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The cruel caning of Bot of Kambot

Eware VillageED BRUMBY

MELBOURNE – “I still find it hard to think of kiaps caning people. Teachers yes but not kiaps.”

So pondered Peter Salmon in his commentary on Tobias Schoerer’s article, ‘Kiaps repressed warfare, they did not repress the peoplepublished recently in PNG Attitude.

My initial response was one of mild annoyance: Why would someone think that kiaps, those doyens of authority, would not use a cane to assert said authority while teachers would?

Nevertheless, Peter’s assumption that teachers would use a cane is eminently understandable.

Those of us who were schooled in the pre-enlightenment era remember, while grimacing, our own experience of a teacher-wielded cane or ruler striking our hands, calves or posteriors after one misdemeanour or another.

And it’s true that, in my own East Sepik chalkie days in the mid to late 1960s, a firm piece of kunda rested against my desk at the front of the classroom – a permanent reminder to my 45 plus charges of what might befall them in the event that they misbehaved.

I say ‘might’ because, as is often the case, the mere threat of a caning was sufficient to maintain compliance and conformity in the classroom and beyond – to the extent that I never did have to wield Toby (the appellation afforded to the cane by my charges).

And I did manage to resist occasional overtures from Passam and Paliama villagers to apply Toby to the posteriors of miscreant youths – including, on one occasion, a young woman accused of enjoying a dalliance with one of my teacher colleagues.

All that aside, the cruel caning of Bot of Kambot is an event that bothers me still.

Bot, a strapping post-pubescent young man, probably 18 or 19 years old, and one or two years younger than me, was a student in my Standard 5 class at the Angoram Primary T School in 1966 when he was accused of having consensual sexual relations with the wife of the local police corporal.

This matter was relayed to me by the No 2 kiap who presented me with two options for Bot: summary punishment by way of a caning or reference to the court and the probability, according to the No 2 kiap, that Bot would spend some time in the kalabus.

My initial response was to challenge the No 2 kiap’s assertion of Bot’s guilt and to insist that he receive due process via the court.

The No 2 kiap reminded me that taking the matter to court would jeopardise Bot’s education and his wish to join the police force – and that the summary justice of the cane would eradicate that risk.

Bot’s response, when I asked him if the allegation was true, was ambivalent.

He claimed that nothing untoward had occurred between him and the corporal’s wife. She had simply offered him a meal of rice and tinpis.

However, when confronted by the No 2 kiap, and out of fear, he had agreed that the meal had been followed by more unsavoury delights.

Given the circumstances and the risks to Bot’s education and future prospects, I abandoned matters of principle and agreed to the No 2’s recommendation.

Accordingly, at the end of one school day shortly thereafter, with the rest of the students, including all of the girls, sent packing, the remaining Standard 5 and 6 boys formed a hollow square on the school parade ground.

With the No 2 kiap and I looking on, Bot was led out to the middle of the square – by the police corporal, who then pulled Bot’s shorts and underpants down to his ankles and had him bend over.

The police sergeant, Mando – a big, barrel-chested man from the Chambri Lakes then administered 12 hearty strokes of a cane to Bot’s bare buttocks.

Bot uttered not a sound, and I could not bear to watch.

The punishment completed, the other boys were dismissed, Bot retrieved his dignity and then shook hands with those of us who remained: Sergeant Mando, the corporal, the No 2 kiap and me.

Bot went on to complete Standard 6 and joined the police force.

In fairness to Peter, no kiap used the cane that day. But a kiap was certainly instrumental in what I regard as a cruel if circumstantially justifiable caning.

And, from time to time, I still wonder what would have happened if I’d stood on my principled high horse and insisted that Bot undergo due process in the court.


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Michael Dom

Only law has history. Justice is done when it is done. We all suffer it to be so.

Chris Overland

Fair point Phil. I did wonder about the wife too. Like you, I guessed that she got a hiding as well. That still goes on all too often, virtually anywhere in the world but we collectively seem hard pressed to stop it. Hopefully, it too will go the way of the cane.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I can certainly see your point of view Chris but I can't help wondering whether a smarter kiap might have taken the matter to court, awarded some sort of compensation to the policeman and then not jailed Bot so he could continue with his schooling.

His conviction would not have necessarily hampered his desire to be a policeman.

No doubt the policeman's wife copped a severe beating by her husband but I guess that is a different matter.

The point I was making was that the caning had nothing to do with school, even though it prompted several reminiscences by readers about their experiences in school.

Chris Overland

I have not missed the point, Phil. I am well aware that caning was and is illegal.

Sometimes the law truly is an ass and it thus becomes necessary to defy it, if for no other reason than to highlight its inadequacy or iniquity.

Hence things like the "illegal" moratorium movement against the Vietnam War or draft dodging, the latter being a clear breach of both bad policy and the law.

Another great example I can recall is when, in the 1970s, two different juries in Adelaide refused to convict a "battered wife" who had, in desperation and after a vicious assault, killed her monstrous husband with an axe.

This compelled the government to change the sentencing law to reflect the fact that there could be mitigating circumstances in such cases that, if not justifying murder, at least justified a markedly more lenient approach to sentencing.

So, sometimes, the needs of justice, as distinct from the law, require that those charged with enforcing the law interpret it in ways that those who framed it may not have exactly intended.

