ADELAIDE - One of the perennial problems for historians is separating fact from fiction.
History is a notoriously murky subject, capable of being interpreted or reinterpreted because the facts change or new facts emerge or, sometimes, simply because we choose to perceive the facts differently.
This is why there can be so many histories of the same event or time or place in which different authors reach different conclusions about what happened.
Thus, Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark, both eminent historians, wrote very different histories of Australia. To this day, aspects of Australian history emphasised (or de-emphasised) by each of these great scholars are hotly contested in the so called 'history wars'.
I have recently read a splendid book called 'The English and Their History' by Robert Tombs, in which the author takes a very different and forensic view of English history to that usually reflected in classical scholarship.
Tombs’ exposes how myth, confusion, bias, misunderstanding, misreporting and omission have all contributed to what the English understand to be their collective history.
With this in mind, it is a bit frustrating for me to read that Papua New Guinea supposedly has “a longstanding tradition of military-style and heavy-handed policing, and some of my fellow countrymen assert direct links between this behaviour and that of some kiaps under the previous Australian colonial administration.”
It is not that this statement is entirely wrong, simply that it is misleading.
That there were incidents of the heavy handed behaviour by some colonial officers is hardly contestable. The murderous actions of Assistant Magistrate CAW Monckton during his notorious patrol through what is now Oro Province are a prime example of what now would be regarded as criminal behaviour.
Even at the time (around 1900) Monckton’s “shoot and loot” approach to law enforcement excited equally strenuous expressions both of support and condemnation.
Of course, Monckton’s actions were not a reflection of the administration’s overall policy in relation to law enforcement. Generally speaking, the law was applied with a measured hand.
A great deal of latitude was used in both policing and the courts so as to take into account the cultural and traditional contexts within which criminal behaviour occurred.
Thus, the 32 men eventually brought to trial for the murders in 1953 of Patrol Officers Gerald Szarka and Geoffrey Harris and Constable Buritori, were each sentenced to death but this was commuted to ten years imprisonment with hard labour.
Had they been Australians tried for such a crime in Australia, it is almost certain that at least some of them would have been hanged but the appellant judge evidently took into account the traditional and social context of their actions.
I mention these two examples simply to illustrate the range of behaviours in relation to law enforcement that occurred during PNG’s colonial era.
Consequently, characterising law enforcement during that time as “heavy handed” is both misinformed and misleading and certainly not supportive of any assertion that subsequent behaviour by the RPNGC after independence was or is directly linked to how kiaps went about enforcing the law.
The writing of PNG’s history is a work in progress. Historians like Mathias Kin are striving to write histories from the perspective of the colonised rather than the coloniser.
This is important work but future generations of Papua New Guineans will not be well served if actions or motivations attributed to the colonial administration reflect less than a carefully balanced assessment of the available evidence.
Of course, we old kiaps will not be around much longer to defend our legacy. Soon enough we will all have passed into the long night of history, having played our parts and left the stage.
We mostly were and are neither saints nor sinners, just ordinary men who were once called upon to do an extraordinary job in the dying days of European imperialism.
I think that our collective hope is simply that our actions will be judged fairly based upon the available evidence, not through the distorting prism of ideology or post colonial mythology.
I urge PNG’s emerging group of historians to heed Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism that “the truth is seldom pure and never simple.”
This is the best way to ensure that your work stands up to forensic examination of the type practiced by Robert Tombs in his review of English history which, even after more than a thousand years of scholarly consideration, still provokes controversy.