SYDNEY - Professor David Goodall’s assisted death in Switzerland on 10 May was a searing reminder of my friend the artist Kurt Pfund’s similar departure from this world late last year.
Kurt was suffering the ravages of incurable cancer and he too died at the time of his choosing courtesy of Swiss Exit.
Goodall's death brought the memories flooding back to me: Kurt’s long, thoughtful letters carefully typed in English; his short, pithy emails; and the sporadic “Switzerland Calling” telephone calls.
He was a better correspondent than I but he ignored my lapses and kept our exchange alive and flowing.
One particular memory kept recurring. At the end of 1999, Kurt and his lady, Marlies, came to stay with us in Sydney.
We had watched the turn of the millennium fireworks at midnight from a penthouse overlooking Sydney Harbour and, in the afterglow, Kurt reminisced about his sojourn on a Polynesian outlier about 220 kilometres north-east of Bougainville.
The Mortlocks are 22 small atolls—some only small rocky outcrops—with a population of some 465 people including a number of men absent working on ships at sea.
Kurt had spent a month at the Mortlocks and knew them well. Even so, I told him he was wrong when he said that Kaipasau, one of the two village officials, was a paramount luluai. His response was “Go on!” - his polite way of saying “Really? Is that so?” or “I don’t believe you!”
A few days after Kurt and Marlies flew back to Switzerland from Sydney, he sent a terse email: “You will have to eat your words. Here is proof that Kaipasau was a paramount luluai." Attached was a black and white photo of a portrait he had painted in 1974.
Kaipasau was depicted wearing one of a Paramount Luluai’s two symbols of office, a Luluai’s peaked cap topped with a white cap cover. It was that white cap cover that inspired the Tok Pisin title of Waitpus or, depending on the intonation, Wetpus.
I replied with an even briefer email: “The camera does not lie!” attaching a photo of Kaipasau and me taken on the Mortlocks in 1972. Kaipasau was wearing a basic, government-issue luluai’s cap but he had embellished it with a bronze luluai’s badge.
Those particular emblems—produced for the Highlands— were worn on the forehead or hung around the neck as peaked caps did not work well with cowry-shell headbands, or with headdresses of paradise plumes.
I thought that would end the discussion, but it was not to be.
Kurt replied with a long letter in which he speculated that my arrival at the Mortlocks might have been unexpected and taken the people by surprise, or Kaipasau’s cap cover might have been in the wash or on loan to someone.
That was when I realised that he did not know much about village officials on the New Guinea side. Until his visit to the Mortlocks, he had spent all his time in Papua, hunting crocodiles in the Gulf or painting and writing in his artist’s studio at Saphhire Creek behind Port Moresby. He had spent another year in the Trobiand Islands in Papua's east.
I felt I needed to explain the red tape relating to the appointment of luluais and the rigmarole associated with kiap visits.
The appointment of a luluai was not a simple procedure. When a vacancy occurred—generally due to the previous incumbent’s retirement or death—a potential replacement was identified by the kiap who next visited the village.
If the District Officer agreed with the recommendation, he conveyed it to in Port Moresby, where only the Director had the authority to make such appointments.
The procedure for the Mortlocks was less complex. Sometime in the past, the government had accepted the people’s request that their hereditary chief would be appointed luluai. That was how Peo (or Apeo), Kaipasau’s predecessor, was appointed and when he died in 1967, Kaipasau succeeded him as chief and assumed the role of luluai. The Director did not, maybe could not, confirm the appointment until the following year.
It took several emails to explain to Kurt that we were expected at the Mortlocks. I had advised the people of our travel plans some six weeks before our departure date.
During the weeks before we left, they were on the radio almost every day, adding to the list of items to be bought from Wong You’s store. They ordered bags of white rice, flour, wheatmeal, soap, five-gallon drums of household kerosene and feminine items—perfumed soap, talc and bras.
The bra request was the standout. Initially, we were asked to purchase a half a dozen, each identified by size and with the requirement that it should be labelled with the would-be wearer's name. The list grew to more than 20 before I despatched the Arona, the Administration’s 20-metre trawler, to Buka on Saturday 14 November 1972.
We loaded the Arona’s hold with mail and stores, rations for the primary school; medical supplies for the aid post, personal items for headteacher Len Murray, drums of fuel and the items from the people’s shopping list.
