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Notes on the reliability of hearsay & interpretation of evidence

PNG traditional villageROSS WILKINSON

MELBOURNE - The discussion on Chimbu pacification has reached an interesting stage through its various manifestations over recent years since Mathias Kin published his initial findings.

Mathias is to be encouraged to continue his research and, in doing so, heed the advice of Chris Overland with his professional knowledge and experience regarding the value of historical evidence.

For my part I can be best described as an enthusiastic amateur, mainly dabbling in Australian military history. And yes, for those who’ve seen my previous articles and commentaries on various topics, I’m a former kiap (1968-81) which included a temporary three-month posting to Chimbu in 1969 and various other work-related visits thereafter.

On return to Australia I completed a business degree which was the qualification to become a town clerk in Victoria where I was employed in local government. Municipal clerks became redundant in Victoria in 1989 but I remained in the governance area until 1994 when all councils in the state were amalgamated into larger councils.

At this point I moved into the risk management field, firstly in local government and then State government until I retired. Much of my time was spent investigating issues for the provision of professional advice to councillors or the development of draft policies and by-laws.

In my retirement I am honorary historian for an ex-servicemen’s organisation, undertake research for authors and film producers, provide book reviews for the RSL, undertake family history research and provide lectures and tutorials for community groups and military organisations – all of which necessitates an understanding of historical research and evidence.

So looking at the research on Chimbu so far, an historian would look for a preponderance of information from primary sources - hard, supportable evidence - and secondary evidence from creditable sources that either supports or critically analyses the primary evidence. Of all the evidentiary sources, the least reliable is oral history or hearsay unless it can be materially supported by hard evidence.

As a junior officer on appointment to a new station, I would be told by the Assistant District Commissioner to read the patrol reports to understand the issues that were affecting the local population politically, economically and socially.

As a Cadet Patrol Officer this taught me about the area in which I was to operate and the format in which the department expected me to submit reports.  As Phil Fitzpatrick has mentioned, occasionally there would be contradictions between the old patrol reports he encountered when undertaking his social mapping research in more recent times.

This may have occurred for a number of reasons and may impinge on the veracity of oral evidence that Mathias is relying on from his primary and secondary sources. For example, I’m sure the patrol report of a 10-year veteran will be significantly more sophisticated than that of a young Cadet Patrol Officer because, for a start, the former would have a better grasp of the nuances of Tok Pisin and how villagers are likely to respond to questions.

I recall questioning a villager about a statement he made to a previous kiap that was different to what he had told me. He said that he had simply answered the question asked by the kiap at the time. When I asked what I thought was the correct question, I was given a different answer.

Tok Pisin has its own slang which we had to understand depending on what area we were in.  For example, when my wife and I were being transferred from Port Moresby to Madang we had packed our cargo into crates and the removalists arrived when I was at the office.

My wife instructed the labourers to ‘pushim bokis’ and couldn’t understand when they fell over crying with laughter.  When I arrived home the labourers fell over themselves to tell me what she had said. I had to explain to her that the correct term to use was ‘shuvim’.

So, as an initial observation and having regard to the variations in the language skills of officers depending on their experience, the responses to questions may be interpreted differently.

For example, in an area where the closest village is four hours walk and the furthest is ten hours, a villager would respond that the nearest is ‘klostu’ and the furthest is ‘longwe’.  However, in an area where the nearest village is half an hour away and the furthest is four hours, then the nearest is ‘klostu tru’ and the furthest is ‘longwe’.

The term for quantity is also relative and the questioner has to be alert to that with terms like ‘planti’ or ‘planti tumas’ used in a similar fashion to the distance scales described.

At Mumeng in the Morobe District, the local villagers charged Mick Leahy with trespass saying he allowed his cattle to graze on their land outside his boundaries without agreement and compensation.

Mick considered that the ADC of the day, Tony Cooke, was biased towards the villagers and refused to allow Tony to hear the case in the District Court.  So an independent, non-kiap magistrate was sent from Lae to hear the case.

An interpreter was required and duly sworn in because not all parties to the action could speak Tok Pisin to the same level.  (Mick’s Pidgin was terrible; it seemed he thought that if he added pela or im to the end of words he considered it Tok Pisin.)

During the case it became apparent that the sworn interpreter was not “turning the tok” accurately and, when challenged by the magistrate (who could speak Tok Pisin), the interpreter admitted to adding testimony that he thought the witness was intending to say and what he thought the magistrate wanted to hear.  I was then sworn in as replacement interpreter.

Villagers would answer questions in order to frame the questions correctly.  They could answer specifically or, as demonstrated by the interpreter, they could tell you what they thought you wanted to hear.  So we had to become expert questioners and know when to ask open or closed questions.

To Mathias’s research and his evidence.  I have not read any of Paula Brown’s work so can’t comment. I have read extracts from August Kituai.  Bob Cole gave an extensive critique of Kituai’s work to refute some statements including two direct references to Cole himself that he said had been abbreviated and taken out of context.

It would appear that much of Mathias’s work is based on what the courts would call hearsay evidence and I would ask him to review his research to date to ensure that any oral evidence referred to is readily verifiable or notated with a qualifier statement.  Chris Overland has provided Mathias with some sound advice that I would encourage him to use and to contact Chris for further assistance.

As a final aside, I was posted to Kundiawa in early 1969 along with a number of other Cadet Patrol Officers to assist with the collection of share capital for the coffee society which was in financial difficulties.

Posted to Kundiawa Sub-District Office with Lyle Hansen as ADC, on Lyle’s recommendation I employed a young man as my domestic manager.  Unfortunately at that time there had been a murder in an outlying area which led to a further 11 payback murders in the next three months. 

My domestic came from the affected area and sought early release from his employ to get home.  Nice young man, I hope he made it!

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