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Where did the kiaps go

John Gordon-Kirkby's old patrol box
John Gordon-Kirkby's old patrol box


PORT MORESBY - Many kiaps [patrol officers] and other expatriates left Papua New Guinea in the years immediately before and after independence in September 1975.

Imagine the memories they took with them and may still have in their minds today?

One of the last kiaps to leave the highlands Enga District [now a province] was John Gordon-Kirkby who liked to eat sweet potatoes roasted in an open fire.

Except for a few friends who kept in contact with him through a slow and unreliable postal system, most people didn’t know where John had gone. Communication was different in those days.

All they knew was that he went back to his ‘kone yu’ (red land), land of the whiteman. Every foreigner went back to ‘kone yu’, whether it was America, Japan, Holland, England or Australia. People thought they were all from the same ‘kone yu’.

The people of Enga hadn’t learnt much about the whiteman or their different countries, customs, languages and history.

The kiaps, the bringers of the new law and administration, left abruptly leaving the people feeling stranded and fending for themselves like a motherless child. The period of interaction between the Enga people and the whiteman had been too brief.

Imagine, 15 people shot dead at Tole by the whiteman Leahy brothers on that very first day they came face to face in 1934.

And then only about 40 later, when people were beginning to settle down, the disruption of independence came. To many rural people, it was if the kiaps left as suddenly as they’d appeared in a dream.

More recently, thanks to the internet, I was able to contact John Gordon-Kirby whom I’d met in my village during Christmas of 1975, not long after independence.

The few hours I spoke with him in my house at that time were too brief to even remember the subject of our discussion.

More than four decades later, I have been able to find out who he is, where he came from and where he was posted to before he made his way up to Wabag in Enga Province.

John Gordon-Kirkby  who liked eating roast kaukau  wearing a Wabag hat
John Gordon-Kirkby today,

John William Gordon-Kirkby was born on 26 August 1936. His parents lived in Spain but went to Gibraltar so he could be born on British soil.

Due to the civil war in Spain at the time, the family moved to Tangier in Morocco in 1939. After schooling in England and national service in the Royal Marines, John worked in the tourist industry in Morocco until migrating to Australia, arriving in Melbourne on 26 November 1961 on the P&O liner, Orsova.

He joined the Papua and New Guinea Administration as a cadet patrol officer on 1 June 1964.

In the course of our email exchanges we started addressing each other ‘wantok.’

In one email, John told me of an exchange he had with the District Commissioner on Manus Island, where he was initially posted after completing his training at ASOPA, the Australian School of Pacific Administration, in Sydney:

Hello Wantok,

I was musing on the style of our relationship. The term ‘wantok’ has no equivalent in the English language. It means much more than one shared language. I interpret it to encompass a gender-neutral fraternity, an acceptance, and an empathy for culture and interests, far beyond a shared language.

Some describe Melanesian Pidgin English as a basic corrupted form of English suitable only for superficial trading and command giving-communication, but I disagree.

When I first arrived in Manus, fresh from ASOPA, I was summonsed into the presence of District Commissioner Bob Bell who demanded “can you talk Pidgin“?

I replied that we had been taught it, and that I had a dictionary, but that I was not fluent.

“You will be useless till you are fluent”.

Then he called out to the duty policeman and ordered him to summon Shorty Saleau, then captain of the workboat 'Sunam'. It’s Manus when you read it backwards.

Shorty arrived in the DC’s office.

“Yu bringim dispela liklik Kiap long ples bilong yu na skulim em long Tok Pisin.”

And that is how I came to Baluan Island with nothing to do other than to go swimming and fishing and to learn Tok Pisin. Two of my teachers were ex cargo cultist leaders, Paleau Moloat and Lucas Chauka.

Other significant people on Baluan then were anthropologist Margaret Mead and linguist Ted Schwartz. The then Standard VI students included Maso Saleau, Wep Kanauwi, Murrey Ngason and Simeón Malai who was chosen by his teacher to be deserving of a trip to Australia with me. These boys all did well in adult life. You can find them on the internet.

I soon became a ‘wantok’ to all these people, and found something positive to do, in finding the landless Mouk people a new home on the subdivided, resumed Langendrowa Copra plantation on Rambutsyo Island.

I could write a book, “tasol mi leis, na yu yet ican raitim stori bilong mipela” [but I am tired; you can write our story].

Em tasol nau, [That’s all for now])
Wantok bilong yu. [Your friend]

I wrote back immediately:

Thanks a lot Wantok - you lived in Wabag so you are a wantok, you speak Tok Pisin so you are a wantok, you ate kaukau (sweet potato) so you are a wantok, you are a friend of mine so you are a wantok… And yes, ‘wantok’ has a lot of meanings. So, you shall remain a wantok to a lot of people in Enga, Manus and to people from many parts of PNG."

John told me Bob Bell, nicknamed Dingdong Bell by the locals, was the same DC under whom he served in Wabag just before independence.

