ON 20 June 1955 there was a major eclipse of the sun. The line of totality began over the Indian Ocean passing across Sri Lanka, Indochina, northern Indonesia and the Philippines, and then continued through the north of Papua New Guinea before it ended over the south-west Pacific Ocean.
It was the longest eclipse since the 11th century and we won’t see another like it until the 22nd century.
All of PNG saw a partial eclipse for many minutes with a maximum of three-quarters of the sun’s disc covered.
In the few weeks preceding this event, there was publicity on radio and in the press about the eclipse.
In particular the colonial administration foresaw the possibility that some village people may be concerned about the cause and effect of this celestial phenomenon.
Field staff in the Department of District Services and Native Affairs were advised to spread the word that it was a natural event that gave no cause for alarm. Officers were told to be alert after the eclipse for any adverse effect on the local population.
At that time, I was at the small, remote station of Watabung in the Eastern Highlands. I invited the village headpmen within a few hours walk to come to Watabung where I explained that an eclipse was a natural event a long way away and that it would have no effect on PNG or its people.
In hindsight that was naïve. The people and their ancestors would have seen many other eclipses and would have themselves evolved an explanation according to their cultural beliefs.
A week before the eclipse was due, I took leave to get married in Port Moresby. After a short honeymoon, I returned to Watabung with my wife.
Soon after, I heard there was trouble in a few villages three hours walk to the south of the station. Enquiries revealed that some mission catechists were angry with another mission catechist for ‘stealing’ members of their flock.
“Not a big deal,” I thought. I was planning to patrol the area in a few weeks and would look into this inter-mission squabble when I was on the spot.
It turned out that the culprit catechist, who was from a coastal area, had known about and understood the coming eclipse. He represented one of three different Christian missions in the area. He had visited a number of villages, telling the people:
“Some of you people have made a big mistake in going to meetings of those other missions. You should come to my mission because my mission is bigger and more powerful than those others.
“My mission is much closer to God who has given me special powers. To prove this, I have asked God to cover the sun next Monday.
“When you see the sun covered up, you should all come to my meetings. When you do I will pass on to you some of the power that God has given me.”
Immediately after the eclipse, the other catechists were angry when their congregations deserted to the ‘strong’ mission. A lot of angry words were spoken on both sides for a few days. When I got there, I was told no-one was going to any of the catechists’ meetings. They’d had enough of missions.
I sent for the culprit catechist and told him that he was wrong and had broken the law. I would ‘make court’ the following day and suggested he might like to spend the night with the police constables I’d brought with me.
I let the word get around that this man was wrong and that I was going to ‘make court’ about the incident. I made sure the other two catechists came as well as the ‘bigmen’ from all affected villages.
As a Patrol Officer, I was a field officer of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary and I was also a magistrate in the Court for Native Affairs. So with the authority of these two positions, the court I planned was legal and authorised and its procedures were familiar to these village people.
A huge crowd turned up to see what would happen. I set up a typical village court: folding patrol table and chair placed under a makeshift grass roof, journal and other books on the table, two uniformed police constables standing on one side of me and a uniformed official interpreter on the other.
A circle deeply scratched into the ground was the line the public could not cross.
I asked many questions of a number of witnesses so the story was heard by everyone. When I was satisfied that the whole story was accurate and complete, I addressed the gathering explaining the eclipse in simple terms and went on to say, in Pidgin which was interpreted into their own language:
“This eclipse is a natural event and the story sent around by this catechist is quite wrong. His story is not only wrong, but it is also wrong for him to use his knowledge of the eclipse to trick the people and to get an advantage for the mission he represents. He has broken the law and I can put him in jail for his offence.
“But I have decided that it is best if I send a copy of my court report to the mission headquarters in Goroka so that his superiors can correct his ways. I will also ask him to pack up his house and that he and his wife and children return to Goroka tomorrow.
“Listen carefully now because I have special talk for all you village people. When he and his family walks to Goroka, they will have with them this policeman. And I am going to ask these two big men to travel with them to make sure that there is no trouble during the three hour walk to the boundary of your tribal lands. Do you understand?”
There was a resounding ‘yes’ from smiling faces and a round of enthusiastic applause. I felt I’d made the right decision.