whose duty, loyalty and courage was essential to the Kiap system.

In particular their role with ANGAU officers during WW2 has never been recognised. Sure there were some rogues but by and large what a wonderful bunch they were.

Arthur Williams

I was asked several times in my early years on Lavongai, “Bilong wanem ol dispela kiap inogat mausgras na oli kam bosim mipela?” I had no answer to that. Were most new kiaps in the sixties just out of their teens?

I know myself recruited at 32, Geoff Swainson, he'd done time in the Korean war; and one other who'd be crew on Her Majesty's Britannia were older than most in our group at Mosman.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I might add that the Dineen and Braithwaite article was one of the reasons that prompted me to suggest that the kiaps put aside their aversion to criticism in favour of objective analysis of the system under which they operated.

There could be a very tangible benefit to PNG in understanding how the system succeeded, including what was good about it and what was not so good.

For instance, splitting the RPNGC into an urban and a rural service with the latter taking up some of the functions of the old kiaps might be a way forward.

Doug Robbins

My experience as one of another 39 Patrol Officers (kiaps) also selected in 1969, extracted from my PNG Short Stories, "It Seemed Enough":

With 500 applicants for the job, I sat anxiously before the interviewer at Brisbane who introduced himself as "Bell – as in ding dong", a District Commissioner from PNG.

His only question I remember was, "How would you feel working under a native boss?" to which I replied "Not a problem, if he’s qualified for the position".

But, he added, "Suppose he’s not equally as qualified as you?". I replied "Well, it is his country" – with the benefit of hindsight, I think this was the expected response.

Phil Fitzpatrick

There is a very interesting article in a 2009 edition of 'Policing and Society' entitled 'Reinventing policing through the prism of the colonial kiap' by Sinclair Dineen and John Braithwaite.

It traces the breakdown of societal control in rural PNG from the time that the kiaps lost control of their policing powers to a conventional police structure.

The article suggests re-modelling the PNG police service in rural areas along the lines of the old kiap system. You can read it via this link: https://www.anu.edu.au/fellows/jbraithwaite/_documents/Articles/Colonial_Kiap.pdf

On a lighter note I remember some sage advice delivered by Bob Bell on the meaning of marriage to an about-to-be-wed young kiap.

"Do you know what marriage means son?"

"Er, no sir."

"It means you can no longer fart in bed - don't ever forget that son and you'll be right."

Chips Mackellar

This is the most brilliant summary of the life and times of the kiaps I have ever read.

It beats Sinclair's compendium "Kiap" and all the academic studies which have ever been written on this subject. It is clear, concise, and succinct, and describes the kiap administration of PNG perfectly.

Thank you Chris Overland for describing the life and the times of the kiaps so well.

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.)