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Seeking the facts of Simbu’s ‘frontier wars’: The Symons Affair


TUMBY BAY - In early July 1947 the Assistant District Officer for Simbu, Jack Costelloe, received word from Geru, a Karap clan leader from the Kouno area, that Dika men had attacked and killed two Karap women in their gardens.

There had been a long standing feud between the Karap and Dika clans. In a previous altercation five men from each side had been killed. Attempts to settle the matter had come to nothing and now Geru sought the protection of the kiap.

Costelloe set out from Kundiawa for the area accompanied by Patrol Officer Craig Symons and 11 police, intending to arrange a peace settlement between the warring clans.

On the way, Costelloe received an urgent telegram and walked to Kerowagi to catch a plane to Port Moresby. He left Symons in charge and told him to proceed to Karap village but to go no further until he returned. Symons was warned about the extreme danger of disobeying this order.

Costelloe issued 55 rounds of .303 ammunition to the police before he left.

When Symons got to Karap he sent messages to the Dika clan leader, Mek, to come in for talks. Mek refused and instead sent back insulting messages.

On July 21, not complying with the firm instructions from Costelloe, Symons, accompanied by police and some Karap clansmen, walked to the Dika area. A confrontation occurred and five men were shot.

When Costelloe got back from Port Moresby Symons told him what had happened. Costelloe reported the matter to his superior, District Officer Jim Taylor in Goroka:

“I am sorry to advise that young Symons mucked things [up] in Kouno and became involved in a totally unwarranted shooting affray, killing five men… I instructed him to proceed as far as Karap, there to remain until I got back,” Costelloe wrote..

“For some reason or other [Symons] disobeyed my orders. The usual insulting messages were brought to him and I guess that he took them to mean a reflection on his own courage – anyway he went looking for trouble.

“As he approached the hostile people they laid down their arms and shields and fled. He had told the police to open fire if that happened and they immediately did so, shooting five men in the backs and killing them. Most unfortunate and unjustified.

“There was no attack at all and the fact of them laying down their arms indicated their desire to parley. He then permitted his party to lay waste some banana patches – totally unjustified.” [Australian Archives CRS A518, item W841/1]

Symons had just completed his initial training at the Australian School of Pacific Administration and had been posted to Simbu “for duty and further training”. He had been in the country less than five months and was young, inexperienced and unable to speak effective Tok Pisin.

Costelloe got a prompt reply from Taylor:

“Please advise a/Patrol Officer Symons:

  1. To submit a confidential report to you (pass to me).
  2. That I shall not order an inquest; that if I were to do so and that the evidence produced indicated that natives were shot when his or the lives of his police were not in real an imminent danger and that he gave the order to fire, the coroner would have no alternative but to commit him and such police who fired, for trial upon a charge of unlawful killing …
  3. Not to discuss the subject with anyone except yourself or write about it to his friends or other members of the service. Publicity may cause legal action with possible disastrous results for himself.
  4. Not to worry. His error is one of youth and I shall protect him, but he is to obey lawful orders implicitly.” [Australian Archives CRS A518, item W841/1]

While this exchange was taking place, Mek walked to Kundiawa and lodged a complaint with Costelloe about the shooting.

Taylor thought he had contained the matter but news leaked out and Sub-Inspector Bernard of the Royal Papuan Constabulary went to the area to investigate.

Taylor wasn’t officially informed of the inquiry and it is unclear how it came about but he took measures to protect Symons by writing to the Director of the Department of District Services and Native Affairs, JH Jones.

He sent copies of the various letters and the report from Symons and urged the director not to reveal their contents to anyone.

Jones didn’t take Taylor’s advice and sent the documents to the relevant authorities, including Administrator JK Murray, the Acting Crown Law Officer EB Bignold and the Minister for External Territories, Eddie Ward.

Bignold urged the investigation of the matter and the bringing of charges against Symons and the police, adding that it “discloses an attitude by the District Officer [Taylor] which I cannot comprehend”. [Australian Archives CRS A518, item W841/1] He also recommended that both Taylor and Symons be suspended.

Police Inspector JH McDonald conducted the investigation. McDonald was Assistant Director of the Department of District Services and Native Affairs but for the purposes of the investigation was appointed an Inspector of Police.

