Bride price needs re-examination
The finding of Major Donn Young, aviator

Contact patrol, Western District, 1970

Harry West 2
Kiap Harry West on patrol, 1950s


In the early afternoon
We crested the ridge
The sergeant and I
Behind us the mountains
Citadels of the Min
Before us the great plateau
Rolling green and unknown
Hiding the elusive Kanai
Our ragged patrol
Weary and footsore
Followed the river
And there in the longhouse
Under a blue black sky
Shivering and frightened
The past met the future.

THEY KNEW we were coming. For several days they had seen the smoke from our cooking fires. They knew who we were and what we wanted but they were still afraid.

As we drew closer they discussed what they should do. In the end they decided that caution was the best policy.

One old man volunteered to stay behind. He was largely crippled by age and painful bones and would never be able to keep up with the rest of the group.

When the young boy they had posted to watch for us came running back to the longhouse to excitedly tell them we had reached the river and were crossing, the old man’s wife gently stroked her husband’s face.

She then picked up her bilum and turned to the others and with a tear running down one cheek joined them.

They lingered for a few moments on the edge of the clearing and then disappeared into the deep green forest.

The old man watched us with rheumy eyes as we worked our way up the narrow track towards the longhouse.

It took us a while to work out how to talk to him. Finally one of the carriers thought he knew enough of the old man’s language to converse.

We asked him whether it would be alright to pitch our camp in the clearing behind the longhouse. He thought about this for some time before agreeing that it would be okay.

After the tent sails were up and the cooking fires were lighted I went with the carrier and the interpreter to talk to the old man. We took him some cooked taro liberally sprinkled with salt and a mug of sweet tea.

He told us that they knew all about us. The people further down the river with whom they traditionally exchanged brides had been visited by a patrol several years’ earlier and had told them everything.

During one such bridal exchange they had seen the steel axes and bush knives that the patrol had left behind.

As the old man chewed the salted taro and sipped the sweet tea he politely wondered whether we had brought such things with us.

I touched him on the knee and stood up and called to the sergeant. When he came he carried a shiny new axe and handed it to me. I placed it in front of the old man and indicated by sign language that it was his to keep.

Harry WestThe old man picked up the axe and marvelled at its weight before running his finger along the cutting edge. His rheumy old eyes lit up and he smiled for the first time.

In the morning the sun was shining and there was a mist on the river. The trees around our camp dripped with condensation.

I was drinking my first cup of tea when the first few figures appeared on the edge of the forest. I stood up and signalled for them to come forward. They eventually stepped cautiously out of the shadows.

The old man who had hobbled from the longhouse to sit by our fire waved at them enthusiastically.

There were about 30 of them.

During the night they had sent the young boy to spy on us and make sure that the old man was safe. He had reported that all was well and they had decided to chance coming back to the longhouse to see us.

The old man’s wife was the first to approach. She looked up at me nervously and then went to check on her husband. 

We handed out several more steel axes and little bundles of salt.

By the evening everyone was relaxed and chattering. A couple of the men brought kundus from the longhouse and another tuned up a bamboo Jews’ harp. One of the younger men even had a set of pan pipes.

An impromptu singsing took shape and the women began to sing in a soft humming fashion. The sound was mesmerising.

In the morning, I thought, I will do a head count and appoint a village constable. In the meantime however I would enjoy the moment. 


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Chips Mackellar

Phil, you share the memories of smell with Kipling, who wrote:

That is why the big things pass,
And the little thigs remain,
Like the smell of the wattle at Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

(Lichtenberg, Rudyard Kipling)

Philip Fitzpatrick

Thanks for that Joe.

We were all young men in those days but I think we realised that the patrols were disruptive, although I don't think we ever really thought of ourselves as creating so much fear. I guess we rationalised the disruptive element as a necessary part of the administrative process.

Your observation about smells is interesting too. From our point of view the earthy smells in the villages and hamlets was something we certainly noticed. We, of course, rightly or wrongly, made a connection between those smells and village hygiene.