Finally, I had the hold topped off from the rain tree stockpile that we kept for the Mortlock carvers. Those logs, saved from trees cut down around the station, were treasured by the artisans who were dependent on the driftwood from the ocean.
Harry (JH) Roach went aboard before the vessel sailed. Formerly Assistant District Commissioner at Aitape in the Sepik District, conscripted to be the first executive officer of the Arawa Municipal Commission in 1971, he claimed he needed air and relief from the toil.
I did not believe his assurance that he would sleep in a lifeboat and cook all the meals but I let him join the expedition.
We joined the Arona next day at Buka Passage, travelled north to Nuguria (the Fead Islands - almost on the equator), returned to Buka, continued to the Carteret group and finally arrived at the Mortlocks seven days after leaving Kieta.
The Browns slept above deck on mattresses spread out on the hatch cover. Graham Carson and Tetau, his young, Nugurian wife, moved into one of the two cabins in the stern. I don't remember if Roach occupied the other.
We had not glimpsed land when the first two sailing canoes appeared, determined to guide us to the atoll via the passage through the fringing reef. At 10 am, inside the lagoon, single-outrigger canoes, some six-or-so metres long, paddled by bare-topped females, flanked the Arona on either side until we dropped anchor.
Kaipasau, resplendent in a new white shirt, tie, shorts and his luluai’s cap, came aboard, shook hands and saluted before departing to shore.
He was already waiting on the strand when we stepped from the small canoes. He placed a wreath on each visitor’s head and sprinkled us with some concoction to prevent any evil from entering his community.
I was conscious of Marist priest George Fay’s attempt to bring Catholicism to the atoll some years earlier. When he attempted to land, he was physically bundled back into the ocean.
The Mortlocks wanted no truck with Christianity in any of its forms. They had their own strict codes. They were forbidden to kill, lie, commit adultery or disobey a chief. They were temperate (except for smoking), industrious, polite and eschewed gossip.
I was not unknown. I had been based in Bougainville for the six years since 1966 as District Officer, Deputy District Commissioner, District Commissioner (Special Duties) in 1969 and now as District Commissioner.
The people also knew I had prevented the intrusion of a boatload of CRA workers—drillers and their mates—who, uninvited, had planned to spend their Christmas holidays on the atoll in 1967.
A special Government Gazette published on 19 December that year proclaimed that visitors could not travel to the Mortlocks or the Tasmans until they were certified free of serious disease. With only five days before the holiday break that was an impossible hurdle.
The only medico at Kieta, a government employee, was instructed to play hardball. And, even if he wanted to, how could he certify individuals to be free of venereal disease?
The welcome was not over. We were still wearing wreaths, when Kaipasau – now without his tie - led us into his house where a feast was laid out on the cloth-covered table: hot chicken and swamp taro from the mumu oven; bread—leavened with coconut yeast—fresh and piping hot from the stove.
Kaipasau made a speech of welcome, mentioned his kinship with Tetau, and was teary when he thanked me for the rain tree logs. He said they were even thicker than he had hoped, and he implied that I had them cut to my own height.
His timing was precise. A moment after we moved from the house, the moon skipped up over the horizon. One minute it was dark, the next moment it bathed the village square with light. The ladies and young girls had donned their new attire, white cotton skirts gathered at the waist by elastic. What was bare in daylight were now encased in brand new bras, with makers labels still attached.
They swayed to the music of a small wind-up record player playing modern Polynesian melodies rather than traditional tunes. When it became a ladies’ choice, we were all on our feet responding to a lady’s “please!”
By evening’s end my feet were raw and almost bleeding—the bare soles of my feet ground down by too much shuffling on the koronas [crushed coral].
For me the next few days were routine: a census; village and garden inspections; a tour of the islands that had land; a visit to the ruins of the circa 1890 residence of the Calder and Highly families on Amotu Island.
We had lengthy discussions throughout the day. The people were not interested in the Apollo 16 crew’s April landing on the moon. Maybe they did not believe it. They were worried about the future of islands with an increasing population and a shortage of land. They talked about Independence and the Bougainville secession movement, expressing that they were opposed to any change.
So much for my arrival at the Mortlocks being unexpected. As far as I was concerned, this visit had ended the luluai discussion with Kurt.