McDonald identified the five men killed as Denimp, Du, Kum, Manimp and Waim. [Australian Archives CRS A518, W841/1]

As a result of this investigation Symons and his police were exonerated and Taylor reinstated with a reprimand.

In early 1948 the Australian press got to hear of the matter. An article entitled: ‘Belated Report of Fatal Papuan Clash Last July’ appeared in the Canberra Times of 21 January while another entitled: ‘Hush-Hush on NG Killings Alleged’ appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of 20 January.

Bignold was unhappy about this outcome and the bad publicity and continued to urge that Symons and his police be charged with unlawful killing and that Taylor be charged with attempting to defeat the course of justice. He was unsuccessful.

This account borrows heavily from the late August Kituai’s 1998 book, ‘My Gun, My Brother: The World of the Papua New Guinea Colonial Police, 1920-1960’. It is highly recommended reading. [Read the book online here]

It is worth noting that Kituai received strident criticism over the book, particularly from old hands at the Papua New Guinea Australia Association. This criticism is redolent of past and current criticism of Mathias Kin’s work towards the publication of his upcoming book.

Together with other accounts of this incident I have read, I cannot help but conclude that there was indeed an attempt to cover up the Symons Affair.


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Paul Oates

Yes Mathias, myth and legend have stirred the blood everywhere.

Anyone who has actually used a SMLE (.303) would know that it has to be loaded and the safety catch off before both pressures on the trigger (protected by a trigger guard) would allow the rifle to discharge.

Also, any rifle would make a very poor pillow.

This report is an excellent example to show how the facts should never be used to ruin a good story.

And that also is a presumption, Paul, not a fact - KJ

Mathias Kin

Bro John Kamasunga, the man who stole the .303 rifle, was from Nol Kal of the Kimba tribe. He ran off towards to North Wall (Sukri) and after some time of running he rested under an oak tree.

There he placed the gun under his head while he lay down and eventually dozed off. While he rested, his thick hair must have come into contact with the trigger and the gun discharged.

Nol woke woke up in great fright and jumped into the bush leaving behind the gun behind, running all the way over the mountain to Kaubasis.

The patrol heard the gun blast and retrieved it from under the tree. By then, however, many people had been shot dead and property and homes destroyed in the search for the thief.

There are many such stories I have gathered about the 'new frontier'.

Harry Topham

If one dares to put pen to paper and write a historical non fiction piece of literature one must not only have a thick hide but be prepared to accept that their thoughts will attract criticism from the many hawks sitting on the fence line waiting to pounce.

On the issue in question. One of the first questions any officer who would have investigated the Symons' affair would have asked is: Who gave the order to open fire?

If the response came back that it was the kiap involved then the next question would have been: “Did the given order to fire contain the words, “Direct fire at the assailants or fire over their heads?"

If the answer came back in the negative that no order to fire was given by the OIC then it would seem obvious that the police involved acted on their own volition indicating the kiap involved, perhaps due to his naivety and inexperience, had no control over his subordinated police members.

One must also remember that immediately post WW2, the newly emerging PNG Administration would have had great difficulty in getting things back on track due to staff shortages and shortages of resources.

The issue should have bee resolved by a formal coronial enquiry once the matter had been initially raised.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I caught up with August Kituai in September 2012 and he showed me some of the letters he had received about his book. Some of them were not very nice at all. I recognised some of the writers and they were the same ones who had taken me to task over my first book.

It's a shame he's not still around to take part in our recent discussions. But then again, he was a reserved person who kept his own counsel.

John K Kamasua

My grandmother, who was from the Womai/Karanas area of the Sine Sine, was young girl at the time when a team of white men and their carriers entered the area. She could not say whether it was Leahy/Taylor's team from the first contact that entered the area.

This was the early 1930's.

She recounted to me that a young adventurous local man, who was curious about the firing stick grabbed a rifle from one of the men and made it into the bushes.

The exploring party retaliated and shot pigs, burnt houses, and even some men. She just said some bodies of men fell as the loud noises went off.

This story which is supposed to be significant given the history and the period in which it occurred, is not found in the first contact book.

Yes there were killings, many of these would have been done in self defence, but we will never know the exact numbers and in which areas.

