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When the white man came to Wabag

Thadius Kaka today
Thadius Kaka Menge today - almost 100, saw the onset of colonialism and mind as sharp as a tack


WABAG - Thadius Kaka Menge is one of the few surviving local leaders in Wabag who assisted the colonial administration pacify warring tribesmen and bring change and development to their communities.

The kiaps, or patrol officers, effectively used local leaders to partner with the police to establish Wabag town and built roads and bridges.

Thadius was used by the colonial administration to help with its work. He is now a very old man approaching 100 years. His body is weak and eyesight poor but his mind is still clear.

His diet has been mainly garden produce consisting of sweet potatoes, bananas, sugarcane and vegetables supplemented by the occasional pork and cuscus meat from the nearby forest, where pure water spouts from the ground to quench his thirst.

He’s lived most of his life in the jungles between Kopen and Laiagam but, sick and alone, came to Kopen seven years ago when his last wife died.

He sits comfortably in a chair at Kopen village near the secondary school and recounts how it was like during contact with outsiders – gold prospectors and government patrols.

When Thadius was a teenager, he received news that strange people - described as Keoakali - who were reputed to eat human beings had walked up the Lai valley and camped at Tole.

The people warned each other to be vigilant lest they be caught and eaten by these strange beings.

Then one of Thadius’s relatives, Pupukain by name, arrived with some shells the strange people had given him in exchange for firewood.

He promised to take Thadius with him to Tole next morning and perhaps barter for salt and other attractive items these people carried in their large boxes.

“In the morning, we carried two pieces of firewood each and climbed the steep hill to Tole. But I had an uncanny feeling I shouldn’t stay there,” Thadius recalled. “Something was not right.

“The feeling was so intense that fear overwhelmed me. I heard that these beings ate people. I hurried back down the hill on the track towards Sari village.”

Thadius quickly crossed the Lai River and went up the hill to Kopen and rested. The next instant, he heard gunshots and yelling and screaming emanating from Tole on the hill opposite.

“I heard bang, bang, bang, bang, which never seemed to stop. I heard the sound of confusion up there. Whatever was happening was serious.

“Later I learned that Pingeta had armed himself with five spears and had attacked the strange people. Instead, he was shot dead.’

A Kii tribesman, Pamben, Kalepoarae Takame and many others were killed. But Pupukain escaped the carnage.

According to the documentary film, ‘First Contact’, the strange people involved in that skirmish at Tole were the Leahy brothers – Michael and Daniel. The year was June 1934.

The brothers had come from Mt Hagen to prospect for gold. They had to turn back from Tole village due to sickness and the attack. They left behind nine dead villagers, including a woman.

The mastermind of the ill-fated attack was the village chief, Pingeta, who was killed first as he charged down the slope.

It had been planned that, as soon as Pinget killed the first white man, the people were to kill everybody else and take all their possessions -  knives, axes, salt, shells and other goods.

“We had to shoot to save our lives and the 90 carriers,” Mick Leahy says in the video. “It would have been a mass slaughter.”

Thadius didn’t know if any white men were killed but heard that the Leahy brothers and their group had returned to wherever they came from.

“Then they came again. This time we referred to them as the Nai,” said Thadius. “They did not appoint any local leaders to assist them yet.”

Thadius with three generations of leaders
Thadius with three generations of leaders

The ‘they’ he refers to was probably the epic Hagen-Sepik patrol under Taylor and Black, organised from Mt Hagen and lasting from 1938-39. At about the same time there was a gold rush in Porgera.

JL Taylor made no mention of the earlier killings by the Leahy brothers four years previously when his party travelled the same central ridge route from Rakamanda to Tore.

But he described the landscape in his diary as recorded in the 1982 book ‘Enga: Foundations for Development’, edited by B. Carrad, D Lea and K Talyaga.

“We were now in the heart of the valley, one of the most beautiful in New Guinea, if not in the world. Everywhere were fine, well laid-out garden plots, mostly of sweet potatoes, and groves of kasuarina,” Taylor wrote.

“Well cut and graded roads traversed the countryside and small parks or playgrounds, the bena of the Mt Hagen people or kama as they are called here, dotted the landscape, which resembled a huge botanic garden. It may well be the garden valley of the Lai….

“Today’s was one of the most beautiful journeys in my experiences. Travelling on a central ridge, with the valley on either side, the Lai as it is known and the Ambum. The colour and the beauty of the interior of New Guinea must be seen to be believed – a garden land.”

Thadius gave a toothless grin as he explained how the kiaps paid compensation to his Nemane tribe after the police killed many of his people.

He said the reason the police attacked his people was in revenge for a local policeman who was killed by the Kala tribe. Somebody spread the false information that Neman Sarut was the man who killed the policeman.

At the time his people were also involved in a tribal war with the Lyaine tribe. They defeated them and took possession of their land. Police shot many of his people including men from the Puman tribe.

But the kiaps later compensated his people for the killings.

“The kiaps should have given us the pigs here at Kopen but they asked us to go over to Talumbais. We went there and slaughtered all the pigs on the exchange ground or kama. We distributed the pork there and had a huge party,” Thadius said.

The people had referred to the Leahy brothers as keoakali and now the kiaps, policeman and carriers as the Nai.

