Dare the heights
Right to information: PNG performs poorly on assessment

Researching the morality of PNG’s ‘dark tourism’ initiatives

Mt Lamington explodes  5 February 1951
When Mt Lamington erupted in January 1951, it killed 3,700 people in Higaturu town, in 29 villages and at missions and schools more than 10 km away 

STAFF WRITER | Deakin Research

This piece is based on an article written by Dr Victoria Stead published in a special issue of ‘Anthropological Forum’ co-edited by Dr Stead with Professor Michèle Dominy (Bard College New York) on the theme ‘Moral Horizons of Land and Place’

MELBOURNE - Located on the slopes of volcanic Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province, the old Higaturu Station is a place marked by violence and memories.

It is less than an hour’s drive from the Provincial capital, Popondetta, on the way to Kokoda, which, depending on which way you are walking is either the beginning or the end of the Kokoda track.

That 96-kilometre track over the Owen Stanley Ranges is the focal point of a burgeoning but unevenly spread war tourism industry in the Province.

Between July-September 1943, at the height of World War II, 21 local men were executed in Higaturu for charges stemming from the ‘betrayal’ of eight to ten missionaries in August 1942 who were brutally murdered by occupying Japanese forces.

Eight years later in January 1951, thousands were killed and the landscape of the region devastated by the unexpected eruption of Mount Lamington.

These twin tragedies of the mid-twentieth century have had a marked and continued impact on the local consciousness of the region.

For some, the eruption of Mount Lamington is understood as a monumental act of retaliatory violence for past wrong-doings, either for the betrayal of the missionaries to the Japanese or directed towards the Europeans involved in the ‘Higaturu hangings’.

Research fellow Dr Victoria Stead from Deakin’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation has spent much of her time over the past three years in Papua New Guinea recording interviews for an oral history project about local experiences of WWII.

War relic
A derelict World War 2 bomber near Girua airport, Popondetta - relics like these attract 'dark tourism'

In recent years, there have been local attempts to memorialise these tragedies through the formation of memorial committees, as well as calls for funding for site memorials from the family of Cecil Cowley, the District Commissioner in charge of the Higaturu Government Station who perished in the eruption.

These memorial attempts, not unlike the mountainous 96-kilometre Kokoda Track just a short drive away, or the sites of atrocities and disasters in Poland, Japan, or Cambodia, represent an increasing trend of war or ‘dark’ tourism.

“Not unlike gold or palm oil, history – and particularly wartime history – increasingly presents itself to local people as a resource that might attract visitors, and with them forms of wealth and possibilities for realising the good life,” said Dr Stead.

“However, many worry that the outsiders they attract will exploit and profit from their history in the ways that so many outsiders have profited from the Province’s other resources.”

Yet the history of the region brings even greater moral complications to the fore. Complications like Papua New Guinea’s colonial past and its enduring impact upon the country, as well as the shared trauma of lost Papua New Guinean and Australian life in the volcanic eruption, losses for which some locals attribute responsibility to the colonial administration of the time.

“The remembrance of the Higaturu hangings and the volcanic eruption prompts sadness, even anger, at colonial injustice and inequality, but both events also bind Papuans and Australians together, and it is at the place Higaturu that those complex bindings find expression,” said Dr Stead.

“In 2015, during the course of an oral history project, four Papua New Guinean colleagues and I had planned to visit Higaturu.

“On the way up the mountain, the vehicle we were travelling in was stopped. A small crowd gathered and a debate erupted between the representatives of different groups claiming ownership of the Higaturu site. Faced with disagreement about our visit to the site, my colleagues and I turned our vehicle around and returned to Popondetta.”

Months later, Dr Stead and her colleagues did make their way up the slopes of Mt Lamington, with the landowners, for a memorial service on the 66th anniversary of the eruption.

“Contestations around the meaning of the site, and the complex histories that coalesce there continue, however,” Dr Stead said.

“These histories call attention to the enduring colonial context and legacy that continues to impact the lives of contemporary Oro Province people.”


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Arthur Williams

From several accounts the eruption was not in February as the caption on the image says but 18-21 January. The article does say January.

I'll correct that, thanks Arthur - KJ

Arthur Williams

Available in 2019 there will be an episode in the third series of ‘The Crown’ that will tell the story of the 1966 Aberfan colliery tip disaster.

It will be told with "truth and dignity" in the new series of ‘The Crown’ says its director Benjamin Caron, who told BBC Wales that it was important that the Aberfan disaster was marked in the new series.

The Queen visited Aberfan a week after a colliery tip collapsed, crushing a junior school and claiming the lives of 116 children and 28 adults. She has returned several times and her close connection prompted Aberfan's inclusion in the drama that charts her reign.

Caron said it was important the disaster was never forgotten. The ‘Crown’ looks at major political events and moments in history, and this is one of them. Of course we should do this. This story in particular affected the whole of Wales, the United Kingdom and the Queen.

It’s not the first TV production telling the devastating events of the 1966 disaster. In 2016 the poet Owen Sheers produced ‘The Green Hollow’ in what the Observer wrote Aberfan 50 years on – ‘How best to remember the tragedy?’

In that I-net article the poet’s tells a quite long but really worth reading account of his efforts to confront 50 year old disaster in the present

An excerpt reveals some of the dilemmas of his project ‘…How to talk about it?

