A matter of Attitude
The tragic history of Goaribari Island

Errol Flynn - the Rabaul years


RABAUL - The 18-year-old Errol Flynn – with an already shady background - arrived in New Guinea in October 1927 to make his fortune on the newly discovered goldfields at Edie Creek.

His later and unexpected career as a celebrated Hollywood film star lay a few years ahead.

From his arrival he tried unsuccessfully to bluff himself into money as a cadet patrol officer, gold prospector, slave recruiter, dynamiter of fish, trapper of birds, manager of coconut and tobacco plantations, air cargo clerk, copra trader, charter boat captain, pearl diver and diamond smuggler.

He was also a prolific writer and contributed regularly to Australian newspapers and magazines with absorbing tales about the untamed jungles of New Guinea.

Flynn soon discovered that the Australian government had a severe shortage of patrol officers and he hoped to bluff his way through in Rabaul. But his colonial career was short-lived when his background was discovered.

He moved restlessly from one job to another, acquiring many different skills but no great competence. Hoping to get rich fast, he lived by his wits and ran up many debts.

In Rabaul, although considered a likeable and capable young man, his reputation for roguery quickly spread and he ceased to be with the Administration.

Flynn bookHis best memory of Rabaul was of “a wonderful saloon” where you encountered “everything the world could yield up – miners, recruiters, con men, thieves, beachcombers, prospectors – cubicles both downstairs and upstairs, several phonographs playing, cards.…”

Long after Flynn had departed he was remembered around Rabaul, mostly for the unpaid bills he left behind.

Even after he became famous as a film star, he never paid those bills.

If people wrote asking him to pay, he would send them autographed photographs of himself, saying these were worth much more than what he owed them.

The story is told of the famous occasion when a film of Flynn’s was showing in Rabaul, and at the end of the credits, a dentist to whom Flynn owned a large account jumped up and shouted: “And teeth by Eric Wein.”

Flynn has been called many names: adventurer, thief, lover, liar, murderer and Hollywood legend.

He probably didn’t do much good while he was here in Rabaul, but nevertheless, he placed New Guinea on the world map as a place where a young man could find himself.


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Gerald (Gerry) Hegedus

Olaf Christensen passed away on 25 January 1997. Olaf wrote an autobiography, Gold,Pearl Shells, Feathers and Sharks, which was never published but is archived with the State Library of Victoria.

I became good friends with Olaf in the 1980's through the Australian Thai Association and we had a mutual interest in PNG.

I was with the Customs and Immigration Department from 1968 to 1974.

Olaf mentioned that he and Errol Flynn had been joint owners of a boat in there joint venture of trocus shell enterprise.

The PNGAA Vale pages have an article on Olaf.

Pat Zalewski

About 16 years ago, I ran into a grand-daughter of a judge from Rabaul who she claimed was Flynn's sponsor who brought him to PNG. Never got her name.

In Rabaul, Flynn usually stayed with Jack Thurston, who owned a boarding house there.

I was on a flight with journalist Jack McCarthy from Lae to Port Moresby and he mentioned that Flynn and he got into an altercation in the Melanesian Hotel. I think it was. About Flynn's native daughter.

The consensus in Rabaul was that she was killed during the war.

Michael White

Is there any proof that Errol Flynn had a daughter, Susannah, to Selapiu.

Susannah is reputed to have spent the pre WW2 years on Langutang Plantation, New Hanover.

Officially, Flynn had four children - Sean (1941-70), Deirdre (1945-), Rory 1947-) and Arnella (1953–98). It is claimed he also had a daughter, Susannah, whose mother was from tiny Selapiu Island, perched between New Ireland and New Hanover. While there is substantial anecdote, there seems to be no record of this - KJ

Jon Daly

Greetings to all - I'm trying to find references to Olaf Christiansen, former Errol Flynn accomplice in blackbirding, in PNG.

