NORTHUMBRIA, UK - On Independence Day in September 1975 few, if any, Papua New Guineans had not already seen their new flag flown formally or the respect with which it had been presented.
This was the result of a carefully planned operation that began well before the introduction of self-government in December 1973.
It was aimed at building familiarity with the flag itself as well as softening the mental jolt faced by villagers, especially in the Highlands, who were being asked to abandon the form of government with which they were familiar.
At the core of this successful story of hurried preparation for independence was a Port Moresby-led central bureaucracy, the kiap system, through which direct government contact with villagers throughout PNG was regularly maintained no matter how remote the location.
Resistance to the new flag was anticipated because most Highlands communities had stated a clear preference for the continuation of the kiap system while making clear they were unhappy with the transfer of decision-making directly to the House of Assembly and its politicians.
There was a strong view that the people of the Highlands had not had enough contact with the modern world to put them on an equal basis with the people of the coast.
In September 1972 the Sub-District Office at Minj in the Western Highlands decided, like many others administrative posts, to spring the unveiling of the new flag as a surprise and to fly it alongside the Australian flag before the Australian flag was taken down at Independence.
First in line for this shock in my region were the Danga people whose rest house was at Bolimba on the north side of the Wahgi River.
I was in charge of the patrol and, while I was unpacking in the rest house, Kapuli, an interpreter, came to the door, told me the flag pole was ready and asked if he should, as usual, look after the flag before it was raised.
I reached behind me and took two cloth bundles off the table. The first was blue, I placed it in his hands and he turned to go.
“Wait,” I said, “there’s something else” and lobbed an unfamiliar red and black bundle at him.
He groaned, caught it, made as if to throw it on the floor, stopped himself, turned to face me and demanded “Bilong wonem?” [What’s this about?]
“Bring the police,” I said and, when they came, told them we were about to raise the new flag and I wanted it to be treated with the same respect as the old one.
A huge crowd gathered in the open area in front of the rest house and in their midst was a naked flag pole. Sitting near its base were the Bolimba headmen and other leaders.
As we left the hut and walked towards them, a phalanx of warriors initiated the formalities of welcome by breaking out from behind some trees and sweeping towards us flourishing spears and chanting war songs.
Almost an hour later, after the local government councillor and an old luluai [clan chief] had reinforced this welcome, it was my turn to speak.
I listed the roadwork the patrol had earmarked for completion, nominated the day each clan should come for a census and emphasised the many community benefits to be gained by listening carefully to accompanying teams from the Department of Agriculture and Department of Health.
Then I asked the police to raise both flags.
The Danga people were stunned when they saw them.
The women began a keening ‘aye-aye-aye’ and the men’s eyes popped. A sudden buzz among the seated leaders signalled activity.
Several of the leaders advanced determinedly and one stood directly in front of me.
I turned to the police telling them they had to hold onto the flag ropes and no one was to touch the pole. Then, with the two flags fluttering above us, I turned to listen to the man making the challenge.
He was unwaveringly direct, saying he did not want to see the new flag. He called it a thief (stilman) on the pole which was planted in land belonging to his people.
He did not want to be governed by strange men who came from the coast near Port Moresby and he was prepared to offer the permanent hospitality of the Danga clan to myself, or any other kiap, if we chose to remain.
He also made clear he wanted to tear down the stilman, rip it to shreds and scatter its rags to the four winds.
I told him that the new flag demonstrated that his people were no longer subsistence farmers but sophisticated individuals who grew coffee, owned and drove utility trucks, enjoyed a higher standard of living and whose children went to school.
I stressed the determination of my bosses at the Sub-District Office to continue the patrol and emphasised that in future I, and other officers of the government would be just as resolute as we had always been in our pursuit of criminals, encouragement of new economic activity and assistance with the maintenance of roads.
My emphasis was on continuity and the effort of a new nation to fuel more economic progress at both village and national level.
It was a high energy, percussive performance that, because everything was repeated through the interpreter, took up the best part of an hour.
The spokesman knew he was beaten but was still defiant.
“If that is the case,” he stated, “the flag can stay but I want you to know I do not like it.” He spat out the last words.
Then the group waiting to attack the flag pole stepped back and we began to divide up the mountain of food that the Dangas had so generously assembled.
Later, when the flags were lowered with full ceremony at 6pm, I puffed out my cheeks with relief.
There could be no doubt that the PNG flag, the stilman, survived its first outing in the Wahgi Valley because a kiap had said that it must stay.
A full account of this and other, contemporary incidents can be read in my memoir of that period, ‘The Northumbrian Kiap’. Read more about the book here