Truth telling and cultural amnesia in Australia
A sense of loss: The disappearance of traditional bilas

A compelling story of the time when the kiap was king

Robert Forster at Bundi  1968
A young Robert Forster at Bundi in 1968 - milling timber before he became a kiap


WABAG – The just published memoir, ‘The Northumbrian Kiap’, is a skillfully written book about Papua New Guinea during the sixties, before the time when people knew what self-government and independence meant.

It clarifies many questions and doubts of the people who lived and grew up during that time – the present day sons and daughters of primitive tribesmen who had just witnessed with awe these men known as kiaps lead long lines of carriers with armed police escorts as they penetrated the hinterland and its traditional tribal lands.

These strangers established encampments, built patrol posts, constructed roads, hospitals and schools as they demonstrated there was another – perhaps a better - world far beyond the high mountain ranges and the raging rivers.

But life comes and goes. Just like ancient civilisations left behind monoliths, pyramids and relics, the kiaps left a legacy. They went and much of what they accomplished was abandoned and left to decay.

Robert Forster, the British-born author of ‘The Northumbrian Kiap’, was a kiap for most of the seven years he lived in pre-independence PNG.

When he arrived in PNG in 1968 there were places still to be explored and mapped and in the most remote valleys there were people who had no contact with outsiders and for whom knowledge of a rapidly changing world was passed on by word of mouth from ridge to ridge and across rushing streams.

Forster is now a journalist and puts his skills to good effect. There is opinion as well as description and analysis. For example, he believes PNG gained independence too soon. He documents his observations and experiences in an entertaining manner,.

He provides fresh insight about that time when kiaps were most active, they had taken government into the bush and in a sense they were a government unto themselves. The problems they faced, the solutions they sought to bring to feuding tribes, their interaction with local people, how they related to their children and wives, the long lonely nights their young wives spent alone when their husbands were on long patrols….. all are dealt with.

And so to the story of independence.

“In May 1972 Michael Somare had given the white dominated civil service, and many of the people of his country, a collective heart attack when he announced that PNG would be self-governing from December 1st 1973,” Forster writes.

Until then it had been assumed self-government would not be introduced until after the 1976 elections, with full independence trailing sometime after that. However, this was not the plan of the fathers of PNG independence nor, as it turned out, of the Australian government.

Forster was a restless young man who 50 years ago left cold county Northumberland to operate a sawmill as a volunteer in the isolated outpost of Bundi in the foothills of PNG’s tallest mountain, Mt Wilhelm.

At first, he didn’t know where PNG was, mistaking it for Sumatra in Indonesia. But it didn’t take long to find out that he was headed for a place recently discovered to be inhabited by stone-age cultures, undiscovered valleys and an exotic people; a place of regular earthquakes and active volcanoes where muddy brown rivers meandered crazily from the mountains often to lose themselves in a serpentine series of coastal lakes and swamps. A rugged and beautiful country accessible either by foot or small aircraft awkwardly landing on dangerous apron-sized landing strips.

After a 14,000 mile trip he did not enjoy, Forster finally landed in Port Moresby where the oppressive heat, dust and dilapidated airport even further failed to impress him. He then flew for two more hours to Madang and waited for three days before boarding something slightly larger than a model plane to take him to Bundi – perched on a hill and home to a government patrol post and a Catholic mission.

Like so many before him, Forster quickly engaged with this new country. He enjoyed flying between soaring peaks and along the rich valleys peaks, levelling out above massed cloud before surfing through small gaps in the layer to the small airstrips below.

Forster had been in Bundi a week when he saw his first mud-covered village woman naked to the waist towing a small pig on a length of string.

“Never before had I seen anyone so strange and I could not prevent myself chasing her down, skidding to a stop and pressuring her to stand in front of my shiny new camera. She posed readily enough for the astonished young man fresh from Hexhamshire but I flinch at my reaction now.

“She had covered herself with mud because she was in mourning a family death and was almost naked because she did not think it necessary to hide her body.” That woman was any highlands woman of the time.

As Forster settled among the Bundi people and began to learn Tok Pisin, I was in Standard 3 at Kandep Primary T School learning how to speak English under the watchful eyes of a Frenchman.

It was to this general area in the then Western Highlands that Forster, by now a kiap, came to work. After 18 months as a volunteer for the Catholic Church, he had gone back to England, married and migrated to Australia with his young wife, Paula.

In November 1971, his training at ASOPA over, Robert Forster the new kiap was posted to Minj.

He enjoyed his time among the tall handsome people of the Wahgi Valley, rolling cigarettes and telling stories in their smoke-filled huts as he tried to understand them and their culture and trying his best to stop their tribal wars.

But self-government was approaching and the people of the highlands were worried, very worried.

The government phrase for local revolt on self-government day was ‘civil commotion’ and the mood in the villages was erratic. Forster suspected that, if there was to be trouble in his region, it would begin at Banz. He knew there was nothing the few kiaps or police could do if trouble escalated.

“I would have been happy to stay if I was single but a secure family life did not mix with complex intercession between volatile village people and the new government’s shifting demands,” he recalls.

“Kiaps depended on bluff, reinforced by the implicit authority and neutrality of their white skins to maintain control, and too much of what was happening undermined it.”

He asked for a transfer from Minj to a position on the coast. And when it came through in April, 1973 he left the Wahgi for Bereina in the Central District of Papua.

While the sub district office at Minj had been busy and cheerful, Bereina was the opposite -  a tired, dust covered, backwater inhabited by people who chewed buai and considered themselves more than ready for self-government.

