‘My Chimbu: a short history of Chimbu in the highlands of PNG’ by Mathias Kin, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018, 418 pages, ISBN: 978-1729711309. Available from Amazon, US$80 plus postage [availability may be limited]
TUMBY BAY - PNG Attitude readers may remember the vigorous debate that occurred when an extract from an early draft of Mathias Kin’s book was published.
The controversy related to allegations of extra-judicial killings carried out by officers of the Australian Administration during the exploratory and pacification years in colonial Chimbu from the 1930s (see, for example, ‘The truth about the Highlands frontier’ and the comments that follow).
I should point out that these events make up just a small part of what is a more comprehensive and expansionary account of the history of the Chimbu people that this book reveals.
It should also be noted that many of the views and opinions that emerged during the ‘killings’ debate have been taken into account by the author, and he explores them in detail in this final version.
This does not detract from Kin’s original thesis nor does it diminish his contention that the colonisation of the province had some of the hallmarks of invasion and that the Chimbu people had every right to feel affronted by the disruption to what they considered their perfectly serviceable way of life.
You can argue the inevitability of western expansionism and mollify it by advancing that the largely benign Australian administration was the least offensive colonial option on offer at the time, but in the end it comes down to the replacement of one way of life by another claiming a dubious superiority.
And this is the nub of the importance of this book because it presents a view from the opposite side of what has so far been accepted as established fact.
The account of colonisation presented in My Chimbu comes from the point of view of the colonised as opposed to the conventional view of the colonisers. As such it suggests that that view is not the end of the story and there is more to be written.
The impetus for this book began with the author listening to the stories and reminiscences his elders told in the hausman [men’s house] when he was a child. From there he developed a firm view that those stories needed to be recorded before they were lost.
Over subsequent years he did just that and assembled an impressive collection of primary data.
In his introduction Kin explains that: “The voices contained in my primary documents ought to be heard because these had remained silent for over 70 years”.
He adds: “Without the durability of the written word, our generation and others to come will never authentically replicate the unique memories of these people”.
The book begins with a brief history of what the author calls “the taim bipo” [the olden days] and progresses through to the arrival of the first foreigners into Chimbu in the 1930s and subsequent penetration, control and development of the province by the Australian Administration.
From there the transition to self-government and independence as it affected Chimbu is covered. The post-independence period is also described and assessed and, in a final chapter, some thoughts are offered about the possible future of the Chimbu people.
These latter chapters are no more remarkable in their detail than the earlier ones, given the parlous state of historical research in Papua New Guinea, and are probably as valuable as the memories of the elders because they too run the risk of being forgotten.
I certainly learned a lot I didn’t know, both about the history of Chimbu and Papua New Guinea itself.
It is remarkable that the author has collected this information with minimal resources. Chimbu is still a remote part of the world and access to the primary data that is the bread and butter of any historian elsewhere is severely limited.
In Chimbu, as in the rest of Papua New Guinea, the convenience of dropping into the local or national archives just doesn’t exist.
Mathias Kin acknowledges this problem and the effect it has had on the scholarship of his book. He humbly accepts that deficiencies exist: “Generally names, events and dates will be missing, not adequately captured or wrongly placed in the scripts. I expect critics and disputes for which I take responsibility…”
You don’t get too many writers offering that sort of caveat.
Despite its possible faults, the book is ground-breaking in its scope because it provides not only the first comprehensive history of a Papua New Guinean province but also a blueprint for others to follow.
Hopefully this might happen before the rest of Papua New Guinea’s history, especially that which is told from a local perspective, is lost.
It is worth acknowledging the part the Simbu Writers Association played in the publication of the book. The association is one of the most positive aspects that came out of the literary experimentation that was the Crocodile Prize for Literature.
Mathias Kin has written a large and complex book and it is not possible to do it justice in a short review. It has to be read to be fully appreciated and I would urge Chimbus, as well as general readers, to do just that. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
Finally, I would like to note that, with this book, Mathias Kin has emerged as a talented and accomplished writer. I believe we will hear more from him in the future.