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Lepani Watson – a foundational figure in PNG’s national history

Lepani Watson & colleaguesANDREW CONNELLY & ARTHUR SMEDLEY | Australian Dictionary of Biography

“I have fond memories of Lepani Watson and recall some memorable nights with him leading a chorus of miscreants, singing until the early hours. It was both a privilege and an honour to be asked to work with Andrew Connelly in the writing of this biography” – Arthur Smedley

LEPANI Kaiuwekalu Watson (1926–93), politician, lay preacher, community leader and welfare officer, was born in 1926 at Vakuta village on the island of the same name in the Trobriand group, Territory of Papua.

He was the elder son of Watisoni Upawapa, chief of the top-ranking Tabalu dala (matriline), and his wife Iribouma of the second-ranked Toliwaga dala.

In his early teens Lepani passed the examination to enter the Oyabia Methodist mission school at Losuia station, Kiriwina Island, where he worked between lessons as a gardener and fisherman to earn his keep.

The closure of the school during the Pacific War in 1942 brought an end to his formal education. He worked in the kitchen for an Australian army survey team at Oyabia, as an interpreter for a United States Army officer, and then as a foreman for the American quartermaster. Another American officer tutored him in English and taught him to type.

In 1944 he was sent to the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit’s school for native medical orderlies on Gemo Island, Port Moresby, for six months’ training, returning to work at Losuia as a clerk at the native hospital. He married Sarah Charles, daughter of a Trobriand Methodist minister, in 1945.

After the war Watson worked as a district administration clerk at Losuia until transferring to the Department of Treasury in Port Moresby in 1950. He became increasingly involved in religious activities and began to preach and provide welfare support to Methodist migrant workers from eastern Papua and the New Guinea islands.

Reassigned to the Department of Native Affairs as a welfare assistant in 1954, he formed (1955) the Methodist Welfare Society, becoming its first president. A member-funded hall at Badili (opened in 1957) became a hub for religious and social services to migrants from the provinces.

With his wife, he became involved in civic groups, government boards, and social organisations, including the Kaugere Parents and Citizens’ Association (president), the Council of Social Service of Papua, the Lands Council, the Child Welfare Council, the Port Moresby Soccer Association, the Trobriand Islands Community Club in Port Moresby, and the Girl Guides Council of Papua.

After moving to the new Hohola settlement in 1961, he became the welfare assistant there, and the family home hosted a steady stream of visitors and community meetings. The Watsons took a six-month Methodist Overseas Mission-funded tour of Australia in 1963 to study church groups and social organisations.

In 1964 Watson was urged by a group of followers to contest the Esa’ala-Losuia Open electorate, which included the Trobriand Islands, in the first Papua and New Guinea House of Assembly elections.

The only candidate with a campaign committee supplying funding, he won by campaigning energetically on a platform of economic development and steady progress towards independence.

His reputation in the islands, the active support of Papuan Methodist clergymen, and his father’s extensive traditional kula trade network were additional factors.

The same year he was chosen by the Australian administration to address the United Nations General Assembly. He was sent with a prepared speech and orders not to mention independence. Despite this, following discussions with African anti-colonialists before the meeting, he spoke at length on the subject.

Appointed a parliamentary under-secretary for trade and industry during his first term, he took a leading role in the development and management of Koki market, the first large market in Port Moresby.

Having been a popular lay preacher for more than a decade, in the late 1960s he received orders from the Methodist leadership to submit to training for ordination. He refused, leading to a permanent falling out with the church; previously a teetotaller, he took up drinking beer in protest.

Re-elected as the member for Kula Open District in 1968, Watson continued to advocate for workers and the community. He was a member of the board of trustees of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and served on the boards of the interim council of the University of Papua and New Guinea, the Trobriand Islands Savings and Loan Society, and the Volunteer Service Association.

In 1971 he was a member of a parliamentary delegation to Canberra to discuss the question of independence.

After contesting unsuccessfully the 1972 elections, he retired from national politics and returned to his home village where the next year he was elected a ward councillor. In the Milne Bay provincial elections of December 1978, he was elected member for Kiriwina, serving as deputy premier and minister for commerce (1979–82), and was then elected premier (1983–86).

Long critical of anthropological research on the Trobriand Islands, during his term he froze further work until local controls on fieldwork and publication were put in place. He was appointed OBE (1979) and CMG (1985).

After failing to retain his seat in the 1986 elections, he was elected president (1986–89) of the Kiriwina community government. Survived by his wife, two daughters, a son and an adopted son, he died of cancer on 10 February 1993 at Vakuta village, and was buried in the local cemetery.

A foundational figure in Papua New Guinea’s national history, Watson greatly contributed to the social and cultural growth of Port Moresby and the Trobriand Islands and, as one of the first generation of PNG nationals to enter parliament, to the political development of the country.

Lepani WatsonFamously short in stature, he was known for his easy-going nature, warm sense of humour, and skilful oratory. His son Charles Lepani later became high commissioner to Australia.


Photos from 1966 Melbourne conference of the Australian Council of Social Service (Photos by Cliff Bottomley). (Top) Lepani Watson; L G Stubbings, Secretary-General Australian Red Cross; S D Gokhale, Assistant Secretary-General International Conference of Social Work, South-East Asia and the Western Pacific. (Left) Lepani Watson


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Peter Sandery

As Alexander has said, a good bio of the late Lepani Watson , but I would like to add that the idea of tightening up restrictions on anthropological and other social scientists visits/investigations to the province, the motion was passed unanimously by the Milne Bay Provincial Assembly , the membership of which included the late Dennis Young and myself

Alexander Rheeney

Thank you for posting the biography of a great man from the Trobriand Islands.

His contribution to the development of Milne Bay Province, not to mention the Kiriwina constituency when he was the deputy premier and premier in the early 1980s, and input into the national independence movement in the 1960s has somewhat been overlooked over the years.

My late father Otto Rheeney, who worked as an Assistant District Commissioner at Bwagoia (Misima) and Losuia (Kiriwina) in the early and mid-1970s and later Deputy District Commissioner for Milne Bay until 1978, had a lot of respect for Lepani Watson and his pioneering work in Milne Bay and PNG politics.

I still remember meeting this great man in the company of my dad when I was a kid, when we passed through Alotau in the early 1980s on our way to Rossel Island where my mother is from.

Those were special times back then and leaders like Lepani Watson had an aura of patriotism and national consciousness that today's band of leaders lack.

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