Bill Brown

I have just read Phil Fitzpatrick’s post which includes the statement “It is worth noting that Kituai received strident criticism over the book, particularly from old hands at the Papua New Guinea Australia Association. This criticism is redolent of past and current criticism of Mathias Kin’s work towards the publication of his upcoming book.“

I would suggest that his statement is factually incorrect. As far as I am aware, there has never been strident criticism of Kituai’s book by old hands of the PNGAA.

A criticism was made by a distinguished former kiap, Robert Rothsay Cole MC, who expressed his concerns with one particular segment. He expressed those concerns to the publishers and to the ANU.

He also lodged a file with details of the errors, and the supporting documentation, with the John Oxley Library and the National Library of Australia. Copies of the original documentation can be still be accessed through the link below.

My sole role in the affair was in bringing Cole's concerns to the attention of Peter Salmon at exkiap.net and to Keith Jackson at PNG Attitude. The latter published this article:

26 April 2008 - When history is not all that it seems

I’ve known Bill Brown for more than 35 years and I know he doesn’t mince words. In ASOPA PEOPLE last August I wrote: “It’s been called ‘one of the most impressive pieces of historical scholarship to come out of PNG’...

‘It’ is 'My Gun, My Brother, the story of the PNG colonial police in the years between 1920 and 1960'. The author, Dr August Kituai, is an academic historian at the University of PNG.

A reviewer has written “If [it] sounds a rather wooden topic, a dry administrative history, don't be fooled. This is a book full of rich stories….”

Well, ‘stories’ seems to be the operative word. Tall stories. Bill Brown has drawn my attention to a major deficiency in Prof Kituai’s scholarship. [Here's Bill's critique]....

In 2001, former District Commissioner Bob Cole identified at least 25 errors in just three pages of 'My Gun, My Brother'. Cole said that substituted words and deleted paragraphs “completely distort[ed] the meaning of the original documents”. And, in warping the facts, Kituai had “cast a slur on the character of a particularly fine field officer, Mr Roger Claridge”.

The brief background is that Claridge’s patrol ran into trouble five hours walk from Mendi in November 1955. The patrol came under arrow attack from a party of 30 warriors, one of whom was killed by Claridge returning fire. Claridge was later exonerated by a coronial inquiry, which Kituai – adding to his other errors of fact - managed to translate into a reprimand.

In the interests of historical accuracy, Bob Cole’s full documentation of this case can be found here in a link to the Ex Kiap website.http://exkiap.net/articles/in_defence_of_truth/in_defence_of_truth.htm

Note that this criticism related to another incident described by Dr Kituai, not the Chimbu killings - KJ

Paul Oates

To try and understand what it might be like to be involved in a highly charged emotional and lethal exchange, one could refer to the recent Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney.

The armed police responded to the perpetrator only after he had executed the manager.

When they invaded the cafe through one door, one policemen blinded his fellow officers with an ill thrown flash bang that bounced off a wall instead of going into the room where the gunman was barricaded behind the hostages.

The armed police entering from the other door fired their high powered rifles at the terrorist. One policeman fired 3 shots and the investigation can't determine where they went. The second fired 17 shots at the terrorist and kept firing to ensure he was not able to return fire.

One bullet ricocheted off the marble walls and killed a female hostage.

All this happened in split seconds and tends to support Chris Overland's suggestions that in a hot action, it is very difficult to control something like this once it starts.

The essence of the whole matter is not to start it in the first place. Clearly those responsible will never be brought to justice and it takes many good deeds to start to overturn one bad one.

Chris Overland

I have been thinking about this case because I think, to my great dismay, I know how Symons and those who assisted him managed to create sufficient doubt about what happened to ensure that he was exonerated.

Firstly, let me say that Costelloe's initial report is almost certainly accurate. My surmise is that he, at a minimum, spoke to the police involved and they provided him with the description of what happened with some accuracy.

He may well have spoken to some of those Simbu who witnessed the event to confirm the story but I don't know if there is evidence for this.

Secondly, his mistake as far as Taylor and the Department was concerned was to give a written account of what he had found from his preliminary investigation. This was, of course, highly prejudicial to Symons and, I think, would have been lethal to Costelloe's career prospects.

The second paragraph of Taylor's letter is crucial to my understanding of how he was already thinking. Basically, he is foreshadowing a line of defence for Symons whereby it would be argued that he believed the patrol was under threat and acted accordingly.

In essence, the argument would be that a young and inexperienced officer acted in the panic and confusion that can and does occur in a violent confrontation.

