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The escapees from drudgery who helped build PNG

Plantation Papua CoverPHIL FITZPATRICK

Plantation Papua: A true tale of trials and tribulations in Papua between 1962 and 1982 by Denis Longhurst, Vivid Publishing, 2017, paperback 329 pages, ISBN: 978-1-925590-17-3. Cost from the author is $28.95,

TUMBY BAY - It never fails to amuse me how many Australians who went to work in Papua New Guinea prior to independence were escapees from excruciatingly boring bank jobs.

I was one and so was Len Aisbett, who interviewed me when I applied to become a kiap.

Denis Longhurst was another. He did four years in a bank before breaking free and running away.

While I became a kiap, he became a plantation manager.

Like many of us he developed a fondness for Papua and the people who lived there.

I’ve often wondered why this was so and he provides a compelling argument based on the essential character of the Papuans.

Talking about the Kiwai and Bamu River people he calls them “a proud and somewhat dignified race who - compared to their New Guinea Highlands cousins – would rather die for a cause of importance than give in to pressures or inducements.

“They are burdened with sets of fiercely held values and to win and hold their trust and respect was to have them as a staunch and unswerving ally.”

Nowhere else, of course, was this better demonstrated than during the Kokoda campaign during World War II.

With a wry and understated humour Denis then proceeds to describe the ‘trials and tribulations’ of how he came to understand the Papuan people.

Along the way he also describes the unique experience of plantation life, which differed very much from the lives of other Australians in Papua New Guinea, including the kiaps, teachers and other government employees.

Of particular interest is the way that plantation people tended to stay in one place for many years. Denis, for instance, was the manager of the isolated copra and cocoa plantation at Baubauguina, between Cape Rodney and Amazon Bay, for over eight years.

For people like Denis and many others, the 1960s were the halcyon days in Papua New Guinea.

From the early 1970s onwards life started to become difficult, not only for expatriates but for many Papuans too. The impetus for these difficulties had a lot to do with the diaspora of people from the highlands.

As Denis notes Port Moresby in that period turned from a dusty and sleepy Papuan town into a highlander’s city.

He says the highlanders came to Papua with a natural proclivity for business and dreams of accumulating wealth. When that didn’t work out law and order problems began to arise.

He doesn’t blame the highlanders. Dangling a prize in front of them and then pulling it away never works out well.

Added to this was the nobbling of the kiaps’ role as arbitrators using custom and the loss of their police powers.

“The functionality that the people in rural areas in particular had enjoyed over many years in coming to terms with the ‘new way’, of simplification and assimilation with their own ancient way of administering law, was done away with,” he writes.

“The knowledge and experience patrol officers had built up over a period of 50 years and the evolving system of implementing law and order, which seemed so ideal for an emerging society, was thrown out the door.”

It’s nice to know that at least one planter agrees with what most ex-kiaps regard as one of the most significant retrograde steps the administration enacted.

As Denis says, “Lawlessness in PNG is not something that emerged after independence, it was a ‘gift’, packaged and planted out of ignorance by the pre-independent administration, and arrogance of the then expatriate judiciary”.

As a result of this lawlessness many expatriates who had toyed with the idea of a future in Papua New Guinea after independence began to have second thoughts.

Denis highlights some of the shifts that affected his family’s decision to finally leave in 1982. These included things specific to the plantations and the end of the indentured labour schemes as well as the changes in Papua New Guinean society in general.

One of the saddest aspects he describes is the decline and neglect of so many productive plantations in the years following independence. This is a theme that comes across in the memoirs of other plantation people too.

There is much more in this fascinating book which will appeal to those who knew or still know Papua New Guinea.

It is also another account of those crucial pre and post-independence times over which the light is only now being shed. Hopefully there will be more to come.


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Paul Oates

I too was a 'Bank Johnny' Phil, when I applied to be a Kiap.

The other absence of influence that clearly is outside the scope of this book is the almost tangible desire by Canberra to ignore those with PNG experience. That situation hasn't changed much in 50 years.

One can but hope.

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