In the English village where I grew up my maternal grandparents didn't have running water or sewerage like they have now and the privy was in a shed where hay and animal feed was kept. Behind the shed was an open pit used to compost stuff. It was overgrown with nasturtiums. The combination of privy, compost and nasturtiums created a really earthy smell that I can recognise easily all these years later. It's amazing how smell influences our lives.

Joe Herman

Thank you for sharing this, Phil.

I remember an occasion when a kiap and his team erected tents and camped at my village for several days. A policeman bought some kaukau and greens from our women with salt and tobacco.

Fear was driven into us early on that the kiap and his team might hurt or take us away so I never got close to their camp site and watched all their movements for hours from a safe distance.

When they left for Kandep, some of my uncles helped carry their patrol boxes and other paraphernalia for half of the distance. However, they returned with sad stories.

The uncles did not eat for days in fear of being poisoned by the Kandepenes, who were believed to maintain the tomokai, magic poison, which could be passed on through food, drink, or smoke.

They also believed to be the source of yainanda yawege, a ritual performed about once every five years to predict potential imminent natural catastrophes.

There was a sense of relief when the patrol team left my village as they caused tension and anxiety with their demanding behavior.

When we felt sufficiently safe, we approached the vacant camp site and scavenged for empty cans, lids and other refuse and tried to figure out what they might be. We reused them as toys.

One of the lasting impressions the patrol team left was their offending odour. Their bodies, clothes, soap, tents, and practically everything smelled even from a considerable distance. This was unlike anything I smelled before and is still vivid in my memory.

As they were leaving, we followed behind them from a safe distance as far as possible. We were always on the lookout, especially around corners or the sections of the trail obscured by vegetation, to ensure none of the policemen were hiding.

We were particularly interested in the kiap’s boot prints left on the ground and compared our bare feet against them for days until the prints disappeared.

Dave Ekins

I did a lot of census patrols in the Mendi-Lai-Nipa areas and was frequently told that the name of a lot of very young children was Bi-nawi or Mbe-nowi.

At the following census, I would call out for "Binowi" and the family would say there was nobody with that name. I would get quite cross and insist that Binowi was listed in their family a year previously.

Eventually the penny dropped - Bi-nawi meant something like " no name has been given to this child yet" in the Wola dialect, so it was not surprising that nobody was identified when I called out for No Name to line up with their family.

Nice story, Dave - my latest (three week old) grandson is still known as Binawi - KJ

Baka Bina

Gosh Phil you sound very ancient yet it was only yesterday.
Thanks for your experiences.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think most kiaps took extra care to get people's names right and spell them as accurately as possible. Hence the repeated requests for pronunciation.

We did the same with place names. I spent ages teasing out the correct names for places and how best to spell them.

Repeating them back would inevitably produce laughter and we would ask for them to be repeated again. Once we could repeat them to everyone's agreement we set about figuring out how to spell them phonetically.

Most of the contact patrols that I did in the Western District were like mopping up operations. We poked into all the little valleys coming off the Central Range onto the Papua Plateau for small groups of people like those above who knew all about us but had avoided contact.

ADC Robin Barclay was very good at it. He gently nudged numerous little groups north of Nomad River into the orbit of the administration.

I think the last little group to be found was in 1972 - three years before independence.

I've been back into the area several times now and met the children of some of those people we found back then.

The speed with which they assimilated into the modern age was remarkable.

Daniel Kumbon

Five years later these people became independent.
Easy transition without bloodshed
But how these people reacted to the event
Nobody knows
But they must still be waiting in the shadows
For the whiteman to bring some more axes
To live happily ever after

Phil, I like reading these first contact stories written by the kiaps. I have watched the video 'First Contact' many times
The closest I got to a kiap was during a census patrol in 1958.

My father bravely led us - my mother, my sister and me - to a kiap seated at a table who recorded our names. My heart was beating faster than normal, I wanted this to be done quickly.

But the interpreter kept asking my father to pronounce our names again and again. The experience is fresh in my mind.

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