Masta John’ was the nickname locals gave him when he served in many parts of Papua New Guinea. He briefly worked in Rabaul, Kokopo, Manus, Baluan, Bougainville (at Boku), Kunua and Karato base camp, Kimbe and Cape Hoskins.

He was then transferred to Kerema in the Gulf Province then to Daru in Western Province before moving to the highlands, first at Nipa in the Southern Highlands, where he met his first wife. His final posting was to Wabag in Enga from where he ‘went finish’:

“I travelled widely in all districts/provinces, on patrol but also for meetings and socially,” John wrote. “Once to beautiful Ninigo islands where I arrested a Japanese trawler.

“We kiaps had enormous power, and I was always conscious of this. The level of deference was sometimes embarrassing,” he recalled. “People all over PNG showered us with gifts of fruit etc. Mostly genuine friendship. However, occasionally, ‘em i gris tasol’ [inducement].

“If you have access to my FOJ’s or Field Officer’s Journals and patrol reports you will notice that I seldom conducted formal judicial courts. When disputes or criminal acts came to my attention, I favored mediation to Whitefella law. I often offered the option of Whitefella law or traditional solutions, and the latter was often chosen. I would just caution against some of the more drastic traditional solutions.

“You have complimented me in my good looks. But remember that I have a delete button, and never post a bad photo of myself.

“When I go to my PC I will look up some bad or funny ones. Cup of coffee first. Doreen has gone to Lotu, so I’m on my own just now. Mi no man bilong Lotu. (I don’t go to church)

Barakalaufik. (That’s thank you in tok Moroccan.)

Mi wantok bilong yu, John

Before I could respond, John sent another email almost immediately:

“‘I have just googled Simeon Malai & find reference to one such person as the Governor of New Ireland. I have no idea if it’s the boy I brought to Australia in 1966. Same for Michael Kiap, who I knew well in Standard VI (6) brother of Winnie Kiap. He seems to have been a head of RPNGC provincial police force at some time. I also found an academic at UPNG by the name of Wep Kanauwi. His Baluan teacher, Geoff Lawson, brought him to Australia as a lad. He might be the same boy. I share this success with enormous pride.

“I have tried time and time again to locate Victor Arme from Mekeo in Central Province. He was my Local Government understudy in Kerema, Gulf Province. He also came to Australia with me.

“The only success I have had is with Susuve Lomaea who is now dead. These experiences happened a long time ago and even they are ageing men now.

“I am of course ‘lapun tru’ [very old]. We have to face the inevitable....Doreen is in her late 70s and I'm  83  and though we state  that we are fit and well, the truth is that we  have our little health problems .

“I have suffered a stroke and am on blood thinners. I also suffer from vertigo and arthritis. Doreen tires easily and has a knee problem. I'm not complaining, but that's life. We all have a “use by date”

Emi nap nao! [That’s enough now].   John”

Daniel and Julie Kumbon  Keith Jackson and Phil Fitzpatrick at Jackson's home in Noosa
Daniel and Julie Kumbon Keith Jackson and Phil Fitzpatrick at Jackson's home in Noosa, 2017

Philip Fitzpatrick, also a former kiap made a fleeting comment following the publication of John Gordon-Kirkby’s story in PNG Attitude on 13 December 2019. Like John, Phil had served on the coast in Daru before he moved to the populous highlands region – to Mt Hagen.

Later, after leaving PNG, he worked with Aboriginal communities in Australia. He also went to university and became an established writer and author of many books.

Phil writes:

“After I left PNG I found myself working with Pitjantjatjara people in what was the North West Aboriginal reserve in South Australia documenting mythologies and sacred sites.

“The work was done through the South Australia Museum and followed a request from Pitjantjatjara elders who were worried about their young people losing their traditions.

“The homelands movement occurred at about that time and then, of course the land rights movement that gave the Pitjantjatjara and Yunkunytjatjara title to the reserve.

“John Gordon Kirkby’s particular eventual escape from “civilisation” after 'going finish' from PNG was to find a home at Walungurru amongst the Pintubi people on the Western Australia border of the Northern Territory. I’m now fully urbanised, but still have nostalgic dreams.”

When Robert L Parer, another PNG veteran found out John Gordon-Kirkby liked eating sweet potato, he wrote:

“For me there was nothing to compare with taro brought around Tepier Copra Plantation in a half 44 gallon drum at noon for the worker’s cooked to perfection and eaten with a bit of coconut. My own cook had no idea that is the way I loved it and over cooked mine.”

Phil Fitzpatrick joined the conversation again:

“When we went to PNG in 2014 for the Crocodile Prize workshop and awards, Trevor Shearston was asked whether he had any more PNG-based books in the pipeline and he said that he would only be writing Australian-based books thereon.

“I think it was Francis Nii who asked him the question. I don't think he's been back to PNG since then. He's written a couple of books in the meantime, one about a bushranger and another about some homeless kids. I reviewed the latter some time ago.

“I've no plans to go back to PNG either. I think we ancients are now settling down with just our memories.”

And former kiap Chris Overland, who became a senior health administrator in South Australia, wrote this about Trevor:

“He wrote ‘Something in the Blood’, in which he attempted to come to grips with the strange and enduring effect PNG had upon the Australians who lived there.