When self-government arrived on 1 December 1973, Forster witnessed Josephine Abaijah, the leader of separatist group Papua Besena, declare independence for Papua. She raised her red and blue flag at Bereina in front of a few mildly enthusiastic people and almost as many journalists.

Nearby, hiding behind a barricade of guns in the Forster home, was almost the entire expatriate population at Bereina including the Assistant District Commissioner who proclaimed he was ready to fight. But when Abaijah left, the small crowd soon dispersed.

After six months in Bereina, a bored Forster pleaded for a transfer. A sympathetic District Commissioner posted him to Tapini in the Goilala area where he was quickly inundated with work – attending to murders and cult related ritual killings.

He found life at Tapini good. The sun was pleasant, there was a well-maintained tennis court, a deep swimming pool fed by a mountain stream and a fine hotel with a terraced bar. The trade store was comprehensively stocked and planes landed regularly to deliver newspapers and mail from Port Moresby as well as frozen meat.

“There were three other white families with young children so socialising with peers was not a strain, the hydro-electricity supply was constant, and there was work for wives in the Post Office too. In PNG terms it earned four star, even five star rating,” he recalls.

This changed when Forster took over the patrol post at Guari. Paula didn’t want to go. The radio and generator were broken and the house in poor repair. Both her babies had arrived early and her third was expected in four months. There was no hospital at Guari.

Forster said Paula should leave PNG for England in February 1975. He would follow them in August the same year.

It wasn’t until 1990 that Forster met another Papua New Guinean - a man from Mt Hagen who hugged him tightly as the two spoke together in Tok Pisin.

This is a fascinating book, I highly recommend it to anybody who cares about the history of pre-independence Papua New Guinea – a time when the kiap was king but, when he left, the bush grew back.


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Garry Roche

One thing that strikes me about “The Northumbrian Kiap” is that, in my opinion, Robert Forster comes across as being very honest and straightforward in his writing and recollection.

I might disagree with him on some issues, but I would still conclude “Well, that is how he saw it at the time.”

In 1971-72 I was stationed in Karap (Catholic Mission) in the Jimi valley around the same time when he was stationed in Minj in the neighbouring Wahgi valley, and I can relate to much of what he writes about.

I do not think that I ever met Robert, though I would have visited Fr. John Labor in Minj in that time and would have passed through it to sell some coffee bags up at Sigimil. I remember Bernie Mulcahy being there in Minj – perhaps that was in 1973.

Apart from some references to Tom Ellis, Nigel van Ruth, and some other notable expats, Robert does not say too much about his fellow Kiaps or other expatriates.

However this in some ways adds to the focus on the local people themselves and local events. It was a significant time in the history of PNG and this book is a worthwhile record of how it was perceived.

Daniel Kumbon

An edited version of my review will be published in Air Niugini's in-flight magazine Paradise in the very next issue.

The Northumbrian Kiap is a very book which should be on the shelves of all school libraries in the country. Our children need to know this history.

Very well done, Daniel - it was a finely written review and all who read it will get a real kick from it - KJ

Robert Forster

Thank you, Daniel, for your review. It was kind of you to recommend “The Northumbrian Kiap” to anyone who cares about the history of pre-Independence Papua New Guinea.

You may be interested in this response from a fellow reviewer for in the United States.

As you will see Kwahu agrees the book should be read by historians and documentarians and also suggests much of its content will not be known to many Papua New Guineans and therefore serves as a reference to their hidden history.

However I am also interested in your response to the observation that “Papua New Guineans should have been allowed to choose whether they wanted a change or not”.

By this I think Kwahu means the Europeans who were the country’s first visitors should have sought village opinion before they imposed their own cultural imperatives on people who had lived undisturbed by global turbulence since pre-historical times.

As you know my own view is that it is impossible for Papua New Guineans, or anyone else, to hold back the tide of globalisation and that colonialisation was not a singular phenomenon but merely a forerunner of the ongoing, and unstoppable, cultural and economic global tide that threatens to engulf us all – wherever we live and whatever our ancestry may be.

Is this summary too simple?

Kwahu’s slightly abbreviated review is contained within the quotation marks.

“I see this book as a valuable documentation of the political and cultural conflict between the Europeans and Papua New Guineans in the early and mid-20th century. I suppose much of what is written may not be known to most Papua New Guineans and can serve as a great reference to their hidden history.

"Politics, culture and murder are the themes mostly discussed. Each of the themes has its own share of description in detail to make the readers feel as though they were right there in each village. As the saying goes "a picture is worth a thousand words," and there is also much to learn through the pictures the author includes in the book.

"What I liked most is the in-depth exploration of the PNG's cultural practices from the stone age, the iron age and even when the global economic pressure and technological innovation were being accommodated.

"Even though change is good, I felt that the Papua New Guineans should have been allowed to choose whether they wanted a change or not. I felt like so many things were being imposed on them against their will, resulting in the resistance to change. However, the book is a beautiful reflection of where the world has come from.

"I recommend this book to historians and documentarians as it contains information that may be of benefit to their research. I didn't come across any grammar or spelling errors, however, there were missing words and misplaced commas didn't escape my eye. Nevertheless these weren't an obstacle and I won't hesitate to give the book 4 out of 4 stars.”

Mathias Kin

Excellent work Daniel. A good review. I would be happy to get a copy. Where can find one?

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's apt Daniel, when the kiaps left "the bush grew back".

A good review of what I think is an important book.

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