The revenge killings of the Nemane and gradual compensation by the kiaps recalled here by Thadius is not recorded in the aforementioned book.

But it mentions that in 1938 such a clash had occurred between police and local people from Wakumale just east of Wabag.

At that time, an airstrip was built at Wabag. Some gold had been found at Porgera and Wabag was made a temporary base camp during this period.

There were some clashes between Enga warriors and these strangers – the most serious in which 12 warriors fell occurred just east of Wabag between police and Engans in August 1938 while Taylor and Black were travelling further west.

Another government officer, E Taylor, flew from Salamaua to arbitrate and to organise a ceremony of peace-making and compensation. He was accompanied by IFC Downs in this investigation.

After the Hagen-Sepik patrol there was a lull in encounters with outsiders.

Wabag was probably opened as a patrol post by J Clarke in 1941.

In 1942 the Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) took charge of Mt Hagen. Regular patrols trekked from Mt Hagen to Wabag to police posts further west.

A new era began with these patrols, since Wabag became a permanent centre of influence, tied by continual patrols with Mt Hagen and fed by supplies from the air.

From Wabag, more and more frequent patrols penetrated deeper into the territory of the ‘Wabagas’ and adventurous young Engans travelled into the patrol post to see the foreigners and share in some of the wealth of tools, shells, crops and pigs by working for the government.

From 1945 onwards, civil administration replaced ANGAU. Wabag, Wapenamanda and, by the early 1950s, Laiagam became the focal points from which police camps and then patrols spread into Enga country.

From 1947, as each new area was opened to Europeans, more intensive and continuous contacts were made, particularly by missionaries and their Papua New Guinean intermediaries. Contacts multiplied after restrictions on the movement of foreigners were lifted in 1962.

Thadius Kaka Menge recalled that there was a major famine during that period which lasted for many years.

This was probably the 1940 frost which forced people like Sir Tei Abal and his father Monope to flee from their homeland at Mapumanda in Laiagam across the mountain ranges to Wabag in search of food.

When his father was killed by Piao tribesman near where the current Sir Tei Abal Secondary School is situated, Tei fled west to the fertile Tsak valley where friendly people raised him.

During this period kiaps like J Clarke, MJ Foley, WJ Wearme, D Marsh, D Faithful and JT Dwyer worked with influential local leaders who acted as intermediaries and government agents.

Soon after, around Wabag and Wapenamanda, some of these leaders were formalised as officials of varing rank - luluais, tultuls and bosbois - and the first interpreters, trainee police and trainee health workers like, Sir Tei Abal, were appointed.

Thadius said some of the men from Wabag were Kamainwan Kurai, Nemane Saru, Kii Lakoe, Lankep Kia, Kaialu Alepane, Yakale Kund, Puman Pupun and Sakarwan Neop.

He said the kiaps felt that Nemane Saru did not perform his duties effectively so Thadius was appointed instead. Later he was appointed a komiti when local government councils were established.

These men helped the administration to end tribal warfare, assieted with census patrols and persuaded the people to build roads, bridges, rest houses and pit latrines.

Thadius said the Kii fought the Kala and there was tribal warfare in many parts of Wabag but when the kiaps told them to stop fighting, they stopped.

“We destroyed our shields, bows and arrows and lived in relative peace,” he said.

Popular among the local leaders were Kepa, Maua, Kipongi, Katapene, Nepo and Kurai.

Thadius with children and grandchildren
Thadius with children and grandchildren

Thadius said many of these men married multiple wives. He himself married 12, Kipongi married 28 while Kurai married eight and fathered many children.

Kurai’s second wife was Pinget’s daughter - the village chief who had been killed at Tole in 1934, possibly by Michael Leahy.

And Kurai’s last and eighth wife, Kipaukwan, still lives today after her husband died in 1980. Her story is as intriguing as that of her husband who was much older than her.

I’ll write about that in the next instalment of the story of these great men who worked so hard to help the colonial administration bring peace, change and development to Wabag.


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Stewart Grant

"I’ll write about that in the next instalment of the story of these great men who worked so hard to help the colonial administration bring peace, change and development to Wabag."

Can you link us to this follow-on article, thanks.

I can't find the follow-up but Daniel later collected these articles and further writing in his blockbuster, Victory Song of Pingeta's Daughter, and you'll also find similar writing in his book, The Old Man's Dilemma. Both are available from Amazon - KJ

Garry Roche

Daniel, thank you for this item. I think it is indeed very important for writers like yourself to record oral history from old people like Thadius and preserve it for future generations.

There is so much unrecorded local history out there. And if it not recorded soon much of it will be forgotten forever.

A minor point, from the book ‘Enga: Foundations for Development’, you cite a reference to the 'bena' of Mt. Hagen. I may be wrong, but I believe that in most Melpa (Hagen) language books this 'bena' would be spelt with a 'p' thus 'pena'. The moka-pena is the sing-sing ground.

Of course there also has to be a sensitivity about recording history. I once was asking some Hagen people about a particular tribal conflict and some women told me to stop asking questions so publicly because the events were too recent and too painful. I think you have presented the material in a sensitive manner.

Philip Fitzpatrick

This is fascinating stuff Daniel. For us old kiaps it's good, and maybe necessary, to hear the stories, so to speak, from the 'other side'.

Looking forward to the next episode.

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