“I remember reading the book and being powerfully affected by the story. It resonated so strongly with me that tears flowed unbidden.

“Phil is alluding to the same phenomenon. I struggle to describe it but it seems to be an amalgam of emotions that include delight, mystification, frustration, sadness and nostalgia.

“No one with the slightest intellectual or emotional sensitivity survived PNG unscathed. Its many wonders and delights, together with occasional horrors, seared themselves into our souls.

“I am 68 years old, just over 50 years removed from the day I first set foot in PNG. Yet the experience of the country and its peoples never leaves me, not even for a day.

“Trevor Shearson was right: it must be something in the blood. It will not be visible under a microscope but it is there nonetheless.”

Then another returned expatriate, Brisbane-based Bernard Corden chipped in:

“Most of the important aspects of life such as love, trust, peace, respect, learning and integrity cannot be measured quantitatively and any attempt often proves futile and generates many adverse social consequences. Indeed, what gets measured does not get done, it usually gets manipulated.

“Humans typically resort to poetics in their quest for meaning and scientism with its inordinate focus on technology, algorithms and artificial intelligence extirpates many of these ethereal attributes, which destroys communities of practice and incidental learning.

“Machines cannot dream, meditate, fornicate or imagine and because the arts, especially music, dance, literature, prayer cannot be measured directly and quantitatively it does not invalidate the experience.

“In most developed countries the experience is often measured indirectly and corrupted via the revenue it generates.

“Indeed, as Paul Oates opined in another post, the entire western economy is merely one giant festering Ponzi scheme underpinned by suprasurveillance, which is reinforced by aggressive and deceptive telemarketing with pyramid selling and resembles a house of cards built on estuarine mudflats. We no longer search Google, it searches us.

“The beauty of PNG, especially in the remote regions is that its communities are not corrupted by credit and what you see is invariably what you get.

“It is one of the few remaining countries on our planet with a genuine culture.”

And Paul Oates ended the conversation with these remarks:

“Sadly, our grandchildren are all too often seduced by the electronic so called 'smart phones' and ipads that lead to isolation and non-real-life fantasy whereas we as a species evolved to live in extended and supportive family groups and converse around the camp fire at night.

Mipela iolsem sipsip ibin lusim rot! or We are like sheep who’ve strayed from the road.”

But Paul, it’s not the pioneers but the children and grandchildren who easily stray from the path that was established by the kiaps, missionaries, teachers, health workers, plantation owners, businessman, agricultural officers to link Australia with PNG.

The reality seems to be that when people like John Gordon-Kirkby and his lovely wife Noreen are gone, that will be it. The link will be permanently severed.

They have no children who might have treasured his paintings, collection of artefacts or even the old patrol box John still has sitting in the basement of their Melbourne home.


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Daniel Kumbon

Lynn and David - Good to know you lived in my province in 1974.

That was when I did Form Nine at Lae Technical School (now Lae Technical College) on the coast. I did my Form Four at Idubada Technical School in Port Moresby.

I witnessed everything that happened at Sir John Guise Stadium when the young country gained independence.

I wish you both more blessings.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Bob passed away in November 2008, David.

At one memorable wedding function in Mount Hagen in 1968 I recall him telling the groom that by getting married he wouldn't be able to fart in bed anymore.

A man of many shades was Bob Bell.

David Addleman

I've just discovered this site after Googling Bob Bell, DC, Wabag.

My wife, Lynn, and I have just got home after a night out to celebrate our 40th anniversary. We married in Wabag in 1974. Bob Bell signed the papers.

I was the District Medical Superintendent, and Lynn was the Maternal and Child Health Supervisor.

We were volunteers from Canada from 1973 to 1975. If Bob Bell is still around, he might like to know that his officiating duties worked, and we are still together with many memories of our two years in Wabag.

John Gordon-Kirkby

Since Daniel Kumbon reestablished contact ,now by internet, after an interval of over 40 years, our “wantok” relationship has grown deeper and stronger. We communicate regularly, exchange gifts,and I have even painted his now published portrait !
He has even written and published more about us !
The human bond grows stronger, in spite of the differences of age,culture,language and interests.
Mi hamamas tru.

Charles Litau

Following this. Interesting.

Paul Oates

Australia is a multi cultural nation and that very aspect makes it so important not to have our cultural roots extinguished in the grey mists of time. If we turn our back on our history and heritage, we will lose track of who we are.

When I turn up at an ANZAC Day ceremony wearing my grandfather's medals, my father's medals and my medals, I turn up in my rather unique Army association uniform. I do this not to show off but to demonstrate my family's heritage and my own cultural heritage for the young people attending who are these days, in grave danger of forgetting where we came from and therefore how we as a nation evolved and survived.

One that special day for Australians, I am overwhelmingly proud to wear my Papua New Guinea medals next to my Australian one. When I die, my medals will go to my children and then to my grandchildren. If nothing else survives, at least that link with our shared history will never be forgotten and my family and our nation will never forget.

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