On memorials & monuments for kiaps
21 November 2019
TUMBY BAY - There have been rumblings among the ever diminishing ex-kiap community for several years now about the desirability of erecting a monument to the work they did in colonial Papua New Guinea, and especially to commemorate those who lost their lives in the service.
The proposals range from a physical structure at a selected location to something like a scholarship for Papua New Guinean students named to mark the kiaps’ contribution to the development of their nation.
As with the previous and partially successful effort to have their work remembered through the provision of a medal, the old kiaps have been facing an uphill battle taking the idea to the politicians.
In the previous case, the initial goal was to have a medal struck specifically to mark the kiaps’ service. The ultimate result was that the Australian government agreed they should be awarded an existing police medal.
Of course, the kiaps’ role in PNG was much broader and more complex than a policing function. But at least there was some form of recognition.
Now, a small cohort of ex-kiaps seem dedicated to the project of memorialising their work while a larger group seems indifferent to this.
What separates these two groups is an interesting study in the psychology of commemoration.
It begins with a consideration of the role that memorials play in a society and whether these acts of remembering contribute to any national or community sense of identity.
What gets remembered, what is allowed to be forgotten, and who decides?
Historian Cynthia Mills thinks that monuments are messengers from the past and play a special role in weaving stories of national identity.
She says they help us come to know ourselves as a national community, especially in relationship to others.
Other historians think monuments that carry the past to the present act as reminders for people and help prevent meddling with and changing historical facts and events.
In 1800 a North Carolina, USA, congressman expressed a different view.
“Monuments are good for nothing,” he said, arguing that democracy and the spread of literacy had made commemorative rituals and monuments obsolete, a leftover from the days of monarchy and superstition.
Reflecting on Congress’s reluctance to fund a monument to George Washington, John Quincy Adams famously observed that “democracy has no monuments”.
Despite these early protestations, commemoration has become commonplace in America, just as it has in Australia.
Not only have Americans and Australians come to embrace traditional forms of commemoration, but they have pioneered new ways of doing it, particularly in the remembrance of war dead.
Today these practices continue to multiply and spread in ways no one could have imagined, now even extending into the solar system with a monument on Mars to the fallen crew of the spacecraft Columbia.
It seems that a deep psychological need has developed among people, individually and collectively, to be remembered and celebrated.
It is also a lucrative avenue exploited by the media. Nothing increases ratings more than a good old public patting on the back.
At the same time there has also developed a political practise of being highly selective about what gets remembered and what doesn’t.
Every nation is sensitive about its creation story. But in most cases it is unwilling to examine the grim details of that creation, which are deflected, sanitised or rewritten to suit an acceptable present day view.
Australia is particularly good at this. The sorry story of the displacement of our indigenous people has effectively been buried for the last 230 years.
If the response to home-grown writers is anything to go by, politicians in PNG don’t want to remember anything either.
In Australia the colonial experience in PNG is still tainted with reminders of imperialism and all that it entailed, including racism, notions of white supremacy and cold-blooded exploitation.
Among other things it seems Australian politicians and officials don’t want is to be reminded of these ugly facts by a bunch of old kiaps trying to erect a monument.
That North Carolina congressman who said “democracy has no monuments” had a good point because he also explained that literacy had made physical monuments obsolete.
There is now an extensive and detailed canon of literature about the kiaps that will outlast anything built in concrete and steel.
Amongst that literature is information and tributes to those who lost their lives as part of Australia’s colonial ambitions.
Monuments get covered in bird shit and most eventually fall apart or are vandalised for their brass plaques. But the literature remains.
Perhaps the ex-kiaps should be happy with that.
I agree with Phil and Mike that a monument to kiaps is both unnecessary and, arguably, inappropriate as well.
I would feel very uncomfortable advocating for such a monument.
The whole of my time in PNG was a learning experience of a kind that I could never have hoped to have anywhere else nor at any other time. I am hugely grateful for that experience, which has stood me in good stead over my entire life.
Also, I don't see why present day Papua New Guineans should be asked to support, let alone erect, a monument to their colonial "mastas".
As for modern Australians, almost none of them know anything about Australia's history in PNG. I should think that the idea of a monument to a bunch of elderly ex public servants would seem baffling to most of them.
While I continue to believe that the Australian colonial administration was very probably the most benign form of European imperialism ever known, it was still a decidedly authoritarian and patronising regime.
I think that Papua New Guineans of the colonial era somehow understood this and so put up with the annoyances and petty restrictions of a such a regime for the sake of the not insignificant benefits that accompanied it.
Now that era has past and, for good or for ill, PNG charts its own course in the world.
It has no need for monuments to the colonial past, although it might be wise to at least remember it: the good, the bad and the ugly.
As for we few remaining ex-kiaps, we should be content to fade into history and let posterity look after itself.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 21 November 2019 at 09:39 PM
Mike Goodson posted this comment on the Ex-kiap website in September following a short article in the PNGAA magazine, Una Voce, where there was a call for a memorial for didimen (agricultural officers) who served in PNG. It is a good counterpoint to those seeking to build memorials.
MEMORIALS, MEDALS, RECOGNITION??
When will everybody get real?
All sorts of people went to PNG in all sorts of government service.
Many (including kiaps) never left the main centres and served their time in comfort, conducting their patrol work in a Landrover or Landcruiser, or sitting in an office cooled by an overhead fan.
Good luck to them.
Others (not just kiaps: include doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, malaria control , surveyors, yes, didimen and others) endured the rigours of remote postings, primitive living conditions, heat, cold, loneliness, sometimes danger, isolation and the rest.
We were not forced to stay and could have chosen to resign and return to Australia, or wherever, at any time if we found the conditions unbearable or not to our liking.
Let’s face it, those of us in Government service were well paid: generally better than in Australia.
What about those missionaries and others who served for whatever reason with little or no pay?
We did it because we wanted to be there.
If you found it to be too onerous why did you stay?
I for one, consider the time I spent in PNG to have been the highlight of my life.
Be happy with your own memories and stop seeking recognition from others who will never understand the privilege we had to work and live in such an amazing place and time.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 21 November 2019 at 05:10 PM