The No 2 kiap in Ed's example patently broke the law but made a judgement call that almost certainly better served the cause of justice.

I once turned a blind eye to the very violent retribution visited upon a particularly nasty wife beater. I have never suffered a moments doubt as to the rightness of my decision even though I assume that I broke the law by failing to do my duty as a sworn police officer.

Remember Phil, a threat by public servants to work to rule has always sent a shiver of anxiety down the spine of any government. Unduly rigid enforcement of the rules, especially the petty type, is almost always a recipe for disaster.

Context has to be king if the law is to be justly applied and any judge knows this. If this wasn't so, then we would merely need clerks, not judges, to apply the law.

Paul Oates

There is another aspect that has been alluded to yet is frequently overlooked.

Using today's perceptions and standards when considering the standards and morals of over half a century ago is often difficult to equate.

School detention was really only for minor infringements.

Caning at my school was reserved for such heinous crimes as being caught smoking etc. If you were seen in uniform and smoking it was instant dismissal after a caning from the headmaster.

The usual physical discipline then handed out was administered by the senior boys and equivalent of prefects who could and did oversee long 'pack drills' and 'the sock'.

The sock was the worst since you had to front up and ignominiously bend over and the big senior would then whack you a number of times on your backside with his sand shoe.

Since we wore a 19th century military uniform with dark blue trousers and red stripe down the side, it was easy to get whacked in the same place more than once since the large sand shoe left a white mark that lasted longer than the pain.

The white mark was not possible to get rid of easily and it displayed your embarrassment to all the school for the rest of the day and your parents (for a day boy) at night.

I don't know if this did good or bad but it was the fashion at that time. After so many years, it now seems strange to several generations who have no experience of those days.

That is the message we should not forget when sitting in judgement on matters of history where social norms and protocols were totally different.

Geoff Hancock

A delicate subject Ed.

What should the punishment have been for a chalkie committing adultery with the wife of an engineer?

Twelve lashes of his bony derriere might have sufficed.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think you are all missing the point here.

The matter of adultery was not a school matter. It was a criminal matter.

The caning of Bot was illegal.

Chris Overland

Like many people of my vintage, I can recall both being caned at school and seeing other students caned.

In my case, I was caught out calling another student a bloody bastard, for which offence I received six of the best. The fact that he was a teacher's son and it was his dad who caught me, didn't help!

I withstood my punishment stoically, rather like the young fellow mentioned in Ed's article.

Naturally, in the aftermath, my credibility with the student body rose. Being caned was a sort of badge of honour in a perverse sort of way.

These days, of course, corporal punishment is forbidden in schools and elsewhere. But in the 1960's it was still allowable, albeit usually as a last resort.

It is within this broader context and, importantly, that of the prevailing cultural norms within PNG at the time, that the incident related by Ed should be viewed.

I do not know what the traditional punishment for adultery was in the East Sepik circa 1965, but it is a fair bet it involved violence.

Assuming my surmise is accurate, the No 2 kiap was probably trying to navigate a sensible course between what the aggrieved police corporal (and his relatives) might wish to do to Bot and not wishing to spoil Bot's chances of securing employment as a police officer himself.

If he had simply allowed the usually legal processes to be followed, I have no doubt that this would not have satisfied the aggrieved corporal or his relatives.

My guess is that they would subsequently have pursued some extrajudicial punishment involving a violent assault, as well as working hard to thwart Bot's efforts to join the police.

Having been in a somewhat analogous situation myself, I can sympathise with the No 2 kiap's dilemma.

So, in this context, a caning was probably the least worst option to choose.

Of course, there will be divided opinion about this and I agree that, as a general rule, corporal punishment is both unnecessary and ineffective. But in this particular case, I cannot truthfully say that I think the No 2 kiap was wrong.

Peter Salmon

Ed, a good story that needs to see the light of the day to be vacuumed up by Google for posterity.

It's also a story that does pose an interesting dilemma. Had Bot not been caned but instead faced "kot" and ended up in "kalabus" where would he be now?

Did Bot end up being a good or bad "polisman" and if the latter would he have been better off being in "kalabus" and not becoming a "polisman" but in this situation he may then have gone on to become a politician.

Had there not been this summary punishment would there have been reprisals (aka "peibek") in one way or another by the offended corporal or his clan.

Only those who have been in PNG can understand how little things can quickly escalate with deadly consequences, who knows.

I'm not a supporter of caning, I was a student in a very corporal punishment orientated boarding school and I have never forgotten those regular canings over my five years there.

The "six of the best", the initial pain, the thickening of the fingers from the ensuring numbness, the little extra given by some teachers in belting your knuckles on the upswing for the next stroke, the race around to the school kitchen hot water boiler to pass your fingers back and forth through the dripping hot water from the overflow pipe to get some feeling back into them then the ensuing blood blisters. 54 years ago yet still a vivid detailed memory.

Your moral quandary.... “and, from time to time, I still wonder what would have happened if I’d stood on my principled high horse and insisted that Bot undergo due process in the court.”

Maybe things are not black and white and there is fifty shades of grey in between.

Philip Fitzpatrick

You should have stood on your high horse Ed.

No 2 Kiap should have known that caning was illegal and had been since the 1920s.

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