Meanwhile, our email exchanges bumbled along slowly until I inadvertently rocked the boat when I placed a photo of a paramount luluai in chapter nine of ‘A Kiap’s Chronicle’. Kurt spotted the cap cover and immediately wanted to know more.
How was he appointed? What was his function? When did paramounts cease to exist? Kurt wanted to start at the beginning, but I did not have much to add.
I sent him a note I cribbed from an appendix to ‘The Chimbu: a study of change in the New Guinea Highlands’ by the anthropologist Paula Brown: "Village officials ... Paramount Luluai (for large districts, 30 -50 villages). Cap, broad red band, white cap cover, staff."
I had first heard about paramount luluais in 1953. I was in Papua at the time, where they did not exist. My new boss, the Assistant District Officer in charge of the Kairuku Sub-District, Malcolm (MH) Wright DSC, had just returned from leave and been posted to Papua for the first and only time.
While in Melbourne he had commissioned a jeweller to craft the piece of jewellery which hung on his dining room wall. It was a chest piece—two large, matched pig tusks set in a sterling silver clasp suspended on a heavy silver chain. Wright was waiting for an opportunity to deliver it to Paramount Luluai Golpak MBE, LSM of Sali village, Jacquinot Bay.
During World War II, when Wright, Pita Simogun and others had landed in Japanese-occupied New Britain from a submarine, Golpak had hidden them and later joined their guerrilla operations. He and his fellow villagers were responsible for saving many downed Allied airman.
Wright had told me about paramount luluais and how they controlled large groups of villages, known as paramountcies.
Anarai, the man in the photograph, was appointed a paramount luluai in 1936 as a reward for his loyalty (actually for helping the Administration to pacify his enemies). I met him frequently between February 1953 and March 1955 when I was at Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands.
In public, he always wore his waitpus cap, but he had modified the ebony staff issued to paramount chiefs, shortened it to a swagger stick but retaining the sterling silver top embossed with the Australian coat of arms.
I also worked with two paramount luluais at Dreikikir in the Sepik at the end of 1956, but they were old men then. Maheita of Waringe exercised scant control in the Wom, while Nihlu of Duman village in the Urat was ineffectual. It was not until I moved to Bougainville in 1966 that I encountered any vestige of the paramountcies.
The role of the paramount luluais ended when the Buin Local Government Council began in August 1963. But one of them, Paubakei, became the council’s president.
He handed over that role to more celebrated and educated Bougainvillean at the council elections in 1968. Aloysius Noga, former Marist Catholic priest—one of the first two to be ordained - had served as chaplain in the Pacific Islands Regiment. Paubakei gave him all support and continued as vice-president of the council.
Many years later, in August 1997, during one of our visits to Switzerland, we stayed with Kurt at Weimoos, enjoyed a Mortlock slide show and listened to his audio tapes which included Mortlock islanders describing how naval mines had drifted ashore and exploded during the war, and how once when Catholic sisters had wanted to visit, Kaipasau said, “Nogat!”
Seventeen years and four visits later, we met up with Kurt again. He took the train from Zurich and we travelled from Rougemont in the south to rendezvous in Berne for a huge lunch of rösti, salad and eggs.
I guessed the subject of luluais and the Mortlocks would come up, so I was ready. I carried a gift, a book, ‘Sir Simogun and Paramount Luluai Golpak’ by Eric Johns. It was the last time we saw Kurt.
So many memories. So many absent friends.
2 - Bill Brown with Luluai Kaipasau, Mortlocks, September 1972
3 – Luluai in the Asaro Valley, Eastern Highlands, 1953, wearing alLuluai’s bronze insignia between a strand of green beetle wing covers (elytra), a strand of giri giri (cowrie shell) and a shell headband backed by feathers
4 – Administration trawler, Arona, alongside the wharf at Gizo, British Solomon Islands Protectorate, April 1973
5 – Map of the Bougainville atoll region (cartography, Bill Brown)
6 - Tetau at Nuguria, September 1972
7 - A brand new bra, Mortlocks, September 1972
8 - Ruins of the circa 1890 residence of the Calder and Highly families on Amotu Island
9 - The cover of Eric Johns’ book, ‘Sir Simogun and Paramount Luluai Golpak’
10 - Kurt Pfund's inscription on the flyleaf of one of his many books - "To Pam and Bill,for their efforts to get me to Nukutoa". Nukutoa is in the Mortlock Islands