From the moment Bethan Jones, an executive producer at BBC Wales Drama, asked me to write a piece for TV to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, echoes of Jeff’s question have haunted me.

The prospect of trying to shape dramatically and render the nature of the village’s loss seemed emotionally daunting and fraught with difficulty, which it has been.

For 50 years, from the day tip No 7 collapsed, Aberfan has had to grieve publicly over every parent’s worst nightmare – the death of their child – and the sudden loss of a great slice of their community. Interwoven with this grief has been anger, recrimination and a sense of injustice. And it hasn’t been a grief allowed to rest either.

Every anniversary has, to varying degrees, attracted the attention of the media and the wider world. Time is a natural smoother of grief’s roughest edges, but for many in Aberfan a gradual submersion of their bereavement under the years has been denied them, the pressure of anniversarial attention regularly drawing their sorrow to the surface, and with each breaching back into the air, returning them afresh to the point of their loss.

With the weight of this particular history in mind I found myself questioning whether Aberfan’s story should be told again at all. From what I could tell, and quite understandably, some in the community would rather move on from the disaster now and look forwards, not back.

Most of the survivors, parents and rescuers are still alive, so any attempt at a conventional dramatic reconstruction, especially given that the story has been told before, seemed inappropriate. Similarly, although there were injustices and negligence at the root of the disaster, these too have been well documented.

Perhaps most significantly though, as a writer, I sensed a destabilising tension at the heart of the endeavour, between the dramatic need to take an audience into the unflinching core of the story and the potential, in so doing, for emotional exploitation at the cost of those who had lived and lost through the disaster.

The worries of this tension never left me throughout the writing of what became The Green Hollow, and that I embarked on it at all was, in the end, more to do with concerns about the present than about the past….’

And another succinct quote I think relevant to our topic ‘….Ask people in their late 20s and early 30s about Aberfan and even close to home in Wales, I’ve found increasingly the reply to be a shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders.

"Although this generational erosion in the collective memory was a further spur to say yes to the BBC’s offer, and so hopefully deepen knowledge of the disaster, it was perhaps secondary to a growing desire to try to retell the story to those who already knew it….."

There is a link from the article to some very emotional poems from his TV production including a young council secretary having to make house to house calls on traumatised parents, mostly mums, as dads were still grubbing in vain hope at the he filthy slag that had covered and taken their children forever!

Finally the story will live forever in my personal memory because one of my best mates in Swansea College that awful day was from the street that was part of the boundary of the dirty devilish detritus. His gran was able to make a cuppa for the first sad responders. Also my cousin left his studies at Cardiff University to aid the rescue efforts.

The message I took from Owen’s article was of a still grieving father listening to the Inquest on the kids ‘..and the moment when, after one name was read out and the cause of death given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father stood and responded with…. “No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board. That is what I want to see on record.”

Arthur Smedley

District Commissioner Cecil Cowley was aged 47 at the time. His son Erl, aged 16, also died in the eruption of Mount Lamington.

Lindsay F Bond

Some 18 years after the 1951 eruption of Sumbiripa (Mount Lamington) at Sasembata, in answer to a question, Reverend Albert Maclaren Ririka lapsed into silence after saying only, "We thought the world was coming to end".

At least, that is my recollection hearing his reply to my question along the lines of "what did you think (at the time).

At that time, a Sunday morning at the entry to a church building adjacent to Isivita village, Albert was a teacher in training at a course at the Anglican Sangara Mission establishment.

His location was at the extreme edge of advance of the lethal swirl of highly-heated granules (dust and rock) and debris from the volcano.

The brevity of Albert's words in English indicated to me that in 18 years he had not composed a narrative for ready telling.

My own recall of Albert's words is of my astonishment of the cloudy silence which enveloped him in 1969.

In recent years I have had the pleasure of conversation with another who also was also there, namely Sr Pat Durdin (now known as Sr Patience).

The immediate effect on her and others was of darkness as if night and the overwhelming number of people horrendously injured. And, for all still able, to escape to safety.

In 2010 I was intent on traversing through or near the locations of the earlier Higaturu and Sangara but was gently persuaded that my direction of travel was not a good idea.

Apart from seeing the location of earlier Isivita (mature coconut palms are indicative) and present day Kiorota, I walked back to the main road at Koipa.

Make no mistake, the surrounds of earlier Higaturu and earlier Sangara are the repository resting places of those several thousand people, likely ever to so remain. Thus the careful words are said to encourage respect.

In present times up to now, rather much of casual conversation among inhabitants of Northern (Oro) Province is given to recounting anecdotes aimed at pinpointing advantages in the old disaster for persons presently alive as may benefit progeny of the future.

A recurring theme I have heard amounts to a hint, a suspicion, a belief, that for the present generation advantage will accrue to the people who uncover, dig up or just happen upon objects of tangible wealth that may have been concealed by visitors or invaders.

This story is a locus of gathering; titled as history increases likelihood of beneficial yield.

On an approach to Sumbiripa (and some earlier sites of devastation), Victoria Stead may have found her way barred and so also discovered matters barring a unified presentation of historical locations.

Perhaps prevention of passage is firstly pricked by claims of entitlement, presented as land ownership. Relief by resort to negotiation may begin to lay bare aspects of indecision about sharing advantage, if any, from fertility of trade and touting among touring researchers and folk less informed.

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