Taylor may have even believed this but it reflects no credit on him to be implicitly speculating about an alternative version of events to that provided by Costelloe.

This is, to my chagrin, an argument consistent with one I have also presented in other posts, but the circumstances are very different to the one I was envisaging.

This line of defence is not consistent with Costelloe's initial report where, prima facie, it appears that Symons foresaw that the Simbu would lay down their weapons but still ordered his police to shoot if this occurred. In other words, he had decided on a course of action before the confrontation occurred not as a consequence of it.

Clearly, Acting Crown Prosecutor Bignold did not buy this defence for one minute and said so repeatedly. I am at a loss to understand how and why his opinion was able to be ignored.

I can only guess that no charges were ever laid because of the political problems which might ensue if it became clear what had happened.

I want to make it clear that Costelloe's initial report demonstrates that my arguments about how things happen in a violent confrontation cannot be applied to this case.

The disobeying of a direct order not to proceed without a senior officer present, the premeditated nature of the action taken and the obvious intention to provoke a confrontation render any such defence implausible.

This case brings great shame on many people. It looks and smells like a whitewash. It does not pass the proverbial pub test. No wonder Mathias and others are inclined to believe reports of similar cases.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Unlike after WW1, there wasn't a post-war recession in Australia after WW2 Mathias. The Australian Government had largely funded the war effort from domestic sources so there was actually an economic boom after the war.

Perhaps Costelloe saw the opportunities and decided to resign to take advantage of the boom.

Philip Fitzpatrick

We don't know why Costelloe was suddenly summoned to Port Moresby and why he saw fit to leave someone so inexperienced out in the field. In would have been a lot more sensible to have sent Symons back to Kundiawa and then re-launch the patrol when he got back from Moresby.

Symons changed his story several times during the investigation and was an untrustworthy witness.

I suspect that Jack Costelloe, judging by the way he worded his initial letter to Taylor, was hounded out of the service. I don't think he was culpable except in the sense of poorly judging Symons.

What the incident does illustrate is the way the Department of District Services and Native Affairs was a closed shop. The investigation by McDonald has all the hallmarks of a Queensland style police investigating themselves scenario.

The other thing the incident illustrates is that Taylor wasn't averse to covering up incidents. That opens up a whole can of worms. What else did he cover up?

Mathias Kin

Kouno is in the Jimi area, now the new province of Jiwaka. After the initial investigations, attempted but failed concealment from the media and efforts to suppress the issue through the system, ADO Costelloe went on leave two months after the shooting at Karap and a month later officially resigned from the Administration.

Why would a senior officer just past 40, with good remuneration and employment shortages during a post-war recession in Australia resign early and suddenly?

If you look at his letter to Taylor you would see that Costelloe shifts all blame to the very inexperienced Symons and pushes in that direction. Why would Costelloe do that?

Chris Overland

This is a truly shocking case. There appears to be clear, unequivocal, documented evidence of both unlawful killing and a subsequent attempt to cover it up.

I am mystified as to why this did not result in charges of unlawful killing, obstruction of justice and other charges. Presumably, it was a question of politics, both departmental and, in a broader sense, within the Australian government.

I am even more mystified that Dr Kituai was criticised for reporting this incident in his book. What on earth were his critics thinking?

No wonder Mathias Kin and others see this as clear evidence of malfeasance right up the kiap chain of command, because it patently is.

He is right to give it a further airing and I hope that it gets publicised widely in Australia.

I am on record as questioning the extent of this sort of behaviour and defending the behaviour of kiaps and police when they were actually attacked. However, I am damn sure I will not defend the indefensible and this is one such case.

Apart from the obvious harm done to the Papua New Guineans involved, incidents like this give credence to the notion that all kiaps were careless of the lives and interests of the people for whom they were responsible.

All the more reason therefore to bring this incident into the harsh glare of publicity even if it is too late to bring the offenders to justice.

Paul Oates

In this subsequent 'cold case' investigation, it is quite obvious that a number of individuals should have gone on trial at the time.

Where the trial should have been held and who would have presided is a matter of conjecture. Whether there would have been justice for all seems highly unlikely given the circumstances.

In this continuing and ongoing reexamination of what was a number of poor decisions, illegal activities and intentional political cover ups, everyone it seems hasn't so far addressed whether the families of those women initially reportedly killed ever received justice.

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