He was later a shark fisherman, World War II pilot and shell dealer who married into Thai royalty.

Olaf settled in Brighton, Melbourne, and probably passed away in the 1990s.

William Dunlop

Professor Flynn's lad Errol. He apparently rigged a cock fight at Makati in the Philippines and by the skin of his teeth escaped the irate mob after his hide.

They would have administered a Filipina haircut had they caught up with him whilst en route to celluloid land after his Papua and New Guinea episodes.

Chris Overland

Ross, it is possible that both you and Philip Selth are correct.

If Flynn was recruited locally it seems probable that this would have required confirmation by the Administrator in Port Moresby.

This either may never have happened in a six week timeframe or the process might have been aborted when Flynn's lack of suitability for the role became evident.

In such circumstances records in Rabaul might reflect Flynn's provisional appointment while there would be no record in Moresby that any appointment was ever made.

This scenario seems very plausible to me given how bureaucracies of that era worked.

Ross Wilkinson

Not quite right Chris. I believe Flynn was a kiap but it is Philip Selth who disputes his kiap role.

Philip is writing a biography on every one who was gazetted as a Cadet Patrol Officer in the scheme instituted by the administration of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea in 1925. Philip and I agree to disagree.

Flynn described himself as a kiap in his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, but much of his self-described activities have since been proved false.

However, in a biography of Flynn, The Young Errol - Flynn Before Hollywood by John Hammond Moore (2011), he examines Flynn's early life in Australia and his circumstances wherby he went to Rabaul.

He owed money, stole money from his then employer, Dalgetty's, and was fired.

He cadged together enough for the fare and sailed for Rabaul on the Burns Philp ship MV Montoro. During the voyage he is alleged to have made friends with a public servant named Johnson who was returning from leave and who promised Flynn he would arrange a job.

Apparently Flynn was also introduced to a former kiap turned anthropologist, Ernest William Pearson Chinnery.

According to Moore, information from Horrie Niall who was on the 1927 Cadet intake, was that only five of the six selected Cadets made the trip and Flynn was offered the sixth position in Rabaul subject to confirmation of his references and qualifications.

Niall and JK McCarthy, who was already serving in Rabaul, shared accommodation with Flynn and confirmed that he undertook kiap duties for about six weeks.

However, the reason for his termination is believed to revolve around him spending time in working hours with the wife of a more senior public servant and he was advised to make himself scarce.

Whilst working in Moresby in 1973, I was at the Bottom Pub one day and the manager took me to a basement room that was being used as a storeroom.

Apparently at one time it was a bar and Flynn was alleged to have brought a revolver to the bar and shot the place up.

The manager showed me a hole in the wall that was allegedly been from a bullet from Flynn's gun and the management had kept it intact all that time in memory of Flynn's visit.

Ah, the stories and myths are endless.

William Dunlop

The word is that Flynn sent an autographed picture of himself to the publican in Salamaua in lieu of a debt. It was prominently displayed for years in the pub's dunny.

Chris Overland

Errol Flynn was certainly a remarkable character. He was not unintelligent and certainly literate but, as his great friend and fellow Hollywood star David Niven once said, he was reliably unreliable.

Niven lived with Flynn in Los Angeles in the 1930's when both were picking up small roles in movies, mostly as extras. He wrote about this period in his autobiography "The Moon's a Balloon". This book is hugely entertaining and the chapter on Flynn is both very amusing and, in an odd way, rather sad too.

Flynn's breakthrough role came when he starred as Robin Hood in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (Warner Brothers, 1938) where his good looks, huge screen presence and athleticism combined to create a depiction of the character that has never been equalled, let alone bettered.

In 1995 the film was classified as "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress.

As to Flynn ever being a kiap, my recollection is that extensive research by ex-kiap Ross Wilkinson has revealed no evidence that he was ever employed in that role.

This is probably just as well for PNG, given Flynn's well documented predilection for heavy drinking, seducing women and fighting.

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